I was listening to "La Mer", a song written by French lyricist Charles Trenet (1913-2001), on my MP3 player yesterday. Music can be very evocative of the past, and as the lyrics drifted into my consciousness, it took me back to my early teenage years, when I was around 12 or 13.
Qu'on voit danser le long des golfes clairs
A des reflets d'argent
Des reflets changeants
Sous la pluie
Au ciel d'été confond
Ses blancs moutons
Avec les anges si purs
La mer bergère d'azur
In the early 1970s, my parents became friends with the Regal family - the family business Regal Construction is still going run by their son Stephen Regal, who we saw from time to time. He had a drum kit at their house, and I think dreams of being part of a small local band. I never found out if anything had come of that.
Alf Regal had a boat which was a converted small navy boat, which he had repainted, and which he called Alfay (his wife's name was Fay). which had two bunks in the back, and four in the front, and in weekends in the summer, they used to invite our family to go to St Malo with them.
We'd set off in the boat on Friday nights, and arrive at St Malo in the dark, often gently gliding in and mooring beside the harbour walls. On the Saturday, we'd probably find a fresh berth though the docks, where there was a marina with many boats.
St Malo in the 1970s was a place of small restaurants where you could get a good meal for a relatively cheap price, and we would all go out when we arrived for an evening meal. The meal in France was something not to be rushed, but to be savoured over several hours, with a seafood hors d'oeuvre, with langoustines, winkles, whelks, oysters, prawns, followed by a good steak with petit pois and pommes frites, simple but well cooked. French cuisine always seemed so different, so foreign and tastier than English fare.
The adults would have wine; we'd sip a bit, but would mostly have Orangina, which came in small round bottles, the stem attached to the bulb of a bottle that was almost orange shaped. In those days, supermarkets in Jersey did not sell orangina, so it was a very French drink. If you don't know, it is a carbonated citrus beverage made from orange, lemon, mandarin, and grapefruit juices, and under a slightly different name of Naranjina, it originated at a 1936 Marseille Trade Fair.
And almost always in those evenings, sitting beneath the awnings of the restaurants, we would be serenaded by strolling musicians, entertaining the diners with songs, and hoping (and usually receiving) francs for their musical skills; they would have their own repertoire, but would often ask for any requests, if they knew them, and invariable someone would ask for La Mer.
Près des étangs
Ces grands roseaux mouillés
Ces oiseaux blancs
Et ces maisons rouillées
Les a bercés
Le long des golfes clairs
Et d'une chanson d'amour
A bercé mon cour pour la vie
Later, we'd make our way back to the boat, and settle down for the night, listening to the water lapping against the side, and feeling the gentle rocking of the boat in the tidal currents. Sometimes, another boat would moor alongside ours, and we'd be woken by revelers returning later in the night.
The boat had a small dining table, and a small cooker, and in the morning, we'd usually have bacon and eggs for breakfast, with toast; Alf and Fay being Jewish of course did not eat bacon, but she always got some it for us and cooked it, which was exceedingly generous and hospitable. In the day, we'd all go shopping in St Malo at the markets, getting French rolls for lunch, along with camembert, some French yoghurts and fresh peaches. One of Alf's party tricks was to walk on the key side, balancing a whole tray of peaches on his head. As children, we had been given some francs and centimes, and would often buy some French sweets, candy shaped in the form of fish or stones, and again so different from English sweets that we had.
Some of the time we'd be left to our own devices. I'd often be found in a small ledge on the side of the boat, reading away - no change there. But at other times, we might watch the playing of boules outside the city walls, or wander up and down the marina looking at the boats and yachts, and enjoying all the variety of shapes and sizes, the names - some evocative, some quirky - and the different places they all came from. Perhaps a crueler sport was to take small stones and dry to drop them on jelly-fish, but youngsters don't really think about every action of theirs.
It was on those strolls that I actually caught my first and only glimpse of a British Prime Minister in the flesh - it was, of course, Edward Heath, with his yacht Morning Cloud. I remember thinking he looked shorter and fatter than on television. We might also see the Condor Hydrofoil arrive - a small boat, not like the vaster Wave Piercers of today; it can still be seen on the DVD of the 1980s Jersey Detective show "Bergerac".
Walking through St Malo, or along the ramparts around the city walls, was not perhaps as good for our French as it should have been. It is surprising how a small stock of phrases does the job, and gets you by. Perhaps the names of the shops, especially those depicting the kind of trade - l'épicerie, la boulangerie, la pâtisserie, la charcuterie, le marché etc - were those we got to know best, with their exotic sounding names. And back in the early 1970s, when people didn't travel as much, France was an exotic place. We forget that now tourists can hop on a plane, and travel the globe with ease.
I used to enjoy also seeing well know brands but with all the wording in French. Now, of course, much of what you get in a supermarket has perhaps one language dominant, but also other languages such as French, but back then, well known brands like Kellogg's Cornflakes, would have an English version only in English; a French version in French.
But all too soon, it would be time to leave. Alf would call up Jersey Radio - the Jersey Harbour's radio channel (not to be confused with Radio Jersey!) - and give our time of departure and expected time of arrival, and we'd be off. Sometimes the journey was choppy, and we'd hang on for dear life as the boat rose and crashed down on waves. Sometimes it would be calm, and Alf would be at the helm at the wheel above, while in the cabin below, the inside wheel would also move in synchronization, and we could mime steering the boat.
We would arrive back, usually in the dark, seeing the red and green lights in the approach to the harbour, and would sleep soundly that night, with dreams were punctuated by memories of St Malo, of good food, and singing, of the sea, of La Mer.
And if you've never enjoyed La Mer, here it is sung...
And the English translation is as follows:
That one sees dancing along the clear gulfs
Has silver reflections
Under the rain
In the summer sky merge
Its white sheep
With such pure angels
The sea, shepherdess of azure
Close to the ponds
These large wet reeds
These white birds
And these rusted houses
Has rocked them
Along the clear gulfs
And with a song of love
Has soothed my heart for life
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