Me and Michel Chapter Fourteen

‘The past is never dead. It’s not even past.’

                                                     William Faulkner, Requiem for a Nun


I’m standing on the jetty at Arcachon, waiting for the ferry that will take me and the bike and a dozen other passengers across to Cap Ferret. Today, putting all other thoughts behind me, I begin the journey again, with the thrill of crossing the bay by boat and looking back at the land from the sea for the first time on this trip.

To pass the time, I’m breaking my vow to avoid using my phone yet again, and looking up news reports of the wildfires. I found a photo that shows the exact spot where I’m standing now, and the sheer scale of the smoke wreath from only a few weeks ago, and it looks like a war zone.

Whilst I’ve been here, there’s been a heat wave. Temperatures that were averaging thirty to thirty-two are more like thirty-six to thirty seven. I’ve felt no incentive to cycle in that kind of weather.

Somehow, three days have passed quickly in this seaside resort made famous by its nineteenth century villas, strange and colourful gothic creations that pepper the Ville d’Hiver. An eclectic mix of influences from the Moorish to the Colonial, and some as if Switzerland had come to France, are mashed together in breath taking combinations that are part theme park, part monument to bourgeois living and the Belle Époque, all in a style that has become known as Mode Pittoresque. Turrets and outrageous hammer beams with showy wood traceries support pantiled roofs that cantilever over elaborate balconies, many enclosed by painted glass screens, each grander than the next, four and five stories high with walls of brick in stripes of red and white, and around every corner is another competitor in the race to impress.

With an old casino modelled on The Alhambra in Spain, and four districts to the town, each named after the seasons, this is a place for le flâneur, the ‘stroller’ or ‘lounger’, a man who walks the streets preoccupied perhaps with literary matters, maybe nursing a consumptive constitution, but actually hoping for a brief encounter, an interlude to break life’s ennui with a flirtation. Arcachon is the setting I imagine for Chekhov’s Lady with the Lapdog, an affair that will go nowhere, but will pass the time. Thomas Mann could have set Death in Venice here, and one of my favourite painters, Pierre Bonnard, painted here at least once. Toulouse Lautrec had a house on the seafront and Alexandre Dumas lived here for a while, but this town was born as one the first expressions of mass tourism in the 1870s. Trains opened up this coastline, not just to the Bordelaise coming from the city an hour away, but also to Parisians looking to take the waters and enjoy the sea air in an age when tuberculosis still had no cure.

Maybe I shouldn’t have lingered so long, but it was not just the weather that influenced my decision. The architecture and the genteel atmosphere of the promenades fascinated me. After so long amongst the pines and dunes, such a concentration of ‘civilisation’ in one small resort has been like a luxury vacation, and a step back in time. I could almost imagine myself a latter day flâneur, bumping into Guy de Maupassant and stopping for a coffee to gossip about those around us, before going back to our hotels to work on short stories about our day.

My prolonged stay in Arcachon has also given me time to plan ahead, and I have made a radical decision, so radical that as we troop down the gangplank to board the ferry, I have the odd sense that people might guess my destination. I settle myself in a seat open to the air with my bike propped against the gunwales. The lines are cast off and we reverse away from the piles of the jetty and turn towards the far shore. I am on my way to a naturist resort called La Jenny, which oddly enough is my ex-wife’s name. Not that that has any bearing on my choice, it just happens to be a twenty kilometre ride on the other side, and so perfectly placed for an Englishman tired of tents and tired of ants, and seduced by the prospect of joining the Lotus Eaters, if only for a few nights.

I know I shouldn’t attempt to justify my decision post hoc, and yet I feel I must try for fear of being accused of pretending the idea is quite normal and carries no frisson or fear with it. It does, of course it does, but exhibitionism is not my thing and most of us look considerably better, to my mind, with our clothes on. Instead, I have made a booking at La Jenny for three nights for very sensible, if rather British pragmatic reasons. They are as follows:

  1. I get a chalet in the woods
  2. I have a bed and a shower…to myself!
  3. I get away from the ants
  4. I have a kitchen and I can cook for myself
  5. The cost is the same as camping

I think I deserve a break because I have proved myself an intrepid explorer in the day, peddling, and making steady headway, meeting the elements as best I can, my bicycle like Odysseus’ raft and the endless stands of pine, my sea.

