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Postcard from Boulogne – Napoleon, the Sangatte Gambit and Traffic Serenades

September 15, 2011

My second foray to France in a month began last Thursday. Fourteen golfers from the UK, Ireland and the US gathered for the annual SHAGGS tour. Long-time readers of this blog might remember my description of the event last year, Lost (Balls) in France.

This year our base camp was in the port city of Boulogne, a few miles from the French end of the Channel Tunnel, and within striking distance of a number of golf courses much visited by the British – Le Touquet, Hardelow and St Omer among the best.

Boulogne is a ferry port. Two thousand years ago it was the launch pad for the Roman invasion of Britain. Two hundred years ago it was to be the port from which Napoleon planned to launch his invasion of my native land. He even went so far as to assemble an army of 200,000 ready to sail, before the strength of the British Navy caused him to have second thoughts. In World War II British bombers obliterated the port in preparation for the allied invasion of France.

Today it is a nondescript city, windy and a little bleak. It has the highest unemployment in the region, partly because it lost much of its ferry business after the opening of the tunnel. But it does have an impressive fortified city and a typically sturdy chateau that used to be the seat of the Counts of Boulogne. The chateau is now a museum, boasting an eclectic collection of exhibits that seemed to reflect the tastes of its benefactors rather than any coherent theme – Greek vases, Alaskan face masks, African figurines and paintings by esteemed Boulonnais artists such as Georges Mathieu. Oh, and a very handsome collection of Napoleonic  military uniforms, perhaps to remind us Brits what we missed when the Grande Armee failed to cross the channel in 1804.

Our hotel was directly opposite the main gate of the old city, only a few hundred yards from the restaurants serving the inevitable moules (mussels) and other fare beloved of English visitors. Nothing special or noteworthy, apart from the Wren-style cathedral we would pass by on our way to eat.

But France always has the ability to surprise, especially in cultural matters. There was a concert scheduled in the forecourt in front of the old city gate. When we got back from the golf on Saturday afternoon, rehearsals were going on. Bits of Bizet’s Carmen, excerpts from Handel’s Fireworks Music, some sacred arias from Vivaldi and Bach.

Nothing odd in that, you might think, except that the stage was directly in front of a major traffic roundabout. Brass bands, full orchestra, soprano and contralto soloists preparing to perform to a procession of transient cars! In the event we never found out if they were planning to close the roundabout, because that evening the rains came down. Since there was no canopy over the stage, the whole event was transferred to the Cathedral.

As for the golf, it was the usual mixture of sublime and ridiculous – sublime on the part of others, and ridiculous on mine. Sadly, it will forever be known in the annals of SHAGGS as the Tour of the Car. If you made a movie of it, the strapline would be “Four went on the mission. Only two came back”. On the first night, one of our cars had an argument with the concrete wall of an approach to the autoroute. The result: the car written off in a cataclysm of exploding airbags. One of us was unable to continue because of bruising to the chest caused by the seat belt. Another broke the windscreen with a head butt and yet carried on with no apparent ill effect.

Our evacuation dilemma loomed – how would we fit extra people into three cars packed with clubs, bags and cases of wine – when on the last night my car went on the blink. Engine overheated, and coolant spewing out of the engine with a nasty hiss. I had the car towed to a garage in Boulogne. In the morning, the party had to decide how to fit everyone into two cars for the return journey. I considered suggesting the Sangatte gambit, used by people attempting to get into the UK illegally – one person strapped under each car – but being one of those responsible for the problem, I kept a regretful silence. In the end everyone made it back, though it was hard to see the passengers for the array of baggage crammed into every available space as the diminished flotilla moved off from the hotel.

Leaving me. Instead of a pleasant final round of golf on a hilly course in driving rain and 35 mph winds, I found myself negotiating with the garage to fix the car. This was made difficult by the fact that that they opened at 9am, shut for a two-hour lunch, and seemed to regard customers as a necessary inconvenience. It took those three hours to discover what was wrong and agree the repair before they chucked me out into the rain and shut the shop. What would have cost €250 in the UK was set me back €700, not including the €400 (“double time on Sunday, Monsieur”) I had to pay the recovery driver who scooped the car off the road in the first place.

The car took two days to repair, so I ended up with a little extra time to enjoy the delights of Boulogne – hence the visit to the museum.

I spent the rest of the time reading the weighty tome I had luckily packed, lunching and dining in the restaurants of the old city, watching parties of old ladies and school kids on day trips wandering through the cobbled streets, and having repeated encounters with a guy who was desperately trying to reach relatives in Kent  and needed a Euro for breakfast.

Boulogne doesn’t seem to be the happiest place in France. While waiting at the garage for news on the car, I struck up a conversation with a retired English teacher who spent 40 years vainly trying to persuade the municipality to take advantage of the city’s proximity to the UK by offering more than booze cruises and moules.

An anglophile who holidayed in Britain every year, he lamented the lack of interest of the locals in the neighbour a few miles over the sea. He tried to interest the city in setting up language colleges and cultural centres celebrating the long links between Britain and France, but to no avail. Now he had sold his house at a knock-down price and was leaving the unpredictable weather of Boulogne for Alsace, near the border with Germany – home of fine wine, Arsène Wenger, superb Franco-German cuisine and the European Parliament.

My stay in Boulogne strengthened the suspicion that the relationship between Britain and France is an unequal one. A French person would not naturally think of coming to the UK on holiday, whereas we Brits swarm into France, not just for visits but also to thousands of second homes – many of them ruins lovingly converted over the past thirty years. For sure, our money is welcome, but there remains an implicit resistance to the influence of what the French call the “Anglo-Saxon” culture. Perhaps a little jealousy too, and certainly a measure of resentment of what they see as our arrogant and boorish ways.

The last three weeks have taken me to four very different areas of France – St Malo on the Brittany coast, La Baule on the Loire estuary, Monflanquin in the deep South and finally Boulogne. Visiting each in close succession was a rare opportunity to take the temperature of one of my favourite countries.

I love France no less as a result. But I was reminded that the closer you go towards the maritime border, the lower the esteem in which we Brits seem to be held. Maybe because it takes more than a decade or three of Euro-fraternity to override centuries of intermittent conflict and uneasy peace.

As for the golf, well, as always, the pleasure was in the company.

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