La France et Moi

No, I'm not under arrest! No, I'm not under arrest! This is me on my first trip to France at the age of 16 - in 1955. France seemed a very long away in those days. I wondered if there were wild animals - I’d heard about the snakes.

My grandfather had fought in France in the Great War and had been shot through the face while rescuing a comrade - he looked a bit weird, but he was my grandad and I loved him dearly. He told me lots about France - he’d even picked up some phrases; “napoo” was his version of “il n’y a plus” which is what the locals told the tommies when they were asked for food. The place names had all been anglicised so that the soldiers could pronounce them, so “Le Tréport” became “Lee Tree Port”. He spent some time in the area of Cambrai, which they knew as “Cambria”.

When he came home, he worked hard despite his disfigurement and eventually bought a house. He called it “Cambria”, because he was fond of France, even though he had seen it at its worst.

When my mother and father bought a house (for £425!) my father named it after his childhood home: “Cambria”.

At school I studied French under a sardonic, sarcastic teacher called Maurice Lucy. He had a dry sense of humour like mine and he used it very cleverly to make me spend ages over my homework so that I could show off my newly-acquired competence in the third person subjunctive of “pouvoir” or whatever, in class next day. I loved French, even though I was aiming at the scientific subjects for an engineering degree.

One summer there was a school trip to Paris. My parents couldn’t afford it, and I was bitterly disappointed. All my mates went and bragged about it for ages afterwards. I can still feel the hurt.

Bernard, me and my little dog JeannieHowever I had been writing to a French pen-pal that the school had organised, and he said that he could come over from France in the holidays. Sadly my grandfather died while he was with us which rather spoiled his trip - but it was good for his English and my French.

Me with my pen-pal's parents and their caravanNext year it was my turn. My parents took me in their old Ford 10 on the long journey from Worcestershire to Newhaven and plonked me on the ferry to Dieppe where I was met by my pen-pal’s parents in their Citroën Traction Avant. Before embarking I spent some time watching cars being loaded on the ferry - by crane! No RORO ferry in those days!

The parents were school teachers in the village school of Eswars - only a stone’s throw from - wait for it - Cambrai!

I had a wonderful time; I was taken on the family caravan holiday along the Loire Valley and its chateaux to a place called Mesquer near La Baule. I met some French girls - dressed in velvet and lace and chaperoned on their way to church on Sunday morning.

And I fell in love. Not with a French girl, but with France and the French.

So I spent the rest of my life going back to France. At university I went on an exchange scheme to Dijon to work for EDF during the long vac. I spent many annual holidays in France, under canvas or latterly in a caravan. I kept up my French by doing occasional translation work for Marconi, my employer.

And more and more as I approached the ferry terminal to cross over to England, I wished that we were staying in France. So, at last, when I was retired, we came over. And we stayed.

So when someone implies that I am imposing myself on a country that I do not know about and do not care about - I feel I have a right to take umbrage!


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