Monday, 9 May 2011

Day one

To Fecamp

We've had a great day getting here: The ferry crossing from Dover to Calais was smooth – on P&O's brand new Spirit of Britain. We had a reasonable cafeteria lunch marred only by the 'hostess' insisting that we approach the counters via a chicane of those bloody awful straps which make you walk up and down in pointless back and forth movements. I asked why she didn't just take it down as the boat was barely half full. She said it had to be there in case a great rush of people arrived. This kind of attitude is insulting as well as bonkers. My mother-in-law is 92 and walking is not always easy for her, but even she had to limp her way round this ridiculous rat maze. She chose a sandwich, Andrew had a Balti curry, and Josh (my 22-year old nephew) and I had haddock and chips. Not bad.

Getting into Calais is always splendid. I love it. The whole history and light of the place is very transparent. I liked it better before its recent revival, but no doubt the locals are pleased with how it's turned out.

There is something so inexplicably French about France, something so different from England and made up of so many tiny details all deeply rooted in their revolutionary culture and democratic method, that is impossible to imagine there could ever be more than a nodding kind of friendship between them and us. Their lamp-posts, gardens, hours, family life, rules, humour and smell are totally, absolutely, completely different from ours. I can only imagine they look on us as a real yahoo country, indisciplined, scruffy and with an odd tendency to assymmetry. I am always struck by how the French have arranged for most of their things to work the same way wherever you are in this huge country... lunchtimes, parking arrangments, town lawyers, shutters, what have you. Their engineering of bridges and harbours is magnificent. Their formality, directness and national pride maybe seem rather old fashioned to us Brits now that our great empire has more or less vanished... we are turning our own considerable powers of science, politics and engineering to new areas, so we have a rapidly evolving language, more informality, more self-deprecation, more fragmentation.

We dropped Josh off at the station to catch the TGV to Paris, then we drove down through Normandy – the glowing beauty of the landscape is irresistible. The farms may sometimes be small but they are prosperous. There are these small fields full of grass with small herds of the local brown and white cows and their calves, who all look blissfully happy. You almost never see cows like this in England. Here, each animal knows it is highly valued for that precious creamy milk and is, in all probability, a member of the family. They are actually radiant with calm contentment. It makes me angry that our livestock are not managed like this, but squashed into intensive systems, fed on unnatural foods, numbered and kept distant. Here the mighty French tradition of food has made them cherish their kine, and the dairy cows are so so lucky to live this side of the channel.

Fecamp is an old sea port, where the fishermen until recently worked the Grand Banks and up into Icelandic waters. Now the harbour is full of yachts and there are plans to build a big hotel and museum. Our gorgeous apartment on the third floor faces west over the basin. The town is spread out on the opposite bank, with the cliffs leading down towards Etretat behind them. We were shown into the flat by a friend of the owner who is away in Portugal. Our guide is a lovely lady who used to be an English teacher, comes from Rouen, and sounds just like my French teacher back home. Both are called Michelle, as it happens. This one has invited us to supper at her house on Thursday. Her house is a feast of French knick-knacks, bowls, paintings, dried flowers, ships' wheels, a marvellous old banjo-clock which was a wedding-present to her grandparents in 1902. The décor is yellow and blue. She's lived there for 10 years. She brought us along to this apartment just along the road: it's three floors up, via an automatic car-gate and a smooth lift. She went back home, leaving us to install ourselves. As we loaded the things into the lift, a neighbour downstairs told me in a stong Fecamp/Dieppoise accent that the person in the flat exactly next to ours died this morning. The family are all here. She indicated we should be sombre. That does not match our mood as we enjoy this big spacious salon with the sun setting over the sea, and light cascading down onto the quays and jetties. I hope Josh has arrived in Paris ok... in fact he's just texted to say he's ok.
This keyboard has a very different layout... I zill hqve to get used to it:

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