Twenty-Nine Hours In France

We decided to do it on the spur of the moment. On Tuesday, we booked a hotel and reserved a ferry there and back. On Thursday, we headed from Dover to Calais to have a night away not far from Calais, in Boulogne-sur-Mer.

[Dover, England. Photo by me (I was not driving!), 2019.]

The crossing takes an hour and a half. We docked about 1:30pm in Calais and immediately headed for our Boulogne hotel about 30 minutes’ drive to the south. After checking in and leaving our car there, we walked the ten minutes or so to the “old town” – which dates back to medieval times at least:

[Photo by me, Boulogne-sur-Mer, France, 2019.]

The center is just the sort of place – historical – I love. The only entrances are through medieval walled gates:

[One of the walled city gates. Photo by me, Boulogne-sur-Mer, France, 2019.]

Sauntering around, we discovered that just outside of city hall a summer display was in place:

[Garden display: Superstitions. Outside of the city hall, old town center. Photo by me, Boulogne-sur-Mer, France, 2019.]

People were milling through it. The flowers were gorgeous. And the concept was thought-provoking:

[Garden display, English version: Superstitions. Photo by me, Boulogne-sur-Mer, France, 2019.]

We don’t often think about from where our superstitions come:

[Superstitions: Mistletoe. Photo by me, Boulogne-sur-Mer, France, 2019.]

Why do we kiss under mistletoe?:

[Mistletoe. Photo by me, Boulogne-sur-Mer, France, 2019.]

And why is it bad luck to leave bread upside down?:

[Superstitions: Bread upside down. Photo by me, Boulogne-sur-Mer, France, 2019.]

After, we had a walk along the medieval rampant defenses. The original town is inland slightly, away from the coast, but the entire coast is observable. There was no sneaking up on Boulogne by sea:

[The English Channel, viewed from the ramparts of the old town. Photo by me, Boulogne-sur-Mer, France, 2019.]

There is now an historical walk along the ramparts:

[Photo by me, Boulogne-sur-Mer, France, 2019.]

Also back in times past…

[Photo by me, Boulogne-sur-Mer, France, 2019.]

…a certain important man to the French spent a lot of time around here, for example…

[Napoleon and Marie-Louise – his second wife – slept here. Photo by me, Boulogne-sur-Mer, France, 2019.]

…as did his second wife – who had been Austrian and raised to despise France.

She was also much younger than his first wife, and almost immediately had a son by him.

The newer part of the city that has developed over the years outside of the walls spreads now down almost to the Channel:

[Photo by me, Boulogne-sur-Mer, France, 2019.]

Later, we went to dinner at a place just outside of the walls:

[Dinner. Photo by me, Boulogne-sur-Mer, France, 2019.]

Our server was an 18-25 year old Frenchwoman. From the moment I greeted her in French, she spoke no English to us whatsoever – which is a rarity in France nowadays among younger people. Even after we all had a laugh while she was having trouble extracting the cork from the wine bottle, she stayed in French while apologizing.

“Someone her age who speaks no English?” my wife questioned me during our meal.

“Oh, I’m sure she speaks English,” I chuckled. I thought she might just be a bit insecure about speaking it. Or perhaps she just preferred not to speak English: I have run into those people over the years who do feel that way (which is fair enough in their own country), although that attitude would also be a real oddity in someone working in a service or a tourist-related job. Often your desire to practice some French on them runs head on into their desire to practice their English on you.

Later, though, we got our answer. English came out of her. We overheard her speaking decent – if fractured – English to other diners who arrived well after we did and who apparently understood very little French.

After we left the restaurant, as we walked I turned to the Mrs. and said, “I think we just got the ultimate accolade. She spoke only French to us because she realized we could get by in it: she could understand us and she knew we could understand her.”

[Photo by me, Boulogne-sur-Mer, France, 2019.]

On Friday morning, it was time for le shopping. There is a huge supermarket in a retail area outside of Boulogne: an Auchan. You can get lots of great stuff, particularly household items, in France that may be tough to find – “Look at these salad servers!” – here in Britain or in America. Decent wine also is far less expensive in France than here.

[Fort Mahon, Ambleteuse, originally built in the 17th century by Louis XIV. Photo by me, Channel coast, France, 2019.]

After the supermarket, we decided to take a scenic and slow drive up the coastline back to Calais for our late afternoon ferry.

[Photo by me, Channel coast, France, 2019.]

“Did you get more writing material this trip?” the wife asked me.

“Of course I did,” I smiled.

I always get new material in France.

