26 August 2022 | or 'French Leave'
The French, eh? Doncha jus' lov'em?
OK, I know they're The Old Enemy, and we've been on opposite sides in over 30 wars between 1109 & 1940, compared with just the two instances where we've fought side by side. (*or three if you count the Suez fiasco). Even then, in WWII we managed to remain at war with a bit of France, and we further cemented Anglo-French relations by bombing the shit out of the French fleet while it was holed up in a neutral Algerian harbour. (Don't ask - it's complicated).
Sorry - I digress.
Where was I? Oh yes, The French.
Despite the aforementioned little hiccups in the Entente Cordiale and the best efforts of The Sun's headline writers (I posit "Up Yours Delors", a masterpiece of reasoned debate succinctly encapsulated in a bijou nutshell of the journalist's craft. The least they could have done was put the comma in), we still hold them in grudging regard.
The French, that is, not Sun headline writers.
Our unwilling admiration stems from our perception that they are everything we're not. They are sophisticated, elegant, sylph-like aesthetes; effortlessly chic, exquisitely yet casually dressed, and fastidiously yet understatedly well-groomed. (This includes dustmen, fat-berg removal operatives, building site labourers, beggars, and most scarecrows.) We are the proud possessors of a fashion sense that hovers uneasily between Primark and the charity bin. If invited to a garden party at Buck House, we might splash out on a pair of Blue Harbour slacks and some slightly less saggy and malodourous underwear.
They will spend their free time in a fug of Gitanes and absinthe, languidly discussing abstruse philosophical concepts. We neck down six pints of Special Brew, a quart of vodka and Red Bull and a virulently coloured kebab before executing a barely recognisable reconstruction of the Hofmeister beer ad and throwing up in the taxi.
They can all cook to cordon bleu standard while still in nappies. We need Delia Smith and a four-page instruction manual just to tell us how to boil a bloody egg.
They can recite entire chapters of À la recherche du temps perdu from memory. We look upon anyone who can get past the second line of 'If' as being highly suspect - homosexual at best, and probably unspeakably depraved into the bargain. Not to mention being a bit of a snowflake.
They have an active, varied and innovative sex life and at least four lovers per spouse. We have cocoa.
Oh - and an out-of-date packet of Durex (unopened).
In summary, they have style, confidence, flair, poise, and élan.
And we don't.
All of this, of course, is utter bollocks.
France is a big country (67 million & counting. Some of them fit the stereotype profile, but an awful lot don't. Some of the most obscenely immense bellies, sallow open-pored skin, hair reminiscent of wire wool and hideously garish shell-suits have been visited upon me by French nationals.
The UK is an equally big place (also 67 million as it happens, although that'll be whittled down to 56 million once everyone else has buggered off leaving England in splendid, isolated control of what's left of its own destiny). Some of those 67 million can give your average Frenchman a run for his money on the style, savoir faire and sophistication fronts.
Well, OK, about six of them, but we've all got to start somewhere.
However, despite my Guardianista protestations above, it cannot be denied that there are certain cultural norms which colour the psyche of nations and lead inexorably on to stereotypical behaviour, attitudes, and beliefs.
I'm sure that it will come as no surprise to you to learn that I have a theory about this. Like most of my theories it is almost completely unsubstantiated by fact or evidence. It also shamelessly panders to my prejudices and preconceptions, but it's my blog and my theory so you're going to get it anyway.
I contend that, despite the received wisdom on the combined effects of globalization and the EU, European culture is far from becoming homogenous. On top of the many extant national cultural quirks, Europe is divided into two opposing world views or Weltanschauungen if you want to show off and come over all intellectual. These are characterised by attitudes to work and rules.
On the one hand there is the Protestant work-ethic model which emphasizes individual responsibility and views work and obeying rules as an over-riding duty if not a sacred obligation. Such societies tend to cluster in the North and West of the continent.
The alternative view is the Catholic-fatalist model. This sees work as a heavy burden imposed by fate, and rule breaking as an intrinsic and generally unavoidable part of the human condition, which can be forgiven in return for penitence.
In stark contrast to the anally-retentive Brits, the French have gone for option 2 in a big way. A major manifestation of this is our relative attitude to the concept of a work/life balance. Both societies have one, but the scales are weighted very differently. We Brits surreptitiously stick our thumbs on the pan labelled 'work' whereas our Gallic cousins cheerfully and openly slap an anvil on the other and then retire en masse for a three-hour lunch.
The French will protest, disrupt, strike, work-to-rule and throw clogs in machinery at the drop of a hat. All of this is done with an air of complete openness. There is no pretense that their actions are in support of abstract concepts such as justice, fairness, benefit to others, or the greater good. Mais non! They cheerfully admit that they are solely concerned with maximising their own self-interest.
