LA VIE EN FRANCE / LIFE IN FRANCE: LES VACANCES / HOLIDAY
(For ‘the story so far’, see blogposts 279, 280, 283 and 286)
National symbols of one kind or another are usually ways of expressing affectionate satisfaction for the land of one’s fathers (and mothers) without tipping over into rabid, jingoistic xenophobia so beloved of The Daily Mail and its ilk ( - if that revolting organ does indeed have an ilk).
After all, it would be difficult for the patriotic heart to swell with nationalistic fervour when its national flower is knapweed (as it is in Germany), bear’s breech (the National Flower of Greece) or even plain old rice (which is the National Plant of Laos).
In England we are, of course, enamoured of the rose, which has been our National Flower since Tudor times, although I’m not entirely sure quite what Henry VIII would think if he knew that it was also the National Flower of Bulgaria, Slovakia, Cyprus, Luxembourg, the Czech Republic, Iran, the USA and Iraq - where the current conflict is therefore a tripartite Wars of the Roses on a truly 21st-century scale.
Wales shares its National Plant honours evenly between the daffodil and the leek (of all things), France goes for the lily (which replaced its heraldic cousin, the fleur-de-lys, after the Revolution), Switzerland and Austria, perhaps unsurprisingly, have chosen edelweiss whilst the noble tulip is claimed by the Netherlands (of course), Hungary, Kyrgyzstan and Turkey (where it originated).
Trees, being inherently rather grand and imposing in themselves, feature strongly as national symbols - even appearing on the flags of particularly arboreal countries. Haiti’s features a palm tree and Sri Lanka’s has the leaves of a pipul tree (charmingly added to the flag in the 1980s because of its pacifist, Buddhist associations).
In this class, the two best known tree-flags must be Canada’s, which would seem positively naked without its maple leaf, and Lebanon’s - the name of whose National Tree is the only one I know of to mention the country itself, thus ‘returning the compliment’: the Cedar of Lebanon.
It’s worth mentioning, in passing, that in researching this posting, I was delighted, nay flabbergasted, to discover that my most favourite tree of all - the amazing gingko - is one of the National Trees of South Korea.
Animals and birds feature strongly, too. When a government is feeling all soppy and sentimental - or when they want to sneak an unpopular measure into law - they adopt a native species as the ‘officially recognised’ symbol of the nation. (The only exception I could find to this rule of nativeness was England, whose National Animal is the Lion, a beast which has never set foot in England except in a zoo or a circus.)
The National Bird of the USA, for example, is the Bald Eagle, whose status as such has not helped its survival; it’s been hunted almost to extinction in the country that is supposed to honour and treasure it.
The National Bird of France is the Cock (stop sniggering at the back). France has had to adopt a domesticated bird as its symbol because Frenchmen (and, presumably, women) regularly and frequently go out into the countryside and slaughter all the wild birds they can find. Hence, the only really safe French birds - albeit temporarily - are cooped up in the farmyard, being National Symbols for all they’re worth and keeping their feathers crossed.
I think, though, that it’s time to expand this harmless concept of national identity. I can see no reason why we can’t have National Insects; I would immediately nominate the Midgie for Scotland and the Wasp for England.
And we could boast of our National Food; Spotted Dick (or something thick with suet) for England, Paella for Spain, Sausages for Germany - though sadly not Swiss Rolls for Switzerland. My researches conclude that they were invented in the 1930s - in Denmark.
And it occurred to me, whilst I was enjoying my Provencal holiday, that some countries - well, alright, one country in particular - need a National Month. That country is France and its National Month, without any doubt at all, ought to be August.
As they are with many things, the French are fixated on August. It is so sacredly important to them that they elevate it almost out of conventional time. August is not a month like any other in France; it is….August, ‘mois d’aout’.
In August, the whole country seems to up sticks and move somewhere else for a while. Autoroutes are as crowded and as silent as car parks. The countryside and coast hold their collective breath for the shock invasion of motorhomes, caravans, tents, trailers with boats on them - and millions of Renaults, Peugeots and Citroens paying homage to August by all leaving the cities at the same time, going 20 kilometres or so and then stopping at the tail-end of an embouteillage - a French traffic jam. As with ordinary jams, the French do traffic jams like no other nation on Earth.
