Down and out in Paris and Le Mans

Do not grow too attached to this character.

Adrian Mole turned 50 last weekend. While we’re not exactly contemporaries, the day I was given The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 and Three-Quarters, I was aged exactly 13 and five-sixths. So Ady and I go way back.

While no one would describe Mole as an aspirational figure, I did find him inspirational — he motivated me to start a diary, which I’ve kept ever since.

To begin with, and indeed for most of its duration, it was shit, but it did come to life for brief periods. The first time this happened was on my school exchange trip, to Le Mans in France, in April 1984. (Apologies for the artlessness, but this is more or less as I originally wrote it.)

Day 1

Left school 6am. Coach journey: predictably riotous. Ferry journey: ate, lost all money on machines, force 7 storm, vomited. Still, was one of last to succumb and managed to keep pullover mostly clean.

As a result of storm, coach arrived four hours late in Le Mans. Was lined up like criminal in identity parade, picked out and dragged into Renault 11. Treated on arrival to cup of “real English tea”, which turned out to be Earl Grey. Drank it anyway.

As we went to bed, M Broussard remarked on funny smell. Turned out to be chicken Mum packed me for lunch that I never had a chance to eat.

Day 2

Fabrice — for that is my exchange partner’s name — bounded into room to wake me for breakfast at 7am, seemingly having forgotten that we had retired only four hours previously. Forced to deliver something to a friend of Mme Broussard. Fabrice deliberately didn’t tell me what “Chien mechant” meant on the sign.

Out to play on French pinball machines. Not as good as English ones. However, turns out 2p coins are exactly same size as 10 franc coins, so we can play for ever basically for free.

Back for first lunch: unspecified meat, hard lumps rumoured to be pommes de terre, and grated carrots in butter.

Back to town to play more pinball. Get feeling cultural scene in Le Mans not wide and varied.

Home for tea. More grated carrots in butter, plus chicken Mum packed me for lunch yesterday. French seemingly unaware chicken is not like wine and cheese and does not improve with age.

TV after dinner. Material of unexpectedly graphic sexual nature at 7.30pm. Maybe France not all bad.

Day 3

Swimming 7am. Are they in a different time zone here? Might have had good time if had been more than a quarter awake.

Having had sneak preview of dinner, did best to cram myself full of tolerable pre-meal crisps.

Bicycle ride with Fabrice. He almost hit one old lady, two joggers and a dog.

Discovered to horror that entire family are Formula One fanatics, and was thus forced to watch cars driving round in circles all afternoon.

Kidnapped and driven 30 miles to see les grandparents. Not most exciting of hosts, despite endlessly fascinating vegetable garden. Things perked up when they introduced me to their collection of cuddly rabbits. “Which one do you like?” they asked. I pointed to a perky-looking white one. At which point they pulled it from its cage, wrung its neck and presented me with that evening’s supper.

Next, the pigeon coop. “Well,” I thought, “at least we won’t be eating these!”

They’re the main course on Monday.

Day 4

First day at school. Never been so glad to see English classmates. First lesson English. Now know why Fabrice barely speaks a word.

Tour of Le Mans racing circuit. Totally dead and deserted and all in all, great value for money (entrance free).

Biology lesson interesting, not so much because of activity (dissecting hearts) as because of one of people performing activity (lush brown-haired French girl).

Dragged into school dining hall where was confronted with yet more lettuce. Clearly, this country needs more rabbits. Still, probably not even rabbits can face the stuff when it’s drowned in vinaigrette.

The Broussards’ bath contains a rubber mat, the ostensible purpose of which is to stop bathers sliding around in the bath, but the actual consequence of which is that you have to physically get out of the bath and back in again every time you want to wash a different body part. Exited bath with beautifully patterned back to find household asleep.

Day 5

Thumper Day.

Now, have never exactly been gourmet. Prior to arrival here, had tasted little beyond roast beef, fishfingers, and Jason Parker’s fist. So rabbit flesh, for the likes of me, was asking a lot.

But got it down, and kept it down! (Although if anyone mentions Watership Down in next 24 hours, will not be accountable for consequences.)

Little fascist bastard beat me at chess. Must have cheated — he is idiot at everything else. Bundled into bed at gunpoint at 9.30.

Day 6

Typical French: think they are modern industrial nation and haven’t even discovered flavoured crisps yet.

Thrashed pants off Grand Master Broussard at chess. Knew last night was a fluke. Also helped him with his homework. His French homework.

More pinball. 2p coins now like gold dust.

Yesterday, the family, apparently concerned I am not finishing my dinner, asked me what I like to eat. “Most kinds of meat,” I said. Which presumably explains today’s 100% vegetarian meal.

