The blog of photographer and musician, Kim Ayres

Taking a Siesta

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.


Layla said...

Hi Kim! It sounds like it was good holiday. I'm looking forward to hearing more about it. I think Poppy is looking forward to seeing Meg & Rogan! :-)

34quinn said...

HI , I just popped in to see if you were back yet.. and you are !!welcome back!!!!..on a quick busy night so I will be back soon to read the whole post..

Nikki said...

Kim, I am endlessly tickled at this post.

I really enjoyed it. I love the detail that you gave. I felt that I was enjoying your vacation with you.

Pardon me if I sound like Oliver when I ask for "more please"

Kim Ayres said...

Layla - we're all looking forward to seeing you next week and have thousands of holiday snaps at the ready to bore you senseless with :)

Quinn - I don't usually like to write posts that are 1500 words long as I don't think many people have the time or patience to read through it all. Maybe you should print it off and read it with an expresso and a croissant over breakfast :)

Nikki - I have at least half a dozen more to come that are based on the holiday. Be prepared to be wowed by short legs, intoxicated by mosquito coils and be clinging to the edge of your seat at my attempts to order a baguette...

El-Branden Brazil said...

Dear Kim,

Glad you had a great time! However, there are many, many Brits who do not hold the belief '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.'

In fact, for every untravelled, small-minded yob, there are people who have embraced a life abroad; or certainly travelled extensively (certainly, all my British friends have).

British history is full of individuals who were willing to step outside the confines of these little islands, and embrace other cultures.

I would certainly consider the English cultural mindset to be far more honed to living in unfamiliar cultures, than that of the Americans - many of whom do not have a passport. Why should Americans travel when their land is so plentiful and expansive?

That said, I have also met many Americans who have assimilated into Japanese life admirably.

Yes, indeed, the British as a society are not perfect, but like all other nationalities, there is enormous diversity of character, culture, social status, educational background, experience and history among individuals that deserve to be considered before applying such a great big dollop of paint upon the canvess.

Anyway, I am off to Egypt this Friday for three and a half weeks rough travel. Cannot wait to fulfill a few life-long dreams.

Although, I am keeping a good eye on the Middle East crisis. Rather ironically, and perhaps a sad indicator of how rapidly we are heading into a world war, I am travelling on Korean Airlines, with a stopover in Korea, and then on to the Middle-East. Seems like the world is rapidly become more difficult to avoid hotspots.

...May be, I should head off to New Zealand.

Kim Ayres said...

Hi Branden - you're perfectly right, of course, I shouldn't tar a whole nation with the same brush.

Most of my British friends tend to be ones who have travelled and have a broader view of the world.

But there is a type of loud-mouthed, ignorant, xenophobic, ignorantly-superior-feeling Brit that taints the rest of us, and they make me wince with shame. It is these to whom I was refering.

Hope you have a great time in Egypt - or New Zealand :)

El-Branden Brazil said...

Cheers, Kim, for the well-wishes.

I hope you didn't mind me giving my my 2 cents (pennies, yen, won, yuan, baht, ruppees...).

Yeah, I have also come face-to-face with some shocking Brits overseas. I'll never forget the joy of waking up to a glorious sunrise on Ko Pgnan island in Thailand, with the sea lapping pristine white sandy shores, only to have this scene accompanied by the glorious sound of a British yobbo singing horrendous football songs, while he showered in the cabin below mine.

Or, when I arrived a lodge in the Himalayas, after a days hard trekking, to be welcomed by another fellow trekker from Surrey, who winced when I asked him where he came from in Britain. He replied, "I'm not British. I'M ENGLISH!'

I responded with, "Well, I'm European."

El-Branden Brazil said...

By the way, I have a few more photographs up on my site

Expect to see some shots from Egypt, when I get back.

All my love to the family, Kim.

St Jude said...

Welcome back Kim. I'm glad to hear that you don't tar us all with the same brush. I have travelled extensively and my family live throughout the world. I love to embrace new cultures and languages. Most countries have travellors with bad habits, and they wince just like we do.

Attila The Mom said...

You're back! You're back! :::doing the happy dance::!!!

I just loved this! I can't wait to hear more!

By the way, what in the world are
"Adaptor stickers for the headlights"?

Gyrobo said...