The autoroute de soleil - the motorway from Paris to the south of France - runs within a few hundred metres of Serge’s house. Last August I spent many happy hours standing on the overbridge watching thousands of Parisians on the southbound side going absolutely nowhere at all. Later in August, you can watch them doing the same thing on the northbound side. And remember - French motorways are not free. They pay for this stifling purgatory!
Asking the French why they ALL persist in taking their holidays at almost exactly the same time is a risk that is frankly not worth taking. I’ve done it, and I know. They look at you as if you’ve just admitted to ritual necrophilia. It’s a look that combines total bewilderment with silent rage and is normally directed at anyone foolish enough to criticise French cuisine - or to ask why they all take their holidays at the same time, and often, in the same place.
Picture postcards of the beaches of the Cote d’Azure in August look very similar to those of Blackpool, Scarborough or Brighton - or even Newbiggin-by-the-Sea - in the 1950s. Countless indistinguishable bodies squeezed cheek by jowl on dirty sand in hazy, polluted sunshine.
How lucky it is that the French have no notion at all of ‘personal space’.
For outsiders, there are however two upsides to this ludicrous French obsession with August. Firstly, if you want to visit Paris, or almost any other city - go in August. They will be virtually empty of citizens and will, accordingly, look after you very well indeed.
Secondly - and most importantly for my Provencal holiday - the French never go anywhere except in August. So if you want to visit, for example, Provence - go at any time of the year you like except Sacred August. In either case, you will have your destination to yourself.
As we did visiting beautiful Provence in May…..
Much of this holiday diary is concerned with things I didn’t see as well as those I did. Not far from Gordes, for example, lies a well-known French ‘heritage site’ - the Village des Bories - which consists entirely of dry-stone buildings. They’re thought to be about 300 years old, are almost (but not quite) unique - and I didn’t see any of them. I suppose I’ll just have to go back a few more times.
We had seen our next destination from the hilltop at Gordes - this happens all the time in the Luberon; each hill and promontory is crowned with a seductive-looking village, visiting which leads on to the next and the next. In the this case, it was to Roussillon.
Roussillon is the reddest village I’ve ever seen. All the buildings are red and the very rock on which it sits is red-ochre sandstone (as you can see below). At first sight, it’s astonishing - and it stays astonishing for as long as you’re there. Narrow red lanes, red squares and terraces, red walls and red roofs.
We went for a wander, chose a suitably red fruit sundae and sat down to watch the officious, and highly inefficient, car park attendant exert her authority as only minor French officials can - by creating problems, failing to solve them and blaming everyone but herself. It was very enjoyable indeed.
It had been a long day. We had travelled from Le Vieux Cannet to Cadenet, Lourmarain, Bonnieux, Menerbes, Oppede le Vieux and Gordes to Roussillon. (What a truly elegant list of place-names that is! French is truly an awe-inspiring language.)
So even though Roussillon is locally famed for its cuisine, our overnight destination was calling us. I felt quite sad as we drove away and down into the valley behind the village - but not nearly as sad as I felt when we arrived at our destination.
The Lonely Planet Guide to France describes Apt as ‘sleepy’. I can think of at least a dozen other adjectives it could have used. ‘Nightmarish’, yes. ‘Sleepy’, no.
Many people expect the Market Place in Durham City to be the civic equivalent of the Cathedral and Castle on the hill and cannot be blamed for feeling let-down when they discover that it isn’t.
Apt is like that. It is the ‘capital’ of the Luberon, so my expectations were high. It is the world’s biggest producer of jam and candied fruit - both of which score highly on the list of people-friendly industries; more emotionally and aesthetically acceptable and satisfying than, say, shipbuilding or coal-mining.
And yet somehow, Apt contrives to be the Provencal equivalent of Walsall, Barnsley or Middlesbrough. It isn’t just bland; it is the only place I have ever visited that could be described as ‘perniciously dull’. It closes its psychological doors to natives and visitors alike. Even as early as 8 in the evening, everything was shut - cafes, restaurants, tobacconists, paper-shops, undertakers…
The walk from the hotel to the the town centre became more and more intimidating and somehow ‘unsettling’, as if we were on the deserted set of a 1930s French film-noir. A narrow, polluted and overgrown river cut through the scrappy town square where a few desultory locals sat outside the only open bar pretending to enjoy themselves. I half expected them to turn towards us like Provencal zombies and give pursuit.
It is impossible to adequately translate the word ‘creepy‘ into French, which is a very great pity. Because - notwithstanding all its candied fruit and confiture - that’s what Apt is.
Apt is creepy.
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