Sunday, August 19, 2007

Vive la France! They had more sun than the UK...

In which we invent 'The Flying Taboulés' and I see a rare African visitor.

Our summer hols this year were a week in a Gite in Brittany. A lovely part of France with fantastic scenery and the most amazing beaches too. We took the ferry to Saint Malo - overnight. Sounds like a good idea, eh? Spending travelling time asleep? Well... it would have been... if we'd had a cabin or even been sleeping under the stairs.. but: we had booked reclining seats and I sat next to a man who could snore not just for England, but for Europe! Consequently I spent the night prowling the decks and not sleeping. Tempted as I was to murder this stranger, I managed to control myself. Observing those sleeping was, however, mildly entertaining. You don't often get a chance to look at other people asleep (unless you are really weird), but as I walked round the decks of the ship I saw people draped, sprawled and collapsed in a variety of positions. It was almost as if I was the lone Starship Captain who had beamed down onto the deck of some distant outpost to discover what had happened - and there were the victims of some unknown, alien attack - lying haphazard around the ship.

Meanwhile the family struggled on in the snore-zone - Bryan playing on his phone (emails and texts, listening to music, anything to drown out the snoring) and Melody (once I'd wrapped her in my coat to keep her warm), snoozing gently. Alex slept for some time, but the snoring (though not as close to him) definitely didn't give anyone in the family a good night's sleep.

As we approached France in the grey light of dawn, the hiss of the ship's air conditioning almost the only sound apart from the rustle and groan of shifting sleepers, the skies started to clear and there was a hint of sunshine promise in the air. We had booked a small 'gite' (a French farmhouse style accommodation) and would be in reach of both the sea and the countryside. The sun would be a welcome accompaniment to our week.

Alex and I went early to breakfast then he left me to find his dad and sister. As I sat at the table contemplating a week in the sun (sometimes I do have a stubborn streak of optimism) a woman said to me 'can I sit here?' indicating space at the table. Of course, I said. She had an interesting face, pinched but characterful, and she had quite a story to tell too. Not shy in speaking, as my demeanour had indicated friendliness I guess (despite being sleepless), she then told my why she hoped this holiday was a good one: how she'd had a dreadful time in Devon, the hotel had not had the facilities promised, how badly she'd been treated in Disneyland and embarassed by being told she was obese (to look at her I would have said that was extremely unlikely) and how she was publicly made to be weighed. Does this sound odd? Well, I've never been on holiday with someone in a wheelchair, and her experiences sounded quite awful - discrimination against disability and a seeming disregard for the person. She also told mem about her children, and how she had been 'blamed' for her son's deafness and apnoea; blamed because she was disabled. She talked of the incompetency of the doctors, and how hotels refused to let one person in a wheelchair in with two children (only one child allowed if you are disabled). All in all it was quite a sad story, and I hoped indeed for her and her children that the holiday was a good one. That I didn't say much wasn't at issue, she needed someone to listen and I did - but in that brief encounter I was only given her perspective and experiences as a disabled person and struggling disabled parent; I should have liked to know more about her, a bit more of the person than just the disability, but in a half hour conversation at 6.30 am on a Ferry in the English Channel, you don't expect to get to 'know' someone.

Once we docked we were far too early to go to our accommodation, so we headed out along to the coast to investigate the beaches. The first we found, St Lunaire, was a lovely (still asleep) picturesque little harbour, but as we sat the clouds descended and we were shrouded in mist. We moseyed further along the coast and, on studying the map, I directed us to Pont De Chevet, a nature reserve. It was a beautiful spot - sticking out into the sea (I wish I knew my coastal geography terms!), and the tide was on its way out. We wandered round and the sun crept out to greet us. I picked up stones and shells that caught my eye, the children walked and ran in the sand, and we walked along enjoying the fresh sea air tang.

I looked out to the sandy flats, greasy and grey, shiny and slippery as the sea retreated and the mud/sand mix revealed its delectations for the gulls and ... and what were those three white birds out there? Too big for gulls, too white for avocet or oystercatcher, too short for spoonbills (and indeed I hadn't a clue if they would ever come near here) - and they moved and looked very like white herons. If only I'd brought my binoculars, if only I could get further out on to the sand/mud to see... but not a chance. They looked liked egrets. Egrets - an African bird - that sometimes came to southern Europe, but surely not northern France?

