Thursday, 15 July 2010

John And Linda's Big French Adventure

A Suspenseful Start

We get the car MOT tested and certified, serviced, and taxed. We also get that pesky broken drive shaft replaced, you know, the one that stranded us on the M74 on-ramp that morning. Then Thursday, less than a week before departure, I notice the clutch slipping. Fifth gear has become third. It only happens once. I ignore it. Linda notices same thing next day; I try papering over the cracks. She's having none of it, and Saturday, wheels out Little Nephew's dad, the general skilled tradesman and particular car mechanic. Now of course, he reckons anyone who'd risk driving to France on a clutch like that, needs more than his transmission examined. So I agree, but by now all the garages are closing down for the weekend...

Monday morning at 8, I'm waiting outside the garage. "So you want a price..." asks the owner. "No, I haven't got time for a price, we're leaving for France on Wednesday night!" Yeah, I know. Colour me suck.

Brother-in-law begins a period of solid favours, driving both of us to work, and home again, over a period of three days, while also chasing up the car repair on our behalf. But there's no word at lunch time Monday. Later I learn there's also a problem with the gearbox. Tuesday, that component's gone off to some or other remote kingdom apparently named Cambuslang, for stripping down, examination and rebuilding. Wednesday there's still no news on price or delivery! Linda's on the phone to them, unnecessarily as it turns out, as they've simply been "managing expectation" - the car's ready at 3pm.

Also, the problem of how much money to take on holiday with us, has now been quite neatly solved. Never mind, if nothing else in life is free, then at least we are! Free to go! On holiday!


Free lunch! Joan and Dave take us in for a couple of nights in London. Due to a late departure occasioned by our recent immobilisation, we arrive many hours later than originally planned, to discover that they've only waited patiently for us. And as we all have dinner together, so the wine, the conversation and the laughter flow. Next day - but only once everyone's back up to escape velocity - we're off to the local shops together (Waitrose! Yay!) then the garden centre. Sheer heaven, great coffee, and you'll find more and varied Victoria Sponges there than in Emily Blunt's bathroom.

Free entertainment! Evening brings a wonderful relaxation, enjoying the surprisingly varied wildlife in their Enfield back garden: pollinating insects, visiting cats, squirrels, performing troupes of crows and magpies, swifts and swallows and starlings... and another magnificent meal, with all three types of wine. Then it's Saturday, and everyone's up early (except Dave, who'd warned us he'd be hiding); Joan has her date with Wimbledon, we have ours with Portsmouth. Ae fond kiss, and then we sever...

Free Luxury Cruise! There must have been a comms failure at the travel agent, as we thought we'd booked a 2 hour Normandie Express crossing. Now we are somehow just going to have to make do with the 2.200-seater Mont St Michel. Wow, this ship carries as many cars as the Express does people! And it's not even busy. There's a cookery demonstration in one of the restaurants, with free samples. After that, we spend most of the 6 hour crossing gently sizzling on the sun deck.

Squeee! The motor vessel Mont St Michel

Free from foods! Of course there's a down side to arriving in Caen at 22:00 local time, five hours later than planned. We won't be able to shop for our foodstuffs tonight. Or tomorrow, dimanche, when all the shops are closed (reminds me of our picturesque Isle of Lewis holiday a few years ago, where hanging out your washing on a Sunday would have been such a cultural affront, that everyone from the travel agent and brochure writer, to the local police force and the property owner, felt obliged to counsel us most sternly against it).

Too many degrees of freedom! Armed only with the travel agent's rough, mapless and incomplete directions, plus my illegible Google Maps printout, we shoot off the car ferry in a random direction, promptly getting lost. Egged on by the leisurely pace of the ship, the sun now starts its setting thing, which is profoundly annoying. It's too dark to read a map, already printed too small to be legible even when the lights were on. We're fated to get equally lost at least another four or five times before daybreak. These French road markings are unfamiliar, dim and poorly maintained. There are no cats' eyes here, even on the motorway stretches; the only sources of light are when the A84 speed cameras (pour votre securité: contrôles automatiques) temporarily blind me like an extra from Men In Black.

Freed of our money: on arrival, the keyholder announces the requirement of a 150€ deposit. We have a total allowance of 200€ in our pockets, intended for buying food etc. over the next few days. The travel agent's brochure had mentioned deposits, but said we would be informed if one was required in our particular case, and if so, how much. Needless to say, we were not so informed. But now it's 4am in a foreign country, so of course we pay. We are not offered a receipt. Note: the deposit was refunded fully and without prompt upon our departure; our sole complaint is with our travel agent.

