France in 1950 was unspoilt by either holidaymakers or tourists. I was there to spend a month with friends, and improve my French.
Alex, the son of the friends, came to stay with us first, a sophisticated fourteen- year -old who bullied me, took shameless advantage of my literal interpretation of my father’s instructions to be a good hostess, and used me as dogsbody, maid and batman all in one. After one of our regular rows he came downstairs from his room and his dictionary, and in front of my parents announced to me: ” You are ‘aughty, arrogant and proud.”
Coming from a quiet Yorkshire country town, Paris seemed a massive city of radiant light and celebration. Looking down from the family home in the heart of the city, I watched rainbows of light rolling along the wide roads, as hundreds of cars sped round the boulevards.
Having a bath that night was an ordeal in which I seemed to be accompanied by a crowd as my reflection followed me round a huge, mirrored bathroom. The flat was empty except for a resident maid and the chauffeur who was to drive us down to the chateau. It was huge and overwhelming and Alex was more arrogant than ever. It seemed that his father hadn’t briefed him on being a good host.
However, the next day, he and the chauffeur took me on a whirl around Paris – Notre Dame, cavernous and crowded and Catholic. I was disappointed. I had expected the sacred silence of empty Anglican cathedrals, but this was bustling with chattering people treating the place like their home, and selling souvenirs at stalls by the door. Twelve-year old-righteousness remembered stalls being overturned in another temple.
Today, of course, every Anglican cathedral in England bustles with tourists too, the whispers and commentaries coiling up the perpendicular arches, and bouncing off the roof and coming back down magnified a million times. But in Notre Dame that day they managed to pray amidst the din.
From the steps of the cathedral we drove past the Louvre, circled the Arc de Triomphe and ended up at the Eiffel Tower – which turned out to be closed on Sundays. It didn’t matter – Paris in summer, nearly seventy years ago, was a beautiful, fragrant city, where people lounged outside on the pavements beneath the trees, and where, when we walked beside the Seine in the sun-shine, it was uncrowded and peaceful.
After lunch, I persuaded Alex to show me how to get out of the flat, and wandered onto the streets, looking for a bookstall. A terrible thought had suddenly wriggled into my consciousness. I had nothing to read! The worst thing that could happen to me! At a corner shop, my eyes raced over the shelves as the full horror of my situation became clear. Everything was literally a closed book- it was all in French. I came out with the only two English language publications in the shop- a copy of Life magazine, which was mostly pictures, and the August 1950 copy of Reader’s Digest, a magazine I’d never seen before.
Though I soon became bored with its banal, monotonous, uniform prose, I read it regularly for the next month, until I knew most of it by heart. I read ad nauseam about some chap called Billy Graham and how he had met and married his sweetheart, ‘The Most Unforgettable Character I’ve Met’ finally palled, the jokes got worse as the month went by, but ‘How To Improve Your Word Power’ was a winner, I got a hundred per cent before the month was out.
The first reading got me through the evening in Paris, and the next morning we set off for Vienne. Our destination at the chateau was everything that a romantic, unformed imagination could have visualised. We approached it down a long avenue of ancient trees. Those which had succumbed to old age had been chopped down to a height of three feet, hollowed out, and planted with foaming pink geraniums spilling out over the stumps.
The chateau was a moated, ivy-covered, turreted, thirteenth century family home. The moat had been filled in with sand, where the smaller children played. Where the drawbridge had once been, there was now a wide bridge leading to the iron- studded front door which was always open. From the high, dark hall hung with family portraits and armour and weapons, one door led to the dining room, a very solemn place, and the other to the salon, a light, airy room furnished with a variety of gilt sofas and chairs of different periods, mirrors, and objets d’art, while at the end of the hall, a staircase rose to the family quarters.
