It was September 1980; we had just finished our A-levels and were about to embark on our university education. Along with 4 other friends, I took the opportunity to go camping in the South of France for two weeks. We stayed in a small resort called Sanary-sur-Mer not far from Toulon, more precisely at Portissol Beach. This is what the beach looks like today, but back in 1980 there was a lot less going on, and instead of holiday chalets next to the beach, there was a huge campsite.
On a warm evening during the first week, I joined two of my mates for a few beers in a local bar (or it could have been some very cheap white wine, I can’t quite remember!). We strolled back to the campsite in the moonlight and noticed some French boys messing about with a football on the beach, so we popped down to introduce ourselves and hopefully have a kick-around. It became apparent that it was not an organised event and that they were all basically trying to impress a girl who was watching them while sat up against the wall.
The boys were probably around 16 years old, the girl with them was 18 as I found out later; one of the boys was her younger brother. They viewed us with some trepidation as we approached and they quickly closed ranks. The girl shouted “Hello” to us, so we went to join her. She was called Claudine and was the proud owner of a pair of beautiful big brown eyes, long and curly jet-black hair, and an infectious smile. Although a little on the short side, there was definitely something about her that made us quickly realise why those younger boys were out to impress, but making themselves look like immature idiots in the process.
We were able to have a laugh thanks to a mix of Claudine’s broken English and mutual sign language. If this chance encounter was a race for her affections, then it’s fair to say I was leading the race. The reason was not due to my good looks or my intelligence, of course. One of my mates was much better looking, and the other was far more intelligent. Now I’m definitely not saying that the brainy one was not attractive, nor am I saying that the handsome one was thick as mince, but if you swapped over those traits to create two separate people, they would both be dangerous. No, the reason why I was leading the race was that I was the only one who had a GCE ‘O’ level in French and I could manage simple communication when spoken slowly.
My friends decided to join the French boys in a game of football leaving me to chat to the lovely Claudine. Things were progressing nicely, in fact, she had raised the subject of skinny-dipping, but then things took a seriously bad turn. Two policemen arrived on the beach, and it was evident they weren’t messing about. They spoke no English, and their French was so fast I could not understand what they were saying. Claudine did her best to translate; it transpired that we were breaking the law by being on the beach after dark. The cops didn’t seem too concerned with Claudine and the French boys, they were more focused on the three English holidaymakers.
Claudine said, “let me talk to them”, and she walked about 20 paces away with the two policemen. After chatting to them for two or three minutes, she returned with an explanation. With the two cops leaning against a railing a short distance away, Claudine said that they would allow our French friends to go home if they went straight away, but we were given an ultimatum. If we agreed to meet them at the local bar near the top of the hill the following evening when they were off-duty, then they would not arrest us; if we did not agree, then they would take us down to the local station and charge us.
At this point, we looked across at the ‘gendarmes’ in an entirely different light. What did they look like? Take a look at this picture of the Village People.
Now try to imagine the guy on the right, wearing the uniform of the guy on the left. I hope you now understand the position between a rock and a hard place that we found ourselves in. We obviously didn’t want to get arrested, so we agreed to meet them in the bar the following evening. Claudine went across to tell them, and without a word of a lie, the more senior cop blew a kiss at us. Holy crap! Claudine came over to me, planted a kiss on my cheek and said goodbye. I never saw her again.
Did we go to the bar the following evening? We most certainly did not.
Did we return to the beach on any of the remaining evenings of our holiday? Not on your Nellie!
Looking back at this incident almost 40 years later, I’m now starting to think they may have been joking with us but I would not bet my mortgage on it.