I can never remember if a night in Bangkok was supposed to make a hard man tremble or crumble. I’ve always liked Murray Head. He’s one of these English singers who was popular in France, but never seemed to make it in the UK. Back in 1992, Mr Head came to perform at our local rock festival in Bourges. He was replacing the Eurythmics who had cancelled at the last minute. As I remember it was an excellent show, with Mr Head making liberal use of the F word in between all his songs.
Whatever a night in Bangkok does to a hard man, I know a night in Rouen makes everything tremble.
Now, We can’t talk about Rouen without a few words on my old mentor, Mrs Carling. (see previous French connections)
Mrs C was a stickler for historical fact. This is what she told us about Joan of Arc, who according to Mrs C would have been far better looking after her sheep than charging round France trying to kick the English out. “How very unladylike.”
Mrs was an old school imperialist of the benevolent nature. She believed firmly in all the benefits that Empire had bestowed on all those countries that we colonised. She would possibly have been the first to admit that the Empire had a downside to it, but she was proud of the « civilisation » that the British had brought to the farthest flung corners of the world. For Mrs C, France would obviously have been a far better place, if the French hadn’t insisted on try to kick us out during the Hundred Years War.
« We’d have run the place far better » Mrs C used to say. « There wouldn’t have been a revolution for a start, and all those nice nobles would have kept their heads » Mrs C’s argument was pretty much the same that I would read years later in Edmund Burke’s anti revolutionary work « reflections on the Revolution in France. »
But, Mrs C did have a point. When the French eventually booted the English out Bordeaux and the Guyenne during the Hundred Years War, there was an insurrection by the locals. Unlike the French the English occupiers didn’t make the good citizens of Bordeaux pay taxes.
So, back to Joan of Arc and Rouen. For hundreds of years, French kids have learned that the English burned Joan of Arc. NOT TRUE shouted Mrs C with a spectacular gesture involving a piece of chalk and a ruler.
This is what happened.
Joan of Arc was captured at Compiegne in Northern France on May 23rd 1430, by a combined force of English and Burgundian soldiers. She was handed over to the French authorities, who on January 9th 1430 put her on trial for witchcraft in Rouen. The French ecclesiastical court found her guilty, and on May 30th 1431, tied her to a stake in the centre of Rouen and burned her. Not an Englishman about. Andy you know what? Mrs C was right.
Back to 1976
The Canvas Holidays blurb told us that we were staying in a « comfortable, traditional family run hotel in the heart of old Rouen » – in reality read, “badly decorated flea pit with dodgy plumbing.” I swear that no one had stayed in this place since Monsiuer Hulot might have gangled his way into town.
Our room had one double bed, with one of those neck-breakingly painful sausage-shape pillows, as only the French know how to make, there was a single « camping cot » and almost full en suite facilities – bidet, wash hand basin and . . . well they had forgotten the loo, which was across the landing, and there was no sign of a shower, not that we were actually planning on having one.
This was the first time in my life that I had ever seen a bidet and YES, we did all think it was for the washing of feet. Having in later life used a bidet for what it was actually designed for, I can honestly say that it is a well-designed and useful bathroom essential. However the mere idea of a bidet suggests that French never wash themselves totally, they simply wash their balls. Nevertheless, in the seventies, Bidets were in bedrooms, suggesting that the men folk of the time only ever washed their balls, and not the rest, simply because it was only their balls that needed washing, or, because the room had only been rented for the hour, it was only their balls that they had time to wash. We washed our feet, then pissed in the bidet, because it was quicker than going to the loo across the hall. We did try a « number two » in the bidet during the night, washing it away though proved to be a nightmarishly long task.
So, the hotel trembled. It was the plumbing. It heaved, rasped, trembled, gurgled, clanged, banged and chugged, every time anyone so much as ran a tap. For Brits who firmly believed that the French never washed, there were plenty of very hygienic Frenchmen in the hotel that evening. Perhaps they were all using the bidets in their rooms.
First duty of mum in any hotel room was (and still is) to check the bedding. Roll all the sheets down for a microscopic inspection. Though be bed bugs were found, we were told to sleep with socks and pyjamas on and keep our feet well away from the end of the bed. Result – a night spent more cramped up than a fœtus in a womb full of quins.
I guess that I have inherited my mum’s bed bug paranoia. If I ever go to a hotel now, or even have to sleep overnight in a train or on a boat, I’ll pay full whack for the cleanest and most comfortable sleeping accommodation. Mind you this still won’t stop me getting explained and uncontrollable itching during the night. It’s quite terrible how parent induced phobias follow you right through life.
And so we spent a fitful night, three of us scrunched up in a double bed, sleeping as best we could in between long bouts of noisy plumbing.
Next morning came our « continental breakfast » and our first brush with French coffee. The French had never heard of tea back in the mid seventies.
Down to breakfast for hard baguette (bagoowet) miserable croissants, and bitter coffee all served up in cracked china a wobbly table, Formica floors and nicotine yellow wallpaper.
« I can’t drink out of this cup, it’s chipped » protested mum.
Blank face and shoulder shrugging, from the bemused, moustachioed, Gallic owner.
Mum nudged big bruv and asked him top explain in his best second year French.
« ma mère ne peut pas boire dans la tasse salle ».
This obviously made some impression. The blank Gallic countenace contorted itself into an unpleasant expression before rasping some kind of protest, explanation or insult.
Back came a clean cup.
« Explain to the man that the coffee is too bitter and I’d like some warm milk with it instead of cold. »
Big bruv again
« Lait du café de ma maman est trop froid. Lait chaud s’il vous plaît »
This seemed to draw an even angrier reaction from the owner. We might have been in France, where complaining is a way of life, but no one had ever complained about this before.
Mouthing profanities in under his breath, the owner shuffled off to the kitchen and emerged two minutes later to plonk a jug of boiling milk on the table.
« Tell the waiter the milk is too hot. »
The coffee tennis continued right through breakfast, and every time we went on a family holiday, over the years, my mum would choose to exercise her consumer rights in the same way. Mum usually got what she wanted, but she also got noticed. Big bruv and I would try to remain as inconspicuous as possible, but we always got caught up. Mum never really bothered about upsetting people or causing her offspring embarrassment, when she was in full flow, there was no stopping her until she obtained satisfaction. I have seen her reduce serving staff to tears.
And after breakfast in Rouen we tried to make mum get away from the hotel ASAP, but the damage had been done, and most of the hotel guests peered out the dining room to witness the departure of this curious English family.