"What isn't clear, isn't French" Antoine de Rivarol
When we came to Australia in 1969 it took us no time at all to decide that we would stay - that this was the place to build a home and bring up our children. It's a decision that we have never regretted. However, Australia does not have everything. It does not have Western history beyond the last 200 or so years. There are no castles, ancient villages, European heritage. Yes we have intangible European heritage brought here by immigrants, mostly their food, but not the concrete reality of history. And most of all, for me, anyway, it does not have France.
I have sometimes thought that when I die I would like to be cremated and have my ashes divided into three and scattered here in my garden, in England - perhaps split between Hornchurch where I grew up and Keele where I went to University. And France - maybe in Meung-sur-Loire - the village in which I first came to know all things French, or somewhere in the South where I have spent many wonderful holidays.
Being in lockdown focusses the mind on lots of different things, and in the last few days I have been thinking of France, and how I will most likely never see it again. Not just because of our current circumstances. I think it will be a long time before anyone is quite as carefree about travel as before, but also we are now officially 'elderly' and therefore less secure about travelling long distances.
Every time I go to France it's almost like going home. Almost more than really going 'home' to England. Maybe it's because I consciously deserted my 'home' and France has never been my actual' home'. I have often asked myself why I should feel this connection. Is it something mystical or nostalgia rooted in my own experiences? I shall always remember a Who do you think you are? program in which Jeremy Irons obsessively searched for Irish ancestors, because he felt so at home there. When I started on the family history thing there was a family legend in my father's family that we were descended from Huguenots. I was so excited, and thought this would explain my attachment to the country. But no - I have now traced that particular line back beyond the Huguenots. Not a definitive no I guess, because I can't get back further, but not hopeful and the Ancestry DNA test that I did does not seem to think so either.
Maybe it's because when I went to France for the first time the French were so welcoming, and seemed to think I was worth knowing. I was in my early teens and not a confident or particularly happy teenager. Well one tends not to be in one's teens I think. In lots of ways I should have felt worse - the French are so chic - they can make wearing a rag look elegant, and I just felt dowdy in comparison. One is so self-conscious at that age. Here I am with the family dog Boulot, on the steps of the Mairie - for my exchange partner lived in an apartment in the beautiful Mairie in a small village on the Loire near Orléans. Her father was the town clerk, which is why she lived in the Mairie. The countryside was completely flat, which was good in lots of ways as we could go for bike rides. The French captivated me. They were polite, very interested in everything about me and about England - almost nosy, very hospitable - and they talked about such interesting stuff. They are very intellectual, the French. They want to clarify everything. Those qualities still apply to just about every French person I have ever met. And the language is so beautiful.
Here is Meung as seen from the air, and in some old postcards - maybe a bit older than when I was there, but not much - first the Mairie then and now - well several years ago now - but on one of our French trips we passed through, and then as seen from the air and the ground.
I guess I was lucky - it was a beautiful place.
But of course, perhaps most of all, there is the food. The beautiful food. France showed me that food could be different to what one ate at home. My mother was a good cook and I loved her dishes, but this was something else altogether. Here I found vinaigrette, peaches, melons, haricots verts, and steak. All things I had never really encountered before. Even the tomatoes were different. It was perhaps France that really inspired my ongoing passion for cooking.
A year or so later I met my other exchange partner, who then lived in Paris, which was a quite different experience. Even the French regard Paris as almost another country and Parisians as arrogant foreigners. But again I encountered that same French intellectualism, courtesy and curiosity. Later still I worked as an au pair in Grenoble and the Jura - another entirely different experience and yet - not. Here I encountered ratatouille, and more of the regional cuisine - gratin dauphinois, daubes and black olives, but always the same good manners, curiosity, respect - even though here I was just a sort of servant, and intellectual wordiness.
Since then it has been holidays, with a long gap between early marriage and almost retirement. The holidays have been mostly spent in the south because of its more reliable weather, in gorgeous old houses in villages dotted here and there throughout the countryside. Every one of them different. Every time I leave I am a little heartbroken and now I fear that I shall never see it again, although David pretends that we might.
So my little website is dotted with photographs of France - memories - like the one at the top of the page. It is a café in St Emilion - one of the Bordeaux capitals of France. Lunch is almost over, there are just a very few customers left. A young couple, motorcycle or scooter helmets at their feet, talk over coffee, the waiters chat as they wait to clear everything up for the next lot of tourists. The sun shines. We were about to make a memorable visit to a Bordeaux vineyard where the winemaker generously gave us more than an hour of his personal time to guide us through his vineyard and the difficulties of sticking to the rules of Bordeaux wine. here is the same café from a different angle and probably taken earlier in the day as it is somewhat busier now. The waiters have no time to stand and stare.
I miss it all and try very hard to revive the memories through photographs and the food I cook from time to time - plus visits to Paris Go. I hope it will still be there when all this is over.
"So ask the travelled inhabitant of any nation, ‘In what country on earth would you rather live?’ Certainly in my own, where are all my friends, my relations, and the earliest and sweetest affections and recollections of my life. Which would be your second choice? France" – Thomas Jefferson