Okay, this is it, time to hit the road again, I’ve got my shades on and I’m ready to gobble up the miles, my right hand holding the wheel tight, my left hand out the window playing with the wind. Freedom, discovery and the thrill of the unknown, here I come! I can’t even remember the last time I went traveling, thanks to this freaking virus. All right, man, let’s see if you’ve still got it. Let’s see if your adventurous side is still in there somewhere, and let’s make sure nothing’s changed!
Nothing’s changed? Are you sure about that? A global epidemic, health protocols straight out of a blockbuster sci-fi film, closed borders and a tiny, months-old little being who doesn’t know how to walk or drive and who lives in my home. I turn the key in the ignition of the big, nine-seater Opel I rented for the trip, and we are ready to embark on a new adventure: I’m off to do the tourist thing with the family.
We’ve got all the ingredients with which to make a true incursion into the magical, poetic and wild world of tourism. It’s August and I’m headed for the big highways that cut across France, in a vehicle classified as family, with friends I’ve known forever, toddlers in tow and the blazing sun of a Friday evening in Marseille. So this, then, is where it begins, the vacation in the world of after? Come on, everything’s going to be fine: “It’s the time for love, friends and adventure.”
Of course, we think we’re smarter than everyone else, and so even though it might be cheating, we decide to leave at night, to add a dash of romanticism to the whole thing. But things get real very quick: just as I’m about to crank up the volume on the Mano Negra tunes I’ve selected to help my passengers make it through the night, I glance in the rearview and am reminded of the imposing presence of two sleeping babies in the back, which has the immediate effect of tempering my enthusiasm. I lower the volume and I stay focused on the road, ’cause I don’t want to miss my exit, man. A62 heading towards Toulouse, then Bordeaux, Nantes and, 1,200 clicks further, the Morbihan.
Hour after hour, the miles go by, we stop at one service station after another, one rest area after another, where we buy lukewarm coffee and junk in plastic packaging that we eat to pass the time behind the wheel. Sleeping children, sleeping friends, the music that we’re barely listening to anymore. It’s dark, a few headlights follow me in the night, the streetlights seem to flutter on my right, the dark and synthetic voice of Nightcall echoes in the distance. It’s raining. It’s coming down hard. I wish I could turn up the volume, but I get into it anyway. Bottom of sixth, regulator, comfortable seat. I feel like having a smoke.
We get there at the first light of dawn; suddenly, after all those miles, we’re right there, staring at the ocean in front of us. It’s raining a little, we drink a coffee, our eyes heavy and our legs stiff, listening to Matmatah at top volume to get into a chill version of the Celtic vibe. Our house is there, just as we had pictured it, practically standing in the sea, at the edge of the jetty, with its blue shutters and its promises of enchanting awakenings. I want to walk in the sand. We take the kids out to show them. That’s a lot of water in that ocean. I don’t think they realize it. We walk into the beautiful, magical house that a woman I befriended while on a trip to Greenland is lending us for a few days. We just got here and already, we want to do everything, see everything, know everything. We want to collect seashells, some because they’re pretty, others to eat. The best restaurant in the village? And if we want oysters, where should we go? Oh, okay, so the tide doesn’t come in at the same time every day? How far is it to Concarneau? Did you put the white wine in the fridge? Honey, where’s my striped sweater?
Now we’re wearing our tourist costume, awe-struck by the shuttle that connects to the other side of the port, by the secondary residences of the neighborhood next to ours and their bouquets of giant hydrangeas, by the path that winds along the coast under a gentle pine forest, by the majestic agapanthus blooming on the edge of paths and roads and by the first in a long series of glasses of Muscadet. I catch myself feeling happy, serene, sitting facing the sea, guitar in hand while the others collect seashells. It’s the summer holidays, the girls are beautiful, I’m hungry and ever since we got here, we haven’t seen a single drop of rain.
