03 September, 2012

French Connections & French Presidents!

Pat and I have just returned from a wonderful week and a half  motoring around Normandy and Brittany in France. The sun shone, the roads were all but empty, the local people were wonderful, the scenery magnificent. It is several years since we last visited France and we had forgotten what a wonderful country it is and what wonderful people the French are. Our nearest neighbours and yet so different from ourselves. So ordinary and yet so extraordinary!
Our first B&B near Dieppe
Someone once commented to me that the English and the Germans are very similar in outlook – and both always very wary of the French who are perceived as something a bit different. My friend went on, the English and the Germans are suspicious of the French because they (the French) appear to know something about life and living that we don’t – and they won’t tell us what it is!
Madam Siroy at Dieppe
sings of the wonders of
apples and cider!
I think that is about right!
Pat, speaks French fluently and has always felt that in some past life she must have been French – so much “at home” does she feel when we visit. My French language skills are minimal but I too feel at home. For a number of years we were very regular visitors – often just to visit France and equally often to drive through France to get to some other destination – usually Germany. Whenever we did that – drove through France and thence into Germany – I had the same feelings. On passing into Germany one quickly noticed that everything was more ordered and disciplined – wonderful! You knew exactly where you stood – everything made sense! But, equally, after a week or two in Germany I was always happy, indeed anxious to return to the relaxed, less orderly atmosphere of France where there is a totally different "take" on life than in Anglo/Germanic countries. In France one is constantly amused, surprised, occasionally frustrated but always delighted!
As we drove through the Norman and Breton countryside we did what we always do when travelling through France (and this is rather pathetic!) listened to the wonderful music of the “Les Miserables” on the CD player!  We could have had other great French music on –  Saint-Saëns, Debussy, Rameau, Fauré, Lully, Couperin...... - but the great story by Victor Hugo (every French town seems to have a Rue Victor Hugo!) seems to say much about our perceptions of the country and its people. I can’t count the number of times over the years that we have ambled along French country lanes singing the words of some of the songs from the show:
"Do you hear the people sing
Singing the song of angry men
It is the music of a people
Who will not be slaves again........
Will you join in our crusade
Who will be strong and stand with me
Beyond the barricades there a world you long to see
Then join in the fight
That will give you the right to be free........
Some will fall and some will live
Will you stand up and take your chance
The blood of the martyrs
Will water the meadows of France"

Our B&B near Dinon
One of my very great holiday memories is of driving through the magnificent Loire Valley some twenty or so years ago. It was a beautiful Saturday afternoon, we had just left the magical and magnificent Chateau de Chenonceau – surely one of the wonders of the world – and we drove through timeless villages and hamlets, the car windows down and the fields high with corn and sunflowers. The music of “Les Mis” and its tale of the struggles of Jean Valjean driving us on. Stirring stuff – the history of France has been very much the history of the struggle for democracy. The Revolution of 1789 was the lynch pin in making our modern world and before that and since French philosophers, politicians and people have been amongst the world's guiding lights in the advance of western democracy, politics and indeed civilization. And, as I will explain later in this blog, our little sojourn last week had one particular event by a French beach that, in an odd way, made it all seem very relevant.
Avranches Cathedral
Of course, the history of France and England have been closely interlinked for centuries – and especially so the areas of Normandy and Brittany. In a small way we were reminded of this as we walked around the magnificent cathedral at Tréguier  – and noticed the Hastings Tower – recalling the great Battle of Hastings in 1066 that so defined English history and brought a Norman Duke to be crowned King of England.  We walked  along the front at the lovely seaside resort of Courseulles-sur- Mer and looked at the line of flags – France, Britain, Canada, USA, Belgium, Germany and many others all recalling the great battles that were fought there in the summer of 1944 with the Allied invasion of Europe – the D-Day Landings. We stopped to read the inscriptions and plaques on the sea wall recalling, especially, the Canadian and British regiments that had landed on that beach where now holiday makers sunned themselves.  As we drove along the motorway we passed the town of Bayeux – its famous tapestry illustrated on the road sign and telling of William the Conqueror’s invasion of England a thousand years ago. I can still remember taking our own children to see the tapestry many years ago and on one of our first visits to France I can still remember the thrill of passing the site of the Field of the Cloth of Gold near Calais – where, in 1520, Henry VIII met with the French King Francis I to tighten the bonds of friendship between the two nations.
Early in our holiday we had walked around the impressive cathedral at Avranches – the place where Henry II went in 1172 to do penance after ordering the murder of Thomas a Beckett. As we walked around we came across the stature of St Crispin – the patron saint of shoemakers - and the great words of Shakespeare’s Henry V came into my mind as he spoke to his troops before the Battle of Agincourt on October 25th  1415
“...........This day is call’d the feast of Crispian.
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when this day is nam’d,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say “To-morrow is Saint Crispian.”
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars,
And say “These wounds I had on Crispian’s day.”
Old men forget; yet all shall be forgot,
But he’ll remember, with advantages,
What feats he did that day. Then shall our names,
Familiar in his mouth as household words-
Harry the King, Bedford and Exeter,
Warwick and Talbot, Salisbury and Gloucester-
Be in their flowing cups freshly rememb’red.
This story shall the good man teach his son;
And Crispin Crispian shall ne’er go by,
From this day to the ending of the world,
But we in it shall be remembered-
We few, we happy few, we band of brothers;
For he to-day that sheds his blood with me
Shall be my brother; be he ne’er so vile,
This day shall gentle his condition;
And gentlemen in England now-a-bed
Shall think themselves accurs’d they were not here,
And hold their manhoods cheap whiles any speaks
That fought with us upon Saint Crispin’s day.........”

