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Posts Tagged ‘holidays’

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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Geoff suffers from a complaint (although I’m the one complaining, not him) that goes by the name of selective hearing.

His tendency is to go all unresponsive and distant just when I am saying something important. I may be saying it for the 14th time, but if he had listened on one of the previous 13 occasions he needn’t have to put up with me being, well, just a little tedious in a stuck-needle sort of way.

As it is, I talk to myself so much that I get bored with the sound of my own voice. It would be nice to share my witterings, especially when they are informative and life-affirming. You’re missing so much, I tell him. He catches that without a problem and gives me a disbelieving, sideways look.

The selective deafness has built up over the years and gets activated especially when I talk about Cornwall.

Geoff has visited a few times and come away with the impression it is inhabited by people he can’t understand and ribboned with narrow lanes lined by stony banks that leap out and scratch the sides of his car. In other words, he hasn’t always had the happiest of experiences, and if it weren’t for the lure of Cornish pasties and saffron buns I might never have got him to my native county for five days last week.

“You’ll love it. I can tell you all about it,” I enthused. “I’ll even sing you some Cornish songs and explain some of the customs and give you the lowdown on the different types of boats the fishermen use and point out some of the features of Bodmin Moor and you wouldn’t believe how many famous writers and artists are from Cornwall, and . . .”

Of course, I lost him on the first corner – mention of the Cornish songs would have done it –  and he went into selectively deaf mode.

I sang the songs under my breath as we headed west, every mile taking me closer to my homeland and the ridiculous joy I knew I would feel on crossing the border.

That joy stayed with me for the duration of our visit, and I’m happy to say it infected Geoff as well. By his own admission, he fell under Cornwall’s spell, seduced by its uniqueness and pride, its breathtaking landscapes and seascapes, its happy people, its excellent food (not all pasties), its pretty towns and villages and its excellent roads.

I resisted the urge to say “See, I told you so,” and also managed to resist singing ‘Lamorna’ when we visited beautiful Lamorna Cove, or ‘Goin’ Up Camborne Hill Coming Down’ whenever we saw a road sign to Camborne.

In fact it was the road signs and signposts that held a particular charm for Geoff. He cherished some of the more outlandish names, exclaiming over such places as Mawnan Smith (“Surely that’s a greeting, not a village”), Gweek, Perranarworthal, Praze-an-Beeble, Mousehole and Indian Queens.

Having grown up with them, they didn’t tickle me as they did Geoff, but as a grockle (a visitor to Cornwall) he was entitled to be charmed. For me, they simply acted as accelerators of my emotions, flooding my nostalgia reservoirs as my mind flipped back and forth across the years.

The selective deafness was fully engaged as I droned on in my riveting way about “Friends who’d lived down that road,” or “I went to a party in that village.” Poor Geoff. He did enjoy it, even though his hearing problem seems to have become markedly worse.

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Everyone suddenly seems to be talking about holidays. Perhaps it’s the approach of spring, the relief that comes with longer daylight hours, the early-morning birdsong filling our hearts; who knows, but whatever it is, I keep encountering people who say they are crossing off the days until they get away.

I can’t bring myself to say ‘until they escape’, because, really, the notion of ‘escaping’ from this beautiful part of the world does seem far-fetched. We have it pretty cushy here when you think of the many other places where people are trapped and their lives, let alone their happiness, depend on escaping.

Costa Rica is emerging as a favourite destination among those who are keen to tell me where they are going. Why, that used to be just a hottish, steamy-ish tropical place on my school atlas, memorable (to me, at least) for its place on the rote-learned list of Central American countries squashed into the waistband between Mexico and South America.

Now, it would appear to be the go-to country for the more adventurous, its beautiful green landscape and relatively sophisticated economy possibly eclipsing the cachet that Mexico once had. Besides, it might be necessary to acquire wall-climbing skills if you’re going down Mexico way, and that’s not a 100% fun holiday activity.

Hot-spots like Dubai, Cuba, India and Thailand are luring friends away, while another couple we know are currently in the first of three months holidaying in Bali.

They’re SKI-ing – otherwise known as Spending the Kids’ Inheritance – and, by all accounts (so far, we’ve received four enthusiastic communications, including photos) they’re having the time of their lives. Good for them, I say.

Depending on the weather outside our house at the time, I either envy this couple with a passion as the rain beats against our windows, or think smug thoughts along the lines of ‘You’re welcome, I’m happy here, thanks’ as the early-spring sun illuminates the garden and the sky is a breathtaking, brilliant blue. Eat your heart out, Bali.

