The sun was making one of its many false attempts to get summer going so I sat in my favourite Perigueux cafe with white wine spritzer, pencil and newspaper open at the cross-word. The car was parked under a tree in the official car-park. The earliest of the habitual summer beggars were hanging around the parking ticket machine. All was well, all was as usual. Then my sun warmed concentration was rudely disturbed by the arrival of three very noisy men, sub-species large biceps with tattoos, dark glasses and hair mowed on an excessively low cut.
One of them ordered three beers, three black coffees and one brandy in passable French. Three mobile phones were taken out of pockets, cocked, checked and placed on the table along with their elbows. All this kerfuffle, whilst mildly annoying, was not the root of my displeasure, nor was the high decibel level of their conversation. No, what really perturbed me was that I could not place the language they were speaking. Even when one started shouting down his mobile phone, my ears could not send any remotely recognisable words to my brain.
Working on the (arrogant) assumption that I would or should be able to recognise elements of northern and southern European languages, I offered myself the idea that they might be speaking Russian or Serbo-Croat. They looked like possible Russians or Croatians from ' LA central casting', definitely Eastern Europeans. (I excepted the Romanians for whom I have a vague affection merely based on the fact that I have a Romanian name - long story, not a good ending, for another time).
So, having decided they were Russians, my mind abandoned the crossword and started to speculate on what they could possibly be doing in Perigueux. The trouble with living in an isolated place and not inter-acting with a wide range of people frequently is that one succumbs to sloppy, prejudice laden thinking. I did not think that three men with those kind of looks would be interested in Perigueux's Renaissance architecture, or the remains of the original Roman city. The food, maybe, but I could not visualise starched napkins spread over those burly thighs.
Suspicious, I decided to take a closer look at the 'beggars' as I went back to my car. Beggars are rather a summer phenomenon in Perigueux, presumably they drift to the Côte d'Azur for the winter months. There are some that I recognise, especially the ones hanging around the car-parks who have constituted themselves handy-persons for putting the exit ticket in the machine if the car is at the wrong angle. To me that's worth 20 centimes. Those at the ticket issuing machine are a bit more of a nuisance. But if you are in need of small change for that wretched contraption, they can usually oblige but will get the best of the deal. Banking was never free. The beggars near the cash machines are an embarrassement and have to be ignored.
As I drove off I concluded that, apart from a few North Africans, it was the usual crowd of indigenous beggars, not people who had been shipped in by baddie Russians, skimming a percentage off the takings. A few kilometres out of the Perigueux conurbation, back in the country, there was a car in a lay-by with all four emergency lights flashing. Next to it stood a man wiping his brow. The car's registration plates looked vaguely British.
Guilt at my probably baseless slurs on the 'Russians', vague goodwill created by the mild warmth of the sun, made me pull over to see if I could help. In a mixture of English and French, sweating, the burly not so young man explained his problem. His credit card would not work at the petrol station and he was nearly out of petrol. 'Uh-Oh' went my brain, 'we've been had....'. My hand-bag was safely on the floor, strap hooked round brake (accidentally). And my Audi is intelligent, it locks its doors as soon as it has been driven a hundred yards or so. 'I am from Sofia' said the man, 'you know it is capital of Bulgaria, I am Bulgarian'. A five euro note got me out of that trap.