It was a small town. The French side of the Swiss border was a single lane and by using rigid traffic barriers was designed to act as a pinch-point. Vehicles were forced to slow to a crawl as drivers negotiated a tight slalom.
The French official waved us through but it was clear to all (except this French official), that the artificial curves were too tight and the lane too narrow for a 7m long campervan. I paused, he gesticulated. I paused longer and gesticulated at the barriers. He advanced and gesticulated to indicate that we must drive through the slalom. I declined to proceed. He thought we were being overly cautious, I thought he was being a French prat. He demanded we proceed through the checkpoint and I was right he was a prat – we scratched both sides of the van.
Welcome back to France.
The distant refrain of French accordion music seeped inexorably into the van as we drove through golden fields of corn and nodding sunflowers. Where the accordion music came from and why the sunflowers nodded in the listless heat of summer I have no idea, but this was France after all.
After nearly 3 months in France I confess I am none the wiser about this large and often attractive country’s inhabitants. (For the sake of clarity, it is France that I find attractive rather than its inhabitants – but of course, there are always exceptions). Undoubtedly much of the country is beautiful and bountiful, with millions of hectares of wheat, corn, grapes and other goodies on offer. It has more than a smattering of bits of old stuff which are easy to visit and because of the size of the country, tourist sites are rarely overrun with visitors.
The French themselves are mostly quite shy, very formal and not especially keen on other parts of the world unless it produces something tasty – preferably made entirely from animal entrails. They are benignly ambivalent as to why others travel so far to explore la Belle France. They are quick to shrug, slow to eat and they live their lives like a snail in a shell, going gently about their own business – blissfully unaware that they are covered in butter and garlic.
Life and time definitely move slowly in France. There is a palpable rhythm that dictates precisely when and what they eat, when they shop, open and close their businesses, go on holiday and even when they go on strike. There appears to be little in the way of a collective entrepreneurial streak, no desire to indulge in laborious practices to change their lives or improve their environment. Instead they wait for the next government initiative to reduce their working hours below the current onerous level of 35 hours per week and will of course, strike or turn nastily militant if the government declines to further enhance their generous pension schemes. I see from the news that this week’s top 2 strikes are Air France pilots who have been asked to retire later to help save their airline from financial disaster, and French sheep farmers who (again) think they deserve more money for raising a few animals. The farmers took the opportunity to take some of their best-looking sheep into Paris where they were mistaken for the airline crew’s new winter uniforms and taken home by the striking Air France pilots. Those of you with a viticultural bent (and if you’re going to have a bent why not make it wine related), will be aware of the militant winemaker’s group CRAV in the Languedoc Roussillon who frequently fire-bomb Spanish tanker drivers delivering wine to bottling plants in Marseilles, target supermarkets selling foreign wine and are now making threats against Sarkozy if he does not offer more support to the sector. To “reform” the industry the EU has directed that up to 400,000 hectares of vines should be ripped up – most of it in the Languedoc Roussillon region. Having spent quite some time there, I think I have seen most of those hectares and for once, I’m in complete agreement with the EU.
However on the plus side, France does have the fastest trains in Europe but my theory is that because train drivers are lucky enough to retire at 50, they want to make sure they get back to the depot in time for their retirement parties. No, working life isn’t too arduous in France. Several espressos and Gauloises start the morning and then before you know it its midday and time for frog on toast or whatever takes your fancy for lunch. Then there isn’t much to do for a few hours before dinner so you might as well have a wee lie down. As a tourist these customs aren’t quaint, they’re downright irritating as you can’t find anywhere to get breakfast, if you mistime it lunch has been and gone and you are too low on energy to single-handedly take control of the entire village – which you could otherwise achieve (should that be on your agenda), because there is no one around to stop you. However, it does mean you can drive through ridiculously narrow lanes through towns and villages without being petrified by Pierre in his Renault Twingo coming flying around a blind corner and immediately going gaga with garlic-fuelled road rage. On weekends there are no trucks on the roads as it is universally a time for family, for visiting relatives or to go shopping on the Saturday. (Nothing but nothing is open of course on Sunday as the entire nation puts its collective feet up after a shattering week at work). On Saturdays, many families go to the local DIY shop to admire the weave of wonderful wallpaper, the patina of perfect paint or the character of comfortable kitchens. But do they buy any of this stuff? We have seen very little evidence to support the theory that DIY retailers would be a good investment in these troubled financial times. Many French people inherit their houses and land and thus see no reason (presumably because there’s no economic incentive), to improve anything in anyway before they pass it on down the line. As a result many French villages and towns have the appearance of a disused Taliban training camp looking for all the world as if they were long ago abandoned. They’re not abandoned of course, they are lived in by people who would probably ignore the arrival of Taliban terrorist trainees just as they ignore the tendency for trillions of termites’ terror-bites to terminate their tenancy. Villages often consist of rows of houses that are grey/brown in colour and held together by small beetles and spiders. They are endowed with seriously dodgy wiring and serviced by appalling plumbing. Does this bother the French? Does it buggery. They shrug, close the door and shuffle off to sit and surmise or play petanque happy in the knowledge that the town has a large number of full-time fire-fighting fellows snoozing at the station just waiting for the garlic and butter to self combust. En passant (as the French would say), here’s a fire extinguisher at a petrol station in Limoux, it must be the height and weight of your average Frenchman and about as practical. Speaking of practical, (oh he’s off now), here’s a sign outside a store in Caunes Minervois. The shop is one of a chain that purports to be open from 8am to 8pm but in France, it won’t be.
