The long road home from the sea.
It starts in the early morning on the quayside at a small port on a small island. Travellers seated on their bags waiting to embark, waiting to cross the few miles of rough seas that separate us from the mainland or « Le Continent » as the French call it. We are in France though, and I haven’t forgotten, it’s just that coming from an Island myself (yes Britain is an Island) you always have to cross seas to go anywhere and very often the crossing of seas implies the crossing of borders. So, here I am on this Island with my insular mindset whereby anything across the water is another country.
Time to embark. Dragging heavy bags to the ferry. I feel awkward in my jeans and sweater – long trousers and long sleeves after long hot days of shorts and T-shirts. « Wrapped »in layers of clothing to keep out the cold morning air and my feet encased in real shoes. I am plodding, moon walking with gravity.
I have my passport at the ready. Old reflexes die hard. «Put that way, we’re in France » my wife reminds me, with an indulgent smile. But I am crossing the sea to another country. I am almost disappointed that there are no officials on hand to inspect – no police, no customs officials I almost miss the tinge I get down my spine when I pass though customs wondering if I’ll get stopped or not. This just doesn’t feel like real travelling.
The boat leaves the port on time and plies out at full speed into the choppy waters of the Atlantic. Not a true Atlantic crossing though, just a few miles back to France. However the seas are rough enough and the crossing is long enough to make half the passengers seasick. The flimsy paper puke bags disappear fast, as travellers throw up their breakfast and outside the toilet there is a long line of queasy voyagers waiting to give their all. Each time the toilet door opens a stomach wrenching odour escapes into the passenger area. As the crossing gets rougher, the family behind me are having a whispered conversation about life jackets and muster stations.
« No safety warnings … where are the life jackets … we’d better change places if we’re going to capsize. »
The French are a great maritime nation, France is surrounded on three sides by sea, but the passengers on this boat are certainly not sailors.
At the end of our Atlantic crossing, it would have been nice to see lady liberty, instead though we chug into the port of Fromentine – a second-rate, down-at-heal seaside resort, the kind of place where generations of families have been coming for generations, always to the same holiday house or campsite – a tradition, a reflex or pure « no-questions-asked » simplicity – it’s the nearest stretch of sand, and an easy, straight-line drive from home to their home from home.
This stretch of the French Atlantic sea board is full of small resorts such as Fromentine – St Giles Croix de Vie, Les Sables D’Olonne, St Jeans de Monts, St Hilaire de Riez … their names are redolent of traditional and simple family holidays that have hardly changed since the late fifties. Families sitting on the beach, eating sandwiches from Tupperware boxes, mums nattering, grannies knitting, dad snoozing, kids running, shouting, screaming, their beach noise blown back into their sandy faces by the Atlantic wind. Building sandcastles, flying kites, playing pétanque, volleyball – a family day at the beach as it has been for generations.
Back on the road. Back behind the wheel after a week in the saddle, and nothing more than pure pedal-power to get around my holiday island. It’ feels strange being motorised again.
It’s almost the last Saturday of the holiday season. The road home is thick with traffic – jams, tailbacks, gridlock, bumper-to-bumper. Families in cars loaded up to the gunnels with all their holiday rubbish. In most cases it was a mad last minute rush to get everything in the car. Bags and boxes piled high from floor to ceiling, blocking out all vision through the rear window. In between the bags – beach balls, buckets, spades, deflated inflatables, food, bottles, shoes, parasols – all shoved in anarchy in every available space.
In the jams cars edge along at the pace of a lethargic snail. At the wheel, dad bides his time, trying to remain patient, trying to stay awake. Mum looks up alternative routes on the GPS and the kids – oblivious – plugged into the PCs, DVDs and games consoles. Super Mario is doing a super job of keeping the kids occupied. So much better than « I Spy with my little eye something beginning with C. » CAR – in front and behind.
We have decided to take an alternative route – those winding country lanes that no one takes because they take too long to take, so everyone takes the motorway, which on this national Saturday homecoming is like one giant car park.
I far prefer motorway driving, but I’m curious to drive these country roads, a chance to see those parts of deepest France you only hear about in small ways, in curious ways – like the woman on the radio phone-in programme ringing in from Cholet – or the man on the TV game show from Montaigu – or the a dairy farmer from Thouarcé venting his anger against the large supermarket chains and the pittance they pay him or his milk.
They are those places you never knew existed; yet they do, in the same work-a-day way that your town exists. They are places you drive though once and will probably never drive through again, unless you come back this way on holiday. Or they are the places you drive through every year to get to the coast without ever stopping or wondering about them. Theses places are where they are because they are nowhere else, yet everywhere else is full of places that are exactly the same.
The small « lost » towns, villages and hamlets of deepest France.
The backbone of France.
Those places that I love to drive through just to see what France are made of.
Those places that leave you wondering, why in heaven’s name are people living there in the first place? What do they do and how do they survive in these nowhere places?
One-horse towns and villages with boarded-up shops, bars and cafés, closed down for the duration and those places of business that are still in business look out of business and out of time. Yet, in these dead places, people are living, working.
Driving fatigue sets in. I’m not tired of driving, I’m just tired of driving this road. There’s nowhere to stop because there’s nowhere you’d want to stop. This is not “la douce France” of songs and lifestyle magazines. No shady tree -lined squares with beret-coiffed peasants playing pétanque. No quaint café , with a warm welcome and cold beer for the weary traveller. At best you might get a supermarket car park or a piece of waste ground where you can piss behind the recycling bins. Over the years travelled roads like this from North to South and East to West and every time I come home, I feel glad to live where I live.
This long, lousy, never-ending, nowhere road home from the sea, dulls the post holiday pain. It makes it easier to come home to reality – the letterbox overflowing with mail: utility bills, tax demands, postcards from friends who have been away, always further, better and sunnier than where you went. Most of the mail is just junk – glossy brochures and flyers from local supermarkets advertising all the crap your kids will need for their impending return to school. It’s depressing.
And though you have only been away for a week, when you arrive home, you feel as if you have never been anywhere. However, small, but visible changes make you feel that you have been away forever. Your neatly manicured garden has transformed into a jungle. Your next-door neighbour has painted his front gate. Someone new has just moved in down the street … It’s good to be home though.