Here and There – France

I wonder how often a blogger asks, “how much do I want to disclose?”  Everything you write can offer some insight into you and your character, but it is a rather more exposing approach when you decide to make your part in the blog quite explicit.  I haven’t often done that, but this has been a year when I have been more willing to talk about things I have done, and how I have reacted to various events and relationships.  However, writing about time spent in France is take this a further step.  After all, we are talking about the French, aren’t we!  You know, those garlic-smelling, strange-food-eating people from across the Channel, those thorns in the side of the English for centuries.  Every good English child is brought up to understand that it wasn’t just a stretch of water that separated the French and English, it was something far deeper. Not just ‘not like us’, the French were … well, you know, French.  Surely you understand that in the well-brought up English child’s psyche, there were few groups more dreadful than the French:  that was just the way it was.

Unfortunately, I discovered I faced a problem while I was still young, at primary school.  My mother was a Francophile.  I kept quiet about this at school.  Every year we would go to France for our summer holiday.  Usually, it was for three or four weeks of the school summer vacation:  for dad, a grammar schoolteacher, this was the only real break he had, and we would spend part of our holiday at the beach in Normandy, and the rest of the time we would stay with a family in Saint-Denis, which was then just outside Paris.  Why there?  Well, my mum knew a young man, Louis, and it was his family home.  How did she know Louis?  I have no idea; nor do I know anything about their relationship.  I do know he came to see us in the UK, and I remember …   well, we might come back to that later, in another blog?

For a young boy, my experiences of France were largely unmemorable.  In Saint-Denis we stayed in a house, and in Normandy in a tent.  I can remember the tent, but the house has disappeared.  It must have been large, as I had my own room.  I seem to recall the weather was usually very pleasant, even hot.  It was a world where I confronted a few strange things: baguettes and ficelles, mussels, mosquitoes, and meals spread over an hour or more.  Of all that remains in my recollections of life in Saint-Denis, two aspects of life in a French home are especially vivid, and they have to do with insects and bread.

The first has to do with mosquitoes.  One of the more unforgettable of my early childhood memories in France was crying, in pain you might assume, from mosquito bites.  My head was covered in bites, all through my hair.  Naturally, I had to scratch them, which made the pain worse.  I remember my mother, less than entranced by my behaviour, would cover my head in calamine lotion.  I must have looked a sight!!  However, the image that sticks most strongly in my memory is being in bed at night, the light on in my bedroom, looking up at the single bulb hanging down from the ceiling, and staring at the twisted strand of brown paper, a ‘papier tue-mouches’ (paper to kill insects), which we referred to with the far less evocative name ‘flypaper’.  Sticky on one side, I seem to recall it had strong smell.  Well, I’m not sure about that last bit, because there might have been a scented candle burning in the room. The flypaper was covered in dead mosquitoes, but I could still hear others flying around me.  They were out to get me, and that night I was screaming – no, not in pain, but in fear!!

As for bread in France?  That was quite different.  As I have told many people, the family we stayed with in Saint-Denis gave me the nickname ‘Pierre pain sec’.  The reason was simple.  By the age of four, I was sent, every morning, down the street to the bakers.  The task was simple.  I was given some money (a couple of francs, perhaps) and a request to fulfil: “deux baguettes, s’il vous plait”.  As I collected the two loaves, the boulangère pointed to a rack of bread pieces.  I helped myself to the previous day’s stale, iron-hard bread, and chewed on it on the way home – Peter dry bread indeed.  Was it always baguettes?  Maybe the order could have included the odd ficelle.  For sure, I loved those long thin crusty loaves!

So, Paris was about dry bread and mosquitoes.  There must have been more, but as I grew older we stopped going to St Denis, although we continued to have holidays in Normandy.  Saint-Denis is now one of the banlieue surrounding the perimeter of Paris, an outer suburb characterised by ethnic tensions and murders.  Not somewhere that I am likely to revisit!

In Normandy, camping, my parents loved the beach, lounging on the sand and going for a swim.  I didn’t.  I have never liked water, swimming, sand, or any of that stuff.  One element of this, my dislike of swimming, came from nearly drowning at the local swimming pool in London when I was taken for lessons.  I’d better explain.

