Always take the weather with you

Bridget Patterson finds in Burgundy that it's not just the British who whinge about the weather- which means papers full of French A-level source material

WELL, we did not take baked beans with us, but I have to admit to Marmite.

When my children were small we always set off for our annual stay in a French or Italian gite with boxes full of crucial items they could not do without, the most important of which was tomato ketchup.

These days it is just the Marmite, as we now pamper ourselves by staying in houses with washing machines and kettles.

Southern Burgundy is still deeply rural. Groups of men sitting over their morning pastis outside bars eye your obviously foreign - even though it is French - car with suspicion. The climate in this region has a page to itself in the essential Petit Fute guide, used by the French in preference to Michelin. Which citizen, it asks, has not buried his head in his hands when noting that Tuesday's temperature is at least 10 degrees lower than Monday's? In theory, spring rain helps the vines to flourish and summer sunshine ripens the grapes for the September harvest. This year, however, the local paper was full of stories about the catastrophic meteo and its effect on crops, animals, bars and open-air events.

The local paper provides me with excellent source materials for Years 12 and 13. It is a bit sad really; I only ever read a French newspaper with a pair of scissors to hand to cut out the useful bits. This summer I have brought back articles about the government's new policy for employing young people, the effect of the bad weather, the lack of country doctors and the Vittel factory. Not to mention the one about the Tour de France going through Macon: was it a genuine opportunity for tourists or just a miroir aux alouettes?- a wonderful phrase which literally means a mirror for skylarks, but actually implies a lure or trap.

Bigger than any other issue was the topic of the 35-hour week. We met up one weekend with colleagues I have got to know well through the Year 12 exchange I organise. The patron of the local restaurant was anxious that we did not turn up after 1.30 for lunch and we were talking about the fact that on holiday you may not want lunch until 2 or even later. Because of the 35-hour rule, kitchen staff are no longer available all day, and the same goes for shop workers. Everyone I spoke to said it was not working because the cost of creating more employment was too great and therefore the main aim of the policy had failed. A fruitful topic, I could not help thinking, for discussion with the sixth form!

The countryside around Cluny is of gently rolling hills and forests. Although the pace of life is generally relaxed, farmers were desperately getting in the hay for the wintering of cattle and often worked late into the night. For us there was the distinct advantage of the relaxed side of life that parking meters in towns did not accept money between 12 and 2 ... well, you cannot expect traffic wardens to work at lunchtime, can you?

We saw some wonderful places: the Abbeys of Cluny, Tournus and Paray-le- Monial; the stunning Hospice at Beaune; local castles and a fabulous 12th-century frescoed chapel on top of a hill where we heard a ravishing chamber music concert. The only problem is the French guides who ruthlessly corral you behind locked doors in order to deliver their rapid, robotic presentations. One family with a lively four-year-old was told by the fierce young guide: "I cannot continue if you cannot control your child."

I naturally commented that she would not be any good in a classroom.

My fondest memory is of a scatty restaurant owner who served delicious food, but always forgot what you had ordered and had to come back and ask you again. After this had happened several times during one meal she shrugged and said: "Si vous n'avez pas la tete il vous faut les jambes", which roughly translates into "if you do not have a brain you need your legs". An apt motto for some of the footballers in my Year 11 bottom set French.

Bridget Patterson teaches French and Italian at Northgate high school, Ipswich, and is head of post-16 guidance

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