It is nice to think, while living in the UK, how easy it is to go abroad. We thought this too.
At the time, we were living in Brighton, which is on the coast, so to our inexperienced minds not too far from France. We planned a trip – well I say planned, we basically just worked out how to get a train to a ferry and packed our passports and some overnight gear.
The train to the coast left early, and possibly involved changing trains at some point, even though Newhaven does not look that far away on the map. We pretty much had to get up in the middle of the night, which at some point the night before had started out as an abortive attempt to stay awake until dawn with the aid of a few beverages. By the time we had realised we were not going to make it, it was so late that going to sleep only had the effect of making us so tired that the administration of a general anaesthic would have perked us up, but we managed to get from the train to the ferry and across to Dieppe and arrived looking about 150 years older.
France was going to be my chance to shine. When I was 17, I lived in France and learned to speak the language. While I had forgotten much, the basics were still there. I was looking forward to dusting off my linguistic skills.
What I had not banked on was Dieppe being a port and thus housing more foreigners than natives. I should have known. In all the years I lived in Brighton (not a port but a top seaside town) I think I only met one person who was actually from the place. Everyone else was a refugee from London, who, just as I had done, had come down on the train for a weekend away, walked out of the station at the top of the hill, glimpsed the light dancing off the coastal waters in the near distance and thought, ‘This is it! No way am I going back.’
So in Dieppe we crawled bleary-eyed into a restaurant, which catering to swarms of tourists and day trippers, served nothing that resembled French food and were attended by a waiter who resolutely brushed aside my attempts to chat in the local language by refusing to talk to us in anything but English. To be fair, his English was very good. Of course it was, he was Dutch.
‘Ah, Bonjour Monsieur,’ I would start, but before I could get any further he would interject with, ‘So vat can I get you folksh?’ Damn him and his intimate knowledge of conversational terms. Dieppe and me were not going to get along.
We left to go to Rouen the next day. Rouen – easy to get to on the train and with a history of burning women at the stake. What could possibly go wrong? Plenty, as it happens.
I think it began with the river. My husband is normally very good at orienting himself and will naturally observe and remember landmarks. I, on the other hand have no sense of direction whatsoever. I could get lost in a car park, and frequently do. It was while we were looking for the tourist information office that he lost the river. This had never happened before and while not too big a deal, was just a little like that bit in The Matrix where Neo spots a cat for the second time and says, ‘Oh, Deja vu,’ at which everyone panics because there is no such thing as Deja vu in The Matrix, and all hell breaks loose. Losing the river should have been the first warning: there is no such thing as a reliable landmark in Rouen. This was in the new section of the city, which was relatively organized but not so much that when we eventually found the tourist office it wasn’t locked up, with its FERME sign propped up at a jaunty angle in the window.
By this time I was beginning to tire. I had not slept well in Dieppe and for some reason I was carrying all the bags and felt as though I had been since Brighton. I headed down a street towards the old section of the town – you know, the bit where they barbecued a woman – and looked for shelter.
I led us under a simple sign that said, ‘HOTEL’. The price was cheap and I handed over the price of a room thankfully. Now I could dump the bags and grab a couple of hours’ shut-eye at last.
The room was odd. A double bed, and inside the bedroom, a shower. Not an ensuite, but a shower, plonked like a Tardis had just landed in the middle of the floor. The toilets were on the landing. I headed there next.
A crude sign, written in thick black letters on a piece of torn cardboard was stuck on the wall, ‘Ceux ou Celles,’ it began, ‘Qui salissent la toilette…’
I stared at the sign, ‘Those [men or women], ‘ I translated, ‘who dirty the toilet..’
I did not want to read on. What kind of hotel was this?
We headed out a couple of hours later and decided that given the town’s uncanny ability to rotate itself through forty-five degrees every time you went down a side street, we would stay very local and not get too far from the hotel. We went down a road, then across a square and found an Irish pub. You might wonder why we would travel for two days to drink in an Irish pub, but frankly we were so desperate for something we could recognize by this stage that for once we were in total agreement .
We had a couple of pints and decided to head back. We crossed the square. The road we had come down had vanished.
It was midnight. We were lost, again. I looked at the key we had been given at the hotel, but it did not have the name of the place on it. It was just a crude plastic key ring boasting our room number written in biro.
It started to pour with rain.
We wandered up and down a series of what, I am sure in other circumstances, would have been delightful cobbled streets. Tonight they were not delightful. They were slick with rain and threatened to break your ankle with every step. They were dark and narrow and treacherous.
My husband, unaccustomed to being lost, gave up. He sank, dramatically into a doorway.
‘It’s no use,’ he intoned, ‘We should just sleep here.’
Oddly, this is where my complete lack of ability to find true North suddenly became an advantage. I was so used to being lost, that I did not find the situation half as stressful as he did.
‘Get up.’ I kicked him smartly on his sodden trouser leg, ‘Come on, I have paid money for that room and I am not sleeping on the street.’
He struggled to his feet reluctantly and we walked a little further. Then, unexpectedly, a light shone from a window. I peered in. It was a tiny bar, full of people drinking and laughing.
‘Probably the fairground ride operators who run the streets of Rouen,’ I thought grimly, as I stared through at the happy scene. ‘They must have just clocked off.’
I went inside the bar and explained to a lady that worked there our predicament. The hotel, with just the green sign ‘Hotel’ the streets that kept moving, the rain. In the nick of time, I remembered a small detail, that there was a small courtyard between the green sign and the front door of the hotel.
‘Ah!’ She exclaimed, ‘Je le connais – attendez- vous ici’
‘She knows it!’ I explained to my broken spouse, ‘she has told us to hang on for a tick.’
She appeared moments later, with an umbrella and walked us around the corner to the hotel. We had been no more than 20 meters away all the time. I have never been so pleased to see a flophouse in my life. I thanked her profusely.
She gave a little Gallic wave of her hand, ‘De rien!’ She exclaimed and trotted off into the night with her umbrella, like a little French Mr Timnus.
By some miracle we found the train station early the next morning and planted ourselves at a cafe next door, with one of us keeping watch on it at all times, less it snuck away on us before our lunchtime train departed.
I am sure that Rouen can be a charming place for a holiday, but not for us, not this time.