Christopher Cape: The French Connection

It was the fall of 1962. We had visited the British Isles and lived in London since September 20. We had travelled, seen and noted a myriad of sights on and off the beaten path. My father had, for the past five weeks, been attached to the BBC to follow aspects of outside broadcasting and religious programming. With around three weeks to go to New Zealand, we crossed the English Channel for a 10 day sprint through France, West Germany and Belgium. We had to leave our traveling companions, our pet mice, in England. We had sold 23 of them to the peddler in Shepherds Bush Market, from whom we had bought a pair in May. At one shilling each, he really wasn’t amused, but he paid 23 shillings. Our car too had found a buyer with a deposit of £10. We drove it to Europe and handed it over for the balance when we left for New Zealand. The space left for the car’s rear window by the loss of the mouse cage was filled with long, tight-fitting French buns on the sill. In Dover on October 30, we had missed the ferry by five minutes because of a traffic jam and my father had forgotten my sister and my raincoats so we returned to London and started again the next morning – at 4.30am. My father’s diary picks up the story.

October 31, 1962, Wednesday
Up at 4:30 a.m. and departure at 5:30 a.m. London is quite busy, even now. Cold with a light frost in Kent, but I had a ph [photograph] of oasthouses, windmill etc. Arr. (Arrival) Dover 1h15 in advance. Bought a B (Barbara) shirt and pajamas. I filled up with gas and continued to the boat. Very smooth processing – everything streamlined. The crossing takes 1h30 to Boulogne. The other side is just as slippery, then the wrong side of the road! First French purchase: 4 lollipops – find adequate French – weak vocabulary, no knowledge of nuances. Driving day loving tree lined roads then through groves of golden trees. France more beautiful than England. Bought wine (a new franc), 1/6 incredibly expensive cornflakes. At dusk, I ask the mechanic where “the campsite” is. He tells us – laughing happily because we are not English. Pitch the tent in the drizzle at Poix and find that the stove won’t work. Have a wonderful steak at the restaurant in the village – expensive, then chilly in bed.

November 1, 1962, Thursday
It froze as well as it rained last night. Packed up and gone – car starts quite well (I left the hurricane lantern burning under the hood all night!). Glorious day – stop in Beauvais for lunch to see the tallest Gothic cathedral in the world. On (right-hand drive becomes more natural now) through unfenced hilly country to St Denis, then Paris. Heavy traffic and a bit terrifying. Found the campsite in the Bois de Boulogne. I also found the help of a few Canadians, who took us to their trailer, cooked us dinner and kept us entertained for the evening. A cold, damp night.
[Saint-Denis is a commune, an area in the northern suburbs of Paris.]

November 2, 1962, Friday
Early, Clive Canadian goes to Suresnes to buy a gas (butane) camping stove. Quite cheap, 17 NF (new francs). Return, breakfast and road to Paris. Fortunately light traffic on the Place d’Etoile [Arc de Triomphe]. At the Palais de Chaillot, at the top of the Eiffel Tower. Continue through the heavy traffic to Notre Dame – beautifully dark and in the evening rush along Rue de Rivoli and the Champs d’Elysées. Crazy ride at the Arc, but negotiated in complete safety. Spent the evening with John Reed from AU (Auckland University), who wants “Down the Hall” for a New Zealand verse anthology, with Taumata (the longest place name in New Zealand, located in South Hawkes Bay) . French public toilets are ambidextrous and most places are just porcelain holes in the floor with a squat room. Cost 22c. [centimes].

November 3, 1962, Saturday

Packed and far to watch the stores. Found in Avenue Victor Hugo, small side street wine. Hungry shortly after croissants and coffee, bought early at the street market. Beautiful smells – and bad ones – in Paris. Around the Seine to Rue de Rivoli – purchased doll, 10 NF, 15% discount for traveller’s checks [purchase tax on something taken off]. Lunch among the dry leaves, then head to a car park at the other end of the street. Ph. Notre-Dame. Stéphanie broke a small Eiffel Tower in a shop. Chestnut roasters by ND (Notre Dame) – we bought some then bought postcards at the trunk stalls along the Seine, looked at Rivoli below [Shepherds Bush] end, and out of Paris. Different country now: plains, no fences, and rows of golden birches – also multicolored groves. Camp in the dark in Sézanne.

Chest stalls on the banks of the Seine in Paris, 1962. Photo / Peter Cape
Chest stalls on the banks of the Seine in Paris, 1962. Photo / Peter Cape

November 4, 1962, Sunday

A wet camp. Rise early to stop at Sezanne (hot bread and croissants) and descend on a hard drive through golden autumn country. France is beautiful. A long run, and have trouble finding an inn (hostel) in the dark. The Hunters seems OK according. (according to) the guidebook we have, but finding it involves turning off the main road at Maimoutier and driving blindly through misty countryside. Ask two villages sometimes before you find it. Long ‘Deviation’ makes us later and the gendarmes with guns do not make us happy to camp. I spent the night at La Chasseurs – hostel where no one spoke English. No more discussing the common market in French with Peter with a dictionary between us. The beds have small but very thick comforters.

[The use of the word commune is distracting. In France a geographical area that we would call a suburb is named as a commune. Possibly because it is a community centred around a church or place of worship, much as English shires were centred on castles and manors owned by wealthy landowners and aristocracy.
Britain’s involvement with the common market was in its infancy and New Zealand’s trading position was being scrutinised. The frozen/chilled meat export trade with England, initiated in North Otago at the Totara Estate near Oamaru in the 1880s, had been a mainstay for both countries. In 2021, Britain is pulling out of the European Union (the Common Market) and new trade agreements have been struck with New Zealand on meat and dairy exports with tariffs being lifted. How strangely the world turns. It seems that nothing is new under the sun.
We did finally get some rest and set off the next day, crossing the border into Germany.]