In France and wishing I could get that Bonnie Tyler song out of my head…

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Why a French road trip?

Well, first and foremost, I wasn’t planning on doing this road trip at all. I inadvertently ended up with a return ferry ticket for myself and my Mini, and had shelled out too much to cancel/change the details. So, Newhaven – Dieppe was my destination, whether I liked it or not.

I decided to take the opportunity to do another of many firsts since Mr T left me…take a ferry from my fair isle, cross the channel and drive around a country. Since I had some spare time, and a spare ticket for France, it seemed logical. 

Except… in theory, yes, why not? Just mosey on down to the south coast of England, starting at 3.30am in order to catch a boat (do we catch boats?) in some torrential rainstorms following a heatwave. (Ok, we’re talking the UK here, so in reality we had some heavy rain after two quite warm and sunny days). Drive through France from  Amiens in the north to  the French Riviera in the south, via the French Alps (no snow at this time of year but some dodgy hill starts might still be the order of the day at some point),  in a car whose steering wheel is on the wrong side, on the wrong side of the road. Without anyone being there to back seat drive for me (sometimes this can be useful), or see around lorries/tractors/blind bends when attempting to turn right. For 3 weeks. By myself. Using another language. Extremely badly. What could possibly go wrong?

 

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Sur le pont D’Avignon? Mais non…

Sur le Pont d’Avignon
L’on y danse, l’on y danse
Sur le Pont d’Avignon
L’on y danse tous en rond

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I wasn’t feeling in the mood for dancing, despite the beauty of le pont d’Avignon.

So, after a great time in Marseille, I was flagging. I had driven 1500 miles, spent most of 15 days by myself, and lugged my rucksack, cold box and backpack up more stairs than I care to remember… and I was remembering many things…

It was coming up to Mr T’s birthday. I was having a great time, but I knew that it was coming to an end. And the sorrow was beginning to increase. More and more, I was feeling the black cloud coming over, reminding me that, in a few days time, I should have been enjoying my husband’s retirement day and we should have been finalising our plans to move to Spain to begin a new life. Except that wasn’t going to happen. Instead I was alone, grieving again.

Avignon is the place where the Pope used to have his Palace, and what a palace. It’s also the place of  the 15th century bridge or “pont”, on which traditional dances were held.  But I was tired, listless and losing enthusiasm at a rate of knots. Where previously I would have eagerly bought my ticket, a guide book and enjoyed a selfish afternoon, immersed in culture, language and history, all I could do was stare at the beauty of the place…and feel nothing. I felt ashamed that I felt nothing. As though I was incapable of appreciating the fine architecture. I apologised to Avignon. It wasn’t its fault, it was mine.

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Palais des Papes… Where I realised I’d had enough

My final meal in France was in a delightful restaurant where I ate all manner of fishy things and met a wonderful waitress called Adele (with an accent over the first e). She sensed my loneliness and pepped me up with funny stories, her own dreams of travelling to England and how she had had a row with her boyfriend the night before. My impending misery dissipated for a while… along with a few glasses of rose and a beer.

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Something fishy going on… and lurking under the white fish were 3 snails… chewy but delicious
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Adele my delightful waitress…
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Feigning happiness but feeling weary…

I sat and watched the world go by. I watched families, couples, children, all strolling in front of me, lost in their own worlds. I wondered what problems they were facing, what issues were going on in their lives. I spotted a little girl, engrossed in a cartoon artist’s work, innocent of the knowledge of future sadnesses that she was to face. I wanted to reach out to each and every one of them. To tell them that I was alone, and ask them if they would just hug me. And I’m sure if I had, I would have received what I was aching for… but we don’t do things like that, do we? I had skin hunger. An overwhelming need to communicate intimately with someone who knew me, loved me, cared about me…

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I was unsure about his artwork, however this little French girl seemed impressed… or maybe she was pointing out some home truths…

I was beginning to use alcohol as an anti depressant – never a good sign, since I get high on life. And drinking is totally useless on a driving holiday. I awoke the next morning, with a headache and heartache. My next journey was to be onwards to Arles, where Van Gogh lived and stayed in the psychiatric hospital for a while. This was becoming a little too close for comfort.

