There follows… a ‘Kind of French holiday diary’. It’s mostly my people watching musings (the days referenced are approximate). Alternatively, we could call it ‘Escape from Boris, Robert Troy, the Marty Whelan tattoo, the Healy-Raes, Budget talk and heatwave hysterics’….
The 19-hour sailing from Dublin Port to France on the WB Yeats was very relaxing. As I’ve written here before, the facilities on these ships are generally excellent, with restaurants, bars, a cinema, kids’ club, shop, and of course ensuite cabins in which to be gently rocked to sleep.
I’ve brought a selection of books, as I only get time (or find the discipline) to read when on holidays. I’m trying to read book one, but the young duo (I’d say ‘couple’ would be premature) sitting across from us in The Maud Gonne Bar & Lounge are quite annoying. She’s from Belgium, he’s Irish. While she chatters animatedly, the guy – who sports a hairstyle that would remind you of Miley in Glenroe – operates to a completely different pace. In fact he looks like he could do with being charged up every hour or so. They’re grand, but very giddy. He pops to the bar, and there’s respite from the non-stop chatter. Later, they wander off. Gonne but not forgotten. I return to my book.
Docking in Cherbourg at 11 am, we take the three-hour drive to the village of Chailland. The weather is beautiful, the French countryside spectacular, with colourful cornfields knitting the villages together (we try to avoid motorways).
The friendly son of the landlady welcomes us at the house we’re renting. A very old former family home, the property was recently modernised, and is beautiful. Our host shows us around and reveals there’s a complimentary bottle of wine and six eggs in the fridge. He doesn’t say where the wine came from, but does inform us that the eggs came direct from his grandparents’ hens, who are scurrying around outside (the hens).
The village is very picturesque, the streets quaint, the buildings featuring those charming shutters outside the windows. Chailland is located in a valley, and shadowed by spectacular rock face. Large statues of Jesus and the Virgin Mary have been erected on a mountain which is a backdrop to an old church. The River Ernée peacefully flows through the village.
I’ve had some heartburn, and so on our drive today I’m on the lookout for a pharmacie. It will be my first proper interaction with a French person on this trip, so I’ve already checked online what I need to say.
In the lovely town of Fougères, I step into the pharmacie and approach the lady behind the counter, confident that this won’t be awkward.
“Bonjour, avez-vous quelque chose pour brûlures d’estomac?” (“Good day…have you anything for burnt stomach?”).
She hasn’t (smiles and points). That’s when I realise it’s a parfumerie (perfume store)…not a pharmacy.
Today, in extreme heat, we stopped at an attractive café/restaurant, hoping to get a quite bite to eat/cool drinks. There were four of us. We ordered three starters from the menu, plus one kid’s portion, plus four drinks, plus a coffee, and also pinpointed desserts. The waitress smiled as she accepted the order. Two minutes later, the chef/owner suddenly arrived, apologised, but explained “It is not enough…I have staff to pay!” Apparently our order was of insufficient scale. Did we want to order more, he wondered. Verdict: Nah. I pledge to send our new friend a link to the best of Fawlty Towers.
Many readers will be familiar with the hit Channel 4 TV programme ‘Escape to the Chateau’…in which Dick, Angel and family restore a dilapidated 19th century French chateau and transform it into a wedding venue (and their family home). When Fiona discovered that the chateau was only half an hour from where we were staying, we had to investigate.
“It will be surrounded by high walls” I predicted, but much to our delight you could drive right up to the start of the avenue and view the magnificent fairytale-like property. A sign at the entrance welcomes callers (inviting people to take photos) while naturally asking for the family’s privacy to be respected.
In the distance, I saw a man gardening and thought ‘I bet that’s Dick himself’. When he suddenly waved at me, I waved back. On closer analysis I realised it was a gardener and he hadn’t been waving; he was throwing something into a trailer. C’est la vie, I suppose.
Sitting outside a small café in Mayenne. The waiter is a cheerful chap. The weather is in the early 30s, both glorious and taxing. Our drinks and ice cream are very welcome. A wasp goes into my ear but leaves as quickly (that was the last I heard of him; sorry). Five or six gregarious locals make a great fuss over a very big dog, one of the party popping into the café and returning with a bowl of water for said guest of honour. When I go in to pay, Cheerful Waiter introduces me to Less Cheerful Barman, who offers a half-hearted ‘Bonjour’. While Cheerful Waiter is totting our bill, I spot an elderly man alone in the centre of the café, dressed like a sheriff from the old (wild) west. He’s sitting there, in waistcoat, hat, trousers and boots, badges, holster, the lot. He has his back to a fireplace and is staring straight ahead. When I pay our bill, adding a reasonable tip, Cheerful Waiter suddenly turns into a showman, exclaiming ‘Beep! Beep!’, striking up some music, high-fiving Less Cheerful Barman, and wishing me well. On my way out, I throw a final glance at the Sheriff, confident that drawing of pistols will not be required.
An update on my holiday reading: I actually read six books (I know, but I was really fired up for a get-away-from-it-all reading blitz). Here’s a quick rundown on my very random reads, in case it helps any readers.
1: The Accidental Footballer. This is the biography of slightly eccentric former Everton and Chelsea footballer (and music fan) Pat Nevin, who is a regular on Newstalk’s Off The Ball. It was an enjoyable read about a quirky and likeable guy.
2: Kiss Me Like A Stranger. I bought the late, great Gene Wilder’s autobiography in a bookstore in Boston a number of years ago, and was so looking forward to reading it, I almost didn’t want to (because then I could no longer look forward to doing so). It didn’t disappoint.
3: Unusually for me, I switch to fiction. But I love the late William Trevor’s writing. He once lived in County Roscommon (as a boy). ‘Other People’s Worlds’ is a clever, superb novel about the impact a conman has on a number of people he crosses paths with.
4: ‘Walking with Ghosts’. I bought this in Galway some months ago, after staring at it for about ten minutes. I couldn’t resist, as the reviews of Gabriel Byrne’s book were so glowing. Also, I was interested as the actor’s late mother was a native of Elphin, Co. Roscommon. Sadly, Elphin doesn’t even get a mention, but his mum (Eileen Gannon) is probably the key figure in this superbly well written memoir.
5: The Evenings. One of our daughters bought this Dutch classic from the 1940s in a shop in Galway. I’d never heard of the book or its author (Gerard Reve). I was very near to abandoning this unusual book, but stuck with, and am glad I did. It’s the story of how a young man with a very dark sense of humour spends his evenings in the suburban streets of Amsterdam. It was strange, sometimes even disturbing, but hilarious too. A book I’ll never forget.
6: ‘And Away’. The one I was most looking forward to. The autobiography of comedian/actor Bob Mortimer. I wasn’t the greatest fan of his surreal TV work with Vic Reeves (even though I get that type of humour), but Bob has found a whole new following through his epic appearances on Would I Like To You? in recent years (check them out on YouTube).
We’ve long rejected lazy stereotypes about the French. Veteran visitors to France by now, we love the country, and generally find the people very friendly. The campsites are fabulous, with great on-site facilities, and are particularly suitable for families with young children. (Later during our holiday we spent a few nights in one of our favourite such locations, Château de Lez-Eaux, outside Granville, which is highly recommended).
Our two weeks (I skipped a few days) have flown by, and we’re back on Irish soil. Stalled at traffic lights in Dublin, I suddenly notice that the cheerful taxi driver across from me is…having a shave while waiting for the lights to turn green. Yep, he’s shaving away, smiling too. Bare-faced cheek(s).