Notes from a big country^
Musings from a fortnight spent en vacances en France, mostly in a gite in le Val de Loire but with a four-day-and-three-night excursion to l'Ile d'Oleron off the west coast and a one-night stayover in St Valery sur Somme in Picardy...
This much we now know
* We learned how to affix our bikes to the rack securely, but only after Jen's partially dismounted itself in the fast lane of the M20 when we were already running late for the ferry.
* Boulogne - perhaps because it's the largest fishing port and fish processing port in Europe - smells like a massive bag of scampi fries.
* France is a paradise for lovers of amusing place-names. Les Ormes sounds like a club singer from Wigan, Moyenneville suggests a town with serious low self-esteem issues and then there's Berck - 'nuff said. My favourite, though, is Eu. You can imagine someone asking "What shall we call this place?" and taking his companion's characteristically French hesitation noise for a carefully considered answer.
* La Rochelle is a real place that does actually exist beyond the pages of the Tricolor textbooks.
* French nightclubs are christened things like Sloopys and Hypermarche.
* Think you've seen seaweed? Well, you haven't until you've witnessed the green cabbagey slicks piled up against the beaches at various points on l'Ile d'Oleron.
* If you find yourself in France on an extreme budget (if, say, you've left your cards and most of your cash nearly 200 miles away and have accidentally just spent most of what you had supporting a local brewery), it's possible to survive for nearly two days: eat nothing but bread, cheese and salami; drink nothing but €2 red wine; if you find yourself powerless to prevent a special offer cheesecake being pressed into your hand in a supermarket, surreptitiously deposit it amongst the yoghurts and scram; and sneak home on the Routes Nationales to evade the evil clutches of the toll roads.
* If you have a hankering to tread in the hallowed footsteps of such luminaries as Melinda Messenger and Leslie Grantham, you can travel around Fort Boyard, and moreover you can do so by pirate ship. Or, at least, you can if you're not on an extreme budget.
* French crazy golf courses really are crazy. You want a double loop-the-loop? You got it.
* Provided they're vaccinated, well-behaved and on a leash, French campsites will welcome dogs, cats and ferrets.
* Stroll around a few chateaux and you start to notice that a disproportionately high number of women in the paintings appear to have suffered a Janet-Jackson-style wardrobe malfunction, and with Justin Timberlake nowhere to be seen. Judging by the pictures in the Logis Royal at Loches, Agnes Sorel (Charles VII's "official mistress"), was particularly prone.
* For a country so proud of its cuisine, it's ironic that France's national dish seems to be pizza - even if they do put their own twist on it, namely loading many of them with repulsive topping combinations. I mean, goats' cheese, figs and honey - seriously, WTF? Still, eating lots of pizza helped fool us into thinking maybe we had gone on that excursion to Lake Garda after all.
* If you're not already pining for the other side of the channel by the time you get off the ferry back in Blighty, you certainly will be after a detour through Folkestone.
Grand days out
* I remember le Chateau d'Azay-le-Rideau being a looker, but I don't recall it being quite so immodestly beautiful. It's petite, faux-coy, fit-but-knows-it - and so do those who run it, judging by the floweriness and pomposity of some of the audio commentary. The chateau's currently home to an exhibition about the myth of Psyche and Cupid and its various representations in art through the ages. Two things in particularly leapt out at me. Firstly, Venus can hardly have been an oil painting if this dumpy, bingo-winged mortal was, to her immense annoyance, considered more beautiful than her. And secondly, a couple of exhibits depicted Psyche feeding Cerberus a galette - the lesson being that you should carry a savoury pancake on your person at all times just in case you find yourself needing to pacify a vicious three-headed dog.
* Better was le Chateau de Montresor, a perfect antidote for those fatigued by yet more medieval ruins and spotless and palatial Renaissance splendour. It was constructed in similar circumstances, but is instead preserved as furnished by its nineteenth-century owner, Xavier Branicki. The Polish count was something of an eccentric, cluttering his house with all manner of objets d'art (including a chest once owned by the Medicis and an enormous Veronese won in a game of cards) as well as fifteenth-century Dutch maps (the first atlases) and an urn containing a petrified human heart. It's the sort of place that, even in a cobwebby garage housing a cart, you can unearth a mangy stuffed dog in a grubby glass case.
* A planned trip around another chateau, at Le Grand Pressigny, was foiled by the fact that it was closed due to ongoing work building an extraordinary Cubist boil on the ruins. Having circled the walls, we ended up tramping up and down steep lanes in oppressive mid-afternoon heat in search of the village's other main attraction, le Four Banal. It turned out to be on Rue du Four Banal. I'll be honest, I wasn't expecting much of something that translates roughly as the Boring Oven, and I was right. Still, when your tourist information leaflet begins by telling visitors Bullseye-style what they could have seen in former times ("Pressigny had old markets, demolished in 1864"), I guess you've just got to work with what you've got. And it does have a nice church, a decent watering hole (the Prehisto-Bar) and a sleepy beauty.
* Visiting the Martell museum in Cognac fifteen minutes after an English guided tour has set off is an excellent way to get drunk for free - you'll be allowed in gratuit and ferried along corridors and through heavy wooden doors to catch up, and if five minutes in the blending room doesn't have you feeling light-headed, the tasting session at the end certainly will. Note: in the shop, don't pick up a bottle of l'Or, misread the €1100 price tag and announce "€11? That's pretty reasonable".
