View from Vitalia: Of France, ferries and ‘traffic corks’

Coming back home after a nice holiday can sometimes feel like an anti-climax.

The difference between a traveller and a tramp is that the former usually comes back.

My own come-backs during many decades of globe-trotting almost always had a touch of bitterness to them, and that is natural, for the places where we reside and hence have to face some kind of daily routine seldom carry the same degree of novelty (read: excitement) as the locations you pass through while free of your habitual day-to-day bothers.

I always detested returning to Moscow where I had lived in the 1970s-80s and coming back there after my very first trips to Britain was so (almost physically) painful that for the first couple of weeks - unwilling to face the  gloomy Soviet reality - I had to look down at my shoes while trudging through the all-season grey slush of Moscow streets. Likewise, I didn’t like returning to the quiet vastness of Australia from the all-familiar congestion of my good old Europe. 

There used to be one exception, though: I had never agonised over returning to the UK, which has been my on-and-off home for the last thirty years. Until my latest trip that is, a week-long driving holiday in Normandy, France. Returning to Blighty this time was a real anti-climax. Let me explain why. 

One of the reasons for the trip’s resounding success was the fact that – for the first time – I felt completely at ease driving on the wrong/right side of French roads. Partly, it was perhaps due to my extensive driving experience on the Greek island of Kefalonia earlier this year (I described it in detail in one of my previous “Views...”), with roads so precarious that anyone who survived their crazy twists and turns could safely drive in all of the world’s least driver-friendly places, including Rome and central Paris.

Among other reasons for the holiday’s success were general emptiness, cleanliness and smoothness of  France’s motorways and country roads, particularly striking after the permanently congested, pot-holed and rubbish-strewn stretches of M25 and M23 on the way to New Haven (from where we took a ferry to Dieppe). True, in France one has to pay the road tolls from time to time, but ask any of the frustrated M25 or A1M motorists if they’d prefer coughing up a tenner to being stuck for hours on end inhaling toxic fumes in the middle of some petrol-reeking nowhere on the edge of a littered forest, 99 per cent would jump at the opportunity - and the remaining one per cent would fly at it!

Or take that spectacular engineering wonder - the Bridge of Normandy (Pont de Normandie) linking Le Havre and Honfleur (where we stayed for four nights)? With its 184 cable stays to support the weight of the deck and the longest span of 856m between the piers, the 7,000-feet-long structure looks graceful and feels so sturdy that crossing it comes almost unnoticed even for someone like myself, with my age-long and increasingly irrational fear of heights (the Bridge is 215m tall, by the way). Yes, it is a toll bridge, just like the Dartford Crossing, but the similarity ends here, for the Crossing is normally so congested and the traffic on it so slow that it should have been renamed the Dartford Crawling ages ago. Also, not many people know that, alongside its multiple traffic lanes, the Bridge of Normandy has a footpath and a narrow cycle lane for those who want to cross it free of charge!

If getting to the ancient Norman town of Honfleur was a treat, staying there was a sheer unadulterated joy. So colourful and picturesque were its narrow cobbled streets that it felt like dwelling temporarily inside an impressionist painting. Indeed, most of the town’s nooks and crannies were immediately recognisable from the paintings of Claude Monet, Eugene Bodin and other great French impressionists who all loved Honfleur for its peculiarly warm and gentle light, which they had managed to catch so superbly in their luminescent works.

Every morning, on the way to pick up my car, left overnight in a spacious (and free) town council car park in the outskirts, I walked along the medieval Rue de la Bavole. It was like pacing through the eponymous (“Rue de la Bavole, Honfleur”) 1864 painting by Claude Monet, for the street seemed not to have changed at all since then.

The equally picturesque street parallel to Rue de la Bavole, Rue du Dauphin, was home to my absolutely favourite Honfleur establishment – the Aux Bles D’Or award-winning boulangerie (bakery) and patisserie (cake shop), owned and run by Mr. et Mme. Tetard. To me, one of the biggest pleasures of staying in France is a traditional early morning walk to the nearest boulangerie and/or patisserie to pick up a freshly-baked bagette and a couple of warm croissants or pains au chocolat for breakfast. If in London, as they say, you are never more than three metres away from a rat, in any French town or village, you are never more than a couple of hundred metres away from a bakery!

