It took a long time to get to Bordeaux in those days. Train to Kings Cross, tube to Victoria, train to Folkestone, ship to Boulogne, train to Gare du Nord, train to Gare d’Austerlitz, and then a train to Bordeaux stopping everywhere. When I heard the guard on the platform shout Saint Andre de Cubzac, his pronunciation left me in no doubt I was now in the South, and there was not far to go. I was 18 and doing my stage as an assistant pre-university rather than, as many also did then, after the Freshman year and, having just emerged from nine Spartan years at boarding school, didn’t expect to be able to sleep on the train, and indeed for much of the way had no seat because the train was full of French soldiers. The idea was that I was to be met at Bordeaux by M. Bernard but there was no M. Bernard. I had a telephone number to ring, but this being France in the 1960s that meant taking a seat in a café, ordering a drink, and then paying for a “jeton” to enable me to use their telephone. No M. Bernard there either because it now transpired that he had arrived at the station and was looking for me. So eventually we made contact and he drove me to the house of a bus driver M. Morillon and his wife in Le Bouscat, a suburb of Bordeaux, where I was to live for the duration of my stay. One feature of my life hitherto had been plain food, and I recall that I had to suppress nausea as I caught the breath of M. Bernard and that of M. and Mme Morillon. That would pass.
My father had kindly given me £50 when I left home and it was enough to pay my first month’s rent, get tickets for the university restaurant and buy a rather battered Mobylette, so I was, rather suddenly, catered for and free as a bird. Bliss was it in that dawn… And so I began my work, which involved about 12 hours teaching per week, half of it in the boys’ CEG and half of it in the girls’. The boys could be pretty unruly, but I was quite at home keeping order among boys, even though a handful of them were my own age. It was the girls who gave me grief, because I had almost no experience to draw on, I could not work out why they were giggling, or if they cried whether it was because of genuine distress or whether it was a ploy to cause me embarrassment. And I couldn’t help noticing the dramatic change of chemistry when their usual English teacher, a somewhat formidable French woman in her 40s, walked into the room. But French was my subject, I knew something about language learning and teaching, and I increasingly enjoyed their company and, apart from the odd hiccough, the classroom experience. And I eventually learned something about girls.
It was the heyday of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Sandie Shaw, and James Bond. Johnny Halliday got engaged to Sylvie Vartan, Brassens wrote and sang the theme to “Les Copains”, the cinemas offered the works of Jean-Luc Godard, the acting of Delon, Belmondo and Bardot, and the helpless laughter brought on by Louis de Funes and Bourvil. Evenings of song with the university students in cafes round the Place de la Victoire sometimes meant a long walk home, and brushing off street encounters with the many working girls along the rue Sainte Cathérine. A chance meeting with a friend from school who was in the wine trade resulted in three of us – his English girlfriend being the third – busking in Bordeaux, Cap Ferret, Arcachon and Biarritz. From Bordeaux I hitched a lift to Pamplona and somewhat miraculously met up with the friends I had promised to join for San Fermin. A year full of memories which I owe to a scheme which I hear now faces the axe. A pity.