France on a field trip

France on a field trip

1984

March

On the night of their arrival in Paris, Quirke closed the door that led onto the dark balcony. Other boys were grabbing beds in the large room. The evening in the fourteenth was calm and quiet, with a spring chill. He gazed at the city lights and inhaled the foreign air. He listened to distant traffic. Hands on the railing, he peered down on an empty, inviting back street before looking around again. Nearby rose the beautiful bourgeois apartment blocks that surround Place Denfert-Rochereau. Beyond them lay Montparnasse and the neon of its cinemas.

As Quirke, CP and several of the girls on the trip walked down the boulevard there, two chancers appeared out of nowhere and spoke to a couple of the girls in perfect English. The casual, assured manner in which they did this took Quirke aback at first. Did they look like they were just off the boat? The girls were embarrassed and kept walking. CP was looking in windows. He hadn’t noticed. The women turned their heads away but persistence dragged some kind of answer, eventually. The pair took this as a sign of success and veered to the door of a bar but, on looking back, looked surprised to see everyone still walking. One of them held the door open a moment. Then they gave up and disappeared in the crowd.

Tina was the eldest, a mature student, but she was the one charged eight quid after foolishly ordering a gin and tonic in a bar. The rest of them settled for glasses of beer. An Arab band did a sound check. They had a dangerous-looking girl singer who stood near the door, signalling to the musicians. As the place filled up she went up to sing. They covered Baby Jane and her English wasn’t great. Some of the lines were gibberish.

The waiter who served their table seemed under pressure. A group of young Parisians sat in the corner, buying nothing, and he started to hassle them. One of them was almost too good-looking. She had a pair of expensive horn-rimmed glasses on a chain around her neck. She kept taking them off and putting them on again. She was only semi-vain.

The girls had duty-free bottles of spirits in their room back at the hostel but a mixer was in very short supply so they all stopped off at the hostel’s reception desk. Quirke was told to ask for Coke in French but the corporal on night duty wanted to know why. Tina mentioned “mixer” behind Quirke and he grasped that too but threw a little fit. No alcohol is allowed here. I will confiscate the bottle!

They said no more but withdrew to the room. The orange-walled corridors were very hot because the heating had been turned up to eleven. Tina opened a bottle of Bacardi and poured out six large measures. Whatever Coke they had left, the women got it. The boys drank the rum straight. Quirke was still a little wary of them, especially of dark-haired Ciara. He was sitting on the end of an empty bed and she reclined on an elbow on the one across from him. She looked a bit intense. She leaned her head on one shoulder but he relaxed a bit when she offered him a cigarette.

The spirits of the night were hurting in the morning. Breakfast was missed and it took the cleaners to rouse the boys. The group got on the bus again and the tour began. Down by the river cruise dock, a group of schoolgirls that had already come over to Quirke on the ferry happened to turn up at the same time. They started to wave and shout. “You’re big in France,” observed CP.

The cold breeze on the Seine made Quirke feel a bit better but he and CP sat huddled in their coats while a lot of the other field trippers leapt around, clicking their cameras, craning their necks and laughing like idiotic children. Spindly white human figures had been painted on some of the riverbank walls so he looked at them and at some pretty Italian girls who were also on the boat.

On the dust and dirt under the trees on the Champs Elysées, Tina asked Quirke the French for ‘Where is…’ so he told her and she went up to a cop. “Où est McDonalds?” The policeman shrugged. Quirke didn’t know about le McDo, which might have helped. He wasn’t in honours French, or any French, anymore. Quirke and CP got frankfurters from a stall instead. Quirke took one bite from the sausage, swallowed it, then threw the rest away and ate the bread roll.

In the afternoon he and CP slipped into the Jeu de Paume, almost by default, having grown bored sitting outside. The Impressionists were housed there in 1984 and they made for them because they hadn’t much time and those paintings were the most familiar. The number seemed endless as they walked up and down the varnished floor. The pictures that stood out most for them on that floor were Van Gogh’s Eglise à Auvers, five of Monet’s goes at the cathedral at Rouen, and Toulouse-Lautrec’s Le Lit. “I like them too but we’d better go,” warned CP. Quirke made him wait a little longer, already thinking he should treasure this. It was an unexpected, accidental element to a drinking holiday.

