Thursday, 1 September 2016

Nice Bergues

One of the biggest differences between France and the UK is the question of centralised planning. Ever since the halycon days of the Blessed Margaret, for three decades we have embraced 'de-regularisation' and now Britain is so quangoed and privatised that recent calls from people who 'want their country back' seems to have failed to realise, that actually we don't own very much of it at all these days. France is quite different. France still embraces big government and things happen by decree to an extent we would find intolerable. For example, today is September 1st. As we drove through Albert a few minutes before noon the local town police were out in force decked out in high- res and clutching traffic directing sticks that looked like giant lollipops. A considerable crowd had gathered outside of the L'école maternelle. There was an air of excitement, people spilled off the pavement only to be coralled back into some order by the local constabulary. The occasion, la rentrée scolaires; this year on September 1st every kindergarten in France commenced its new school year, and to make sure that the big citizens if La Republic picked-up the small citizens of La Republic for lunch at exactly noon, the local police were on duty to ensure the safety of all concerned.

It's not quite such a big deal over here, you may get some 'Back to School' offers in Tesco for stationery, black socks or grey pleated skirts might be available at a discount at Marks and Sparks, In France la rentrée scolaires is a much bigger affair, fuelled partly by mandatory lists of books and equipment required for the new year sent out to every family with kids in school. Because every child in every school in every town in France all 're-enter' at exactly the same time, then the moment becomes, like Bastille Day or Toussante, one of France's notable dates. It was the first time we had witnessed the shenanigans, in previous years we had our own 'rentrées' to organise, albeit more informal and haphazard ones with no state regulated template to follow.

Thankfully we escaped just before noon struck, narrowly missing the moment of mass escape by the petites scolaires which I presume would have gridlocked the whole town. In order to avoid motorway tolls we ignored the route plotted by the sat-nav and headed northwest on the D938 towards Doulans. It was quite slow going with roundabouts every few kilometres. The countryside is pleasant rather than beautiful with rolling cornfields and clumps of trees. "It's a bit like Northamptonshire," I commented somewhat fatuously. As we slowed at a roundabout a women, perhaps in her late 50s, paused by the roadside. Holding her hand was a small child, perhaps four years of age. The tot seemed dwarfed by a large, clearly brand new, candy pink backpack. It seemed the task of collecting 'le rentrée scolaire' had been delegated to grand-mere. It's odd the way as you drive along snippets of ordinariness stay in the mind and travel becomes a collage of others people's moments. These random, vivid snapshots can give days, or at least parts of days, an ethereal dreamlike quality. 

We stopped at Intermarche in Saint-Pol-sur-Ternoise to buy breadfor a late lunch, then ate it in the van while staring at a seriously unpicturesque view of a big factory with three gigantic stainless steel storage tanks. Boredom led to me google to see what manner of manufactory it was. It belonged to Igredia described as 'a French dairy company which develops and manufactures dairy powders, and functional & nutritional milk proteins'. No slow food here then! Our attention was then drawn the growing queue at the mobile friterie parked nearby. We had noticed as we wandered about Intermarche gaggles of teenagers mooching around the store. Just as we witnessed the start of the school lunch break in Albert, we had become embroiled in the latter stages of it, some one and half hours later in Saint-Pol. The gaggles in the shop had now exited and were queueing-up at the chip van. The scene does make you smile to recall Jamie Oliver's campaign about unhealthy school lunches in England where he extolled the virtues of French school meals which allegedly serve-up minor classics of Gallic cuisine relished by avid children all in the process of acquiring a discerning palette. I recall at the time asking our French nephew and niece about this. "Oh no, we go to Macdonalds around the corner," they informed us.

It was late afternoon when we arrived at the aire in Bergues. We had an hour or two to have a look around the town which proved to be unexpectedly pretty. It also has an excellent cheese shop and some attractive looking small restaurants. Any time we are heading towards Germany, Switzerland or Northern Italy, then the Dunkirk crossing linked to a stop at this aire makes a lot of sense. One useful tip for anyone doing this - the town's Leclerc hypermarket car-park has height barriers. There is an unrestricted way into the car-park down a side road past some houses. Follow the 'Livraisons' sign, ignore the car-park for Leclerc's fleet of delivery vans, drive to the back of the store, and there is a narrow road which allows high vehicles to access the car park. 

Back to Bergues
Cow statues - that's what we need, more cows...
The Campanile was rebuilt after WW2 after the original was blown-up in 1944
Hotel de Ville
Flanders is famous for giant figures - they are used in carnivals and processions
Slightly scary close-up
Bergues has - attractive old streets...
the ruins of an ancient abbey with a witches-hat spire
well maintained low-rise public housing among the Vauban fort ramparts and old canals
next to pleasant private housing - a healthy approach to planning - mixing old and new, public and private..
Ville fleurie.
It's surprising to find somewhere so lovely a few kilometres from Dunkirk's industrial sprawl.

Celebrating the pinnacle of local cuisine - the chip.
A split second later Gill was abducted by aliens...
Pouf! see she's gone..
Although Gill reappeared seconds later claiming she had simply hopped around the corner, I am convinced she is holding back the details of her inter-planetary adventures. I know this because it is not the first time this has happened. She believes that she is the only person who knows about the cosmic portal which exists beside the tinned tomato shelves in our local Morrisons. How else can you explain her regular disappearances as I scour the aisles like a lost soul, clutching my pot of Greek-style yogurt and a cucumber thinking - she's gone...again. Five minutes later she's back, all innocent smiles, claiming that she was at the fish counter all the time. She must think I am naive, mysterious fluctuations in space/time to which Gill is uniquely attuned can be the only explanation.

An uncivilised hour, but a pretty sunrise.
Anyway, back on planet Earth we had a ferry to catch at 8.00am the following morning. Again DFDS emailed us requesting that we arrived 90 minutes before departure. Grumbling we set our alarms for 5.45am. This time there was some evidence of enhanced security, a pleasant young man in a hi-res hopped aboard and had a quick look for stowaways. That took all of ten minutes extra, so we still sat for hours at the dock as the sun rose over the cranes and gantries of Dunkirk docks. The boat was surprisingly busy, but as we are in the final week of the school holiday, rentrée Britanique is about to commence I guess. Breakfast - I suppose we should give credit to DFDS's catering staff for consistency - the food they served at breakfast was just as bad as the fare we received for dinner on the outward trip. How can you make utterly unappetising beans on toast? How is that possible?  England next. London here we come.


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