I had 4 days of my journey left, and approximately 1000km. I sat in my hotel room and despaired at my inability to carry on. My weakness for letting the clouds build up and my overwhelming feelings of isolation. I rang  my friend. He said “Come home”. It was all I needed to hear… Van who?

Marseille – The French Connection, The Count of Monte Cristo and “The meeting place of the entire world” (Alexandre Dumas)

I had reservations about coming to Marseille to be honest. It seems to be a real mixed bag down here. There are some dodgy areas to be sure. I guess every large city has them whether they’re in the south of France or not. But I’d seen the French Connection, and heard about its ancient history and was curious.

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Gene Hackman in French Connection II, and some cute french cars…

By now I was on day 14 of my 21 day road tour around France, and fatigue was setting in. Because I’m only staying in a place for 2-3 nights maximum it can be difficult to make connections, and it’s also tiring. The same conversation about myself. People are very curious about this solo, female traveller with appalling French. But they are curious in a nice way and I have had the most wonderful reception from the people here. Do try to speak some French, it gets you a long way and then most people speak a little English so you can have a decent conversation.

Anyway, onwards 2.5 hours from Nice towards Marseille. I stayed at the Belle Vue Hotel which overlooks the old port and is a wonderful place to people watch. Don’t expect luxury but the rooms all have a wonderful view, which is what you pay for. Having said that, they are clean, the staff are very friendly and there is a wonderful bar where, if you’re lucky (and I have been, twice so far) you can get a balcony table and watch the world go by. Breakfast is E10 and a good, traditional, continental fayre. Definitely worth a look.

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Not a bad view from my window…
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My hotel window, overlooking the old port and the Notre Dame de la Guarde – the Basilica of Marseille…
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contemplated getting one of these myself, to shelter from the blistering heat
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Off to Chateau D’If on the hourly boat, the sea breeze bringing welcome relief from the afternoon heat
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Fun to watch fellow solo travellers wandering around, taking selfies…and becoming a bit of an expert myself 🙂
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waiting for the boat to take me back to mainland Marseille… and joining in the fun of offering to take photos in return for ones of myself which include both hands…

             

I love Marseille. It’s a place where you can see people from every corner of the globe. There were jazz musicians playing next to African musicians; the smell of all of the different types of food was mouth watering.

When I’m on the coast, I eat fish. What better food to eat than one which has made it from ocean to table within a few hours? Solo dining in France is easy peasy. It’s tourists that seem to have a problem with it. I enjoyed countless numbers of lunches and dinners with only my fellow waiters/waitresses for company. It’s a great opportunity to try out your French, (I speak French, they speak English, that way we both get to practice), and waiting staff are the perfect people from whom to extract local knowledge about where to go, where not to go, and where to get the best deals. Try it. They won’t bite. And you might even get an extra sneaky glass of wine if you smile sweetly enough… 🙂

On the subject of dining for one… some rules:

1. The view. Get a table with a view. Preferably in a piazza, plaza or somewhere where people and the world wander by. You’ll have no need to open that book that you’ve brought along with you.

2. Friendly waiting staff. They will entertain you, treat you and if you’re lucky, take a great photo of you with yet another glass of wine and cigarette…

3. Eat early. By early, I mean around 7 ish. The restaurant will be quite empty and you will have the pick of the tables. Also, you are unlikely to annoy the maitre d’ with your insistence on having the premier table in the restaurant…by yourself…for the whole evening.

4. Dress nicely. The maitre d’ is likely to enjoy having you sit in prime position in his restaurant as you make it look good. They don’t underestimate the value of having good looking customers sitting at their  tables, so take advantage.

