France – My Secret Mistress


I have a life-long love affair that I have maintained since I was about eleven years old: with France. Actually, I can date it pretty precisely – 1974. The first time I went there was a family camping trip, and I can remember listening to the Eurovision song contest in the car on the radio as we got into France and just before we lost the signal. That was the year that Waterloo kick-started the global career of a little-known band from Sweden, of all places, called Abba. We headed down to Le Lavendou, stopping in Paris and via the Loire valley then through Lyon on the way.  In Paris, I was so afraid when the football was kicked into long grass, and I had to either get it or lose my football.  I thought I would be bitten by a snake as we were “abroad”.  And then, after A’ Levels I worked out that if you studied a language then you would get a year’s sponsored travel to some exotic place. So I opted for French. Don’t forget that this was in the time when you had to have a passport stamped to travel through Europe. You got cosmetics in the aeroplane toilets and a free pack of cards if you asked for them. I knew this from trips to Egypt, Singapore, USA and Malaysia by that time. But France was still pretty “abroad”.  Package holidays to Spain were the newbies on the block.

So I spent a year studying at the University of Lyon. And I loved every minute of it. It was still only 37 years from the end of the Second World War, so the memories or stories of the local Resistance leader, Jean Moulin, were still fresh in the minds of the older generation of people you spoke to. As were those of Klaus Barbie, the notorious SS commander for the region. It was reported that Klaus Barbie had killed Jean Moulin, once he had captured him, by tying up his arms behind his back and dragging him down a flight of stone steps, banging his head all the way down.  They still spoke about that around here.  Once, one weekend, I just took a random bus to the end of the line out in the local area and walked around the countryside lanes by the village. I was amazed at the number of memorials to those fallen “at this very spot”.  That Easter was hot and I spent it hitch-hiking with a tent around Provence and the Ardeche.  When I came home I hitched all the way.  I was lucky and got a lift from Lyon all the way to Paris.  The guy apoligised and asked if I would mind a detour, as he had to pick up some wine from a vineyard on the way.  Wine tasting ensued in the owner’s kitchen.  The driver owned a restaurant in Monmartre and said he would speak to his neighbour  who ran a hotel and see me right for the night: it was a good lift.  The next day I got fined for walking on the motorway, but they said they’d let me off if I played them a song.  That night I spent sleeping on a verge on the Paris-Calais road.  When I awoke, I spotted an isolated roadside café a way back down the route, which I had not seen in the dark.  “How are you?” I asked, in a night-in-the-the-open-dishevelled sort of way.  “Better than you, by the looks of it,” the man replied.  Then he gave me coffee and croissants for free.

I returned to Lyon many years later and the fond summer-sun-filled memories I had of those halcyon student days were replaced by a drab, rather gridlocked, industrial urban sprawl. I just drove through it, so did not revisit the gorgeous old town and marvel at squares where 15th to 20th century architecture has been blended with a perfection and flare that could only be French. See my WordPress post for memories of that trip. In all it was a bit disappointing. Maybe my memories were just rose-tinted. The area where I used to live looked more like an inner-city ghetto. And then I remembered the less rose-tinted side: the intricate bureaucracy that used to drive us mad; the cheap, filterless, cow-dung-tasting Galloise cigarettes that we all tried so hard to like; glorious parks that had signs saying you were not allowed on the grass, and a picnic we once had planned spoiled when the officious park keepers turned up; and the hard experiences of the buskers I got to know there. One of them claimed to be the singer/guitarist of the Racing Cars: a one-hit-wonder band who came good with their song “They Shoot Horses Don’t They?”  He was left with a limp after a car smash on the road in Germany and was now busking for a living on the Metro in Lyon.  What a great musician he was.  Gareth was his name.  He was Welsh, and was from the Rhonda Valley, but I was still not sure about his tales.  However, watching the link above, finding this video and reading the comments,  Gareth was certainly very close to being Gareth “Morty” Mortimer and he did do a stunning version of their one-hit-wonder song.

And talking of songs, please listen to the one below to get a flavour of France in this slideshow:

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I still love France, have spent a fair amount of time there and have returned as often as I can.  Each visit gives me a different take on my student days. The latest trip was this summer, 2017. And as usual all the old memories came back in some way or another – they do every time. I still enjoy the language, the long lunch hours, a formally observed ritual in one way, and a lovely one at that, or how artists, in the broadest sense – meaning poets, philosophers or playwrights and the like – are still seen as sages, of whom the opinions are sought on moral, social or political issues. OK, so my French may be a little outdated in its adherence to the strict rules of the “Academie Française” which actually codifies with some practical authority the correct use of the language, but I can still converse freely and still enjoy Samuel Beckett’s jibe in “Waiting For Godot” about the “Aca-ca-cademie Française” (caca being the French for poo-poo). And thereby lies the problem. On the one hand we have an innovative, creative nation, blessed with artistic genius of the anarchic variety, and on the other a nation strung up by its formal Napoleonic obeisance to rules. Did I just make “obeisance” a synonym for couilles (French for … look it up!)?

