France has been good to us. It’s presented us with beautiful days, albeit some hotter than we’d like, it’s provided amazing sights for our eyes, gorgeous food for our bellies. We’ve seen nothing more than a few drops of rain; we’ve exercised our bodies with its paths and cycleways and our minds with its chateaux, its churches, its museums. We’ve laughed with friends and we’ve loved every minute of it. So a few thoughts as we bid au revoir.
It didn’t take Neil long to get used to doing so on the wrong side of the road (although it helps when the steering wheel is also on the wrong side and the car changes its own gears). He soon found his inner European, confidently switching lanes to overtake, moving smoothly into traffic flows, negotiating narrow streets, reaching a speed limit only dreamed of in New Zealand. We had some hairy moments – on the motorway around Paris (thankfully not yet with bikes on the roof) we dropped into the lowest tunnel I’ve ever seen, the ceiling seeming only inches away from the top of the car. On one occasion I had to get out and walk alongside to guide Neil under a height restriction over a river bridge, presumably there to stop large heavy lorries going over as we could see no other reason. In the Lot valley the road clings to the side of the river alongside a sheer rock face through which it occasionally tunnels and where overhangs left us glad we’d left the bikes at the apartment.
In a patchwork of fields shiny green stalks of corn sit alongside a duller, moss-green, wide-leaved plant I couldn’t identify and would never have guessed until told, unaware that tobacco was ever grown in France, never thinking that it still would be – smoking is more common here than in New Zealand. Bright yellow glows from a distance, like the rapeseed in England, but here it is altogether more beautiful close up – golden sunflowers, their large heads dipping in the breeze, turning with the sun (earning them their French name: tournesol), a church alongside completing the postcard view. With thick lines of mature trees as a border, the whole thing looks like a quilt thrown over the undulating land.
We tried our best but somehow were always identified as English speakers. Sometimes it would be a blank look, often the listener would switch immediately to English. If French was spoken slowly in words of one syllable with a lot of gesticulation I would generally be able to work out what was happening. Neil could follow a conversation, or at least get the general gist of what was being said. His spoken French is better than mine but I stopped studying it at school nearly a decade before he did and I didn’t spend teenage holidays in France. Frankly I’m disappointed he didn’t try harder. Unless he’s reading this in which case, well done darling I’m very impressed.
Like in most countries the roads in France are classified by size. A roads are the autoroute, multi-laned and with a barrier down the middle, often with a peage (toll) due as you enter or exit. There was always that frisson of nervousness as we approached a gate – would our credit card work, would we be the ones holding up a queue of honking drivers? (French drivers are a long way from patient.) Would it be possible to take the ticket/pay the toll without straining arm/shoulder/back trying to reach the flipping machine – no matter how close Neil tried to get it was never close enough. N roads are national, a mix of dual carriageways and two lane roads, generally busy and usually slower than autoroutes, possibly due to the large amount of lorries.
D roads are the roads that have an identity crisis. They can be narrow, weaving through villages in tight turns with skinny pavements that mean a pedestrian can suddenly appear in front of the car. They can be a tiny one lane road between high hedges, blind-cornered and not for the faint hearted (French drivers being as well known for their caution as they are for their patience), or the lane that darts through woodland, trees forming a tunnel around them. They can also be the busy road alongside which I cycled furiously as large vehicles sped past me as though they were on a motorway. At least twice they ventured into dual carriageway territory. Conclusion: a D road is anything that isn’t an A or an N and therefore cannot be taken for granted or underestimated (and to be avoided when cycling unless you’ve seen its ID card first).
The list of things we will miss about France is long. We’ll miss our friends, we’ll miss the food – the cheese, the bread, the beautiful fruit, la tresse*. We’ll miss the sights, the relaxed atmosphere, the wine… did I mention the food? We’ll miss the small local shops, the boulangerie, the charcuterie, the épicerie, all with their friendly staff who treated us no differently to the locals.
France, it’s been a blast. À bientôt.
*The most amazing pastry, a cross between an almond croissant and a pain au chocolat, blended together in a plait, hence the name (tresse being French for plait).