Careful though, it’s not an easy job being a tourist. Quite the contrary. It’s something people tend to idealize a little too much. Even more so during the COVID era. When’s the last time you went to a tourist office, huh? I dare you to show up on August 15 at Île aux Moines, with a party of six, with three kids and an overwhelming urge to devour a buckwheat crepe with sausage in a bistro-worthy of its name. Trust me, you’re much more likely to end up with your ass on the ground in front of the post office with falafel to go. That said, I’ve never been much of a cider drinker and I love Lebanese food.
At the Neolithic site of Carnac, fellow vacationers show up by the busloads, complete with all the accessories: colored badge around their necks, backpack, tour guide and translator. What a lesson, I still have so much to learn! Phones are waving in the air everywhere, photographing everything in sight and snapping one selfie after another in front of the dolmens. This is a far cry from the tribe of Dana and the army of Cimmerians ready to cross swords. You have to wait in line in front of the rocks, which stand behind a fence, and sometimes you huddle together, elbowing your way through the masked crowd and the Dutch tourists to find a Kouign Aman, of which you can then proudly say, Ah, now that’s the real deal, even though you have no idea what you’re talking about.
The beaches are packed with people, or at least, packed for Brittany, which is to say it’s like March on the Mediterranean coast. And despite the No Swimming sign, everyone is waiting their turn for the souvenir photo in front of the stone archway of Port Blanc. Then, of course, you want to sit your butt down at the bistro and enjoy some oysters with your feet in the water, but do you think it’s easy to find a COVID test in Brittany in August? Nope. Definitely not easy. When, one bright Monday morning, the eleventh pharmacy you’ve tried announces that yes of course, it’s possible to make an appointment for a test, but not until six days from now, you have to either remain very calm or be familiar with the technique for cockle fishing and cooking lobsters at home.
Naturally, there are the vaccinated and those who didn’t have the time or the desire to get the jab, but nobody really wants to spend their holidays debating it so instead you put a little Gainsbourg on and you take a little nap, as the kids sleep while waiting to find out if everyone can go to the restaurant later. In the end, you enjoy an aperitif in some windswept hole in the wall. In the bathroom, I see an inscription in ink: “To life, to amor.” I find that beautiful and return to my Muscadet a little emotional.
And then one morning, at long last, you’re treated to some bad weather: mist, humidity, clouds– yeah, really crappy weather. You’re delighted to no end! The boats seem to be flying in the fog, the kids have never seen that. You finally feel like you’re on vacation, nice and cool inside. You’ll be able to spend the day hanging out at home, without your undergarments, gently hesitating between a coffee and a beer, playing tarot with a pasty mouth while watching the rain fall, exactly as you planned it.
But this doesn’t last and the sun quickly reappears. Ah, exotic climates! I walk around the village. I admire those families who spread their towels out on the little beach being devoured minute by minute by the sea, which comes in and reclaims its place, chasing the children, their sand castles and the pile of shells they had so patiently collected. For the Assumption, everyone has come to see the boats be blessed by a priest. All around are lifeguards and priests. Priests and lifeguards. And delighted tourists. I start to imagine one of those ships sinking, with all the passengers in cassocks and the hysterical vacationers screaming on the shore. I must be a little cynical.
We go home to find a dead bird, which the cat has left for us on our doorstep and which is surely connected to the blessing and my morbid fantasies. We fire up the grill and slap on a few seashells, which I can’t help but wash down with a little pastis. A tourist perhaps, but one who feels home away from home.
Can you picture yourself coming back from Brittany without having rented bikes for a ride along the coast? Impossible, no, I would look like an amateur! So here we are, busy harnessing our offspring to our beautiful rental bikes, baby seat included, and then setting off nonchalantly, whistling down the bike path marked in green through the damp moor and the postcard houses. The air smells of fennel, seaweed and sweat. I feel like I’m on vacation in a French film, patiently waiting to run into François Cluzet jogging with Marion Cotillard.
The old, dead boats, abandoned here and there, seem to be drying under the grayness, like ghosts in the Breton night, covered with graffiti, some poetic, some not so poetic. Time passes, I smoke cigarettes by the sea while watching the catwalk by. The old people are at the bistro, the boats go up and down with the tide, the children play on the beach, bags of all kinds of souvenirs are piled up in a corner of the living room: buckwheat whiskeys made in Breizh, personalized bowls, butter cookies, terrines and other local sweets. Friends come and friends go. And still that freaking window overlooking the ocean, right there. What goddamn beauty, believe me.
