What were your first memories of France?
My first memories of France: I remember lying in a bunk with my mother on a ferry from Newhaven to Dieppe. I was four and very sick; my father and two elder brothers were of course prancing around being terribly brave on the horribly bucking and rearing old ship.
It was not a good start to a summer family holiday to Mers-les-Bains on the north coast of France.
My parents had booked a small hotel overlooking the beach. It was very old-fashioned with iron shutters at the bedroom windows, big heavy furniture and lumpy beds. We loved it.
I can remember hot days with a shrimping net. Going back to this part of France I realised that it must have been quite difficult to catch anything with a shrimping net. There are no rock pools, though the pebble beach might have yielded the odd catch. Perhaps I was just proud of having a shrimping net.
I remember the owners who went by the outlandish name of Monsieur and Madame Pompilliou (at least that’s what I remember; my brothers can’t remember at all). I don’t know if they had children of their own, but two days into our stay they offered to look after all of us so my parents could go to Paris for the weekend. I was 4 and my brothers 8 and 12. Absolutely unheard of today, but then? The Pompillous were just being kind.
I remember my parents coming back with toys, particularly a small model of a Paris bus. It had an open back, a bell and was green (I would describe it as British racing green, but that would not be tactful, and perhaps not true either).
It was a little like this bus, but ignore the date!
I remember breakfast: hot chocolate in slightly cracked French bowls (much better than porridge), freshly baked bread and joy of joys…unsalted butter and sweet sticky apricot jam.
Childhood memories are fragmentary things that catch you out when you least expect it.
I had forgotten all about Mers-les-Bains until a holiday with my husband and small son in the Auvergne. On our way back to the ferry I had decided to revisit the past. It was fiercely stormy. The wind roared along and the waves crashed on the beach. It was all we could do to stand upright and we were amazed that the beach cabins remained intact.
It was out of season so many of the small restaurants were closed. We walked along the front feeling discouraged and eventually found one that was open. We pulled open the door and staggered inside, the door crashing behind us. The windows were steamed up from the warmth, it was full of locals and smelt of fish.
We ordered mussels and chips and along came steaming bowls of the molluscs and double-cooked chips with sachets of mayonnaise.
My son looked rebellious; this was the first time he had encountered a mussel. He opened his mouth to refuse this disgusting looking pot of shellfish. “Ah, monsieur” the waiter smiled at him “Voici comment tu le fais”. And he picked up an empty shell, skilfully extracting the mussel from another shell, ate it and put the shell into the upturned lid. “Voila!”
Perhaps it was Les Mouettes along the Esplanade du Général Leclerc ? Until I know otherwise I will keep getting my mussels and chips here.
My son has been a fan of mussels and chips ever since.
I wonder what he will remember and treasure from that holiday.
For more about seaside resorts in northern France from my article here. Take a short break in any of the wonderful resorts (think northern Riviera!) that stretch down the coast from the Opal Coast and Boulogne to near Dieppe.