Day 7

School this morning brought the perfect opportunity to impress ravishing Gallic goddess Sophie. No one could solve the chemical equation on the board. The class was paralysed and in despair. But then, out of nowhere, Sir Andrew Bodle galloped to the rescue, snatching the chalk from a hapless student’s hand and filling in the solution with no little panache. The classroom fell silent in awe. Until little brat Fabrice piped up and told everyone I’d already solved it the night before.

French dinner ladies on strike so trudged back to Broussards’ for another 20-course battle with various drowned vegetables. First radish division moved in and neutralised my tongue; then Secret Tomato Service carried out all-out assault on throat. Finally, horde of kamikaze cauliflowers mopped up what was left of taste buds.

Afternoon: guided tour of West FM Radio. Two offices, two microphones and collected works of Barry Manilow. Very popular station, apparently.

Dinner: lettuce in weedkiller with rare consolation side of sauteed potatoes. Seriously. What’s happened to the meat?

Day 8

Up 6.30am again. Whoever drew up timetable for trip should be boiled alive in vinaigrette. Reason: day trip to cold building filled with old towels (tapestry museum), followed by cold building with “bifurcating flying buttresses” (Le Mans cathedral). Original plan was to tour third cold building, a castle, but no one could find way in.

Stop four was a stable, which, as expected, offered horses and some hay. Final destination was vineyard, which might have been interesting but for fact we weren’t allowed so much as a sniff of the produce.

On return was for some reason denied access to almost palatable-looking tomato soup-flavoured pasta everyone else was eating and instead served another portion of lettuce in napalm.

Day 9

Lunch: grated carrots in butter, which had to deploy stupendous feats of imagination to keep down, plus beef and chips. Have now worked out why the French words for animals are same as for meat from those animals; because they barely do anything to it before chucking it on the plate.

Eight hours chez les grandparents. No ritual sacrifice this time, at least.

Day 10

(Because this was a physical diary, it was subject to the depredations of the physical world, and day 10 sadly went missing at some point.)

Day 11

New personal worst. Up 6.15am. At least in good cause: off to spend the day in France’s grand capital. Coach journey took three hours, which looked like it just flew by for Andrew Rogers and Collette, Damian Cullen and Jeanne-Marie, and Fabrice and Michelle Wilkinson.

Sacre-Coeur: photographs and annoying tradesmen.
Pompidou Centre: “art” and lunch.
Shopping: bought cheap tat for presents.
Notre Dame: photographs.
Arc de Triomphe: photographs, toilet.
Eiffel Tower: too late for final ascent. Photographs.

Might have been bit more excited about today if hadn’t visited every single one of these places 12 months ago.

Back to Le Mans 8 o’clock for another grisly encounter with a pasta swamp.

Day 12

Resolved to end bathtime misery by removing rubber bath mat. Succeeded in doing so after titanic struggle, only to replace immediately upon seeing caked-on grime underneath.

“Boum”, or “party”, at Sandrine’s house. All could manage was peck on cheek from Sophie. And this is FRANCE, where people peck one another on cheek 50 sodding times a day.

Back by 6 for dinner of unidentified fluid and what I hope was a sausage in bog of beans.

Day 13

Blessed morning without Fabrice, as he had to go to dentist. Not sure what he had done, but he still has way too many teeth for his face.

Final pinball session. 2p coins now exchanging hands for 50p.

Dinner: grapefruit, some sort of fish, rice, and … drum roll … will it be lettuce or grated carrots today? … PRAISE THE GODS, IT’S LETTUCE!

In hindsight, wish had loaded up little more on it, cos have since been informed that farewell dinner tomorrow will be … snails. SNAILS. Spent rest of evening trying to work out how to fake own death.

Day 14

The smell was the worst part. When stench of roasting mollusc first wafted in from kitchen, was all could do to stop self bolting. Creatures accompanied by beetroot and, quelle surprise, grated carrots, which have never looked so appetising.

But plan worked. Close eyes, swallow whole — no chewing — and immediately follow with copious quantities of bread and wine. In this manner managed to get 10 down before palate and stomach revolted.

Afternoon trip to Alpes-Moncelles. Hiked for what seemed like 70 miles before returning to Mystery Soup and the soundest sleep of the fortnight.

Fabrice packed Michelle in. Little tosser.

Day 15: le jour du départ

Coach arrived outside school 9.15. Made maximum capital out of French custom of bisous by getting two lots from every girl and three from Sophie.

Coach stopped at Arromanches and Bayeux en route to ferry — first bit of real heritage/culture of whole visit. Had about three minutes at each.

Crossing quite choppy again, but managed not to decorate toilet bowl this time. Clearly, after what it’s been through these last two weeks, stomach is now made of cast iron.

(Post scriptum: I feel obligated to point out that my raging xenophobia subsided somewhat with age.)