Thursday 29 May 2008

Encounters with foreign beer

Map by Andrew.

When I was a young man, you didn't see foreign beer in Britain. Apart from the odd dull lager, but even those with Germanic names were usually brewed in the UK.

I'd read of Belgian beer in Michael Jackson. It sounded very exotic and different. When would I ever get to taste it? I suppose when I finally visited Belgium.

After finishing university my mate Pete and his American girlfriend Justine went to live in Bordeaux. I was still living in Leeds working at the WYPTE garage on Kirkstall Road. It's where they repaired and refurbished buses. My role was vital - sweeping up the crap the craftsmen made and brewing tea. It was a former tram garage and there were still tracks inside the building. After getting paid on a Friday everyone used to go over the road to the Highland Laddie (Cavendish Street, Leeds LS3 1LY) for a couple of pints. It was a cosy, odd-shaped pub, hidden away next to the RSPCA kennels. My workmates were quite shocked at how quickly I knocked back the Tetley's Mild in our half hour dinner break.

I had a temporary contract for just three months. Matt suggested that when I'd finished, we went out to France to stay with Pete. It was a very vague plan. Very much like Matt. I think he'd been living back in Sevenoaks with his parents. Job finished, I left Leeds for Balderton to wait at Mum's for my tax refund to turn up. Then we'd be off.

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Map by Andrew.
It didn't quite work out like that. My tax refund still hadn't turned up after a few weeks. Matt proposed that we leave anyway, using his money. I didn't need asking twice.

This was early 1979. I'd never left Britain. Getting the boat train to Paris was pretty exciting. The plan was simple: a couple of days looking around Paris then hitch down to Bordeaux. Some of it worked out.

We stayed in a hostel. I've no idea where, but it was reasonably central. It was good enough for us. We were used to student houses. Not exactly posh residences. As soon as we got out of Gare du Nord, I'd noticed brewery signs on cafés: Kanterbrau, Mutzig, Jupiler. Jupiler? wasn't that Belgian? This was thrilling - foreign pubs with genuine foreign beer. I was eager to get into one.

I didn't have to wait too long. We were soon inside a pub close to the hostel. It was a fairly typical Parisian café, with a zinc bar counter and tall, delicately curved fonts. Jupiler Pils was on draught. Just that. I'd actually heard of it and knew it was brewed in Belgium. "Bound to be good" I thought. We ordered two. Well I probably did. What with my A-level French and all. Matt didn't speak any foreign language at the time. He didn't even speak that much English. There were often long silences in his conversation, gaps that I gladly filled. Maybe that's why we got on.

There it was in front of me. My first glass of Belgian beer*. Jupiler Pils. I really didn't know what to expect, though I understood it was a rather prosaic example of Belgian brewing. I took a sip.

At this point, it's very tempting to invent, or reinvent, history. To tell you this or that about my first taste of Jupuiler. It was almost 30 years ago. Many of you (I'm looking at you Stonch) haven't even lived that long. I can't remember how it tasted or what I thought about it. (Now I think about it, that makes for a rather dull story, doesn't it? Should I think up something more exciting for you, or stick with the boring old truth? I've always thought that an interesting lie trumps a boring truth any day of the week.)

It can't have impressed me that much, because I remember asking what other beer they sold. They had just one other: Pelforth Brune. That'll do. Something dark. Sweet, but sort of OK. I tried mixing it with Jupiler, too. That sort of implies I wasn't that enthusiastic about the Jupiler. At least I hope so. I would hate to have enjoyed it.

After those first few beers, we didn't drink much more beer in Paris. Cafés were far too expensive for our modest budget. The cheapest plonk from a supermarket became our drink of first resort (second and third, too).

So far, so good. Now for the hitchhiking part. We took the metro to the outskirts of Paris and stood by the side of the road. We did quite a bit of standing with our thumbs out. Some walking, too. Then some more standing. It didn't go great. Eventually we did get a lift. But nothing like as far as we had hoped. Bordeaux is a long way from Paris. By late afternoon, it was clear that we weren't going to make it. We gave up and took a train.

It was late evening when we arrived in Bordeaux. The station isn't very central and Pete was living in an old part of town, just off Cours Victor Hugo. It was a fair walk. When we knocked on his door, it was even later.

Something Matt and I hadn't done before leaving was to tell Pete we were coming. He was pretty surprised to open his door and find us there. I'm not 100% sure it was a pleasant surprise. Not more than 70% pleasant, at most. With hindsight, his reaction was predictable. But in them days, I didn't used to think very far ahead.

Pete's flat was small, just two rooms. Far too small for four people. If Pete had been less than 100% welcoming, Justine was openly hostile. What a socially aware being would expect. Just a shame Matt and I were trainee sociopaths. But we were in luck.