Yet even for France the Aux Bles D’Or was special. Don’t know what it was that the indefatigable Mr. et Mme. Tetard did to wheat and flour in their baking ovens, but their baguettes and croissants were so soft, crispy and alluring – all at the same time – that they seemed always ready to jump right into my mouth. Needless to say that at 6:30am each morning I would join the all-male queue (morning “bread-winning”, in the true sense, still remains a predominantly male duty in France) at the bakery’s doors behind which the ever-so-gentille Mme. Tetard was already dispensing her politically incorrect, yet thoroughly irresistible, products – true masterpieces of culinary engineering.

I stood in the queue wondering how come the French people of both sexes managed to remain slim despite the daily consumption of all those baguettes and croissants? An eternal question.

As part of my French morning routine, on the way back from the bakery, with a bagful of fresh bread, I would buy an equally fresh, if inedible, issue of my favourite French newspaper Le Figaro to be perused at breakfast.  Although I can theoretically be buying this newspaper every morning at home in England, I only do it while in France. Why? No idea. Probably because my French naturally tends to improve in the native-speaking environment.   

It was in the yellow, Financial Times-style business section of Le Figaro that, on the morning of 25th August, I spotted a story under the heading “Kalachnikov lance sa voiture electricque pour concurrence Tesla” – “Kalashnikov launches its own electric car to compete with Tesla”. [Ed’s note: E&T covered this same Kalashnikov electric car story the day before] The article was accompanied by a bleak photo of a car, vaguely reminiscent of the familiar (to me at least it was) – and certainly not at all electric! – 1970s Soviet Moskvich hatchback. Later I found out that the chassis of the above mentioned hatchback was indeed used by Kalashnikov, the company that until now used to specialise almost exclusively in guns, as a base for their new environmentally friendly vehicle to rival Elon Musk. I made a mental note to carefully watch the cars in front of my Toyota when driving back to Dieppe. Not sure about you, but I wouldn’t fancy the gaping (and already smoking!) barrel of a Kalashnikov hastily camouflaged as, or possibly even mistaken for, an exhaust pipe, staring at me from under the boot.

Despite my fears, however, the journey back went without a hitch. Until, of course, we arrived back in Britain. My car got stuck in a queue even before it got off our DFDS ‘Seven Sisters’ ferry in Newhaven. Surrounded by other claustrophobic vehicles, we were trapped inside the dark ferry’s hold for almost an hour in that truly international traffic jam which began right in the English Channel (or in La Manche, swarming with both British and French scallops which, luckily for us, we did not try to catch) and continued as far as East Anglia, with the A23, M23 and no doubt M25 completely chock-a-block for miles and hours on end.

It took me over five hours (instead of two, promised by my non-updated and hence somewhat senile SatNav) to get home. On top of it all, when after three hours of slow crawl I had to make an emergency stop at a roadside petrol station to use the toilet and to buy some water and snacks to take us through the night on the road, they cheated me out of five pounds and the ready meals I bought were well behind their use-by date and ready only for being chucked in the bin.

Suddenly, it became clear to me why in Russian they refer to traffic jams as ‘probka’ – literally, a ‘cork’. It seals off your life like a bottle and there’s no escape! Now you know what I meant by the comeback anti-climax.

Luckily, on arriving home, we discovered in the boot of the car a couple of the no-longer-fresh, yet still thoroughly edible and enjoyable, baguettes from Mr. and Mme. Tetard, bought that very morning. We also found some French cheese and a bottle of red wine, all of which together made our reluctant comeback much less gruesome, as if our wonderful French adventure was not quite finished yet.

It was finally over the following morning, when, while hastily consuming my baguette-and-croissant-less petit dejeuner, I read in the I newspaper that the opening of Crossrail was being delayed until autumn 2019. A high-speed rail link being delayed before it even opened? That could only happen in one country: Britain.

“Welcome home, darling!” I said to my wife, before realising that she had already left the house and was by now habitually stuck on a stationary commuter train to London (due to those eternal “signal problems”) where she works.

I finished my breakfast, got into the car, switched on the CD player and soon – to the melodious and calming sounds of French chansons (I bought the CD on a street market in Etretat two days earlier) - joined my regular ‘traffic cork’ on the A1M.

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