Driven by a friend, I travelled to the Brittany Ferries port from the outskirts of suburban Plymouth to meet with the University of Plymouth’s lecturers and students also embarking on the impending fieldwork in Concarneau, France. Staring aimlessly out the window throughout the car journey, I started to reflect on what I had witnessed on the short drive from my home and tried to parallel this with the perceptions of tourists just arriving to the maritime city. I was a little disappointed with the first impression this view would create. This disappointment turned into trepidation as my thoughts returned to the role I would assume on this trip. I had been asked to give a talk on rivers, the Moros River to be exact, concentrating on interpretation and tourism destination image. The pit of my stomach began to ache as I remembered the lack of specific literature I had found during my research process. Although I had communicated this to the trip’s organiser Dr Andreas Walmsley (Associate Professor in Hospitality, Events and Tourism), he was happy for me to take a broader approach to the topic, as he too had found the river difficult to research.
“Broadly speaking”, he stated whilst he removed his glasses and proceeded to clean them with the corner of his shirt, “the trip is about aiding students to understand the concept of destination image, what it entails, what it encourages, and to introduce the students to the course, and the business school”. I contemplated the relevance on my literature and the way in which I would communicate it to the students. As an attempt to silence my prior neuroses I had contacted Concarneau’s tourism authority where I was also found wanting. From an academic perspective this made me question the role of the river in Concarneau’s tourism industry – is it recognised as a tourist attraction? If not, why have they missed such an opportunity? To strengthen my talk I decided to reflect on my niche – literary tourism, travel writing, their commodities, and their presentation within the destination. Simenon’s Yellow Dog detective novel was to be featured heavily within the students’ trip and consequently their current undergraduate module. I started to think about the role of the river within the novel and how I could articulate this succinctly. Unfortunately this notion paralleled the former research undertaking and fell short of content that I believed to be relevant. That was until a conversation with my ResM Programme Leader Dr Charlie Mansfield shone a brief but albeit bright light on the topic. He noted that the river was featured within the novel, characterised under the name Saint Jacques. Why had Simenon changed the name? Was this a reflection on the popularity of the river, its accessibility, Simenon’s authorial prerogative, or purely semantics? In my opinion the Saint Jacques sounds far more romanticised than the Moros. Charlie also mentioned the French translation means morose; not an adjective I would necessarily choose as a setting for a novel. Saint Jacques; possibly a reflection of the meal Coquilles Saint-Jacques á la Bretonne was perhaps a more apt literary alternative. Although this is my own personal perception this was in essence what I was striving to teach the students – interpretation of a destination fuelled by personal prior conceptions, immediate reactions when present in a location, the agreement or disagreement with prescribed authorities presentation of said marketing interpretation, or the evocation of feelings that a novel or element of literature presented an either realistic and sustainable or unrealistic and unsustainable view of a destination. What we have to remember is that Georges Simenon’s novel was written in 1929 and first published in 1931. The nature of evolution and its indicators be that economic, environmental, political and socio-cultural (architecture, governmental dictation of urban development) could have augmented the reality of 1931 and therefore not allow the students to experience the same Concarneau as Simenon had personally experienced and created for Maigret nearly a century before.
Arriving at the passenger terminal I hoisted the explicitly over packed hand luggage from the car’s boot cavity. Surveying the lay of the land, I made my way up the steep staircase to the Bureau de Change and exchanged what little currency I had lurking in my figuratively battered purse. I was joined shortly by other members of staff at the service desk to my right who were busy organising passports and such like. Whilst waiting I pondered over the terminal, decorated sparingly with various marketing paraphernalia. What struck me initially was the amount of space. Admittedly, I had arrived later than my other comrades, but I couldn’t help feeling a little bit overwhelmed. It had been many years since I had been to this port and although to my memory not much had changed, it felt cold and unwelcoming. I felt exposed. This was amplified further by my reoccurring memory of a few weeks previous, contemplating what to wear, how to present myself, consciously disallowing myself to spend x amount on a new North Face of Berghaus waterproof coat, as, if my memory does indeed serve me correctly, supporting such brands is at the height of academic fashion. I digress.
