How I came to France

I blame the nineteen thirties Popular Front government of France and the BBC.

In pursuance of that government’s efforts to rouse a nationalistic revival to counter the growing threat of Hitler’s Germany, Jean Renoir, son of the painter, made a patriotic film, ‘La Marseillaise’, following a group of ordinary men on their journey from Marseilles to Paris and their participation in the first bloody acts of what was to become the French Revolution.

I saw this film on the television when a schoolgirl and Baroness Orczy and the Scarlet Pimpernel went out of the window.Tout de suite.

I was enthused by the young nation of France….its battles against the armies of the monarchies of Prussia and Austria…its advances into the states of Italy….the brilliant soldiers it threw up from the mass armies invented and supported by the great Lazare Carnot, ‘organisateur de la victoire’ (organiser of victory).

Forgive me…..I was young.

A blue revolutionary coat had a similar effect on me as did a scarlet one on the younger daughters of Mr. Bennet….but without the risks brought about by physical proximity.

France took a hold…I read its history, fell on ‘Les Rois Maudits’ (the accursed kings), in which the end of the Capetian dynasty was recounted by Maurice Druon, at one end of the spectrum and the Paris Commune at the other…..but I did not go to France until I was a student, in command of my local authority grant.

The grant was not munificent…but it felt like it.

Carefully managed it would keep a roof (leaky) over my head, allow me to eat in Chinese and Indian restaurants, buy books without stinting and, finally, allow me to buy a fortnight on the trains of France.

In those pre internet days one booked a ticket by going to the offices of French railways in Piccadilly and handing over the ready, but before parting with the uckers forward planning was necessary.

I could not afford hotels as well as the train ticket, so with the aid of a copy of the Thomas Cook railway timetable for Europe I would plan out a series of journeys by overnight train, allowing me in those pre terrorist days to leave my luggage in a station locker for the day while I explored the area before taking another overnight train to a new destination.

I became an adept…crossed hammers and jours feries held no terrors for me as I plotted my way round the main lines of France!

Inevitably it was best to buy a separate ticket to Paris to get most value from the fortnight’s ticket….the first demonstration of how everything in France begins and ends in Paris…so with my rucksack charged with changes of clothing and a bag of sandwiches I would set off from London for the ferry to Calais, aiming to arrive in Paris in the evening, ready for the first train out after midnight for the first day of my adventure.

At that time you did not need daylight to know that you were arriving at Calais….day or night on the approaches to the dock you were overwhelmed by the smell of drains. The only smell to compare with it is the stench which hits you when you open the door of a French restaurant serving andouillette (cow gut sausage) as the dish of the day in mid August.

You know you are in France.

Calais docks always seemed pretty derelict as far as passenger infrastructure was concerned….one would leave the ferry via the gangplank and wander off along the cobbles to a sort of concrete wasteland inhabited by trains…..sleepers off to the Alps and everyday trains to Paris, stopping at every halt en route.

Of course, we had to climb up into these trains from a low level platform….no problem when young and agile, but advancing years present the traveller with the alternatives of mounting the steps and swinging the luggage forward or throwing the luggage first, caber tossing style, and following after.

Why do the French think the British have proper platforms if not to avoid lower back injuries and claims for tights ripped in the crotch.

The train itself at that period had compartments linked by a corridor, plastic seats and somewhere to hook your rifle should you be called to the front because the Germans had reverted to type and invaded in August.
It had conductors with hats resembling those of admirals and no toilets for the convenience of its passengers as it hauled its way to Boulogne via Wimille-Wimereux, then Etaples and Abbeville to Amiens before collecting itself for the last gallop over the chalk downs with their clumps and clouds of woodland to the valley of the Seine and Paris itself.

The Gare du Nord was shabby and grubby, with toilets guarded by dragons with saucers for the (obligatory) tips, but it marked the start of the adventure.

I would pick up my bags, walk down to the Algerian Stores on the corner to buy a bottle of wine with a plastic top and five stars on the neck, a chunk of sausage and a roll or two and then, turning my back resolutely to the glowing neon sign of the Hotel Kuntz, would head for whichever station held my midnight express.


43 thoughts on “How I came to France”

  1. I, too, took a train into Paris (mine was from Amsterdam) when I was 18. I had $80 in my purse and hoped the family I was to be an Au Pair for would be at the station to pick me up. No credit card. No cell phone (obviously since that was well before their time). Just hope and crossed fingers. Luckily they were there waiting for me, and even though they were a disagreeable family, and I made next to nothing, I was in Paris, and that’s all that mattered. 🙂

    1. You can hardly believe the change in communications that has taken place in our lifetime…
      I had no one waiting for me….probably as well if they had proved to be disagreeable!

  2. You roamed France before the war?
    You were a most adventurous young woman.

    What happened to the current generation of young people? They cannot move without phones and tablets and satellite systems. How brave we were compared to them.

    I am waiting for the next instalment.

    1. No….the film was pre-war, I saw it post war…on the box. Thus the BBC’s guilt… I must make that clear by editing.
      Mark you there are times when the knees feel decidedly pre war….

      We are a self sufficient lot, aren’t we!

  3. Even into the 60s travel was reasonably safe. Well, until the IRA raised their bar.
    French beaurocrats have put a foul curse on so many things…I hope they have not cursed those fantastic sandwiches aux jambon that kept travellers going.
    Oh, bugger! Now I want one…

      1. Oh…Paul!
        Purveyor of overpriced tat served by surly young people dressed in those absurb black hats which make management think they have conned the customer into thinking that there is a chef somewhere on the premises of the kiosks infesting Paris mainline stations.
        From which you may gather that I was less than impressed by their offerings….