Why drive on the right or the left? Swerving is the future!

SafeTinspector said...

Welcome back, traveler.
I wish to eat a roll of French bread and eat cheese whilst wearing a striped shirt and saucy beret.
I shall say, "wuh haw haw!"
This is what I shall do.
In celebration of your return.

Rhonda said...

This was wonderful. Welcome back, Kim. You were missed!

Kim Ayres said...

Branden - your photos, as always are stunning. I love visiting your site and dipping into them. Look forward to the Egyptian ones :)

St Jude - it is all to do with the idea of whether difference is interesting and enriching, or foreign and threatening. I fall into the category of those who embrace and are intrigued by difference, as are those who I tend to enjoy the company of. It is those who have an insular mentality that wind me up.

Atilla - a happy dance? For me? I'm humbled.

"Adaptor stickers" are all to do with the fact that in Britain we drive on the left and in the rest of Europe they drive on the right. Part of the difference in the set up of the cars is that the steering wheel is on the other side, and the headlights have a bias in their projection.

Because the kerb is to the left, dipped headlights in the UK tend to point slightly to the left so as to highlight the edge of the road, while at the same time reduce glare for oncoming traffic. However, if you are driving a UK built car in France or any other European country then it has the opposite effect.

Consequently you have to put these refractor stickers over your headlights so that you don't blind other drivers at night.

I hope that makes sense. If not let me know and I'll draw you a diagram :)

Gyrobo - you are light years ahead of your time

SafeTinspector - I expect to see a photo of it on your blog :)

Rhonda - thank you :)

34quinn said...

I came back..and I read your post. It is funny isn't it how we view the people around us etc. Here in Canada we have stereotypes for people from different provinces. They are not accurate by any means as people are individuals and defined by who they are not where they live.
But it is interesting to see how the rest of the country sees you when you are in there province.

I like how you write because I find myself easily feeling that I am there experiencing your travel.

I am not a big fan of travel really. I did quite a bit as a kid and since kids were to be seen and not heard they werent exactly pleasurable trips.

I guess now that is the part I remember most and so have no desire to go anywhere in particular.

Except Scotland, I would like to see Scotland before I die. After having found out that my birth father came to Canada from Scotland a couple of years before I was born I would like to see where he was.

I wanted to mostly say that I realy like that picture you have of you in the water the way the waves are crashing up against you. cold?? was it??? Great pic!!

Kim Ayres said...

Quinn - thanks for coming back and reading it :)

I remember when I was in Canada being surprised that there didn't seem to be such a think as a Canadian. Everyone defined themselves by their ancestry - Scottish, French, Italian etc. However, once outside the country suddenly Canadians all start sewing the Maple Leaf to their backpacks and sleeves to avoid being mistaken as American.

Let me know if you're ever heading to Scotland and we could meet up for a coffee.

And yes, that photo was caught by Maggie as I was slowly getting deeper into what felt like bloody freezing water. I felt my expression told such a story that it should be my avatar for a wee while at least.

Chris Black said...

Ace post.

Welcome back!

Kate said...

Welcome back! And you travelled by ferry, definitely the most civilised way to travel.

"when we’d got caught in a traffic jam on the A1 near Doncaster"

Oh, if I'd known you were there I would have come out and waved :-)

I agree with your remarks about the rather embarassing behavior of some Brits abroad. I don't know why, but some people turn into raving idiots the moment they leave the country. I suppose it's a universal thing really. I grew up in Stratford on Avon, and every country seemed to have it's idiot element.

Anonymous said...

my dad comes from ABERDEEN SCOTLAND and he really misses the old country, when he hears the bag pipes playing on the tv..his eyes start to get ..well you know.....

Kim Ayres said...

Chris - thank you. And thank you for mentioning it and linking to it from your site. It makes me feel that some people must be enjoying what I write :)

Kate - well, if I'd known you were in Doncaster I'd have called in for a coffee. Instead we had to content ourselves with a bottle of water from Tesco.

Fancy-Face - I think you'll find there are plenty of people whose eyes start watering at the sound of bagpipes, and not always because of nostalgia...

Kate said...

I live about ten miles south of Doncaster, and you'd have been welcome for a coffee :-)

Attila The Mom said...

Kim, I get it now! Sort of. LOL

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