Fair Stood The Wind For France

Mais les vrais voyageurs sont ceux-là seuls qui partent
Pour partir; coeurs légers, semblables aux ballons,
De leur fatalité jamais ils ne s'écartent,
Et, sans savoir pourquoi, disent toujours: "Allons!"
- Baudelaire

As our hero stands on the deck of the P&O studying the rapidly-approaching shores of France, what thoughts stir his mind?

Basically: "Oh, shit, I hope customs won't be too big a pain in the ass."

Which soon proved to be a non-problem. The days of Euro-unity are upon us; there was no customs/immigration inspection, no questions, nothing. Nobody. Not even the formalities. (I was to find this the rule in the following couple of weeks; after the initial arrival in Heathrow, despite several frontier crossings, the only people who ever wanted to see my passport were sitting behind hotel desks - with the sole exception of Luxembourg, and that's getting ahead.) The bus from the P&O dock simply dumped us all by the Calais train station, leaving us a bit bemused; one of the Australians muttered, "What? No customs poofter looking up me arse?"

It had quit raining, though; the sun was out and the day was warm. Evidently France wasn't as chilly and wet as England. That was an encouraging thought...little did I know, little did I know.

The only interesting structure I saw in Calais was the town hall - if that's what it was - but then I didn't have time to look around; my train was leaving in half an hour. I did go into the cafe next to the station and have a beer, just to try out my French: "Une bière pression, s'il vous plait." "Grande ou petite?" the barman replied, and I said, "Petite," and took my beer and sat down in something of a daze: I said something in French and a Frenchman understood it! And he said something back and I understood him! Just like on the language tapes! (Later on it occurred to me that this guy stands there all day every day waiting on foreigners, ninety percent of whom probably took that same teach-yourself-French course and learned the same phrases. At the time, though, I was just gassed at the thought that maybe I was going to be able to communicate in this country after all. Already I was doing better than I'd ever done in Quebec.)

I didn't try to make Paris the first day. It was already midafternoon; I'd have wound up getting into Paris late on a Sunday afternoon - on a holiday weekend at that - and I didn't think that would be a good idea; for one thing, finding a room would be much harder. Anyway, I felt the need of a less drastic introduction to France; a quieter, more laid-back place for my first overnight stay.

The map showed a moderate-sized town about halfway between Calais and Paris: Amiens. I bought a ticket for Amiens.

The train, a slow local, ground slowly southward through the coastal marsh country to Boulogne-sur-Mer and then swung inland, following the valley of the Somme. The land was low and soggy-looking; the mind boggled at the thought of fighting a war - let alone a trench war - in terrain like that. The farmhouses and occasional small towns looked old and, what can I say, French.

In Amiens at last, I walked across the little square in front of the railroad station and turned up a side street and almost immediately found a hotel (the accurately-named Central) with an excellent large room, complete with shower and facilities, for a mere 225 francs - a bit over thirty bucks at the current exchange rate. (Handled all the negotiations in French, too. I was getting confident now.) I dumped my pack on the bed, picked up my camera, and went out to see the sights of Amiens.

Whatever I was expecting, it was less than what I found.

Amiens has the biggest cathedral in France; one of the biggest, I suspect, in the world. The thing is huge. You could stick Notre Dame inside it and not even scratch the walls.

Beyond mere size, however, the whole structure is breath-stoppingly beautiful, with clean soaring lines and a splendid unity of design. This last is partly because, unlike most of the big cathedrals of Europe, it was built within a single generation. Notre Dame took a couple of centuries; this one was started in 1220 and finished in 1264, an incredible feat given the construction methods and technology of the time.

Yet they didn't stint on detail; you can spend hours examining the carvings and sculptures on the exterior, especially over the doorways:

And this isn't even the main entrance, just a side door. This is the front:

I don't know who all those guys are; saints, maybe. I'm just trying to imagine the work involved in making them and putting them there. Clearly the workers did not suffer from acrophobia.

No question of getting this whole thing into one shot; maybe if I'd had a helicopter -

Medieval engineering wasn't up to creating large free-standing structures; the walls had to be propped up from outside, for which the "flying buttress" was invented. Making a virtue of necessity, the architects used the buttresses themselves as graceful ornamentation.

Amiens itself was a pleasant, attractive city with flower gardens and women walking dogs in the park -

- and self-satisfied cats sitting in sunny windows. One thing I was already finding out: the French are the damnedest pet-lovers in the world. They take their dogs with them on the train, into restaurants and hotels, everywhere - maybe to church too, wouldn't surprise me. This creates some problems for the unwary visitor; walking down a French street, it is necessary to watch where one steps, because dog shit is an ever-present hazard.

In the evening I found a brasserie near the train station and had myself an order of poulet roti - roast chicken - with frites, aka fries, on the side. The chicken was marvelously tender and the fries absolutely superb - well, hell, they do call them French fries - and afterwards I sat and drank red Côtes de Rhône and felt a certain satisfaction with life, just now; and also a certain reluctance to resume a standing posture.

Next day I left for Paris.

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