The tourist information office of the small French country town looked closed. Peering between the posters on the window glass, I couldn’t see a light on inside or furniture or people. I tried the door anyway and it gave way. The office was open. In the corner of a large expanse of tiled floor was an office desk. Seated at the desk was a woman aged about 20 absorbed in a fat paperback called Think and Grow Rich.
My appearance on her office tiles seemed to astonish her. She leapt out of her chair and almost ran to welcome me. Did she speak English? I said. Yes, of course. How could she help? I said that I had read somewhere that the town boasted an Olympic-sized outdoor swimming-pool and I was wondering where I could find it. She said yes, I was quite right, the town had a magnificent municipal outdoor pool. Unfortunately, it closed at the end of last summer owing to a lack of public funds and it is staying closed for the foreseeable future. I like a nice swim. In fact, one of the reasons I had chosen to come here was the Olympic-sized public pool. ‘Shit and bugger,’ I said. She couldn’t agree more. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘It is very shitty.’
My question was definitively answered, but she didn’t want to let me go without a bit of a natter. She seemed desperate for human contact. ‘Where are you from?’ she said. ‘England,’ I said. ‘Where?’ she said. ‘South-west,’ I said. ‘Sheep, cows, badgers. Many badgers. More badgers than cows even. In places, more badgers than humans. Do you have badgers here in France?’ ‘Yes, there are badgers,’ she said. ‘But not so many. Why are there so many in Britain?’ I found this not an easy question to answer. I had a think. Finally I said, ‘Because in Britain the badger is a political animal.’ She screwed her eyes shut tightly, as if this insight into the compass of political debate in Britain had made her go temporarily blind. ‘One side,’ I continued, ‘thinks a badger is an avuncular figure who sits by the fire of an evening wearing a waistcoat and slippers, smoking a pipe and reading the paper. The other side thinks a badger is a sort of huge rat with no conscience at all. But I must leave you to think and grow rich.’
She flapped a deprecatory hand at the book. ‘The writer says that in order to be rich I must desire money until it becomes a bad obsession. I desire it on the level of a bad obsession already, so that is no problem for me; I am halfway to being rich already. He also says I must cherish my dreams because they are the children of my soul — mysterious things like that.’
I observed that her job appeared to allow her time enough to engender a very large family of dream children. There seem to be thousands, perhaps millions of people in France with jobs like that. They have a word for it — cupboardisation. French labour laws make it difficult for companies to lay off workers when production falters so they are consigned to the cupboard of idleness until things start moving again. The other day a French worker was so bored at work he sued his employers for a third of a million euros. Boredom at work first sent him into a depression — ‘You go on the internet at first, and then you shut yourself in an office and you cry,’ he said — then it triggered epilepsy. Or so he claimed.
‘Yesterday one person came in all day,’ she said. ‘An American guy wondering where he could buy a copy of the New York Times. The day before that nobody. You are the first person today. ‘I have another question,’ I said suddenly, for it had just occurred to me. I don’t know which of us was more pleased. ‘Go ahead,’ she said. ‘This is a small country town in the middle of nowhere with no industry that I can see, yet there are many more self-identifying Muslims visible in the street than local French people, of whom there seem to be hardly any. Why so many immigrants here particularly?’
‘Yes, it’s a shame for them. I think every town in France has to give a portion of its social housing to immigrants or pay a fine,’ she said. ‘Exactly what proportion I don’t know. Here we are a population of about 5,000 and there are about 500 immigrants. They don’t look happy and I feel sorry for them.’ ‘Well, now I really must leave you to bring up the dream children of your soul,’ I said. ‘If you have any other questions while you are here, please come in,’ she said. She saw me to the door, where we shook hands.