When you are in your cheapie, modern hotel, with air-conditioning and your best beloved, you have this opportunity for FALLING OUT. Is the room intolerably hot, or not? Is the fan intolerably loud, or not? Is it FAIR PLAY to change the mode while the other one is asleep, or not? Eh? The only thing I can say is, we were both actually alive in the morning when we woke up, and not dead, which is something.
Breakfast in these Etaps/Ibis Budget hotels has been pared down to a simple, excellent service. The orange juice from the machine is delicious. The muesli is unsweetened (hooray!) There are various yoghurts in the tiny fridge, including unsweetened (hooray!) There is a good selection of breads and brioches to choose from, and the marmalade (which comes in a long thin plastic squeezey tube) is very good indeed. Well done! They should apply the same careful thought to the weird lighting arrangement for the toilets in the rooms. The light goes on automatically when you go in, and then goes out, and leaves you sitting in the dark and no means of finding how to switch it on again. Hmmn.
Our last day in France was spent grinding up through the great plains of the north. Blois was truly lovely in the morning light. For some reason, we chose to believe our satnav when it suggested going via Paris... surely, surely we knew that the péripherique of Paris is the WORST ROAD IN THE WORLD? And even worse, when we got halfway round and decided to ditch Beauvais and head out past Charles de Gaulle Airport (more direct), we found we were in a further colossal TEN MILE traffic jam right through the rural countryside, which is so bad and has been there so long that they even do traffic reports on it in English (except we hadn't heard about it).
My beloved had promised me 'lunch in Beauvais'.... so when he said we might be better getting a sandwich from one of the aires along the road, I said Non! non! Non! We peeled off at Pailly and looked first of all at the restaurant touristique which is called le Gentilhommerie, and where the menu is 24€ - i.e. too much food if you still have to drive a further 150 miles or something. So we chose the Turkish pizza caff in the village instead, and had a very nice snack - my kebab was excellent and I recommend it.
While we are on the subject of food (again!) I must record some more of what Tom Vernon told us. He feels that life in France is a good 40 years behind life in England, still laying great emphasis on manners, family, study, society, etc. (I worded this so much better 30 mins ago, but lost the whole of the blog and I am now trying to recreate my words... it's not how I said it last time). All the English people we have met who choose to live in France say the same thing. They like the certainties. Everyone knows who they are and how things work. Tom obviously is a fan, but he said there are three things the French don't eat: parsnips, gooseberries and rhubarb. Gooseberries exist (for the French) only in relation to mackerel. They have no independent existence away from fish. So if you offer them gooseberry jam or gooseberry fool, they are amazed. He also said there is a (new?) kind of onion grown slightly to the south of Valleraughe - it is red, sweet, mild and dry - great for eating raw. It is so important, so highly regarded, that it has an AOC of its own - an appellation controllé. I wish I had found one to bring home (and grow) but it was a jour ferié on Monday, so no shops open.
We were so late and so stressed because of the traffic and the awful night's sleep that we did not manage to call in to see our friends Jeremy and Mary Kemp at Morienne, near Aumale, on the way. That was a shame, but they may not have appreciated my horrible sore throat and cough, and we would only have been able to stay for about 20 mins. Jeremy is working on the proofs of his book about art produced apparently in the trenches during the first World War. He happened upon this extraordinary and previously little-known subject when he kept finding marvellous (shocking) prints and aquatints showing the total destruction of villages and towns in northern France. These were made by various artists, who may or may not have known each other, and who were recording a kind of 'end of the world' - their homes and communities smashed to shreds by fire and bombardment. The book will be timely with the centenary of the War shortly upon us. Our drive, through the heat of the afternoon, was through the very landscape which appears over and over again in his book... today all was calm and rich, with peaceful fields full of barley, and quiet villages and trees. Then it was all destruction and death. We drove past the Somme, Vimy Ridge, Albert and Peronne... Makes our little squabbles over the air-conditioning seem really puerile.
At Calais we went through the usual thing. Someone passes your passport over a scanner and then looks at you to see if you are the same person (difficult in my case as my passport self is a redhead but I am now a stripey blonde). The ticket lady give you that card to hang on your mirror bracket, which says '2', meaning two people should be in the car, but no-one really checks. Is this security? Does it matter? Here we are on the ferry, with free wifi (thank you), and surrounded by maybe two or three hundred English school children. They are quite well behaved, but much noisier than their French counterparts would be. They are growing up in a restless, fast-changing, self-doubting, contradictory, media-led world. In France, though, the old values are still evident. First and foremost, everyone in France is FRENCH! The handwriting, the manners, the communities and their facilities, the time-table, everything is consistent.
Crossing the Channel now, in fog, like we did on Monday last week also in fog, it seems to me we will never really understand each other. It means France will always be a wonderful place to go on holiday. We can go back in time. We can eat fantastic food. We can experience truly huge landscapes. We can grasp some of our own history - the time when 'their' kings and ours were the same super-rich tribe, playing a massive game of Monopoly with castles, countries (such as Aquitaine, or Normandy for example), wars, torture, dynastic marriages, murder etc etc.... It's like looking in a strange mirror. They are 'the same' as us, and yet quite different. They remain wedded (aesthetically, at any rate) to concrete and cement in a way we do not. They have colour schemes which would never work in England. They do not apparently make puns very often (apart from one we saw in Albi - in a dry cleaners' shop where they do ironing, and a sign said 'Savoir Fer', which seemed pretty good to us). They all know what to do, how to be French, and I often think people in England don't know how to be English, which is what actually makes them English. They have FREE PARKING for two hours at lunchtime. They can all shrug in a peculiarly Gallic way and we cannot. They cannot spell pony and they cannot pronounce 'th' (which always comes out as 'z' (why?). They are out and out republicans but they adore the Queen (do we?). So - that's why we go there for our holidays. Marvellous place.
Now we are approaching Dover in the fog. A teacher has ROARED at all these children and told them to BE QUIET!!!! All in good humour. What a week it has been.