Stephen Clarke’s expert tips for life in France
Parisians’ mass exodus to the beach each summer puzzles our columnist.
The Parisians love to think of themselves as individuals, as free spirits forging a lone path through the labyrinth of human existence. You get a keen sense of this whenever someone tries to nip in front of you in the queue for taxis at the Gare du Nord. It’s not that they are impolite – it’s because they are a free spirit forging a lone path, etc.
But when it comes to organising their summer, Parisians are pack animals. This is why, on the first Saturdays of July, August and September, the whole city is on the move. Trains are crammed, airports are sweaty, and it’s quicker to walk along the main roads in and out of town than try to drive them.
On those days, everyone French feels the genetic impulse to migrate. I am guessing that even people with only a few drops of French blood also get the urge. New Yorkers with a Parisian greatgrandmother probably find themselves crossing over from Manhattan to Brooklyn every first of July, without knowing exactly why.
So when it comes to summer holidays, I always travel to and from Paris midweek. Last year, even though I had rented a house on the Île d’oléron for two weeks – Saturday to Saturday of course – I left the island on the Friday. A terrible waste of beach time, but the previous year, getting back to Paris on the Saturday had felt like playing tennis with a basketball. I needed a holiday to recover.
It’s the same for early summer weekends. When Paris is enjoying one of its fine spells – strangers smiling at each other, friends meeting up for leisurely chats on the café terraces or taking a few chilled bottles down to the nearest park, canal or river bank, Parisians think: it’s so nice that I have to get away.
This is when anyone lucky enough to have a house in the country or by the sea fills up their car with food and children, and drives off in search of peace and fresh air.
I don’t have a car – it would sit in the street losing value for 350 days a year – but I sometimes hire one and accept an invitation to a friend’s cottage in Normandy. Yet again, I try to avoid the herd. Driving out of Paris on a sunny Friday evening is an invitation to spend an hour or two yelping with horror as Parisians express their individuality by swapping lanes at random and testing your reflexes with sudden bursts of speed or braking.
Driving back into Paris on a Sunday means you either leave late in the afternoon and get home around 1am, or have to leave frustratingly early. I don’t know how many times I have been dozing after Sunday lunch in a French country garden, trying to work out what the birds are chirruping to each other, when someone grabs me by the shoulder and says, “Allez, on y va!”
So I have two pieces of advice for anyone who is in Paris as the summer begins and who feels tempted to spend their Saturday or Sunday on the beach at Trouville, or in a château B&B by the Loire. If you really have to go, take the train. And if you don’t have to go, don’t.
Paris is the perfect place for a country weekend, or even a short beach break. Sitting in the leafy, secluded gardens behind the Musée des Archives Nationales in the Marais, for example, you will feel just as relaxed as in Normandy.
Even before the summer Paris-plages are set up, you can sit on the (now permanently pedestrianised) banks of the River Seine or along the Bassin de la Villette, watching boats chug by and enjoying the capital’s rare breezes.
The best thing is that you can doze there all Sunday afternoon without anyone telling you, “Allez, on y va!”
Parisians express their individuality by testing your reflexes with sudden bursts of speed or braking
Stephen Clarke has just brought out an updated edition of his novel Merde in Europe, which now contains the maximum dose permitted by EU law of jokes about Brussels, French politicians, fake news and Brexit.