Once I had got my bearings I proceeded to join the rest of the group. I was given my boarding card and returned my passport, when we were quickly beckoned to board by a large, white haired gentleman dressed head to toe in navy with the exception of his high visibility vest and what I assumed to be steel toe capped boots. I could of course have been completely wrong but if I had learned one thing whilst working within the retail industry which I assume to be universal, it is that safety is paramount. My arrival had sparked conversation between the students – I might as well have been wearing a high vis.
‘Bon Voyage’ read the sign above our heads as we were ushered like cattle on-board the Armerique. We arranged to meet at a specific location to disembark the following morning and headed for our cabins. The rain began to drench the decks and only enhanced my sickness I was trying my best to ignore. I found that until this day, I had gone twenty three years unaware I suffer from sea sickness and was less than impressed with this self revelation. I surfaced to the bar a couple of minutes later and paid attention to the bar tenders as I waited patiently in the queue. I thought this must have been an extremely pressurised job, one I did not envy. As we sat down the current picked up and one by one over the course of discussing the teaching initiative for the trip, we started to dwindle. I believe I was second to make an early exit, however on reflection, it was the right decision. Two cerise ibuprofen tablets later I rested on my back and fell to sleep.
In the early hours I was awoken by a combination of the morning harps played through speakers to each cabin, my alarm that I had repeatedly ‘snoozed’ and my own subconscious disallowing me to make the wrong impression by arriving late. Breakfast was swift; I could not even stomach as much as a cup of tea. Darting back to my cabin to retrieve my luggage I then joined the rest of the trip’s attendees to disembark the Armerique. Ushered on to a bus that took us all of 50 metres to the entrance to the arrival terminal we were packed like sardines – a very apt simile due to our destination and its prevalence in the fishing industry.
We departed at 08.27. At 08.30 it started to rain. Idle chit chat was made as I reminisced of my first undergraduate field trip to Roscoff all those years ago. I visited La Maison des Johnnies et de l’Oignon de Roscoff among other attractions, however this one still sticks in my head to this day. Charlie took the role of lead translator, being the most experienced out of the four bi-linguists present and answers the driver’s questions fluently. As he looks across I smile and nod in what I believed to be the appropriate places. Driving past quaint chateaus and countless wine supermarkets I notice the driver struggling to get into second gear. Judging by Paul’s face he had noticed too.
The picturesque agriculture on either side of the road resonated with me. This is the definitive point in my opinion where you know you have arrived in France. The chatter continues. As a way to instil a positive experience with the interaction between lectures and students, Paul (Head of Business School) reflects on a conversation he had with the finance department justifying the expense of buying the students a cup of tea or coffee to cement their reality in the Business School. They had already received a copy of The Yellow Dog through the post prior to their induction to cement this relationship further. I agree, this is an extremely good idea. As we pass yet another wine supermarket Natalie Semley (Lecturer in Hospitality, Tourism and Events Management) sat to my right, suggests that another alternative would perhaps be Pernod?
Feeling the chill of the French weather even within the confines of a coach I reflected on my earlier fashion paradigm – my choice was inevitably my own relatively ‘normal’ or ‘studentesque’ clothing, however the dolly pumps I chose did not allow for warmth or comfort. Trying to take my mind of this I looked to the sky, almost silver with flecks of pink from the rising sun.
My back is starting to play up as I regret further my habitual over-packer status. By now the rain had subsided and people were out in the fields harvesting crops by hand. I had never seen this before, not firsthand anyway. I turned, subtly looking to see what the lecturers were doing. Natalie and Andreas were reading the Yellow Dog. Charlie & Derek Shepherd (Academic Lead in Teaching and Quality) sat to my right; were engaged in a discussion of jardism and politics.
