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July .2000 •

La Bonne Vie

There are things beyond the tragedy of the Concorde disaster. But it does serve to think about flying and locations. A hotel at the end of a dangerous runway is probably not a great idea and yet, there are hundreds of them all over the world!
You probably wouldn't want to put a University Campus at the side of a runway either, but they have. The University of East London in London's Docklands boasts just such a place. A brand new campus around 50 feet from the runway. How long before we don't think that's a good idea anymore? Just because aircraft are safe-ish, we feel we can take great risks. Things do fall out of the sky. That's a certainty.Sometimes we grow complacent. That's all. Concorde is a wake up call.

But even though the disaster happened in France. France remains a good place to live and an excellent place to be if you are in a disaster. They respond quickly and that is a good thing. There are many places to crash where you might have to wait a long time for rescue or help putting out the fires. Next time you lfy, why not work out the odds of survival on any given place to crash land. Something to while away the endless time between food trays huh.

Sometimes it isn’t good to be reminded that there are better places to live that where you usually reside. You don’t really want to know that place is pettier, more aesthetic, had better food, friendly people, who know how to win at football, wonderful beaches and isn’t even expensive to live there. It’s no wonder that the average small minded Brit with their Sun or Daily Express wrapped around their soggy greasy chips resents France. There’s a lot to resent.

Recently France, (aside from winning the Euro 2000 competition) was voted by the UN as the ‘best place to fall ill’. This can be explained by waiting times in France for an operation being around two to three weeks, as opposed to nine- to fourteen months in the UK for the same medical treatment. The children and students of France are better educated, get better jobs and can generally expect to have a better life than the average English person. Just to compound the slur, the weather is better in summer and the women are generally more attractive. Compare Sophie Marceau to Jane Horrocks or Vanessa Paradis to Mo Mowlam for instance.

They always firmly believe they drive the best cars, wear and design the best clothes and believe that ambition should be rewarded.

This of course doesn’t stop the French from going on strike for better pay and work conditions, nor prevent the average French worker, civil servant or even academic that he or she is hard done by. In fact, the average French person may actually believe that they are living in hell in terrible conditions on slave wages and the damn British have it good with lower taxes and higher pay for equivalent work. I have spoken with English speaking French workers and teachers in France recently and they genuinely believe that they are hard done by, generally taking for granted the huge investments the government there has made on their behalf. The wonderful fast TGV rail network, the vast good, cone free motorway network, huge civic investments, and privatisation has resulted in unleashing formidable investments in the web industry and hi-tech futures that will pay off in the later half of this decade.

For the people on the ground who seem to take all this for granted it is the little things that make the difference. Lunch is still lunch there. Where but in France would you see road repairmen with a vast table laden with food and all of them sat around it on the fast lane eating lunch. In school, I was amazed to see the teachers drank wine with lunch, they seemed to visibly relax. The students seemed genuinely polite, keen to learn, even their graffiti was spelled correctly. Overtime, forget it. You just don’t do ‘unpaid overtime’ and besides the government has banned it with this 35 hour week rule.

The trouble is, it is human nature to go on strike in paradise and South-West France is as close to paradise as can actually exist. On the Atlantic coast from La Baule to Bayonne, it is hundreds of miles of beautiful landscapes, quaint towns, wonderful beach towns with manicured streets and they are so confident about life they even drive around in Rover 75’s (which look so much more elegant on their tree lined streets).

In 19th century Biarritz the wonderful grand tumbling edifices terrace down to the ocean, all looks so elegant in the sunshine and the old ladies more spy, the young ladies so damn healthy. Bayonne lies just five miles away, sitting astride a broad river with 2000 years of history resting on it’s shoulders. It is a walled town with narrow streets, little art galleries, sweet coffee bars in unexpected places, smart shops in a wide tree-lined avenue. The people live well in the French Basque country. They might be seething with discontent, but it isn’t visible to a stranger’s eye.

In heavy industry Bordeaux there are problems. There is a large immigrant problem, gypsies occupying car parks and a constant pattern of revolving strikes by public sector workers, postmen, sewage, academics, civil servants of all kinds. It could be a terrible place to live, yet it still functions. The protests can be violent, but in the evening cops and strikers alike will stop to wine and dine. It is understood.

On weekends, you might take the whole family to Arcachon, 50ks away at the beach. Here lies Pyla, the allegedly worlds largest sand dune. (Obviously they have not seen South West Africa (Namibia). Nevertheless, elegant little communities line the wide bay and shoreline. This is a wonderful place to come to windsurf, dine, sail, bring the family - a secret you wouldn’t want to share with too many people. Hotels costs around 550 francs a night in July and 350 ff off-season.

Sometimes we, the English, forget how big France is. How sophisticated. They might seethe at whatever Government they have elected, but the La Bonne Vie still exists and it’s within reach of many. Not necessarily riches, but a good life where families dine out together at the beach or on the lawn, drink wine, get passionate about music or politics, but get passionate about something. To take a Frenchman and set him down in Sheffield, for example or Hull, the brutal architecture, the general paucity of restaurants and complete absence of edible food or drink, the young roaming in packs drunk and loud and careless of others would probably appal. Put the same man or woman in the mirthless death of Falmouth or Newquay or any other deathless seaside town (Cleethorpes, Great Yarmouth) and if they weren’t reduced to sobbing out loud, they probably steal a boat and head for home within a day, never to leave France again. They’d be a lost less unrest in France if they all travelled more and saw how badly we live.

In England we have perfected the art of living badly. From our vistas of pebble dashed terraces to our horrid shabby beach cafes serving Nescafe and packets of instant foam, we don’t actually aspire to live a good life as sink beneath it. Yet, inspired by politicians and rabid newspapers we decry the French and the dreaded Euro because we don’t want to lose our identity. What is this identity?
Hooliganism? What defines us except our capacity to live badly and expect the worst?

Sadly, there in France, the workers believe we have it better and sad bastards that we are, believe it too. It’s just that we have nothing to show for it and little future .

The French are investing, they have bought us lock, stock and barrel, water, power, telecoms, publishing...we meanwhile act as if we still own the family jewels, but they have gone my friends. Check the cupboard.

We envy them, they envy us. It has always been so. Makes you want to open another bottle of Bergerac doesn’t it. Pass the corkscrew.

©Sam North - Managing Editor