Monday to Thursday last week I drove back from the south of France via route nationale: no autoroutes (motorways with tolls) at all. It was slow but interesting, avoiding the deadening sameness of the motorway. My teen and I slept in the back of the van on a piece of hardboard and foam layered over my ‘buys’. The van was perfumed with bushes of fresh bay leaves and rain water grown rosemary, a gift from my mother, and, later in the journey, with pungent cheeses, a fresh cows milk made by monks in the Bourgogne, and Maroilles from the country of the ch’tis, the northern French.
The radio stopped working so the teen read me stories as I drove from a short volume of the work of Philip K Dick; it was surreal, lulled by the scenery into his claustrophobic schizophrenic world view, so obviously a product of the cold war. The stories are laugh out loud funny, often accurate predictions of the future with the odd lapse such as “he put a new carbon paper in his typewriter”.
On the way to Arras, I stopped at a relais routier restaurant. I wedged the door open with difficulty to be confronted by a grumpy old lady with black hairy chin moles and a cotton pinafore. The tables were set with red tablecloths, white paper napkins and duralex glasses.
“What do you want?” the lady growled.
“Er to eat lunch” I said adding “obviously”.
“How many are you?” she barked.
Her eyes narrowed. “Alright” she consented.
“Can I see today’s menu?”
She opened a large sticky plastic backed tome at the bar. Inside were two pieces of paper containing shaky painstaking old person’s handwriting. The menu was pure country French: rognons (kidneys) in red wine being one example. I knew the teen wouldn’t go for the selection so I left. I wish I had eaten there though. In ten years or less I doubt places like that will exist anymore. It occurred to me that the demise of French cooking coincided with the rise of the autoroute. All those small roads with tiny restaurants, where the chefs are often mothers and grandmothers, are now neglected. On the autoroute the view is bland and so is the food. The authenticity and character has been ripped out of travelling for the sake of those great modern destroyers: convenience and speed.