France Day 6: La Poissonnière to Samuar
We came down for breakfast to a beautifully laid table and fresh bread, croissants and homemade jam. As Laure poured out the coffee, she asked me what others had said when I interviewed them. I began by telling her about Xavier. That I was surprised he felt England was not a part of Europe, and it seemed as though he had already closed the door on us.
‘Of course Brexit was an enormous shock for us,’ Laure began, ‘but yes I think now people have got used to idea they are happy for the UK to leave.’
I felt dejected. The reality of leaving Europe and our having triggered Article 50 really hit me for the first time then. I didn’t vote to leave but for the past year I’d been sitting on the fence. I’d accepted Brexit, even if the campaign had been misleading, choosing instead to uphold the principles of democracy and respect the views of those who’d voted to leave. But now, in France, spurned by our closest neighbour, the reality of our isolation came into sharp focus. It was as if the 48% who’d chosen to remain had disappeared from popular consciousness. That to the outside world Britain had become a fearful, insular island much like the neighbour Laure had described the night before.
I asked Laure what it meant to her to be European.
‘To be European is to be very lucky, to live in a democratic state with social and human rights, with food, good income, good weather. We have good, excellent living conditions compared to other parts of the world. We are spoiled. To be on your own is too hard. I wouldn’t want to be alone. I like to travel, work, exchange and share different points of view.’
Like Xavier, she differentiated between Europe and the European Union, said the EU needed reform.
‘But the commission needs to be reviewed – it should be more federal. We need basic laws to protect trade agreements, to preserve each countries cultural heritage.’
I asked her if she felt European.
‘When I’m away I feel more European. If I travel I really feel European, when I go to different cities. But when I am at home I don’t notice. There are people here, living in the countryside, who don’t feel European, they feel French. The farmers here fear Europe even because of the intervention. But perhaps it is not so rational. What we cultivate here is not so rational. The Europe Union dictates what to grow and how. Growing corn for example is a bad idea because it drains the soil. They do it for money, but it is not sustainable. The farmers do it for the grants.’
I asked if the farmers would survive without grants.
‘The price of milk has dropped significantly – farmers are really struggling. The prices have been pushed down by the big companies and then by Europe. But also as a society we have changed. We want everything to be cheap. People want things instantly. They can’t afford quality. China has really damaged the economy. We need to block China. Europe should impose a tax, like Obama did with steel in the US. We need to think how to protect our borders, not within the EU but outside, to restrict imports and exports because it is unfair.’
She went on to talk about the crisis in the global economy.
‘One of Europe’s problems is that we are blocked by energy. While we rely on oil we can’t compete. Greed is also a problem. The free market is the problem not Europe. Control the borders for trade, that really is the solution for us. We are at the end of what the capitalist market can do. We’re spiralling down – we have to break this. Europe has nothing to do with it. Europe can even protect us from this. The root cause is the stock exchange. You kill it, we’ll see things rebalance. It’s virtual. Kill it and start over.’
As I listened to Laure speaking, I realised her views and the problems she described were not so different from our own. But while in the UK we’d been distracted by inward-looking squabbles as politicians from all parties tried to address the chaos Brexit had unleashed, the French were learning from our mistakes, sticking with Europe, thinking about reform.
Time was moving on, I thanked Laure and went upstairs to pack away the rest of my belongings.
‘Election day today,’ Matt 1 said cheerily as we clambered down the stairs, arms full. That morning I’d been catching up with the mood at home by scanning through newspaper articles, posts on Facebook on my phone. Amongst my ‘friends’ support for Corbyn had risen palpably over the past three weeks. That morning a friend had posted a picture of her car covered in Labour posters and balloons, she was driving around with a megaphone and mobile disco. There were also several pictures of a red tractor in Falmouth covered in slogans.
Living in London in a safe Labour seat the approaching election had been virtually imperceptible. Three weeks into the campaign, I’d detected a shift in public opinion and the growing fervour around Corbyn on social media and in the press. But it wasn’t until we visited Falmouth the week before we left, and saw the Labour placards dotted around the town that I understood the impact he was having. That many people had come to view him as a chance to end austerity.
As we left we thanked Laure for her hospitality, and as we loaded up the bikes readying to depart she asked us to stay in touch, to let her know how we got on.
We set off, once again heading towards the river. In the fields in front of the greenhouses and polytunnels people were out working. We joined the path at the port, cycled through villages, passed vineyards. On the river an army raft and three motorboats laden with soldiers overtook us. I sped up trying to outrun them, so I could take a photo.
In Angers we stopped for a coffee. We headed towards the main square. Once we’d found a café and ordered, I left the others and went to find a bookshop, to buy the maps I needed for the following week. As we were leaving the city we bought sandwiches for lunch and cans of Orangina
We stopped just outside La Bagueniere by the river. Next to us a man had strung a hammock between the trees and was reading in the shade.
It was hot, really hot. That morning we’d been cycling along the levee on the northern bank of the river where there wasn’t any shade.
‘I think we should stop here for at least a couple of hours,’ I suggested, ‘wait for the heat of the day to pass.’
The others agreed without complaint. While we ate we chatted, talked about the election as we lazed on the grass. A dog came over and Matt 1 threw him a stick. I looked at the map and suggested we cross over when we set off again to where the road was lined with trees.
We left after three. It was only a little cooler on the south bank but as we cycled past the caves in the hillside, we rode through pockets of damp, reviving air. I was in front. We cycled together. After an hour or so, when I tired, I indicated to Matt 1 to pass me, to keep up the pace. He sped off. We didn’t catch him again until the outskirts of Saumur.
‘I feel funny,’ Matt 1 said as we drew near.
‘Drink more water,’ I said concerned, ‘it’s really hot, and you were going at quite a pace.’
We followed the path into town, stopping briefly at the Decathlon in the middle of an industrial estate. We left Matt 1 outside with the bikes, while Matt 2 and I searched the air-conditioned aisles. Later, outside the old Post Office building in the centre of Saumur, we debated what to do next.
It was only 30km until we reached Matt 2’s in-laws and where we planned to have our rest day. I wanted to keep going. I needed at least one whole day of rest before I set off again. But we were all exhausted. We’d been on the road for six consecutive days and it was hot. Furthermore we were dehydrated from the previous night's drinking. Eventually we decided to stay in Saumur.
That night we ate at a restaurant on Rue Saint-Nicolas. From our table we watched as the lightning from an approaching thunderstorm moved slowly towards us. We left as the first drops of rain began to fall. Leaning out of the hotel window looking out over the Loire, the others watched the storm. Exhausted, I feel asleep in my clothes, not even the rumbling thunder deterring sleep.