* By contrast with the arbitrariness of the art exhibitions in le Chateau d'Azay-le-Rideau and especially le Chateau de Loches, Will Menter's sound sculptures couldn't possibly have been better situated than in la Carriere de Vignemont in Loches. The cave network created by the mining of tufa, the limestone used to build the Loire chateaux, is the perfect gallery. The sculptures are triggered into life by motion sensors and their enchanting, otherworldly sounds resonate through the tunnels to awesome effect.
* It was hard not to get swept up in the exhilarating night-time revelry of Bastille Day. One minute we were enjoying a quiet drink in a bar, the next we were part of a parade racing through the streets of Loches, led by a band and amidst paper lanterns and flaming torches, marching to the town's football stadium. When we got there, it was some relief to discover not a giant wicker man but a hugely impressive free firework display, divided up into different movements and set to thumping Europop and Led Zeppelin's 'Kashmir'. Such was its scale and length that you have to suspect that for the rest of the year roads will be slipping into disrepair, bins will go uncollected and local schoolchildren will be forced to share one book between 20. If there's a truly international expression that translates right across linguistic and cultural borders and boundaries, then my guess is that it's the oohing and aahing elicited by a firework display. It also seemed that, while English dogs are carefully shut away, their French counterparts are specifically brought out to witness the spectacle. Lucky them.
Tales of the unexpected
Just a few of the fortnight's more memorable sights and sounds:
* Jen befriending a bush cut into the shape of a huge duck.
* An Ewok (or it could have been a short girl in a hooded top) wandering along a deserted beach at dusk playing a doleful didgeridoo.
* An elderly man with a globular gut crabbing from the harbour at La Cotiniere in nothing but a pair of Speedos. His deep all-over tan suggested they may be the only item of clothing he owned.
* Wildlife at every turn. At the gite alone, there was a dog that mysteriously appeared the instant the barbecues were fired up; three cats, one of which caught a vole, a baby rabbit and a small snake in one night; a horse and a pony who were the grateful recipients of the unused sugarcubes that kept coming with my expressos; and a nervous tortoise that Jen stumbled across in a ditch. And then there were the fighting pigeons which woke us up one morning; hordes of fat toads rustling in the undergrowth; a couple of small white crabs attacking a much larger dead jellyfish in the surf; storks nesting on pylons; otters frolicking in the River Creuse as we canoed past in the drizzle; an intrepid lizard interrupting a game of table tennis by making its way across the net cord.
* A brass band breaking into an instrumental ABBA medley ('Dancing Queen', 'Mamma Mia', 'Fernando' and 'The Winner Takes It All', if you're wondering) at a free evening concert. More remarkable, though, was the rigid seriousness and solemnity with which the seated audience took it in - a hen do in Bolton this was not. They got a lugubrious 'Land Of Hope And Glory' next by way of punishment, so we sloped off.
* A farmyard scene straight out of Pimp My Static Caravan's Front Yard.
Lost in translation
* Driving on the right = driving in the centre of the road in such a way as to petrify both drivers and passengers of left-hand-drive cars.
* Cider = low-strength, so fizzy it comes in glass bottles with popping corks champagne-style and little better than Strongbow in taste (even the "artisanale" stuff).
* 4* camping = sanitation blocks with piped music on the inside but the urinals on the outside.
* Torture chamber = "la salle de la question". Now there's a euphemism if ever I read one - right up there with the reference to the fact that one of the French kings bestowed "intimate favours" on three sisters. The dirty bastard.
Some of the holiday's conversational highlights:
* My mum was on particularly good form. Just two days into the holiday, she responded to my sister-in-law's mother talking about her new haircut with "Was it out of choice?" She also admitted to enjoying amateur taxidermy in her childhood and to now knowing a man named Eric The Stuffer who works for the Hancock Museum in Newcastle and who frequently has to turn down commissions to stuff squirrels and voles because he's already preoccupied with a tiger.
* Jen had confessions of her own, saying that as a child she once put a worm she was worried was dehydrated in some water and learned a harsh lesson about osmosis when it exploded. As the founder member and leader of her primary school's Insect Protection Society, she also once put a classmate's three-legged stick insect out of its misery by bashing it on the head with a brick. And all of this before mentioning that her aunt was until recently going out with someone who drummed for the Beatles a couple of times in the pre-Ringo early years. No idea what number Beatle he was, but apparently he's featured in the museum.
* Tom and I decided we should set up a cheese-making business just so we could call ourselves the Truckle Brothers.
* Jen's forthright discrediting of Cartesian philosophy, pronounced loudly when we were in Descartes itself: "'Je pense donc je suis'. I mean, if someone said that these days, you'd think they were a bit of a tosser. You wouldn't give them the time of day".
* Is it a treasonable offence to be French and buy a car that isn't?
* Why, when it comes to toilets, do the French have a fondness for saloon doors as a means of entry (at motorway rest areas as well as in places called the Cactus Bar) but what seems to amount to a pathological aversion to toilet seats?
* Is it just me, or on cloudy days do the fields of drooping sunflowers look like groups of crestfallen, disconsolate children told it's time to leave the adventure playground?
* With a product called Immodium Lingual, have our Francophone friends discovered a treatment for verbal diarrhoea?
^ Bill Bryson's Notes From A Small Island was my eminently suitable reading matter for part of the holiday, and inspirational in spirit for the above write-up. Review to follow at some point over the next few weeks, once I've got Glasto out of the way...