All seven brothers and sisters returned every summer with their families for the shooting, and they all had their own family accommodation. Alex and his family had a self-contained flat at the other end of the chateau but I was placed in one of the spare bedrooms of the main chateau, a beautiful room hung with toile de jouy in pale green with its own bathroom. The elegant, shuttered windows were hung around with more ivy, and from it would emerge huge, black, long-legged spiders, bigger and hairier than any English variety that had terrorised me in the bath at home, and which perched themselves on the mouldings in corners of the ceiling.
The ceiling was far too high to reach with a broom and a chair, so Alex and his cousins would troop in every evening with their pop guns and have great sport shooting the hairy beasts. I went to bed every night in this gorgeous room, wondering if I would wake and find another monster had somehow insinuated itself through the shutters and into the hangings round my bed.
Breakfast was taken en famille, and was the one meal of the day I enjoyed, though I didn’t do as they all did, and dip my buttered toast into my bowl of coffee. The bread was freshly baked and brought from the village by one of the maids when she came on duty before breakfast. In the afternoon, another delivery of fresh bread was made by a boy on a bike, and we would eat it for gouter at about three o’clock, we children standing around in the kitchen, illegally eating great slices of this heavenly bread, spread with runny home- made confiture which I called jam.
Those were the good times. Lunch and dinner in the stately main dining room, with at least thirty of us round the enormous, oval table was a long drawn- out ordeal. No allowance was made for an Anglo-Saxon barbarian who was accustomed to eat with a knife and fork. Every course was eaten with a fork only and I fought a losing battle with pastry and delicate vegetable dishes served whole, or legs of chicken and partridge.
My appetite would go before we began these marathon meals, so it was with no pangs that my half-eaten courses were taken away, after I had given up the struggle to keep the food on the plate while I chased it round with the fork. But then a solicitous adult, or maid serving the next course would enquire if I hadn’t enjoyed it, or try to coax me to eat a little more. Neither could I stomach the richness of it all after a life-time of grim war-time English rations.
Every lunch time began with a slice of orange melon. In the beginning, I loved it, but by the end I could scarcely bear the smell of it when the maid placed it in front of me. No-one ever skipped or left a course, so neither could I. The melon was followed by vegetable courses or soup, and then the meat course. I hated the meat on its own without the vegetables, it tasted too rich for my austere war-time palate. After cheese and fruit, we would have what everyone else considered a great delicacy. It was called fromage blanc. It looked like whipped meringue, and we could sprinkle a little sugar on it to mask the sourness. I could barely swallow it without retching.
Dinner was a variation on lunch, but whereas after lunch the adults retired to snooze in the hot afternoon, after dinner, we all trooped into the salon. Coffee was served in exquisite little coffee cups, and the children had to sit and make polite conversation until we younger ones were sent to bed.
I had a particular friend, one of the cousins, the same age as me. She spelt her surname for me and wrote it down with pride, telling me she had a very proud surname. She was right and it was only years later that I recognised it as one of the great names in French history. Josephine and I had very little of each other’s language but we made it work for us.
She took me with her maid to pick champignons one misty morning, and as the sun rose, the mist rolled away, and revealed a field of tiny, blue flowers shimmering with hosts of tiny, iridescent blue butterflies the same blue as the flowers. The dusty, country lanes were festooned with sweet, juicy bunches of blackberries as big as grapes, and everywhere there were shrines and crucifixes.
We played tennis together on the court set a little way back from the chateau. In the afternoon when the adults and toddlers were resting, we were roped in for deadly games of croquet on a long lawn well away from the shuttered windows where dozing parents wouldn’t hear the vicious battles and bullying of the victors, and tears and tantrums of the defeated. The girls were mostly the defeated. I tried desperately to hold back my tears as my ball disappeared regularly into the rhododendrons. They were all such terrible sports I felt it my duty to try to maintain the Anglican tradition of good sportsmanship, but my sang froid crumbled very easily.
Other days, we were lined up for the partridge shooting, and issued with white rags on sticks. We then had to advance in line across the vine yards and fields, driving the birds in front of us in the cruel time- honoured method. I did it without a pang, because I had no idea what we were doing, since the instructions were in rapid French. It wouldn’t have made any difference if I had understood, I was too handicapped by trying to be a good guest to voice any objections.
