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Notre Dame de la Garde

Notre Dame de la Garde

We are approaching the end of our two week camp in Lourmarin. We only have one more ‘big trip’ planned for our time here – a visit to Marseille. I am looking forward to visiting France’s ‘second city’ not least because when I was a student at Grammar School back in the 1950s one of our French teachers (quite an attractive lady I recall) caused quite a stir by absconding mid-term to go and live with a Frenchman in Marseille? I don’t expect to meet her in Marseille. She would be approaching 90 years of age now … if she is still alive that is? You never know, however … with this wonderful Mediterranean diet, which seems to consist of mainly olives and red wine … she probably looks younger than I do?

There are a lot of comings and goings on our campsite at the moment. We are told that it is the traditional ‘lull before the storm’ when the older people return home before the families with loads of children arrive. There are notices up everywhere telling us that the ‘animations’ will be starting at the beginning of July. The elderly French and Dutch, by and large, see this as a ‘warning notice’ to flee back home before the hordes of children arrive and spoil their tranquillity?

One exception to this would appear to be ‘Monsieur Fitou’ (as we have nicknamed him, after a rather ‘sharp’ French red wine). The story really begins the day before when a van (presumably from a local caravan storage site) tows a very old French caravan on to the pitch next to ours and dumps it there. We are used to this practice by now. Many elderly, retired French and Dutch people who live in the north, and spend several months down here in the south of France (usually when the campsite prices are cheaper, from April to the end of June, and then again in September), store their caravans down here rather than tow them backwards and forwards. The storage sites then set them up in the campsite of your choice when required. Anyway, said elderly caravan is set up on the pitch next to ours early in the morning … and several hours later Monsieur and Madam Fitou arrive by car to take up residence in their caravan. They are both rather large people, Madam Fitou especially, and they are accompanied by their two ‘handbag’ dogs, Fifi and Foufou. We have not seen many ‘handbag’ dogs round here. The concept of having these very little dogs (that people literally carry around in their handbags) is more something you see in Paris. Round here, in the Luberon, people own big hunting dogs. Typical of this is Mars, a huge hunting dog owned by King Arthur who manages our campsite. Mars looks ferocious but really is ‘soft as sixpence’. He will do anything for a piece of croissant or a biscuit!

Monsieur Fitou is obviously not happy. He walks round and round his caravan muttering to himself. Is it the pitch? Is it the caravan? Is it having ‘Les Anglais’ next door? I decide to friendly, and helpful, if I can, so I go over to Monsieur Fitou, ‘Bonjour, Monsieur Fitou!’ I say, ‘Ça va?’ ‘Bah!’ Monsieur Fitou responds … and climbs under his caravan, ignoring me! Madam Fitou turns up her nose at me! Fifi turns up her nose at me! Foufou turns up her nose at me! All three walk off in the opposite direction leaving Monsieur Fitou under the caravan!

We wake early the next morning ready for our trip to Marseille. As we drive away we see Monsieur Fitou arguing with various members of the campsite staff. We leave them to it and an hour later we are driving into Marseilles. Kate (out new SatNav) takes us to the ‘old harbour’ and a wonderful spacious underground car park. We have heard all kinds of rumours as to how ‘dangerous’ Marseille is? We gather that we need to keep our valuables close, and avoid areas such as the Panier district. In reality Marseille is delightful … well the parts we are seeing are … and we enjoy a hour or two simply wandering around the old port area with its fortifications, museums, churches, and fish market. We decide that we would like to see more of Marseille … perhaps there is a short ‘city break’ for us to be had here sometime in the future?  Since we are only here for the day we have the bright idea of taking the ‘Little Train’ tour of the city … the tour that will take us along the Corniche and up to the church of Notre Dame de la Garde, with its famous statue of the Virgin and Child, that stands high above the city. It is a delightful site-seeing trip – one of the best we have been on – and we get a really good glimpse of what this magnificent city has to offer. We are greatly amused, however, by the commentary we get as we travel round in the Little Train. The commentary is in about 12 languages beginning with French of course but with English second, and Spanish and Italian last. Each bit of commentary is therefore repeated 12 times. As we approach the summit where the Church of Notre Dame de la Garde stands the English commentary tells us not to miss going into the church in order to see the famous statue of ‘the Virgin and the Kid’? Julia and I look at each other in amazement … did we really hear what we thought we heard … ‘a statue of the Virgin and the Kid’? Not ‘the Virgin and the Child’ … ‘the Virgin and the Kid!’ We roar with laughter … along with all the other English speakers aboard the Little Train. Where did the commentator learn her English … Sarf London? Or did she rely on Google translation? The fun doesn’t stop there, however, because on the way back down we are warned at one point to hang on very tightly because the road is extremely steep and people have been known to fall off the train? The commentary doesn’t bother to translate this into the final two languages … by the time we get to them all the Spanish and Italians would probably have fallen off by then anyway!

When we return to our campsite, after a most splendid day, there is no sign of Monsieur Fitou or his caravan? We presume that he and Madam Fitous and Fifi and Foufou have decided not to stay after all? I am wrong of course because later that same evening I see Madam Fitou walking Fifi and Foufou round the campsite. Both dogs systematically stop on every single pitch they pass in order to pee on it. So … it is not just an anti-British thing then. The Fitous have a low opinion of … well everyone else, it seems?

The next morning I am sitting outside our tent drinking my first cup of tea of the day when I am disturbed by a huge commotion coming from the scrubland that borders the front of our pitch. I see Madam Fitou shrieking, and running … well lumbering would be a more apt description. She is pulling Fifi and Foufou after her on their leads. Jogging along behind them is Mars. Mars obviously thinks this is great fun. He can easily keep up with all three. Surely Mars hasn’t taken a fancy to Fifi or Fofou has he? If so, are his interests amorous or culinary? Or has King Arthur trained Mars to deal with dogs who pee on other peoples’ pitches? I have never see Madam Fitou move so fast? She is shouting something about, ‘Vachement caravanes!’ and ‘Où est mon vachement mari quand j’ai besoin de lui?’

Jim Binney

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