For the last two years I’ve joined in the #atozchallenge, namely to post every weekday in April using each letter of the alphabet in turn. In 2015 it was places I’d been to, in 2016 it was London themed. This year it is a dictionary of my family, recounting incidents small and large that have taught me lessons down the years, caused me consternation or generally seared themselves into my memory. I hope you enjoy them. To find other bloggers doing the challenge and maybe be inspired yourself, check out the A to Z Blogging Challenge Blog, here.
I mentioned in an earlier post that I fly until 1981. I didn’t go across the Channel until 1976 at age 19. 1976 was an odd summer for me – it was baking home for starters and I was home from uni and bored rigid with life in the new Forest with no transport beyond a decrepit bike. I worked in hotel full of febrile weirdos whose antics gave me the material for my first book. Working was solely for the purpose of getting away which in this case meant joining three other friends and driving around France for 3 weeks. Two of the friends were from school and one from uni – they’d met but I was the conduit-cum- lightening conductor.
As the man in charge I had to book the ferry, buy the maps and work out what sort of accommodation we could have. It became clear we would take two tents and camp. To start we planned on heading for Tours to meet up with Dave 2. Dave 1 we would meet in Calais. Having two Dave’s felt a little like the Bruce sketch in Monty Python…
But Mike and I decided against adopting the popular nomenclature for the duration.
Back then, I was obviously more competent than in later life as we managed the ferry and met Dave 1 easily enough. The dynamic was good too. Dave 1 and I were law students with, essential humanities as our A level subjects. We liked beer and hankered for some serious female company, largely unfulfilled. Mike and Dave 2 were engineers. While Dave 2 liked beer, Mike only drank vodka and lime but by the tureen. Dave 1 was reasonably fluent in French while Mike and Dave 2 spoke mostly in Widget.
We meandered through northern France heading to Mont St Michel first because we’d heard it was spectacular.
Mike however was unimpressed because he couldn’t get the car up the steps…
We stopped near Rouen for our first night. I recall a rather forbidding curé giving Mike the hairy eyeball for smoking outside the Cathedral and Mike spending an age in a small disgusting Tabac debating in his non existent french what Gaulloise he would buy.
I don’t know what they were but they smelt utterly toxic but he kept to them throughout wherever he could get them.
As a cigarette aside Dave 2 had developed a fondness for Camels by the time we met up and it took the two mechanics the best part of a week to decide they would stick to Gaulloise. It only occurred to me later that this was a strategic decision on Dave 2’s part since it most often fell to Mike to buy the ciggies, having gone for his selection and save Dave 2 some money.
Having two engineers in the car did change things rather. Dave 1 and I might be having a light conversation about, say, Led Zeppelin when Dave 2 would say ‘Jimmy Page’s sub-optimal reforbing woofer uses transpositional ungrinding…’
To which Mike might respond, ‘Yeah but the hand grip ins a neo-existential pri-volting carbroid demonstrible so he’s not peaking on the batrian parabola like Frampton or Clapton…’
Dave 1 would look at me and then in the rear view mirror waiting to catch Mike’s eye. When he did he’d say, ‘Did you like Show me the Way?’ and Mike would look blank and ask for a fag.
In Tours we found a rather splendid campsite and bar where some young local woman hung out. Dave 1 spun them a little french but either he didn’t have the technique he thought he did or he didn’t have the French or both because they just laughed.
Culturally Tour wasn’t good for us but we moved on to Bourges and on the way west stopped near Pouilly sur Loire. Here we did a degustation and discovered Pouilly Fume on hot dry afternoon. The shade of the cave, the local cheese and the wine were, for three of us at least an intoxicating combination. Wine, to this point had been essential reisling or paint stripper something that might be both. This stuff would retail at a price we students could not afford but here it was cheaper than beer.
Talk about a conversion.
Sadly, as with many instant Damascene moments the lack of experience meant we never again found anything quite so delightful. Indeed we bought a whole range of different strippers that could remove most unwanted attachments – paint, oil, acne, those physics students you meet at the beer society on your first day at uni… but not a wine that was drinkable like that nectar. My, though, was that day delightful.
Our days were spent in a fairly similar vein. Wake. Late. Find cafe. Wait for Dave 2 to try, and again fail, to shit. Drink coffee with croissant and, sometimes a pastis. Argue whether we would visit a town/museum/Chateau or the local garage for some unnecessary but exciting repair that might be undertaken on the car. Default to a bar. Head for a town for (a) cigs (b) the cathedral/church/ancient monument/ garage and find another bar. Decide we couldnt afford lunch so buy a baguette and fight over it. Buy lunch anyway. sometimes we’d see a place to hang out that might include women in swim wear. If it had a bar/cool spot/garage we’d head for it and spent some hours being indecisive, usually in the bar. Where we might stay until the alcohol induced munchies meant we needed to find somewhere to eat after everywhere had shut. Argue. Bed. Repeat.
It was marvellous. The Loire which we followed for a piece, was beautiful to this 19-year-old who knew nothing about beauty then. I read sci-fi avidly – Dave 2 and I had this in common – as well as a love for Vonnegut, we talked Asimov and Clarke and Bradbury and Blish.
And we listened to the tapes we had all brought along. Mike, car supremo had made it clear that he wouldn’t allow anything longer than a C90 to be played because they almost always snagged in the car stereos of the day. The C120s were notorious and were the prefered medium of Dave 2. In fact I would hazard a guess this was done mostly to try and limit the amount of aurally obnoxious music that Dave 2 brought along rather than a worry about his stereo – not that it worked because Mike was too nice and warned us all in advance so Dave 2 had a fun summer re-recording some of the most cerebrally challenging pieces on his collection. If you like the Mahavishnu Orchestra then, well, bully for you but frankly I’ve had more entertaining hernia repairs..
After two weeks we lost Dave 2 and headed for Paris.
If there’s one piece of advice I’d like to leave with the impoverished visitor it is DO NOT CAMP IN THE BOIS DE BOULOGNE CAMPSITE.
Paris itself was grand, the sites all you’d expect but the campsite was a car park. We’d grown accustomed to hard ground but nothing prepared us for sleeping on tarmac.
The toilets, which I must say brought down the average mark for visitor friendliness had a piece of graffiti behind one door that roughly translated into
Sliding happily down the bannister of life, the campsite at the Bois de Boulogne was the splinter up my arse
The high point though had to be Versailles. It’s a very grand building if you’ve not been and the decor utterly ott. It lacked much by way of furnishings but we’d got used to that.
No, what really got to me were the gardens. The scale and the effort. Even now I can still recall sitting on some steps and watching one of the fountains play a scale or whatever it was programmed to do. I fell for Paris with my two friends. For the Champs Elysee and the Etoile, Concorde and the Tuilleries, for the Jeu de Paume and the rive gauche. I think then the seed was sown for my honeymoon there 8 years later. Oddly I have no photos of this… maybe I’d run out of film.
Somehow we dragged ourselves away and headed for Amsterdam on the spur of a moment. That was special too as were our visits to the Normandy beaches and the memorials to both world wars. perhaps it was fitting to end on such a sombre note and to realise, probably for the first time that however ‘foreign’ things seemed and they often did through the expedient of little understanding of the language, we had a deep and bloody shared history and never could we really think of ourselves as anything other than part of this continent even stuck on a rock 20 miles out to sea.