You may have heard this ghastly story before, as it has been told many times before.  In essence, what happened was simple.  My first lesson involved being placed in a leather harness, rather like a car tyre, and being dragged by a chain along a wire suspended over the water, so that I could ‘swim’ without having to float by myself.  The system was designed to take me from one side of the swimming pool to the other.  Inserted into the harness, lowered to the surface of the pool, the instructor began to pull me across.  Then the chain broke, and I promptly sank to the bottom of the pool.  It must sound pathetic, but I didn’t know what to do, and sat there.  The instructor dived into the pool, pulled me out of the harness, and plonked me on the tiles running around the pool.  I probably cried – I don’t remember.  What I do remember is that first day of swimming lessons convinced me that I never wanted to attempt to swim again.  Water was dangerous!

Years later I did have to struggle up and down a pool in order to complete one component in qualifying for a badge as a Boy Scout.  However, that was it.  I have never lost my distrust of water, pools, the sea, sand, and anything associated with beaches.  Once a year until well into my teens, my family would visit my uncle, aunt, and cousins at the aptly named Sea Palling, in Norfolk.  Everyone else delighted in making sandcastles, jumping in the sea, and all the other seaside nonsense.  I made sure I had a large collection of books to read!

Let’s get back to France.  My childhood adventures there were designed to confuse me.  In school, history was largely concerned with tales about the French, mainly focussed on British victories and French perfidy.  In the playground, I was able to satisfy friends that I had seen frogs’ legs for sale in French shops.  I could also assure them that garlic was everywhere, in the air, on clothes, and cooked with almost every dish, except ice cream (I bet there was a garlic ice cream, too).  On the other hand, there were those long, sweet tasting loaves, croissants, and other sugar laden delicacies.  French boys were rude and aggressive, shouting words like ‘merde’ all the time; French girls were stunning, alluring.  Help!

As an adult, I managed to sustain this double view of the French with ease.  I could make jokes about their awful food, their strange condiments, their obsessive interest in sex and romance, and their lack of sensitivity to the things a good Englishman adored (like cricket).  I could happily refer to major British victories in various wars.  Discussions over the Channel Tunnel were a source of great delight: this was another French attempt to infiltrate the UK, sending thousands of bicycling Frenchmen over, to sell onions to unsuspecting English housewives (we men wouldn’t be seduced by that kind of carrying on, of course).

All of this was brilliantly captured in the 2013 television series The Tunnel.  That story was about two detectives, one English, Karl Roebuck, the other his French counterpart, Elise Wassermann, who work together to find a serial killer.  The murderer had left the upper half of a French politician and the lower half of a British prostitute in the Channel Tunnel, at the midpoint between France and the UK.  Of course, some thought the body should have been facing the other way, the lower half of the body that of a French prostitute.  Nicknamed the ‘Truth Terrorist’ he was on a moral crusade to highlight social problems in both countries.  More to the point, the casting was brilliant.  Stephen Dillane played DI Karl Roebuck of Northbourne Police (a fictional Kent Police), an ageing, remarried British detective used to getting his own way.  He is an educated yet troubled man, (so English).  Clémence Poésy plays Capitaine Wasserman of the Central Directorate of Judicial Police, single, driving a Porsche, picking up men from bars for casual sex, and exhibiting behaviour consistent with Asperger syndrome (yup, so French)!  Perfect justification for prejudiced perspectives.

Unsurprisingly, France has been part of my life well after trips with my parents.  Among my new friends when I went to university were two Indian executives, living in the apartment above mine.  One had a French friend, Janine.  Janine was actually Tahitian, but her mother had moved to France.  Janine had a somewhat confusing life, living in Cambridge, with family in France and Papeete, and her best friend in Geneva.  It was Janine who persuaded me to take my family to France one year: ‘family’ comprised my wife and I, three children aged under 10, and my wife’s mother and father, all packed into a Morris Minor Traveller, with our luggage at the back (the ‘way back’ as I used to term it) and a tent and lilos on top!

When we drove off the car ferry at Calais, my father-in-law panicked (we were on the ‘wrong’ side of the road), and a few miles out we had to stop.  He retrieved a primus stove, kettle, mugs, condensed milk and tea bags he had hidden away in his luggage and promptly made a cup of tea for us all by the side of the road.  He needed reassurance.  We were on the A16, a major road that we hoped would get us to Mont St-Michel that day.  Given we had something like 300 miles to travel, it was not a good start.

