Posts Tagged ‘France’

Geoff and I are standing at the edge of a hotel dining room. Around us, a couple of dozen other guests stride about with confidence, clearly knowing what they are doing. We, of course, don’t, which is why we are frozen to the spot trying to pick up on the general vibe of being dab hands at the business of a self-service breakfast.

It’s not easy, this lark, especially as the whole scenario is being conducted in French, by French people, and we are a long way from home. We’re staying in Normandy in a far-too-smart-for-us hotel whose special offer price includes breakfast.

This is not to be sniffed at, since we don’t plan to eat again until supper – and nor, by the loaded-up plates parading around us, does anyone else. We try and decide what the etiquette is here: do we find a table first and one of us sit at it while the other goes off hunting and gathering, or get something first to put on a table, thus claiming it as ours.

We decide on the latter, and coffee is the obvious choice. We have to tackle a hissing, gurgling contraption for this task, but we think if we can manage that then we can probably get the better of the intimidating-looking toaster later on.

I volunteer to go first with the coffee as I have brought my specs with me. Even so, despite trying to outwit its Gallic non-logic, it all goes horribly wrong and within a couple of minutes a lake of murky liquid is lapping across the table on which the contraption sits and I have nothing in my cup except a few drops of clear water.

A woman in a uniform appears and barks something at 100mph that I don’t grasp. I bleat back, pointlessly, in my default foreign language of Italian. She surrenders, retreating to the kitchen to bang her head in amazement at zee thick English.

Eventually, Geoff and I encourage the contraption to deliver and we carry our cups like world champs to claim a table.

Now, with our own territory, it’s time to colonise it with food. I can see it would be easy to go crazy and gather up a bit of everything from this veritable half-acre of petit dejeuner delights, but, unlike the majority around us, we choose to show a little decorum. Besides, who would willingly make a spectacle of themselves in the certainty of being labelled a glutton?

I can manage that by subterfuge, balancing larger things on top of smaller things, secreting bits here and there on a plate whose dimensions suddenly grow in a quite magical way. Thus it is that on my first morning I tuck away probably more than I have in a month of breakfasts, including a slice of French apple flan, two servings of fresh fruit and a torrent of granola that spills from a dispenser with a sensitive overdrive.

Old hands now, we challenge the contraption to deliver us each a second cup of coffee, and we are rewarded. I drink mine while observing our fellow guests.

Several have small children with them, exploding like firecrackers after being cooped up with TV cartoons in their family room, a few others are so loved-up they must be on a clandestine break from their respective spouses, and then there are the achingly slim women who pose about in everyone’s way while making a clear statement that they are Not Eating In The Face Of This Vile Temptation.

More fool them, I think, as I glance across in the direction of that flan.


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What a remarkable thing serendipity is: a chance encounter, a crossing of Fate’s alignments, that puts a zing into life.

Geoff and I were heading home earlier this week from our lovely holiday in southern Brittany. We were feeling deeply imbued with Frenchness after being entrenched as natives for the duration of our stay.

We cranked up our language skills as the days went by so that we were able to have conversations with Monsieur, our landlord, and only lapse into Italian at every third word, as opposed to every second word, as it had been at the start.

The sound of our hands slapping our foreheads in frustration as the horrible realisation dawned of yet another faux pas became all-too familiar.

But we managed, and we made ourselves understood wherever we went – even to the French couple who stopped us on our first evening to ask where they could park their camper van. We gave them a Gallic shrug, a few variations on the useful word “Bouff”, and they soon got the message.

We also conducted exchanges with stall holders in the most fantastic food market, so big and so colourful that I’d like to have just stood and stared for hours. Instead, there were choices to be made and provisions to be bought before the best stalls sold out.

Later, I tortured the most heavenly ingredients into a meal in the one pan on the one hot plate in our kitchen. Haute cuisine it was not.

We felt, on the whole, that we had become as French as we could get without actually wearing a beret and a striped top. It was far too hot for dressing up.