  4. I did these kind of sorties in the sixties, in NYC. My oldest daughter became a Francphile in the eighties. I never learned the influence. She wanted to “bum around France” for a year before college. I was grateful I couldn’t even afford an airplane ticket. So, she bumbed around a very liberal arts college, almost as effectively. She has a friend schooled in a Swiss boarding school who simply rolls her eyes and say “Oh, Frenchies.”

  5. Wow! You were a real history boffin – I’m always curious to know what motivates people to discover another country. I took the SNCF network a lot too in my “assistante” days – looking back, I have no idea how I afforded it. It’s cheaper for me to fly my familt to Britain and back than to use the train for a return trip to Paris…

    1. Yes, last time in France the train fares were so exorbitant – especially when you think that part of the journey would be by bus – that I too the Euroline coach down to Spain.
      And now I see that the EU wants to stop grants being given to small airports…..bang goes the Brit lifeline….

  6. Those days of grants were so important to us weren’t they ? They enabled us to feel independent, to be independent, to feel as if we were indestructible and the world was just waiting for us. My first visit to France ( apart from that as a 14 year old exchange student, staying with a very strange family in Chaville, just outside Paris) was done on an incredibly tiny budget, but did involve a hotel …..well an attic room, with a dangerous balcony, no bathroom ( not just no bathroom in the room…..but no where in the hotel…there was a dingy toilet down the corridor, but we never discovered anywhere to wash ! ).
    You were very brave, and I cant wait to read what happened next.

    1. My grant was not large, but it got me through together with what I had saved from working while in the sixth form – I didn’t work while at university.
      Grants went up a bit later – the Robbins reforms I think – and now seem to have been abolished in favour of putting young people into debt. I don’t know what I would have done faced with a financial penalty like that.

      That hotel sounds unique….at least the trains had washbasins!

  7. Those were the days, when travel was still an adventure rather than the ordeal is it now. How enterprising you were, and what an experience it must have been. A brilliant post, Helen.

    1. I loved every moment of it from the planning onwards…though I must have been distinctly more bendy in those days as I could wash my hair in a train washbasin….

      So called security makes air travel a curse….and where are the waiting rooms these days?
      I remember station waiting rooms with fires in winter….

      1. I remember those waiting rooms, too, and the smell of the coal. And the landscape photos of different places in Britain.

        Nobody else has been vulgar enough to mention it, so I will. Rather risque name for that hotel. 😉

        1. I’d forgotten the photographs…but as soon as you mentioned them they all came back…

          It was a surprising name to say the least…..with what I was eventually to learn about France I can only suppose it was a haunt of DSK….

          1. And the mini-tartan rather rough upholstery, the cord luggage racks, and the smell of cigarette smoke everywhere. That hotel would certainly have been the place for DSK. 🙂

  8. My OH got in a couchette in the 70’s on his way to pick apples in the south of France with five young Englishmen in the other berths. They were all complete strangers to each other but discovered that they all had a friend of a friend acquaintanceship with everyone else.
    I used to go everywhere on my own in those days and had complete confidence in my ability to protect myself, even when it meant sitting up all night with my back against the door to stop the drunks in the corridor bursting in (that was Korea not France!).

  9. Good God woman, you impress me more and more with every single post! I sense a realJacobite within you, a rebel, a genuine Captain Moonlite quality that gives me a rush of blood. Somewhere within you, is a Celtic gene. And not one of those thrice removed relatives that once bought a toffee apple in Dublin either.

  10. Did you by any chance post a similar piece on your old blog Helen? I had this odd sense of déjà vue as I read through. That notwithstanding I thoroughly enjoyed reading it…again…or for the first time…whatever the case may be. 😀

      1. Ah ha! Thought I was correct. How could one forget the enduring line;
        “Why do the French think the British have proper platforms if not to avoid lower back injuries and claims for tights ripped in the crotch.”

        I have to admit I will be digging in my old blog for material for Reservoir Dugz. The Hebrides trip that we did a few years ago should look rather good on this new blog theme I’m using.

        1. I’m enjoying the photgraphs you’re putting up…and the post about the cruise…I put up a comment on that and it didn’t get through…re how much of a bribe Lego paid to get the contract for the bridge..

  11. It did get through Helen! It’s not against the post though, it’s against the photo of the bridge at dawn. It seems that comments can be made either on the post or on each individual photo.

    I even replied to the comment. I’ll have to check it’s there now! 😆

      1. Now…to tweak your sense of doom a little bit more. When I was checking through my comments to find the one you made on the Tagus post, I noticed that you are commenting under one of your old blogs, Castingacoldeye. This has obvious consequences if you comment on a post on a new blog and that person wants to have a peek at your blog. So, if you want to change this, go to the wee wordpress icon (top left of screen) and choose settings. Then change the name of your primary blog to your new one. You may have to press an update button on the screen, I can’t remember. I only discovered a few days ago I had been doing the same thing for goodness knows how long!

  12. I think the word intrepid was coined for our generation, Helen. I too remember reading this on your other blog, but enjoyed just as much this time. 🙂 my first visit to France was a school trip to Provence when i was 16 and about to sti my O-Levels. I fell in love with France then (despite the drains and appalling loos) and still love it now. The second was when i was 19 and was a 3 month working stay (straight after a similar one in Hamburg) both of which were intended as intensive language practice before going to university to read French and German.

    DH did something very similar to you in the US before university – a month’s roving ticket on Greyhound buses, travelling overnight whenever possible (and sleeping in the bus station when not) and sightseeing during the day.

      1. Thanks to not coordinating my stashes of glasses properly there are any amount of typos committed by me lately….

        A month on the Greyhound would have been super….I would have loved to have known more about the U.S.A.

        We got around, didn’t we!

  13. Oh the romance! How lovely to travel when young. The adventure, the new sights, the ability to survive on little.

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