We headed inland, through the city of Dinan, and to a supermarket where we stocked up on cider, wine, oh - and some food too.

Eventually we headed on to our Gite, in advance of 'admittance' time, but we met our hostess (Caroline) and she kindly said she'd get our gite ready next so we could come and sort our tired selves out sooner rather than later. We left our shopping and headed back out to inspect the port of Dinan.

This beatiful medieval town is, like many walled cities of the era, high on a hill with the river below. The small port was lined with wonderful buildings and plenty of places to eat. There were cruise boats for the tourists, and small boats you could hire, and fish in the water.

We ended up back at the gite and chilled - as was the pattern for each evening from then on - with a film on our laptop and a leisurely supper, interspersed with some bouncing on the trampoline (children, not adults) and table tennis in the large barn set in the grounds of this formidable farmhouse which had four gites attached. When it came to trampolines, our bed was pretty bouncy, which did not bode well for Bryan's back, unfortunately. Our room upstairs led through to the children's room so in effect we were all more or less in together - I do hope I didn't snore!

Caroline, who ran the gites, was an interesting person to talk to. We had a chance to chat on a couple of occassions (she brought me out her bird book and enabled me to confirm that my sighting had been, indeed, yes! egrets!), and she talked of farming in the region and the difficulties they had, much the same as in England. Though on the whole the farms are smaller than in the UK (her boyfriend owned a typical 100 acres, her uncle in the UK a typical 2000), and how the suicide rate was highest in the farming community. She had that ease of manner that is essential in a good accommodation host - she made you feel relaxed and welcome, and as if you had known her for a long time. We had some brief, but interesting conversations - not just the perhaps more usual trite 'pretty here, ain't it' stuff.

The following days we visited various beaches along the coast and spent some time in Dinan - from the old port there was a fantastic cobbled uphill road that led through a gate in the old city wall into the medieval town proper. The cobbles were great on dry days, but on one of the wet days (Mr Sunshine decided to play 'hide and seek' with us most of the week) it was a veritable death trap. At one point I slipped and Bryan tried to grab me to stop me from falling, but it sure felt like he pushed me! He promises he didn't, and I remained upright, so I guess it wasn't a murder attempt after all.

One evening Alex and I played table tennis. He always throws to my left when we play catch or he passes me a ball in cricket, because I catch better with my left hand (though I am, ostensibly, right handed). I tried, this time, to play table tennis with my left hand and I was equally as bad left handed as I was right. Playing left handed was hardly any different to me. Most odd.

One afternoon we visited some megaliths at Plesin-Trigavou - the whole of Britannity is littered with megaliths and menhirs, ancient stones from prehistoric times. These were a large 'bunch of stones' in a strange disarray. But the information board said they were white quartz, and down low (beneath the lichen and the thousands of years of weathering) you could see some white still. Imagine - 65 huge stones - when they were 'new' - bright white in the field or amongst the trees: how spectacular they must have looked.

We went to one particular beach more often than the others, called Port Chatenet. It was mostly desserted, and when the tide was out the boats lay on their sides or propped by poles and you could have walked a mile to get your feet wet. The smell was sometimes rather 'ripe', but it was very peaceful, and a nice little suntrap (one day we were there when it rained, the sun still seemed to shine on us). One day we visited brought a cacophony of sound - like a hundred ghostly tinkers hammering on tin; it was the slap of the ropes against the hollow masts, rattling and banging in the wind.

This is how we spent most of our days - beach, town, gite, relax. But on Thursday we headed 80 miles across to the west to Normandy, to visit our friend Fran. She and her family have a house there which we had long promised to visit: this time we were all in France at the same time so we made the effort to trek through the pouring rain (it bucketed down) and found their house in the quiet town of St Frimbault. Wednesday was Assumption Day - or the feast of assumption (I'm not good at Catholic stuff, so apologies if I get this wrong) and the country had a bank holiday (or were very kindly celebrating Alex's 16th birthday with us). They had a festival in St Frimbault on the Wednesday and Fran had translated for the English speakers - walking round the town with two radio DJs and entertaining the many visitors. We went the day after - and the town was 'relaxing' after its frenetic celebration. There were hardly any people around and the town was littered with half deconstructed stages and stalls.

