Stephen Clarke’s ex­pert tips for life in France

France - - Contents -

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.

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