Saturday, 4 May 2002
I popped out to grab a bite to eat last night, nothing too elaborate as I was sticking to the AFD, and found a sort of Happy Eater on the industrial estate I was staying on. It was called Cote a Cote which means side by side. Sounded friendly enough so I went in and found it absolutely deserted. I mean no one, not even any staff. I thought it must have been run by the same firm that owned my hotel.
It turned out they were both outside the back having a fag. By both, I mean the chef aged about 15 and his baby sister, the waitress. I ordered a poached egg salad with lardons which is like bacon and egg breakfast only with lettuce and vinaigrette. The egg was cold, firm and solid, like a tennis ball.
I ate in absolute silence until a French couple came in. They wished me ‘Bon Appetit‘ and tried to strike up a conversation with me. On hearing my faltering French he asked where I was from and I replied, “Argentina.” He stood up and came over, shook my hand violently and said, “I am so sorry, I thought you were English.”
I needed petrol this morning and found a hypermarket selling Premium at one Euro a litre. That’s about 60p. Again all automated, just pop in your card and fill up, except it wouldn’t accept my card. So I waited until the little booth opened during which time a couple of French lorry drivers came over, curious to inspect the Beast. Lots of chin rubbing and eyebrow raising in a manly sort of way. Whilst we talk in mpg they refer to the number of litres per hundred kms. They fell about laughing when I said I had got it down to 13/100km. Little French cars do about 7 litres on petrol or 5 on diesel or so they said. I said, “Yeah, but what about style, eh? You’re not standing around looking at a Paxo are you? Besides who wants to drive a packet of stuffing?” That got them!
Driving through the narrow streets of the towns and villages, it is astonishing how the Beast turns peoples’ heads. Not just the petrol-heads and the lads, but mums doing the shopping, even young girls. I had been hoping someone would stop me and ask for a lift but no such luck. The only hitch-hiker I saw all day looked as if he hadn’t had an AFD for about 20 years, or a bath come to that. I urged the Beast on as he waved his plastic bags at me in rage.
My AFD lasted until 1130 when I arrived in Blois on the Loire and decided to start the day with a little phlegm-cutter at a cafe on the banks of the river by the bridge. I set up my digital camera on another table and you can see the relief on my face as the cognac hit the spot.
If you look in an English baker’s shop window you see things like Lardy cakes and iced buns. French ones seem to drag you in off the street with promises of the most tempting and irresistible kind. S’pose that’s why they call them tarts. I bought a picnic from a tiny delicatessen and a bottle of wine and sat by the river in the sunshine half way to Amboise.
A family of Moroccans were enjoying themselves nearby, the boys playing with the water pump whilst the women played with their several babies. There seemed to be about a dozen of them but no men were present. It all felt idyllic.
I looked down and saw a red spotted beetle. In England it would probably be called Colorado and millions of tons of potatoes would be destroyed, the countryside closed and the Eurotunnel blockaded. In France it was just a red beetle.
I felt a siesta coming on.
The Moroccan women, each one larger than her sister, noting my Arabic number plate, asked me where I was from, what was I doing, where was I going. I said I was Argentine, retired, heading for Spain via the French vineyards and had worked, for a short while, in the Middle East. That seemed to satify their curiosity.
I was just nodding off when there was a tap at the windscreen. It was the middle of the three, a women in her late twenties, stone that is, proffering a bit of paper.
“My name is Nadia, here is my mobile phone number, give me a call if you like.”
I smiled weakly and thanked her. They drove off in a fleet of battered old cars to pick fruit or whatever.
Seems like the old charm is still working.