Driving ferry-wards through northern France, we stopped for lunch in a small town we’d identified earlier on the map as being a must-see. Unfortunately, it turned out to be a mustn’t-eat, as one restaurant was full, another closed for the day and a third had gone out of business very recently.

We walked around and a local woman gave us a recommendation, naming a place up a hill in the next village. By the time we got back into the car we had, of course, forgotten her directions, so we just pootled along, not encountering a hill, until we came to a hamlet and saw a small hotel with people sitting outside under shade eating lunch.

This’ll do, we decided, even if it isn’t the one we were recommended. We enjoyed a tasty plât du jour, followed by coffee, at which point we fell into conversation with an English man at the next table. His inquiry if we were Brits did rather break our spell of being convincing natives, albeit natives with Italian accents.

Geoff and I were amazed to discover that this chap, resident in Normandy for the past 16 years (”and I still don’t speak a word of French” – shame on him) was the retired licensee of a pub that we knew well.

We knew many people in common, among them his former partner, and we learnt that he dreams of returning to live on the Jurassic coast.

Financial constraints are unlikely to allow this to happen, meaning he will probably see out his days in Normandy.

He didn’t seem too upset by this prospect, even if, by his own admission, he rarely has a clue of anything going on around him.

Whether or not that’s a good thing, I don’t know, but now I’m back home and the usual depressing news is coming from all angles, I can see it has its attractions.

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These words are being written in the sunny garden of an annexe to a large house in France where Geoff and I are staying for a week. Our quarters, and our area of garden, are private and perfect and our kind host has even given us permission to raid his vegetable garden and picture-book apple tree.

How are we getting on with our attempts to fit in and speak the language? In two words, pathetically badly. We gape like goldfish as we struggle for the right words to come out, but we are getting by with a confusing mix of of franglais spoken with Italian pronunciation. It’s certainly novel, and totally baffling for all, particularly us.

From my observations I note that to sound like one of the locals here in southern Brittany it would help if I spoke through a half-closed mouth. Mumbling is good. Looking like a dumbstruck goldfish is not. Also, I must learn to say ’Oui’ as though I’ve been punched in the stomach, so the word ends with a little expulsion of air. I like that so much I’ve been practising it.

On the subject of stomachs, mine has misbehaved abominably since the night before we were due to set off on hols, causing me hours of torment and lost sleep while I was violently sick. (Is there any other way to be sick, I wonder?)

Treat it mean, I decided, so 48 hours later I am still on nil by mouth and hoping that when tomorrow dawns it will find me eager for a restorative diet of good local food.

I do a terrific line in martyrdom, having been brought up not to make a fuss – even when, as a child, my horribly swollen tonsils just about blocked my throat and asphyxiated me, and I fell off horses so often that I was almost permanently nursing something wonky, bruised or broken, but definitely not feeling sorry for myself.

I have allowed a modicum of self-pity to surface when watching Geoff eat his lovely meals while I nurse a glass of water and a sad expression. I’ll get over this. I’ve decided on a galette for my first proper meal back in the world of normal. It’s a sort of buckwheat pancake and I think it will do me very nicely.

Even a bite of one now would be welcome, but I must wait. It doesn’t do to rush these things, and anyway, from other observations of the populace hereabouts, I note that, in spite of all the wonderful local produce available, eating probably doesn’t feature very high on the daily agenda. Everyone is so trim. So French. So stylish.

They are also, mercifully, not given to walking along with mobile phones welded to their hands. They look ahead, they talk with friends, they have expressions on their faces. This is all in total contrast with Italy and the Italians, for whom the mobile phone was invented.

There, you get barged off the pavement by phone-users, so you have to be constantly alert for what’s heading your way. Here, there is no such danger. The only pavement perils we’ve encountered are the countless mounds of dog poo.

So it’s heads up in Italy, heads down in Brittany. Otherwise, and the tummy gripes apart, of course, everything is just wonderful and nous sommes having un fab vacance in the soleil.

Having got such a good handle on the lingo, all we need now is the ability to speak it and not look like total fish out of water.





