I have been to France. I know that for a fact. I have been to Boulogne and Calais several times, both due to school trips and exceptionally cheap holiday offers in national newspapers. We were poor and a booze cruise was a god send. Apparently I have also been to Belgium, but I have literally no recollection of the day. I have been to Paris several times, with many different people. It’s nice.
I have seen very little else in the Francophone world, but I am relentlessly drawn to the place. I have a mental image of provincial French cities which I cannot shake. They are based largely on travel and food programmes which I like to watch. Rick Stein, Keith Floyd and the like. I see town squares being filled with brutalist car parks, only to have them torn down decades later in a fit of Gallic pique.
I have the urge to sing the Marseillaise word perfectly, while guzzling miniature glasses of some local vin rouge, dancing late in to the night. I have the idea of driving through France, from somewhere to anywhere, stopping off at service stations for plates of gizzards and strong, good coffee. I see the chance for endless bounty, produce and provender, all better than we are offered here in the UK.
But I know that all of this is a lie. I have had images of these French experiences put in front of me for decades, and I have fetishized them in my mind’s eye as the thing which must be done. The reality is that France is as varied as the rest of Europe put together, and there is no homogeneity on offer outside of the megacities we all inevitably find ourselves sucked in to. I want the “real” France.
But I don’t know where that is. I dream of fantastic patés, bought wrapped in paper from the local charcutier, but then I shop in the local Monoprix, scared to set foot in any artisanal shops for fear of having to engage with anyone. I am, at the base of all things, a coward, and that is not particularly helpful in a world where you want to acquire great, unique things rather than poor, generic things.
I dream of markets, selling all kinds of fruit, vegetables, meat and fish; I understand that some of them have restaurants in, on or around them, where the best most authentically French foods can be eaten, along with carafes of decent cheap wine. I loiter at the doors of great places to eat, too scared to go in and find out how to do it. Instead I walk confidently through the doors of the banal.
In my mind, France is falling apart, in a state of perpetual mould and disrepair. It is stained and it is crumbling, and none of them give too much of a shit about it. In my mind there is a laissez-faire shrug of a Gallic shoulder, replete with an unfiltered Gauloise hanging from a lower lip. There is a cloud of incomprehensible language mixed in with the almost blue cloud of ancient smoke.
In my mind, France is rarely cleaned, and only perfunctorily, if that. It is in contrast with the wipe clean scrubbing of countries like Sweden. Snowbound countries need to be hosed down easily; those which have been in place for tens of thousands of years have their dirt ingrained in their surface: no amount of scrubbing is going to wash away France’s ground in grime. And it is all the better for it.
In my mind, there are no tourists in France; only French people, and they tend to be busy, off doing something else. The reality is that there are tourists in every single street in France, and that the French people themselves are often pissing about on a bike, heading through a crowd of bewildered foreigners. I want to have the place to myself, but I understand that that is an impossibility.
Much of what I have in my mind as what I would do in France revolves around eating great food and having a bit to drink. What would I do with the other hours of the day – those between eating and before drinking? I’m not the sitting around on holiday type, and so that never springs to mind. What does spring to mind is an absence. In reality I would do what I do everywhere else I go on holiday.
Exploring little towns and villages, climbing through endless chateaux and churches, pushing a child on the swings, while planning what the next meal might include. I would love to visit a few museums or galleries, but the kids are too young for that at the moment. Cave paintings, gorges, forests: these are all things which exist in the reality of France, but not in the mental image I seem to keep hold of.
The reality of my holiday transport has very little to do with driving on motorways. I can’t drive, for a start, and I dislike piling all of that burden on to my partner. Even then, we like to get trains: they are family friendly, allow us both to see the scenery, and they are often well connected. Our train based holidays in Switzerland and Italy were marvellous: could France be equally as well served by trains?
The idea of France to me is not Romantic in the lovey-dovey sense of the word, but romantic in the rose tinted specs sense. I have built it up to be a paradise of food and wine, arcane in construction, and completely accessible to anyone who visits. It is some of these things; it is all of these things at times; it is none of these things at others. I just wish I could let go of my odd mental images.
I have memories of walking along Parisian streets as a teenager, in amongst the uniquely French architecture, and falling in love with the little differences, to reference Pulp Fiction: The signs on the pharmacies; the height of the buildings; the free availability of dog shit and pornography. I revelled in the new words, sounds and smells. It was a sensation of freedom; a barrage of sound and vision. The world is drawn the same shape, often enough – it is why we think that everywhere is becoming the same – but the colours it is painted in are what bring it all to life: France is a different colour, a different palette, to the world I have grown up in. Distance allows the mind do draw its own shapes, filled with its own colours; let’s hope that the difference between the two isn’t too much of a shock.