THE DOG AND WHEELCHAIR.

We’ve had the dog’s view of our holiday in France. Here’s the human’s view.

We were in Brittany staying in a gite (suitable for dogs and wheelchairs) at St Paul de Leon, about 10 km south west of Roscoff. I had imagined this section of France, facing Cornwall but largely unvisited by the British, as being like Cape Wrath in Scotland, – empty wilderness, battered by Atlantic storms, but in fact it was low rolling hills, beautiful beaches with white sand and rocks, and although the weather was cloudy and cool, in fact it was never really cold. It was fine agricultural land, well tended, and here were numerous small and ancient towns, with buildings in grey stone, and churches with weirdly decorated spires.

We drove to Plymouth, had a walk on the Hoe, nodded to the statue of Sir Francis Drake and had a meal. Then the wait to get on the ship which was a bit slow in getting underway but was fine when they checked us in. We got the key to our cabin at check in; they parked us right next to the lift. We found our cabin to be spacious and comfortable.

I however was tired, so we retired to our respective beds. I always sleep well in a boat, Sometime in the night, a drunk couple came back to their cabin beside ours. “Monsieur, Madame.’ A French crew member enquired solicitously, ‘Are you OK? You have pressed the emergency button.” A slurred male voice replied,’ No we haven’t touched it. It was like that when we came.” Muffled giggles came from within the cabin. The French steward dropped his charming manners and snarled, Yes, you did; you pressed it twice. If you press it again, you will be arrested.’ He stomped away and we heard nothing more. But I thought, arrested? Do they have a cabin to detain arrested persons? Who would do the arresting? The remark seemed to give our hiccuping neighbours some pause for thought, for we heard no more of them. Somewhere in the night, I woke and thought Charged. Not arrested. Charged. It’s not quite the same thing.

We left the ship without incident, bought some groceries, and made our way to the gite. It was satisfactory and comfortable. There was a field nearby full of peonies. I was very excited by this – I had never seen a field of peonies in flower -what colour would they be? When later I discovered that they were artichokes, I was very disappointed. (A lot of bother to prepare for Elisabeth and the eating not worth the effort.)

We had some lovely meals though – ranging from simple creperies, to a 2 star Michelin hotel, plus a 2 star Michelin hotel that we abandoned, to a delicious no choice menu in a shack in a wood, served by a waitress who had a swan like neck

This part of France is not much visited by the British – we only saw one other British car. It had lovely sandy beaches, with sand dunes, rocks and rock pools, and many rivers which at low tide were completely empty with just a tiny stream left running in the dark mud. I had never seen this before and at first wondered if it was a tsunami indication, but it happened every tide. There were also islands with causeway walks out to them.

We saw our first swallows in France this year, and heard the cuckoo. Larks rose up beside us on the grass behind the dunes with their heart catching song. We saw avocets and several pairs of shell ducks.

We visited a tropical garden in Roscoff where amazingly exotic things grew right beside the sea on an unpromising piece of rocky land. We visited a market selling livestock, rabbits and quail among the more usual things, in a very beautiful small town with a lovely market square and charming street. We found a lovely campsite in a town called Locquirec to which we think we might go back at some stage with our caravan.

John and I, walking in Morlaix while Elisabeth and Robert took Milo for the obligatory worming session by a Vet, came across one of those shops selling paintings It was our last day, and there was a large painting of avocets in the window. I like that, I said to John, and in one of these decisions where neither of you hesitates that makes for the best purchases, he said, So do I; let’s have it. The shop was shut but we had a coffee and waited. We bumbled round the shop like the tourists we were; the lady was quite surprised when we said, apparently without any discussion, we’d like that painting. So now it hangs on our wall, reminding us of our lovely holiday.

We commend this part of France for anyone wanting a quiet break, near the Channel ports, in a forgotten part of France that’s still France-for-the-French.

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DOG DAYS

I’d better introduce myself. I’m Dog, Golden Retriever. The name’s Milo.

I’ve been away from home with my main man and his lady. They call it holidays, which means you don’t have to work, but I still have to guard my party, see off other dogs, encourage the main man to do more walks for the good of his health, and prevent wastage of food.

We went in the car. It was full up of my lady’s clothes. There was only just enough room for me.

The first night we stayed in a hotel. It was a dangerous place. All through the night thieves and persons up to no good would come right up to our door. I stayed awake so I could do my ‘I am a dog with vicious teeth’ wolf-howl. The main man kept telling me to be quiet and in the morning my lady was cross with me because she said she hadn’t slept. She wasn’t in the least bit grateful that she was saved from nasty intruders.

We then went in a ship which was sitting in a huge puddle, and I wanted to explore it but they locked me in the car and went off and left me! I did my wolf howl several times!

