Helen Moat on cycling the idyllic country lanes of Normandy and her love-hate relationship with the Gallic nation
“Je ne parle pas francais ...” I started off, speaking fluent French. The words rolled off my tongue. This was easy.
I’d stopped when I saw the couple standing by their car, dismounting from my bike. Beyond them the road was a dead-end, but I could see a path winding through the grass alongside the Seine. I just wasn’t sure it went anywhere - or whether it was suitable for bicycles.
All the years I’ve travelled, I’ve avoided France like the plague. I have only been back once since I inter-railed through the country as a teenager.
Back then, I’d taken a train to Paris. I’d arrived late at night, thinking I could kip down in the railway station … only I was kicked out. I stopped at the first hotel I came across, just around the corner. The place was a dive. I checked in and took myself to bed, but when I switched the light off, I realised I was being bitten. I turned the light on and found the bed was riddled with fleas and that the sheets were filthy.
Somehow, I got to sleep and left early the next morning.
Somewhere in Paris that morning, I met a couple of Canadian girls. We joined forces and stopped in a French café for lunch. The waiter wasn’t very friendly. He banged down the cutlery in a pointed way. We wondered what we’d done to offend him. In retrospect, I don’t think we’d done anything other than speaking English, and being foreign. Or maybe that’s just the way French waiters behaved, regardless.
The Canadian girls and I decided we’d had enough of Paris (even though I had seen nothing of the city) and jumped on a train for the Cote d’Azure. Looking back, I can’t believe I went to Paris and left without seeing anything. Incréable!
Since then, I’ve gone to great lengths to avoid France. When I’ve driven with my family to Basel in Switzerland, I’ve insisted on taking the German side of the Rhine. Much better: they spoke a language I could understand and communicate in – and they didn’t have uncivilised toilets – a hole in the ground.
Then a couple of years ago, I won two flight tickets with Air France in a writing competition. I flew to the Basque country and fell in love with France, its beautiful towns and villages and chic-shabby charm. And I could see why the British had a love affair with the country.
“Je ne parle pas francais … mais …” I was struggling now, searching my mind for the words I needed to communicate. I tried to dredge up some of the vocabulary I’d learned at school. The problem was I had only done three years of French. I didn’t even bother to take it to O-level. And I hadn’t listened in class anyway. Plus, many decades had passed since then.
Later, I lived in the German speaking part of Switzerland, where Swiss-German is sprinkled with French. For example, the Swiss say Merci vielmal (thank you in French and very much in German). They ride a Velo and not a Fahrrad. In German, you’d ask for a Fahrkarte in the railway station, but in German-speaking Switzerland you ask for a billet. Neither do you ask for a hin und zurück , as you would do in high-German, but a retour. And so it goes on and on. But my smattering of Swiss-German-French seemed to be of no use now, and I was struggling to express myself. If only I’d spent a couple of weeks before I came, learning some high frequency words, I might have had a chance now.
I searched for verbs. No. None. I searched for prepositions. Nothing. I was dying a linguistic death. But I’d committed myself to this conversation and there was no going back.
“Je ne parle pas francais … mais … vélo … ici?” I point to the path. The shame, the humiliation. I was speaking French like a one year old. I realised this was the main reason I’d avoided France over the decades. In German I was fairly fluent. I could ask for anything, even contribute to in-depth conversations. I was a linguist. I was smart. In French, I was a linguistic imbécile.
I dared to look up. The couple wasn’t laughing. In fact, they were smiling in a friendly, helpful way.
Then they started speaking. They spoke rapidly in multiple sentences. At first my brain wanted to close down in panic, then I realised as a linguist, I just had to tune in on the words I knew. I caught “Mais, oui … un kilometre …tourne-à-gauche … rue … belle”.
It was enough. The path was okay for bicycles. We should cycle for a kilometre; then turn left onto the road. The track was beautiful to cycle along.
And so it was. And so is France. The people are friendly, helpful and accommodating. The scenery is beautiful, the rural towns and villages quaintly French and idyllic.
Rural Normandy is the cyclist’s dream. The country roads are empty and when cars do appear, the drivers give you a wide berth. (1.5 metres, as required by law). In Normandy, rustic half-timber cottages, flint and stone barns line the roads, along with elegant shuttered mansions and the occasional turreted chateau.
Here I don’t need an iPod because nature provides the soundtrack: a woodpecker across the road from our riverside accommodation, a cockerel, a honking goose, the skylarks on the plateau, the great tit’s two-note song in between, the harsh caw of a crow. There’s the bark of the dogs that race the gardens alongside the bikes, and the wind in our wheels. I just wish I could speak their beautiful, melodic language.
This is why I hate and love France.