But it is at night that I take on the stature of a true mythic hero anything like my mentor. Only when I face the cunning wiles of flying and crawling beasts that hide themselves in the dark, picking their moment to attack when my eyes finally close and I fall asleep, am I forced to rouse myself and fight. And whilst my weapons are blunt and all but useless against them – the guidebook, a shoe, sometimes my bare hands – with persistence, I can wipe them out and fix their terrible buzzing and biting, until morning comes. But the ants…the ants are proving formidable. With each kilometre, they seem to grow bigger, except when they unexpectedly alter their colour from black to red, and become very much smaller. These shape-shifters arrive sometimes in ones and twos, but if I leave food out in the tent, can quickly magic up an army of tiny Orcs, with my groundsheet the plains of Mordor. The black ones – the big ones – are less in number, but no less threatening, more inclined to hit and run, hiding in the shadows after traversing my face or neck, provoking madness.

Sometimes, I find one dead, but intact, suffocated in the folds of my sleeping bag perhaps. I feel pity for an adversary that is so alien and yet somehow impersonal, other, a pity that it puts me in mind of another – allegedly – human enemy, Rutger Hauer’s Roy Batty from Ridley Scott’s 1982 movie, Blade Runner. He is the tragic hero of a determined band of replicants who claim they only want to live free, but who are accused of being devoid of human emotion, capable of emotionless killing and psychopathic. I’ve always found Roy’s plea to be left alone deeply moving, and Harrison Ford’s relentless pursuit a tad inhuman, especially given the brief four-year lifespan of a replicant. Unlike humans, what harm can they really do with so little time on the planet? Similarly with my ants, who are, through no fault of their own, very likely devoid of human emotion, or so I imagine, and live on average only one or two years. Shouldn’t I just let nature take its course and stop the killing? Perhaps one or two are merely dying of old age as we make our way north. But they’ve certainly got numbers on their side. Even at Arcachon, in the middle of all that middle class gentility, this small band of renegades has either travelled with me, secreting themselves in my sleeping bag or clothes until we reached ‘our’ destination, or were waiting for me at the campsite.

Just the other day, as I was walking the seafront and instead of enjoying my time as a latter day flâneur, I found myself daydreaming about ants. As I ate my lunch looking out over the bay – a baguette, a tin of tuna and some sweaty mayonnaise from the jar in my rucksack – I began to ruminate on the possible links between the very French expression, ‘formidable’ and the formic acid that I read online gives ants their sting. Or bite. Because it seems they do both, grabbing hold of our skin with their mandibles – these are not just mouth parts, some ants have mandibles on their bottoms too – and then spraying formic acid from a specially adapted gland to cause burning and itching.

It turns out the word ‘formidable’ does indeed come from the French term we’re all familiar with, formidable, meaning ‘tremendous’, which came in turn from a fifteenth century usage Montaigne would have recognised that means, ‘causing fear or dread.’ ‘Formidable’ in turn derives from the Latin, formīdãbilis, also meaning ‘terrible or fearsome,’ which goes all the way back to Greek, and even Sanskrit, in the form of an ancient word that could be rendered today as formīca, which originally meant ‘of ants,’ and only came to mean a wipe clean surface for kitchens and tabletops rather more recently. I don’t quite know how ants made the leap to a worktop, but they’re wily creatures and you find them in the oddest places.

By the time I’d finished making and eating my tuna sandwich, my head was spinning with useless information. Having set myself the task of answering some of life’s big questions, my thoughts became enmeshed in the minutiae of the tiny creatures that have become my fellow travellers, my sworn enemies, and my familiars.

To distract myself, and to get on with planning the trip ahead, I began to read about La Jenny. There were photographs of the cutest chalets nestling among the pine trees, each separate and screened from neighbours on the 127 hectare site. In the small print, was a useful nugget of information stating that the only place clothes were actually forbidden was around the pool – the 1000 square metre pool, if you please – though the bar and restaurant, and the mini-supermarket on site gave you carte blanche to do as you pleased. There was even a snippet of history crediting the ‘invention’ of naturism in 1920 to a certain Marcel Kienné de Mongeot, a French nobleman and First World War aviator. He in turn wrote an article in defence of a dancer called Malkowski, who according to Wiki, “had suffered from tuberculosis, and…saw naturism as a cure and a continuation of the traditions of the ancient Greeks.” If I’d had any doubts at all, the link to Odysseus and his time with the Lotus Eaters sealed my decision, so I made the online booking as I sat on the bench after my lunch. And yes, I did the research and the booking using my phone. What can I say?

