I’m on holiday in France for the first time in nine years and I’d forgotten how lovely it is. The food, the architecture, the scenery — it’s all exquisite. Indeed, I’d be tempted to move here permanently in spite of the 75 per cent tax rate were it not for the country’s single flaw: it’s full of French people.
Oh my, but they’re ghastly. Not all of them, obviously. No doubt there are some nice French people in France. I just haven’t met any on this holiday.
Our first bad experience was on the Paris Métro. We’d been led to believe we could change trains in Paris within a 50-minute window, even though it meant getting from the Gare du Nord to the Gare de Lyon. A taxi was out because the line at the Gare du Nord was too long so we took the subway. Unfortunately, the line which connects the two stations was closed and that meant changing, but we would have made it were it not for our fellow passengers. We were about to board out second tube train, a clearly stressed couple with four children under ten and several heavy suitcases, when everyone else on the platform barged in front, shoving us out the way. Charlie, my four-year-old, was knocked over. This is clearly par for the course on the Métro — it’s every man for himself and to hell with women and children — but such a thing would never happen on the London Underground.
After missing our train at the Gare de Lyon, we managed to get on the next one two hours later and that was a marginally more pleasant experience. I say ‘marginally’ because the journey was tainted by the smell of body odour. At one point, I took a trip to the buffet car and the stench of the passengers in carriage after carriage was enough to knock a vulture off a stink wagon.
Once we arrived at our destination things picked up considerably. We’re renting a house in a little village called Flaux about 45 minutes from Avignon and there’s no question this is a beautiful part of the world. At dusk, the nearby hills are suffused in a warm orange glow, complemented by the smell of thyme and lavender. But every time we start to fall in love with the country we’re brought crashing back down to earth by the local population.
Take our trip to Uzès on Monday evening. This town is picture-postcard pretty — it could have been designed by the animators of Ratatouille. It’s full of adorable little restaurants, each one bursting with Gallic charm, and we didn’t think we’d have any difficulty finding somewhere to have supper. But it proved next to impossible.
The waiter at the first place we entered — which had a blackboard outside describing delicious pizzas — told us it was a bar and not a restaurant. As such, he couldn’t serve children. The best he could offer was some slices of pizza to take away.
The second place overlooked the main square, with dozens of small tables on the pavement, but the owner simply shook her head and said ‘non’ when we asked her if we could push two tables together. This, in spite of the fact that the place was completely empty — and I mean completely.
Was her refusal compelled by some petty piece of French bureaucracy? If so, that wasn’t offered as an excuse. She just rebuffed us without explanation, a look of disdain on her face. We got the impression she would prefer to make no money than suffer the horror of serving les Anglais.
We come across the same attitude wherever we go. It’s as if we’re the hapless rubes in some broad Hollywood comedy about a disastrous family vacation in You-rope. If a bunch of actors playing French service personnel portrayed them in this way you’d think they were trafficking in national stereotypes. Yet this is exactly how they behave. The clichés are all true.
The way to survive, we’ve discovered, is to treat it all as a huge joke. Thus, each family member now ranks the various Frenchies we meet on a scale of one to ten by appealing to such criteria as lack of eye contact, depth of contempt and poor personal hygiene. Trying to persuade Charlie that ten is the maximum score in any one category — as opposed to, say, a million — is a source of ongoing laughs.
But, really, it’s quite hard to remain good-humoured. More than once I’ve been tempted to point out that the state handouts they’ve been living off for years, not to mention the subsidies that sustain so many French industries, will shortly come to an end when the country is plunged into bankruptcy. At that point, they may have to adjust their attitude to foreign visitors.
Luckily, my French isn’t good enough. So I will continue to grin and bear it for the next few days, then head back to Blighty with a happy heart.
Toby Young is associate editor of The Spectator.