I'm back, and about to spend the next couple of days sleeping, reading emails and catching up with bloggy stuff. Although I didn't get near an Internet cafe while I was away, I did take the laptop and continued to write various thoughts and observations, which I will post here over the next week or so.
This first one is the longest by far, but then I was still fresh and eager and had some energy...
Taking a Siesta in Northern France
I lay on the bed pondering the whole concept of the Siesta. With heat well in excess of 30 degrees before noon, after lunch there really is very little you can do with your time other than find a shady place to nap until later in the afternoon when it cools down to slightly more bearable levels. And to think we’d come to Brittany to avoid the excessive heat of the Mediterranean.
Despite leaving Castle Douglas on a dreich, wet, unseasonably cold, end of June morning, by the time we crossed the border into England the sun had come out. Unfortunately the temperature continued to rise throughout the day as it developed into one of the hottest days of the year. All we could do as we headed further south was thank the god of automobiles for the invention of air conditioning.
Ten miles from Dover I was feeling pleased with our progress. It had been a long day, but I’d timed it well so that traversing the northwest corner of the M25 wasn’t the nightmare it could have been. I’d felt particularly smug when we’d got caught in a traffic jam on the A1 near Doncaster which, despite causing 2 hours delays for most people caught in it, I’d managed to negotiate an alternative route using back roads, bypassing the thousands of cars tailing back for several miles in the sweltering heat. I asked Maggie to pull out the directions I’d printed off to find the Premier Travel Inn motel I’d booked for us to stay in the night before taking the ferry to France. “Is it supposed to have tomorrow’s date on it?” she asked. A frantic call to Premier Travel Inn’s Central Reservation Hotline confirmed that I had indeed screwed up the booking. Dover’s branch was full that night but they did have one family room left in Kent although it was in Maidstone. With visions of the family spending the night in the car on Dover docks if we failed to find another place to stay, I turned round and headed 30 miles back up the road.
There are times when I’m ok about the idea of being English; times when I accept it is my cultural heritage and I shouldn’t have to apologise to anyone; times when I feel the arrogant, superior, xenophobic reputation of my fellow countrymen is undeserved. But sitting in the queue for the ferry, while eight of my fellow countrymen, sporting England (or IN-GER-LERN-DA) football shirts and drinking beer at 7.30 in the morning, sang along to Classic Football anthems such as “England’s Coming Home” and “Vindaloo” blasting from their car stereo mere inches away from my eardrums, I found myself wishing I’d put an “Ecosse” sticker on the back of the car instead of the “GB” and had learned how to fake a convincing Scottish accent. These same people would be outraged if cars full of French soccer fans drove through England with Tricoleurs flying from their windows. I felt as sick as an American aid worker in Iraq when Bush opens his mouth. Don’t judge me by the actions and behaviour of loud-mouthed arseholes who happened to be born on the same chunk of rock as me.
Once on board the ferry we took the kids up on deck so they could experience the sight of the White Cliffs of Dover disappearing into the hazy distance. Part of the haze was in fact a large cloud of tobacco smoke as this was one of the only places on board that the addicts were allowed to indulge their habits. My son drew my attention to a small group of seagulls who appeared to be deliberately riding on the wake of the air currents in such a way that they were able to breathe in the cigarette fumes. One in particular seemed to favour the not-so-subtle aroma of a Frenchman’s Gauloises. I’d swear I saw the same bird later on, looking over the shoulder of a woman reading Sartre.
Adaptor stickers for the headlights securely in place, we drove off the ramp on to French tarmac and set off to Brittany while I continually chanted the mantra “drive on the right, drive on the right,” which set me off pondering about the insularity of the British mentality.
In essence, the British world view is that the Earth is 2 groups of islands. There are the British Isles and there is the-rest-of-the-world, and the-rest-of-the-world is smaller and less important. If pushed, most people will acknowledge that there are many different countries with many different cultures, but psychologically they all get lumped into the singular category of “foreign”. The Americans are viewed as an extension of the British Isles as they speak more or less the same language, although you could perhaps think of them as an annoying younger brother who has some irritating habits but earns more money than you do, and while you openly express a superiority about being less materialistic, you secretly envy all the gadgets he has.
This view of the world comes primarily from the barrier of the English Channel. In order to go anywhere foreign, you have to make a big effort and it will cost you a chunk of money: the only ways off this Island are by plane, ship or Euro Tunnel train. This sets up a strong sense of “other”. For example, when I was on exchange in Canada, I was known as an International Student; in the UK, those on exchange are known as Overseas Students. You can be International in your own country – it is an inclusive term – but that very use of the word “overseas” reflects a them-and-us mentality. You might be German, Egyptian or Chinese, but you’re definitely foreign.
But for all the geographical barriers, which in these days of modern communications and travel options mean a great deal less, it doesn’t help that the closest nation to the UK is so different. Once my tyres touch that French tarmac I have far more than just which side of the road I should be driving on to deal with. I now have a different currency to use with a variable exchange rate, a different scale of speed and distance, and of course an entirely different language (not to mention the fact that I’ve had to move my watch forward by an hour).
I know that there are some words that are similar, after all the French were the last country to successfully invade the British Isles, nearly a thousand years ago. Consequently some words, especially legal terms are more or less the same although pronounced with a different accent. However, what makes the language so tricky to grasp is not just the vocabulary, but the sentence structures. While in English we are very good at minimalising phrases, it seems that the French go out of their way to make them as complicated as possible. When approaching a junction at 50mph (80kph), for example, I’m used to seeing signs that say “Give Way”. En Français, however, I have to cope with “vous n’avez pas la priorité”, which literally translated means “you do not have the priority” – “give way” is the implication that follows such a statement, but isn’t actually mentioned. Reinforcement, if any were needed, that Johnny Foreigner is indeed a funny bugger. And justification, if any were needed, for singing the praises of IN-GER-LERN-DA while waving the St George’s Cross or Union Flag and expecting Monsieur Foreigner to recognise, and defer to, his cultural superiors.
Of course what those who would fly the flag of nationalism and promote xenophobia conveniently forget is the common emotional experiences that connect every human. We all laugh and cry, feel fear, excitement, hope, embarrassment, desire and loss. It is our ability to empathise, to recognise those feelings in others, that is the true mark of our humanity. When we alienate people, when we see only the differences and ignore the similarities, when we buy into the notion us and them, that is when we are capable of the expressing the worst aspects of mankind – war, torture and brutality.
And there it was on the radio, the reminder we’re all the same. Although I couldn’t understand a word, the excitable voice left me in no doubt that if I just visited his shop today then I wouldn’t find a better deal on a carpet anywhere in Europe than at Pierre’s Carpet Emporium. After the ad break, Marie from Normandy was on the phone to the DJ who was encouraging her to sing along to a popular French hit from the 70s. She was both excited and embarrassed, and he made sure he milked every last drop of both emotions from her. Every culture has its share of irritating local radio presenters.
People talk of a more relaxed way of life in Rural France. I’d always thought it was exactly the same way they talk about a slower life in Rural Britain – basically they are just comparing with frenetic city life. However, we have discovered that lunch “hour” lasts from noon until 2pm. In fact, several shops don’t really open until 3pm and they’re not occupied by customers until about 4pm, when the local town seems to come back to life.
Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun goes the expression. As I’m not the former and have no desire to make a big deal out of being the latter, taking a siesta seems like the ideal option in this heat.