I should have listened to mother.
Years ago she had decided to visit me in France using Eurolines, the international coach service. This followed a visit coinciding with a French rail strike when instead of arriving at Lille by Eurostar and catching a connection to Angers she found that the Eurostar had decanted her in Paris at the Gare du Nord.
She worked out that she needed to get to Montparnasse station and headed for the Metro…which was also on strike. Never say that French workers lack in solidarity. So it was a taxi or nothing.
It looked like nothing to judge by the numbers waiting at the station rank, but pushing forward the British Legion badge on her lapel and sweeping ahead of her with her umbrella as if searching for landmines she marched to the head of the queue and commandeered a taxi, whose driver proceeded to try to give her a scenic tour of the French capital.
Not for long. A poke in the shoulder with an umbrella and a sharp cry of
‘Montparnasse, not Versailles!’
had him returning to the straight and narrow and mother arrived safely at her destination. She did not, she informed me, pay what was on the meter nor did she give him a tip. Given the queues at Montparnasse I thought it likely that he’d soon make up the shortfall, even if careful to avoid elderly lady passengers with umbrellas.
So, her next trip was to be by coach.
I came to meet her at Tours, where the coach stop was directly in front of the magnificent station building….I found a parking space and although the coach was late arriving it was pleasant to sit in the gardens nearby.
Finally it pulled in, the doors opened to emit a miasma of blue smoke and mother leapt out, grabbing my arm and hissing
‘Quick! the loo!’
I directed her to station, persuaded the driver that I was to collect her suitcase by dint of recognising it, then followed her into the building, which always seems as if oversized for the traffic it carries, the main line trains passing it by, using the suburban station of St. Pierre des Corps. Still, the delightful tile depictions of the towns once served from here still adorn the walls, pleasing me as always while I toddled down to collect mother from the loo, only to find her arguing with the gorgon on the gate.
‘She wants me to pay for loo paper’ announced mother. ‘I’m telling her I have my own. Never travel on the continent without.’
‘This lady won’t pay for the facilities. How does she think they are kept clean…?
I coughed up, mother declined the sheets of loo roll huffily and the gorgon subsided.
Over a coffee in the pleasant bar at the front of the station, mother, less ruffled, announced that she would be returning not by Eurolines, but by train.
‘There are limits’.
‘I didn’t know when I booked that the coach was going to Madrid. It was full of Spaniards, smoking and playing loud music….including the driver. And I couldn’t use the lavatory.’
‘Was it out of order?’
‘I’m telling you. The coach was full of Spaniards….of course I couldn’t use the lavatory.’
Mother was of a generation that did not use public loos unless in extremis…and if forced to do so would hover over the seat, convinced that she would catch something unmentionable in a place not to be displayed even to doctors should contact be made. But what had deterred her in particular?
‘They were Spaniards! With all that absinthe and Spanish fly goodness only knows what you might catch!’
Spain, then, had been admitted to the list of nations of whom mother held a dim view, thus joining…
Poland – wartime pilots wearing hairnets and silk stockings (how the blazes did she get to know that? Enquiries found her as tight lipped as Ron Knee)….
Belgium, because as a small girl she had seen a First World War Belgian refugee wearing a wig, while everyone knew that Belgians had thick necks (my husband was examined very closely as to the neck in disconcerting silence on first acquaintance)…. –
The U.S.A., thanks to Joseph Kennedy….
South Africa, because her uncle had served in the second Boer War….
and, of course,
France, where nothing more than the name need be pronounced to provide full and complete explanation.
I can’t claim the moral high ground here…I have plenty of prejudices. They just don’t coincide with mother’s.
But I do try to be wary of the stereotype…that handy device which removes the need to think about the person to whom you are speaking by submitting a pre programmed response.
We’d discussed this once when English friends had came to lunch, bringing with them their French architect and his wife. We’d all agreed that none of us were like the national stereotypes we had been brought up on and the talk turned to examples.
My father’s stereotype of the French was as follows..
‘Buggers let us down in 1914…buggers did it again in 1940…can’t trust them as far as you can kick them.’ He also used to refer to the French army as the Comedie Francaise. He applied the faults of the higher echelons of French society to the entire nation and regarded every Frenchman with suspicion, while as for the women….!
