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Smallville: A French Lesson

While homeward bound from a fabulous holiday Peter B Farrell learns a profound lesson in French from Squadron Leader Bigglesworth - the famous Biggles of boys' book fame.

Talk about a squeeze. The car would have been packed to the gunnels, had it been a longboat. We were about to set off for home, having spent the past five days in the Lanquedoc region of France. During that time we had acquired among other things, jars of paté de foie gras and cherry jam, dozens of bottles of the finest local wines, together with baskets, pottery, postcards and a large selection of brochures collected from the local estate agents.

My brother Kev and his wife Diana would share the driving and navigation, my wife Margaret was on hand to pay the Autoroute tolls ,leaving me to read the guide book and learn some more key French phrases, as well as passing the cherries around. The planned route would take about four days via the Rhone valley, Chartres and Caen before arriving at Cherbourg.

We bid farewell to our friends in Gignac and set off on the first leg of the journey, a fast Autoroute which would take us possibly as far as Clermont-Ferrand.

We were travelling across the fringe of the Southern Massif and the remote and rugged heartland of the Parc des Grands Causses. This sparsely populated terrain offered refuge not only to the heretics of the Middle Ages but also the maquisards of La Resistance. We passed many roadside shrines commemorating those heroes of World War II.

After making good progress we stopped at an Autoroute service area for refreshments. No need for a lengthy conversation, it was a serve-yourself outlet.

“Bonjour madame, c‘est combien?” Followed by a polite “Merci beaucoup;“ was all I needed. The obligatory postcards were collected, featuring the new bridge which crosses the gorge at Millau, a few kilometres further on.

The gorge had apparently long been a bottleneck for road traffic until spanned by the bridge this very year. Designed by Sir Norman Foster, this amazing feat of engineering was almost two kilometres in length, had seven spans and was even higher than the Eiffel tower; so vast it could be viewed from outer space, or was that the Great Wall of China? Crossing the bridge by car - dawdling prohibited - gave no impression of its massive scale. I had, however noted in my diary that the bridge at Millau would be well publicised when the Tour de France passed under it in two weeks time and I looked forward to seeing Stage (Etape) 18 on TV.

The remains of ancient volcanoes dominated the wild countryside. Several villages had churches that perched precariously atop mountainous crags and stood out as beacons.

“Wasn’t this where De Gaulle was ambushed in The Day of the Jackal?“ Being caught up in heavy traffic in the centre of Clermont-Ferrand was an unnerving experience.

“There‘s a small town ahead, caters for the retired.” Luckily Diana had remembered a spa town about 40 miles north, whose healing waters attracted the retired, aged and infirm. Thankful to get out of Clermont-Ferrand we enjoyed the drive through lush countryside on completely deserted roads.

Néris Les-Baines, famous for it’s Roman Baths, proved to be an exceptionally clean town, almost pristine. Diana soon located a suitable hotel near the centre and after resting from the long journey we explored the town centre. Old people seemed to be in the ascendancy. The spa baths were the main attraction and shops sold a variety of products and aids to prolong active life. The Casino also seemed to be attracting a large clientele. Surely the two bouncers at the entrance were superfluous?

The peace and calm was interrupted by an ear-splitting crescendo of noise from a number of cars sounding their horns down the main boulevard. A wedding party cheerfully waved to us.

“Must be good, it contains olive oil.”

“It’s just soap.” My purchase of a large block of soap as a treat for Margaret did not impress her, even though it was gift-wrapped.

“They’ll do for presents for friends back home.” Diana had seen the advantages and bought six blocks.

“I must send the cards off.“ Later we took a stroll in search of La Poste, and an opportunity to practise my French.

“Excusez moi madame, pour aller a la Poste s’il vous plé?“ Madame smiled and burst into a torrent of words and gesticulations, which left me clueless.

“Did you understand that? She’s going to show us the way to the Post Office.” Luckily Diana was on hand to interpret. Rather than walk in silence, Diana engaged the lady in conversation and commented on the many attractions of Néris Les-Baines.

“It’s rubbish,’’ was the reply. Apparently no nightlife and no decent shops. We commiserated with her as she pointed to the Post Office.

“Au revoir madame, et merci beaucoup.” I decided I must practise some more phrases or better still, some replies.

As usual, the restaurant in the Hotel provided yet another fine dinner and an excellent wine chosen by Kev, although I baulked at the frogs’ legs. I had visions of disabled frogs dragging...enough!

“Le canard, s’il vous plé.” I decided on the duck.

Later in the lounge I sought a book from the shelf hoping to improve my colloquial French. Finding an old French language edition of Biggles Sees It Through by W E Johns, I endeavoured to translate the wartime adventures of Squadron Leader Bigglesworth and his crew, Algy and Ginger; three intrepid fliers who were aiding Finland against l’agresseur sovietique or les Russes in 1940. The Biggles series of books had been a particular favourite of mine in my schooldays.

On preparing for one particularly hazardous flying mission, when asked what he needed, Biggles replied: “Mon revolver et deux ou trois biscuits, cela suffit.”

I reflected that this was a lesson for us all.


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