The East Leake
village crest with
its amulets
The East Leake school badge
with its de Ferrer amulets
And, as  I walked around Avranches cathedral I noticed the name “de Ferrers” and a coat of arms with horseshoes. I mentioned to Pat the tenuous connection with where I had spent much of my working life and where we stood. When William successfully invaded in England in 1066 he had left his home in Normandy under the governance of his trusted friend Hugh  d’Avranches. Hugh contributed sixty ships to William for the invasion of England and as  a reward for his work and support Hugh was given extensive lands in England – much of it in what is now the Leicestershire and Staffordshire area – where we live.  Hugh eventually became Earl of Chester and as his importance grew some of his lands were transferred to another of William’s favourite supporters, Henry de Ferrers - a man from the same area of Normandy. Henry had been well rewarded already for his bravery at the Battle of Hastings and in the following years he became a very important man in the area around where Pat and I live - south Nottinghamshire, Leicestershire and south Derbyshire. Genealogists suggest that amongst others George Washington Princess Diana and Winston Churchill are amongst his descendents!  Henry’s coat of arms showed horseshoes and amulets – “ferrer” in fact  means to “bind with iron” or a “horse shoe”. And in the village where I spent most of my working life – East Leake - was one of his "manors". We had a street named “De Ferrers Close”, a pub called “The Three Horsehoes” and the village and school badges retained  links with this Norman knight by  displaying amulets!  So in a small, tenuous way the close links between England and Normandy were also small tenuous links between Avranches and a small village and school in the English midlands where I had spent thirty or so years of my working life! How closely we are all bound!
St Malo
Outside our Paimpol B&B with Breton
Far cake and cider to speed us on our way 
On our little trip we stayed in chambre d’hotes – bed and breakfast accommodation – every one quite different and every one superb and quintessentially French in their different ways. Near Dieppe we stayed had a tiny room under the eaves in a typical Norman farm house. A wonderful hostess, Madame Siroy, plied us with traditional French home grown food and drink, She even sang to us about the joys and medicinal value of apples and cider (which she made!). In other places we stayed on chamber d’hotes which were very chic and luxurious or homely and comfortable. As we left our B&B at Paimpol in Brittany Madame Henry wrapped up a huge piece of home-made Breton  Far Cake for us to enjoy and gave us a bottle of cider to bring home.
We enjoyed some wonderful French food – not one meal was below standard – simple, beautifully cooked, tasty and wholesome. When we bought sandwiches for lunch and they too were uniformly excellent. As we spent most of the time moving along the coast fish and sea food were common -  it was wonderful to see the French out for their evening meal, sitting in the evening sun enjoying their sea food, mussels, lobster, oysters and the like. Not my “cup of tea” and certainly not Pat’s but the French love affair with sea food is a joy to behold! And a real treat for us? After a couple of days and having consumed several cups of delicious coffee we suddenly realised that not once had we been offered a huge great cup of the sort that one gets (even when ordering a small cup) at Starbuck’s or Costa coffee in the UK. The move to grossness and “bigger is better” that so characterises places like Starbuck’s has not got a hold in France (or at least where we were). In France the coffee was tasty and tastefully served – not a tasteless bucket of brown water whose only selling point is that you get vast quantities of it. Long may the French reject the “never mind the quality feel the width mentality” that has spread across the Atlantic to Britain’s shores. I say, “not once were we offered a huge great cup” not strictly true! Each day began with this as we gathered around the breakfast table at each of our B&Bs – a traditional large cup filled with delicious coffee and following the French tradition we dipped our bread or croissant into the coffee as we ate. Each morning, before we got up, we heard madam go off  to visit the local boulangerie to bring home the fresh bread for breakfast. Wonderful!
Pork chops with the workers
at Tessy-sur-Vire
A French feast fit for a king in Dieppe
For all these reasons  - and for many more, we both loved our few days away. It was a reminder of what a wonderful country and people  France and the French are. And whether it be maintaining their essential Frenchness, enjoying their sea food, singing songs about cider, their obsession with health matters, their wonderful cooking, their quirky cars, their outlook on life or any of the other aspects of their culture, they are different! One day as we drove along a narrow winding lane we followed a slow  moving van – a tiny vehicle.  To our amazement we suddenly realised that looking at us out of the back window of a van was a cow!  Eventually the van pulled into a field where there were other vehicles and animals – it was a farmer's market. I can’t today imagine that happening in England – we would have rules and regulations that have stamped out the local traditions! On another day we were looking for lunch. We stopped at one or two villages but as happens in France once mid-day is past, villages close down, all becomes silent and still, streets are empty and  everything  closed – it is  rest time! Then we arrived at the next village – Tessy-sur-Vire - a single cafe was open! When we got there it was packed with French workmen enjoying their lunch. We sat in the sun outside enjoying a lovely salad starter followed by pork chop and potatoes and salad – the only item on the menu but served with style and pride.  Around us French road workers, plumbers, builders, lorry drivers enjoyed their pork chops (with cider or wine, cheese, pudding etc) – and then off back to work, they had not only enjoyed a good meal but had enjoyed a social occasion – not as so often now happens in England a quickly grabbed sandwich and cup of coffee or tea whilst driving or sitting in front of the computer screen. And as we drove out of the village the same men who we had eaten with were manning the road works at the village entrance!
Outside our B&B in Courselleus-sur-Mer
Dinard - a lovely place
 As my friend some years ago suggested maybe the French know something about life and living that we Brits (or Germans or Americans.......) have yet to discover! I think they do!