At the start of this coach trip Natalie asked if I wished to sit in the window seat. I declined. About 20 minutes into the journey it was confirmed that I had made the right decision. A leak in the window seal was now coming to rest on her right shoulder. She divulged a humorous anecdote stating she felt like she was on the bus version of faulty towers, grateful that it was just her top getting wet alleviating the embarrassment of any alternative (perhaps a wet patch on her trousers upon arrival to Concarneau). She declines the offer of a tissue from Paul and returns to her book.
My mind then turned to the social tradition of status being recognised by which seat you took on a bus – higher the status the further back you sat. I could only assume from a quick glance this was still the case. Paul commented on the fact I was probably too old to conform to that tradition now which made my heart sink a little – not the fact that he had said it out loud but the fact that I agreed! I wonder if the concept of age will rear its ugly head again. I hope not.
The coach journey was roughly 2 hours. We covered approximately 121 kilometres. I remembered as a child travelling to my god-parents barn in the small town of Pontivy. The feelings evoked by witnessing French culture, the memories it recalls, the intangibility of experience make me question whether or not France feels foreign to me. My initial reaction is no. I then thought is my reaction fuelled by the fact that Concarneau is twinned with Penzance, Cornwall, located within my neighbouring county? Maybe this is why it still feels marginally like home? The conversation turns to shellfish. By this point I was eavesdropping. Paul and Andreas were discussing possible lunch locations – perhaps a restaurant they had recently visited in the summer to aid Charlie with his own autoethnographical research of the Yellow Dog and its setting. Paul, ever the fountain of knowledge as I would later come to learn, told us that we should never eat shellfish in any month without an r. Andreas reminisced of a café opposite Concarneau’s Tourist Information Centre that boasted a typical kind of French scene – whatever that was. This sparked a memory of a conversation I had with a friend prior to this trip. She had suggested I find a quaint little café, possibly on a side street, and sit there with a book in one hand and a glass of red wine in the other. Is this a quintessentially French thing to do? I felt obliged to test the hypothesis. Carrying the notion further, Paul and Andreas reflect on their commutes from their homes to the University and in the process revealed a humorous anecdote – the welcome to Totnes sign, had previously been vandalised on a number of occasions and read, welcome to Area 51; along with welcome to Narnia. This made me chuckle and catalysed my thoughts to the notion of vandalism abroad. What would the French youths of today rename their town of Concarneau I wondered?
Reviewing the pedagogy of teaching on the trip the conversation quickly returned to the itinerary. Cabellou Point, The Admiral Hotel and The White Sands are all locations within the novel we are to experience on our trip. Charlie has also planned a library walk & talk, and as aforementioned my knowledge on rivers is also to be presented. The male lecturers reflected once again on their previous visit, noting that the view from a coach in comparison to their previous mode of transportation, a taxi, was a much better alternative.
09.00am we entered a residential area and conversation soon turned to the history of French architecture. Charlie tells Derek that the buildings were once stone faced, however in the height of architectural fashion, this was then rendered. As witnessed within all forms of fashion osculation, the render is now being removed. As I reflect on the architecture from the safe place of my own inner monologue, the houses remind me of a film I had once watched, in which all the houses were painted in a pastel colour scheme. This was most definitely the case here. The windows were adorned with wooden shutters. Is this the strength of my general knowledge or cultural capital? I felt inferior in comparison to my highly distinguished collegues. I find this quite scary – my xenophobia was now out in full force. My inner monologue continued as I notice the coach driver answer his mobile phone. Is it only a British law to not speak on the phone whilst driving I wondered? It was this that resonated with me and cemented the feeling that I was now in a foreign country.