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That evening the coach took them to Brittany, to a hotel outside Dinan. At dinner they got some long white blobs as the main course. Quirke asked a waitress what it was but he didn’t know the word she used. CP guessed it was octopus. It didn’t matter, there was bread and other bits and pieces and the hotel had a bar.

Nick Rhodes has reflected on the (real) video for Girls on Film by saying that if they had the chance again they would ease off on the porn. A strange French couple arrived that night with a tape the guy was anxious to put into the recorder under the lounge TV. The more sociable members of the Irish group already lounged there with their drinks. They watched him kneel and get it going. Among the dodgy cartoons and clips, the tape contained the chef d’oeuvre version of Girls on Film. Had the following phrase existed at the time it would have summed up the context-driven review. This is the sh*t.

In the morning, outlines of farm buildings could be made out less than a stone’s throw behind the hotel and a tractor engine was running in the cold fog. The bus was waiting. A quick purchase of jus d’orange for two in the bar was accomplished while CP took some left-over bread rolls from the dining room. Then they were away.

The professor had decided to split the party into small groups and one was dropped off in each town and village. Tina, Jess and Quirke were left in a village called Pleugueneuc. They had lunch in its one restaurant. Then the women didn’t want to do anything. They walked around the quiet village for a while before the girls told Quirke they were going to stay in the only bar, which was also the restaurant. He wasn’t really keen on bothering people either but he wanted to have something to relate at the seminar that evening.

There was a funeral in the afternoon. The church bell rang in the middle of the village and sombre people appeared silently out of doorways and side streets. He wandered off and came back to the church when the service was over. Groups of men were still standing in the churchyard. Quirke had sheets of paper with lists of products and animals in French and he approached one group to explain what he was doing there. One gruff old boy spotted donkeys on the list and jerked his thumbs at his chest. Des ânes? C’est nous.

Back in the bar, it was crowded with mourners, a lot of whom had red, peasant faces. The girls were sitting next to the mayor; a powerfully built, white-haired man in his sixties. The mayor asked Quirke the girls’ names. It turned out he was an ex-marine commando. His polite, relaxed, half-interested manner was a bit different from that of three Irish army thugs on the ferry, where the down-to-earth Jess, with the boyish hair, had wisely advised the boys not to wind them up. They’re on about communism. Just stay quiet. They’ll kill you.

When the bus came back, Ciara was lying on the back seat, in shock, having been attacked by an alsatian on a farm. The left-hand side of her face was cut and the earring had been torn from the lobe. She had bent down to pet the dog. The wife of the farmer sat her down in her kitchen and put some iodine on the cuts. To her it was an unfortunate nuisance. Quirke asked CP how his group had got on. Where they had been, le maire had received them in his nightshirt.

Back at the hotel Ciara was put to bed and a doctor was called. He tidied up her face and gave her a sedative for the night. She was given the next day off. At the seminar that evening Quirke watched a shy young man get so tongue-tied when delivering his report that he could not form whole words. It was uncomfortable but bizarrely fascinating. He seemed to be almost choking. This happened just as the rest were yawning and watching the time. Some were desperate to get to the bar.

A number of Iraqi pilots were also staying at the hotel. They were training at a nearby airbase. They carried bottles of whiskey around with them at night and liked to talk and share their drink. Every night their girls from the town and those Irish who stayed up into the early hours formed a strange kind of party set with them.

The bus meandered along the north coast the following day. It went through Dinard, which had been a haven for rich Brits in the nineteenth century. Their villas and mock chateaux remained on the heights above the town and the bay. When they reached St. Malo they walked around the damp, narrow streets of the walled old town.

In the afternoon they went to Mont St. Michel. The bus stopped on the causeway so those with cameras could get a vantage point. Some descended the bank to get a better picture. Quirke and CP went down too, to stretch their legs. A girl tried to squat at the mud’s edge to take a picture but she fell in. It was like a signal. The boys started to wrestle. CP was always a bit too beefy and awkward and, in trying to knock him in, snapped the remaining good arm of Quirke’s glasses. After calling him a f*cking this and a f*cking that, Quirke got some selloptape in one of the trinket shops up at the Mont.

FRANCE-HERITAGE-TOURISM

The trip’s chief interpreter, a postgrad, had a breakdown that night. Quirke had been talking to her at a dining table after the evening meal and when he stood up to leave she looked as if she was going to burst into tears. She’d been complaining about the lack of understanding the department had of the difficulties. They expected her to function like a computer and didn’t seem to grasp the bus driver was just a driver, he wasn’t an expert on the geography of Brittany.