My tutor’s stereotype of the French differed from that of my father..
The French were civilised, concentrating on the good things of life, the leisurely lunch, the wine, the foie gras and indulging in sophisticated conversation in cafes about philosophy and literature.
While as for the women…!
While the two views are not mutually exclusive, they would lead their proponents to behave in radically divergent fashions to any Frenchman…or woman…they encountered.
It would not have occurred to my father that a war time generation Frenchman, having been conscripted, would have spent almost the whole of the ‘phoney war’ period being bussed from one garrison to another only to find his regiment in entirely the wrong place when the German blitzkrieg roared across the frontiers, thanks to the miscalculations of his superiors, despite the fact that my father spent a great deal of vocal energy on the idiocy of those responsible for having the big guns at Singapore facing the wrong way when the Japanese came visiting, a lot of his friends having gone into captivity as a result. I don’t think a post war generation Frenchman existed for my father…..his view was formed by two world wars and stayed in that frame.
My tutor thought that every French citizen was a Simone de Beauvoir or Jean Paul Sartre in miniature….if it is possible to be smaller than Jean Paul Sartre…..thanks to their education system which demanded an exam in philosophy as part of the bac…the French equivalent of ‘A’ levels. It probably never crossed his mind that the majority of French kids just about scraped through the ‘brevet’ – a sort of leaving exam taken at the age of 16 – and went on to manual work, because he had his fixed idea of French civilisation which firmly excluded anyone not from the leisured classes.
My own stereotype was based on the novels of Georges Simenon…..only to discover later that he was Belgian (no, I don’t know about the neck) and had his own twist on France!
Our friends’ stereotype was based on the French rural idyll….unspoilt countryside, the vendange and the peasant in his blue overalls enjoying a drink at the bar. I know where that particular view came from…the magazines pushing property and services!
The architect was astonished by these stereotypes…none seemed to him to be how he thought the foreigners thought of the French. Based on what he had read, he thought that foreigners assumed that the French were logical, serious, hard working people with a glorious military history and unique civilisation.
I don’t know what he had been reading, but it doesn’t astonish me…you do read an awful lot, even these days, about France’s civilising mission in the world…. well, you do in France.
In his turn, he gave us his stereotype of the British. We had let the French down in two world wars and at Suez. We were pawns of the Americans and only joined the Common Market, as it was then, in order to let the Americans and Japanese in by the back door. We were unintellectual, operating on instinct, not reason, and, moreover, we had burned Joan of Arc.
Thank goodness we did not fit any of the stereotypes! Lunch would have been a disaster!
Mother did indeed round off her visit with a return by rail, fortunately uneventful, and I thought no more of Eurolines until this December when faced with the fact that Ryanair would charge more to carry my luggage than to carry me and that the coach would land me directly in London which would avoid heaving luggage any further than the ticket office to book a seat for my onward journey.
I booked. Uneventfully. This was, however, the only thing which went well until my arrival at Victoria coach station in London.
The first incident was my own fault.
I was staying with friends and on the day of my departure they had invited people to lunch. Having no wish to have a beautifully cooked lunch ruined by having to fend off impertinent and persistent questioning from one particular female invitee I decided to leave early and take a walk round Tours, followed by a supper in the bar at the station to fill in the time before departure.
The bus arrived, and took me across a soggy countryside to Poitiers where I hauled the luggage from the bus station to the train station and took a modern push me pull you to Tours….having to sit near the loos as there was nowhere to park the suitcases.
At Tours, disaster struck.
No left luggage facility. There was not, it appeared, the demand for it.
The clerk suggested leaving my bags at a cycle hire operation down the road from the station, so, hauling the bags round and through the chaos consequent upon installing a new tramline complete with discarded take aways and doggies’ calling cards I went in the direction indicated. It was closed.
I returned to the clerk. Would there be a left luggage facility at St.Pierre des Corps… the main line station? He could not say, not working there himself.
I headed for the bar. No, I could not come in with all that luggage. Security. What, then, am I to do with it? Go to the cycle hire operation down the road…..
