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Boys will be boys

The chasseurs have reluctantly mothballed the camouflage kit for the few months' rest between seasons.

The wives hate this time of year as the men now hang around the house, mainly miserable without the excuse of playing out with their pals.

Instead of disappearing pre-dawn and rolling home, mood lightened by fulfilling their manly destiny as hunters, life brightened by Armagnac, they kick around as jittery as schoolboys when the holidays pall. Work on the farms is curtailed until harvesting, wood has been cut and split for drying, fences repaired and the heavy digging work on the potager sorted.

So they bicker around inside, questioning the minutiae of the domestic routine as performed by their handmaidens, searching for nits to pick in the cassoulet or the daube. They pout and sulk when asked to drive to the shops and look embarrassed when seen out and about with their wives.

Of course, they cannot survive for too long purely in the realm of women, so they organise meetings about meetings; plan the chasse lunch and fuss over the menu as crabbily as a group of Michelin-starred chefs forced to share a kitchen.

God knows why. It never changes. Chunks of pâté, loads of cornichons, smoked salmon then lumps of anything that flies or flees sweated over an improvised barbecue pit. They visit chasseurs in nearby villages, often to hunt foxes, the only creatures that can be shot any time, anywhere.

A, an English shooter, described a recent gathering as quite touching in a testosterone way. Backs were slapped, guns exchanged for inspection and ribald comments made on past shooting prowess.

"We didn't get a single fox but that didn't matter," he said. "It was the coming together that mattered - that and the three-hour lunch prepared by the hosts.

"It was a feast - barbecued mussels with garlic and parsley, a boar stew, salads, foie gras, four cheeses and even tarts. Each course had the correct wine and there was much talk about how to cook X and when to drink Y. They were simply happy. Content with their world and their place in it."

As a young reporter, I railed against men-only bars and clubs, desperate to penetrate these masculine enclaves; puncturing the smug superiority of those who arrogantly believed they were, by virtue of their sex, better than me.

When I did join their gang, the disappointment was great. I wondered why I'd bothered as I listened to the banal, schoolboy banter that never dived below the surface words. But then, it was Life On Mars time and feelings, or rather talking about them, were for women and toddlers.

Now, when my own fierce feelings have been tempered by - yes, cliched though it is - age and experience, I simply look at my chasseur neighbours with almost maternal indulgence.

How can one not, as they group for the chasse, proud little olive-clad peacocks; territorial gangs; barely evolved versions of their schoolyard selves, except the guns are real now.

And then I look on the expat men as they push the trollies in the supermarkets, meander behind a bustling wife in the market, sometimes failing to hide their suffocating resentment at this enforced togetherness.

Retirement is bad enough for couples that once passed in the night and are now permanently welded to each other. Throw in a move to deep French countryside and when the initial excitement has gone and the work has been done, they are left, either side of the wood burner, with nothing or little to say. I've noticed that without work, pub or club to escape to, the men often become querulous and controlling. Wives visiting me keep checking their watches to be back for X's lunch or Y's dinner. Often their mobiles ring and terse conversations conclude with: "Yes. Ten minutes. Soup. Already made."

"Why can't he just make his own?" I ask in the mildly outraged tone of a woman who answers only to her dog. They mutter excuses, as enmeshed in their tedious old/new role as their men are.

They wish their husbands had found male buddies; would disappear to the pub; would play golf; would do any bloody thing except be permanently there.

"For years I ran my own life," said one. "He was always away on business. Now he's behind my back, questioning everything, moaning about this or that, watching TV half the day.

"We give dinner parties to keep him amused. Drinks parties. He gets pissed and I run around like a blue-arsed fly. Then he decides he doesn't like somebody - so they're out."

We all need space in our togetherness (I've always preferred the space to the togetherness.) It's just harder here for foreigners.

I'm reminded of an old Irish story. Hearing tales of terrible fights between Pat and Lal, the priest arrives.

"Now look, Pat," says he, gesturing to the cat and dog sleeping peacefully together in front of the fire. "See how different creatures can be happy. Why can't you?"

Pat takes a puff of the pipe. "Ah, you're right, Father," he says, "but tie them together and see what happens."

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