Now, properly at sea for the first time on this trip, I can pretend we are on our way to a low-lying Greek island, seeking refuge from the north wind that blew the ship off course as we rounded Cape Melea. We are approaching what could very well be the land of The Lotus Easters, where the locals invite strangers to eat of a mysterious plant that leaves them overcome by a blissful amnesia. This is from the Encyclopedia Britannica:

‘The Greeks called several non-narcotic plants lōtos, but the name may have been used in this case for the opium poppy, the ripe seed pod of which resembles the pod of the true lotus. The phrase “to eat lotus” is used metaphorically by numerous ancient writers to mean “to forget,” or “to be unmindful.’

 And though both The Odyssey and Tennyson’s poem, The Lotos-eaters, warn of losing yourself to the point of forgetting all about your home and your loved ones, I’ve only booked three nights, so it’s a risk I’m willing to take.


We’re more than half way across to Cap Ferret. There are yachts tentatively making their way from the sheltered water of the bay to the sea beyond, and several have passed close by, close enough to wave and to watch the crews helm and adjust the sheets and the sails. I remember what it felt like to slice and surf the swells, eyes on the luff of the sail, scanning the water for signs of a shift in the wind direction, anticipating what is to come, making the most of what’s already there. I remember how eyes and ears and even skin, all were conscripted to relay snippets of information from wind and water, and how intuition translated the raw data to action; a hand down on the wheel, a loosening of the mainsail, a look up to check the ‘tell-tales’ – a fringe of fabric or yarn on the sail’s edge – and a check of the floating compass, white numbers heeling in sync with the boat.

I was on that fifty-foot yacht to learn how to become a ‘Yachtmaster’, a qualification that would allow me to find work or live aboard and sail where I wished to go. It was soon after the divorce was finalised and I had to move out of the cottage. I had money, my half of the house, but I had nowhere to live and nowhere to go, so I went sailing. Six thousand pounds bought me three months aboard, and a chance to learn the skills that would turn me into a sailor. They tried to teach me navigation, and I tried to learn. But all I can remember now is the beautiful notion that as the wind blows, the boat moves, and so too does the water under the keel, often in opposite directions. Which means to calculate your position and plotting a route from A to B, you will seldom, if ever, be travelling in a straight line, and more often a dizzy zigzag that will change again and again with every sea mile. I struggled to pass the exam, but I’d stumbled over what seemed to me to be a perfect metaphor for life; sailing as a kind of philosophical position, an attitude of mind. Certainly, when I look back on my own life, I see how often I was wind against tide, and just how often I plotted a course that ignored the conditions and ploughed on regardless. No wonder it sometimes makes me seasick to remember it all.

After two months, I grew weary of the vertically challenged skipper and his difficult ways, and so, having sailed the coast of Spain from north of Barcelona to Cadiz, via the Balearics, I jumped ship. I made my way to Seville where I found a hotel with a shaded green courtyard that was once the stables of an ancient Moorish house, dating from the fifteenth century. At night, I listened to flamenco in bars open to the sky, where themes of despair and anguish became ferocious chords on a guitar. I thrilled to swirling dances where men and women in black became defiant, beautiful, bulls or horses, corralled by fate, but stomping and snorting their resistance. I studied the singers awaiting their moment on simple chairs, heads bowed, clapping to the rhythm, delicately at first, then cupping their palms to make the passion percussive, insistent, to become the voice of pain and loss, love and joy, that we might feel the relief of knowing we are not alone.

Some things in life, like jumping ship and finding your soul moved by flamenco, are pure chance, beautiful accidents you forget can happen when all you do is worry about what’s to come.

The jetty at Cap Ferret is only metres away and the ferry captain has cut the engine to tick over. There are people waiting to take the lines, people waiting to board and to disembark. A new adventure begins.