This refreshing honesty is supplemented by some imaginative planning. You will never, for example, see any self-respecting Frenchman or woman go on strike on a Wednesday. In fact, they only ever strike on Tuesdays and Thursdays.
This is so they can faire le pont (make the bridge). The reasoning goes something like this:
Tuesdays and Thursdays are only one day away from the weekend.
There's not really that much point in coming in on a Monday or a Friday if you're not coming in for the surrounding three days. So you might as well throw a sickie.
Et Voila! - the four-day weekend.
This mindset carries over into attitudes to time off in general and holidays in particular. Which leads us (convolutedly, I concede) to the real, if heavily disguised, point of today's stream of consciousness. First one to correctly identify it gets a coconut.
We had been looking forward to getting to Lyon. It's France's second biggest city, although France is no great shakes in the city size stakes, but we were looking forward to a bit of culture, a lively social scene and to knocking a few jobs off our ever-growing snag list.
I was very excited about the culture bit. Extensive and thorough research (OK, google & Wikipedia) revealed that Lyon had an opera house. I like opera. I don't understand it, but I like it.
Well, the easy stuff anyway.
You know - Mozart, Handel, Verdi, Bizet - Puccini at a pinch.
As long as it's not bloody Wagner.
As for the social aspect, after six weeks in Darkest Rural France, an intensive care unit would be like party central.
The main attraction, though, was the snag list. There are myriad pithy epithets claiming to encapsulate the essence of the cruising life, all of them of the 'Repairing boats in exotic places' genre. Things boat-related persist in going wrong (It's the laws of thermodynamics again. I know I keep going on about them, but they really are pervasive and intrusive buggers). We deal with it by having a running 'snag list.' Whenever a problem, or potential problem, arises it is added to the list and given a priority ranging from 'Aaargh!' to 'Might get done before dementia sets in, but don't bank on it.' Important maintenance is carried out as it arises whereas the lesser snags wait until the winter or such time as I'm feeling particularly conscientious and energetic, which isn't often.
Blogs passim have documented the phenomenon of Darkest Rural France, describing in full and unnecessarily graphic detail the virtual impossibility of getting anything, other than a baling machine or a combine harvester, bought or repaired in the agricultural hinterland of France. This dearth extends into the lesser urban areas, resulting in accessibility to most materials, artifacts and expertise being restricted to out-of-town business parks, hypermarkets situated slap bang in the middle of a motorway interchange or in the big cities.
Hence our child-like excitement at the prospect of mooring up in the middle of Lyon. Our snag list filled several pages of A4 with addenda added in cramped script down the margins. That's where the Parkinson's-induced micrographia comes in handy. High on the list were computer repair, fixing a knackered zip on the spray hood, blood tests and scripts, stopping the leaks in hatches and getting a new battery in my Skagen watch, which most jewelers wouldn't touch with an autoclaved boathook.
So it came to pass that on the 13th of August, we motored confidently into La Confluence marina, moored up and I started to give Google Maps a good seeing to. I was on a roll - we were right in the middle of the commercial area of the city. Everything we needed was there in spades and all within easy walking distance. Computer repairs? - choice of six. Canvas work supplies? - a mere four. Clinical labs? - choice of five. GPs? - too many to count. Bricolages? - two biggies. Jewellers? - more than you could shake a stick at. I trawled through the cornucopia of suppliers and artisans at my disposal and selected some likely suspects. I noted addresses, contact details and reviews.
I also learned a new word in French.
'Congé,' thank you for asking.
Every bloody shop, bar, restaurant, lab or surgery that I visited, phoned or emailed, had a notice bearing the legend 'Fermé pour congés'.
Congé translates as 'official leave of absence', and is allied to 'Les Vacances' which, in keeping with the French view on work/life balance, have been elevated to almost divine status. And the sanctum sanctorum of les vacances is La Grande Vacance.
Which, to all intents and purposes, is August.
All of it.
And bits of September sometimes.
And the end of July's looking nervously over its shoulder.
With the stubborn exception of supermarkets and funeral directors, the whole city was shut. I can see why these two are exceptions. Without them, the streets would be littered with emaciated suppurating corpses. Apart from that, there's zilch: Fancy a drink and a chat or a nice Vietnamese meal? You'll be lucky. Doctor's appointment? No chance. Take two paracetamol and mail the fifty euros to him in Reunion. Warfarin blood INR test? Sorry - just bleed quietly in the corner until the middle of September. Shipwrights? What? You want me to rebed a hatch in August? Haven't you Rosbifs heard of buckets?
I know when I'm beaten. I kluged up the hatches with duct tape and Captain Tolley's Creeping Crack Cure, bodged up the canvas work with more duct tape and a staple gun, p/x ed the computer for an abacus, trusted to luck on the medication and we went, chastened, on our way.
Oh - and the opera was bloody Wagner.
At least it wasn't the complete sodding Ring Cycle