I’m in France for most of this week so I thought a series of posts on my experiences of all things French.
As our nearest neighbours – I am speaking as a Brit not as an Englishman, just to clear to my Welsh and Scottish correspondents – France couldn’t really be more foreign for somewhere so familiar. That first visit – 1977 – was in a car, not mine, via the ferry from Dover to Calais. Three of us with a fourth joining in Tours. We were all 20 and full of misconceptions about France.
Fr’instance we thought they’d have flushing toilets, not those awful straddle-a-hole things we came across in nearly all the cafes and campsites we visited. I vividly recall one particularly aromatic example in Bois de Boulogne. I was, little did I realise at that moment, attempting a Gold Standard yoga pose as I squatted and reached out to hold the door shut. In amongst the various French graffiti on that door, one lone English speaking scratcher had made his feelings plain and, in so doing, echoed my exact feelings:
Sliding down life’s bannisters, this ******* bog is the splinter in my arse
Ah how true.
Of course I had no reason to know about toilets though I was looking out for one type that had been front and centre of my imagination since a TV series called Clochemerle in the early seventies. The pissoire and eventually we found one…
The other disappointment was the wine. I was 20 and the only wine I’d drunk was the sort of sub paintstripper a student could afford, or the sickly sweet Riesling offerings that were v popular at student parties back then. I wasn’t a wine snob but I’d believed the propaganda that the French sold us the crap and kept the good stuff for themselves, even if it was cheap. Nope, cheap was cheap whichever side of the Channel you were on. The beer, or biere, too, was gaseous crud. I did, as I recall develop a small affection for Ricard – the Pernod brand beloved of morning starters amongst the agricultural cognoscenti we encountered.
We toured in a circle, eating plenty of cheese, learning that the baguette has a shorter shelf life than a reality TV star, that for the smokers amongst us Camel cigarettes are so named because of the camel faeces component in amongst the tobacco and French bureaucracy is stupendously inefficient. But sit in a bar with a coffee and cognac, use your schoolboy French to start a conversation and they were almost a universal delight, whether sophisticated urbanite or dyed in the wool yokel.
They believed France to be the greatest country on Earth, with the best of everything, except politicians who were all the worst in the world (also a proud French boast).
We were in a bar in Vouvray, sharing a bottle of actually very good wine when a middle aged man joined us. When he realised we were all English, all at University, two doing law and two doing engineering he listed the fantastic French accomplishments and then said the greatest was the art of diplomacy.
We didn’t know better so we just nodded.
‘You know why?’ He asked.
‘No,’ we said.
‘Because we invented hypocrisy.’
Pretty much defines a people. You have to love ‘em.