To me, it takes little to make France a lovely country to visit (and little, too, to spoil the fun): this time around, though at times nippy, the October weather was as clement in sea-girdled Provence as it had been dour and trying last time around in landlocked Toulouse in March-April 2006.
The conclusion is well-known to Gallic expats here: for the best of both worlds, if you can afford it, spend the summer months in France and the so-called cold season here.
Of course everybody was heavily dressed, and Chart and I in any open space gravitated automatically towards the pools of sunshine, and spent a fortune buying tiny cups of coffee (€1.60 per cup – say 80 baht) only on those café terraces where we could bask in the sun, although Chart turned his back to the warming rays that would have disgracefully darkened his rugged brown features.
I kept raising my head to a long-forgotten marvel: a clear, intensely blue sky which invisible planes crisscrossed with fleeting trails of white. The busy Marseille-Marignane airport wasn’t far away. The last time I had seen a sky that blue was in Nepal in early 1988 before I settled down here under shades of grey.
The part of Aix-en-Provence we saw, its historical centre, was beautiful and quaint in its mixture of old and recent yet matching buildings and modern shops and conveniences. Small compact streets, some forbidden to cars; large avenues with plane trees, those platanes that may still shade the roads around my home village in dullish Ariège.
The main worry throughout the trip was the traffic: the French drive on the wrong side of the road, and my head kept swivelling before I crossed any street or roundabout. Chart, duly warned, did likewise.
But we needn’t fear: amazingly, cars stopped as soon as you set a foot on the roadway and in some cases even when you merely stood facing the street with no intention to cross!
A minor event on Day One set the tune: the high priestess of the writers’ gathering, lovely Annie Terrier, was leading a group of us along a boulevard; Chart and I were lagging a dozen paces behind. As we came to the end of the large central alley, our Bangkok reflexes kicking in the two of us just crossed in between cars and then stood watching Annie raise one arm like Moses parting the waters, two flows of cars freezing, and Annie’s little flock duly traipsing through the zebra crossing.
This led me to the staggering insight that there are two types of countries in the world: those like France where pedestrians hold power, and those like Thailand were drivers hold sway. I leave it to Marx and Marcuse to work out the theoretically implications of this.
As I have been away from France for more than three decades, there was plenty to amaze me, and plenty to make me feel slightly uneasy in daily life. Were I to live there again, I’d have to learn how to cope with all those automatic, credit-card-hungry machines everywhere, the myriad regulations that now govern mere breathing, and the changed manners all around.
To stay with cars, though, one of the greatest pleasures was the drive from Marseille to Toulouse through lazy country roads and some highways: pellucid tarmac, speed limits in force, neatly demarcated lanes, early warning panels of works ahead… Thinking of those dreadful trips to Pattaya with disappearing lanes, unlit stretches of highway and at times drives against the arrows on the asphalt, I kept wondering how the French still manage to kill and maim themselves on such well-cared-for roads. Perhaps too much caution and courtesy dull reflexes?
Another thing that amazed me in Provence was that the frames of all windows and doors of public and private buildings had been changed to white plastic ones, presumably to ensure air-tightness and preserve energy. When I ventured onto the terrace of a friend’s house facing the sea south of Marseille, the first thing I noticed was that the canopy had been changed – to a frame of white plastic. “It’s the law. It was done last September, I wasn’t even here,” said the friend. The canopy indeed needed to be changed; but white plastic framing to preserve energy?
During that trip, we halted for lunch at Le Grau du Roi. It was just past noon. The terrace of Splendid Café on the “front de mer” was drenched with sun, and soon the twelve tables, each sitting up to four people, were taken. The single waiter, a fiftyish man with a slight stoop and a hairy patch under his long nose, was fairly busy – with the owner serving special clients as well, champagne and oysters –, which might explain why the lunch took nearly two hours, and would have, had we not forsaken the dessert for some coffee instead.
I ordered a Heineken for Chart, which he drank swiftly. As the waiter came back to our table, Chart, looking him straight in the eye, asked in loud enough, impeccable English, “Could I have another Heineken beer, please?” The waiter simply ignored him. He never brought the beer. I had to leave the table, walk up to him inside and say frostily, “My friend ordered a beer ten minutes ago. Please see to it that he gets one. Where are the toilets?” Chart got his beer, and even a third bottle later. A consolation of sorts is that, according to the bill (which came to only €51.30 for three – about 2 500 baht), the waiter’s name is Maggie (« Vous avez été servi par : MAGGIE »). Makes me wonder if cash registers in France have a sense of humour or are just as sexist as the man handling them is racist.
On the other hand, strangers of all ages everywhere took the time to give us directions or information and sometimes went out of their way to be of help, irrespective of skin colour or length of hair. And of course, during those days of symposium and writers’ meetings, the one word that sums up the whole range of exchanges was conviviality. A rare commodity in my neck of the woods.