Freedom from television: while I can honestly say that we never once missed either the PC or the Playstation, and equally honestly claim not to have looked at any of the Mario or Zelda games we brought along with the Nintendo DSi XL, I'd have to add one small caveat in the case of the TV. We both have always enjoyed Wimbledon, our annual feast of tennis, quite religiously. Here, whilst the brochure advertised TV as a provided facility, we find it's limited both in size (a 14" portable of the CRT type) and in choice. There are just two non-subscription channels: the news in French, and perpetual advertisements for thigh trainers. And then the news channel disappears after the first 5 days. Luckily, we do otherwise consider ourselves to be on holiday from TV, so this is mostly a good thing. Evenings are for nightcaps and games of backgammon, after all.


Like the England we just left (where we'd dutifully promised Dave we would support the boys in their World Cup match against Germany, but after examining the quality of tat available in the service stations, limited that support to a single Mars Bar with a St George's flag wrapper), the whole of France is destined to remain at a constant and cloudless 30C for virtually the entire duration of our stay. By now we are well into the recently unaccustomed habit of remaining fully factor-forty'd at all times, but even with that, and with after-sun lotion too, we are bound to return quite burned.

Now, France wouldn't be France without a food critique. Yes, I'm well aware that Nothing is more boring than a description of food. Be grateful I'm not describing dreams to you. Anyway, you can stop reading whenever you like, but it's my blog, so: Dimanche, for reasons detailed above, is catered out. Starting cautiously with a Cheeseburger Maison lunch, soon I'm into the full swing of a perfect filet Béarnaise dinner, as Linda chomps down on a kilo of moules à la crème.

Incidentally, and speaking from subsequent experience: don't ask for water with your meal. Not even when it's the one phrase that you've practised most, and notwithstanding the rare fact that you know how to specify exactly your desired volume, temperature, and degree of carbonification. You will be served sufficient cool water anyway. Only difference is, if you ask for it, you pay for it. The same goes for the bread accompaniment to your moules marinières.

Lundi, we obtain coffee at last! But it's a close thing as I pick up a pack of unground beans, which then Madame kindly replaces with something more suited to the filter machine we've uncovered back at the gîte. We begin a more economical diet of baguette, coarse pâté, olives and salad. Linda discovers La Bolée de Paimpol cidre, which becomes a staple, while I seek out the cheap Pinot Noir (there's none; see comments on the Euro below).

Mardi sees our first excursion, a pleasant hour or so spent cruising around Île-de-Bréhat and its archipelago, whose natural beauty we can already see just a few minutes' walk from our door. This is the day our romance with France truly begins!

Mercredi we try a trip to Tréguier (Breton: Landreger), but end in error in Trédarzec. Well you see, Tré all look the same to me. Never mind, there's an excellent pizza van around here. And after a brief local tour, we do succeed in reaching the beautifully peerless Tréguier.

Jeudi, le 1er juillet: after a very lazy start, we set out around noon for Dinard and Saint-Malo. A great sightseeing, sun soaking day. The city walls of St Malo are formidable, being well preserved (and where necessary, restored); the views are fantastic, both outward and in to the town centre.

Vendredi: ah, il pleut! Panic to get the big canvas parasol indoors and dried in the garage. This will be our shopping day. And the sun will come out tomorrow.

Samedi: oui, il fait du soleil, and it's back with a vengeance. Sunbathing at Paimpol's Plage de La Tossen, sharing a blanket which we continually have to move to keep my half in the shade, until Linda is finally tempted into her bathing costume and the sea. Later at midnight, and again at 4am, I'm outside under a clear night sky, alone save from an unseen and slightly unnerving bustle in the hedgerow, but taking in some unfamiliar southern stars and constellations.

Dimanche: chicken dinner! Linda has assumed all cooking duties, and in general is coming up with some great meals, striving to remain as French and in fact as local as possible (by way of recompense, I'm doing all the driving - except when I break a sandal, and Linda gets to drive on the wrong side of the road for her first time ever). But sometimes convenience is king, and today we use a pre-rotisseried bird, preparing just an accompanying and quite French salad.

Lundi: and another week begins with our latest medium-range excursion, a road trip to Brest. Chock full of the usual yacht-owning suspects. As we sit in the sun (for what else is there to do in this heat?) we people-watch, swapping bets on what the boat owners are carrying on and off the boats, in those boxes and packages jealously clutched to their chests.

