242In this blogposting…
*Life In France/La Vie en France
Our seasonal AGM will take place at 1100 on Wednesday 29 December at Grey’s Monument in Newcastle. Try to be there if you possibly can. After all…
...a particularly splendid time is guaranteed for all.
LIFE IN FRANCE/LA VIE EN FRANCE
Two weeks ago, I tasted my first snails. There was a bustling Christmas market in the village and one of the refreshment stalls was selling escargots, freshly cooked in butter, garlic and parsley. (Incidentally, the French for ‘parsley’ is persil. Why, in the name of all that’s sacred or profane, is there a washing powder with the same name in England? Is it coincidence?)
For a few minutes, all eyes were on ‘the Englishman’ as he tentatively placed the first unshelled mollusc in his mouth. After all, this sort of thing doesn’t happen too often in deepest, rural Beaujolais. I became a temporary gastronomic phenomenon!
As I ate, I was conscious of several factors which encouraged me to persist. Firstly, I represented England - that sceptr’d isle set in a silver sea land of hope and glory blah blah blah. Secondly, snails were, I thought, just another version of foodstuffs I was quite happy to consume at home - winkles, scallops, cockles and the like. And thirdly, I'd already eaten horsemeat in Verona. If you can eat horse, you can (I reasoned) eat snails.
Disappointingly, I quite enjoyed them. Because they are drenched in garlic, most of the sensations in the mouth are of texture rather than taste. And, precisely as you’d expect, they have the texture of cockles or winkles. It takes longer to eat each one, of course, as they are so much bigger.
The reaction of the small and expectant crowd around me was the most surprising aspect of the whole event. They obviously thought I would grimace like a gurning bulldog or even throw up all over their lovely pavement. I’m proud - and admittedly quite relieved - to report that I did neither.
Escargots, though, remain an acquired taste as far as I’m concerned.
ROCK, PAPER, SCISSORS AND…
I also discovered, on my latest French jaunt, that eating snails and frogs - and driving on entirely the wrong side of the road - is by no means the only thing that the French have their own way of doing.
They also play ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors’ with an extra ‘element’. In France, you play Caillou, Papier, Ciseaux, Puits - ‘Rock, Paper, Scissors, Well’. (That’s ‘well’ of the sort you draw water from.)
Since I discovered this astonishing divergence of our two cultures, I’ve pondered long and idly (as you do) about its significance - and how, mathematically speaking, it affects the balance of the game itself.
Think about it. With the three elements we are used to, the risk seems balanced. Each element can beat one of the others and get beaten by the second. Paper defeats Rock but is defeated by Scissors. Rock defeats Scissors but is beaten by Paper. Scissors defeat Paper but are defeated by Rock.
Thus - by my calculations - whichever you choose, you have a 50/50 chance of winning.
But any fourth element is bound to unbalance your chances - isn’t it?
Stay with me on this one…
Rock defeats Scissors but can be beaten by Paper and Well ( - you can drop a Rock down a Well).
Scissors defeats Paper but not Rock or Well. (To be honest, I’m not sure who wins with Scissors and Well - or why.)
Paper defeats Rock and Well (apparently because you can cover a Well with Paper) but not Scissors.
But (and it’s a very big ‘but’) Well defeats them all except Paper.
If you’re still alive and functioning at this point, it may have occurred to you, as it has to me, that all you need to do to win the French version of the game is therefore choose Well all the time. Its chances of winning seem to be 3:1.
Or has all this pre-Christmas mulled wine addled my otherwise superlative powers of reasoning?
Your Yuletide mission, should you choose to accept it, is to work all this out and then explain it in words of one syllable.
Go for it.
As if escargots and Rock, Paper, Scissors, Well were not enough, I also visited the city of Lyon for the first time during my latest sojourn in France.
Lyon is France’s third city, after Paris and Marseille. It’s about the size of Manchester or Sheffield or Leeds. And it’s an awe-inspiring place, in a brash, ‘look-at-me’ kind of way.
Its site is spectacular. It straddles the confluence of two of France’s mightiest rivers - the Rhone and the Saone - and the hill of Fourviere, which dominates the city centre like the Acropolis dominates Athens, affords a panoramic cityscape view which must be almost unparalleled in Europe. I was gobsmacked by it, and felt ashamed never to have been there before.
As I looked out over this splendid and thriving city, I wondered why our continental neighbours (and not just the French) almost always seem to be able to provide themselves with grand and monumental metropolitan cities while we in Britain seem to end up only with places like Birmingham, Southampton or - God forbid - Plymouth.
And we can’t blame wartime bombing, either. On the continent, post-war development of bombed-out cities always included vast amounts of restoration. Warsaw is perhaps the best-known example of the careful and loving post-war restoration of a beautiful city but there are dozens of others, some of which I saw on my Grand Tour.
But since the war, we in England seem to have treated our cities as ‘necessary evils’ rather than grand centres of culture, learning and heritage. Before it was bombed to oblivion in 1940, Coventry had the largest and best-preserved mediaeval city centre in England. After 1945, it was ‘redeveloped’ into the hideous abomination it now is.
And afterwards, almost all of our great centres of population seem to have been laid waste in the 60s and 70s. Newcastle itself was almost entirely and wantonly destroyed in a way which, I suspect, would be unthinkable elsewhere in Europe.
It wasn't only Lyon's 'built environment' which drove this point home. Its attitude to public transport was also terribly unEnglish.
Lyon has four metro lines, four tramways, two funicular railways (to get you up the hill of Fourviere), four express busways, five trolleybus routes and over 100 regular bus services.
The new 'tram-train' (on the left in this photo) whisks you from the city centre to the airport non-stop in 20 minutes.
Lyon also has three all-night bus routes.
This is a city that ‘looks after’ its citizens.
Tyneside and Wearside together are over twice the size of Lyon. We have one (or, at a pinch, two) metro lines which leave huge tracts of our conurbation unserved.
We have no trams or trolleybuses at all. Instead - and unlike almost everywhere else in Europe - we rely on buses. Within living memory, we have built whole towns - Washington, Cramlington, Killingworth and Peterlee - with no meaningful planning for public transport.
Buses are expensive to operate and use - and stop running even before the pubs have shut. (Except if you need to get to Chester-le-Street. For reasons known only to God, there is an all-night service.)
Here endeth my year-end rant. I know I’m crying in the wilderness, anyway. Nobody’s listening…
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