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Moules et frites… naturellement. Courtesy of Sarl Collins, 42 Quai du Port 13002 Marseille France A decent quay-side restaurant. Nothing fancy, just good food, decent wine, low prices and a fabulous view of the world going by…
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Yes I was at a table. For one. Eating. By myself. Get over it…
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The scary looking Maitre D’ seemed suitably impressed with my nonchalant table for one…and entertained me with a rendition of Nessun Dorma, accompanied by the obligatory accordionist

Marseille is a cosmopolitan melting pot.  Economic conditions and political unrest in Europe and the rest of the world brought several waves of immigrants during the 20th century: Greeks and Italians started arriving at the end of the 19th century and in the first half of the 20th century, up to 40% of the city’s population was of Italian origin; Russians in 1917; Armenians in 1915 and 1923; Vietnamese in the 1920s, 1954 and after 1975; Corsicans during the 1920s and 1930s; Spanish after 1936; North Africans in the inter-war period ; Sub-saharan Africans after 1945; the pieds-noirs from the former French Algeria in 1962; and then from Comoros In 2006, it was reported that 70,000 city residents were considered to be of Maghrebian origin, mostly from Algeria. The second largest group in Marseille in terms of single nationalities were from the Comoros, amounting to some 45,000 people. Souks jostle for position next to huge Cathedrals topped with golden statues of the Virgin.

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One end of the street…
15 august procession of the assumption marseille
…and the other end of the street.

A wonderful place to sit and watch life go by. As in any place, just hang onto your wallet…

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a city that definitely never sleeps…

Today I took a boat to the Island where Chateau D’If is located.  It  was Marseille’s equivalent of Alcatraz and where the political prisoners were taken during the Napoleonic times. It’s also where they threw 3,500 Protestants (Huguenots) in gaol.

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France’s equivalent of Alcatraz in the USA
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I’m Catholic so they let me go…

Chateau D’If is also the setting for the fictional novel by political writer Alexandre Dumas, “The Count of Monte Cristo”. Edmund Dantes is put in gaol for crimes he didn’t commit and spends many years at Chateau D’If. In the same way that people think that Sherlock Holmes existed, they generally believe that Dantes did actually become a prisoner here. It is also supposedly the place where the Man in the Iron Mask was imprisoned. Both fictional characters however there were many political and religious people who were sentenced to stay here, and died before their release. It’s well worth the boat trip to visit and see the graffiti left by prisoners as well as the cells:

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Better than Banksy in my opinion
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Much smaller than it first appears…
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Too hot in the summer, freezing in the winter, many prisoners died from the conditions

By the way…Did you know…. the French national anthem stems from a song that a group of Marseille revolutionaries, who walked to Paris, sang during the road. The song became know as the Marseillaise and became the anthem. There you go…. 🙂

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Marseille revolutionaries walked to Paris singing a particular song…which later became the French national anthem.

Aint no mountain high enough, aint no tunnel long enough…

Yesterday I can safely say I became well acquainted with the ups and downs, the highs and lows of the French Alps.

To begin with, I was embarking on a simple little cruise on down from Grenoble to Monaco’s Monte Carlo. Around 450km. Pas de problem pour moi. I even stopped off en route to take in a jolly jaunt up the side of a mountain at Le Funiculaire de Saint Helene-du-Touvet. More of that later.

The weather was hot and sunny and my little black cloud of grief was doing its best to dissipate. The butterfly which fleetingly greeted me on my journey back down the mountain in the carriage had tried her best to reassure me that everything was going to be ok. That I would be ok. That the sick, empty, useless feeling would soon be over.

So I set the Sat Nav to my hotel destination in Monte Carlo, whacked up Led Zeppelin to full volume, ensured I had enough cigarettes and full fat Coke for the 5 hour trip (the time needed for 450km should have been clue enough about the future drive) and remembered to drive off in the right hand lane.

