Wednesday, 17 June 2009

10 Years On - Part 4 of Account of Cycling Northern France

Having read four Georges Simenon short stories in the weeks before I went on this trip I was keen to try andouillettes, a tripe sausage popular in northern France and favoured by Georges Simenon's most famous character, Maigret. It was a terrible mistake. They seemed to consist of white-grey tubing with the consistency of wet rubber. The meal I had on this evening in Arras was probably the one which I hated the most of all the food I ever ate in France. I always felt I should do things properly and have an aperitif but actually I dislike almost all drinks served as that, bar some kirs. On this occasion I had a Calvados which I disliked, though again I drank it as I felt I should fit in with how things should be done in France.

My nervousness with talking with women also strayed into my holiday. The woman mentioned in this account was in her 20s (I was 31 at the time) and sitting at one of the restaurant's outside tables. Reflecting on the situation, these days, I think she probably did not want to be bothered anyway and would have resented me trying to talk to her. Women in Britain envy those in France, able to dine alone without hassle, so I might have got myself into difficulty if I had spoken to her. Anyway my French was probably not up to sustaining a conversations. As it is, holidays as an adult have always been very solitary affairs and even when I have been with other people on holiday they have often been unwilling to compromise and do some of the things I like to do. One, even eight years on, is still angered, because, when in the Canaries I wanted to go cycling around the island and coming back from a day away from him and our mutual friend, I was apparently too noisy in those few minutes and so ruined his whole day of lying on the beach. I find it hard to accept that me talking for short time ruined hours of sunbathing, but there you are. I am not a competent holidaymaker and clearly worse when with other people.

Some people I would not have wanted to interact with. At 'Café Au Bureau' there was an East coast American woman and her grown up daughter at the next table. The waiter spoke excellent English but the woman assumed he spoke none and yet bombarded him with very rapid orders along the lines of 'I want lemonade, you know 7-Up, Sprite.' '7-Up?' He asked trying to write it down. 'Yes, two and with ice, and some bread and another napkin.' It went on in this vein. I leaned over and freaked them out because they assumed I did not speak English and in my best Noel Coward voice said 'when I want another napkin I simply, hold it up and say "encore"'. In fact that is the easiest way to get 'same again' in a French place and is not rude. By now it was comic that people assumed I spoke no English. Just getting on a bicycle seems to shave you of any British aspects that people associate with you. That might not be such the case if you are cycling in the Alps or the Pyrenees.

I remember trying to buy a can of coca cola from a small shop, perhaps the one with the white facade pictured below and asking for a 'boite'. We had been taught when I had learnt French formally in the early 1980s that that meant either box or can in French. Given that the French government was pressing traditional French on its population at the time, for example 'voiture' for car rather than 'auto', I stuck with 'boite' but found I was seen as being very old fashioned by the young shop assistant who referred to a 'can' sounding like 'canne' which means a rod, as in 'canne à pêche' which is an often-mentioned 'false friend' for British people learning French as it means 'fishing rod' and not 'tin of peaches' as we would expect.

Another thing I notice from these photos is how interested I was in architecture and I shot images of what seem to be quite mundane, often very boring streets, it seems now, simply because I was struck by the buildings. You can see examples here and in subsequent postings.

Thursday 17th June 1999

Today I woke early and after breakfast, dozed. Then I went around the town, changed some money, got stamps and postcards. I looked around La Musée des Beaux Arts which had a range of paintings and local artifacts as the area has been occupied since Roman times and garrisoned with German troops. They also had stone work and kites.

I had tagliatelle at 'Le Petit Théatre', it was rather watery. I wrote postcards there and at 'Café Au Bureau' waiting for the cathedral to open. I looked around that, it is really bright and airy.

I then went back to the town hall which I had visited before lunch to go up in the belfry. This time I arrived for the guided tour of the underground tunnels built in the Middle Ages and used and extended by the British and New Zealanders during the Great War as here we are close to the front. I chatted with two British men, a father whose uncles had died in the Great War and his son. They were impressed by my cycling exploits. I then came back to sleep.

After that I finished my cards and went to 'Le Restaurant La Rapière' rather posh but reasonable, though I wasted money on an aperitif and hated the first course, a smelly sort of sponge and generally felt uncomfortable. I did not talk to the beautiful Oriental woman dining alone, though I doubt I would have done in Britain. I must remember how old, fat faced and scary I appear to people.

Back at my room I packed, it is getting harder to fit in each time. I continue to worry, now about: getting to Rouen; whether I should stay at Beauvais; arriving in any town on a Sunday; whether I can get back if I run short of money. I am not cut out for this sort of thing. I should have stayed at home.

Weather: Sunny and warm, some cloud especially later.
The Exterior of La Musée des Beaux Arts in Arras, June 1999

Views of the Front of Arras Cathedral, June 1999

The Interior of Arras Cathedral, June 1999

View from the Beffroi of the Town Hall of the Place des Héros in Arras, June 1999

View of Arras Cathedral from the Beffroi of the Town Hall, June 1999

Buildings around the Place des Héros in Arras, June 1999

I have realised now why I took this photograph, the building on the right with the two white cars outside it is the hotel that I stayed in.

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