In my late teens, I and three companions—my girlfriend, Vanessa, and two cousins, Derek and Lenora—decided to take my very shaky Ford Cortina from London to the south of France. We’d never been to France and had been invited to help rebuild an ancient farmhouse in return for food, a place to camp, and drink.
The people who’d invited us were friends who’d either forgotten or chose to ignore the fact that all four of us drank an awful lot, particularly when a bottle of red wine of dubious quality was only two francs—but that’s another story. We had to get there first.
One thing that both Derek and I were totally fixated on having was real French coffee in a real French café, with cognac and foul-smelling Gauloise cigarettes at hand, of course. This goal was to be attained as soon as possible because it would mark our arrival in France and, in our naïve minds, instantly immerse us in French culture. We probably even expected our excruciating schoolboy French to become fluent in the moment, allowing us to discuss the finer points of Sartre and Beauvoir with the locals.
It was mid morning when we spotted the most ideal café on earth. We were heading south through northern France, having endured a shocking channel crossing by new-fangled hovercraft. I was at the wheel when we drove onto French soil and was still nauseous enough from the rough seas to come off the first roundabout into the wrong carriageway of a motorway. We agreed that all that traffic hurtling towards us couldn’t possibly be in error, and proceeded to hold it up while we turned around. The ensuing insults and horn-blowing were quite upsetting and we had the impression that the Gauls would have preferred us to keep going while they weaved around us.
All was forgiven when we entered a quiet and tranquil village off the beaten track (we were quite lost actually) and admired the café of our dreams, perched in a sunny, picture-postcard setting at one side of the village square. It was a moment of great anticipation. Even the ladies had become excited at the thought of soaking up the atmosphere of beau monde de France.
After the sunshine outside it was quite shadowy inside the café, resulting in a little body shunting and toe standing as we shuffled around and peered into the gloom. A long wooden servery dominated the room and behind it we could make out an enormous lady dressed in a grubby white pinny. Derek, always the more courageous, called in a voice a little louder than the norm, ‘Bonjour, bonjour, comment vas-tu ma fille?’ Or I think that’s what he said. As my vision adjusted to the shade, my attention was distracted by the observation that the lady was extremely hairy, and sported, apart from thick black hairy arms, a moustache and beard. The resultant stony silence didn’t deter Derek at all, and before I could say anything he’d forged on, ‘Pouvons-nous avoir le petite café et cognac maintenant madame?’
In the corner, four men were huddled over a game of dominos. Their game forgotten, they stared, in a not discernibly friendly way, at the rude commotion in the doorway. I was torn between bolting and continuing the debacle. The latter won simply because the men were dressed in baggy grey outfits, brownish formless jackets and—wait for it—wore berets. So French! That did it.
‘Let’s just take a seat and see what happens,’ I whispered. The others were visibly relieved. No-one said a word, so we had nothing to lose.
The scraping of rude wooden chairs on the lumpy lino as we sat down seemed to fill the entire room with teeth-jarring noise but we eventually got ourselves settled. Derek had given one of the domino players a friendly nod which, although ignored, encouraged the group to begin playing again—in utter silence.
Thick strong coffee arrived in tiny cups. We’d never seen anything like this before. Nescafe was as sophisticated as it came in England. Four glasses of strongly smelling, foul tasting, urine-hued liquid followed. Derek and I lit a Gauloise, gave each other a triumphant wink, and smugly contemplated the scene. We’d made it. We were in France, amongst the French and doing things that normal French people did.
A number of glasses of so-called cognac later it began to taste quite good. We began to replan our route to take in more of these out-of-the-way places. They were obviously fun and interesting. We began to relax. We were experienced and successful travellers now. As my alcohol to blood ratio increased, I became more effusive, waving my hands and arms about in what I perceived, in my ignorance, to be the perfect Gallic manner.
The café had a poodle—a black, long-haired thing that spent its time scurrying around the tables in an ever-hopeful quest for titbits. It happened to be tootling by when, in one of my most vociferous moments, I made a strong point by energetically windmilling an arm. This was the same arm that had the hand attached that held a Gauloise. The cigarette’s smouldering tip brushed against the poodle’s forehead and stayed there.
It wasn’t until I lifted the Gauloise to my lips and noticed that there was no longer a lit end, heard the appalling racket of a dog reacting to its head being singed, and smelt the awful stench of burning fur, that I realised what had happened.
Derek and I leapt to our feet and, in trying to save the dog from further barbecuing, managed to upend the domino table which, sadly, was in the final, nail-biting throes of a game.
Thank goodness one of us could still drive. The getaway would have done James Bond proud.