Wednesday, December 27, 2017

On The Road In France 1979

Me in Epernay railway station 1979
In early summer 1979 Dave visited me in Bradford On Avon and when he returned to Nottingham I lent him a fiver to get home with. Weeks went by and he hadn't sent me the money. A fiver was a lot of money in 1979. Finally I phoned him up.  "Hey, you bastard, where’s my fiver?"."Sorry, I’m going to France tomorrow grape picking, why don’t you come?"
I hitched to Folkstone and met Dave and we got on the Calais ferry. We soon got in with a gang and caroused across the English Channel. In Calais Dave threw up on the war memorial, what a great ambassador for his country he is. We slept the night in a bus station and next morning caught the bus to Bouloigne which Dave assured me was the best place to start hitching south from. The whole day went by and we didn't get one sodding lift. In the late afternoon we were joined by a crazy lady from Watford. I can’t remember her name so I’ll call her Jane. She was also going on the Vendage but she was under the impression that it involved taking your shoes and socks off and standing in a big barrel squashing grapes. After another two hours of no lifts we gave up and went to a bar and got drunk and then the three of us slept in a ditch by the side of the road. The next day we decided to split up, I would try and get a lift with Crazy Jane and Dave would go on his own and we would meet up at the Railway station in Toulouse. Dave walked off into the distance, it was to be a week before I saw him again. Almost as soon as he disappeared myself and Jane got a lift from a businessman on his way to Paris. Jane took a shine to him and changed her mind about heading south and said she fancied smoking a joint on top of the Eiffel Tower instead. At Abbeville we parted company and I was on my own, It felt great, and I began to get lifts now that I was alone and I headed for Amiens and then on to Rouens where Jeanne D'arc was burned. I walked through Liseaux in the rain on a Sunday evening and I thought of the old hobo in Kerouac’s Dharma Bums who was devoted to St Teresa of the flowers and I felt really holy and beat, I realized this was the only way to live. I had thrown myself on top of the world and I was floating. One of the many things I like about France is that your basic essentials of life like wine and tobacco are really cheap. You could get a bottle of Vin Rouge plonk for 3.5francs and I’d stuff that in my rucksack and take a slug anytime I felt my spirits waning.
After Lisieux I ended up in Chartres with its beautiful cathedral and then on to Le Mans famous for the 24 hrs race. A family gave me a lift from Le Mans and I was so exhausted that I slept in the back seat of their car for hours. When I awoke I was in Poitiers and it was hot and sunny. I felt that I was in the south. That night I slept in a field near Perigaux and by Tuesday evening I was cruising into Toulouse, I had made it in about 60 hours, I was really pleased with myself. As I strolled up the main boulevard of Toulouse beautiful girls gazed at me from doorways and they weren't waiting for a bus either. I felt great. At the Railway Station there was no sign of Dave but I wasn't concerned. I got chatting to a bloke from Finland who had a T shirt on that read 'England’s No 1 Girl'. He was a real character who liked the English for some reason and we started knocking about together. He turned out to be the best thief I have ever met. We would go into a shop and wander about in there and on leaving the shop he would produce everything we needed. Then we would go and sit in the park with the rest of the itinerant fellaheen and eat and drink to our hearts content. This was the life. At night I would return to Le Gare and sleep on the platform. As the days went by though I got increasingly concerned about Dave. Six days had passed since he had walked off into the distance. Finally one night I felt somebody shaking me, "Pat, wake up”. It was Dave but I was shocked by his appearance. He had a bruised face and a huge black eye. He told me that after leaving me and Crazy Jane he had made good time to Bordeaux but then couldn't get a lift for 3 days. Just when he was on the verge of giving up and jumping the train a large truck slowed down as it passed him, he ran up to it thinking he finally had a lift and the person in the passenger seat threw a melon at him and he was hit in the face by a melon travelling at about 20mph. He made a good recovery though over the next couple of days. I introduced him to England’s No 1 Girl and we passed the time begging and dossing in the park. After a while though we got bored and decided to head for Carcassone and find some work.
We bunked it on the bus, it was easy because on the buses in Toulouse the passengers get on the bus at the front and pay the driver and exit at the middle of the bus. So we merely entered at the exit. When we arrived in Carcassone we were almost in Spain. We met an English man with a stutter, he said, "I’ve been in Ca Ca Ca Carcassone 3 days now, it’s really boring". After we left him we found the most incredible perfectly preserved medieval castle that I’d ever seen. We kipped on the battlements that night with a brother and sister who came from up north in the Franco-Belgium coalfield. They were really nice but more important they had money so we enjoyed their hospitality for a few days. We couldn't find a farmer though who would take us on and give us a job on the grape picking. We said cheerio to the nice couple and moved on. We went to Narbonne, Beziers, Sete, Montpelier, Nimes and Avignon. Finally we arrived in the town of Orange. We were disappointed to find that the Patti Smith Band had played in the Roman amphitheater there only the day before. Our luck had changed though and we got work with a farmer called Maurice in one of the outlying villages. The work didn't start for a week so we had to kick our heels and survive off our wits for a few days. We did this by begging.
"Pardon mademoiselle,je suis pas d'argent ,avez vous un franc pour mange sil vous plait,je cherche pour travail sur le vendage. Merci beaucoups"                                            
Every time we got 3 or 4 francs together we would go and get a baguette and some fromage or pate and some wine and sit around in the park. One afternoon I counted nine different nationalities sat in our gang of wastrels and winos. It was great fun. Then the day came to go and start work for Maurice. It was back breaking work at first until we got used to it but I really enjoyed it apart from when Dave would catch my fingers from the other side of the vine with his secateurs. There were two other English on the farm, students from Oxford University but we didn’t hold it against them and a German lad called Werner who we got on really well with. He was an anarchist.  We all slept in the barn on bales of hay and a happy month with Maurice passed really quickly.
When the work ended and we were paid off we said goodbye To Maurice and our new friends and headed north to Bourge En Bresse to visit a couple whom Dave had met a couple of years earlier, they lived with their baby in a tiny apartment but made room for us and we slept on their floor for a few nights. I had developed a nasty ear infection and Dave had some sort of galloping mouth rot. We both went to the doctor in Bourge En Bresse which was quite expensive. One day walking down the street Dave suddenly stopped dead in his tracks.
"What’s up mate, are you feeling rough?"
"No, cake shop”, he said, pointing at a shop window.
                                                                                  He could never walk past a cake shop in France without buying a gateaux. It was in a little flea pit cinema in this town that I first saw the film The Last Waltz where Van Morrison effortlessly stole the show with Caravan.
After we said cheerio to Dave’s friends we headed north to find more work on the vendage. We visited Reims with its magnificent cathedral which I called Le Grande Illusion and then Epernay in the heart of the champagne area. Hundreds of vendageurs were hanging about at the railway station where the farmers recruited their workers. In the waiting room of the station Dave started talking to this girl called Daisy from Belgium who was lying on the floor next to him. Then they joined their sleeping bags together and the next thing I knew he was shagging her, right there in front of everybody in the station waiting room. I was disgusted and also quite jealous. The next day Dave met this old English geezer who had lived there since after the war. He was a drunken old sod but he had some useful contacts.
"Oh my dear boy, don’t worry, I’ll phone my very good friend Madame Jumel, and she will give you a job".