As part of my talk I plan to highlight the interdisciplinary nature of tourism subjects. We are most definitely embarking on a form of literary tourism, when we visit the river this will constitute river tourism? Could the trip in its entirety be classified as business tourism? At roughly quarter past nine the heavens opened. I looked through the windshield and noted the similarities of the landscape in relation to Dartmoor. I appreciate I am very lucky to live such a short distance from the moor, and it is this that enables me to make these comparisons so readily. The heath, tors and the autumnal colours reassured me. As to why I am unsure. I start to feel extremely tired. It crept up on me, and my head begins to bob. Andreas turns to ask me a question, which thankfully wakes me up and halts me from embarrassing myself with all forms of sleeping social faux pas. I did not want to be remembered as the girl that snored loudly as she was catching flies with her mouth most unattractively wide open.
We arrived at the Hotel Les Océanides a little earlier than planned so our rooms were not ready for check in. Both students and staff were ushered into a room for a briefing and although the itinerary was previously dispatched, the unfortunate unavailability of one of the intended lecturers resulted in some amendments. Andreas asked the students to sign up to the various talks held twice daily over two days and their specified time schedules, before they could leave their bags and explore Concarneau. Paul comes to me shortly after and tells me no one has signed up to mine on the first day. I wasn’t surprised, a little embarrassed, but not surprised. Rather than dwelling on the negative, I jumped at the opportunity to attend some of the other talks, learn from the lecturers and above all network. This is my primary goal for this trip. I am losing roughly 36 hours I would have spent on my own research; however this experience for that very reason is in my mind, priceless.
Walking to the White Sands with Derek and Andreas allowed me to reflect on my undergraduate study, more specifically, the module I had been taught by Derek. Crisis and Disaster Management was one of the modules I had received the highest mark, the only one in fact where I had received a 1st for the examination. I have known throughout my academic career that I want to achieve the highest possible grades, but it was the fact that it indeed had come to fruition in some capacity, spurred me on to undertake this ResM. I expressed my gratitude as we continued along the beachfront.
As I had not read The Yellow Dog, I was able to appreciate the location, for what it is presently, with no preconceptions of what it should be, or how I had imagined it as a result of the book’s description. I plan to read the book at the end of this blog entry to see if this changes my opinions and reflect on the similarities or differences of the informed literary opinions shared by the students and lecturers.
I was struck by the differing styles of architecture along the seafront. They allowed me to ponder my expectations of French architecture, be that commercial buildings, public highways or residential homes. I expected what I had witnessed driving to Concarneau; quaint houses, granite stonework and beautiful shutters. Yes, these were present on the walk, but so was an amalgamation of Scandinavian design (sharp edges, sloping roofs, wood panelling), traditional oriental structures (bilateral symmetry, emphasis on breadth rather than height, primary colours) and Victorianeqsue buildings (three story structures, pale decoration, chimneys).
Derek led the students, marching at the front in khaki trousers zipped off at the knee creating DIY shorts. In doing so he proudly displayed his lilywhite legs. I was in two minds whether to include this anecdote in this post. Then I remembered a conversation with travel writer Tim Hannigan at Plymouth University’s Travel Writer Atelier. “When writing about travel, always look for the ‘white socks'”. This was a metaphor he had remembered referring to the imagery of Australians abroad getting in and out of their vehicles, more often than not jeeps, with bright white socks pulled high up the shin. What he was referring to are humanistic stereotypes. By sharing his pale skin tone in khaki shorts did Derek assume a touristic British stereotype? I’ll leave you to decide.
As the polite conversation continued on our return to the hotel, Derek, Andreas and I discussed the differing styles, and the purpose of these homes. They concluded that, broadly speaking, affluent Parisians would purchase homes in the North Western seaside towns to escape the brutally cold winters of the city. The innovation of design could therefore be attributed to contemporary fashions, urbanisation and aesthetic appeal, rather than French tradition.