Bugger I forgot the petrol. Must learn to get my priorities in order…

What I hadn’t taken into account was the Alps. Well, I knew they were there. I just expected to…well…I don’t know really. I suppose I thought they would part miraculously, or there would be a magic button that I could press, to make them sink into the ground, Tracey Island fashion. What I hadn’t anticipated were two things: 1. That one can either drive over mountains. Or through them. Either way is a right royal pain, and 2. They dramatically alter the local meteorological climate. In fact, one is perpetually driving in cloud. For 200km. And if God really does sit on a cloud, then He needs some bloody good wellies. And a mac…

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It’s a bit drizzly…

 

I also hadn’t realised that, in order to tootle down to Monaco, I was going to have to go through Italy. Not that I have anything against the Italians. In fact if you read my previous posts on Florence, you’ll see that I have quite a fondness for them. But having to suddenly switch from speaking appalling French to speaking appalling Italian without as much as a sniff of barbed wire, passport control or scary looking Italian guards in rather too tight trousers was more than my wobbly head could cope with. I just stared in disbelief when a rather gorgeous looking ragazza (how do they manage to look so bloody stylish even when cooped up in a toll booth?) in a starched collared, nicely bust-darted blouse garbled something to me. Presumably it was “Good God woman, didn’t you bother to look at a topological map before you decided to embark on this crazy idea? Have you taken your meds today?” Yes I had, but it all seemed a very long time ago…

Anyhow, off I set. If you ever want to know how it feels to be a sewer rat,  and I’m sure you do, on a regular basis,  then go to Monaco via the French/Italian Alps. In, out, in, out, speed up, speed down (well, in the case of the Italian drivers, speed up, stay up…). Stop for the road toll on at least 10 occasions. Remember that you’re on the wrong bloody side of the car, so seat belt off, lean over, turn down Lenny Kravitz (Are you gonna go my way? Not if it involves mountains.  Not even for you, Mr Sex God). Peer up at scary looking Italian man (I’m in a Mini, he’s seated at the right hand of the Lord on his throne in his toll booth. Well I guess they have to be able to gesticulate wildly to lorry drivers too). And it’s pissing it down. Correction. It is torrential.

After 6 hours, 279 miles, countless tunnels, umpteen hairpin bend roads, aqua planing twice (not on a hairpin bend though, thankfully), watching 2 poor buggers being carted off in an ambulance (yes I did feel sorry for them in their road accident, even though it delayed me), 50 Hail Mary’s, God knows how many Our Fathers and a promise that if I ever did make it to Monte Carlo, I would never do this crazy trip again, I arrived at a lovely little hotel. Then I had to carry my backpack up 3 flights of stairs, after which I was nearly sick when I actually got into the room, so knackered, tired and hungry was I. Then, finally, city hotels rarely have their own car parks, so I had to go off and find one for Mini. And then walk back. at 11pm. In the dark. In a strange city.

Still, it took my mind off things.

 

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Morning greeted me with a clear head in Monte Carlo…

 

 

 

 

Va, va, voom… once I’ve got the washing done

After the hair raising trip from Grenoble the previous day, I was somewhat reluctant to bother with the Ferrari trip that I had arranged. I’d had enough of cars and being on roads for a while. I wanted to lie down in a dark room and sleep. For a few days.

It was to be at 12 noon. I could have done with a good lie in but, I’d booked and paid and by golly I was going to do it! I could sleep for the rest of the day afterwards.

Since I was travelling with one rucksack only, I had packed minimal clothing. Whilst in the glorious southern French heat, I determined to do as much washing as possible. The  morning was thus taken up with my showering/clothes washing combo, where I stamp on the clothes rather like someone treading grapes, whilst attending to my ablutions. I had deliberately packed easy to wash and wear, cotton, no need to iron, vests, long hippy skirts and dresses. All could be hung up on door knobs, coat hangers and -well- anything really, to dry in the heat and be ready to wear….