So, back to 2017. I was surprised to be told that on French campsites you were not allowed swimming shorts, they had to be “Speedos”. Oh no! Again we go back to the seventies, and a lot less of a savoury side this time. If you don’t remember Speedos, then feel very blessed. Never look them up. They were, to be quite frank, little more than brightly-coloured swimming thongs for men. I once had a union jack pair. So give me some kudos for honesty here, but there are no pictures. Sadly… I mean luckily.

Equally luckily, the friend who told me about this latest rule on campsites in France was wrong. Unluckily, it was only slightly wrong. The rule was that you had to wear a “maillot de bain”, or swimming briefs, not speedos. It was interdit (forbidden) to wear my trusty swimming shorts. But in heaven’s name why? Why would you not be allowed on the grass to eat your picnic in a lovely park that was mostly grass? You beautiful artists have just obeisanced –up again. Why? Well, I asked the lifeguard. He told me that it was on account of the regional council… oh here we go again… who maintained that sand could be trapped in the pockets of ones swimming shorts, so could represent some discomfiture to the pool. I pointed out that I could, equally, have some sand trapped between my buttocks, but he was still having none of my swimming shorts in his pool. It was back to the grass in the parks of Lyon. And then I was off on one, noticing every bureaucratic idiocy/cincracity that still exists in this lifelong mistress of mine. Sometimes it is perfectly laudable. I always loved the directness of “Lever le pied” (lift your foot) rather than SLOW DOWN on automated road signs. (Now refer to the slideshow above…). Or “Think of our children – drive slowly at walking pace”. But then you equally have the – to me – nutty ones, like “No soap in summer” in the campsite toilet block. Why not? Surely people sweat more and therefore need more soap in summer. Do they not realise also that people go to the toilet in summer as well as in other seasons, so need to wash their hands then too?  Or if you want to get even more officious then you appeal to the rule of law: Smoking here incurs a fine of Euros68 or pursuance before the municipal police tribunal. And then you get to the real heavy one: Formellement interdit. Formally forbidden. Work it out for yourself in the picture.  I have another confession to make here.  I don’t think it’s as bad as my union jack Speedo’s… but I only got that photo about lady’s things by mistakenly wondering into the opposing (as it were) shower block on the first night in a campsite near Roscoff.

But do you know what? It is these human contradictions that are partly responsible for my love of France. How could you be anarchic in your Art if not rebelling against formality and tradition? How could you be a rebel without a cause? The truth is that the French can actually excel at both ends of the spectrum. I still love France.  A rebel with plenty of cause.

A couple of years before Speedos hit town – 1974 myself and my brothers wore the officially approved maillots-de-bain.  But I still prefer swimming shorts.

4 thoughts on “France – My Secret Mistress”

  1. How could I not love this post? Echoes of great times in France when I was young. Today society may be more open, but no one seems to hitchhike any longer, and hitching was an amazing way of meeting people, very nice people who would help you out any when you needed it. I have always bristled when people speak badly of the French. They have their faults, but don’t we all.

    If you have never read it, and it is written in French by a Frenchman, you might like Pierre Daninos, Les carnets de Major Thompson, the notes of an Englishman on French culture. Daninos takes this old formula of looking at one’s own culture from the supposed point of view of a foreigner. Montesquieu used it in Lettres Persanes, for example. It was a good way of getting around the censors.

    Filled with classic ethnic stereotypes, the book will provide plenty of chuckles, maybe even a guffaw. This book has also been translated into English, and possibly made into a French movies, no doubt a very bad one.

    My real insight into France is through George’s Brassens, Ton Ton Georges, who could have cared less about the niceties of society and parodied parochialism and nationalism brilliantly in many songs.


  2. Richard Alexander says:
    September 13, 2018 at 12:47 pm
    Thanks very much, WheatyPete! I enjoyed reading your posts about France, too — especially your observations about the push-and-pull between formality and rebellion in French culture. I’d never quite put my finger on it, but I think you’re right about how that conflict feeds greatness in French art (and, I’d argue, in French food, wine, and even business practices). Thanks for writing!


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