November 12: Twittering

Starlings on the roof of a building below us - one 'battalion' had just taken off when I took this pic, leaving a neat empty bloc in the flock

Nice-Matin, even though it is mentioned several times in The Novel, is actually a truly dire newspaper. After the attempted robbery at the restaurant, it published a factually incorrect story without even trying to phone Joel or Michele (see May 4). Well, I was a fool to have looked forward to sitting down with yesterday’s feature about Les Etourneaux – the starlings. The birds have been swirling and twisting in their thousands overhead for a week or so now. I keep saying The buuhds! The buuhds! – the way Tippi Hedren says it in Hitchcock’s film. That’s all I can think of when I see them lined up on TV aerials and twittering en masse in trees. But did I learn a single thing about them from Nice-Matin? All the rag could offer was a couple of quotes about how people have had to move their Vespas from their usual parking spots so they don’t get covered in starling déjections. It didn’t even mention what a pest they are considered here in France, and how some rural communities spend thousands on automatic noise-makers to keep them on the move until they are so tired they drop.

At one point the starlings all landed on the flat rooftop of a building that still has a huge pool of water on it from the recent rain. The sun was getting low, and, watching them from the balcony, I saw what could have been a gargantuan dog shaking itself off: they were all having a bath at once, apparently, splashing up sunlit mist, like a waterfall.

One of the landlady's cows

As I was watching, our landlady appeared on her balcony below us, and we had a little chat across the garden about starlings. I don’t, as a rule, mention too much about individuals I don’t know well in this blog, much as I would like to, because I never know who’ll be reading it. But our landlady is very… umm… eccentric. I would love to believe that our building has hosted both Napoleon Bonaparte and Tsar Nicolas II in its time, as she’s told me, but I feel I should verify it before I do. As we chatted, she mentioned that the last time the starlings were so numerous here, she had to clean the cows three times. I thought that was just my French – I often think people have said bizarre things, when in fact it’s just some everyday expression I hadn’t known. But yes, when I looked around the garden, I realised there are cow sculptures dotted around. How could I not have noticed?

An orange tree in the landlady's garden beneath our balcony - not relevant to the story, but I've been watching those oranges ripen for a few weeks now

The landlady, and the landlord, are regular customers at the restaurant, as are several of their friends. When the landlord rang a few days ago to ask if it was possible to have some of the landlady’s favourite dishes delivered to the house, as an apology for behaviour I simply can’t mention in a public space, Joel agreed. The restaurant never does takeaway, but let’s face it, the landpeople have a unique position in our lives. I even drove down and picked up the boxes, to which Joel had thoughtfully added a fruit tart, gratis.

Joel knows all about the behaviour that can’t be mentioned in public. He’s told me everything he’s heard. Even so, I felt I should feign ignorance when I bumped into the landlady in the street on the way to look for my glasses in the car. I really ought to have said, Look, I already know all about it. It would have saved me 45 minutes of being backed up against the wing mirror, listening to her side of the story. Natch, the moment I got back into the apartment, I called Joel at the restaurant with the new information. He countered, however: he’d just had two of the landpeople’s best friends for lunch, and had heard yet more outlandish reports of … well, I can’t say, here where the world can read it, can I?

What I was really surprised by was not the relationship woes of virtual strangers, but everyone’s willingness to discuss them. Joel delights in hearing this stuff and even, judiciously, sharing it if the situation arises. This is not the man I married! He’s never been a gossip, though I know he always enjoys ‘background information’. But Nice is a small town, and the restaurant is in an even smaller part of it. Hanging around and chatting is a big part of life. I have to admit, I protested. He’ll get himself into trouble, listening to everyone’s side of the story. But customers – locals – know exactly where they can come for information. I reminded Joel of how amused we were by the Nice-Matin report of the attempted robbery, and the importance of getting the facts before dishing the dirt along with the plat du jour. I’m not being noble or anything, but Joel doesn’t have a lifetime of gossiping behind him, like I do. His discretionary powers may not be as well-exercised as mine when faced with people as full of, and as eager for, juicy snippets as the landfriends.

As I was speaking with the landlady, a flock of starlings swooped up from the bottom of the hill, flying very close between our buildings and the ones next door. Just as they reached eye level, they turned suddenly, all at once, the way they do. The colour of the flock changed for a second from black to golden, as the setting sun reflected on their feathers. It was so unexpected and beautiful, now I know what people mean when they say they watched something ‘in wonder’. Maybe knowing too many facts about them would have spoiled it. Could that be Nice-Matin’s philosophy?

Ted waiting for a flock of starlings to swing by

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About Suellen Grealy

In 2011, a series of coincidences led my husband Joel, our cat Ted and me away from London, where we lived quite happily for 30 years, to Nice, where Joel grew up. While he and his sister ran their restaurant, I wrote a novel. Family being family, Joel and his sister no longer work together. Writing being writing, the novel lingers on... Meanwhile, we've found ways of living a completely different life from the one we had in London, including running our own restaurant together, 7 Villermont. The only constants are our Ted, our now-battered Peugeot, and each other. Everything else is a complete surprise
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