Similarly, garden centres abound but do you see any gardens? No, not really, but every town and village has one (often several) landscaped and themed roundabouts like this one outside Bordeaux with a viticultural theme. Often big roundabouts will be tended by 2 or 3 council workers trimming and watering and acting like real gardeners but that’s as far as gardening goes.
The French are also very funny, not realising the irony and the innate humour of naming a gas cylinder destined for the camping or home market: “Malice” They have also named a rather attractive village “Flangebouche” (which I think is a natural for twinning with Greymouth or maybe even Cockermouth) or, how about the husband and wife urologist practice in Beaune called Mr et Mme Pisseloup?
Undoubtedly, the placement of a Quick Hamburger franchise next door to the Quick Medical Services building in Bordeaux was inspired, as was the placing of this 3D waiter next to a 3D customer. Oh and here’s a great place to send the kids to play!
So as summer started to fade and the nodding sunflowers started to assume their own strange character, we motored serenely south, accompanied as always by distant accordion music. We closed the windows and roof vents but it still continued.
We paused near Narbonne and purchased a Honda Generator to give us power when we stayed overnight at France Passion places – (nothing like shoving it down a row of vines out of earshot and throwing some small furry creature on the barbeque for dinner). With finely-honed linguistic skills again to the fore, I think I successfully negotiated the price of the generator up by 10%, firmly declined the dealer’s request to leave the shop after enquiring if he was the inspiration for the naming of a nearby forest and, when the first generator out of the box failed to start I politely suggested he may wish to take his congested spark plug to Mr et Mme Pisseloup for a quick once-over. With the (now slightly frosty deal) done, I observed from the printed receipt that our new friend was called Kevin. I confidently shook hands with Kevin, thanked him for enriching himself and assured him we would return in the spring to buy a leaf blower, garden trailer, rotary hoe and to reconstitute his grandmother into the mother of all extension chords. I asked him if in closing I could call him Kevin and he replied without pausing, that “no, he normally closes for lunch at 1230”. With another successful transaction completed in France I somehow felt it was probably time to be heading for the border followed of course by a small trail of accordion players.
During our time in France we probably stayed overnight on more than 30 France Passion sites. Mostly vineyards, wine makers properties and the odd farm. All without exception have been good experiences and they have proved to be a great counter-balance to our view of the French. These people have been genuinely interesting, keen to share their lifestyle with us and very often they have been honoured that people from New Zealand would seek them out. Hence they have been generous, warm and inviting. As a result many a happy hour has been spent discussing wine production and much tasting has been conducted. This has been great fun and informative and an opportunity to discuss differing viticultural and oenological practices. Not quite so much fun have been the overnight stays on other food producers farms. Having said that, staying on apricot, walnut, olive and prune producers properties has not been a hardship. However more than once we have stayed on fois gras farms and more than once had to deal with our hosts’ obvious disappointment when we declined their generous invitations to watch the ducks and geese being force fed, shunned the photo opportunity of examining the historical feeding equipment and again watched their faces drop when we declined the invitation to join the French visitors to observe the slaughter and processing chain in action. Likewise, you can see why we U-turned in the driveway of the intensive pork-rearing farm and lumbered off at (relatively) high speed when the farmer’s wife rushed out to greet us with baby under one arm and squealing piglet under the other. (Actually she may have had more than two arms. We were after all rather to close to one of France’s numerous nuclear power plants).
So yes. The French are different. They express no sentiment whatsoever when it comes to their food supply chain and fail to understand why anyone would shy away from viewing the production and processing of farm products whether it be pigs and cattle, ducks and geese, horses or mature fruit and veg. To the French there is simply no difference – if you grow it you eat it, if someone else grows it you watch it being turned into something edible and then you eat it. Maybe they’re right, maybe we’re too squeamish about our food so I’m going to change my ways and try a calf’s head with my Pernod tonight.
We’re all familiar with many of the useful inventions that the French have given us, such as the guillotine and the gyroscope, mayonnaise and the metric system, the parachute and the pencil, but did you know they also invented the mobile church and the mobile farm?
So in closing let me commend the French to you. Not content with giving us the battery and the bicycle they devised a hole in the ground as a toilet as well as a fearsome creature that dwells in all public toilets in France. Usually female and usually large, these gruesome gargantuan guardians extract money with menaces whenever you enter the door. For example here is a very attractive public toilet in Monaco but even here, the 3G is seated and demanding payment for cleaning the facilities. However, in common with all other public toilets in France, no cleaning materials were harmed in her preparations. A quick swill around the floor with fresh urine was all that was required.
We said sayonara and sailed serenely south in search of Spanish sun. Immediately the accordion music stopped, but I think that may have been because we had finally located and filled a small hole at the base of the windscreen…