Le Quick

In the autumn of 1994 my mother booked two places on a coach trip to Rome. It was arranged by a Catholic organization that she wasn’t directly involved with. None of us in the family had actively campaigned for it. The trip was essentially a pilgrimage to celebrate the Anno del Famiglia (Year of the Family) finishing with a big outdoor mass at St Peter’s Square. My mother had never been to Italy before.

In the weeks leading up to it she sounded out a few of her friends to see if they would accompany her. She got a couple of “Maybes”. I was anxious that she would end up travelling with one of her needy, not-very-competent, non-Catholic friends and have to take care of them, and maybe not even make it to the mass at St Peter’s. One evening she told me that she might not be able to go because nobody had said yes.

“Why didn’t you ask me?” I asked.
“I didn’t think you’d want to come.”
“I’d be a lot happier travelling with you. You’d be safer than if you went with someone like … [here I named some of her less competent friends] … and I wouldn’t be back here worrying about you.”

We agreed that I would go with her. I was grateful that she hadn’t presumed that I would do it, and relieved that she would at least be accompanied by someone who had been to France and Italy more than once, could speak a bit of both languages and, as it turns out, loves travelling by coach.

On the day of our departure we had to get to Southwark Cathedral by 7am. It was dry but colder than usual for that time of year and we were waiting for 30 minutes or more before the coach arrived. We drove through Kent and were on the ferry in time for a late breakfast. No issues there as neither of us ever got sea-sick.

We drove down the eastern side of France towards Dijon. We arrived just after 6pm French time. There were other coaches, from other dioceses, pulling into the same functional hotel. There was a priest travelling with one of them and he agreed to say mass for any pilgrims who wanted to attend.

There were probably a hundred people in the conference room that was given over for the mass. It ended at around 7pm. We had got chatting to a few of our fellow travellers and discussed our dinner options. The hotel dining room only served breakfast and there was only one restaurant close by, an Italian place. We agreed to meet there shortly afterwards. When we arrived the restaurant was packed, and there was a long queue of people who had also been at the mass. If we had gone there as soon as we arrived at the hotel, we would have been finishing our meals by now, but that hadn’t really been an option. If you’re on a pilgrimage to Rome you should attend any masses that are laid on for you.

After a few minutes it looked like we weren’t going to be seated any time soon. At that stage in my life I consumed a lot more calories than I do now. I was also three stone lighter. Metabolic rate and all that. I needed to stock up on the things that I always had at home (bottled water, Coca-Cola, bananas, assorted snacks) and the white chocolate that I always bought when I was in France (Nestle Galak with rice pieces). There was a small shopping centre a few minutes’ walk away. I figured that there would be a supermarket there, and that it would probably close at 8pm. I suggested we go there instead of waiting, and maybe stock up on things like bread rolls just in case. All being well, though, we’d be able to eat at the restaurant on the way back.

We made it to the shopping centre and I stocked up as planned. It was just before 8pm and I noticed there was a branch of Le Quick, the French hamburger chain that I had been familiar with since my first trip to the Cannes Film Festival in 1985. It was very quiet, and looked like it would be closing soon. I didn’t want to wait an hour or more for my dinner so asked my mother if it would be okay to eat there. An Italian meal would have been better, but there was no guarantee of that at the other place. I ordered some kind of burger meal for the two of us and that was our dinner. I was disappointed that her first evening meal in France was so mundane but it meant that we had eaten and could get to sleep earlier. Our twin beds were about a metre apart. I was grateful for that.

The following morning, at breakfast, we caught up with some of our travelling companions. They asked what we had eaten. I told them, rather sheepishly, about our meals at Le Quick. My mother was much more effusive. She went into great detail about how it was all so much better than the equivalent in England. The beef, ah it tasted like real beef, you know … the chips, crispy, not too salty, just right … She made it sound like I had taken her somewhere with at least one Michelin star.

We asked what the Italian restaurant was like. They hadn’t got a table there, too late after all. They went to bed without any dinner. My mother continued to praise the quality of our meal at Le Quick.

There was I, thinking I’d let her down on her first night in France, but she didn’t see it that way. Any kind of food would have been better than missing dinner altogether but it turned out that I had made the best choice available to us.

I have been to France at least eight times since 1994, sometimes there and back on the same day to stock up on cheap booze. I have eaten at Le Quick at least once on every visit and I always tell this story to whoever I’m with. And at some point, before I have finished my burger and my chips (crispy, not too salty, just right …), I have to turn away because my eyes have filled with tears. Just as they have while typing these words, and again on reading them back an hour later.


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