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Now that the temperature dial has reset itself to normal I am heading off to an altogether different climate.

At least I hope it will be different. Geoff assures me southern Brittany will be warm, quite possibly hot, so we’ll need to pack accordingly.

Never mind the packing: that’s always a last minute, panicky business. It’s being in France that’s obsessing me.

The pair of us have been on elastic between here and Italy for as long as I can remember. It fits us and we fit Italy. We’ve been to almost every region of the country, we speak the language, we love the food, we understand the way things work (or, too often, don’t work) and we love everything about being immersed in its infectiously lovable madness.

Now it’s time to break the habit. Geoff and I are digging deep into our memories to get the vestiges of our once passably good knowledge of the French language to bob up to the forefront of the heap in our brains marked ‘speaking foreign’ –  and we are going to bury our prejudices about French food.

The prejudices are based on a few unfortunate experiences when passing through France en route (just practising my French) to Italy. They’ve been hard to shake off, but we are ready and willing to give the food a jolly good chance to disprove our misgivings. Rich and creamy, drowned in sauces, loads of meat – all of that is anathema to Geoff and me, so we’ll be looking out for French food lite and I’m sure we’ll enjoy it.

Perhaps our main concern as we try and imagine ourselves in France is that, because it isn’t Italy, it’s out of our comfort zone. It’s different, it’s a challenge for us. It is therefore good for us. A sort of holiday with inbuilt effort.

We will be tested from the very start, as we’ll be staying in the annexe of a house whose owner warns us, in French, that his English is very poor.

I suspect that our conversation will initially be based around discussions about the pen of my aunt before we move seamlessly on to a brief discourse on the state of the Pont d’Avignon.

I might venture to impress him with my rendition of Frère Jacques and Geoff could break into Chansons d’Amour. I think Monsieur will be delighted by the entertainment.

If he even breathes the word Brexit I will fall into a dramatic faint. I cannot imagine the gloom that a discussion on that topic could cast over a holiday, so it won’t be tolerated. I must check before we get there how to say in French, “If you mention Brexit I’ll pass out. So don’t even think about it.”

I am also preparing a few choice words in my best franglais along the lines of “Je suis sorry but je have left mon beach body at home. In fact, je have jamais had one, being un petit peu sur le short side, but nous pouvons gloss over that.”

And then there’s the very important “Je suis hungry but if it’s tout de même with you I’ll pass on le horse meat and stick with une baguette, un kilo de fromage, et un unfeasible amount de vin.

“By the way, while je suis sur le sujet de food, je wouldn’t half mind un de votre best tartes au citron – et un grand one pour Monsieur Geoff. Merci beaucoup.”

I think we should get by with that. I’ll let you know how it goes.

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IN the aftermath of the devastating events in Paris it would be easy to stop smiling and impose a ban on happiness.

Heaven knows, there is little to be positive and cheerful about in the wake of such terror being visited upon mostly young people at leisure in a European capital. Not just any European capital, either, but the one closest to our shores and probably the most visited by Brits.

Close to home, yes, and, as we are now all too chillingly aware, quite likely to be merely the precursor.

So do we stay at home, lock our doors and change our lives to avoid all risk? Of course we don’t, we hold our heads up and get on with things as normally as possible.

Of course that is easier said than done. My son-in-law commutes into and across London where one assumes the risks are greatest, especially among crowds and especially in the run-up to Christmas. My daughter is fearful for him, but is no less fearful for her two little boys.

She shared her concern when we spoke on the phone at the weekend.  “I feel almost guilty for having brought two children into this awful world,” she said. “I don’t know how I can protect them from so much evil.”

At first, I could offer disappointingly little to help her. One constructive response might have been, “Tell you what, we’ll all move to a remote island in the Pacific,” but there would be as much wisdom in that as in what a friend offered to me as her solution: that we should immediately close all our borders and the Channel Tunnel should never have been built because she always knew it would be a Bad Thing. No, no wisdom and even less logic.

