In this blogposting…

*Life In France / La vie en France

OK so the Bowes Railway will be closed AND it would be a shame to hold an AGM in South Shields when Linda won’t be able to be there.

So let’s see now...any suggestions apart from Newcastle Quayside? On a Sunday, with Paddy’s Market in full swing?

Respond! As a matter of urgency!

But whatever - don’t forget the time and day. 1100 on Sunday 12 June.

And remember, above all else, that a splendid time is guaranteed for all…

Let's get one thing clear from the start. I don’t really believe in ‘nationalism’.

Jingoistic, flag-waving national ‘pride’ has, it seems to me, almost always caused more problems than it solves. At its best, I suppose it’s merely an expression of how glad the flag-waver is to be British (or Belgian or Brazilian or Basque) but, at its worst, it’s surely an insidious and disreputable appeal to narrow-minded xenophobia cloaked in ‘patriotism’ (‘the last refuge of a scoundrel’).

It can also lead to the regrettable stereotyping of one nation by another; to the English, the Irish are congenitally stupid, as the Belgians are to the French and the Czechs are to the Germans. And these stereotypes can be just as inaccurate even if they are not as malicious; not all Welshmen or Italians sing and by no means all Frenchmen are great lovers.

Anyway, that’s my opinion and you’re entitled to it.

Having laid out my stall so emphatically, I’m now about to contradict myself in a monumentally unforgivable way. And that’s because my frequent trips to and fro across the Channel lately seem to have shown me that, national stereotypes notwithstanding, there are some things which seem to be ‘typical’ - and typically at variance - in the two countries.

French tv is uniformly dreadful (except for the adverts, which are much, much better than ours). French town- and city-centres have been much less ravaged by post-war ‘development’ than ours. The French seem to be incapable of laughing at themselves whereas the English seem to quite enjoy it.

And also amongst the countless little things I notice whenever I step off the plane or the train at either end are road-signs. Yes, road signs.

It may seem churlish or even trivial to hold up road-signs as a cogent and pertinent example of English ‘superiority’ but they are, nevertheless. I’m talking here not about ‘Stop’ or ‘Sharp bend ahead’ boards: these are common to most European countries. Rather I mean direction signs; those big hoardings you see at roundabouts and road junctions that tell you where the roads lead to.

Our system was developed in the late 50s and 60s by various government committees and they did a breathtakingly good job. What they devised - and what we take so much for granted - is a model of clarity and good design. The colouring (white on blue for motorways, white on green for main trunk roads, black on white for other roads) and style and size of typeface are elegantly simple, as most good functional design ought to be.

Mixing upper and lower case was a stroke of genius; a place-name on a direction board is oddly easier and more restful to read than if it was painted in CAPITALS throughout.

Our road-signs minimise possible confusion, they facilitate decision-making at speed - and many of them are simply nice to look at.

I know that sounds a bit silly - but try looking at a few big, important ones and you’ll see what I mean. They are proof of how crucial the design of everyday objects is.

I would happily wave a Union Flag in support of them. Especially if I was standing in front of a French equivalent - confusing hotch-potches of mixed typefaces, inconsistent colours and jumbled signage. You need satnav, a good atlas and a first-class degree in geography to find your way around France because the road signs offer little or no help at all.

This was brought home to me in a big way last week, when I went for my first extensive road-trip in France. We travelled over 750 miles along motorways, dual carriageways and country lanes and - in fairness to the holiday - the ghastly and inferior road signs were about the only elements of the week that didn’t quite come up to scratch.

The rest, though, was sublime.

Whenever I go to France, I only really see one small part of it: Beaujolais. And, lovely though that is, I was anxious to explore more of this surprisingly big and varied country. I wanted to see more of its towns and villages, more of its monuments and more of its landscapes. Well, those boxes can now be ticked - at least as far as one part of Provence is concerned.

We set off down the infamous autoroute de soleil - 'motorway of the sun' (so-called because it links Paris with the south coast) - and, within an hour, we’d passed Lyon and were on our way towards Montelimar.

I don’t know about you, but I just don’t understand nougat, which I quite deliberately and obstinately insist on calling ‘nugget’. Montelimar has been the world champion maker of the stuff for centuries and, although I’m supposed to like it - it does, after all, contain almonds - I just don’t. It’s like eating MDF that’s been dipped in washing-up liquid. It tastes like powdered wall or chewable gravel.

So we gave Montelimar a miss this time and headed further south towards a monument I’d wanted to see for years: the Pont du Gard.

Living in north-east England, I don’t need proof of how ingenious the Romans were. But, if I did, the Pont du Gard would be it. Take a look.
It’s an enormous aqueduct flung across the River Gardon to carry water to the thriving Roman city of Nimes. The lower level has six arches, the second level has eleven and the third has 35. The water channel on top is 275m (300yds) long and stands 50m (165ft) above the river. It carried 20,000 cubic metres of water every day and the aqueduct’s heaviest blocks weigh in at over 4 tonnes.

And it’s been there - functional and graceful - for over 2,000 years.

It has to be said that the Pont du Gard makes Hadrian’s Wall - scenically magnificent though it is - look like a pile of stones in a field. And later in my holiday week, there was more - much more - to come.

But, in the oppressive heat of this stifling Monday afternoon, I could only sustain my awe for a limited time before I succumbed to the temptations of the river itself. I stripped off and waded in. It was heavenly. And I discovered that, if you thoroughly soak your shirt in cold water and then put it on, you can stay cool (if also very wet) for an hour or so.
This is a picture of me doing my 'Angel of the North' thing in front of another bridge altogether - and an even more famous one, to boot. This, dear reader, is the bridge at Avignon - the one in the nursery song. You know the one: soo lay pong, soo lay pong, too lay donsa, too lay donsa…

Even though only half of it remains, tourists like me flock to it to have their photos taken next to one of the few buildings in the entire world enshrined in a nursery rhyme. And, needless to say, the French charge you to walk on it.
Avignon is a splendid city, encircled (like York and Chester) by its mediaeval walls. And it has a peculiar history, too. Between 1309 and 1377 the Popes lived here and not in Rome; Avignon was the seat of the Catholic Church, no less. The gigantic Papal Palace (which see) still dominates the city centre - although the predictable accordionists who plague the square in front of it detract a little from its magnificence.

As I sat in Place de l’Horloge (‘Clock Square’) enjoying the best bowl of spaghetti with mushroom sauce I’ve ever tasted, I couldn’t help but wonder how the people of Avignon managed to dance sous (under) the bridge rather than sur (on) it...

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1 comment:

Ellie said...

Welcome back, Ian and thank you for that lovely bedtime story...I will sleep soundly with a smile on my face. Hope to see you in Paddy's Market on 12th x