Season’s greetings

Last year we set off for our family holiday in Northern Spain on the first Saturday in August. In the days that preceded our departure, we heard radio reporters ominously predicting that it would be a samedi noir: a day when autoroutes across the country are jammed to a standstill as the entire population of Northern Europe heads south for some sun. Nonsense, we said. The French had an unhealthy obsession with traffic conditions, which regularly beat tsunamis and economic disasters to the headlines throughout the summer, and we sturdy Brits would not fall prey to the same absurd neurosis. Oh no, we were wiser than that. We would set off at 5am and we would blaze a trail down the empty motorway before any of our Gallic friends had finished their croissants, proudly blaring Elgar’s Enigma Variations from every aperture as we smartly pre-paid our way through the toll booths. We would be lunching in Spain.

The great day arrived and we crammed the sleepy children into the back of the car at 4.55. We turned on the engine and, despite a slight setback caused by the non-opening of our electric gate because it had been struck by lightning the night before, we were blazing a trail towards the southern sun by 5.35 in the morning. We smugly hurtled through Lyon’s notorious Fourvière tunnel, the one blackspot in the country dreaded most fervently by all Frenchmen alike, and managed about 50 metres of confident cruising once we emerged… before we had to draw to an abrupt halt, undeniably at a standstill before the digital display on our dashboard even registered 6am.

Instead of the six hours of leisurely motoring confidently predicted the day before, it took us 13 tedious hours to reach our destination. Each time the children fretted in their car seats we reminded them, somewhat sanctimoniously, that we had, in our heroic pasts, journeyed all the way down France from England in cars without air conditioning or DVD screens. Our sermons sounded increasingly hollow until, eleven hours in, we eventually conceded that French radio had been correct; had perhaps even underestimated the scale of the problem; and that hitherto we would be slavish listeners of the summer traffic forecasts. Needless to say, this year we have paid for an overnight stop in a hotel rather than even contemplate ever driving on a samedi noir again.

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Of course, our naïve approach was not entirely our fault because there had been nothing in our lives until that point to deprive us of it. It would have been absurd to believe reports of black Saturdays in the UK, partly because there was nothing newsworthy in a traffic jam for a small country whose motorways were blocked every day of the year; and partly because, back home, people did things differently from one another, and on different days. In the UK, to create equivalent conditions to those we experienced on our samedi noir would entail persuading 90% of the population, plus a good portion of their Southern European friends, to decide to head for the same holiday spot, Blackpool say, using the same motorway and on the very same day. Even now I can see you shaking your heads. It is inconceivable.

Besides being a mere measure of the desirability of the beaches of the Côte d’Azur, the annual French traffic jams are indicative of a national obsession with seasonality that the British just don’t comprehend. When we first moved to France, my daughters had to face their first day in a new, French-speaking primary school, part-way through the school year. Keen to help them blend in, we decided to buy them each a cartable, the cavernous French satchel-like bag under which small children bend each morning. My mother and I took them on an expedition to Lyon’s biggest shopping centre, where we did a complete tour of the available shops, including two dedicated entirely to bags. Not seeing anything approximating to what we were looking for, est-ce que vous avez des cartables, s’il vous plait, we asked. Non, Madame, came the firm response. Frustrated, I eventually asked one of these pinnacles of French customer-service culture why there were no school bags available. She regarded me scathingly for a moment, before reminding me that it was janvier and that school bags, well, they were for septembre. Oh.

There is sound logic to being seasonal, of course. In the UK we will regularly drop a mango into our supermarket trolley in February without giving a second thought to the pollution its transportation half-way across the world will have generated. When our children ask for a new pencil case, half the time we give in, for a multitude of flimsy justifications, rather than asking them to wait until the new school year and thereby learn patience and self-restraint. In France, on the other hand, cherries are for three glorious weeks in May when you eat nothing but clafoutis; Beaujolais nouveau is for November; lunch is for midday; resting is for Sunday; and presents are for Christmas and birthdays. Put like this I have to concede that the French have the moral high-ground when it comes to seasonal activities. Though none of this stops me wishing that some free-thinking individuals would think themselves into beginning a holiday on a Monday and travelling northwards to Denmark, or that the shops might conserve one or two cartables for those poor sods who arrive in France at any time other than the rentrée…

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Smuggling budgies

The British holiday-maker takes a metaphorical privet hedge with them to the swimming pool. Whether they have beaten the Germans to the sun-loungers, or are merely doing a dignified breast stroke, the area around their immediate person is their kingdom, and they expect it to be as inviolate as a fortress. By contrast, just as many French properties have no boundary fence or wall, the French sense of personal space in swimming pools is virtually non-existent.

