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.
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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