Sunday, 16 August 2009

The Big Idea

So we’re in France, and it’s big. Everything is big in France, except maybe the population. It’s almost impossible to actually find a Frenchman in August. But the place is huge. I can report this with confidence after two full days of driving through entirely open countryside and vast landscapes in what has already become a big adventure.

We are two cars, four adults, five kids and nine French cookbooks heading in excited anticipation 787 km south from Calais in as few hours and Aire de Service stops as possible. Our friends’ car has a sat nav, DVDs with headphones and children with bladder control. We have a map with critical pages missing, children who wee like clockwork every 100 km and Banana Man at full volume behind the driver’s head rest. Experience in our car is all big.

It’s the bigness of France that I love. The towering grain refineries built proudly on hills on the horizon rather than hidden in a deserted valley. The huge sci-fi-esque wind farms in the middle of (another, yawn) area of outstanding natural beauty. Being charged fifteen quid to travel on a four-lane motorway where you’re lucky if you see another car other than the one you followed off the Eurotunnel.

(To be fair, this year’s trip south has been characterised so far by the opposite experience – it turns out that the French still all go on holiday on the same day, so we’ve been part of a truly big exodus towards Bordeaux. And lots of big queues.)

But in France even the smallest phrase has a big meaning and resonance for any long-time English Francophile. The first signposted Hotel de Ville surrounded by buckets of dusty pink hydrangers floods me with endless memories of family holidays and school exchange visits. And, just as the words Raspberry Beret (the song that got us through the 38º heat and congestion outside Tours) instantly transports me to a super-cool underground coffee house in the East Village where I’m sharing a double espresso with the greatest shop assistant of all time, so a simple motorway signpost to Chinon brings a light, velvety smile of recognition and a happy celebrity-grape-spotting leap of the heart.

Driving down through France is just like taking one of those Hollywood tours, only rather than looking at the security gates of endless underfed Americans you’re ticking off every great night you’ve ever spent enjoying a bottle of the world’s finest. The talent here is very real and, after Evening One in our little corner of Charente, the potential for the coming fortnight is enormous.

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