Wednesday, 16 March 2011

Hitch-hiking in France

Between leaving school and going on to Cambridge, I spent a few weeks hitch-hiking across northern France with David, a schoolfriend. This was the sort of thing that students in the 1960s might do, not having cars or very much money. Each morning we would split up and arrange to meet that evening outside the Hotel de Ville of some not-too-distant town. By these means we travelled by easy stages from Calais through Normandy and down to the Loire, then northwards the coast before returning home via Caen. We stopped at youth hostels and tiny hotels which charged ten francs for a bed, occasionally camped in barns and fields, and ate very cheaply. Inevitably we missed a lot, though we did see the cathedrals in Rouen and Tours. The highlight of the trip was at Avranches, from where we could look at Le Mont-Saint-Michel, rising like a fairy castle out of the shallow sea (shown in the photograph above: Avranches is off the picture over to the left). A local guide conducted us there at low tide, across the sands through a maze of watercourses.
One of the advantages of hitch-hiking was the opportunity to meet some very strange people. Most of the lifts I got were from a perfectly ordinary selection of lorry-drivers and passing motorists, but once I was given a lift by a doctor out on a call, who told me that De Gaulle was a dirty Communist sympathiser who ought to be guillotined. He took both hands off the wheel and made savage chopping motions to illustrate his point. At one youth hostel we came across a strange little man called Joseph, who worked at a nearby garage, and after a brief conversation asked us if we wanted to see "his collection". Soon afterwards he returned with a brown paper package concealed under his coat, and furtively passed it to us before disappearing. It contained a mass of photographs of Hitler, Goebbels and other Nazi leaders, with handwritten labels like "Mon fuhrer". He must have been a wartime collaborator. I could understand why he was so furtive: many times in Normandy elderly men in cafes, finding that we were English, would get out their maps and talk about the D-Day campaign, complaining that the Americans had been slow to liberate their village, and other memories which seemed like ancient history to us.
The only time we felt under a bit of pressure was when we stopped at a youth hostel full of German students. One of them, hearing that I was from the Lake District, insisted on reciting Wordsworth's "Daffodils" at me: "All at vonce I saw a cloud, a host of golden daffodils. Ach, he vas a great boet!"; which was understandably very irritating. One night a swarm of mosquitoes invaded the dormitory, and we went around swatting them with rolled-up copies of "Der Spiegel" until the Patron of the hostel came to find what all the noise was about. He produced a gigantic aerosol and squirted the mosquitoes with it. David rashly exclaimed, in French, "Poor mosquitoes! They've been sent to the gas chamber!" and then suddenly remembered that all the other people in the room were Germans!

I don't expect today's students do this kind of thing.

No comments:

Post a Comment