It was fun of course. We grabbed bunches of purple grapes to stuff into our mouths as we advanced slowly, and then dropped them as we came upon a bigger and better bunch a few yards on. When the shoot was over, we children were transported to the chateau whose land we were shooting over. There were four or five other chateaus within a few miles of our village, several which I could see on the sky-line – romantic and elegant eighteenth century pavilions.
On one day after tumbling around and sliding down the hay in the barns, frightening the hens, we were taken to clean up, and then ushered into the salon for afternoon tea. I was fascinated, for not only was our hostess beautiful, but so was the room. Whereas the salon at Persac was a higgledy-piggledy mixture of French furniture of different styles which had simply accumulated over the centuries in order to seat the family, this was a room with great style and elegance, even to my ignorant eyes.
The colours were clear, pale pastels, with gleaming gilt or pale, painted furniture. The portraits were not heavy oils, and sturdy worthies, like Persac, but delicate, gilt- framed frivolous likenesses, and translucent miniatures. The chairs and sofas and gilt tables were arranged with a wonderful sense of symmetry. There were flowers everywhere and big windows with the light streaming in – I fell in love with the place. I wanted to ask them how come they hadn’t they been obliterated in the French Revolution and the chateau destroyed? How come you got away with it, I longed to ask, but didn’t dare.
These people were cousins, as were all the people in the neighbouring chateaux, but they had quite a different atmosphere to the rather provincial heaviness of Persac. I was sad to go back to the ivied, spidered chateau. But it was necessary. I was secretly feeding the farm dog, who slunk around the farm yard some way away from the Chateau, but within the grounds. It was a real French farm yard, with ducks and geese waddling around, a dung heap and a fetid pond, chickens clucking over their new laid eggs in the hay filled barns, and an assortment of cows, pigs and horses.
Patou, the starving farm dog, seemed the only animal who wasn’t looked after, presumably because he wasn’t intended for eating. The maids in the kitchen let me have a few stale crusts, and I lobbied them every day for more for the poor creature. Patou -which the mads said meant ugly – was the first of many animals who have ruined my holidays.
One afternoon I was herded with the other children into the narrow grey cobbled streets of the village at the gates of the chateau. The whole village seemed to be standing there, including old ladies dressed entirely in black, and others who leaned out of shuttered windows overlooking us. As I stood there feeling bewildered, a column of bikes suddenly hurtled past us to the cheers and waves of all the spectators. That, I was proudly informed, when they had passed, was the Tour de France. No outriders, no loudhailers, no crowd control, no yellow jerseys – just tanned -looking men on bikes pedalling hell – for- leather.
Shortly after, I caught an early plane back to London, driving through grey, early morning streets of Paris craning to see elegant ladies of fashion. ” There weren’t any,” I told my parents disgustedly. My stepmother pointed out that they hadn’t even woken at that hour in the morning, and all I had seen was people going to work. This was my tour de France.
Food for threadbare gourmets
I love cake, but if I’m making one myself it has to be easy. So this recipe which I found years ago was perfect. It’s called Hurry-up coffee cake and uses left-over percolator coffee. I particularly love coffee and walnut cake with lashings of coffee icing…
In a large bowl put one and a half cups of self -raising flour, two table spoons of cornflour, a good cup of brown sugar, 125 grammes of softened butter, half a cup of strong black coffee, two eggs beaten, a few drops of vanilla, and three quarters of a cup of chopped walnuts. Beat all this together until smooth, spoon into a greased cake tin and bake in a moderate oven (180C or 350F) for thirty minutes. When cool, cut in half and spread with coffee icing – a cup of icing sugar, two tablespoons of softened butter and one tablespoon of strong black coffee.
Food for thought
“And remember, as it was written, to love another person is to see the face of God.” Les Miserables by Victor Hugo