What makes you fall in love with a country?
I had my first crush aged thirteen in a small village in the north of France, not far from Amiens. It was the end of a long journey for a group of excited grammar school girls from a working class town in the north of England. We were going on a ‘French exchange’. We were going ‘abroad’. Oh the resonance of that word. Abroad – different, exotic, possibly dangerous, and undeniably, 100%, ‘foreign’. It was heady. Some of us had never even been outside Yorkshire apart from the odd day trip to Blackpool, which in spite of the Tower and the funny accent, could hardly be called foreign.
I don’t remember much about our arrival. We were all tired and probably fell straight asleep in our foreign beds with their funny sausage-shaped pillows. But I do remember the first morning, awaking to an amazing smell. Downstairs in the kitchen of my penfriend’s house I discovered my first ‘ficelle’, another sausage-shaped object, this one long, thin, crusty, golden and warm to the touch. Anne-Marie split it longways, slathered it with butter and jam from a jar labelled ‘confiture d’abricots’ and handed it over. I would later discover rows of similar jars lining the shelves of the ‘grenier’, the loft, along with boxes of apples in slatted wooden crates, and herbs hanging from the ceiling. The second morning was even more amazing. Anne-Marie and I were ordered by ‘Maman’ to go and buy the ficelles–still in our pyjamas and dressing gowns!
We stepped out into a hot summer’s morning, the dust rising from the village street beneath our slippers, and pushed open the door of the boulangerie. Inside were several ladies, also in nightwear, exchanging the latest news, speaking in high rapid voices with a lot of hand-waving and ‘dis-donc’s. Their hair was a gleaming confection of undulating waves and complicated curls, their eyebrows perfect, glistening arcs, and waves of eau-de Cologne from their morning ‘toilette’ mingled with the smell of baking bread. It was dizzying and dazzling. Strangely, they were all wearing the same silky dressing gown, a navy blue model with white spots, belted neatly at the waist. (Several years later, watching a rerun of the classic horror film ‘Les Diaboliques’ I discovered Vera Clouzot wearing an identical version as she helped Simone Signoret drown her husband in the bath tub.)
La joie de vivre. The joy of biting into that perfect ficelle, of lingering in the potager in the falling dusk, bats flitting and ‘Papa‘ watering the tomatoes, of being welcomed into the perfumed embrace of the glamourous ladies in the boulangerie every morning, of comparing bra sizes with Anne-Marie in the bathroom mirror (2 white egg cups, 2 pink egg cups), of hanging out of the bedroom window hoping to catch a glimpse of the tobacconist’s son (he of the convict-cropped hair and bold black eyes), of lying in a boat in the middle of a lake, catching the flash of a swooping kingfisher or the menacing shadow of a drifting pike. Taking the time to enjoy life’s pleasures, le temps de vivre. Freedom was a relatively new concept in a country which still remembered the wounds of a six-year Occupation.
The seed of love had been planted that year and it continued to grow, nurtured through successive holidays. A summer in Brittany as a camp counsellor, herding singing crocodiles of little French girls in plimsolls and cotton hats through the country lanes leading to the beach. The beach itself, all fine white sand, swimming lessons where you hung on to the fillettes by the straps of their woollen swimsuits hoping they didn’t stretch far enough for them to plunge to the seabed and drown. Rockpools, starfish, picnic lunches of cold omelettes and Breton pancakes. At nightfall, a return trip for the older girls to lie on the sand and contemplate a million stars or gaze out at an ocean shimmering with phosphorescence.
Later, other beaches, further south approached through pine forests echoing with the strident vibrato of cicadas. The crash of the surf, rows of burnished women in bikinis and ankle chains stretched out like cats on sunbeds, the tap of balls hitting wooden rackets. The palm-fringed beach, a salty breeze coming in across the blue yacht-studded water, wafts of Ambre Solaire and the smell of beignets and chouchous. And it would be on these summer holidays, spreading the towels and putting up the beach umbrella for the first time, that I would listen out for that most beautiful and evocative of sounds, the laughter of children. Racing in terror from the waves, splashing each other in mock fights, digging holes in the sand, wriggling out of the grasp of suncream-bearing parents, launching themselves onto rubber rings. The embodiment of what it is to be joyful and carefree, to be insouciant. La joie de vivre. Le temps de vivre.
On July 14th this year, day of the Fête Nationale, an Islamic terrorist killed 85 people who were out enjoying the firework display in Nice. 307 others were injured. The following week, in a small church in Normandy, an 85-year-old priest was forced to his knees to have his throat cut. It was the 11th attack in 18 months by Islamic terrorists, starting with the January 2015 Charlie Hebdo massacre. Bombings, stabbings, shootings, beheadings and vehicle rammings. This year, in the second half of July, children playing on the beaches of France saw a new and terrible sight, soldiers and police patrolling with machine guns.
‘…le passé, peut-il renaître?’ ‘Can the past live again?’ asks Yvonne de Galais, heroine of ‘Le Grand Meaulnes’, that most devastating of novels about adolescent friendship and the quest for ideal happiness. And Meaulnes himself tells his friend François Seurel that, when he found the mysterious Domain where Yvonne lived, ‘I had reached a height, a degree of perfection and purity that I will never reach again’, adding ‘Dans la mort seulement…je retrouverai peut-être la beauté de ces jours-là…’ ‘Only in death, perhaps, will I find the beauty of those days once again.’
Packing up our suitcases I realise that this is the end of a French idyll. Those summer holidays with their carefree children are gone. For many of us, who knew what it was like before, we shall look back on how it was and mourn the end of insouciance.
It was good to rediscover Kamel Daoud’s voice once more in a recent article in The New York Times:
In the spring of 2016 the talented Algerian author of prize-winning novel ‘The Meursault Investigation’* had announced he was giving up journalism after his article about the New Year’s Eve attacks in Cologne had provoked a torrent of violent recriminations from a group of 19 French academics in Le Monde.
Accused of ‘pathetic clichés’, ‘colonialist paternalism,’ ‘anti-humanism’, racism and Islamophobia, Daoud replied that he found their reaction ‘immoral’: ‘They don’t live in my flesh nor in my land and I find it illegitimate, scandalous even, that I am accused of Islamophobia by certain people sitting in the safety and comfort of their western cafés. All dished up like a Stalinist trial…’
For 20 years Daoud, writing in the newspaper Le Quotidien d’Oran, had adressed such controversial issues as religious freedom and women’s rights. ‘Women’s freedom is my freedom,’ he said at a literary festival in Germany. A fatwah calling for his execution was announced in 2014 by a salafist imam.
Ironically, (and happily), two months after the media controversy, Daoud was awarded the Prix Jean-Luc Lagardère for Journalist of the Year. Denis Olivenne, presenting the prize, spoke of ‘his courage as a journalist…in the tradition of great writer/journalists such as Camus and Mauriac.’ French Prime Minister Manuel Valls congratulated ‘a brave journalist who refused to be cowed’, adding ‘Freedom to inform is also the right to blaspheme and be irreverent, a fundamental principle that France will defend to the last.’
*‘Meursault, contre-enquête’ by Kamel Daoud, Goncourt du 1er roman 2015