An English friend of Pete's was in the process of moving. He'd moved out of his old flat but still had a little of the lease left to run. Me and Matt could use that. It was on the top floor of an old stone house, right in the centre of Bordeaux, on Rue du Pas St. George. There wasn't much in it apart from the kitchen. That didn't matter. We weren't used to luxury. There was a record player and a set of Sex Pistols singles. What else did we need?

We had somewhere to live, now we just needed a source of income. Matt's money was running out and there was still no sign of my tax refund. Pete did something at the university. I can't remember what. It was through him that Matt and I were able to get a few English conversation classes for mature students.

The lunches were the best. Students on intensive courses weren't even given a rest during lunch. A few native English-speakers were taken along to make sure they didn't revert to speaking French over their meal. This really was money for old rope. We got a few francs and a free meal with wine. All we had to do was speak English. On reflection, it's one of the better jobs I've had. It was no effort and I could get half-cut while doing it. Getting more than my fair share of wine was easy. The students were being worked so hard, they didn't dare drink more than a glass. Me and Matt always polished off whatever wine they left on the table.

A proper meal was a welcome relief. Our normal diet consisted of bread, potatoes, onions and cheap red wine. If we were feeling really rich, we'd buy a sausage and share it. Sometimes we'd have beer. Kanterbrau or something equally cheap in a litre screwtop bottle. Not particularly inspiring and worse value for money than plonk wine. We borrowed English-language books from the university and sat reading and drinking wine for most of the day. It was much like being a student, except with far less money.

Pete lent us his camera to take some snaps of the stunning view from our borrowed flat. After takin a couple of naps, Matt suggested we photograph each other naked, to give Pete a shock when he developed the film. They were very tasteful. I wonder whatever happened to them? (I have almost no photos of myself before the age of 30. Pete took a few at university and in Bordeaux. Maybe I should ask if he still has them.)

We often shopped at the Prisunic supermarket on Cours Alsace-Lorraine. I say shopped. We didn't buy a great deal. We did a lot more drooling at products that we couldn't afford. Like beer. Prisunic had a surprisingly good beer selection. It included a French beer Michael Jackson had mentioned, Jenlain, and some Belgians. Chimay Blue and Gouden Carolus were amongst the latter.

When my tax refund finally arrived, we went crazy apeshit. A whole packet of sausages and a bottle of Gouden Carolus. I didn't know what to make of it. This sudden intake of protein. The Gouden Carolus was difficult to fathom, too. Not quite like anything I'd had before. Spicily fruity in a way British beer just wasn't. There's was nothing I could compare it to. We got a bottle of Jenlain as well. That fitted into my mental framework of beers much better. Not that dissimialr from the beers back home.

Bordeaux was way in advance of Britain when it came to Belgian beer. In addition to Prisunic, there was also a café selling a dozen or so Belgian beers. Not that I ever drank in there. It was way too expensive. Two beers would have blown half my week's budget.

Feeling flush with my tax money, Matt and I decided to hitch to Spain for a few days. It's not that far from Bordeaux, after all. The first day didn't go too badly. We had one decent lift and got as far as Toulouse. It's a city I'd love to revisit. With it's red-tiled roofs it looked completely different to Bordeaux. We stayed in a hostel and were in pretty good spirits the next day. Onwards to Spain.

It didn't work out as well as we'd hoped. We made bugger all progress and ended up in some little town in the middle of nowhere pretty damn late. There was nowhere for us to stay. Brilliant. What the hell were we going to do? Somehow - don't ask me how - we stumbled across a half-built house and dossed down in that. Definitely better than being without shelter, but not great. Would we be woken by angry builders at 6 A.M.? We were too knackered to care.

Either the builders started unusually late or they'd left this job unfinished while they worked elsewhere (judging by Matt's later experiences in France, a distinct possibility). Our sleep was undisturbed. But our attempts at hitching were no more successful. We decided to take the train the rest of the way to Barcelona.

*I've just remembered that I had tried Belgian beer once before. But that story will be in another post.

Map by Andrew.


Boak said...

What a great post.

Both your kids have cool blogs - would it be creepy to leave comments?

Ron Pattinson said...

Boak, glad you liked the post.

Not creepy at all to leave comments on the kids blogs. You'd make them very happy.

Anonymous said...

A great post! We went in luxury - Interrail. A litre of whisky at the Rødby-Puttgarten ferry was 10DM. Then we stopped somewhere in Germany, Göttingen I think, and bought about 30 different beers. We had plans to take notes, but when we woke up in spain there was little documentation except the empty bottles.

Ron Pattinson said...

knutalbert, I always thought my memory was crap, yet when I began writing these posts I could recall much more than I expected. That's the main reason I've been writing a whole series of them. And so my kids will be able to find out something about my life when they're older.