I give thanks for our temperate climate that means we don’t risk being bitten by a sneaky insect whose dimensions could be anything from ant-sized to elephantine, and I am also grateful for the fact I’m not over there on those amazing beaches feeling I ought to be out surfing all the time. It’s bad enough having to fit in a daily walk and remembering to go shopping sometimes, but going surfing, too? No, you can count me out. All that discomfort and, well, those great big terrifying waves. You don’t have to contend with those on the River Stour.

Naturally, Geoff and I have started holiday discussions of our own. It’s hard not to feel it must be our turn now when we learn of yet another bunch of friends heading off to exotica.

We don’t yet feel the need to hit an airport – nor can we muster the enthusiasm or the strength for such an assault on our senses – so we’re taking a couple of staycations this spring. That’s newspeak for not going too far afield. We’re going to Rye, in East Sussex, later this month, for three whole days, and to south Cornwall in late April for four whole days.

Both destinations will enable us to explore, to walk and to catch up with friends. All we need is some decent weather, but we’ll be filling the car with boots and rainproofs just to be on the safe side.

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Oh no, I couldn’t possibly go there, I said to Geoff, very firmly, when we were trying to choose a destination that might thaw us out post-winter.

Thus it was that I found myself last week on a plane heading for Madeira, the place where I couldn’t possibly go. It’ll be full of old people, I whined. There’ll be shuffling queues of beige OAPs and we’ll only be able to move at the pace of the slowest.

Wrong. Quite wrong. No shuffling queues. Plenty of old-ish people, acres of beige, but no shuffling. In fact, most people holidaying here – of whom 75 per cent appear to be Brits – walk about swiftly and with purpose, just the way I like it. Some have walking poles and really mean business. Others carry maps and manage not to look in the least bewildered. We marvel at how they can do this and hope that one day we’ll be half as competent.

It is hardly surprising we Northern European softies are here in droves. There is so much to like about Madeira. There is the mainly sunny, warm, climate, for a start, and the fact we’ve been able to leave at home the top three or four layers of our winter clothing. We’ve caught the sun, though obviously only with the intention of bringing it back with us, we’ve walked miles and we’ve also sat doing nothing. Unsurprisingly, we have developed a deep liking for this beautiful speck in the Atlantic.

There are plenty here younger than us taking advantage of the more adventurous pursuits of the kind that require a head for heights (everything involves huge hills) and a blind faith in the strength of climbing ropes and the reliability of engines.

Our lust for adventure has got us as far as climbing on and off the buses.. There are scores of them, whizzing about in different liveries, so it hasn’t been easy working out which will get us where we want to go, and back again. But by taking our courage in both hands we quickly mastered the system and after only two days we could confidently travel half-a-dozen stops without panicking. That’s quite enough adventure for us for one holiday.

It seemed entirely right that we should have been holidaying at the same time as international world happiness day was being celebrated. Geoff and I were certainly happy, but what about the Madeirans? My word, they are a glum lot! This lovely place, so clean and blessed with so much natural beauty, has every cause to spread sunny smiles, yet it doesn’t appear to have had that effect on the islanders. Their default is to look determinedly glum.

Sweep a glance across the faces of local bus passengers and you’d be forgiven for thinking they were on their way to a funeral.

I know life here isn’t all sunny days and relaxation, because for Madeirans the reality is seriously tough and jobs are hard to come by. Many families encourage their children to seek careers on the mainland of Portugal, 900km away, or elsewhere in the EU.

But since the heartbeat of the island is tourism it is surprising that even a pasted-on smile isn’t de rigeur.

One place where we did encounter the most genuine and joyful smiles of welcome was a restaurant where the chef/owner spoke in impeccable English. I couldn’t help remarking on it.

“Well, I should be able to speak it,” he laughed. “I’ve come home to Madeira after spending 20 years working in England.”

“Whereabouts,” I ask, nosily.

“Dorset.”

No wonder he’s a happy smiler.

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WE aren’t going away this summer. Am I sad about this, am I not champing at the bit to explore and make new memories of the sights to be found in that exciting destination called ’abroad’?

No, I am not sad at all. There are so many good things about staying put in summer, especially in this wonderful part of the world, and the very best thing of all is that we don’t have mosquitoes. Not in our neck of the woods anyway.

Mosquitoes love me, and they hold all-night dance parties all over me whenever they track me down. So far, though, they’ve never found me in Dorset, and for that I am eternally grateful.

Many a foreign holiday has been blighted by the utter misery of being bitten. Just hearing that high-pitched droning bzzzzzzzz on the first night and splat go any hopes of a relaxing few days. And why, heaven help me, do they buzz right in my ears? I can hear you at 20 paces, you hateful spoiler of holidays, so don’t come trying to bore your sneaky way into my head.

Some of my more heroic, but always pointless, battles with mozzies have been waged in hot bedrooms on European holidays.

