I blagged my way onto the sixth-form day trip to Calais when I was still in Year 11. The Calais trip, to be honest, was a bit of a joke. We ‘interviewed’ the mayor; every year the same questions – ‘Do you prefer the ferry or the tunnel?’ ‘Is tourism good for France?’ ‘What’s the hardest part of your job?’ – and then spent the rest of the day having lunch and hitting the hypermarkets. Not for booze. Too young for booze.
In the full grip of an immense crush, France – even Calais – seemed magical to me. The object of my affections, Super Hot French Teacher, would load his basket full of brie, croissants and coffee, and it all seemed so grown-up, so sophisticated. I look back now and wonder what the bloody point was – good, authentic versions of those things can be bought easily in British supermarkets. But when *he* was buying them, France seemed the sexiest place in the world.
Fifteen years on, I can see that’s far from true. France is the country of dog shit everywhere, of supermarkets that close on Sundays, of endless meals of goats cheese salad if you’re a vegetarian (which fortunately I’m not). But it hasn’t lost that sparkle for me, that golden quality of having been sanctioned by someone I adored. I can find joy in the most mundane ways in which it differs from life in the UK.
Here are five random things I love about it:
1) Condom machines on every pharmacy – I’ll acknowledge that this is a weird one. After all, in the UK, many public toilets have condom machines. But there’s something about having them out there, in full view, and their often rusty, battered appearance, that I find super sexy. Sadly I’ve yet to ever have need to buy condoms from a machine, but this is definitely on my list of fantasies.
2) Wine – one of the most magical things about France is that if you order a glass of wine, a coffee and a Coke, the wine will almost always be second cheapest, sometimes even the cheapest. I associate France with daytime drinking, wine as a sign of doing things like a proper grown up and the promise that, one day, honestly, I will take wine tasting seriously. Just not this week.
3) Steak – I like steak all over the world, as far as I can tell, but there’s a particular kind, onglet, which you don’t find outside of France that often (or maybe I just don’t know what the English translation is), which is my absolute favourite. It’s a cheap cut which means it’s usually been cooked for a long time and it comes with gravy. And chips. Chips and gravy. Yum.
4) Openness about sex – underwear shops all over town, middle-aged couples kissing as they clink their glasses at lunchtime, topless women on the beach – sex, or symbols of sex feel like they’re all over the place here. Even the things that might piss me off in the UK, like billboard ads trading unashamedly on suggestions of women giving head, fail to bother me. They just make me want to give head.
5) Sea – again, there is sea in many places. I like it here though, for a few reasons. Firstly, because falling in love with the South of France has shown me that I’m in many ways free of the crush that started my love affair with the country in the first place. There are no links to him here, language aside. Secondly, because of the way the salt dries on my skin and in my hair – it reminds me of the feeling of come drying on my body – invisible to other people but undoubtedly there. And thirdly, because it’s scary sea – pebbles and jellyfish and occasional big waves – and I can handle my fear of all those things here now. By myself.
I’m not sure what the point of this piece is, exactly. Vaguely, in the back of my mind, it was about looking at the wider ramifications of crushes, which we dismiss so easily. I guess what I’m trying to say is that once upon a time, this was all filtered through my feelings for a man. And although the feelings for him have gone, my feelings for the place haven’t and they’ve been deepened by a new confidence, a new knowledge of myself and what I like. And that really does feel magical.