France – Holiday Making

A FRENCHMAN’S notion of holiday is to see as much as possible of his relations, and to gather his own peaches. When the long vacation comes, with its burning skies, valetudinarians betake themselves to Contrexéville, Pougues-les-Bains, or equally favourite spas ; family parties animate the Breton and Norman coasts ; cyclists by the thousand invade the once solitary fastnesses of Fontainebleau ; a few, a very few, adventure-some spirits start for the Swiss mountains, Scotch rivers, or Norwegian fiords. By far the greater number merely change one home for another, the town flat for the country house, villa, or cottage.

The result of the French Revolution has been a material levelling up. Whilst in England the possession of a town and country residence implies wealth and social position, in France the case is quite otherwise. Just as all but the very poor and the declassés sit under the shadow of their own vine and fig-tree, so the well-to-do middle classes, like the noblesse, now own a rural retreat in which to pass the villégiature. The houseless or rent-paying in France, indeed, form a mere remnant, a handful. In an official work on this subject (“L’Habitation en France,” par A de Foville : Paris, 1894), we find that whilst in many departments seventy and even eighty per cent. of the inhabitants occupy houses belonging to them, the average of the entire eighty-six departments is sixty-four !

Parisians have their country houses within easy distance of the capital ; provincial lawyers, advocates, professors and men of business do not care to go far afield in search of refreshment and recreation. They migrate to the family campagne. For many years I was often a guest in a Burgundian village half an hour by rail from Dijon, my kind hosts forming part of a patriarchal group. No less than six families, more or less closely related, had here their handsome houses and large gardens. One head of a house—rather, I should say, one paterfamilias, the wife and mother in France being ever the head of the house—was an advocate, another a lawyer, a third a notary, and so on. Great-grandmother, grandparents, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren, uncles, aunts, and cousins made up a little society, the members apparently needing no other. As all were in opulent circumstances that kind of holiday-making must have been quite voluntary. One lady, indeed, once went with her young daughter to Vichy ; and my hostess, a venerable dame, accompanied by her son, grandson, and myself, once got so far as St. Honore-les-Bains, a hydropathic resort charmingly situated a few hours off by rail. These flittings were undertaken for health’s sake, and were quite exceptional. The long vacation merely meant a renewal of family intercourse under other circumstances. Grandmothers chatted in the garden instead of in the salon ; the young people played croquet, which they certainly could not do in town ; avoue avocat, and notaire, instead of hob-nobbing at café or club, shouldered their guns and went abroad in search of partridges, or in wet weather played whist and dominoes. No one seemed to find the annual villégiature a trifle monotonous. The day was snailed through pleasantly enough, and with the least possible expenditure of energy. To economize vital force, I should say, is the end and aim, not only of these country lawyers and barristers, but of many, perhaps most, people in France. English folks in similar circumstances would have had neighbours calling, garden-parties, picnics, every day. To the best of my knowledge, from the first of August till the middle of October, M. le Curé, M. le Percepteur (a functionary having quite a different position to our own tax collector), and myself were the only outsiders seen within the six different houses. Upon one occasion a picnic was given, rather an al fresco luncheon in a clos or walled-in vineyard. The spot selected lay within a few hundred yards of everybody’s dwelling, the six families all living within earshot of each other. Thus the guests had only to step out of their gardens, and the servants’ goings to and fro were reduced to the minimum.

Professional men in Paris and large cities who belong to the houseless minority generally keep holiday with relations. Husband, wife, and their “little family,” the said little family generally consisting of a single and very spoiled bantling, are received by parents on either side, if they happen to live in the country. This arrangement is regarded as a matter of course. We must ever bear in mind that the French marriage is not an institution that detaches, but rather one that cements. Husband and wife are not thereby respectively separated from their parents. Instead of one father and one mother, each henceforth possesses two. And not infrequently there will be painful conflicts, a rebellion against divided influence and affection.

Others, again, who have neither country house of their own nor a parental refuge for the dog days, will indulge in the favourite promenade en mer, or sea-walk, at some inexpensive place. Since my near acquaintance with France began, by a twelvemonth’s residence in Brittany twenty-five years ago, hundreds of little watering-places have sprung lip on the west coast.