Later that evening, Paul, Andreas, Charlie, Derek, Natalie and I went for something to eat. I found it strange to be considered a part of such a group of academics, but I wasn’t going to question it, at least not at this moment, and definitely not verbally. The motto ‘fake it ‘til you make it’ is definitely in the back of my mind. Natalie questioned why I felt this way in a conversation the next day on our way to Cabellou Point, and to be honest, after a lot of self analysis I think I’m starting to understand why. The meal was sufficient. It was to be my fuel for the impending 40 minute walk to Cabellou Point the following day.
As described earlier, the changes to the itinerary left me some free time to explore Concarneau. My talk was rescheduled to take place in the Ville Close, prior to the walk to Cabellou Point, of which I was glad, but slightly nervous. It had occurred to me that rather than speaking to a select few of the students who wanted to take part in my talk, the entire body of students would be present before the option to continue on the walk or explore the commune independently.
When we first arrived in Concarneau Natalie very kindly offered to assist me in finding the appropriate location to stage my talk. I wanted to set it as close to the Moros River as possible, to allow the students to reflect on their expectations the book had created versus the hard reality of the visit. Our first methodological port of call was the Tourist Information Centre.
In my very best French accent I asked the lady at the counter for a map, and any information she had on the Moros River. She handed me a map, but unfortunately had no information on the river. Retrospectively, my first question should have been do you know a way to get to the river, but as we all know, hindsight is a wonderful if not taunting entity. We scouted the route and made our way through the town. I must admit, I am relatively hopeless when it comes to any form of navigation and was extremely grateful I was not embarking on this quest alone. Natalie took charge as we made our way to our destination. Not long into the walk we realised the route we had chosen was not necessarily the safest. Nonetheless we continued. Along the pavement of what I assumed to be a ring road leading to some form of dual carriageway I started to regret the adventure slightly.
This regret transformed into utter delight when we turned the corner. I stood on the top of the flyover, looked down and saw the Moros River. In no way was I prepared to risk taking students along this route, thus the Ville Close was the next best option.
Arriving at the Ville Close, the students were seated in a veritable coliseum. I was intimidated to say the least. I sat at the front, doing my best to not let my nerves shake my voice and proceeded to deliver my talk. Without boring you with the details and refraining myself from going into critical analysis overdrive, I will summarise. I highlighted the role of the river within Simenon’s novel and within the tourism industry. Tourism indicators were discussed in addition to my research own on the River Dart and the namesake poem by Alice Oswald. I tried to articulate to the best of my ability the nature of literary tourism and its forms, and asked the students to recognise that we in fact were currently literary tourists. When I had completed the talk I wanted the world to swallow me up. Prone to procrastinating I pulled Natalie to one side and told her I was doing to decline on the opportunity to join her and Paul on the Cabellou walk and return to my hotel room. I could not have been more grateful for what happened next. A quite comforting word in my ear and I was on the way to Caballou with the bravest face I had ever managed to express.
Myself, Natalie, Paul and the remaining students headed through the Ville Close to a small ferry dock. Within five minutes we had paid our 90cent fee, set sail and were on the other side ready to disembark.
I walked up front silencing my inner conscious and readily awaited the nuggets of golden knowledge I was sure to receive from Paul and Natalie. I wasn’t disappointed. Without going into too much detail, we discussed personal experience, academic theory, professional practice, my future aspirations and their journeys to their current status within the academic community. This was the point I finally allowed myself to feel like one of them. I created a pedestal and rightly so, but from this point on in the nicest and most respectful way, they were also human. This was the reason I came on this trip, this is the reason I want a career within academia and this is how I knew I made the right decision.
Quite soon into the journey I realised, and from the grumbles I heard from behind me the students did too, Paul may have miscalculated the length of time it would take us to get to our destination. Grateful for the sunny weather we continued. Again my choice of footwear did not suffice and I was physically feeling the repercussions. At least the sun was shining!
