“In Paris they just simply opened their eyes and stared when we spoke to them in French! We never did succeed in making them understand their own language.”
Mark Twain – ‘The Innocents Abroad’
The flight to La Rochelle was in the mid afternoon and after a short time in the air we arrived at a garden shed in the French west coast city that doubled up as the arrivals hall of the local airport, hardly an international arrival hub but it was nice and welcoming and on our way through woke the customs officials from their prolonged siesta as we were the first through to show our passports and make a dash for the taxi rank and a journey into the town.
We arrived at our hotel, an Ibis that was adjacent to the harbour and although basic was adequate for our needs and we quickly settled in and because the sun was shining we quickly went back into the town to explore.
La Rochelle is one of my favourite places in France, probably even Europe, and it was nice to be walking again around the harbour with its high walls and a precarious drop into the mucky waters three or four metres below. This seemed strange to me, obsessed as we are with health and safety issues in England, and I was convinced that we would be protected from falling into the sea by barriers and barricades that may well protect us but would completely spoil the view as well. The French know this of course and instead of trying to protect us from our own stupidity allow us to be as brainless as we like and to get as foolishly close to the edge as we dare to and fall to a grisly death if we so choose.
On our way around the harbour we compared restaurant prices for later and were pleased to see that everything was quite reasonable and well within the limits of our modest budget, we walked around the battlements of the town until we found the small beach. There we sat for a while and watched the people enjoying the last of the day’s unseasonable warm sunshine before we walked back to the hotel stopping for a while to enjoy a drink at a pavement café that overlooked the harbour and that was perfectly placed to catch the last of the early evening sunshine before it dipped and melted into the sea like butter in a skillet. After a relaxing half-an-hour or so we returned to the hotel to prepare for a night out and the seafood dinner that we had been promising ourselves.
It was still very warm when we walked back into the town and found the restaurant that had taken our eye earlier. It was called Les Camediens and was situated in an inviting little side street running back from the harbour and behind all of the expensive front rank eating places.
We ordered drinks and whilst we perused the menu we were somewhat alarmed to be joined by a stray dog with a bladder condition sniffing around our table. Actually it wasn’t a stray at all but belonged to some diners in the Chinese restaurant next door who clearly had no qualms at all about letting their anti-social animal wander about sniffing left, right and centre, pissing up the walls, squatting in a threatening manner and generally annoying other nearby diners.
I don’t know what it is about the French and their dogs but for a nation that pride themselves on elevated social etiquette and look down their Gallic noses at the English it is amazing that they have so little regard to the application of simple canine manners.
Now the French don’t especially like making things easy for visitors and sometimes I get the distinct impression that they would rather not have us in their country at all and this place was no exception as it was clear that they could barely tolerate us. It is a feature of French Restaurants that waiters often think that some customers (especially English customers) don’t actually want to be served at all and this place was no exception. The menu was exclusively in French which made meal selection a little challenging but we were not put off by this because we have tackled menus in Latvian, Croatian and Polish and by comparison this was a piece of cake.
The wine list was interesting because in France there is massive in-built prejudice in favour of French products. We were presented with a list of about twenty pages of wines – all French except for three, listed under a section generously entitled “wines from the rest of the world”. I wondered why this practice never been investigated by the EU’s competition authorities? Don’t worry; there is no need to tell me, I already know the answer. The average bigoted Frenchman unthinkingly assumes that their wine is effortlessly superior, but I have news for them, actually it isn’t and they might themselves actually enjoy a fine wine from Spain, Italy or Portugal although of course I concede that a New World wine would have them descending into a Gallic protectionist rant and wouldn’t therefore dare to suggest such a thing!
When he finally condescended to take our order I attempted some multilingual conversation with the waiter but he was clearly not impressed and I gave up therefore when he announced with the hint of a sneer that passed for an apology that there were no mussels left tonight. And I had been really looking forward to mussels. We ordered an alternative and then we had an incident over condiments. He didn’t provide us with any and forced us to request them in what little French we knew while he kept up a bulwark against improving international relations while steadfastly refusing to understand us. We progressed past salt and pepper but got stuck in a cul-de-sac over vinegar. He totally refused to comprehend and brought us a selection of various sauce accompaniments but never any vinegar. I am convinced he knew exactly what we wanted but was enjoying seeing us struggle.
We finished our meal and left and I made a point of collecting up every last cent of change and didn’t leave him a tip (Mon Cul, as the French would say) and we agreed that we wouldn’t be dining there again that week and left with a single backward ‘Up Yours!” glance.
We walked back around the harbour and enjoyed the sights and sounds of the boats tied up at their moorings as the masts clinked and flirted with each other and the local fashion of promenading with jumpers hanging around necks instead of wearing them properly in the way that they were designed for. It was a warm evening and we had one last al fresco drink before we returned to the hotel. It had been a good day and we were looking forward to another fine day tomorrow and a bus journey to the Ile-de-Ré.