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a handy shutter serves as a great place to dry undies…overlooking the Med in Monte Carlo

So at 12 I went downstairs to be met by a gorgeous red Ferrari Spider and a rather cute looking French guy, dressed in a rather silly Formula One-esque outfit. Even he looked somewhat embarrassed to be in it! But still, it was cute…

JJ was a lovely guy. He instantly made me feel relaxed. The idea of a solo, female traveller, booting it around the notorious hairpin bends above Monaco with some flash guy who does this job because he has Ferrari envy, had crossed my mind. Was I being just a little bit sad?

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Trying the Ferrari for size..

Hell, no!! JJ took me around the Formula One racetrack (which can only be driven by Monaco and French residents), past the Opera House, the Monte Carlo Casino and seemed genuinely impressed with having a half decent looking bird alongside him. He told me that most of his customers are enormous, middle aged men, living out childhood fantasies. He spends most of his time ensuring that they drive safely and have control of the vehicle, than pointing out the highlights of the Principality.

His delight was to be able to show off his driving skills (excellent), the car (goes like shit off a shovel when out of town and on the narrow, bendy roads) and his knowledge of Monaco and the local area. Turns out he’s actually a Bio-Chemist and this is a job for the summer, for fun. Not a bad way to spend the summer…

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JJ the Bio-Chemist who drives Ferraris for fun…

We tootled off around the Formula 1 track on Monaco’s streets, being photographed by tourists, much to my amusement. It was a fancy way of doing a city tour and certainly a novelty. The trip up and around the mountains was more fun however, as we accelerated and the wind whipped my hair.  Every so often the foot hit the gas and I screamed with delight at the funny feeling in my tummy and just the thrill of it all. It was so much fun!!!!! At no point did I feel unsafe but at the same time there was just enough thrill to feel what a Ferrari can do (even when never getting out of 2nd gear!)

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Above the Principality of Monaco

 

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JJ and I got on really well (but not that well… we’re hiding cigarettes, not putting arms around each other

 

JJ had the rest of the day off and so we decided to have some lunch and mooch around. Monaco is a strange place. Established in the 13th Century, it feels…well… fake. The old buildings are kept assiduously bright and clean and so look new. The Palace, for example, has been renovated and extended to the extent that the original medieval building is no longer visible. It’s a little like a toy town.

 

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Toy Soldiers

 

The Changing of the Guard occurs outside the Palace, protecting the Monarchy. The soldiers however, wear soft leather shoes, not army boots. And the trousers are just a little too snug around the bottom. Even the march has its own quirky little movements as the Guard turns around to march back the other way – a little flick of the foot as he makes the turn… more of a dance move than a military stride.  In fact, Monaco’s military defence is the responsibility of France, so the whole thing is for show anyway. Everything looks fake. Too clean. Too shiny. As though it was bought in the 1990’s from “Principalities R Us”; everything you need to build your own country.

The Police officers look as though they were chosen from Models One Agency rather than the local populace. I’m not sure if they actually need to do any policing here, or if they are just glorified traffic wardens, making sure that you not only park in the correct places, but that you park TIDILY to avoid making the place look a mess.

So, all in all, Monaco is a fun place to visit, and it is possible to stay there for a reasonable price. I stayed at a hotel called Hotel de France (www.monte-carlo.mc/france). For a clean, modern, twin bed room with modern shower and sea view, the price was £297 which, for 3 nights in Monaco is quite remarkable. Breakfast is E10 per person, continental. This includes fresh juice, a pot of proper tea/coffee, bread, cheese, patisseries, jams, crackers, yogurt and certainly set me up for the morning. I tried buying breakfast at a local boulangerie or Patisserie but the price was similar and there was only one coffee, so I think this is better value. There is no lift and it can be a pain to lug your backpack up 3 flights of stairs, but hey ho, we could all do with the exercise. Parking is available in a local car park with discount rates for Hotel residents.

