when the theatre is dark–the perils and joys of out of season travel

My travels in France have not been extensive, and have taken place chiefly since the war. They are associated in my mind with, in one case, a virulent attack of tonsilitis which led to my having to have my tonsils removed at a hospital in Nice, where, owing to negligent nursing, I almost bled to death and had to undergo a vigorous cautery without an anaesthetic in order to stem the outflow of blood. A long convalescence in Menton followed, which gave me considerable opportunities for probing the cuisine of the Cote d’Azur and Provence. Another occasion is associated with my third honeymoon, a motoring odyssey in a tiny Hillman Minx down through the French Burgundy district to Venice. The journey through the Cote d’Or was made notable by a weekend sojourn in a château where, apart from the castle mosquitoes which were as big as butterflies (how I longed for my Cairo flit-gun) the enormous bedroom where we spent two nights was decorated, in all convenient corners and under the bed, with giant black bats hanging, as it were at attention, upside down.

THE FISH IN MY LIFE (George Lassalle) 1989

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A very brief trip from the endless grey skies of London to Provence. Caught without the enhancement of heat and colour it seems no less beautiful, but more Dreyer than Visconti. The sun remains a constant, but it is a warm hand brushed across your face from a body which is still composed of glacial wind and snow.

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Finding a restaurant open in the evening in rural France is always a challenge. The town looks as though a discreet pestilence has passed through, eliminating all humans but leaving discreet piles of dejections canines (when will they sort this out?). Evenutally, after 15 minutes of increasingly desperate forays down mediaeval streets a ” bistrot fusion” is found. What fresh hell is this? A bit like a Chinese whisper which started in California in the 1980s, by the time it reaches the south of France in 2011, this concept, never entirely sound in my view, has taken on surreal proportions. Gratefully appalled we dine on Senegalese lardons and green salad in curry vinaigrette. Not entirely sure what the dessert is, it seems to be salted peanuts drizzled with fake blood. Predictably, the aerosol creme Chantilly has retained its role of the last garnish of scoundrels.

Marseille is rarely on anyone’s holiday route. It has a reputation for violence and crime which sadly applies to the outskirts of most of France’s large cities, but the centre is graceful and elegant, an ancient Mediterranean city going about it’s daily business unadorned with soaps in the shape of cicadas or dyed sprigs of lavender. The market is full of fish and flowers: the bouillabaisse is ludicrous, a peasant dish which now requires a mortgage, but it is delicious, full of happy little crustaceans who, last night, had no idea of what they would be doing for lunch today.

As ever, lunch proceeds at a leisurely pace and then half the restaurant decamps to the quay. Without the benefit of a telephone box one of them changes his clothes and proves to be a priest. A new boat is baptised and prayers are said for safe sailing. The spirit of Marcel Pagnol lives on …

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