Here's a lost world of holiday travel. In the 1960s, one of the cheapest ways to reach the northern European seaboard was on board the small freighters which, in a pre-container age, still trudged back and forth from Leith or Newcastle to Antwerp, Rotterdam or Hamburg. Generally, there were about half a dozen passenger cabins and a rudimentary meal service, but none of the stabiliser kit you would expect on a proper passenger vessel. When the North Sea got rough, so did the crossing.
One of my early memories is of a vile crossing in a Force 10. My father was the only taker for dinner. He had just taken delivery of a bowl of soup when the ship gave a violent heave and the whole lot flew from the table. Creditably, they brought him another bowlful. He gripped both sides of the bowl with grim determination, and it stayed put at the next lurch. The soup, however, departed.
I thought fondly of my old man and his low-flying soup this week, as the day finally arrived for what Emmanuel Macron called 'un petit moment de liberté'. Déconfinement. After seven months of padlocked shutters, la vraie France was returning: to the extent that cafés and restaurants could do business on exterior terrasses, halls of entertainment and culture could re-open to limited capacity, and sales of 'non-essential' goods, like clothes, could resume to prescribed numbers of customers.
True to family tradition, I celebrated this joyous occasion with an aerodynamic lunch.
We began the day with a pleasant stroll through a local market, where the fruit and fish merchants had been rejoined by comrades in the clothing, kitchenware and phone accessory trades. Then we went for a drink by the river, reminding ourselves of how much better draught beer tastes than fizzy bottled lager, and wondering afresh at the inability of a benighted younger generation to grasp this. Then on to a nearby restaurant to round off the morning's exertions with a long-anticipated lunch.
By this time, the wind had gained force. Our waiter tucked napkins under the cruet, and anchored the menu with a carafe of water. It was only when he brought my entrecōte frites that disaster struck. He wished me bon appétit, and retreated… whereupon there was a mighty gust and my salad plus a crusty hunk of baguette took off from my plate in the direction of the River Lez. We spent the rest of the meal taking turns to hang on like grim death to the pichet of house red.
Still, at least the wind here in the south was dry. That night, the news bulletins showed woebegone Parisians in plastic capes sitting stoically with their apéritifs outside famous cafes in Montparnasse and St Germain, being lashed by horizontal rain of terrifying intensity. Their forlorn expressions said it all: 'Somehow, we'll find a way to blame Macron for this'.
France is due to ease out of lockdown in staged phases over coming weeks, but this was the date that counted. You could tell by the fact that Montpellier's central square, the Place de Comédie, was lowping like a funfair that evening just minutes before the new curfew of 9pm. People had clearly relaxed faster than the rules. Mask-wearing was less than universal, public alcohol consumption, which is still forbidden, less than discreet. Hell, it had been seven months. France's beloved bars and eateries and cinemas were back. What was there not to celebrate?
Among the crowd, not drinking (yet) and virtuously be-masked, were self and elle-même. We had marked the occasion by snagging tickets for the first concert of the déconfinement in this music-loving city. It had over-run, and so frankly none of the audience was going to get home ahead of curfew. We were trying our best, but the tram stop was a minor riot. Still, it gave us time to reflect on how much the plan for a gradual, orderly return to normality was not going to work.
It's not just that folk are impatient to get their lives back after a year of miserable limbo. It's also that a phased resumption supposes a greater capacity (not to say, willingness) of businesses and services for managed adjustment than is ever going to exist. Governments may dream up elegant timetables but it takes people to implement them.
The concert we had attended, an oddly inappropriate performance of Olivier Messiaen's mournful Quartet for the End of Time
, amply illustrated the problem. The magnificent Opéra Comédie theatre had, as currently required, restricted ticket sales to a third of its capacity. It had also followed orders that people were to sit two metres apart. Up to a point.
When last it was open, the rules were different, and stickers had been applied to ensure that every other seat stayed empty. Now, there had to be two seats, not one, between spectators. Much confusion arose over whether to occupy stickered seats. Eventually, we were all settled. But because the pattern of every other seat no longer applied, diagonal spacing between rows no longer worked either. My wife and I dutifully sat two seats apart, which is lesser proximity than we usually aim for even after 40 years of marriage. Fine, except we were 14 inches from total strangers in the rows behind and in front of us. Besides which, everyone had just been wedged into crowded trams to get there, and would be so again to get home. The concert was a stinker too, but that is by the by.
In the days since, I've seen scant evidence that the more transient rules are being any too rigorously policed, though policy can often vary from place to place. We lunched on Friday (research, you know) at a restaurant which had decided that taking out its windows turned its intérieur into an extérieur. Not for the first time, one regrets that French has no equivalent phrase to 'aye, right'. A protocol seems to have emerged that it is acceptable to remove your mask in a public space when speaking into your mobile phone. When is a millennial not
speaking into a mobile phone?
It is probably inevitable. Laws which are only going to be there for a week or two are always destined to be honoured mainly in the breach. On 9 June, the curfew pushes back to 11pm, bars and restaurants can open up indoor space to a maximum of six people per table, sports restrictions will ease, and gatherings of up to 1,000 people – 5,000 with health passes – will be allowed. Something of France's colossal summer festivals season can be salvaged. On 30 June, if Covid numbers permit, the curfew will end, and limits on gatherings will be lifted.
The advantage of this forward timetable is that it gives people something to hope for and an incentive to get their jags. France has at last got to grips with its vaccination programme, and the ranks of idiot refuseniks are thinning. But there is a downside, which is that the momentum of human relaxation outruns that of the regulations.
And there is uncertainty too, as new strains of the virus proliferate. The politics of reining back the déconfinement will grow harder as the regime grows more liberal. But it may have to be done. The joy of the past week could yet be cast to the winds, like my lettuce and my poor old dad's soup.
Keith Aitken is a journalist, writer and broadcaster