Seaside lodgings after English fashion have not found acceptance in France. These brand-new townlings by the sea do not consist of formal terraces, but of villas dotted here and there like the cottages of a child’s toy village. Economic folks hire a tiny chalet and cater for themselves, all kinds of privations and discomforts being good-naturedly endured ; for the coveted promenades en nier evoke a livelier spirit than the installation in country house or under some familiar roof. And sea-bathing, with every other desirable thing, must here be taken in company. The notion of a bathing-machine, a hurried plunge, or solitary swim, is wholly unacceptable to the French mind. So when the burning glare of the day is over, family meets family on the sands, most sociably and unconventionally disporting themselves.

My first experience of sea-bathing after French fashion was gained at Les Sables D’Olonne, in Vendée, or Les Sables, as the place is aptly called. Never, I think, I saw sands so velvety smooth, so firm ; and never do I remember a hotter place ! Even in June folks could not stir abroad till towards evening, when the great business of the day began, the five-o’clock promenade en mer being in reality a constitutional turn before dinner. Emerging from their cabines, or dressing-closets, fronting the sea, poured forth the strangest company men, women, and children walking into the sea, a distance of course varying with the tide, on the occasion I speak of about two furlongs.

Masqueraders at carnival could not present an odder, more whimsical appearance than these fashionable frequenters of Les Sables, equipped for the daily paddle. The children, in their gay, much be-frilled costumes, looked like so many juvenile harlequins ; the ladies wore serge bathing-dresses trimmed with bright-coloured braid ; the men, in their close-fitting cuirass-like garments of striped black and red or blue, might have passed for so many champion swimmers. Thus fancifully semi-clothed, merrily chatting, or toying with the waves, young and old took their amphibious stroll, doubtless returning with a first-rate appetite for dinner.

At Préfailles, near Pornie, in Brittany, which I visited a little later on, I found sea-bathing proper the quiet sea at high tide populated with the oddest mermen and mermaids, all in the quaintest habiliments, and all wearing huge straw hats or gipsy bonnets, on account of the heat. A stout, elderly papa was teaching his children to swim, mamma, portly and middle-aged, in the water with the rest, and enjoying the excitement as much as any.

The seaside holiday is often, indeed, an excuse for family gatherings, friendly intercourse, and matchmaking ! The promenade en mer, delightful as it is, will often be quite a secondary consideration.

Some watering-places especially lend themselves to social amenities. Thus at St. Georges-de-Didonne, near Royan, in the Charente Inférieure, the smooth sands admit of croquet parties and dances. During my stay of many weeks in that sweet spot some years ago I constantly heard of such entertainments. When French people do make up their minds to leave home, which is not often, they endeavour to get the utmost possible enjoyment out of their money. Here I would observe that the best way of knowing and appreciating our neighbours is to travel in their company, or rather, to have them for travelling companions.

I have been so privileged on many of my long French journeys, and the experience has opened my eyes upon many subjects. In the first place, French people never by any chance grumble when on their travels. They seem to regard the mere fact of being away from home such a wrench that minor discomforts are hardly worth consideration. Hence it comes about that in regions unfrequented by the fault-finding English, French hotels are still very much as they were under the ancien regime, sanitary arrangements not a whit more advanced than when Arthur Young bluntly wrote of them more than a hundred years ago.

The reason is simple. French travellers resent such antequations no less than ourselves, but shrug their shoulders with the remark, ” We shall not come here again, why put ourselves out ? ”

Which attitude, from one point of view, is an amiable après moi k déluge, seeing that if no one ever complained hotel-keepers would imagine, like Candide, that everything was for the best in the best possible world.

My first fellow-traveller was an elderly lady, widow of an officer, with whom I took a delightful two weeks’ driving tour in the highlands of Franche-Comté.

