Each summer, I play my favourite beach game: guess the nationality. While I always hope to be surprised, it is ludicrously easy. The little Breton cove next to my parents-in-law’s house, and where my family and I have been lucky enough to holiday for the past 15 years, is very, very French. At the beginning of my annual two-week break, I take a stroll down the beach, past bronzed infants in frilly bikini bottoms, slim mamans in flattering one-pieces with sensible bobbed hair, a gaggle of papas standing around in well-cut, surprisingly short red or blue trunks and chatting to one another about boating conditions and the sad demise of the boulangerie at the port. French, French, French, I say to myself with amusement, until inevitably, I nearly come a-cropper on a pair of pinkish legs sticking out from a wind-breaker. Playing in the sand next to the legs are a couple of children in head-to-toe UV protection gear, and a dad trying to blow up a supermarket inflatable. English.
I feel instantly torn. I am also English, and drawn towards excessive beach paraphernalia with the best of them, yet for these two weeks a year, I am French, or at least I pretend to be. Why do I bother with this charade? Because the French do summer holidays better — more effortlessly, more stylishly — and I want in on it.
I have spent over a decade musing over why this is so, and I have come to the conclusion that it’s largely down to fact that it is all deeply, reassuringly predictable and formulaic — entrenched routines and habits that remain unchanged for a lifetime. There is no need to think out of the box because what is inside the box is very nice indeed.
This glorious predictability even extends to occupying the same bit of the same beach each year. I know that whenever I go down at low tide, the tall Tunisian writer will be leaning languidly against the sunny rampart wall, while his sons play football on the sand. We will say bonjour, and comment on the weather to one another, but no more. As the tide rises enough for a dip, the beach will begin to fill up with the same families I have seen year after year. There will be a brief period in which cousins and uncles and aunts reunite, greeting each other with la bise before spreading out their tassled hammam towels, laying claim to the exact same few square metres of sandy real estate they occupy every summer. If it were a spot the difference game, the only thing you might notice is a few more babies each year.
Beach comportment is regulated. No music, no barbecues, but plenty of smoking. There is an unspoken yet strict no-snacking rule, an enduring sniffiness about eating between meals still prevalent among les grandes familles. A packet of Prince biscuits — the ones with chocolate in the middle in the corrugated cardboard packets — will come out at 1600hrs pour le gouter, aka teatime, dispensed among the under-16s, but there isn’t a flask or sandwich in sight. The only picnickers are the Brits and the Dutch. Everyone else lunches at home — the beach empties out at 1245 on the dot.
Some might find it all rather rigid, but I find these expert vacanciers fascinating. In the middle of the beach, there is a group of five or six glamorous grand-mères, who in my view, are worthy of their own Canal+ drama. Toned and elegant, they arrive one by one at the beach for morning and evening swims, wearing dark glasses and their husbands’ worn striped shirts over Eres-style swimsuits, carrying nothing but a towel and a hairbrush. No need for anything else — they only have to walk two minutes up the path to their blue-shuttered homes. This is stealth wealth par excellence.
The predictability is also practical. The queues at the big supermarket are unbearable in August. The best times to go, according to those in the know, are 9am, when most people are jogging (yes, really), or 2pm, when everybody is having a coffee and a square of chocolate after lunch. Traffic is predictable too. So much so that there is even a traffic prediction website — “Bison Futé” — which highlights “les weekends rouges”, those key long weekends (around July 14 and August 15) when there is literally no point in getting in your car. And yet somehow, everyone does anyway. Because you are either a juilletiste (who holidays in July) or an aoûtien (who holidays in August), and that is just how it is.
On my first few holidays to Brittany, all those years ago, with my new French boyfriend and potential French in-laws, I tried even harder to blend in, for fear that my English beach inflatable side would inadvertently reveal itself, and the game would be up. I wore striped Breton tops and headscarves, carried a basket to the market, and asked in timid French for “une poignée de crevettes” at the fish stall, acutely aware of the queue accumulating behind me. It was all rather exhausting.
These days, I am grateful and privileged to be able to let both sides hang out, thanks to my half-English, half-French children. They run around in a funny mix of UV protection and frilly French swimwear, speaking a mangle of both languages — drawn to both the French and the English children on the beach. We occupy roughly the same spot of sand each year, and I now chat to a few of the mamans, although I haven’t worked up the courage to talk to the grand-mères just yet. We break the snacking rules frequently, but we always go home for lunch.
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