On a beautiful Saturday in August, I’m stuck in holiday traffic for six hours straight, bumper to bumper, driving my friends to Nantes so they can head back to the South. Now this here is a real tourist experience, and I’m rather proud of it! I think of the guy who broke down on the side of the road. Why today of all days, he must be thinking. He watches the others go by while he waits for the tow truck, with his red triangle, bored kids and sad expression. Children play in the freeway rest areas, parents pull out a table under a tree with their cooler and their picnic basket, I watch people chatting in the cars next to mine. I listen to Bashung on a loop, it makes me melancholy, I don’t think I want to go home. I start to imagine you naked, I’m not quite sure why, then I let myself be captivated by the beautiful marshes on the other side of the road. I have to go check out the dunes behind the house when I get back. I wonder why I’m not too crazy about the Hemingway book I just started, and I think about your ass again. One thinks about a lot of stuff when one is on the road alone for a long time. Too much stuff, sometimes.
I meet up with Marine and other friends in Vannes, a typical and charming town, I was told, though I couldn’t really tell you, honestly. But it is definitely a welcoming town: 4,000 anti-health pass demonstrators, according to the local news on this holiday Saturday, not a bad score. The city center is blocked off, and we are treated to some lovely insults while sitting on a café terrace, about our behavior as collaborators. Delightful.
And then we’re ready to hit the road again, our shoes full of sand and towels that are still wet strewn across the backseats. We put the guitar back in the trunk, we pick up all the underwear off the floor, we get the suitcases and the beers ready for the trip back. That’s why being a tourist is such a thankless occupation. It’s far too precarious a status, it always ends eventually. “We’re just passing through, that’s why we look sad,” Miossec once said. And so we get back on the path of the world, and we travel down the country, to the next destination. You always have to leave the sea. You always have to go home, and even COVID hasn’t changed that. I’ll go where you go – yeah, right.
We drive quietly south, leaving the ocean on our right. The city signs go by, one after another, taking me back to walks in the salty air with my feet in the water. Guérande, Noirmoutier, Ile d’Yeu. I picture large, somewhat mysterious and wild beaches, the sea air, billowing black clouds and your feet in the sand. But for now, I’m on the highway, between two shopping areas. Sadly, supermarkets aren’t any more attractive near the ocean.
We drive through fields, hills, meadows, plains and all that this country boasts in terms of farmland, dotted with a few wind turbines. Motorhomes try to overtake a tractor on a small country road–no doubt about it, this is definitely France stretching out before us. We’re still heading south, making a stop in the Bordeaux region to hug friends and fill up the trunk with cases of Pessac and Graves.
We end up stopping the van in the parking lot of a karate club, in some godforsaken village in the Cévennes. We eat at a country restaurant, complete with the pitcher of red and the carafe of pastis on the table, the overcooked steak, the pink napkins that match the chairs–French chic. In the empty room is a huge TV with some stupid game show on. We walk down the main street like tourists. Let’s get out of here, my love. We drink one last coffee in a bar run by Mégane and Isabelle before going for a walk in the forest to escape the stifling heat and watch a snake slither in the cool water. I get naked in a river and I watch my dick float in the swirling water before getting back on the road in chill mode.
My daughter has fallen asleep in the back, Marine tells me things that make me laugh, I miss our friends a bit, it’s the end of the summer and I’m thinking I didn’t do so bad as a tourist. The road is beautiful and winds between vineyards and olive trees. My feet are wet, I smell a little like mud and I wouldn’t mind wolfing down on one last crepe. So I put on some music and roll along quietly under the evening sun.
“Time lasts a long time,
and life surely too,
over a million years,
and always in summer.”
By Théo Giacometti
Independent photojournalist, member of the Hans Lucas Studio since 2018, Théo Giacometti lives and works in Marseille, where he produces news stories for the press or NGOs, mainly on social and environmental issues.