I simply responded to my daughter with the one thing that popped into my head, which was along the lines of: “You can’t hope to protect the boys from everything, not least random acts of terrorism. You can only give them the tools to be sensible, thoughtful, kind citizens and help them grow the confidence that will give them a zest for life mixed with a strong sense of self-preservation. But to bring them up in a risk-free environment and being over-protective is the way to go crazy.”

Now that I’m a granny I think I’m entitled to administer the odd preachy bit of advice from time to time, and that one was certainly one of my more extensive and serious sermons.

But these are serious times, and I feel dreadfully sorry for young people growing up in such uncertainty and with the responsibility of keeping their little ones safe. The most faultless parenting in the world cannot stop anyone from the sheer bad luck of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Therefore, my daughter and I agreed, we must all just get on with our lives while being sensible and mindful.

We then moved our conversation on to the fun the boys had had at school on Friday when they had to go dressed as the person they would like to be when they grow up.

Thus it was that Mummy found herself hurrying along the residential roads of an English market town in the company of two pint-sized and over-excited dinosaur hunters, her arms filled with containers of cakes and other goodies she’d baked for the school’s sale for Children in Need.

That’s what life is about: the everyday, the slightly dotty, the happiness that comes from little things. We should try never to let it be about fear and despair.

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I KNEW the weather would turn lovely and sunny. How did I know? Because we were going away.

It’s always the same: we head off somewhere, glad to escape the depressing climate, and, like a switch being thrown, no sooner are we out of the country than the weather back home behaves.

This time, while you were slapping on the suncream and firing up the barbie, Geoff and I were splashing our way around Europe in a car up to its armpits in rainwater.

Under noisily exploding lead-grey skies we have all-but aquaplaned through a corner of France, the whole of Belgium and Luxembourg, a very large part of Germany, all of Austria and half of Italy. That’s four days of our courage being tested not just by the foulest of weather but by foreign road signs and drivers’ idiosyncrasies – not at all easy when all the time we are being nagged and bullied by the sat-nav. The thing is superior to us, we know that, but then we haven’t swallowed the entire expanded version of The Road Maps of Europe 2013. There really is no need for Ms Snooty Sat-Nav to come across in such a know-all way and sound so exasperated if we so much as pull off the road for petrol. “Recalculating!” she shouts, and goes off to sort out a brilliantly inventive way for us to regain the motorway, clearly visible a few yards ahead down the slip road.

I got so bored with her tetchy voice that it was a relief when she was drowned out, almost literally, by thunderstorms breaking overhead. Windscreen wipers on double speed could barely cope with many of the downpours, and on one road in Italy, when I was driving and visibility had reduced to absolute oblivion, I pulled over to wait for the worst of it to pass. Naturally, being Italy, scores of drivers whizzed by at high speed.

Also being Italy, no sooner had the storm done its stuff than the sun broke through and dried everything nicely through a steamy haze to a crisp-baked finish. Even if you wake to rain in Italy, as we did this morning, it doesn’t hang around for long and soon it’s time to swap brolly for parasol – only metaphorically, I promise.

It was both interesting and uncomfortable to note on our long journey that Belgium, country of dull conformity and supposed comparative wealth, has the worst roads imaginable. You think our roads are badly potholed? Go and peer into some of Belgium’s – they make ours seem like puny little dents. We bumped and banged our way through that grey-in-all-senses country, wondering how EU money hadn’t found its way round the corner from Brussels into an urgent road-mending programme.

German roads were a joy, the drivers civilised and considerate, while Austria, for once, challenged us with few roadworks.

It is always remarkable how, potholes apart, little change is really discernible when crossing the various national borders – until entering Italy. Wham! Like a comedy slap in the face, you are plunged straight into the pantomime of Italian road lore, which dictates that if you aren’t either driving at 120mph clamped to the boot of the car in front or drifting at 25mph across two lanes with one hand gesticulating and the other holding up a phone, then you must be foreign. If that’s the case, then you’re going to be stared at as if you’re mad.

Not that you have to be mad to be in Italy, but it does help.

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