Seven of the Iraqis left the next morning and their luggage was piled on the patio outside the front door. They were saying goodbye to the rest and all the faces were glum. The Irish were waiting for their bus at the time, in order to go to Rennes. No one needed an interpreter to get dropped off in the middle of Rennes. CP and Ciara had asked to be put with Tina, Jess and Quirke for the day. Their appointed task was to get some information on the regional bus services but the station corporal was a little bastard who ignored their existence, apart from throwing a few timetable sheets across the counter at Quirke. The girls took care of carrier bags of wine bottles, while CP had an idea and tried to copy a route map from a wall. Old women looked on sternly whenever bottles clinked or fell over, while some gorgeous little tarts hung around the photo booths.

Across the street in a craft shop, Quirke bought a black metal bracelet for Sharon, his first college girlfriend, his first any girlfriend. Another girl had bought the same bracelet for herself. On the bus back to Dinan, Tina turned and asked him if he’d bought Sharon a present.
“I just got her a bracelet, that’s all.”
It was wrapped in turquoise paper and he handed it over for inspection.
“Oh that’s really nice. It’s lovely.”
She handed it back and he smiled. The other buyer then turned and said,
“Yeah, I got one too.”
Half an hour later the latter called across to him.
“Hey Quirke, the black stuff is coming off mine.”

She had been scraping it with her fingernail. Quirke had a go at that too. She was right, it looked nice but it was shit. It was their last night at the hotel and CP’s map received great praise from the department. The Iraqis were walking around with whiskey again. Quirke had got to know one in particular. M. was a big, beaming young man with a broad moustache. They spoke a mixture of French and English. At home, long before, he’d been been taught English by an Irishman, a “Mister Ma-gow-an” who’d cried on his last day as he said goodbye to the class. M. also explained that they knew their women were in it for the money and the good time. Nonetheless the lads were far from home and had the money, so it didn’t matter. When Quirke eventually asked him about the war, in connection with the boys who had just left, he expressed natural regret but added that Saddam Hussein was a man who made no distinction between rich and poor, which was good enough reason for him to fight.

SADDAM AMERICAS VILLAIN

The interpreter had recovered enough to walk around in a bathrobe and she came up with the idea of a makeshift disco in the dining room. The tables were cleared away and the Iraqis had a pile of disco records which they were ready to put on once they had rigged up some kind of sound system. The professor wanted to keep the local women out of it, muttering something about impressionable girls being under his care. He went over towards the Iraqis and said, “Just keep your prostitutes out”, at which point Tina, Jess and Ciara were horrified, even though the Iraqis hadn’t understood his accent. They urged him to go over to Quirke and CP at the bar counter and ask them for a second opinion.

The two boys, both nineteen, explained to their professor that it would be taken as an awful insult. M. wanted to know if there was a problem but Quirke told him it would be OK. Don’t mind him. Il est fou. To prove it, he went over to the part of the bar where the French women had gathered defensively. Mesdames, vous êtes très, très bienvenues à entrer. After this enchanté moment that avoided a diplomatic incident, CP and Quirke were rewarded with extra whiskey from department funds.

On the way back to the boat at Le Havre they stopped in Bayeux, where Quirke skipped the tapestry to get a café ham sandwich from a kind old lady with an aggressive little dog. He told her it was their last day and she asked was he the bus driver. Vous êtes chauffeur? Non, étudiant.

In Le Havre they went into a hole of a truckers place before catching the ferry. The last things Quirke saw were the cliffs of chalk and the obelisk and the guiding lights of the harbour before the fog came in. None of them relished the boat journey. There was a storm at sea. The ship was heaving. In their cabins they tried to sleep but the storm and the sound of the engines acted in unison and, as the vessel rose and fell, Quirke twisted and turned and finally lay miserably still.

In the morning he felt a bit better, walking around the decks. The storm had gone. To him at least, it was regrettable to overhear English spoken again. His group decided against the greasy cafeteria with its hundreds of burgers heaped against greasy glass and instead went into the proper restaurant. The waiter recommended the beef so CP and Quirke took his word for it but it was raw. The women had more sense.

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