Well aware of this cultural difference, I make a point of avoiding recreational French waters whenever possible.  Last Saturday, however, it was 38˚ in the shade and, dripping as we all were with sweat, the entire family felt that we had no option but to retreat to the municipal swimming pool, which has a clever retractable roof for the hot weather. Unfortunately we were not the only people to have this bright idea. So it was that I found myself standing bolt upright, waist-deep in chlorinated water, my arms pressed to my sides in a futile attempt to shrink away from those around me who were engaged in various modes of trespass, such as swimming between my legs when I was not paying attention; dive-bombing within 10cm of my right elbow; and barrelling into me in reverse as they attempted to flirt with some scantily-clad teenage girls.

To my English eyes the overcrowded pool was alarmingly lawless, if not downright dangerous. Obviously one of the female lifeguards agreed with me because she was striding up and down, seeking out tiny infractions of a set of invisible rules that would enable her to blow her whistle loudly and practice her sternest look. I watched as, with admirable energy, she tackled the Sisyphean task of clearing a short thin stretch of wall between two sections, sitting on which is, for some reason, interdit, consequently giving it an even greater allure for the general French public. After a while I was shocked to realise that, with her latest whistle, she was pointing directly at my husband, who was nowhere near the forbidden wall. What, I asked myself, could he, British and law-abiding as he was, possibly have done to attract such a public reprimand?

One of the only stated rules in French pools (the French aren’t bothered by heavy petting) is that nobody should wear anything even slightly akin to ordinary clothing. Apparently items resembling clothing might very well have been worn outside the pool, and might consequently bring unwanted dirt into the clean water. For British males, who have whole-heartedly adopted the antipodean love affair with “boardies”, this means abandoning modesty and sporting a pair of good old-fashioned budgie-smugglers. Shocking as this was at first, my husband is now well-versed in French codes of undress, and consequently was, on this occasion, sporting nothing except a very skimpy pair of trunks and a great deal of sun cream. Oh, and a hat, which, it transpires, constituted outdoor clothing as far as the lifeguard was concerned.

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Any requirement to go hatless is deeply problematic for balding Anglo-Saxons under the full glare of the sun, and so, fearing for his extended forehead, my husband bravely took on this terrifying whistle-blower. There were, he pointed out, quite a number of other people in the pool wearing hats, apparently with impunity. Aha, came the response, but those were enfants. Might not a child’s hat be dirtier than an adult’s hat given a child’s propensity to grub about? Shrug. Given the canicule, was it not reasonable to assume that much of the swimwear on display might have been worn on several previous days? Submerged as these items now were, surely they posed more of a threat to the hygiene of the water than Eadred’s unsubmerged hat? Exasperated by a further shrug, he pressed on to enquire about the cleanliness of the suncream, currently circling in oily slicks around the bathers. He was met with more shrugging. Could she not just take pity on his pale British skin? A finger was pointed once more at his headgear. A rule, monsieur, is a rule. He took the hat off.

It is one of the contradictions of the French that, for a people who so merrily contravene a hundred rules in one outing to the shops (even I now practice the odd bit of “French parking” when no space is available near the boulangerie), they seem to have more rules than any other nation. There are rules on every aspect of French life, from handwriting (specified to within a millimetre), through lawnmowing (never, ever, on a Sunday) and the issuing of blue house numbers (strictly controlled by the mairie), to the more sinister requirement to carry your papers on you at all times, everywhere. Yet, ask someone why a particular rule exists, and you are frequently met with bafflement or just a gallic shrug. C’est comme ça. Point. The lost logic of regulations is perhaps in itself the reason why those charged with imposing them are so unsmiling and inflexible in their application. If you preside over a set of rules that have lost all connection with their original purpose, like exasperated parents the world over there is no explanation you can reasonably give, except possibly “because I say so”.

Frequently, of course, authority figures meet with a more determined contravention of the rules than Eadred the Bald dared to provide. Just last week, a fight broke out at the vast outdoor pool in the centre of Lyon when a group of boardie-wearing youths dared to question the requirement to wear speedos. This dispute over the skimpiness of one’s swimming trunks took on such epic proportions that the entire facility had to be closed down as a result (or maybe its staff went on strike: sometimes it’s hard to tell). Rule-abiding though we are, it is nonetheless tempting to test the more absurd rules by stretching them to their logical extreme. To date, though, I have not persuaded any male relative of mine to attend a public swimming pool sporting a thong.

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If you find it hard to believe that a fight broke out about swimming trunks, read this short summary in our local paper about it.

Similarly, if you think I jest about thongs, see this article in the Guardian about the alleged impact of mankinis in Newquay.

My Expat Family

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