[A tribute. Photo by me, Boulogne-sur-Mer, France, 2019.]

A serious aside: the sort of memorial tribute above is one you may find anywhere along the Channel coast – and indeed within France generally.

Here, remembered in the town of Ambleteuse are crew of a Canadian World War II aircraft. Five of them were killed when their plane was shot down by Nazi forces in September 1944.

Canadian army troops liberated the area during the same month.

[Looking north towards Cap Blanc-Nez. Photo by me, 2019.]

The closest point between Britain and France is officially 20.6 miles (33.152 kms) from nearby Cap Griz-Nez (a couple of miles or so behind me here) to just outside of Dover at South Foreland. This spot is (I think) about 22 miles from Britain, which is just barely visible (it wasn’t great weather as you see) to the left.

That narrow stretch of waterway has greatly impacted the history of our world. It is not possible to overemphasize its significance. If the Channel did not exist between England and France, chances are the world we know today would be vastly different in ways none of us can now possibly imagine.

Our ferry back to Dover was P&O’s “The Pride of France”:

[Photo by me, departing Calais for Dover, France, 2019.]

From the outside deck (and getting rather windswept), we saw an incoming from Dover ferry. All day and all night, 365 days a year, huge ferries, such as “The Pride of Canterbury” below, travel back and forth on the Channel between the two countries:

[Just outside of Calais harbor. A ferry arriving from Dover. Photo by me, off France, 2019.]

And the Channel’s history continues, of course. Another serious aside. Migrants usually from Asia and Africa, are currently being regularly picked up by British and French patrol ships. Trying to reach Britain, migrants push off from France (usually at night) often in “boats” not made for the ocean.

It is estimated over 1,000 have taken to the Channel since last November, and some sixty or more have been found and rescued in just the last week. And “rescue” is the proper word: that is not a pond out there. Some have been reportedly found in motor-powered boats, but most have been in only “human-powered” craft, and the chances of crossing the Channel alive in a dingy, a kayak, or in an inflatable, are slim at best. If you end up in the water, you’ll die of exposure pretty quickly: even now in high summer, that water is seriously chilly at best. The Channel is also one of the busiest waterways in the world: a raft or a small boat being swamped or run over in the dark by an oil tanker or a cargo ship (they are massive) is not outside of the realm of possibility either. Being found by the British or the French almost certainly saves their lives.

I don’t know what the answer is, or even if there is a definitive one. Humans have moved from here to there, all over the planet, since before history began and countless numbers have died over the millennia in doing so; and borders of some kinds have always existed between human communities and always will… much as when for protection medieval Europeans inhabited walled places like Boulogne-sur-Mer. Mostly, I suppose, we don’t like to have to think about the “hard edges” of our communal existences.

Reaching London about two hours after disembarking at Dover, we spent Friday night with the in-laws. Walking my (former) hound (as he has long lived with them), in the street nearby we encountered some of the city’s famed “night life.”

Have a good what’s left of the weekend, wherever you are. 🙂

5 thoughts on “Twenty-Nine Hours In France

  1. I thought you might have forgotten the usual food mention, but no, you never disappoint! Looks delicious! Although I’ve already expressed my feelings of envy on Instagram, I might also add how I wish I had your opportunities to practice my French. Eight years of it in school, and I’m still unable to utter nary a sentence. Sigh . . . Despite all the new language programs, immersion is the only answer. I have a particularly big birthday coming up next year, and I’m thinking a writing retreat in France might be the ultimate “Happy birthday to me” gift. Immersion indeed! The shopping appeared to be quite successful as well. One of my favorite things about France is all that lovely wine. Enjoy! Later, my friend! 🙂

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    1. Other people have other hobbies. Mine has been traveling since I was in my early twenties. I found I liked France and Britain very much – not just on the surface, but deeply so. I couldn’t get enough of either and thanks to friends in both I got to see them from a people perspective. I realize now in my middle age that I’ve experienced quite a lot (and not always great stuff either). I haven’t been to Paris in years, but I recall well my old “haunts” there. It was the friendships than clinched it. I was heavily involved with a girl in France in my twenties too – which left both positives and scars. I would urge you to take that trip there if you can.😊

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      1. Same! How I love visiting new corners of the world! I feel I should be hanging my head in shame for this, but I’ve been to France three times and haven’t yet been to Paris! A serious omission, I realize and one that must be remedied posthaste! 🙂

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        1. It is worth seeing at least once. After that, if you like it, you go back. If you don’t… there are lots of other places. But if you can get to the country, at least one visit to the city is worth doing. 🙂

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