Search This Blog

27 May 2010

Holidays, coaches, peasants

The older generation of - what they are happy to call themselves - peasants in France never had the chance, time, or reason to travel much. Many have never gone more than a few kilometres from their home village. We know quite a few people in our corner of La Manche who still take their annual holidays in caravans at the nearest seaside camp site - about 35 km from here, a little town we often visit just for lunch. Now there is a splendid health service, a lot of people have gone further afield for medical attention, to see specialists in the big towns, or have operations. Not travelling for fun and adventure, though.

It took a lot longer for the French economy to progress after the war than it did the British. This was particularly so in the rural, agricultural areas, such as Normandy. As late as the 1970s it was possible to see horse drawn ploughs and other implements occcasionally. Of course, the French standard of living is now well ahead of the UK in subjective terms, though UK, Germany and France are 19, 20 and 21 in the world by Gross Domestic Product per capita,  adjusted for relative purchasing power, according to the International Monetary Fund 2009.

However, in the last 10-15 years, many people who previously had neither the money nor the inclination to go anywhere, have discovered it is not only possible, but fun. With reasonable pensions, improved life expectancy, and families who have moved away, to other regions of France, or even other countries, a lot of the older people have begun to do a little exploring. Not by themselves, admittedly, but none the less going on trips. This has been facilitated by travel companies, so that it is easy, safe, not too expensive, and reassuring. In general, the travel companies organise one day coach trips to a particular destination, either a specific town, or around the region. These are arranged locally, and often start from about 6.00am with the coach going around several villages picking up the pre-booked customers. And off they go, returning at about 10 in the evening.

Being French, the price includes all meals. The first stop is for breakfast in a cafe on the way. We used to travel overnight to Caen-Ouistreham or Cherbourg from Portsmouth, and arrive about 8.30 at Villedieu-les-Poêles where we would have breakfast in a café. Most times, there would be a sudden influx of 30-50 elderly people, arriving at the same time, and obviously expected. They would be served café-au-lait or hot chocolate, a croissant or two, and in ten minutes they would all be off. Back to the coach. Lunch is usually at an auberge in the country - there are quite a few that now rely on pre-booked coach parties to keep going - with three or four courses and wine. Dinner will be somewhere else, and something similar. The expectations are that there will be proper meals, with proper traditional French food, at proper meal times.

In between the meals, the coaches will visit whatever places of interst are the apparent object of the trip. We were in Rochefort-en-Terre, in Brittany, when three coaches suddenly tirned up, and hordes of elderly French country folk descended simultaneously, and divided into two groups - one to queue at the public toilets, the others to rush into the village to see everything and buy souvenirs. The noise was incredible. A hundred people all chattering at once in what had a minute or two before been a quiet, hot place. The sound was a sort of loud twittering, impossible to hear any words, because every one of the people was talking at the same time. The only time I have heard something similar was when a huge flock of starlings finished wheeling through the twilight sky like smoke and all settled into the same group of trees at the same moment. Within an hour, the coaches had left for the next site.

Most of these travellers are women of a certain age. Men in general, and farmers in particular, do not last as long as women when they retire. The coach trips allow groups of friends to go on  a trip together, without having to worry about making complicated arrangements, or finding places to eat, or having to drive. And being used to organised lives, they have no problems in starting before dawn.

There are also more and more package coach tours to more exotic places, lasting a week or even more. These work in the same way, but go to the further regions of France, and even other countries, and have hotel stays included.. The wife of a friend of hours finally made her husband go on a holiday to Provence this way, with some other friends, and it was the first real holiday away they had ever had. They were both over 60. When they came back, Yvon and Yvonne had different views of the experience. She enjoyed every minute. He found it interesting in a way, but was shocked that there were no cows, and that the land was all rubbish dry, stony, no grass. 

In fact this was their second long coach trip. When the euro was introduced, there was a period of a bout a year for people to change their francs into the new currency, which could only be done at banks, and who recorded the details of each exchange. This created an immense dilemma for farmers and other country people. Many of their transactions are cash based - buying and selling animals, fodder and so on, and the money nver goes near a bank.. They do not appear in any documentation, and of course do not get included in tax returns. That is one reason why France has a higher standard of living and more actbve economy than appears in the official statistics. The difficulty was of course that the state would want to know where they got all these francs from, and demand taxes. The tax demands would be calculated on the asumption that whatever cash was found now, it was only a fraction of what had not been declared in the past, and the tax demands would hurt.

The tiny republic of Andorra, between France and Spain, presented a solution. There were no border processes, and the banks there would exchange francs for euros with no questions asked. Very many rural French people suddenly discovered that they had always wanted to see the wonderful sites and people of Andorra, and there was a constant stream of coaches visiting there for one day holidays. I have no idea how news of this benefit was circulated, but inevitably the French government realised what was going on, and started making spot searches of coaches along the road to Andorra. Anyone found with more francs than a short stay needed, was faced with a tax demand, and a fine. The trips carried on for a while, but when one coach was stopped and all the luggage searched, and a number of suitcases opened to reveal bundles of francs which nobody on the coach claimed, the risks became too great.

But it introduced a lot of people to the idea of travel and visiting new places. One of our widow friends last summer went to Spain, the Costa del Sol no less, on a coach trip for a week. She went with three of four other people from the village, and they joined forces with some from another village. They had many interesting evenings planning the holiday, and discussing arrangements over dinner at each other's houses. The holidy itself started the evening before, when they all gathered at two of the houses, so they would all be collected together. The coach began its collection of passengers at 3.00 am, and then went all the way to Spain, arriving in time for a late dinner, stopping only for meals on the way. There was a toilet on board, of course. The coach apparently had two drivers who took it in turns to drive. A week in Spain in a decent enough hotel, organised excursions and two good, proper meals every day. It was perfect. 

1 comment:

baresytapas said...

I entered this site by chance, but I found very interesting. A greeting to all the people who visit this page.