In the seventies I thought about a nice way of deciding where to go on a holiday. I just closed my eyes having the map of Europe in front of me and a needle in my hand. And I just pricked the needle in the map and then had a look at it.
I saw I had hit Issoire in central France, a city not far away from Clermont-Ferrand. In these days there were no possibilities like nowadays where you can find nice hotels on the net. And the travel agency didn't have any information whatsoever about the city.
But I just went, took the night train to Paris, took another train over there and yet another and finally a sort of omnibus train with wooden benches and finally arrived in the late afternoon the following day.
The station was quite old and lovely, but I was so tired that I didn't have much eye for that. So I walked out of the station into the center of the town. I entered the first brasserie I saw and asked the lady behind the bar in my best French if she knew any hotel or bed and breakfast for me in the town.
I was very lucky: they had a vacant room above the brasserie. She gave me the key of the room, explained how to get there and asked me to come back later to fill out the requested forms and have a nice cold beer.
The room was simple but clean and after dropping my luggage over there I did get the cold beer she promised me. With her help I filled in my details on the forms and after a nice meal with some more beer I went to bed.
The next morning I got some advice about sightseeing from her together with the breakfast. The town itself was quite pretty but not very touristy.
Next to the medieval church there wasn't a lot. She told me to walk out of town, into the fields, to the castle that looked over the fields from the hill it was built on.
The walk was really wonderful; it was in the middle of summer and the corn was high so it almost was like walking through a dry canal with lovely shores. It took me an hour to reach the castle and everything was very quiet. I never knew they had siesta in France, but it sure looked like that over here. After two a shop opened and I bought a bottle of water and a snack.
All in all the castle itself was a bit disappointing, it was more a big mansion with some cottages surrounding it.
But I had seen it and I had made photographs of it to prove it.
On my way back there suddenly appeared a huge African man from a side path. He stopped me and politely asked me in fluent English if I wanted to buy some drugs. I didn't want to, so he greeted me and went his own way again. This thing really puzzled me a bit, I did not see any other African person in the town itself.
How did he know I wasn't French?
The next day I decided to visit Clermont-Ferrand; it is quite old and has a rich history.
There was nobody selling tickets at the station, so I assumed I had to buy a ticket on the train. They didn't run a lot, so I had to wait. I really didn't plan anything.
Now I noticed that the station was quite lovely and old. Next to the main track there were two side tracks where a few rail cars were placed.
I took my camera and started to make some nice photographs.
Suddenly somebody grabbed me from behind and started cursing in French at me. I was brought into a room in the station by this man and another man followed us and locked the door behind us. I was placed at a little formica table.
The grabber fired loads of questions at me in a sort of rapid fire. I asked politely to slow down a bit in my best school French.
Telling them that I was a foreigner, a Dutch guy, did not really help. I had to show my passport and the silent one took it and disappeared with it for a few minutes.
I had no idea who these men were and why they had taken me here.
When the silent one came back with my passport things became a bit clearer to me. They started to ask why I made photographs of the station and the platform. I tried to explain, but they just shook their head and demanded to see my camera.
The silent one took it from me, opened it and took the film out.
I got my camera and passport back and they warned me: if I were ever to make photographs of the station again, things would become very grim for me.
For this time they let me go.
I was shocked, went back to the brasserie and stayed there the rest of the day. I wanted to talk about this happening to me, but there was nobody to share it with and even then: how to explain this?
The next days I did go to Clermont-Ferrand, really enjoyed it and made loads of nice photographs of ancient churches and statues.
I can't show any of these anymore. Every time you move on, you throw useless things away. And to be honest I could not tell which was which anymore after a few years.
I never used my camera on French stations again.