In early life Madame F- had spent many years in St. Petersburg as governess in a highly placed Russian family, returning to France with a self-earned dowry, just upon a thousand pounds, at that time the regulation dowry of an officer’s wife. An officer’s wife she duly became, and excellently the marriage turned out she told me, for I had the whole story from her own lips. ” The best of men was my husband,” she invariably added when recurring to the past.

During our journey through a succession of picturesque but very primitive regions, both tempers and powers of endurance were severely taxed. The wayside inns could hardly have been worse in Arthur Young’s time. Dirty, noisy, uncomfortable, our night’s lodging was often so wretched that we obtained little sleep. Never before had I fared so badly in out-of-the-way France, which is saying a good deal. Charges were naturally low, and the people civil and obliging, but without the slightest notion. of punctuality or exactitude. Nothing ruffled my companion’s even mood, and her placability became almost as disconcerting as the beds we could not lie down in, the meals waited hours for, and other easily remedied drawbacks to enjoyment. A holiday tour and congenial society compensated for all minor inconveniences. Incidental discomforts seemed to be taken as part of the day’s programme.

Upon another occasion, an old friend, a French officer, invited me to an al fresco breakfast on the banks of the Saône, near Lyons. A delightful two hours’ drive brought us to the Ile Barbe, a narrow, wooded islet forming the favourite holiday ground of the Lyonnais. In a restaurant overlooking river and wooded banks we had long to wait for a very poor dejeuner and a bottle of very bad wine.

As the charges are always high at such places, I suggested to my friend that he should make a complaint and demand another bottle.

It would be the same thing,” was his smiling reply. Sunshine, the lovely riverside prospect, congenial society, the sight of happy picnic parties outside, in his eyes more than made up for undrinkable wine highly priced.

As yet the horseless family coach must be considered the privilege of the rich. Motoring is too novel an element in holiday-making to be dealt with here.

I will now say something about house-parties during the long vacation, as upon other topics, strictly confining myself to personal experience.

In a pre-eminently intellectual nation like France we should naturally look for a very high tone in the matter of fireside recreation, nor are we at all likely to be disappointed. One exquisite art, allied to another even more fascinating, is especially cultivated by our neighbours.

On French soil the training of the speaking voice and the love of poetry go hand-in-hand. What accomplishment is better adapted to the family circle than that of rhetoric, the gift of reciting ? Montaigne somewhere says that sentiments clothed in verse strike the mind with two-fold impact. This is especially the case with poetry ” made vocal for the amusement of the rest.” Declamation is generally taught in girls’ schools, and when natural aptitude is carefully fostered the reciter wields a fairy wand.

As I write comes back to my mind enchanted evenings in a chuteau of Lorraine. The September day over, with its walks and drives, the house-party, excepting myself all members of the family, luxuriously ensconced before a wood fire, one voice would hold us spell-bound. The magician, a young daughter-in-law of the hosts, was richly endowed as to voice, memory, and histrionic power. Now she thrilled us with dramatic episode, now moved us to tears with pathetic idyll, Lamartine, Victor Hugo, and contemporary poets, making up a large and varied repertory.

It has been my good fortune to hear a good deal of recitation in France ; none ever charmed me as did that of this gifted young wife and mother. Rememberable, too, were hours spent in the music-room. My host and hostess, already grandparents, were excellent musicians, and on wet afternoons would invite me to the most charming pianoforte and violin recitals imaginable. Croquet, tennis, billiards, and other lighter entertainments varied the day’s programme, and here I found none of that exclusiveness characterizing less cosmopolitan, homelier country houses, no Chinese wall hemming round the roof-tree. Monsieur had formerly occupied a diplomatic post, with himself madame belonged to the titled ranks,. both had travelled much. A dinner-party at the chateau, there-fore, did not consist of uncles, aunts, and cousins, but of neighbours, living perhaps a dozen miles off.

I add that among the travelled, leisurely classes we always hear English speech and find the latest Tauchnitz editions on the drawing-room table. And, oddly enough, proud as they are of their own incomparable language, our neighbours never by any chance whatever use it if they can express themselves tant bien que mal in the tongue of perfidious Albion, a compliment sometimes resented by over-sea visitors.