Do you mind travelling with us again?
I often think how nice it would be to ask people on a Channel crossing who they were and why they were crossing.
The majority of passengers are in pairs, looking, at this time of year when schools have started again, like grandparents in need of a break and a rest. The couples look very much alike.
An elderly bald-headed man in rust coloured sweater reads a paper with deep concentration. His female companion has hair that stands up like bristles on a broom.
Their food tray is bereft of anything edible. The plastic sandwich cover lies open and empty. Several little milk pots rest where they fell near to two empty cups.
A pen and two spectacle cases lie on the table next to a dog-eared copy of a book of crossword puzzles.
Beside these items lies a new novel that has been partly read by a person who does not respect a book’s binding. So some of its pages look as if they have seen better days, and the unread part remains pristine as if direct from the publishers.
A part filled plastic bottle of water stands next to an open handbag made of fake ostrich skin.
The French coast has appeared on the horizon, but they are unaware of it.
There must be a draught falling down inside a large, rain-spattered sheet of glass behind them because she has donned a pullover/cardigan to add warmth to the rough-knitted under garment of many colours. This multi-coloured under-top confection looks not unlike cotton waste, used by engineers to wipe away grease.
Where are they going? Who knows.
Looking down over a balcony to the deck beneath, two travellers have laid out sleeping bags on the floor. Arab-looking, they appear as if they might wake up from their slumbers and start a fire to heat mint tea. Perhaps they are on their way to Morocco. But they are not there for long. Stewards have told them to behave and sit down.
A mackintosh-clad granny talks to a young girl dressed in blue jeans, orange top and fake fur jacket. They could be going home to France. They, too, have a crossword book open. It might be in French.
As one peers around, people look rather drab. Where are those elegant English we sometimes see on their way to a farmhouse in the Dordogne or villa in Provence? We see none aboard, even those with cabins for the journey who appear just before landing to await orders to regain their cars deep below.
In Dieppe we only see the unstylish and the dull – all black and brown. Where is this much-vaunted French chic? I did query this state of affairs once on Paris, to be told that the good-looking Parisienne ladies are not seen abroad, but are ferried to their shopping expeditions and smart homes by chauffeurs in grand cars.
In this new France I miss the past pungent smell of yellow Gitanes cigarettes and corridor and restaurant WCs, where one stood feet apart and hoped that nothing would drop into the large hole beneath and be lost to those famous French sewers.
BUT, fleas do still exist in France. Margreet was bitten almost as soon as we set foot in Dieppe.
We rather pride ourselves on locating good food in France at a reasonable price. We returned first to a favourite restaurant at the side of the yachting marina. But the waitress there had turned surly. There was none of the usual smiling service. How sad. The staff were angry with each other. And it showed. Of course, this attitude was reflected in their service. It rather spoiled our meal. But if one restaurant is crossed off our list, another is sure to appear to take its place. And there remains our favourite – and the cheapest – where we eat lunch early with scrubbed-up workmen. The meal consists of four courses and unlimited red wine and cider - for just over £10 a head. This shed-like eating place is in the bleak badlands of Dieppe, where the docks are sterile with only a pile of coal and some wind generator blades to hint of commerce.
But change does take place. A favourite restaurant of old was being taken over by new owners after many years of a lovely couple providing us with real French café/restaurant food. It will not be the same place without them, and being a little out of the way I don’t expect we will even give it a trial.
We chose to visit Dieppe this time just after the Retro festival of old cars, and before the International Kite Festival. Both are great fun but it is sometimes difficult to get a room during the festivities, and the port is crowded.
After many years (probably 60 for me) of staying in a room overlooking the town, we have now upgraded to one that overlooks the sea and any festival that is positioned on the enormous grass-covered plage. Because it is generally windy in Dieppe, there are usually kites flying between us and the sea. Moreover, on this occasion there was the added bonus sight from our panoramic windows of over a hundred geese flying south – in a rather ragged formation. And there were four late-migrating swallows jagging past our window – also going south. To the west the sun sets over the sea, creating glorious patterns and colours in the sky as it sinks below the horizon. When the sky is overcast, the colour of the sea is yellow near to the stony shore, changing to pale green, and then blue on the horizon. Sometimes all or some of this panorama disappears behind the rain from storm clouds. When we have eaten too much lunch we may have an evening picnic in our room, now with a fascinating and changing land and seascape as a backdrop.
For choice of restaurant food, I always pick at least one plateful of fruits de mer (mixed shellfish, cooked and raw), and being in a port famous for its fish, a fish of the day. Preferring carralet (plaice), I tried sea bream this time, but found it to have too many bones. Margreet often chooses steak, which, true to French custom, is tasty but chewy. We did once select an expensive wine, but the carafe white and red is always adequate. At least no one says “enjoy” when food is delivered to the table.
One of the main reasons for our short holiday trips across the Channel is to stock up on wine for home consumption. Whereas costs of most things in France escalate (and to worry about it would spoil a holiday break), wine is still splendid value. We buy a selection for £2.50 or less per bottle at one supermarket and even cheaper wine at another. To this we add some Normandy cider to feed the cider vinegar jar at home, and a selection of olive oil, though French oil is hard to come by.
On our last day, with little room left in the car, we bought freshly made Neufchâtel cheese from Olivier’s shop, and this time, some Pelure d’Oignon rosé from a supermarket at £1.50 a bottle. These items were squeezed in beneath the car’s seats.
It is seldom that we make a restaurant mistake. But before we left, and with time for lunch, we selected a place specialising in turbot. The fish was excellent, but the potatoes were rock hard. The chef had appeared late, we were told, but more probably drunk.
As we parked our car in readiness to leave France on the only ship now on the crossing, a van drew up alongside that was registered in England. I wanted to know about the possibility of renting a van for our wine-buying trips abroad. The renter of this van worked in England while his wife and son lived in Charante, in Cognac country, between Bordeaux and La Rochelle. The living there was much cheaper than in England, and having spent a lot of money doing up an old farmhouse he intended to retire to Charante and possibly return to England in old age.
This man had been a baker, so we talked about bread making, with him insisting that I knock down the dough to make the best bread. I mentioned that I never let water near to my bread tins, to which he replied that one should also never let water near to Yorkshire pudding tins either (something that I was unaware of).
He was on his way back having bought two wood-burning stoves in England for his French house, as they were much better and cheaper than in France. Surely, I queried, you don’t need heating so far south? I then learned that Charante is known for its extremes of temperature – freezing in winter and scorching in summer.
What, I asked, did he take back to France that is not possible to buy there. Baked beans and Cheddar cheese was the reply.
We return to England with wine and freshly-made Neufchatel cheese.