The first bit
As soon as the apparently very helpful, if slightly diminutive individual in front of me was on his fifth word I had come to the sudden realisation that I knew virtually nothing about France.
I had set out in blissful ignorance from a rain soaked Manchester one September, with the not quite yet Mrs Johnson, or 'Madame P' as she has become affectionately known, by my side to embrace and absorb the delights of a country I thought I knew to some degree.
We had planned our trip in a flurry of activity at the end of an average English summer when we had counted up the poultry contents of our combined bank accounts and decided that camping in France would be a much better option than the risk of seeing out the late summer in yet another damp and dreary south coast resort thick with the aromas of over used chip fat, rotting seaweed and damp sea air.
The idea of France and camping had come out of the blue one night when it was suggested that we avail ourselves of the deals, which at the time seemed too good to be true, being offered by those companies who erect canvas cities on all the big campsites and supply a fully fitted canvas home complete with refrigerator double beds and seemingly enough kitchen kit to service a family of six.
The passing of the school holidays and the ending of the peak camping season meant that a two week trip taking in four campsites, ferry crossing included, could be yours for a shade under two hundred quid. The anticipation of access to a country ten times the size of England stuffed to the brim with as yet undiscovered wines, cheeses and regional food was more than we could resist, and so we took the plunge and signed up for our first foray into the land of undiscovered plenty, ignorant of the journey that we are still travelling some twenty years later.
At the time both of us were occupying our working hours in the catering trade. Mme P at a swanky Hotel in Chester, and me, for my sins, sweating over a hot stove as a sous chef in a very busy restaurant and banqueting establishment. The pair of us had always been keen foodies and drinkers of fine wines when we could afford, blag or obtain them, so the conversations and excitement were building to a frenzy as the time drew nearer.
It has to be said that I had, by the time we were due to depart, put some considerable thought into what I might take on the trip, because a study of the equipment list provided with the tent encouraged my feeling of confidence that I would be able to fully flex my culinary muscle, and it was with this in mind that I brought down from on top of the wardrobe an old wicker picnic hamper that my mother let me have some years earlier.
I have to say at this point that I do have quite a few things that both my mother and my god mother have 'let me have' over the years. Being sisters they both have a penchant for buying must have equipment, particularly food related (thank goodness) which are bequeathed with the grandest of gestures and then their usage enquired about on a regular basis. The fact that their original owner had them out of the box only once if at all seems to be a matter of little importance, but I do take great pleasure in seeing their faces light up as I relate in great detail my experience on the occasions I have used the item in question.
The picnic hamper however proved to be one of the better 'gifts' in as much as its sturdy construction allowed the packing of a decent sauteuse a couple of quality cooks knives and a decent array of basic ingredients, cloths, a French Bistro cook book and a decent chopping board, an item I value quite highly in the grand array of possible choices. Its shape was conducive with easy packing and the wicker construction afforded some physical flexibility when things were tight.
A previous trip to America had taught me that the cost of buying the fundamental building blocks of any dish, such as salt, pepper, oil, flavourings thickeners etc was a folly, best pushed off in to the land of eating out every night, and that if you were to immerse yourself in the culinary opportunities that presented themselves you had to at least bring something to the party.
So it was that the Johnson travelling cook bag was born and to this day a stock list of basic ingredients accompanies me on any trip where cooking is going to be on the agenda. So kitted out with the best hamper that Kendal's in Manchester could supply we headed towards camping Eden safe in the knowledge that we would at least be able to get a decent meal.
This is an important point, because hitherto my entire experience of anything vaguely camping related had been as a 14 yr old boy when my parents had decided that our summer break would be best spent touring around Scotland in a camper van. My father had taken on hire a Commer Highwayman, which slept 4, for two weeks in July. It all seemed such an adventure but in the mid 70's the reality of four people touring round Scotland in a vehicle not much bigger than a Transit Van was less than ideal.
Although vague in the memory now I do remember a lot of 'cafe' food and rain but a lot of laughing. My memories of that holiday however did not sow a seed of desire in my soul to live a life on the road or make travelling via campsite the holiday of choice, far from it, was by pure chance that Mme P introduced us to the world of the baguette. And so it was that I found myself buoyant with confidence driving off that first ferry ramp, navigator by my side filled with the anticipation of the unknown and a longing to embrace all that was French.
France, I thought, being only 22 miles of water away, was a similar country to England. It worked in roughly the same way with very little to differentiate it from any other western country and society. An entwined history going back several hundred years must mean that developments and traditions would homogenise and develop at a similar rate and that the pace and outlook on life in general would be on a par.
We had been in the land of plenty only about an hour when we realise that not only was driving on the other side of the road a thing you had to think about rather than just automatically perform but that the road signage worked in a subtle but different way. Direction signs indicated destinations hundreds of kilometres away, motorway exits came upon you in an instance and no pre warning appeared to be available on the approach to any junction or crossing.
We soon found ourselves engaging in an ever increasing dialogue of panic every time we came to an exit or roundabout.
"You're looking for the N29 to Yvetot" Mme P would announce as we approached a junction off the motorway.
"How is it spelt" I would reply
" "Would come the reply
"I can't see it on the signs, it might be the next one," I suggested, already trying to introduce an air of dismissal.
"Just keep looking," Mme P instructed.
"Me keep looking won't put another place name on the sign tell me something else," I would retort, starting to lose it a bit.
"Try Yerville" Came the reply.
"Nope." I would say
"I know I can see out of the window as well." The tone sharpening, with every word.
"Well do I go for this one or not?" I would ask hoping to abrogate the decision.
"It might be one of those that you can't get back on again if we are wrong and we end up miles away and lost."
"Well we'd better decide quickly because I've only got 300 yards to go."
"I'm looking and I can't see any of the places on the map on a sign." Mme P would say her head buried in the map now oblivious to what was going past.
"Are going for it or not?"
"Oh God I don't know."
Decision time now gone the car sails speedily past the broken white lines towards the end of the slip road. At this point you experience one of the many bitter ironies of life where at a point just approaching the big green plastic bollard which has the left and right arrow indicating the end of the exit lane you get a view of almost biblical clarity which takes in the local signage situated at the end of the slip road, and in every case in my experience the name of the destination you were looking for shines out like beacon of hope to the weary, or in my case frustrated traveller.
"Bollocks." I announce.
"What? "Says Mme P
"Yvetot" I just saw it on that damn roundabout sign up there as clear as bloody day.
And so it was that we found ourselves buying a tank full of Sans Plomb in a small village somewhere in Normandy wondering if we were ever going to find our way to a place vaguely near anywhere we wanted to go. At the moment of growing unease, which one feels when you don't quite know what to do next I instinctively relied upon the generosity of my fellow man and catching the eye of the friendly faced old gent filling up his Peugeot I steeled myself and said in my best schoolboy French.
"Excuse me, where is the road to Barentin?"
"Ah the road to Barentin" He replied in a heavily accented voice.
So heavily accented in fact that I hardly recognise my own words, and with those five words came the realisation that I had so misjudged my own knowledge, and in that instant stood on a garage forecourt, as the outpouring of helpful, but unintelligible words from my new found friend fell through my fingers like grains of sand the illusions that all that I thought I knew about this country was so far of the mark that it would take years to even start to understand or appreciate the riches this country had to offer.
I got back in the car.
"I heard you talking, did you find out how to get to Barentin" Mme P enquired.
"He did tell me yes," I replied in the vague hope that the conversation would go no further.