he train from Monaco to Cannes was late and already overcrowded when the French neds in swimming trunks pushed noisily on board. They got off at the next stop, to be replaced by a swaying youth whose eyes appeared to be focused on another dimension as he attempted to light what looked like a joint.
To my surprise, when I said "non!" he deferred, rather than give me a kick in les dents. Then more people got on and he couldn't have smoked anyway, not without setting fire to someone. So much, you might say, for the stereotype of fast, reliable, comfortable French trains. To be fair, out of four rail trips we made on our annual holiday, this was the only one that gave us any hassle.
Of far greater importance when it came to stereotypes was the confirmation that the media caricature of the French people as rude and unhelpful is so far from the truth that it makes you wonder what else the Daily Asylum-Seeker Hater gets wrong.
One of our party walks with the aid of sticks. Without fail, seats were given up for her on public transport. Drivers stopped at zebra crossings.
Waiters and waitresses smiled, or at least smiled as much as they do in this country.
When it came to language, the myths proved to be furthest from the truth.
Cannes is not a package holiday destination in the way that Majorca or the Algarve are. Thus, not everyone in the tourism business speaks perfect English. Legend has it that most French people do, but won't because . . .
well, because they're French.
Our experience was that faltering French from one party and hesitant English from the other led to a functional, cheerful understanding. Indeed, the necessity of using another language added to the enjoyment of the holiday. Our apartment block might have been a Germolene-coloured concrete aberration, but we felt that we were getting at least some of the local culture and atmosphere because we had to depart frequently from English.
Another myth bit the dust, too. I have heard it said that school French, at least school French from the time when I were a garcon, is nae use tae naebody. It is true that my generation had little chance to listen to French being spoken in anything like a normal situation. We had fewer chances to speak out for ourselves - something of a relief to the adolescent boy.
While I had difficulty "tuning in" to normal speed French on holiday, I still had enough knowledge to get by. I may even be getting better at the language: the last time I was in France, some 20 years ago, I asked for some shampoo for my horses.
Gregor Steele no longer has enough cheveuxchevaux to shampoo.