French Escapism

I am a Francophile without question.

I blame the fact that on the 20th May 1971, aged 11 & in my last year at Hilderthorpe Junior School, I departed on a French exchange trip to stay with the Lebas family.  Mum & dad (papa) both worked at the PTT and they had my pen pal Stephane and Lydie as their son and daughter.

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Stephane, Papa, Lydie
I was away from home for 11 days which cost my parents £13 plus £5 pocket money!  I stayed in the Lebas high rise flat at 52 Boulevard de Strasbourg, App 123, 59 Lille, situated on the 16th floor.

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“X” marks the spot of the Lebas family flat
Stephane subsequently came and stayed my family in Bridlington, East Yorkshire although despite my tender age I have to admit I’d developed a crush on his sister Lydie, aged 12 who sadly was not invited!

I have always felt a little embarrassed that while I was treated to the delights of Paris such as the Eiffel tower, Arc de Triomphe and the army museum) poor Stefane visited Flamborough Head lighthouse, Hull docks & the Yorkshire Belle sailing from Bridlington harbour in return!

From a culinary perspective there was a lot of difference too with breakfast being a bowl of cafe au lait & a visit to Stephan’s grandparents who lived on a farm in the country slaughtering a sheep (or goat – I can’t really remember) in my honour by hanging it from its back legs and slaughtering it in my presence by a cut to the throat!  I’ve always like my meat rare since, especially steak tartare…

This experience at a young age meant that I picked up quite a bit of understanding of French although my spoken word was less good but at least I would try.  This held me in high esteem later on in my working life as quite often I’d visit our French distribution site in Lyon which of course is the gastronomic centre of France.

Colleagues such as the General Manager Vivian Masson, Head of Distribution/Customer Services Anne-Marie Neulat and IT specialist Nathalie Timmers became good friends of mine.  So good indeed that when I’d arrive ostensibly to get them connected to email, a tray of les huitres (oysters) on crushed ice would await me for a welcome lunch, along with an andouillette (intestine sausage) ready to take home on my return to the UK!  My favourite meal out was at the local market stalls (bouchon) where more seafood could be readily sourced.

I used to stay in the “pencil” hotel in Lyon and it was there where I held a Pfizer Medical Technology European conference on the use of Lotus Notes software that became the setting of my infamous checkout story.  Essentially what happened was to keep expenses low as possible for attendees where their allowance wasn’t as generous as my own most of the drinks over the two days went on my room.

As I went to checkout I noticed that this seemed to add up to many thousands of Francs to cope with the large numbers of bouteilles de vin et biere consumed!  As I’d taken in a big gulp of air thinking about how I was going to explain this to my boss, the receptionist then asked “monsieur, did you take anything from the mini bar aussi?”.  My reply was inaudible!

My next adventure in France occurred in my first visit to Bordeaux and the Stryker factory there where I was the sole IT representative from Pfizer, the rest being the European IT managers from the acquiring company.  I remember it was a beautiful hot sunny day with beautiful views from the conference room but I did feel a little like being put into the lion’s den and so asked to be excused and go to the toilet.

Unfortunately after reaching the cubicle, hermetically sealed to the outside world, the handle to the bolt came off in my hands as I “sealed the hatch”.  About 20 minutes later search parties were dispatched to see what had become of the errant Englishman and howls of laughter escaped as they realised my situation & came to my rescue.

Eventually I was released from solitary confinement in Colditz fashion and keeping my head high I sat down to participate in the integration meeting.  Unfortunately my luck was not in that day and I felt a crawling sensation up my right inner leg that itched so as I started rubbing a wasp stung me in a sensitive area.  Shouting a large yelp I stood up, squashed the offending insect against my leg and promptly sat down!  “Vive la difference” was all I could hear being whispered from my French host…

In later years alas I’ve not been lucky enough to visit France as often, a trip with the European CIO from OKI Europe, a favourite client of mine to his team meeting in Paris was great fun, a couple of trips to Gartner’s Paris office for training as well as a family holiday to Disneyland Paris.  I’d like to go back to Normandy especially and Sword beach in particular one day to pay homage to my father’s experiences of D-Day 6th June 1944.

While an Executive Partner at Gartner I loved working with one Executive Client Manager called Eddy Louchart who came from the Champagne region of France and I was lucky enough to meet his family when he invited Debbie and I to his wedding to Rachel in Windsor.

To keep my Francophile credentials I’m now reduced to reading tomes such as “A Year in Provence” by Peter Mayle or Karen Wheeler‘s “Toute Suite” series of books both of which I highly recommend.  In the meantime I try to source mainly French wines, cheese and bread whenever possible.

So in the spirit of the current Presidential election there all I will say is “Vive la France“!

French Escapism

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