Last Spring, barely two months into The Pandemic That Still Isn’t Anywhere Near Over, I was so anxious about not being able to travel back to England or anywhere that I developed an insatiable wanderlust. I literally wanted to go everywhere. At this point I wasn’t even going to downtown Davis, I was Staying At Home, Sheltering In Place, Locking Down. So I travelled all over the entire island of Great Britain, something I’ve always wanted to do, and drew it all in one sketchbook, and then wrote silly things about it on here like you do. It wasn’t a real journey of course, same as everything it was Virtual, all done by exploring Google Street View. 66 sketches, because 66 has some magical significance in Britain, or some parts of it anyway (I was hoping 21 might supersede it but oh well). I explored a lot more than I actually drew. You can see an album of the whole thing here. Anyway it was such a fun journey of discovery of my native island that I decided I needed to do another one. This second one was done last summer, much shorter, all around Dublin, home of my forebears and countless distant cousins. That one is here. “So where next?” I thought. I wanted to do a tour of the whole of Europe. Maybe it would be narrower, following only the places I visited on my 1998 round-Europe-on-the-trains trip. That’s a really good idea actually, I might as they say “put a pin in that one”. (Why do they say that? Do they want to burst their balloon?) But no, I have always dreamed of doing a proper tour of France, or “Tour the France” as they say. Great idea, I thought, and I can finish it by the time the real Tour De France starts and then post the whole thing with stories of my Virtual journey, mixed in with real stories of my own experiences in the Real France, not just the Made Up France (like Emily in Paris). I have a bit of ‘histoire’ with France, although it’s hardly ‘Year In Provence’ stuff. Except no, I did actually spend a Year In Provence, so maybe it is? Maybe – definitely – I don’t really know what I am talking about most of the time, but who does? Peter Mayle? I’m also called Peter, I’m also Male, so maybe I have more in common with him than I thought. I’ll tell you something though that I’ve not thought about in years – I started drawing again while I lived in France, and part of that might have been that I enjoyed the sketched illustrations in the copy of A Year In Provence that I owned at the time that I wanted to draw more myself. So anyway, I plotted out a doable tour of France that would fit into one single sketchbook. I wasn’t going to use the same format as before – these would all be bigger, maybe more detailed drawings across two pages, same dimensions, so that they would all connect. Great idea, I think I will be done in about a year. Where to start? The Great Britain one started in London, ended in John O’Groats, but you can’t start a Tour de France in Paris. You have to end in Paris, cycling up the Champs-Élysées with a sketchbook and a baguette under my arm. For someone from Britain, there is only one place to start, and that’s Calais. So that’s where we begin our tour. And just like passport control and customs checks since the B-word happened, it’s taken us a very long wait to get here.
And of course, today is le 14 juillet, 14th of July, known to us as Bastille Day. No better day to start a tour de France than the French Fête Nationale.
CALAIS, the first stage of the tour, actually used to be English. That is, it was ruled by England for a couple of centuries until 1558, before “Coming Home” to France (“England’s gonna throw it away, gonna blow it away…” they sang). They called it the “jewel in the English crown” for some reason. Seriously the English monarchs loved it, mostly for its hypermarkets and duty-free ciggies. The area around Calais is called the ‘Pas de Calais’, which I assumed when I first learnt French was because it was the area that was ‘Not Calais’, like this bit’s Calais, this bit isn’t. I thought, surely the whole of France is Pas De Calais? Or the world? Or everything in existence? Those school day-trips to northern France with me were long, I can tell you. We never actually came to Calais on a school day trip, we did go to Boulogne though. I’ll talk about Boulogne next time. In fact, I don’t think I ever actually came to Calais, walked around, asked “où est la boulangerie?”, not once in my life, but I have passed through it so many times. When I used to come back and forth to Europe on the old Eurolines bus, I passed through Calais so many times on the way to somewhere else. That’s what Calais is, a wayfarer’s stopping off point. That bus would get off the ferry at Calais from Dover, the ferry I took so many times, early in the morning, late at night, middle of the afternoon, and the thing I remember most those first few times was the feeling that I was actually abroad. I had passed through the magical barrier from the usual normalcy of England, and now everything was in French, the signs were different fonts, the service station toilets were all different, and of course everyone spoke French, really fast. Not slow, like in Mr. Smith’s French class at school. There were water towers dotted around the Pas De Calais countryside, all unusual shapes and sizes. I will admit, I had no idea what they were for years. Its something you see in America all the time, but not something you come across too often in London. In northern France though they were exotic space-age sculptures saying “you are very, very far from home“, when in fact I was nearer home than if I went to my aunt’s in Norfolk. (though Norfolk always felt very, very far away when I was a kid, so not a great analogy). The thing that stood out in my memory of passing through Calais though was the unusually large clock tower, posing over the town and flexing its stocky neck muscles as it looks out towards England, 27 miles or so away. So that is what drew, the Hotel de Ville, a tall ‘tour’ for the first stop on the Tour de France.
Once the Channel Tunnel started becoming the route of choice for coaches going over the English Channel, the days of me taking the ferry like in the 1990s were numbered. Now if I go to mainland Europe from London I fly, or take the Eurostar train. I will be honest, I will probably never visit Calais, jewel in English crown or not, it’s always in my mind been a place to go through to get somewhere better, even if the next place on this tour is Boulogne (which I always thought of as the less cool little brother to Calais, the Folkestone to its Dover). I miss the ferry though. It was a real transitional journey, seeing those mossy green White Cliffs get smaller and smaller, sitting in that big area with the bar and the comfy seats while your Eurolines bus driver recognized you from the bus and asked if you could carry in a couple of boxes of ciggies for him so he didn’t have to pay duty on them (actually happened; I told him “no I don’t think so mate”), going up on deck to feel the English Channel air on your face while someone nearby vomits either from seasickness or one too many G&Ts from the ferry bar, going back down to the vehicle deck when it was time to go and looking for where your bus was out of the seemingly hundreds down there, choking on carbon monoxide, yeah no I don’t miss the Dover-Calais ferry as much as I thought I did. Ok, so that is Calais – next stop Boulogne-sur-Mer…
2 thoughts on “Virtual Tour De France #1: CALAIS”
Mr Smith’s French class! Ah yes the king of the combover rolling it out with the Tricolour study books. I have some memory that everything in Tricolour was set in La Rochelle?
I hope you’ll publish a memoir in your Autumn years as your travelling experiences have taken you, impressively, far and wide. I’m really enjoying these posts.
Anyway, Happy Bastille Day…. from a Frenchman… sort of :)
Cheers! Yeah Mr Smith had the best combover/beard combo, didn’t he. He was the teacher that introduced me to French; I ended up getting a degree in French at university, and then moving to France where I met my wife, which is why I live in California… Mr Smith doesn’t take the credit though, I’d have probably done those things anyway. I do remember the lesson where he brought in all the stinky cheese.
Tricolore was set in La Rochelle, yes, as every English schoolkid remembers – I went there years later as a tribute, beautiful place, and thanks to Tricolore I knew where the boulangerie and bibliotheque were; wish I knew where the youth hostel was, it took me an hour to find and was full when I got there.