We arrived at the camping site very late in the day.  By the time we had filled in forms, it was dusk, and I set about erecting our tent (a large affair, with an inner tent, as well as two other internal areas).  My parents-in-law sat in the car, the children raced off to enjoy the nearby sandy area close to a river, while my wife and I battled to get everything organised.  Finished, we ate a meal (I’d thought to pack some things for ‘emergencies’), my wife’s mother and father retreated to the inner tent, the children curled up in their sleeping bags and, exhausted, I was ready to collapse.  It was only an hour later I realised the lilo (a variety of inflatable mattress) we were using had sprung a leak.  By midnight we were on the ground.  My enthusiasm for spending time in France could not have been any lower!

Our next stopping place was close to Nantes, where Janine’s mother lived.  She was lovely, and I was more than a little intrigued to see she lived upstairs in a small house, and the ground floor contained a large oak barrel, containing last year’s wine.  It was good.  France wasn’t so bad.  The next day we travelled on to Royan.  We were there to meet Veronique’s family.  Veronique had lived with us for six months in Scotland, a self-possessed and very chic young woman (if only an eight-year-old), resolutely refusing to learn more than a few words in English.  Her decision meant I had to retrieve a little schoolboy French to talk to her.  She was polite enough, only just, not to laugh at my hopeless attempts at conversation.

Royan is a seaside resort town on France’s Atlantic coast, at the mouth of the Gironde estuary, and the capital of the Côte de Beauté.  Back in the 1970s it wasn’t the tourist resort it has become, and the five sandy beaches were far from busy.  The town was elegant, with slightly dowdy belle epoque villas alongside post-war architecture, and a large lighthouse standing on an islet in the estuary.  It was somewhat akin to paradise, and Veronique’s family was lovely.  For the children, the highlight was time on the beach.  For me, the highlight was a magnificent lunch, with wine, where the dishes had been disentangled, so one serve was of vegetables, another of fish, another of potato, and so on.  So elegant!  Guess what, Mont St-Michel forgotten, my enthusiasm for France had shot back up!

Sadly, this was an Englishman’s approach to taking a holiday, and in no time at all, we were back on the road, eventually travelling across to Geneva before returning to Calais via Paris.  I don’t know how the car survived that journey, although I do remember the roof-rack collapsed on to the roof of the car.  No matter, Morris made tough cars in those days.  It was an epic, crazy trip, a bizarre precursor to many other visits to France, including others where we drove at least some of the time.  However, that first time was particularly memorable!

Odd though it might seem, my becoming a blogger has its origin in France.  My (second)  wife and I planned part of our honeymoon in France.  We went to Paris and then to Epernay, the champagne region, where we bought ourselves one expensive bottle of Dom Perignon.  We kept exploring, continuing our travels to spend a week in Strasbourg.   After a great deal of drinking (and eating) we needed some ‘down time’ and stayed for two weeks in a converted farm building in the tiny Jura village of Sirod.  It was perfect:  how could you not enjoy a place described thus by the owners – “Our self-catering accommodation is located in an ancient farm which we have just renovated entirely. Internal decoration: ceiling in oak and in fir, floor in fir in rooms, wall in stones of size, chimney… ensures you a very cordial atmosphere.”  Cows across the road, walks in the gentle hills, and an evening task, which comprised watching the cows brought down from the fields, and into the milking sheds.

It was while we were in Sirod that I started getting more serious about writing.  That thought had begun the year before, but now, I really wanted to write.  For several days I sat at my notebook computer in the main room, under that oak ceiling, my feet resting on cold tile floors, and typed away in that peaceful atmosphere.  This was supposed to be a honeymoon?  Slowly, the idea of a book that drew on my years of Aspen style seminars and roundtable discussions coalesced in an overview to encourage readers to think about some of the big questions in life.  The result was How Shall I Live, a book on philosophical considerations, which eventually appeared years later.  I can now look back at that book, and the one that followed, Elephants on Roller Skates, and see that neither was particularly good (an understatement!).  But writing them was a beginning, blogs have been a continuation.

With so much to give free reign to prejudices, it is almost de rigueur (oops) for the English to make jokes about the French, and I have been as guilty as anyone.  However, and you must have guessed there would be a however, there was so much I loved and still love about France and the French.  Not just the bread and desserts.  There’s moules marinière, which I loved from that first visit to St Denis, camembert, bouillabaisse, real quiche lorraine, profiteroles, and many more mouth-watering dishes.  French wines, French aperitifs, French coffee.  Yes, French food and drink is very special.  There’s more.  French museums, the Musée Quai D’Orsay, the Louvre, French music.  I don’t need to continue.  The French have outstanding culture, pouring out of their ears, dammit!  Stop the French jokes, Sheldrake.