Of all the countries we have passed through on our walk across Europe, France is the one we have spent most time in – one month to be exact. This fascinating country has also proven to be the most challenging, perhaps not physically, but certainly in every other way.
As we traversed the northern regions of France, it soon became apparent that we were going to struggle to make ourselves understood. I had expected that fewer people would be able to speak English, but thought we would always be able to find someone, perhaps someone younger, to translate for us and help us explain our rather unusual story. But, no ... You could count the number of people on one hand - five to be exact - who had any kind of knowledge of English at all. My own school French, which I’d been looking forward to dusting off and putting to use again, proved to be woefully inadequate for communicating in even the most basic of situations. Sepp hadn’t even done French at school, so he was even more at a loss than me. As we were reliant on explaining the background of our journey to local villagers in the hope that they would find us a place to get our heads down for the night, I ended up learning some perfect French sentences (obtained from Google Translate) and rattled them off with great gusto at every opportunity. Of course, the people would then assume that I was fluent and continue the conversation enthusiastically while my face dropped at both sides and my hands rose instinctively in an apologetic gesture, which was meant to convey that that was all I had, and that I hadn’t the foggiest notion what they were saying. However, somehow, with the broken shards of language and gesticulation, we managed; and more often than not we were met with extraordinary hospitality and generosity. On one occasion, the mayor of a tiny village and his wife wined and dined us and ended up offering us a bed in their home. On several other occasions, we were either put up in people’s homes or caravans or invited in for coffee or a bite to eat. These selfless gestures provided us with much needed rest and sustenance, but more importantly, they gave us an emotional boost in an otherwise linguistically isolated time.
This generosity was particularly significant in northern France as it was often very difficult to find a shop, a restaurant or a brasserie of some sort. Most of the towns and villages we passed through were completely deserted. The only thing missing from the scene we were frequently confronted with was the tumbleweed rolling lazily through the empty streets. It was a logistical nightmare trying to find the shortest possible route while taking into consideration that we would need to eat and drink at some point. Often, we would arrive in the target town only to discover that the shop or restaurant we had hoped to find there was closed. On one occasion we asked a local resident why everything was shut and he replied with surprise at our ignorance, “It’s Tuesday!. Nothing opens on a Tuesday!”. And that’s not all, honestly, if it wasn’t a Tuesday, it was a Sunday, and if it wasn’t a Sunday it was a Monday, and if it wasn’t a Monday, it was the whole middle part of the day between 11am and 5pm. France is shut until further notice.
Greatly relieved, we did occasionally find a brasserie that was open. A veritable oasis in the desert, the brasserie is a multipurpose establishment, where, alongside the normal bar function, it often serves as a betting shop, a cafe, a tobacconist, a grocer’s, a post office and any other business a village ought to have but no longer has. However, here too a cultural challenge awaited us. The beer is served in 250 ml glasses, which look like elongated wine glasses. You can’t help but raise your little finger when raising your glass. On one occasion (it must have been near the beginning of the French leg, when we were still a bit wet behind the ears), with a scrunched up apologetic and hopeful expression on my face and hands outstretched demonstrating the universal sign for big, I ordered , “Deux GRANDES bières”. Immediately, a lively discussion ensued in the bar as to what exactly a large beer was. Some punters (these were usually middle aged men intent on gambling away their earnings on the horses, which were constantly being televised in the bars) postulated that we were probably referring to the 0.33l glass. We were eventually able to communicate that it was in fact the half litre of beer that we wanted. After giving us a look of astonishment and visibly racking her brains, the bar lady stood on her tiptoes and reached up to the top shelf behind the bar and retrieved two dusty souvenir glasses that, after a quick check, did indeed turn out to be of the half-litre variety. Having dusted them off she filled them with the amber liquid and brought them ceremoniously to our table. But it was the look on her face as she glanced in passing towards the other gentlemen in the brasserie that spoke more than a thousand words. What she was saying with the little tilt of her head and raised eyebrows was, “Watch out for these two. They’re obviously a pair of nutters!” Yes, the beer culture in France took a bit of getting used to, but by the time we had reached Calais, we were pretty much assimilated and were content to order the normal quarter litre. Easier that way I suppose.
Although France was a great experience and the people very open and friendly, I think I can speak for both of us when I say that we were relieved to get on the boat to Dover and to a more familiar language and beer culture, and of course more shops and pubs with more convenient opening times.
But that’s another story ...