The story of French president Francois Hollande and his affair seems to be dominating the newspapers, and while in one sense I agree that his private life shouldn't have any bearing on whether he can run the country, you do have to wonder about the man. For goodness' sake, how does a head of state have time to be sneaking off for trysts on a scooter, let alone spending the night in a love nest?
In another sense it seems so typically French though. Suddenly I've been reminded of the summer I spent in Brittany, aged 17, on a French exchange. In some ways it was a wonderful three weeks. In my memory, it is always sunny ( I don't remember a single day of rain), the air always fragrant with the smell of heat on crackling pine trees, the sea always blue. But there was a dark shadow hanging over the family...
The family that I was staying with had a small holiday home on the Brittany coast near Roscoff, on one side of a little peninsula. There was one girl of my age (Sylvie), her brother Louis, a very friendly Maman and Papa who only came at weekends (their actual home was in Brest, about an hour away). They were nice enough, although I got the impression Sylvie, who was supposed to be my "friend", would have much rather had an American girl to stay - she was obsessed with McDonald's and Hollywood. But the real draw was The Cousins. A grand Paris family, they owned a manor-type house on the other side of the Peninsula. They had three children; Philippe, at university, Anne-Sophie, who was just about to join Medecins Sans Frontiers, and Jean-Romain, a blond, blue-eyed boy of my age who I fancied like mad; the mother, called Josette, was the sister of our family's Maman, and was just like her but more expensively dressed.
Every day after breakfast, we'd go to the cousins' house and we teenagers would set off on some very Famous Five type activities. Not for them sneaking to the pub or watching TV; they loved rock-climbing and we'd spent hours exploring little coves in our swimsuits, finding hidden caves and helping each other up what seemed like treacherous rock faces. They owned a boat, and we'd go out sailing on it, catching mackerel and eating it that night. We explored a ruined fort on an island in the bay; bought ice creams in the local village; biked down quiet lanes lined with blackberries and (occasionally, when there was nothing else going on) sunbathed on the pebbly beach. There were always lashings of crepes with Nutella or honey at teatime. One night we all slept out in the garden on loungers, looking at the stars (until Sylvie got scared and we all ended up going in at 3am).
It was all very innocent - no-one drank, although a few of the older ones smoked, and one night when Philippe had a couple of ciders and got a bit merry, they all started discussing his "alcohol problem". So much for the French love of wine; we all drank tisanes in the evening (giving me a taste for herbal tea ever since).
The Cousins seemed like the perfect French family; all long-limbed and nut brown from the sun, always doing something jolly together "en famille" like playing board games or going on long cycle rides. The father of this family, Jean Paul, was not there, but was spoken of in reverential terms as "Papa" as we awaited his arrival from Paris.
Then something happened; there was a lot of whispering, in French that I couldn't understand; Maman Josette was locked in her room with the curtains closed. The Cousins didn't want to come out and play that day. Sylvie's mother was constantly on the phone to her sister. Then one afternoon, I overheard her telling Sylvie what had happened. "Il couche avec sa secretaire," she said. I worked that one out pretty quickly.
Papa was, of course, sleeping with his secretary. I, at an impressionable age, found this terribly French and terribly exciting (particularly as I wasn't supposed to have overheard it, let alone understood it). I waited in wild anticipation for the mythical adulterous Jean-Paul's arrival, wondering what he'd be like.
When he finally turned up, Papa was middle aged, balding, with a pot belly and a Gallic nose. Not exactly George Clooney. But -- like Hollande I expect -- he had a sort of arrogant charisma, and presumably thought that having affairs was de rigueur for a powerful man in his position. I remember him smoking cigars and acting like a true patriarch, ordering everyone around. Within a few days "Maman" looked slightly less devastated, and the Famous Five style activities resumed. I am sure things carried on much as they had been. But for me, the perfect family didn't seem quite so lovely any more.
I still think of that summer sometimes. I wonder if the manor house is still there, and if the family still owns it. I wonder what happened to Jean-Romain, the golden-haired French boy that I lusted after from afar (he never paid any attention to me; no doubt I seemed like a gauche, galumphing English girl next to the petite French chicks who swarmed around him at the beach). Is he married, is he balding like his father? And does he couche avec sa secretaire?