And so it goes for our second week, although that will be the last of the long drives until we're homeward bound. As for convenience being king: the gîte boasts a kettle barbecue, but we use it only as the base for a disposable one, to avoid all that cleaning.
The little coastal towns seem built to a pattern. There's a central square, usually with a war memorial, marked "Aux enfants de...", and inscribed with the names of the fallen. There's always at least one boulangerie et patisserie, and usually a pharmacy too. The pharmacies all utilise exactly the same sign, a very dynamic green display. Why so many and so prominent? Well, on the evidence of our experience, I think that the supermarkets are forbidden to sell painkillers...

There's usually a sign to la plage, and while the size of these little beaches varies quite a lot, they're alike in being consistently clean and tidy. Coastal water quality has I guess a lot to do with the success of the local seafood farming industries.

Some of the fresh crab claws that are on sale at the local Carrefour ("Crossroads"), and to which my lovely assistant (pictured, left) will become addicted over these two weeks, have shells the best part of ¼" thick.

The single currency has been disastrous for tourism in the region, according to one artisan we meet, running his own exhibition of fascinating artifacts and articles made from found materials - "100% natural". We briefly consider a clock mechanism mounted in a roughly carved piece of driftwood, but it's no sale. Linda confirms his evaluation, at least allowing that everything used to be much cheaper when she previously travelled in France. Today it's either the same as back home, or else more expensive.

And don't talk to me about roaming charges! I was serious when I said we never missed the PC, or by implication the Internet. In fact when we saw our first ever post-sunset, and therefore very high and wide, full double rainbow, I pointed and uttered something like "Linda look, a full double rainbow, all the way round!" without any inkling whatsoever that the phrase "Double rainbow, all the way" was right then in the process of becoming such a big web and twitter meme.

But I do confess on just one occasion, to sneaking a peek at a few of my favourite geeks' blogs, using my phone. One of these - I won't name names - had no dedicated mobile version, and the sheer quantity of flash advertising emptied my call credit of nearly twenty quid in fewer seconds.


I describe above how we arrive in France late, and in Paimpol, and eventually Ploubazlanec, later still. What I don't mention there is the resignation that overtakes me, as Linda comments that she'd be relieved to get into the house, and I say I can't see us finding the house at all tonight, and even if we do, gaining entry. The GPS on Linda's Android thinks we're in Spain, and I almost believe it, resigned already to sleeping in the car tonight.

But the property owners remain gamely there for us, available at the other end of the phone, for the two hours (or so it feels) that it takes for us to communicate through the darkness and unfamiliarity, where we are, and how to get to where we want to be. In all that time there is not one note of exasperation - the closest being a chuckle of wry amusement, as Linda and I repeatedly pass the phone to each other, trying to glean the maximum available information from our struggling verbal exchanges. In this attempt to convey my appreciation... words just fail me. Stupid, lazy words!

Similarly, Emilie the key holder deserves our eternal gratitude and regard, for gracefully accepting the disturbance of her house and family at 4am by a couple of strange Scottish blind mole rats, who could find neither the illuminated doorway of the holiday property, nor the note she'd left there. Next morning she visits us, bright and cheerful, making sure that we know where everything is, how it works, why it doesn't. We mime a large outdoor umbrella to each other, before realising we have a word in common: parasol. Ah, oui.
Brought but unused: shirts, 3 pairs of jeans, shoes, socks. All rejected in favour of tees, shorts and sandals.
Bought but unused: 24 Weetabix, 6 litres of milk, 6 eggs. Our immediate adaptation to chiefly French cuisine saw our dairy & egg requirements diminished at a stroke.
The coastal residents of the Côtes-d'Armor are unusually proficient in the correct use of their own language, and similarly skilled when it comes both to understanding, and to making themselves understood by, me. Further into the country's interior, however, these communication skills do unaccountably but discernibly tail off...

Seriously: when armed with only 22 words of French and an AA phrase book, you only begin to sense the meaning of fraternité once you've spent some time experimenting with the social to-and-froing, in native language, of greetings and pleasantries. Rather than walking up to the patisserie counter like a typical rosbif and baldly stating what you want, try starting out instead with a simple bonjour, later the more courageous bonjour madame or mademoiselle (caution: be certain to choose correctly, and in particular don't make the mistake of assuming that any woman will appreciate being addressed as (the equivalent of) my little girl!), to be rewarded by increasingly positive facial feedback. The more effort you put into these social lubricants, the more your struggling cultural efforts will be appreciated. Never miss an opportunity to drop in another merci or au revoir. These will almost invariably feed back and build your confidence.

