We have struggled with a very poor, or non-existent, internet connection for several months, but Orange finally connected fibre optic cable last weekend. It’s much faster, and we hope it will prove more reliable than the creaky old telephone network. I meant to publish this post 10 days ago, since that weekend marked 25 years since we moved into our house here. Prior to fibre, the technical difficulties were too great; post-fibre, I have been catching up.
I have already recounted how we found our house here and our first experiences. The links are at the bottom, if you want to know more.
Today, I’m moving back well before 1997 to my first impressions of France. Like all places, it has changed enormously since then as has my perspective. I would love to know your first impressions and experiences of France, too. Please do share them with us below.
My family visited France several times during the 1960s. This was the era of les Trentes Glorieuses, from 1946 until the mid-1970s, when France enjoyed exceptional economic and industrial growth. Employment and the standard of living increased, but so did social and political unrest. Not everyone benefited from les Trentes Glorieuses.
My father was a sun-lover, and so we usually headed for the Côte d’Azur, where he liked nothing better than to stretch out on a beach, which were emptier then. However, my first solid impressions are of Paris, but not because of the usual tourist attractions.
An older cousin and her husband, who both worked in Paris, lived on a boat moored on the Seine by le Pont Alexandre III, in the centre of the city. We visited them, but we stayed in a hotel, since the boat was too small.
We must have seen the Tour Eiffel, the Louvre and all that. But my abiding memory is of the River Seine. Centuries of use as a highway and a repository for industrial and human waste had polluted the river to the point in 1960 where it was officially declared dead. The water quality has improved significantly since then.
Every time a tourist bateau-mouche went past, the wash violently rocked my cousin’s small boat. If you were on deck, you hung on tight for fear of falling into the polluted water.
My cousin’s younger sister and I amused ourselves on deck by watching the flotsam sail past on the river. This included a remarkable number of dead rats. We eagerly regaled the adults, who were trying to enjoy a civilised apéritif, with vivid descriptions of the drowned rats’ appearance.
Not like England
My recollections of other parts of France have fused into a composite picture of a country that was not at all like England, even though it was only 30 miles across the Channel.
For starters, it was big. The road network was much less developed than it is today. The roads were refreshingly free of traffic, but it took a long time to get anywhere. In country areas, farm carts and ancient vans meandered along sedately. Despite economic growth, by no means every farmer had a tractor. Our friend Claude tells us his parents still ploughed with oxen into the 1960s.
The villages we drove through often looked deserted and a bit run down. The shutters were closed, and the streets were empty of people or animals, except for the occasional dog lying in the middle of the road. However, the simple explanation is that people were taking refuge indoors from the summer heat.
France sounded different. People spoke gibberish at breakneck speed with a completely different rhythm and timbre to English. (It was much later I learned that language is a barrier only if we make it so.) Background music in cafés was a mixture of accordion, plaintive Piaf or Gilbert Bécaud ballads or yé-yé pop. Even the constant refrain of police sirens in Paris played to a different key.
France smelled different, too. Down in Provence, it was a mixture of sun-baked earth, pine resin and brine. Further North, it was the tang of woodsmoke and garlic as people’s lunch cooked. The odour of dubious drains was pervasive, as was the pungent Gauloise smoke that turned the air blue in the cafés.
French food was one of the biggest revelations – and for me, as a picky eater then, a torment. The tiniest villages had a restaurant or a café that served food. This was long before the days of a menu enfant, so everyone ate what there was. What, no fish fingers or tomato ketchup? Underdone beef and no Yorkshire pudding and gravy? The potatoes or vegetables often came as a separate course. France must have been a vegetarian’s nightmare. Women rarely ate or drank in cafés alone, at least in rural areas.
I was struck by how formal people were. Everybody shook hands. A young man stopped in front of me while I was coming back from the loo in a Loire restaurant, said something unintelligible and held out his hand. Bemused, I explained in halting French that I didn’t speak French. He grabbed my hand and shook it. I got a ticking off from my cousin’s husband for not sufficiently appreciating this friendly gesture.
Speaking of loos, that abomination “à la Turque”, i.e. a hole in the ground, was still the predominant form of convenience in rural cafés. This particular form of torture has its advocates, I know, but I have always had an aversion to it.
As a Brit, I was shocked but fascinated by the frequent sight of men peeing beside their vehicles at the roadside. Before the advent of inside lavatories, everyone just went outside. This was probably the same in rural England. Jean-Claude Carrière, writer and film director, grew up in a Languedoc village in the 1930s. He recounts in his memoir, Le Vin Bourru, how his grandmother would simply wee wherever she was outside, concealed by her long skirts.
I was less than ten years old when we first visited, and these might sound like unpromising beginnings. Even then, though, France, for all its strangeness, exerted a kind of fascination that increased as we took holidays here in the early 1990s. Then I had a clearer appreciation of what the country has to offer. But it was not until we moved here that I discovered French literature, history and culture and learned the language properly.
So merci, France, for broadening my horizons and allowing my life to take a turn that I never expected. And merci, les Français, for accepting us with such good grace in your country.
What are your first memories of France (good and/or bad)?
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