Bon soir, monsieur. The smiling face behind the glass window at Passport Control was as welcoming (and welcomed) as the words its owner uttered. We were in France, finally! I was in France, finally!
It had always been a dream of mine to travel to the Gallic nation. Ever since I became acquainted with their proud culture, their peculiar pronunciation (words stressed usually on the last syllable) and their quirky accents (aigu, grave, circonflexe and tréma) I had imagined myself conversing with like-minded people in a café in Paris, or a family-friendly pub in the campagne.
That is why I still can’t bring myself to think that our trip to France almost didn’t happen.
I mentioned the welcoming smile from the immigration officer who checked our passports. That was after a dreadful ten-hour wait at Stansted airport on account of us missing our scheduled flight and having to book the next available one, but to a different airport. Whereas before we were supposed to fly to Bordeaux, the plane we ended up boarding was bound for Bergerac (as in Cyrano, minus the prominent nose and the poetic prowess). Luckily, the distance between the two airports was only an hour or so away, so we didn’t have to cough up any more dosh on trains or taxis. In addition, we had booked a car-hire at Bordeaux and after a few phone calls and a small transfer fee that, too, was sorted out.
After spending the first night at my brother-in-law’s who was, fortunately, staying near Bergerac with his family and who was very hospitable and accommodating, we set off for our destination, Lesparre-medoc. The drive there was smooth but tiring. Readers of this blog must by now be surely aware of how much I love driving but two and a half hours behind the wheel, on a side of the road on which I don’t usually find myself and in a new country is a bit excessive. And that’s without including the tolls! What larks! For me, mind you, not for the poor souls queueing up behind me. Thank God for whatever little fluency I still have in French (it tended to fluctuate; in desperate situations my plus-que-parfait made a very a sudden and gratifying cameo appearance), otherwise instead of A Cuban In London writing about his visit to France, people could have been discussing The Demise of the man formerly known as A Cuban In London at a toll booth in France.
There were, however, parts of that journey I enjoyed. What I loved the most was the change of terrain: we went from a hilly area south east of Bordeaux (where my brother-in-law was staying) full of dangerous, sudden bends to a flat, long surface north of the city (as soon as we left Bordeaux’s orbital) which seemed endless. Because it was a Sunday when we left for Lesparre most roads were deserted, including the otherwise very public and crowded (as I later found out in the week) D1215. Whenever I’m driving in a different country and there aren’t that many cars around, I get a strange sense of being the first person ever to have arrived in that place. It was the same feeling when we went to Cantabria, in Spain, four years ago, but not in Italy two years after on account of the congested traffic I had to fight my way through in order to make it to our temporary abode.
As I pressed down on the accelerator on that first day, my eyes were drawn to the trees lining up the D1215. Some of them grew wildly on either side of the A-road, forming a long compact, thick bush that stretched for miles. Others had quizzical, capricious and very uniform shapes, as if an ex-army officer had been tasked with trimming them and s/he, following a Proustian-like impulse, had tried to turn them into soldiers.
Lesparre-medoc turned out to be the town one normally drives through in order to arrive at one’s destination. So was Blaignon after it, the place we nicknamed “ghost town” because we rarely spotted another human being there. Our house was a sweet, little, rustic cottage that resembled more a cabana from Hansel and Gretel than an actual one.
During the following days we plunged down a rabbit-hole similar to Alice’s, and like her we came out at the other end to a wonderland made up of different burrows:: La Réole, Monségur, Royan, Soulac sur mer, Le Verdon sur Mer, Hourtin. All towns and villages with their own charm and history. We swam in the cold waters of the Atlantic Ocean and in the tepid ones of a large lake near Carcans. In Soulac we strolled down the Rue de la Plage and ventured in and out of shops. We ended the day in a petit bistro on Rue Trouche where we had a delicious dinner.
The only sour note of our sojourn was at the beginning of our journey. It was not just the missed flight, but the lack of customer service skills displayed by the Ryanair employee who was supposed to help us out. I can forgive anything (well, almost anything, I’m Scorpio after all!) but ignorance, rudeness and stupidity are not the sort of traits and attitude I’m willing to put up with. Mademoiselle Ryanair was neither stupid nor rude, but was ignorant. How can you try to get someone to fly to another airport and not know where that airport is? Don’t they test knowledge of geography amongst airline staff? Once back in the UK, I spoke to my wife and told her that unless it was absolutely necessary and there was no other alternative, I would be boycotting Ryanair from then on. Even the low prices famously boasted about by Michael O’ Leary, Ryanair’s head honcho turn out to be a myth when you factor in the add-ons.
Which is why I felt so welcomed and relieved when I saw the smile on that immigration officer’s face upon arrival at Bergerac airport. France, I’m not done with you, I wish I had stayed longer. I’m sure there will be a second part to our relationship, and this time there won’t be a missed flight or ignorant member of staff of customer service. Just you, me and my family. This is not au revoir, ma vieille, but à bientôt!
Next Post: “Urban Diary”, to be published on Wednesday 17th September at 11:59pm (GMT)