And yes, since you ask, I did made that mistake. The mademoiselle one. In spite of having been well warned, aye forty years ago... The unfortunate victim of this gaffe was the (in my view, impossibly young and glamourous) proprietress of our favourite Paimpol restaurant. She took it in excellent humour, first asking Linda, "Do you speak any French?", before turning slightly toward me, saying mock-dismissively "Vous, I know, un peu." And with her perfectly Gallic gesture the truth was out. Oui, un petit peu. Très petit.

Holiday Reading

LK: Driving Over Lemons: An Optimist in Andalucia [Paperback], by ex-Genesis drummer Chris Stewart, and with a blurb by Peter Gabriel.

JK, week 1: When Giants Walked the Earth: A Biography Of Led Zeppelin [Hardcover], by Mick Wall. Very generously loaned to me by one of the managers at work. A true eye opener, leaving very little room indeed for hero worship. And the book's not half bad, too.

JK, week 2: The Greatest Show on Earth: The Evidence for Evolution [Hardcover], by Richard Dawkins. A gift from Linda last Christmas, it's taken me half a year to find time to catch up with the good professor's latest written output. At times written for the feeblest common denominator, nevertheless this does contain some material, instructive to the layman, and not covered in his previous books.

Back To Black

Samedi, à 4 heures local time, the phone bleeps my preprogrammed reminder: "Go Home!"

I'd been quite unprepared for a holiday as good as this one. When anyone asks how it was, I'll say "best ever." And when asked to elaborate, I'll say it was like three holidays, describing how we followed a fantastic 2-night stopover rarely seen family visit, with an unexpected, full-day luxury sunshine cruise, and finally found ourselves with still a full two weeks of searing French summer to come after all that.

Linda's already up, loading the few remaining bags into the car. The main cases were packed last night, then I lay awake waiting for the owners' return, which happened about 1am. We'd arranged a handover meeting for 6am. When Mr Koffe arrives, we have a pleasant if bilingual chat prior to leaving. He checks only that we haven't smashed all his crockery, then returns our deposit. Our grocery money from two weeks ago! We leave. Au revoir, Monsieur Koffe, et merci beaucoup, au revoir.

The drive to Caen and the Ouistreham car ferry is a total pleasure in the early morning quiet and the mist. Navigation is effortless too - signs to Caen appear almost immediately. Quite a contrast from our arrival! We have a couple of hours to spare before sailing. Yeah, coffee would be good...

Can't report much about the return ferry crossing, other than it's obviously a lot faster on the Normandie Express, but I half-sleep all the way, simultaneously watching both The Lion King and Scooby Doo and the Samurai Sword. Linda fetches up a wee lunch sandwich for us. On arrival at Portsmouth, heavy sea traffic adds a slow approach and twenty minutes to our journey. By now I have worked out that our hatchback, being at the end of a line of 7-seaters and big booted sedans, will be last off. Which means a customs inspection; contrary to lore, their psychology is not too terribly advanced. Linda handles questions about our wine and cider stash with supreme confidence. One day, when I start importing illegal tobacco, sundry plant materials, or various other chemicals, she will be my driver.

It's still sweltering out here; 32C apparently. Linda grabs the wheel. Drives us down and through Portsmouth, and up the A3, M25, M1, M6, as far as Blackpool.

- Where did all the time go?
- Well I dd warn you, the only way to make your holiday last is to stay in every day, stare at the walls and do nothing. But no, you had to be out adventuring and doing interesting stuff...

It's just beginning to get dark as we finish our double whoppers while the Break's King closes at 9pm. Noting disapprovingly that The Colonel will remain open for yet another hour, I take over driving duties for these last few miles. As the light fades, so the rainclouds gather, leak, drizzle, burst and fall.

Finally approaching Glasgow after a 21 hour travelling day, again we arrive in the black of midnight, this time to the sounds of torrents splashing on the glass, rippling under rubber. Surface water on M74. Caution.

1 comment:

  1. Hi John,

    Thanks very much for the link, and as usual, you give good blog.

    Lynn and I were talking about driving abroad last night – the very thought of it gives me the boak – but your account is a testament to the freedom that being able to determine and follow your own itinerary offers.



    PS And on another note… Muslimgauze! Woo! Yeah!