On one of our earliest holidays together, Eadred (then the Unbald) and I found ourselves driving around the one-way system in Nice looking for our hotel: rather, I was driving and he was rotating the map round thinking profound geographical thoughts. As we drew up at one junction I asked, reasonably I thought, which direction we should take. As Eadred hesitated, the car behind honked its horn good-naturedly. I repeated my request rather less good-naturedly. As no directions were forthcoming, I unstrapped myself in a rage and marched round to the other side of the car. To the considerable amusement of the waiting queue of traffic, I dragged poor Eadred out, told him to drive, inserted myself into the passenger seat and proceeded to issue directions which may not have been correct but at least came at a speed sufficient to enable us to engage in some forward motion.
It would be deeply unfair on my part to suggest that any of this was Eadred’s fault. You see, had there been a single serviceable road sign in the whole of Nice’s baffling one-way system, my little tantrum might have been avoided. But no: like all self-respecting French cities, Nice seems to think that the purpose of the road sign is to tantalise and then taunt the harassed tourist. If you have ever driven in France you will be familiar with the phenomenon. Assuming that it is not a samedi noir, you are sailing gaily along when your route is suddenly barred by a hole in the road with no attendant workers and a yellow déviation sign. You dutifully follow the yellow arrow but, when you reach the next junction, there is no indication of where you should go next. You take a turning at random and, if you are lucky, there will be another yellow sign next time. If you are unlucky, you will have lost the diversion for good, and will waste a miserable twenty minutes arguing with each other about which way is south and wishing you’d just accelerated over the wretched hole, Evel Knievel-style.
It seems we have not learnt from our many bitter experiences on this front. On a recent trip to the French Pyrenees, we forgot which country we were in and found ourselves without a precise address for our destination, nudging the car along a long, non-descript road, searching for a sign pointing us towards Le Petit Train Jaune. It would be coming up soon, I announced. The entire family was on the lookout for the sign that would surely single out the main tourist attraction of the region. Eadred slowed down as we approached a likely-looking side road. We dutifully craned our collective heads. Nothing. Then, once we had comprehensively missed the turning, one of the kids spotted a tiny sign, carefully positioned so that it was visible only once you had passed the junction. Presumably the person responsible for the placement of road signs throughout France get his kicks from watching cars bearing tourists speeding past their destinations before driving miles to the nearest roundabout and retracing their steps at a nervous 10km per hour.
The phenomenon of the unhelpfully-placed or partially-absent sign is part of a broader French indifference to the needs of tourists, something which I find peculiar in a country so dependent on tourism for its GDP. Once we had finally identified the turning for Le Petit Train Jaune, purchased tickets and then jostled with the amassed travellers for a space in one of the open-air carriages, we found ourselves on board a train that remained resolutely stationary half-an-hour after the scheduled departure time. Worse things can happen to holiday-makers but I would venture that it is only in France that this would occur without one of the many staff assembled on the platform attempting to explain the delay at some point during this extended period endured under the heat of the midday sun. As we sat there, the French passengers commented loudly on the deplorable condition of the SNCF. Being British, we reapplied layers of greasy sun cream and muttered darkly amongst ourselves. Rather than taking it upon themselves to keep any of us happy, the train’s staff chatted to one another or just stared insolently back at our sweaty, pleading faces.
Eventually one bold Nordic-looking family politely asked a particularly grumpy female ticket-collector what was happening. She raised her voice so that the entire train could hear her response: Qu’est ce que c’est votre problème : vous êtes en vacances ou quoi ? Fortunately her interlocutors were blessed with a sense of humour and presumably felt this rude riposte to be part of the rustic French charm of the experience, but the ticket-inspector in question was quite fortunate not to find that all the camera-wielding cash-cows had emptied her happy yellow holiday train in disgust.
When it eventually clunked into motion, we loved the train. Who wouldn’t love a brightly-coloured locomotive that makes its way along century-old steep mountainous tracks with vertiginous views? We were surprised, however, to dismount at one of the “main” stations, situated in a village of considerable size, and to find nothing but a vending machine serving warm-looking cans of coca cola to quench the thirst of the dozens of sweltering tourists that dismounted with us. We began a desultory search for an ice cream, following the stream of fellow passengers listlessly walking away from the station. After 500 metres, with no prospect of any cold snacks in sight, we gave up the ghost and trudged back to the station so as not to miss our return train. Nobody starved in the conduct of that experiment, but, in the midst of our plight, we couldn’t help conjuring up images of vintage railway stations in the UK, with their olde worlde tea rooms serving all manner of period refreshments along with baseball caps inscribed with the railway’s logo and books containing pretty pictures of steam trains. On the one hand I admire the staunch French refusal to despoil their renowned landscape with touristy junk, but on the other hand one has to wonder whether perhaps the installation of the odd ice cream stand next to trains bearing masses of hungry tourists might not provide a useful shot in the arm for the ailing French economy.
I suspect, though, that it is better to supply nothing than to provide a little café, only to have to close it at lunchtime (so the staff can eat), during August (so the staff can take their holiday); and for the rest of the year (so the staff can strike).
If you are interested in reading other blogs about French life, why not visit the #AllAboutFrance linky on the Lou Messugo site:
For another blog about driving in France, you could look here.