Monaco is a fantastic place to visit, but do it as part of a general tour along the French Riviera. Next stop for me… Nice.

Amiens 19/07/14. The friendly city…

 

Amiens is within an hour and a half reach of Paris by train, and about 2 hours by car from Dieppe, avoiding the toll roads (if you’re English, driving at a slower speed on the wrong side of the road etc). It has a beautiful olde world bohemian area behind the Cathedral, down by the river which is well worth a visit (or in my case, several). It is not overpriced and serves local delicacies as well as more traditional tourist fare. For a local lunchtime meal try http://www.restaurant-tantejeanne.com/. Very friendly (English speaking) staff who welcomed my request for a solo table by putting me in a wonderfully shady little nook where I had a fine view of everyone in the restaurant and could indulge my favourite pastime of people watching behind sunglasses. I wasn’t even seated near a toilet! Luxury indeed!

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Tante Jeanne – worth a visit
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Ficelle Picarde – pancakes stuffed with ham, cheese and mushrooms. Tres delicieux
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Enjoying lunch in a shady nook, overlooked by the impressive Amiens Cathedral

Locals and students alike gather down by the canal, where the old town of Amiens – Ste Leu is situated. The solo traveller will feel at home here, wandering through the old streets, listening to snatches of conversation as each open window is strolled past, and finding a quiet step to rest on whilst watching swallows diving in and out of the guttering in which their nests are carefully hidden. The solo traveller notices so many things that can be missed when in the company of others.

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Amiens was all but destroyed during the Second World War. Luckily the Cathedral survived, and for me is more impressive than Notre Dame in Paris.

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Amiens Cathedral

Maybe I feel this because I had the privilege of wandering around its glorious gothic interior more or less by myself. It was 35 degrees outside, and humid. The relief of finding sanctuary within its cool walls was palpable. Amiens Cathedral was built to house the supposed head of St John the Baptist (which was served up on a platter to the wife of King Solomon). The head that is in the church (which I didn’t photograph out of respect) was very small and withered (I guess it happens to us all) and there’s no documentary proof of it actually being that of St John, however it is someone’s head and for me, that fact alone meant that a candle should be lit. After all, presumably there’s a body lying around somewhere, wondering (if headless bodies can wonder…) where the rest of it is….

The first thing that struck me about Amiens (especially as it was the first stop on my tour de France) was its friendliness. The city has a large student and migratory population, and is very welcoming to those new in town. I was made to feel at home here and enjoyed 3 nights in the city’s company. 

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My first  night was a fantastic introduction to Friday night entertainment, French style. A lively band playing electric and acoustic guitars, all 3 of them achingly beautiful, including the female singer/tambourinist. The songs were classic British and American (pleased to say most of them British – The Beatles, George Harrison, Eric Clapton, Oasis). I indulged in a “Janvier” cocktail – my birth month and a nifty way to entice tourists to pay 6E for a cocktail that they wouldn’t ordinarily bother with. This was followed by several glasses of local beer and some delightful garlicky canapés which helped my stomach to cope with the rather large amount of cigarettes and alcohol that I was consuming, such was my enjoyment of the evening.

Cigarette intake for me is a kind of barometer of emotional bouyancy. No smoking whatsoever usually means either 1. I’m not at work or 2. I’m not drinking or 3. I’m not either high or low. Just mooching about in the middle. However, if I’m as high as a kite, or in the pits of despair, you’ll find me chuffing for England, on some seedy little menthol number. Or 20. Yes I know it’s bad for my health. But so is banging my head on the wall, which is the alternative if I don’t have a smoke when I’m on a downer…

So much did I enjoy the entertainment that I awoke at 9 the following morning with somewhat of a headache. Still, it was worth it to be a part of the “scene”. Everyone was friendly and warm – although in these parts, not a lot of English is spoken and I appear to have forgotten every French word that I ever learnt.