The Thing Is with Steve Canavan - October 10, 2013

A typical French toilet - I cannot think of any circumstance where I would want to sit in this chair

A typical French toilet - I cannot think of any circumstance where I would want to sit in this chair

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There are many cultural differences between us and the French.

Supermarket fish counters are roped off so customers have to stand at least four feet away (in England there’s no rope, so 80-year-old men with hacking coughs can liberally spray the seabass with phlegm and germs).

At pedestrian crossings it appears to be up to the driver if they stop or not, regardless of whether there’s a pedestrian in the road.

Chris Isaak’s Blue Hotel is the background music in every supermarket and lift.

Ageing, grey-haired men seem to think having a pony-tail is a good idea.

In toilets there is often a chair next to the urinals. I cannot think of any circumstance other than a heart attack where I would consider sitting in this chair.

However, the one cultural difference I really can’t get my head around is men kissing each other in greeting.

I was pondering this last week as I sat at a bar in Montpellier nursing a ‘petite biere’ (that’s right: only there a fortnight but I’ve pretty much mastered the language) when, right in front of me, the hairiest, hardest man I’ve ever seen (and I’ve spent time in Whitehaven), wearing biker leathers and with a tattoo on his lower arm which said ‘DEVIL’, greeted his equally tough looking buddy with a delicate peck on each cheek.

If one biker did that to another in Lancashire I daresay it would spark a full-scale riot.

What’s that, how was my holiday? Nice of you to ask and it was lovely thanks, two weeks of gently ambling around, from camping in the Pyrenees in the south to visiting war graves in the Somme region. We began in Dijon, a rather lovely city where they make a lot of mustard.

It’s not the cheapest part of France – I ordered a £17 seafood dish on the first night and received in return some rice, a little grated carrot and four anaemic-looking prawns – but on the upside it does have the most fantastic cathedral.

I have a thing about churches, as Mrs Canavan will attest. I find it hard to walk past one without nipping in and sitting to reflect for a moment on the important things in life – war, poverty, hunger, the tendency of Sunderland’s back four to concede from set plays.

In Dijon cathedral I was doing just this (maybe a new, physically imposing centre half would do the trick?) when a couple entered and without so much as pausing to take in the surroundings, each whipped out a camera and began taking photos. They were in their 50s and American. They took about two dozen pictures each, and then walked out within 60 seconds of arriving. The man was wearing a bumbag and had clip-on sunglasses stuck behind one ear. Enough said.

The highlight of our next destination – Montpellier – was an evening which began when we were at a restaurant table next to four English-speaking scientists who worked at the local university.

“The thing is,” said the scientist with the smallest beard (all four had beards, even the women), “If you turn an egg over every 11 days at the South Pole, it stays fresh for a year”.

‘Yes, that’s a good one,” said a colleague, putting down his ham and pineapple pizza to give added emphasis to the point he was gearing up to make, “but did you know an iceberg contains more total heat energy than a burning match. The reason is the size of the iceberg.”

Meanwhile, myself and Mrs Canavan sat two feet away discussing Coronation Street. Rarely have we felt so intellectually inferior.

After this we returned to our hotel, marched up to our room and spent a good three minutes trying and failing to open our door with the little swipe card.

Suddenly the door swung open and a furious-looking Frenchman in string vest and boxer shorts appeared, shouting and making threatening gestures. We returned to reception confused and wondering what the hell was going on. “Ah,” said the receptionist. “You’re in the wrong Ibis. There’s another 100 yards down the road – this happens all the time.” On the off-chance the Frenchman we disturbed at 1am last Wednesday purchases tonight’s Gazette, I sincerely apologise.

We stayed at a beautiful campsite in the Pyrenees, though the owner had all the charm of a prison officer. As she showed us to the caravan we were staying in, she listed the charges for loss and breakages. “Tin opener one euro 50, toilet brush two euros, pillow eight euros”. This went on a good five minutes (lemon squeezer three euros), before she finished with ‘and if you don’t give us a check-out time in advance, it’s a 100 euro fine – have a nice stay’.

We went to a place called Villefranche-de-Conflent, a Medieval walled town described as one of the prettiest in France. It was indeed pretty, though remarkably dull. Put it this way, there was a queue outside the town hall to see a mushroom exhibition.

Next a cottage in Cindre in the middle of the country – where Mrs Canavan and I spent most nights playing board games (once we went clubbing, now we play Scrabble) – then we headed north to finish off in a place called Arras, near several key battlegrounds in the Great War. A sobering end to the holiday.

France is a terrific country, perhaps my favourite. I couldn’t move there permanently though – the man-kissing puts me off.