Nothing, but nothing, equates with the heart-sinking hopelessness I feel when my space is invaded by these blighters, especially as I know they will always get the better of me. They gorge on me as if I am their personal eat-all-you-like meat buffet.

Geoff gets bitten, too, but never as badly as me. They love me to bits. They love me even when I’m drowning head to toe in 16 types of mozzie repellent and swaddled in clothing chosen for its impenetrable qualities.

One memorable war zone was our bedroom in the hotel in Venice where we stayed on our first visit many years ago. Oof, it’s stuffy in here, we said, as we opened all the windows before going out for the evening. Later, when we turned out the light to go to sleep we discovered we were sharing the room with a brigade of mosquito SAS intent on a feeding frenzy. They dive-bombed, swooped, circled, went invisible, sank their jaws into us, drank deep, and still came back for more. By morning, when neither Geoff nor I had slept but our overhead smash technique had improved to Wimbledon standard, we were groggy with fever caused by the bites – and the walls were spattered with corpses and blood stains. Our blood.

Never again have we opened windows with such abandon. We learnt a terrible, painful, feverish lesson and couldn’t believe how foolish we had been.

But it hasn’t just been holidays when the mosquito misery has cast its shadow. During the 18 relentlessly hot, humid months of living in the Far East there was not just the ever-present fear of being bitten by any kind of predator from pinhead size to nightmarishly big, but also the threat of dengue fever wiping us out in one small snap of mosquito jaws. Charming little things, aren’t they?

I swap mozzie battle plans with my friend Cat whenever we go to Italy. She has a sophisticated armoury of herbal potions that she has long employed to defend her pale, freckled skin against the enemy. But for the past few summers she has found the perfect answer: stay in a flat so high up that the mozzies don’t have the wing power to make the journey. Fourth floor or above is the answer, Cat swears, as she relaxes with a smile that says ’Gotcha!’

 

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The first two days of my grandsons’ stay in Dorset saw us explore the county museum in Dorchester (the dinosaurs were a particular triumph), our own local museum, and a favourite bookshop.

How worthy it sounds, but in reality we had a wonderful time because museums nowadays are accessible places of discovery for small hands and lively minds. For a four-year-old and a two-year-old the very feel of an elephant’s tooth, its sheer weight and ridiculous size, must surely be unforgettable.

When I was a child (grandmas are allowed to say that at least six times a day) I spent hours in museums waiting for my father while he was in meetings or researching something arcane, and I’d stare but never touch, defeated by Latin names, appalled by displays of moths and spiders, tormented by stuffed birds, lost in awe in the picture galleries, forever conscious of being just a small person adrift in a strange adult world of musty fustiness.

One of the boys’ favourite places in London is their local museum, the Horniman, where the natural history displays offer endless opportunity for discovery and interest. It was not surprising, then, that they took such pleasure in the two they visited in Dorset, although each time they talked about dinosaurs and fossils I had the feeling they were referring to me.

With the sun out and the countryside glowing, our activities moved outdoors. Various playgrounds were tried, tested and declared “brilliant”, and a walk, lunch and some terrific chatter was enjoyed with their great-grandma, whose cup overflowed with joy at being with them.

We found bridges on which to play Pooh sticks and hunted in vain for otters. Kingfishers stayed disappointingly out of sight, too, although rabbit droppings were a pretty compelling distraction on some of our walks. So numerous, so small, so uniform in size – so fascinating. Funny, I’d never have imagined it possible to have such long conversations about rabbit poo, but then I’d never have thought I’d be making up stories about Dorothy the dodo and Bob the lighthouse keeper to help the boys settle in the evenings.

They both adored the model town in Wimborne and my daughter and I were charmed by it, too. In fact, Joe, aged four, was eager to go back for a second visit but I suggested we tried Farmer Palmer’s farm park where we would see animals and, pause for tumultuous cheering, tractors.

Aren’t tractors just the thing for whipping up a frenzy of excitement? Tractors and dinosaurs and rabbit poo. Dorset really has it all.

We spent several happy hours at Farmer Palmer’s and we were terrifically impressed. It has a lovely atmosphere, with everything aimed at under-8s and an absolute minimum of those spoilsport strictures about behaviour and ’elf n safety so we could all just get on with the fun.

There were tractors – small ones for pedalling and big ones pulling trailers for bumpy, giggly rides along muddy tracks. There were animals galore, some for stroking, some for just staring at in awe, and there were two adorable ponies, Charlie and Dinky, perfect for two small boys to have their first ride, huge smiles just visible under their hats.

It was a roaring success of a day, the whole experience rounded off for the boys with an ice-cream cone with a chocolate flake. Such is the stuff of holidays.

The spell broke on Saturday when Daddy came to take Mummy and the boys home, three hours away in another world. We’re left feeling sad, but on the bright side Geoff and I will soon be out of therapy.

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