In a way all this came to a bit of a head one afternoon as Pat and I sat on the beach at Dinard. It was a beautiful day and we had spent the morning wondering around the lovely walled port of St Malo. We sat, at the top of the beach leaning against the wall, the narrow promenade behind us and on the far side of the promenade three or four everyday seaside restaurants with tables spreading onto the prom. As we sat there we suddenly realised just behind us was a bit of excitement. We peeped over the wall and there, sitting just a few feet away from us, was Jacques Chirac – ex-President of France. He had just sat down with his wife at one of the cafes to enjoy his lunch. With him were his two “minders” and, we understood, his daughter. Chirac is, of course, now retired but still an important man. He sat for over four hours enjoying the sun and his meal and a few glasses of wine and coffee. Later in the afternoon we visited the cafe for our own tea and sat on a table immediately adjacent.
Jacques Chirac settles down with Madam
Chirac and his minders for lunch
Ex-President Chirac tucks in!
Throughout the afternoon the young and old came to shake his hand. Except when he was actually eating his meal no one was refused (whilst eating his meal his “minders” ensured a bit of privacy)  - and people respected his privacy. People asked to have their photograph with him, hundreds (it seemed) of babies and children were stood in front of him to be photographed and I guess the photos are now being proudly displayed and shown off in French family photograph  albums, on mantelpieces and  to the rest of the family. He stroked dogs, occasionally embarked in depth discussions with those who stopped to greet him or ask to be photographed with him. What was especially remarkable was the cross section of involvement and interest – he was recognised by the old, the young, teenagers, men, women – everyone. And all had something to say or ask.  He had time, a smile and a word for all. It was a pleasure to watch him. I don’t know a huge amount about his politics (except that he stood up to Bush and Blair over the invasion of Iraq – which must set him out as a good guy! - and that in his second term as president he pursued a policy of “dirigisme” in which the government managed the  mainly capitalist economy with strong directives, as opposed to merely regulatory, economic participation by the state as in the UK) but he clearly had the knack of getting to know the voters. Chirac (as I suspect with most politicians) often sailed close to the legal wind – and I know he had several accusations of corruption made to him but it is perhaps a telling verdict that when we mentioned to Madame at our B&B that we had seen him her comment was “he is the most well loved politician in France”. Her comment was confirmed when we returned home – the latest French survey puts him at the top of the political popularity poll!
Four hours later he was still
there as we settled to
tea on the next table!
International flags at Courselleus -
remembering that half a century
ago these were battlefields 
As we watched this master politician at work I wondered if I might see the same thing in England? Would some retired Prime Minister simply turn up at an ordinary street cafe? Would (say) Tony Blair sit and have his photo taken for four hours, hug children, stroke dogs, have time – I doubt it unless there was a huge fee or deeper motive involved! Maybe it does happen – indeed, I have seen my own MP Ken Clarke (ex-Chancellor of the Exchequer and now Justice Minister) walking around my local supermarket pushing his trolley and accompanied by his minders. But there is an interesting point here. Clarke is popular, whatever his politics. I have never voted for him but I have huge respect for him – he is of the people and lives where his electorate lives. He is not some remote personality who lives in a rarefied atmosphere of high politics, finance, media hype and international jet setting. And so, too, seems Chirac - popular perhaps for the same reasons that Clarke enjoys popular appeal – both have a feel for the ordinary and everyday.
But whatever, and whatever the man’s politics, it was a very impressive performance.  It seemed to me that it was democracy at work. Whatever Chirac’s motives (after all he could have dined in secrecy at the back of the cafe) he chose to sit on display and in doing so he met the people. He would have had no illusions by the end of his meal about what people were thinking – they all wanted to tell him – all afternoon! Maybe he simply did it to boost his popularity – although he is now officially retired.  Well, it certainly worked!

