Going French

 « Vous avez des jolis avions monsieur » says Big bruv.

He’s spent the last half hour mustering all the French he can muster, after his first year at secondary school, before unleashing the phrase on some bloke in greasy overalls attacking a plane with a spanner.

« Hein » croaks the grease monkey

Big bruv repeats his phrase. The greasy bloke grunts something back in acknowledgement and carries on beating up the aircraft.

« Votre avion vole monsieur ? » pipes up Big bruv

« Mais oui » grunts back the mechanic. (At least this is what he should have grunted back, but the question was so bloody stupid, the mechanic probably hurled back some insult we didn’t understand like “Bah oui pauvre con” – of course it does you silly bastard.)

This is the linguistic high point of Big Bruv’s Breton holiday.

We are, for no apparent reason, other than it is raining, and we can’t go to the beach and there is bugger all else to do, standing on the tarmac of an aerodrome somewhere near Quimper in August 1975

Mum has been hassling big bruv to: « use what you’ve learned at your posh school » and go out to talk with real French people. Unfortunately the only person about is an aircraft mechanic, but, I suppose this is normal for an aerodrome.

Now, I say there is bugger all else to do. There were, and are, many things to do in Brittany. We could have gone to see the standing stones at Carnac, we could have driven up to St Mâlo and walked around the ramparts of this fine old city. We could have gone to visit one of the numerous working museums, where tourists can see butter or salt or biscuits or clogs or some other such Breton product being made by peasants in traditional costumes, but this is 1975, and the French haven’t really discovered how to do this sort of thing yet, besides, mum doesn’t want to drive very far. Coming out the restaurant a few days before, mum had the fright of her life when this stupid Frenchman almost caused a head on collision by driving on the « wrong side » of the road. So here we are, stuck at the aerodrome, reasonably near the campsite

Mind you, a visit to a French aerodrome is, in my mum’s scheme of things at least – a « unique cultural experience. » As all the other families on the campsite have gone off to look at boring old museums, we are fraternising with real French people in their natural environment. Looking at it that way, we are not just having a holiday, but real cultural interaction. Or maybe it’s because my mum hates all that “tourist rubbish” as she calls it. So far we have spent most of our holiday in he local “Rallye” hypermarket. When we eat out, we go native as well. No “Michelin” restaurants for us, we get dinner from the local chip van.

Even when we go to the beach, mum insists we go French. Big Bruv is given five Francs and goes off to play with French kids at the « Club Mickey » – a motley collection of swings, trampolines and slides designed to amuse the kids. Every French beach used to have one,

Every time  mum took us away anywhere, we never did museums or other tourist stuff, we seemed to spend our lives in hypermarkets. They were, or appeared to us at the time, to be huge. Big bruv would head off to the TV section to try and understand French telly. I would spend hours in the toy section and mum would aimlessly push a trolley round the aisles filling it up with “typical French” crap that we certainly didn’t need and would probably never use. Mum’s big thing though was plastic bags. She liked French plastic bags, because they were in French, and when we got back to England, she would carry stuff round in a French plastic bag, just to be different. When she moved house in he early 90’s, mum chucked out several hundred plastic bags from various European countries, some of them were museum pieces – French supermarket bags from the early 70’s, all in pristine condition. Possibly all collector’s items now and very saleable commodities. There must be someone, somewhere who is passionate about early to mid 70’s French hypermarket bags

Mind you, mum was the same everywhere, she was a hoarder. I guess it comes from living through the Second World War. The fear of never having enough or going without. Perhaps it also has something to do with good old homespun Scottish thrift. “Aye, I’ll put it by, it could be useful” announced mum in a philosophical posh, clipped Glaswegian tones. (A Kelvin side kid was mum) The result was that every holiday we came home with a car full of rubbish that had been collected on the basis of:

A)          They don’t have these in Britain         

B)           This might be useful

In the politically uncorrect 70’s France was great for getting “useful” freebies.

The best free samples came from the “Pastis” van. Pastis is that yellow, liquorice-tasting aperitif drink that the French down in vast quantities in the summer months. “Pastis” or “Ricard” originally hail from Marseille. They are made by the “Pernod” drinks company and have been an essential part of French life since the start of the twentieth century. Before Pastis there was “Absinthe” or distilled wormwood. This was the cheap and cheerful “get you drunk quick” drink; consumed in vast quantities by artists and writers during “la belle époque” in Paris. The problem with Absinthe was, that it rotted your brain cells. It was eventually banned in France in 1913, however the consumption and brewing of Absinthe has always been legal in Britain

So back to the freebies.

Every summer, until the mid eighties, Pernod would organise the “Pastis Tour” of all the campsites in France. Basically, a large float, decked out in the Pastis logo would tour the coastal campsites of France. On the back would be a bevy of lovely young ladies chucking miniatures of Pastis out to the waiting public. They would also give out bumper stickers and windscreen stickers. In the evening, the Pastis guys would throw a big party on the beach – massive PA, a DJ to spin a few discs and some awful local group. The Pastis lorry was a big event on the campsite. Naturally therefore, when someone arrived within spitting distance of our tent, throwing away free bottles of booze, we were there to get them. In 1975 we must have collected about twenty miniatures. Even though we hated Pastis, we kept going back, it was free after all

The Pasts miniatures were not wasted. They were all given to our neighbour Paul, the ex-serviceman who had seen most of Europe through the narrow slit in a tank turret. Paul was a great Pastis fan. During the battle of Normandy he always poured a few drops of Pastis into his water bottle. Local water was awful, and British army rations of the time gave the troops indigestion or the runs, or both in varying combinations. Pastis was the only remedy that the troops found to keep their lower bodies in decent working order.

Other freebies included the campsite wine tasting. Some local peasant would turn up around midday every day, set up a trestle table, uncork several bottles of wine, cut slices of salami sausage and offer a very “ethnic” wine tasting to the campers. It was free, and accordingly, mum would get us to drink down a glass or two, on the pretext that we were not too young to drink – French babies have red wine in their feeding bottles (which, as I later found out was once common practice in deepest rural France – certainly better than gripe water)

The other freebie was stickers. For some bizarre reason, in 1975, we spent the afternoon in a dead end Breton town called “Morlaix” (death milk?). As usual it was pissing down with rain, so we all headed for the shelter of the local tourist office. Big Bruv, a collector of things free and sticky, asked the young lady at the desk . . . “Avez-vous des stickers?” Blank faced shoulder-shrugging reply. After a very physical demonstration, the receptionist understood our request. We wanted “autocollants” (not self-driving tights as the name may suggest). We left the Morlaix tourist office with about fifty stickers, some of which my mum still has. They tend to fall out of plastic bags when she empties her cupboards.

Anyway, back to school.

When I went back to school in September 1975, we had to write a composition about « A day at the sea side. » I wrote about Club Mickey, eating crepes and the fact that no one in France seemed to build sandcastles in the mid seventies. The composition came back with huge red lines through it and a word from Mrs C that no one did this sort of thing at the beach. Where were the donkey rides? the sticks of rock? the candy floss? the pier? All these years later, in reply to Mrs C, I would like to say that donkeys, on a beach are very dirty, they shit everywhere,

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