Tuesday, August 23, 2011

The French Adventure - Part I

It’s been a week since I last tended to these pages. It’s been an enormous week, a week in which ‘the English adventure’ crossed the Channel, caught a tan and morphed into ‘the French adventure’. It’s been a week where we saw yet another side of eventing – the laid-back, happy side where the sun seems to shine down on everything and people seem to genuinely enjoy the sport they’re a part of. On the back of this one week in Normandy I’m putting French eventing up there as the poster child of the sport worldwide.

It has been an amazing week, but the fact that we’ve been away from Dorset for a full seven days to compete in a one-day event makes no sense at all. The two star class had five days of competition including the trot-up, making it as long as the longest three day events. Surely, if a three-day event goes for five days, and a one-day event also goes for five days, then it’s no surprise that the average punter struggles to understand our sport. Why doesn’t anyone just say what they mean?

If you’re going to have to spend a week anywhere, the Normandy region of France is probably not the place to go complaining about. It’s postcard French farming country, with beautiful rolling green hills dotted with hay stacks and barns with shutters on the windows. The villages and towns are as French as French gets, and even though the word ‘rustic’ is horribly overused by celebrity chefs and travel show hosts you’re probably legally obliged to use it to describe this part of the world.

Sam G, Burto, Bols and me
Haras du Pin is just over an hour from the port city of Caen, and if you’re looking for it on a map it’s about 14 kilometres from the medium sized town of Argentan. The venue for the eventing at the 2014 World Equestrian Games, the event is held on the grounds of the French national stud, and the chateau, stables and parade grounds are as stunning as you’ll see anywhere. It’s all open to the public, but when Lucy and I went for a poke around on horseback and virtually turned up at the door of the equine museum surrounded by tourists wearing mismatched outfits, backpacks and joggers and jeans we realised we had definitely taken a wrong turn somewhere during our ride.

Looking down over the jumping arena
From what I’ve seen during my time in England, summertime does not necessarily guarantee you sunshine and heat but merely offers you better odds. Not so in southern France, where summer is a genuine season characterised by high temperatures and sun that will still burn you at nine in the evening. Eventing in shorts and t-shirts is eventing at its best, and with sunburn a clear and present danger many riders reveled in the opportunity to get their gear off for most of the week. This desire to strip off is clearly a cultural thing, and combined with the relaxed attitude of the Frenchman to public urination it’s something you’ve got to quickly adapt to. If the farmer’s arm – where a distinct line develops separating the virgin white skin of the upper arm from the burnt or browned skin below – is the bane of a male eventers life then singlet and bra strap stenciling is the female equivalent, particularly for the English woman I saw who was crisping herself and showing her allegiance to the Queen by rocking around in a Union Jack bikini top.  

You can’t write about France without writing about the food. Anyone who has visited the country knows that the food experiences here are likely to be among some of the most memorable of your life, for both the right and wrong reasons. Somehow the French have developed a food culture that is exquisite at one end and – perhaps as guerilla tactics against invading armies – horrendous at the other. Sit down in the wrong restaurant in France and it’s highly possible that the only thing you’ll find on the menu to eat is the wheat in your beer. Daytime dining, with it croissants and pain au chocolat and awesome baguettes is always safe and extremely enjoyable. When the sun goes down however the risks skyrocket, and the chances of you finding a plate of anchovies staring you in the face is real and alarming. Bad pizza, bad salads, bad steak and bad service are all hallmarks of a bad French dining experience.

At the other end of the spectrum there is magic to be found and you’ll remember why the French are so famous for their food. We had one mind blowing dinner that was so good I took  a punt and ate a snail, and while I’d like to dispel the myth that they taste like chicken I would probably just be lying to you. 

Disappointingly, I was too old for this sort of fun
Eventing in France is not like eventing in England, Australia or the US. Relaxed to the point of falling over backwards, it has a refreshing, positive vibe that has developed from their disregard for strict rules and officials. Trusting that mature adults can manage to get through a week without the need for a telephone book list of instructions and 96 officials watching their every step, the French have pioneered a new and better way of eventing. Of course, this laissez-faire attitude has its flipside, and many preparations – such as jump building – seemed to happen at the last minute. The photo below is of the two star fence 16 on the evening before we were set to jump it. The course builders worked long and hard however and at midnight as they approached their third day of cross-country you could still see a conga line of tractors out on course working the ground and building gardens around many of the jumps that had sat naked and stark for much of the week.

Course building, French style
It was an awesome week in France and there is much more to write about. At the moment we are recovering from a few celebratory drinks on the ferry home so writing this has been a slow, hard slog. I’m putting on my brave face however and promise to cover the rest of the event soon.

Au revoir.

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