Once upon a time the sous-prefecture of Prades, Languedoc Rousillon, was a township of fairly grand houses, (maisons des maitre) some belonging to Parisians who liked to winter there. I was once given an informal guided tour of a double-fronted mansion with a heavy, embossed wooden door but otherwise unprepossessing external features. Inside was a different story. A great many rooms spread over 3 floors, papered in elaborate Art Noveau wallpaper, Second Republic furniture and two secret cupboards where a lady could hide her lover when she heard the master of the house turning his key in the front door. The house spoke of bourgeois plenty and security.
Today most of these town houses are dilapidated and running with damp; they certainly don’t accomodate fashionable visitors because Prades is now home to a poor, ragged population of misfits, dropouts and would-be old style hippies. There is also a large population of North Africans, many of whom are also unemployed.
Yesterday I witnessed a distressing incident outside the Cafe de la Marche in the Place de la Republique. A man and a woman tottered up and found a table in the sunshine. The woman was blind and her rough looking son was leading her by the hand. When they were settled with their noisettes, the unkempt man started shouting at her, mocking her disability. He suddenly got up in a rage and started kicking her quite hard.
Daniel, the owner of the cafe, his wife and daughter saw this from the bar inside and ran out to investigate. Another client cried, stern as a schoolteacher, “Respectez votre mere!”
Each player in the drama now began shouting. “Ayy! Ayy!” one went. “Ayy!” another took up the verbal cudgel as though labouring a pack animal, or threatening a recalcitrant child. The sturm and drang went on for while. It’s the Catalan way of pre-emptive action- you get your “Ayy!” in before the other, so it gives you a kind of authority in battle. I have heard the expression being flung at a dog as well.
The bad son then started defending his action, saying his mother had it coming, she was SO annoying, she was an imbecile and so forth. The sightless old lady, whose strong peasant face, vulnerable and wet with tears, tried to stop the others from scolding her son. At last the shouting died down, the bar-owner’s wife released the old lady’s hand and mother and son went off- she stumbling and he pushing.
Poverty, drink, unemployment, mental illness? Who was going to deal with these and countless other cases, especially in the present economic situation?
I tried to make an appointment with the woman who runs the office of the local regional paper, the Independant to get an update of what is happening in Prades, especially as its Maire is a bosom pal of Sarkozy. However, I was unceremoniously shown the door. The woman had no time – certainly not for a nobody like myself.
“Your behaviour is totally bizarre,” I told her and walked out.