An Aer Lingus flight from Dublin at 0650 and the sophistication of Paris tomorrow. Well, not really sophistication, a Eurocamp mobile home in Maisons-Laffitte for €350 for the week, but it is a base for exploring the city.
In younger days, everything French seemed to exuded sophistication, even their cigarettes. Gitanes, even attempting the pronunciation is a strain to someone who speaks with Anglo Saxon phonetics. The soft Gallic sounds bring with them an intimidating sense of sophistication.
There was something more about the French that created a sense that here was style and elegance, while we were coarse and clumsy. Perhaps it was because they were the byword for fashion; what was the English translation for “haute couture”? Despite Christian Dior’s post-War “New Look” causing protests from those who had suffered the privations of the years of occupation, France moved quickly to escape from the drabness of austerity. Perhaps it was because, in the mind of a schoolboy, France was the embodiment of the risqué and the radical. Whether Paris or the Riviera, the Left Bank and Saint Tropez were a world apart from the world of 1970s England. Perhaps it was just that France was foreign, and being our nearest neighbour was our first encounter with language and culture differing from our own.
Chiefly, though, the images of France that shaped teenage thoughts were the black and white photographs. The people who looked at the lens seemed to occupy not just another country, but another planet. The photographs of the Tour de France are peopled by characters very different from those who stood on the terraces at English football grounds. It was hard to imagine those accustomed to red wine, baguettes and cheese being impressed by a bottle of brown ale and a meat pie. The street scenes photographed showed towns and cities not recovering from wartime bombing or heavy industrial decay. Everyday life seemed to have a different quality; three men pictured sitting at a table outside a café enjoying an evening glass of Anis created an image very different from that of three men standing in a pub drinking pints of bitter.
Perhaps it’s all a matter of presentation, France, being more image conscious, seeks to portray itself in a particular light, while England, priding itself on not being continental, does things differently. Perhaps the differences are not so great.
All the same, though, when one says, ‘Gitanes’ there is a certain je ne sais quoi.