I first arrived in Orléans in 1976 after the fall of Saigon where I had been living. In those days there were very few foreigners here. When I went out walking, which I did a lot, people would look at me in a strange manner. Was it the way I carried my furled umbrella? Or that I wore a hat? After all how can one speak to a lady in the street if one doesn’t have a hat to raise.
When I was a young boy of about twelve or thirteen I met my mother down town one day. She was with a girl of about my own age. Probably the daughter of one of her friends. This was a place called Sutton, Surrey, in England. I was of course wearing my school blazer and cap. Shorts as well as I had not yet progressed to long trousers. I didn’t raise my cap to the girl so my mother told me to do so. I replied that she was only a girl and my mother said a gentleman always raises his hat to a lady no matter what her age.
I have always kept the habit although if I am wearing a soft cap I tend to give a salute if the lady is far away and I don’t get to say hello. I also do so for men that I meet. My old trilby is now more than fifty five years old. It still serves for funerals or if I’m wearing a suit to go to Paris.
Actually quite a lot of men wear hats in Orléans nowadays. I feel though that this is mostly related to the weather or a passing fashion. When it’s very cold or very hot the winter or summer hats come out. One can always tell a man who has seldom worn a hat. There are very few berets now. If I wear a hat to Paris I look very provincial as nobody seems to wear them there. When I take the Eurostar to London and arrive wearing a hat I must be mistaken for an Australian from the outback as absolutely nobody wears them at all there.
When I was young at school, perhaps about seventeen, I had an old basque beret which I wore on cycling holidays in France. It then followed me to the Bahamas and Vietnam. I must have lost it in Vietnam or the heat or bugs or rats got it. I was very attached to my old basque beret and rather regret not having got another when I first arrived in France in 1976. But then again people might have thought I was an Englishman pretending to be a Frenchman which would not have done at all.
The great shame of course is that the French themselves do not wear berets. There are moments when I feel they are no longer trying to be French. Of course this does not apply in moments of great joy or collective depression whilst following the fortunes of their national football team. Then nobody could mistake them for anything else.