It was bizarre strolling around the cavernously empty departure hall for Le Tunnel Sous La Manche, normally heaving with British holidaymakers, while wearing a mask. There was nobody I could infect even if I had the virus and there was nobody who could infect me because I have been double-jabbed. It was bizarre because there was – literally - nobody about. The chap manning the border control post on the French side was less interested in our Covid paperwork, which, thanks to my travelling companion, was all in order, than in the purpose of our visit. Once it became clear that Nick was a fluent French speaker with a French wife who was born - as it happens just a few miles down the coast in Boulogne - the two of them immediately became best friends and we were sent on our way with expressions of Gallic civility.
This was a road trip, a desultory journey through northern France to the Dordogne, largely avoiding the arterial routes and service stations of the autoroutes, taking in a few delightful overnight stops along the way. France was deserted. Well, of course it isn’t. It has a population more or less the same as Britain’s – though its land mass is roughly twice the size – but it always strikes me how empty the small towns and villages are as you drive through. In England, there are ever inhabitants bustling about their daily business but here….. it is as if a plague has ripped through the countryside and its survivors have closeted themselves away behind protective shutters. This has nothing to do with Covid; it has always been thus. Or so it has appeared to me.
Talking of Covid…..France had only days before been released from a 10.00pm curfew and the compulsory wearing of masks, so it was intriguing to note how its population was reacting to their recently-restored freedom. People roughly fell into three categories: those who persisted in wearing a mask, those who felt sufficiently brave to abandon them altogether and those who adopted a strange compromise, a ‘half mask’, if you like. Better psychologists and behavioural scientists than me will be able to explain why some people wear their mask coverng the mouth but not the nose. A surprising number of French – way above the global average - have had tracheotomies, it would appear, the mask covering the aperture in their throat.
It is a conundrum that many in France are agitated at what the virus might do to their lungs but blithely unconcerned by the lethal effects of tobacco. There is a law, as there is in England, forbidding smoking indoors but the demarcation between ‘indoors’ and ‘outdoors’ is a loose concept in this country. Nor are there any recognisable cohorts of smokers; male and female, young and old, they are all tabbing away. On every table in street cafes, people were chain-smoking, no matter what time of day. In England, you never see that these days. There are separate areas set aside for smokers, well away from those eating. In France, the cigarette seems to be very much part of the dining tradition. I wonder what is the comparative percentage of French, as opposed to other western European countries (and yes, I still count the dear old UK, post-Breexit, as European) that contract lung cancer. I was never brave enough to enquire of our hosts. It’s not as if the government have not been trying to shift traditional values. Every fag packet has a gruesome image of a diseased lung clearly depicted and the words “Fumer tue’ (’Smoking kills’) could not be more stark. Which of those two words do the French not understand? C’est bizarre.
France has not escaped the harsh economic and commercial realites post-Covid any more than most countries; about one in four shops was open and I would bet that many of those still closed will never re-open. Optimism and buoyancy however were revived in La Rochelle. An old and well-established fishing port on the south-west Atlantic coast, it is very picturesque and an obvious tourist destination. But there were no tourists, so how come the streets, roadside cafes and restaurants were thronged with people? Quite possibly everybody was taking advantage of the recent relaxation of lockdown and enjoying themselves promenading en plein air on a balmy evening, touched by the gentlest of breezes. It is true that La Rochelle were playing in the final of the Heineken Champions Cup (rugby is strong in these parts) but that was being played at Twickenham despite the fact that it was between two French teams. Fans were dressed in the colours – black and yellow – of their team and later withdrew to watch the match on a large screen in the fanzone but the crowds were not noticeably diminished by their departure. The progress of the match could be gauged by the roars and the groans from afar but the rest of us luxuriated in a gaiety and joie de vivre that have been denied us these long months. It was life as we all remembered it. There were no joyous scenes in La Rochelle at the final whistle; they had lost to their long-standong rivals, No Time (Toulouse). That much we could gather from the resigned demeanour of the departing fans. No rowdiness, no anger, no boorishness, no antisocial behaviour. Mon Dieu! This is a rugby crowd I am describing, not football hooligans.
As the evening wore on, I indulged myself in a little bit of French-watching. Undoubtedly there are fat people in France but obesity levels are nowhere near as high as in Britain, where they are nearly off the scale. Why this should be so I am at a loss to understand. Better diet, culinary traditions, different lifestyle, healthier interest and skill in cooking….. who knows? But the contrast between the two peoples is stark. Furthermore, the French dress better. The archetypal Brit – shaven headed, dressed, in the loosest sense of the term, in vest and shorts, tattoo adorned, pot-bellied and thickly calved – was nowhere to be seen. The natives are informally but elegantly attired, not all the very acme of fashion but rarely scruffy. And it is extraordinary how many women of a certain age have their hair dyed red, not a softly highlighted chestnut but a flaming vermilion. There is, after all, a salon de coiffeur in every French village, even if inhabited by just two horses.
We had run out of bread. We went to a boulangerie. Ferme. Mondays do not see bakers at work. There was another boulangerie next door. That too was shut. Empty. Deserted. Closed down. Gone out of business. A local clarified the narrative. ”Open a boulangerie next door to an established boulangerie? Brave choice. To shut on the same day of the week as your competitor? Odd choice. To take a fortnight’s holiday on the same dates as him next door? Bonkers!” Nick laughed. “Sounds like a great business plan to me!” He should know, a successful businessman himself. Our companion gave a further example of French entrepreneurship. “I needed to buy a lawnmower. I was asked how many square metres I needed to mow. I exaggerated because I was interested in their range of lawnmowers, anything up to 40,000 Euros. At which point, the guy said, can you come back later, it’s time for my lunch. The shutters were already coming down Honest!. He had forsaken a potential 40,000 Euros sale….for the sake of a sandwich. Incroyable!” Nick himself gave chapter and verse of many experiences he has had of the sanctity of the lunch hour above anything as vulgar as nailing down a sale. Or satisfying a customer. Or sorting out a problem. Or answering an enquiry. Napoleon called the English ‘a nation of shopkeepers’. It was meant disparagingly but there is a grain of truth in that assertion. Britain is a trading nation. France is a nation qui dejeune.
For all the historical antagonism between the two countries – largely confected for purposes of banter – I think the French have missed us. Ordinarily, something in the region of 13 million Brits visit France each year but a fraction of that will come this summer. Furthermore, there was a conspicuous absence of those familiar, yellow, Dutch number plates on the road. The Dutch are dyed-in-the-wool tourists. Well, you would be, wouldn’t you, if the highest peak of your mountain range is 900 feet.
The loss of income for the tourist industry in France is significant and the effects are being keenly felt. Wherever we went and our English conversation was picked up, people bemoaned the absence of visitors from the UK. I like to think that at last they have got over the Battle of Waterloo but, truth to tell, the French never were too hung up by the fact that we named a railway station after Napoleon’s last defeat. After all, the French won the Second World War and de Gaulle liberated Paris. Single-handed. N’est ce pas?