…AND HOW I DERIVED SOMETHING POSITIVE FROM OUR MOST NEGATIVE EPISODE
The past twelve Covid-19-infested months included, by far the bleakest time my wife Dido and I have shared together was our enforced eight-month sojourn in Boulogne-Sur-Mer, back in the early 1990’s, described in earlier posts ( here and here).
Yet, few circumstances, however dire, are so unremitting that they totally lack the odd moment of emotional uplift. And for us, in Boulogne, these moments were generally provided during our regular weekend strolls across the local beach.
The proverbial bracing sea air (even when tainted by the odours emitting from the local fish cannery on the southerly breezes); the angry waters of the English Channel, inky blue-black beneath a vast sky of tumbling clouds; distant rain squalls appearing like grey curtains drawn across the serrated horizon; and shafts of silver sunlight occasionally breaking through the blanket of cumulous like spotlights illuminating a white flecked, cobalt stage in perpetual motion – all conspired to blast us temporarily from our glum mental state.
In a way similar to how blues music comforts and eases the spirit, by both reflecting back, and articulating the nature and source of the angst, so those tumultuous blue-tinged scenes reminded us of our innate love for life and the adventures it offers. The three palette-knifed oils here, painted a year or two later in my southern Spanish studio, celebrate those precious moments that gave us the reason and the energy to persevere. A particularly apposite recollection I think for these troubled times…
Last March I published a post describing how we became stranded in Boulogne sur Mer for eight months and in which I promised to follow that up with a record of some our subsequent Boulognaise tragicomic adventures. However, one of the many modern problems associated with a life lived in three disparate European locations is that portable hard-drives often end up in the wrong place. As now for instance, while I am currently in Sweden, the hard-drive containing 99% of my pictorial material is in Spain. This unhappy situation will continue until I and the hard drive are once again reunited in March.
The significance of this lack of pictorial record is that my posts for the forthcoming five weeks or so will be more sparingly illuminated than usual. Thus, the main visual record of our eight hysterically grim months on the north-west coast of France will have to wait.
Fortunately, I do still have access to some interesting and evocative pictures from that time, like the two presented here which in a way sum up that bleakest episode of Dido’s and my 29 years together more graphically than a thousand well-written words ever could. Someone once said I think, or at least should have said, that there is a profound pleasure in melancholy, and perhaps that is why so many of us are often just a subtle mood-swing away from that condition.
Both Dido and I, if not our canine companion Aura, were feeling particularly melancholic the Sunday afternoon I took these shots early in our Boulogne sojourn as we stared out longingly to the English horizon. It was Sunday blues in every sense and the only thing missing from these shots is the dull stench wafting across the sands from the nearby fish canning plant. Nevertheless, when I look at these images now, whether because of our sweet Maremma sheep dog staring down curiously at a lug-worm, or the fact I’ve been so fortunate with my life partner(s), I can’t help but smile.
Given the amount of travel related material I present here, it might come as a surprise to regular followers of this site, that for about ten years, from the late 80’s to the late 90’s I suffered from a suddenly acquired, debilitating fear of flying.
Debilitating for about the first seven or eight years, to be accurate, as I gradually cured myself of the affliction over the final two or three years with a combination of judiciously applied strong alcohol and the advent of budget airlines – specifically easyJet. But thanks to that magical cocktail of Jack Daniels blended with Stelios Haji-Ioannou’s heroically mundane approach to commercial air-travel (a story for another post perhaps) I thankfully managed to rediscover my inner Frank Sinatra. However, unluckily for us, the height of my phobia coincided with our move to southern Spain.
If the move had been the total success we had originally anticipated then my fear of flying wouldn’t have been thrown into such sharp relief, but because of constant need to migrate, firstly to northern France, and then later, back to the UK, things became tricky.
For a period of about three years we had to make the journey, firstly from Malaga to Boulogne and then from Malaga to London, between six and twelve times annually. And, while some of these journeys anyway necessitated the need for a car journey, most of them would have been quicker, cheaper and easier by plane. But, as there was no way I could fly, and short of Dido giving me the Mr “T” Novocaine treatment , this meant that for all of those dozens of trips, we had to drive.
More often than not, and especially towards the end of the period, when “getting there” had become the sole objective, we would stick to the main roads and cover the route in as little as two and a half days (our record was 18 hours – Malaga to London – 1400 miles – door-to-door), but on occasion we would make a small vacation out of a drive, and take some significant detours, in France and/or Spain.