I was disowned when I decided to
be a Brit on holiday!
But Patricia enjoyed the sun!
And it all seemed right to us. Healthy, open. What democracy should be about – not remote or removed from the lives of ordinary people. All those who went home that night would surely have proudly shown off their photographs and felt in some tiny way that they have been part of the democratic process of their country. I’m sure that if those French men and women who rose up in 1789 to overthrow Louis XVI  and the  ancien régime and bring about the First Republic had been on the beach at Dinard that afternoon they would have smiled in approval at what they had created as Chirac, their President,  met with the people! This was no remote Louise XIV "Sun King" or some Marie Antoinette telling the ordinary man and woman to go and eat cake" - it was a leader being an ordinary Frenchman with those who put him there.  We could certainly learn a thing or two from the French!
And as we drove towards Dieppe to return to the ferry on the last stage of our little tour around north western France the sun still shone. We arrived at last at Dieppe and sat for an hour or so on the shingle beach eating our baguettes. We watched the ferry from England arrive in the harbour and,  after one last cup of coffee at a wayside cafe, we made our way to the ferry terminal for our crossing back to Newhaven. We had only been away for nine days but had seen so much and had so many memories – all of them good. I thought about all the links that exist between our two countries and how our life today reflects our combined history. We speak a different language and have very different traditions and yet  as with other European countries I feel a far greater affinity with the French, the Germans, the Italians and the rest than I ever do with our American cousins with whom we share a language - because, I think we share that common geographical and historical  heritage. We often hear our politicians talking about our "special relationship" (if there is such a thing) with the USA or with various Commonwealth countries.  For me I would be far more interested in a "special relationship" with France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the rest - because as Europeans we share so much and both historically and in the modern world are so very dependent upon each other. And, I think, despite our language differences we understand each other far better - because we have thousands of years of shared experience.

Having said all that - the French do know something about life, its living and its meaning that the rest of us do not know  - France is enticing, amusing, surprising, frustrating, unpredictable and yet never changing.   And whatever they know about life and living they are keeping it to themselves! And that is why France is such a wonderful place to visit. We will undoubtedly return – soon!

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