They appeal to a lingering childish sense of wonder, to a nostalgic idea of the joy of travelling – these colourful illustrated maps you can find on the table mats in some restaurants. More than any Tripadvisor Top 10 photo gallery, they are able to fill one with joyful expectations of the sights to discover in the next village, the next town.
So on a grey, rainy morning in northern France, we happily set out by car to find the real world abode of a picture on a table mat : an idyllic little blue lake with a leisure boat nearby a town called Merville.
We drove through brown misty fields, then through green misty woods – yearning for a little blue lake. But the Merville we found on this gloomy day didn’t quite resemble an insouciant tourist destination. Not that it looked totally disconsolate – but on this rainy day it just seemed bloodless, a slowly expiring town, having shed its economic prosperity and young inhabitants a long time ago. Only the sheer bigness and neatness of its triumphant neo-roman church with abundant byzantine flourishes was intriguing - yet another product of the post WW I reconstruction zeal bolstered by a back then still thriving catholic faith?
En route again to chase our little blue lake, we hopefully followed a sign “Aire sur la Lys” which held the promise of leisure & a riverside. It started raining again, and adding to the grimness was a little convoy we crossed, a police car with flashing lights accompanying an army vehicle “vigi-pirate” filed with grim-looking soldiers. Not taking any chances, apparently, only a few days after a military vehicle had been attacked, the perpetrator caught later on a highway nearby.
In a sleepy, little village
Scouring the rain filled horizon for our elusive little sunny lake, we spotted a small church instead. It demanded further inspection, being such a touching specimen of a French village church, allying a solidly terrestrial grey brick body with a humble but elegant spire pointing to the grey sky.
Curtains moved slightly behind windows – shadowy figures watching us while we walked from our car to the church. But in the street we were greeted by a friendly “bonjour” by the only passer-by, an elderly lady who seemed more curious than apprehensive of these two unlikely visitors strolling through her sleepy little village.
The church was closed (danger of falling roof stones, the printed note on the church door said). The cemetery however was open for visitors – apparently it was both a local community and a British commonwealth affair. Just outside its perimeter there was the inevitable 14-18 monument, with its melancholy list of names of young men having given their life pour la patrie.
At the other side of the cemetery was the local café “Chez Jo” – a café ostensibly also doubling up as delivery point for bread & vegetables. A yellowing paper on its window militantly called for opposing “la fin de la proximité “ – one can only imagine the struggle of a Northern French village to keep on ensuring a minimum of local services.
Accompanied by cooing pigeons we drove off again, back to the main road, and then at last spotting a sign “Haverskerque - Port de Plaisance”.
When the sun breaks through - apology for a certain provincial French joie de vivre
The sun broke through when we arrived at the little port on a canal – and it was France at its most friendly & relaxed, at its most joyful. Amateur shippers tending to their boats, locals watching & commenting, people leisurely cycling along the canal – soon enough, if the weather was to hold up, people surely would arrive with baskets filled with wine, baguettes & cheese - a déjeuner sur l’herbe on the canal banks.
We all know the reality of an impoverished Northern France, having long lost its industrial wealth. The peeling Marine Le Pen posters are still everywhere, the names of Calais and Grande Synthe have come to symbolize the dire migration challenges of our time. Further back in time – the cemeteries & monuments remind one of that war that ended peace – the war that opened the calamitous 20th century.
And yet – there is also another reading for this region – one of resilience and reconstruction – witness those towns with meticulously rebuilt belforts & churches & houses in an imagined historical Flemish style.
And there is also another experience, one of warmth, friendliness and joie de vivre. Far from the maddening tourist crowds of either Paris or the south of France, the seaside towns of northern France exude in summer a genuine pleasure in sea & wind & sun. Waiters & waitresses seem to honestly share their guests’ enjoyment of a sunny day on a terrace “face à la mer” . They may be lacking the Parisian flair or the Southern zest but realy, what a relief, what a truly wonderful relief from stress: this quiet, joyful friendliness.
Messages from the twenties in Europe
But not even the sweetest French douceur de vivre will turn me in an optimist of course.
Amidst these French towns rebuilt in the 20s I am reading a text from the 20s – essays by Joseph Roth, a former inhabitant of the perished Austro-Hungarian empire - a Jew who lived through the carnage of the 14-18 war.
He started travelling through France in the 20s – falling in love with its culture, drawing hope from monuments and cities testifying of an age old history.
In luminous essays he writes about this post -WW I world and about his travels - writing as a young war veteran without illusions, with many forebodings, but as yet untainted by the despair that was to come.
That a voice from the 20s remains meaningful, can move us with its humanity & liveliness, 90 years later, is a consolation – a victory of sorts over human transience.
But that this voice from the 20s uncannily evokes doubts & fears & consolations which could be the doubts & fears & consolations of our own time – that I find rather more disturbing than hopeful.
“ We are unable to believe that there can be peace anywhere in the world, and that the great and mighty cultural traditions of antique and medieval Europe are alive still.
Since our resurrection we have experienced the rise of a wholly new culture, the revolution in the Near East, and the soft tremors of the Far East, and at the same time the technical wizardry of America “ (1)
(1) Joseph Roth – Essays from France / In het land van de eeuwige zomer, reportages uit Frankrijk Nederlandse vertaling Els Snick