Overlanding from Andalusia to Wales: Cómpeta to Amboise via San Sebastián.
If someone had warned me beforehand about how hideous the stretch of motorway is between the Spanish border and Bordeaux, I would've added it to my list of reasons to be prejudiced against France. It's a truly scary stretch of road, with tons of speeding lorries pulling out without signalling and overtaking at high speed. The motorway is fringed with attractive concrete barriers - ideal for squashing you like a bug between lorry and wall. On several occasions during those hairy couple of hours, I'm grateful for Rory's ability to accelerate rapidly to get out of danger. By the time I've passed the turnoff to Bordeaux and pulled up at an aire (rest stop), my white-knuckled hands have to be pried from my steering wheel with a crowbar.
I've been prejudiced against France for a long time, and until I finally went to Paris a couple of years ago, and saw the Eiffel Tower for the first time, I'd last set foot in the country when I was 19. And now that I rack my brain, I'm not entirely sure why that is, the ghastly stretch of the A63 notwithstanding.
My memories of France are as follows:
Grey and rainy outskirts of Paris in April 1992; damp and ill-attended parade at EuroDisney (who goes to EuroDisney in April???).
Several family ski trips to the French alps until my mid-teens that involved staying nowhere near the slopes, having to take shuttle buses, and having to carry skis for miles.
Grey and nondescript port area in Calais (last seen coming back from a school trip to Italy when I was 15 or 16).
Shambolic University of Warwick ski trip to the Val d'Isère, during which our ski club managed to get blacklisted by the hotel we stayed in because someone got drunk and pissed on the Christmas tree in the lobby, while another member of our party stole the hotel sign. During apres-ski nights out, members of our club held sing-offs against other university ski clubs present, mocked Anglia Polytechnic (♬ You'll neeeeever be a uni ♫) and sang rude songs involving camembert as a euphemism for, well, you know. As a crowning touch, our ski club leader won the risque behaviour competition (stealing hotel sign = 2 points, snogging a German with a mullet = 4 points, public masturbation = 10 points, etc) by jacking his beanstalk on the slopes in full view of all.
At school, I struggled with French, in spite of the best efforts of Madame Wragg, Monsieur Carlson and 6th form teacher whose name I don't remember. I wrestled with the pronunciation, trying to get my tongue and throat around the unfamiliar sounds, and lost. I managed to scrape a B in my GCSEs, so don't know what possessed me to opt for A-Level French. (After I got a 'U' - a fail, horror of horrors! - during practise exams, I hurriedly switched to Sociology. And got a C after cramming two years' worth of study into about three weeks, so that worked out.
Oddly enough, I never struggled with Spanish at university, and I don't know whether it's because Spanish is very easy to pronounce if you're a Russian speaker, or whether it's because I had a very memorable Spanish teacher, who'd sweep in with his cape and guitar, and use memorable examples to help us grapple with the grammar. I will never forget ojalá ("I wish", "God willing", "if only", stemming from the Arabic "inshallah"), followed by the subjunctive, because Salvador chose to use me as an example, spinning a fantastical scenario for our class in which I'd cooked a romantic candlelit dinner for an older man ("She likes them old" he said, conspiratorially), only to be stood up, finally eating both the dinner and the candles in frustration.
See? Now you'll remember ojalá too.
Not unlike my experience with the two languages, driving across Spain proved easier and less stressful than that initial bout of French driving. Well, sort of, considering that on the first day, I spent 13 hours on the road, getting up at the crack of dawn, loading up my car with everything but the kitchen sink (because I no longer have to 'pack light', my dear Celeste), and muttering some lyrics from Mary Chapin Carpenter's "The Moon and St Cristopher", as I'm wont to do before a challenging trip (I'm a bit OCD):
"Now it's too late for turning back
I pray for the heart and the nerve"
The drive itself was straightforward enough, going from the Mediterranean coast, swinging past Granada, shooting through the middle of Madrid, passing by the rocky, arid hills en route to Burgos, and finally finding myself amidst the dense spruce forest and grey skies of the Basque Country. I was originally supposed to be staying at a colleague's house across the border in France, but his hiking mishaps in the Pyrenees coincided with my utter exhaustion, whereby I passed out on my hotel bed pretty much as soon as I got in, my body still shaking because it was under the impression that I was still rattling along the motorway in the car.
Back on the road in France, once I got off the motorway past Poitiers and got out into the countryside, the quality of the driving transformed. Goodbye, heavy traffic. Hello, medieval stone churches, fields of sunflowers, stately chateaux.
On the recommendation of another LP colleague, I ended up staying in lovely Amboise, rather than a big city, and thoroughly enjoyed schlepping along the banks of the Loire...
...admiring one of its two castles...
...and feeling a touch of envy/terror while watching hot air balloons take off above the town.
I've only been in a hot air balloon twice: over the Masai Mara in Kenya, which was amazing, and over Vang Vieng, Laos, which was terrifying: we barely cleared the rooftops, missed some electricity cables by a cat's whisker and finally crash-landed in a field.
I discovered that my French did come back sufficiently for me to order takeaway at one of the nicest restaurants in Amboise...
...and that French people weren't mean to me when I stumbled over words and mangled their language. When I popped into a gourmet food store, drawn like a moth to the flame by the jars of fancy pates in the window and boudin blanc in the fridge...
...the shopkeeper didn't make fun of me because of my limited language skills, and said "have a nice day" as I was leaving. Perhaps the stereotype that French people are haughty and condescending towards people who don't speak French is about as accurate as that of French people walking around with wreaths of garlic around their necks, saying "ooh la la" all the time and wearing berets. (At least, that wasn't the case when I met my colleague JB in Paris a couple of years back; I don't think he said "ooh la la" even once).
I can see now that France would be an interesting and rewarding place to explore. Perhaps my having shunned the country all these years has less to do with France per se, and more to do with my own deep-rooted feelings of inadequacy, fuelled by my inability to master the French language. Now, there's food for thought...