 It was great at Madame Jumel’s, we had a great big dormitory to sleep in. The first night there when I got in bed I realised this was the first bed I’d slept in for two months. In the morning we just had coffee and biscuits, then all piled into the camion. We did about two hours work and then had breakfast out in the fields. Lunch was also outdoors. We used to work our way along the vine singing Old Macdonald had a farm in French, Coupe ici coupe la etc. When you got to the end of the vine there was always a crate of wine there so you would have a good slug of it and start off down the next vine. The evening meal was great, it started about 7.00 and ended about midnight with everyone as drunk as a bishop. We had some great laughs. We were in a village called Cramant. Some evenings we would walk to the next village called Avize and visit Daisy and her friends. We used to get drunk on champagne every night and also champagne brandy which was like rocket fuel. We got really friendly with this couple called Cati & Claude.
Me with Cati & Claude
I met this really nice girl from Morlaix in Brittany. The Bretons are different to the rest of the French, they are a Celtic people, maybe that’s why she liked me, I don’t know. Sadly the happy days at Madame Jumel’s came to an end. Dave headed for Alsace Lorraine to do more grape-picking with Daisy but I decided to head for home. I said farewell to the little Breton and caught the train for Paris. In the bar at the Gare Du Nord I got chatting to this American bloke who said he was a performance artist. He was really into Lenny Bruce and hundred per cent truth and all that sort of thing. We chatted about books and music all the way to Calais. On the ferry it was a beautiful hot sunny day although it was now October. Britain was enjoying an Indian summer and looked really beautiful as we sailed towards the white cliffs of Dover. I had left three months earlier with nothing and had emerged from France with £200 and clutching two bottles of champagne. What a great year it was.


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