Heading off to France was probably not the best idea considering the only French I have ever learnt is courtesy of Inspector Clouseau and Officer Crabtree, that dorky policeman in ‘Allo, ‘Allo, so my command of the language is limited to, “Is thet a bermb, Kato?” and “Good Moaning, Renay,” oh, and also, “Leesen vary carefooly as I weel say thees only wunce.”
We went with Ian and Cindy, long time friends who live in Crowborough, a most green and pleasant spot in East Sussex, leaving at 5am (!) in the morning to catch the Chunnel. The Chunnel train is a most disconcerting experience as you drive into a train carriage, stop, undo your seatbelt, sit back and …and then … gradually fall asleep because there is nothing at all to look at except the back of the driver’s head or the numberplate of the car in front of you. You then wake up in Calais, having sped under English Channel at about the same amount of time it would have taken Captain Webb to get up the courage to put his big toe in the water for that first swim.
We began with a picnic in a pleasant French meadow with lashings of rosé, enough brie and ham to cause an EU shortage and other assorted French delicacies. Jan, Ian and Cindy mellowed in the sunlight but being Australian I was a bit uncomfortable with the thought of sitting in long grass in summer. Logically you know for a fact that in France a rustling noise behind isn’t likely to a six foot dugite about to strike or a nest of soldier ants or plague of locusts or a swarm of mosquitos as big as budgies, or even drop bears, but subconsciously …
Monet’s garden at Giverny was first stop after lunch and what a crowded little spot that was too. It was most attractive and the green bridge looked just like his paintings but we had, unfortunately, picked the Bastille Day long weekend and so every patriotic French person must have taken it as their civic duty to visit and soak up the Frenchness, in an impressionistic sort of way. And it was hot. No, not European hot but Marble Bar hot – 36c hot, even at 8:00 pm.
We spent that night nearby at the Normandie Hotel, a well named place if ever there was one, and then next day headed through gorgeous countryside and past rolling fields and quaint houses towards Honfleurs, stunningly beautiful old medieval port. It was on the way that things started to go slightly wrong. The computer that controls Ian‘s brand new Saab suddenly decided to switch to Safe Mode, Limp Home with accompanying frantic beeping and flashing dashboard lights. We ignored it even though the car would now no longer do more than 2800 revs and limped to Honfleurs instead.
At lunch in a waterside restaurant Jan, Ian and Cindy tucked in moules and frites but I decide to try “our world famous Special Honfleurs Sausage.” Imagine my delight when what arrived was a little red cocktail frankfurt covered in tomato sauce. Merde, I thought, I would have had better food at Stevie-Leigh’s 8th birthday party. At least then I would have had fairy bread with it as well. It would not have been that bad if the French didn’t continually pride themselves on their gastronomic excellence.
After a long lunch – it is amazing how long three people can take to eat a bowl of mussels each – we headed towards Deauville, another big mistake, as Bastille Day celebrations were in full swing and every bugger who wasn’t at Giverny had come to watch a concert on the beach and a fly-past by the Rouge Arrows, or what ever the French Air Force acrobatic team is called. The traffic jam was truly impressive. If we hadn’t been stuck in it so long it might have been something to write about but being trapped in an endless line of cars while expecting the Saab to explode at any minute sort of made it less amusing.
Hours later we finally arrived at the hotel Ian had booked with an Internet agency. From the outside the hotel looked wonderful. It was an ivy-covered château at the end of a sweeping drive, with coloured shutters on the windows, magnificent gardens…you get the picture. It was so gorgeous Cindy went into overdrive of superlatives, and we were convinced Ian was on a promise that night. Inside the château was just as attractive with tapestry lined walls and antique furniture. The only small hitch was at the reception. The Internet booking company had stuffed up and there was no record of our reservation, and, of course, no room at the inn. By this time it was 8:00 at night and the odds of finding another hotel empty on that weekend were less than nil. Cindy tore several strips, in a most lady-like Southern Belle sort of way, off the after-hours person at the booking agency and they eventually found us a room at a hotel by the station in Rouen, several hundred kilometres away.
Rouen is the remarkably preserved town where Joan of Arc was toasted and it hasn’t changed much since then. The crooked old half-timbered streets are narrow enough for a tumbrel and not much else. There is a carpark behind the station but the entrance is so cleverly disguised that Ian spent ages circling the station while trying to find it. Thoroughly hot, tired and exasperated by this time it was race to see who would explode first, the Saab or Ian, the poor bastard? He eventually parked in a restricted zone, fully expecting to be hauled away by the gendarmes and burnt at a stake as well. I still can’t see how he remained so calm. At 10:50 PM, even more tired and starving hungry and dying for a beer, we found the only restaurant in Rouen still serving dinner. The fine establishment also had ice cold Stella. Marvellous. And their special of the day was, “our world famous Rouen Special Sausage!” How could I resist? I bloody well did. I ordered stake instead.
Jan and I eventually crawled into bed exhausted but just to finish off the ‘perfect day’, at 3 AM I woke suddenly from a dream where someone was splashing water on my head to find the ceiling was leaking directly above us and water was being splashed on my head. Jan, in her best schoolgirl French, tried valiantly to explain to the concierge that the ceiling was about the come down on our hotel room and could he do something about it. “Quey,” he said, with a Gallic shrug over the phone, “I’m from Barcelona.” Eventually, as his testicles flew out the window, he realised it was not a good idea to ‘mess with Mrs Nicholls’, and thought he’d better do something about it, and so at 3.15, with both of us feeling more than a little wet and worn round the edges, we had to pack our bags and move up several floors to the only dry room they had left, the broom closet. And in the morning did they offer us a free breakfast or a discount for the inconvenience? Be buggered they did.
Now this sounds like it was just one long episode of the Pink Panther – it was! But inspite of that, the scenery was gorgeous, the buildings fantastic, the locals friendly enough, the rest of the meals wonderful and the Anjou Rosé, Stella and champagne chilled and delicious and we were with fabulous friends. What more could a homme ask for? What else could go wrong? Nothing. Nothing, until we were heading home and we were pulled over by a gendarme. When Ian wound down the window, fully expecting to be hauled out and tied to the nearest lamppost and set alight for parking in a restricted zone, the gendarme took off his sunglasses, peered into the car and said, in his best English, “Excuse me, Monsieur, may I see your Driver’s Lee-sonse?”