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Sour Grapes and Sodding Croissants Part Three. Lunch in France.

October 13, 2012

Starting work after university was a distinct financial shock. No regular income, taking students to make ends meet…it was a difficult few years and trips to France were well off the agenda. Trips anywhere were well off the agenda.

Still, things began to pick up and by my mid twenties I could once again think of crossing the Channel but, to start with, only for the day.

I took several day trips to Bruges and to Ghent which gave me a taste for Flemish Belgium which has never left me. Not just for the architecture and the frites with mayonnaise, but for the attitude.

Attempting to buy chocolates in a shop in Bruges and addressing the shop assistant in French she gave me a withering look and replied in good English

We don’t speak that language here.

So I learnt to refer to the town as Brugge…and its port as Zeebrugge where the ferry terminal had a caff which served the best grey shrimp salad ever.

As to France…I went first to Boulogne.

There was a sort of family connection, as one of my mother’s few stories was her day trip with her mother on a paddle steamer from Brighton to Boulogne just as war was about to be declared in 1939. The mother’s family spent the summers at Rottingdean..but this was the first trip abroad.

They disembarked, warned that they would only have a couple of hours, and, being British, went in search of tea. Peering in through windows of the shops in the square by the quay she and her mother were disturbed to find that there seemed to be no tea cups in sight….but that people were drinking from small bowls.

Her mother was horrified. She had ‘heard things’ about the French…but to see them drinking soup or whatever it was without a spoon confirmed her darkest suspicions. A heathen race.

Tealess they went in search of perfume….and each bought a small bottle of cologne. A travelling companion encountered in the shop told them not to be so stupid…never mind the customs regulations, just stuff the bottles  into their corsets. After all, the customs officers weren’t going to rummage women on their return…not with a war about to start. They would be too busy looking for nuns with parachute strap marks on their posteriors.

Mother and grandmother were on the slim side…any article concealed in the corsets would not only give rise to acute discomfort but would be obvious to the passing glance. Their informant had no such worries. Under their astonished eye…and the cynical eye of the male shop assistant…bottle after bottle was inserted into darkest Africa and she went on her way.

Long before the announced time of departure the paddle steamer’s siren was blasting and as they walked across the square they noted the number of men, most carrying packages, heading into the town accompanied by women and children.

Mobilisation, said the purser…they’re calling up the older men now.

By the time of my trip,things had changed. The square no longer existed after wartime bombardments….and the day of the booze cruise was yet to come.

I found the market, surprised to see raw milk being poured into bottles brought by the customer, and investigated the stalls. There was not that much fish on offer, but plenty of meat, vegetables, cheese and fruit and what I was later to recognise as the staple of any self respecting French market, a stall where salmon pink corsets, full and truncated, flew like banners against the sky in the brisk wind from the river.

Accustomed to varied veg from my father’s garden, the abundance did not have the same effect on me that it might…though the artichokes were new…and I’ve never really fallen under the spell of the French market from that day onward.

Hungry, I sought an early lunch and found it in a caff on the corner of the road up to the old town. My first meal in France; moules mariniere. I fell under that spell immediately…simple food simply cooked at an honest price.

With two hours to go until I had to return I walked up into the old town…where the basilica proclaimed itself to be the site of the marriage of Edward II of England with Isabebelle of France…another bad decision on the part of the man who lost at  Bannockburn….but as the original building had been replaced by a nineteenth century monstrosity to gain any sense of the atmosphere of that period I had to cross over to the chateau…a looming medieval beast commanding the town and the port.

I was still strolling the ramparts around the old town when I became aware of the time…I’d have to rush if I wanted to buy some cheese on my way to the ferry!

I descended the Grande Rue rather faster than I had ascended it, heading for the market…which was no longer there!

Crates were being stacked in vans, street sweepers were clearing the leaves and cardboard from the square….there was nothing to buy!

My first look inside France taught me a lesson that all my trips on trains had failed to do…..the lunch hour was sacred.

6 Comments
  1. Great stuff, Helen. I love your mother’s story and your own introduction to the sacrosanct lunch-hour. . 🙂 As for speaking French in Bruges, I’m frankly amazed that Belgium hasn’t fallen apart long ago, so deep is the rift between the French and Flemish-speakers.

  2. Mr. Fly’s family are the Flemish variety…and they loathe the Walloons from the bottom of their hearts!
    In principle, that is!

  3. I never thought about the difference between Bruges (which is lovely) and Zeebrugge before.

    I went off Belgium when Sabena confiscated our camping stove and we never got it back despite numerous complaints.

    Brits do tend to idealise French markets don’t they? As my parents had a market stall and I grew up with it, I have largely avoided markets ever since.

    Although I’m vegetarian now, in a previous life I cooked an extremely good moules mariniere. My mother’s benchmark for eating it out was whether or not it anyway nearly approached my version, it usually didn’t. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten it in France.

    Who amongst us has not gone back to a continental market in the afternoon – only to find it had closed for the day at lunchtime? It takes some getting used to, when Brits were accustomed to a market that continued all day. The last time I visited a sparse one however, they seemed to be closing earlier and earlier. Lack of trade I guess.

  4. Yes, used to markets which were open while there was a penny to be made the idea of a market closing down at about 1.00pm came as a shock to the system!
    Look at any of the magazines about France…or most of the blogs, and everyone’s gushing about markets….where the blazes do they do their shopping normally to go into such extasies?

    I learned to make a good one in the end….and Dumdad, in his Other Side of Paris blog put up a good recipe recently.

    I really like Belgium…but for some reason always seemed to be visiting in the winter…when my feet would freeze to the pavements through my shoes!

  5. People do go silly for French Markets, but they are just an open air shopping place for food and poor quality clothing. I dont think I’ve ever seen anyone wearing the clothing they sell in French markets. I like Ghent, Brugge is pretty but Ghent is more like a real place than a tourist attraction. Plus you can get a beer more easily.

    • It has some good museums too…and as for French msrket clothing, would you want to see someone wearing those cast iron corsets!

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