Thank goodness I had taken sandwiches and water for thus it was that I spent eight hours in the unheated waiting room of Tours station with all the other fools who had thought that a station would have somewhere to leave your goods and chattels.
Thanks to the clerk…sitting in the heated part of the waiting room area…I had already learned that Eurolines no longer took up passengers outside the main entrance to the station.
No…..they now used a halt laughingly called ‘The Poplars’ nearly a kilometre away down a side road. By this time it was raining.
I took myself off to ‘The Poplars’ about half an hour before the coach was due, to give me time to check in, but found that the portacabin bearing the legend ‘Eurolines’ was firmly shut so sat in the bus stop with a Portuguese couple going to visit their daughter in Holland and a Roumanian violinist waiting for his daughter to arrive from Austria. We had a most interesting conversation about economic conditions in Portugal, Roumania and France which was just as well because the rain had become persistent, the cold was all pervasive and a heated conversation was the only warmth going.
A coach! The violinist went to investigate. Not ours.
A second coach. No, not that one either….
A third…Yes! We rose and headed for it to load our luggage. No problem. Then we tried to board the bus. Where were our boarding passes? What boarding passes? The boarding passes we were to obtain from the office…..
A shadowy female figure was just unlocking the portacabin.
We trecked back through the rain, the violinist took the keys from her to unlock the door and we were inside, only to wait while she fired up her computer and printed out a page upon which she could tick us off in pencil. We were given the boarding cards and returned to the coach.
What about the violinist’s daughter?
She’d be on a later coach, he said…but at least he could wait in the office.
The shadowy female figure had succeeded in locking it up before he could get there. He waved to us from the bus shelter.
As the bus started, the man in the seat in front pushed his into reclining position, squashing my knees….bang went any sleep or comfort, but this was only toughening me up for the horrors to come.
After a halt in a deserted car park to change drivers – why there? – passengers for London were chucked out at Lille station at 5.30 am, to stand with our luggage in the wind tunnel produced by the surrounding buildings, unable to get inside as the doors were not open.
It rained, the wind gusted….an employee turned up, shot through the doors and closed them again. Not until 6.00 am did they open and the troupe then divided into those too frightened to miss the connecting coach and those so desperate for warmth that they were thinking about taking the Eurostar.
I was among the latter, haring for the lift to the lower section and then for the loos, manned by the employee who had shot through the doors earlier. It was warm there….and I contemplated sitting on the loo for the next hour until the bus was due, but abandoned the thought and went out into the great chill of the concourse.
The doors above, once firmly shut, were now fully open, letting in great gusts of icy wind. Coffee was available, the usual disgusting robusta dispensed in French caffs, but such was the need for some warmth that I gave in and bought one. It hit my stomach like volatile spirits and I headed back to the loos.
C’est chiant, said the attendent. I agreed. This was nothing like ‘Bienvenue Chez les Ch’tis’.
Up again, to stand in the entrance hall, rain now dripping through the roof on to the only seats. Coaches came and went. A whole tour party of Germans arrived and disappeared into the maw of the building. A local tour party assembled and departed.
Finally the Eurolines coach turned up…with no Eurolines sticker and nattily painted with tropical beaches and palm trees – the last turn of the screw. I thought.
Off again. For some reason I thought we were to make a ferry crossing, but instead we headed for the forlorn surroundings of the Chunnel…and more fun!
Luggage off, hauled through security with hulking young men watching weary passengers heave suitcases onto the scanner belt.
Luggage on…but we were a passenger missing. Another hulking young man boarded the coach shouting
Dressed in uniform as he was and sporting the modern fashion of a shaven bonce I wondered if he was about to give a political speech but it seemed that he was looking for a Bulgarian person who could translate for their unfortunate fellow countryman who had just been stopped and searched.
The Bulgarian people disembarked, to return some ten minutes’ later with their compatriot who was clearly not at all happy in voluble Bulgarian. The coach drove into a sort of shoebox with little windows and we were off …back to England, home and beauty.
Never again…..not at any price…not to save any money…..will I use Eurolines.
Much as it pains me to say it, I should have listened to Mother.