SUZANNE HARRINGTON: French bring a certain je ne sais quoi to camping

IF you ever want to feel old, fat and naff, go to the South of France.

There, you will be amongst people so golden, so light, so stylish, that you will no longer feel human. As a Northern European, you will feel like an albino hippo who has wandered off course, beached amongst the lithe, shimmering perfection of French limbs and torsos, sunning themselves in savage heat without ever breaking a sweat or melting their hair. Make sure you pack extra reserves of emergency self-confidence. You’ll need it.

There’s a reason the French regard themselves as culturally superior — it’s because they are. Only the French could transform camping — that most earthy of outdoor pursuits — into an elegant art form. Down to the last detail, French camping is so effortlessly perfect it is actually a form of anti-camping. Think of your average campsite shop — generally a place of tinned beans, loo roll and torch batteries, perhaps with a sad shelf of stale baked goods. Now imagine the French equivalent, with its own patisserie, making freshly baked baguettes every morning and hand-made pastries like you’d get in Harrods Food Hall, served by someone in a uniform with gold buttons. Oui. I kid you not.

As well as the loo roll and torch batteries (although no baked beans, which the French acknowledge as disgusting, and flatly refuse to stock, unless in specialist shops frequented by weirdo ex-pats), there is tapenade, charcuterie, champagne, a cheese counter to make grown men cry, and a whole section given over to organic white peaches and fresh figs. Instead of rain hats and wellies, there are white straw trilbys, floaty scarves and glamorous flip-flops. People don’t trudge — they waft.

At sunset, everyone breaks open the pastis and wine, but nobody ever looks pissed. Leisurely five-course meals take hours around the table under the stars (with tablecloths and solar-powered fairy lights). There are no sound systems, no screaming kids, no blazing rows, no drunk people falling over — just the quiet bourgeois murmur of French people showing off their immense savoir-vivre. It’s kind of awe-inspiring, until you wonder how they would cope in a different climate. You know, one with rain and gales.

The beach, insanely crowded with people packed as tight as yoga mats in a very hot yoga class, is a further exercise in extreme civilisation. Despite the sardine-like proximity of immaculate flesh, there is no sense of overcrowding. It is positively zen. No vendors, no brand names, no beach shacks, no ice cream vans, no sun loungers, no beach rats, no hassle. Just squillions of French people rubbing sun lotion into each other. Yummy mummies, yummy daddies, yummy children. Nobody is fat. Which is bloody unfair, given the national dependence on Nutella. I mean, come on. France runs on Nutella, but nobody is fat. I demand an explanation.


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