Forty years ago, Brittany Ferries started ferrying people from Plymouth to Roscoff and back again. There was a demand in the far south-west of England for transport to France, without having to trek all the way across the country to the traditional Channel ports of Portsmouth, Folkestone, or Dover.
At that time, we lived in Plymouth, and it was decided that a week in Brittany – also known as overseas – would be a jolly good idea. Mother’s experience of foreign travel was a weekend taster offered by the same ferry company, undertaken by her and Father, with no French between them beyond the words of ‘All the Nice Girls Aiment un Matelot’, which I am not totally sure wasn’t an invention of Dad’s.
This time, there would be two of us who, in theory, knew something about the language: my brother, being nearly three years my senior, (allegedly) knew more than I did, but I was game. I’d been to France before, on a geography trip undertaken in a minibus with our teacher and her husband, whose back gave out halfway up the Massif Central; he had to lie on the floor of the bus every night, and so was denied the thrill of sleeping in the snow in a leaky tent.
It was a venture into the unknown. That became clear on the boat. For some reason, the cabins had three berths each, and there were four of us: it was decided unilaterally that the fourth ticket, with which one of us would have to share a cabin with strangers, would go to the man of the party. So off he went, a blazered Englishman abroad, sure of his place in the grand scheme of things.
Some squeals and a raised voice or two later, he was back. The berth was in a cabin currently occupied by two madames in a state of undress. Red-faced and horrified, he gave me to understand that it would be much better if I were to be their overnight travelling companion. The ladies and I didn’t exchange a single word on the whole crossing.
We had one of those big, boxy Ford Cortinas, and we hadn’t realised how narrow the roads would be. In the Roscoff part of France, hedges were, and still are, lacking. There was tarmac, there was field, and it would be very easy to slip from one to the other, especially as we would be travelling on the wrong side of the road.
It was a good thing that cars in France were small and the drivers agile (especially when making those Gallic gestures that say so much so economically.)
On the stroke of twelve, shops not only closed, they pulled down their shutters in a most unfriendly fashion: the equivalent of waving two commercial fingers in your face, when you are a stranger in a strange land. We spent many a two-hour-long lunchtime traipsing round empty streets, not knowing quite what to do or where to go. It was all so very alien.
Language lessons at school hadn’t prepared us for the real Frenchness of a platter of fruits de mer in their original shell attire being demolished and consumed by two stout ladies, or an ordinary man in his worker blues tucking into a plate of oysters for lunch. At that time Vesta Curry and Chicken Chow Mein were exotic, but oysters were swallowed alive. We were way out of our comfort zone.
What’s more, men everywhere seemed to be peeing in public, most notably over the quayside at Morlaix. It just wasn’t done, in England.
It’s curious to look back now, as we plan another crossing on Brittany Ferries with the same brother later this year. The boats are bigger, classier, cruisier: the food is French, and very good. The cabins are two or four berth, with en suite facilities including a shower. This is always the real start of the holiday, the beginning of the adventure, the sailing out onto the ocean wide.
It’s only the English Channel, or La Manche, depending on which side you’re standing, but that stretch of water is the dividing line that makes France French, and Britain British. The architecture, the roads (not to mention the habit of driving on the wrong side), the people, the food, the closing or non-closing of shops have all developed in isolation because the sea stopped the blurring of boundaries.
Wherever you start from, you are going abroad. You’re crossing into a foreign land, and a foreign culture. Even the money is still different. Forget school, and just open all your senses. No matter how many times you make the trip, you’ve still got a lot to learn about what makes us different, and what makes us the same: and thankfully it isn’t the sameness that’s going to stick with you forever afterwards.