Marked by pieces of red and blue tape, the walk had taken us along the seafront, past football fields, through woodland and residential areas. Paul acknowledged this miscalculation by humorously stating every 10 minutes or so that “it was just around the next bend”. More than a few bends later overrunning his approximated forty minute journey time by another hour we made it to Caballou point! Just as we did the rain began to pour. With no shelter I couldn’t help but feel disappointment for myself, Paul and the students. The students inspected the structure and tried to shield themselves via an adjacent wall. Within roughly thirty minutes of our arrival, we began the long walk home. Pure determination shortened the journey and we were back to the ferry crossing within an hour.
As disappointed with the weather as we all were, I know from previous experience, and I hope my colleagues would agree, the culmination of bad weather, the underestimated length of journey, but the overall walk itself will stay with them forever.
All members of staff had decided to remain in the hotel for our evening meal that night. In the morning the proprietor had asked Andreas if we wished to book and if we all ate seafood, to which we all obliged. I perused the menu at the bar as we waited to be seated. Natalie kindly offered to help translate the meals on her phone. Being as impatient as I am, I quickly asked Derek for his assistance. Steak was my choice. I started to salivate at the thought. As we were shown to our table minus menus inquisitive glances shot across the table. Shortly after the order for our drinks were taken and distributed shock adorned all our faces, mine especially. We were having seafood – whether we liked it or not. I have never in my life seen a seafood platter of this size. When the waitress continued back to the kitchen, brought out another then another, we all could barely believe it. Oysters, prawns, langoustines, crab, winkles, clams, mussels and whelks in abundance – when in France, eat as the French do! We certainly did.
With roughly a third of our platter still left to consume Andreas and I called it quits. I went to bed that night content with my experience in Concarneau. With a smile on my face I drifted to sleep.
The next morning I packed my bag and headed downstairs for breakfast. This was sadly our last morning in Concarneau, the coach was due at take us back to Roscoff at 12.30pm. One last talk was scheduled for the Ville Close, which I declined to partake. I needed to get some work done before we left so set up camp in the bar, plugged in my Ipad, and began to type.
As we made our way a short distance from the hotel to a nearby car park to get on the coach, I was a little sullen I did not have more time to spend in Concarneau. The coach trip was much the same as before. Natalie read, Derek and Charlie perused a new book Derek had just purchased, Andreas and Paul chatted, and I listened. Arriving within Roscoff’s departure terminal I rekindled my earlier thought of the aesthetics of Plymouth’s terminal. There were differences, albeit small ones, but the most prominent was the plants dotted around Roscoff’s terminal. Was this an effort by the French to make the terminal seem more inviting? It had certainly resonated with me.
After meandering our way through passport control and up the gangway towards the entrance of the ferry, we were greeted on the other side by a Brittany Ferries employee who was to show us to our seating area. The students did not have cabins on the return leg so were asked if they wished to store their luggage in a locked room. The staff were booked cabins to which I am eternally grateful. After dropping off our luggage we met in the bar to discuss the students’ impending assessment. Viva voces were to be marked by the staff in pairs, myself and Charlie, Natalie and Paul, Andreas and Derek. We went over the marking criteria but were shortly interrupted by a voice over the tannoy system. We were told not to go outside on the decks and refrain from walking as much as possible. This ominous message was a sign of what was yet to come.
Charlie and I took stock of the students allocated to us and awaited the first arrival. By this point my stomach had well and truly began to churn. With ten minute slots our aim was to stay functional and coherent for all thirteen students we had been assigned. We made it through two before I made a quick exit to my cabin. To be perfectly honest I can’t remember much of the journey from there on, I woke up ready to disembark the ferry and sleep in my own bed. On our way through the terminal Natalie asked me if there was something that stood out to make me feel I was home. I searched the vicinity, it wasn’t a sign or smell or particular landmark. I didn’t find it until the next morning, when I came downstairs to a smell I often crave. There in the kitchen, my mum was preparing a full English breakfast. After three days, two horrendous ferry crossings and one unbelievable adventure in Concarneau, I was home.