Chris, Fran, Bryan and I left the children (Alex and Melody, plus Fran and Chris' Ben and Georgina) to mooch round the house. Their house was a combination of two cottages knocked together and had a lot of 'French Charm' - both in its contents (they had acquired most of the furniture from local auctions) and layout. The adults (plus one small dog called Raven) went for a walk round the local lake. Chris and I talked most of the way - though I've known him for around 8 years, this was probably the most I had talked with him and the most relaxed I had ever known him. Fran used to play in the band with us, but Chris I never knew quite so well. He talked of his job, of choices to be made, and the history of the lake and the danger of buying fish 'off some bloke in the pub' (and the consequent disaster diseased fish can cause). Whilst we walked the sun shone brightly, brilliantly, and it even stayed with us whilst we drank a cider or two. On returning to the house (for lunch) the skies darkened once again.

Bread, salmon, ham, cheese, grated carrot and taboulé (cous cous) were laid out and a 'free for all' ensued. Unfortunately for me, as I grabbed the taboulé packet it's sides caved in and the table received the gift of plentiful cous cous upon its shiny surface. I just scooped it up with my hands and threw it on my plate. Oh well! They all laughed (at me, of course!). "Flying taboulé" someone quipped, and we decided that 'The Flying Taboulés' would be a great name for a band. Yes, I had a few glasses of wine to chase the cider, I admit it! But not enough to start throwing food around wantonly, I swear the sides of the packet collapsed, honest!

We stayed a few hours, enjoying a small further blessed dose of sun in their garden, and then headed home. Friday - the last day - seemed to have arrived all too quickly.

The towns we visited and drove through were varied - some of the churches were dark and steepled, some had heavy slate rooves in an almost Strassbourgian style, others were square and brick-like, many mock-gothic. Every town had a church at its centre (one town we passed had an odd tower that was detatched from the main church, as if they'd had an argument and the tower was being stand-offish). The buildings were made of stone, most probably taken from the huge rockys in the cliffs around the coast, and apart from the ancient half-timbered affairs in places like Dinan, were uniformly grey/taupe and quite 'quaint'. We passed one or two magnificent buildings that were mini chateaux (and some real Chateaux too, but no chance to stop and visit) but on the whole there was a lovely relaxed feeling about the way the towns lay straggled along the roads, conjoined by farms and bisected by motorways.

Friday was our longest trek out - for a very special occassion. Thanks to Caroline, we had booked riding on the beach for Melody at a small beach near St Briuc. We drove there through familiar grey skies, but once we had dropped her off at the stables (and ourselves wandered down on to the beach itself) the sun appeared once again and shone brightly for the last of the evening. She had a wonderful time, starting with a hack through the woods, then cantering on the beach in a group. I'm sure the fact that she was accompanied by a very nice young French soldier (Nicholas) who spoke English, helped tremendously too. He wore a riding helmet with ears ... spotty ears, and his camouflage jacket. Whilst Melody rode, we walked the beach and I found more stones (a really pretty pink and black one too) and enjoyed the casual atmosphere of our last day in France. When we picked Mel up from the stables, the young soldier (the son of the stable owner) took us up to feed the foals - one of whom was very friendly indeed for a 3 month old. They were beautifully cared for and a joy to watch as they ran for their feed bucket and Tango, the friendly one, was quite happy to have his silky, sleek neck rubbed.

The ferry journey home on Saturday morning was long and very boring. This time we had a cabin, but the trip was extremely tiresome. Melody and I watched some of the entertainment, including the most bored looking duo I have ever seen. No doubt fine musicians, but entertainment quality was - er - well, missing. There was a very good magician, and later on a 'show' featuring badly re-written Disney songs and a ludicrous plot. But hey ho - the kids enjoyed it I'm sure. The best part was when they went off script, ably assisted by a young man who's carers really should have stayed with him and kept him off the stage at crucial moments.

We arrived in England to rain. And drove the long and weary road home, in the rain. And woke up today - Sunday - to rain. All week it rained here in England, so we were lucky with our weather. Every time we went out, the sun appeared for us, even briefly, and I actually caught enough to have been slightly burned (as per usual, red/peel - no brown in between).

A good holiday. But now it's back to 'reality', to a lot of washing and ironing, and back to work....
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