Sunday, 31 August 2014

Some impressions of rural north east France

We returned from France, slightly traumatised by French motoring. To avoid it, we left the fast trans- national, toll motorways and used minor routes through the countryside. Here we contended with farm tractors, rubber wheels six feet tall, with terrifyingly deep treads. They were just as intimidating as the huge, tailgating lorries on motorways.

French drivers seem to have no patience with GB's right-hand-drivers. They flash lights or gesticulate impolitely if you hold them up for a second or two, or fail to join a motorway seamlessly in the spirit of actively seeking out a near collision - just to announce one's arrival. Our worst experience was overtaking an oversized lorry at 70mph and seeing it draw out while passing it, pushing us nearly onto the central reservation. We escaped a collision only by putting the foot down to the floor (speed). We may never drive in France again, as a result. Having said that, French road mortality figures are not actually as bad as Italy's, so their drivers must be very adept at near misses (as we noticed).

My intuition is that France is in a state of increased stress, possibly heading for some kind of political shake-up. Is this because its economy is in depression, its unemployment figures are rising, its political leaders are despised and the weather this summer was awful? Or is it because The Republic has long since replaced Christianity with the centralised, impersonal, glorified “state"?

The French countryside is mile after miles of emptiness, vast fields, with no hedges, wide open vistas, no church spires or farm buildings. When you finally reach a not-very-memorable remote village, a ribbon of terraced, red-brick facades mostly shuttered, interspersed by farmyard heaps of manure, there are few if any adverts, no post offices, nor shops. Not a single person is walking around. One feels like calling out “Is anyone at home?”, only to hear one’s voice bounce back off a peeling wall. Now and then there is some reference to "Napoleon", in the name of a road, or in the distant glimpse of a statue of the Emperor on horseback, in a cocked hat. But he, too, is elusive.

The unsolved mystery is: what are all the people doing in rural France? There seems absolutely nothing to do there except hunt deer which motorists are informed are leaping the road around every corner. You hear the lovely French hunting horn - but it is in your historic imagination. Rural France is big and empty, without any apparent sports or distractions, except avoiding being crushed by monstrous farm machinery going at 15 mph, which would not be permitted on the roads of England. New cities the size of Birmingham could be hidden in eastern France, without anyone knowing anything about them.

No wonder Napoleon said the British are “a nation of shopkeepers”: they most certainly are. There is a shop every few yards in England, with creative, bright shop windows, reflecting character, hope and engagement with visitors. We should delight in them! Shops are not just helpful, they are colourful and fill the space available.

We vainly tried to buy some French cheese in two villages, both without any grocery shop. Perhaps the rural French make their own cheese at home? Or perhaps they cleverly exchange produce privately at cut price, without paying tax? The French always were sophisticated...

No comments:

Post a Comment