The images presented here are from some of those early excursions compiled into one virtual tour. Their yellowed, grainy texture reflect golden memories of the beauty and the unsurpassed variety (in Europe at least) of the French landscape; in this case from the Pyrenees in the south, to the beaches on Normandy in the north, via Provence and the Auvergne. It’s amusing to consider now, that if it had not been for my fear of flying I might not have got to visit some of these extraordinary places…
For reasons which will no doubt form the basis of a separate post, about six months after completing our house in southern Spain we found ourselves living in a shabby rented apartment in a rundown part of Boulogne sur Mer on the north eastern tip of France.
Virtually penniless, we could not afford nor did we wish, to place our Maremma Sheepdog, Aura into the-then obligatory six-months of quarantine in Britain. We were in a pretty desperate situation, and if desperate situations require desperate measures, then the one we came up with was a genuine peach, although it did not seem so at the moment we conceived it.
Firstly, Dido took a job managing a paediatric occupational therapy department in Folkestone on the Kent coast, just a 40 minute Seacat (hydrofoil ferry) hop across the English Channel from Boulogne. Traveling as a foot passenger was cheap, and with a health-authority car provided at the English end, the daily journey would be both inexpensive and quicker than most commutes from the London suburbs into the City. It appeared to be totally reasonable solution to a tough problem; six months living frugally in a tatty loft then once we were more comfortably off, moving into a nicer flat in the charming old citadel above the port. Aura our dog was already 11 years old and towards the latter end of her life expectancy, and who was to know? Two or three years living in the charming quarter of an historic French town might actually be rather pleasant. The plan even seemed sufficiently foolproof that Dido need not disclose to her new bosses the fact she was living in France and risk their disapproval(the requirements for the post were that she lived within 30 miles of work… there were no stipulation as to whether the miles were measured across dry land or water). But then, to paraphrase a famous remark of a late British prime minister, “events” intervened to devastate our plans.
Having committed ourselves to the minimum six-month rental contract, we moved into our dingy lodgings the week before Dido was to start her new job. The flat was unfurnished, without even a kitchen, and so we spent the whole of the first few days madly rushing around in a rented van, using our credit cards to purchase the basic essentials to make the place habitable. Amongst other things, we got a type of sofa-bed (known as a clic-clac in France) and a tiny Baby Belling oven with a double hob. We couldn’t afford luxuries like refrigerators then, and still couldn’t afford one by the time we eventually left the flat at the end of the six months. Nevertheless, after we had scrubbed the flat half-a-dozen times and got our few pieces of furniture set up (including a table improvised from a lacquered MDF board) the place seemed habitable. That, in addition to the fact it was only a five minute walk from the Seacat dock gave us reason to think the next six months would be reasonably tolerable. However, it must have been the Thursday or the Friday when we made that walk down to the port for the first time since settling in that the bottom fell out of our world.
Without notice of any kind the Seacat company had cancelled all runs to Folkestone with immediate effect. Dido had talked to the ferry people just a week earlier—days before we had signed the contract on the flat—and they had made no mention of their plans to cut back their service. It seemed like a sick joke. We were now tied into living in Boulogne for six months, and the only morning and evening transport across the Channel anywhere near practicable for Dido’s requirements was a 40 minute drive up the coast at Calais. Moreover, the only affordable foot passenger service was on the regular ferry boats, which took-one-and-a-half- hours to Dover. Suddenly, Dido’s easy two-hour daily return journey, now with the commute to Calais and the 20-minute drive from Dover to Folkestone added to the mix, had mutated horribly into a return journey taking five hours—on a good day.
But, with no money, and Dido’s job starting on Monday she had no alternative but to do the Calais crossing.
As it happened, the commute turned out to be just one of the many grim and farcical components of what was to prove the most miserable period of our marriage—the details of which will be the subject of another future blog. Enough to say for now, that the France most people experience as tourists has little in common with the dingy, rough, criminal-infested street we inhabited during our sojourn in Boulogne sur Mer.
The origins of the pictures shown here, lie in my numerous walks on Boulogne beach with Aura and apart from being a modest nod to great Dutch painters like Jacob van Ruisdael, express both the blueness of my mood in Boulogne, and my ever-growing yearning to cross that 20-mile strip of water back to England…