When eventually after a long drive with several stops for me, we got to the house of the holiday, my lady’s parents were already there, cooking food. My lady’s father is good for extra walks when the main man is being lazy, and my lady’s mother is always good for a nice cuddle, and she doesn’t tell on me when I sneak under the table beside her. Sometimes she drops bits of her food too, so I work hard keeping under her chair free from crumbs. The only problem with them is that they keep getting lost. We’ll be having a walk and suddenly they stop and turn back while the main man and his lady stride on. I rush after them and tell them several times they’re going the wrong way but they never listen. I was always amazed how they managed to find their way back to the house without the main man.

There were hens at the house – silly birds that can’t fly. We were supposed to feed them and collect the eggs. I used to sneak off when no-one was looking and approach their hut from the back where they couldn’t see me and creep up and give a quick, quiet, woof. They would be all flutter and flap and squawk as if they thought I was the red fox that eats hens. I am much bigger than fox and I do not eat hens. One of them fell off her perch dead one day, but that was nothing to do with me.

The big puddle was great fun, though it was a bit alarming at first – the water would sneak up behind you and try to grab you. But the main man would stay near, and I knew the big puddle would not dare to snaffle me if he was there. And it was good to swim in. It tasted salty. There were interesting things on the beach – dead birds and fish that had got left behind – they smelled fascinating but my lady would turn her nose up and not allow me to clean up the beach. I would get a bit miffed with the main man when I would come out of the big puddle and he would make me stand under a drip of not salty water to ‘clean me up’. But I could usually find a small muddy puddle and I would wallow in it and then roll in some lovely smelling earth and then my lady would call me disgusting. I’m not sure what disgusting means but I like being disgusting, especially because I get washed when we get back – I don’t like that bit – but then when I am almost dry my lady would brush me, and when my lady brushes me and says I am the best doggy in the world – well, I know that of course, but when my lady whispers it, I feel wonderful.

French dogs aren’t up to much, usually rather small and silly. Mind you, I saw one sitting at a table eating with his people and I hoped my people would see what an excellent idea this was.

So I thought this holiday idea was great fun. I recommend you all go on one with your people.

After all, it was good for Milo, and everybody knows that what’s good for Milo is good for the people.

TOUJOURS LA FRANCE

TOUJOURS LA FRANCE

I’m generally not sentimental or nostalgic. I don’t think it would have been fun – at all – to have lived in previous ages. Now is always the best time – and if you think about it, it is the only time we have. Yet this summer, I found myself thinking, France isn’t what it used to be.

One of the most annoying things about France used to be their resistance to change, yet in their stubborn conviction that their way was of course right, lay a great protection for all things delightfully French. Vive la difference!

When we first explored France with our children, 25 years ago, we had not travelled very much at all, so it was a great adventure to go down through France. At that time you could set off from Calais with no bookings and just turn up at hotel or campsite and be assured of a place. We would wander along and just kind of stumble across wonderful things. Carnac just a field of stones without even a fence to protect it; the beautiful Pont du Gard, where John and Rory walked on the very top of the aquaduct.

No-one spoke anything but French (why would they?). You could only eat proper meals at 12 noon and 8 pm. In every restaurant of calibre the owner or his wife would act as maitre d’. and would be ensconced in some strategic position viewing all, and local diners would greet and kiss this notable on arrival and departure as if seeking permission to eat at their illustrious table. We found if we shook hands on departure and praised the food (which was uniformly excellent), when we next patronised the establishment we too would be greeted by Madame like a long lost relative and escorted by her in person to a table.

John who was working in France some of that time leading a team that was changing each country’s locally designed computer system to a standard one none of them wanted, came across the French attitude –  ( I’ve been to the Sorbonne therefore my intellect is superior and my decisions are correct and should not be challenged), – and could terminate ‘side’ discussions with his phrase: “The business of this meeting will be conducted in English,” had one or two run ins with French bureaucrat types on holiday. He found one bank clerk singularly unhelpful, refusing to understand his less than perfect French, but also declining any other language. “Then find me some educated person who does speak English,” said he and saw at once by the bank clerk’s deeply offended manner that he did indeed speak English perfectly well and knew that he’d been insulted.

But France has changed. You really must book hotel room and campsite ’emplacement’, even in May and June – not strictly the ‘high’ tourist season. No restaurant can afford a maitre d’ who does no other work. The majority of people speak quite reasonable English and are perfectly obliging. I suspect (my ear is not good enough to establish) that as in the UK, many of the waiting staff are not French. You can get a snack at any time of day. Ancient wonders are fenced off, charged for; rendered profitable and infested with tourists.

In many ways it’s easier, more convenient, more up to date – but it’s less French.

So France has changed. But then, so have we. We’re probably not what we used to be either!

Here’s the grey cat of an earlier blog, (photographed by John and set free from imprisonment in the computer by Robert!) cleaning his whiskers after enjoying our fish.

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TALKING CAT

TALKING CAT

We’re just back from France, where we were for over three weeks and apart from one brief thunderstorm at Troyes, it never rained, and for the last week the temperature was in the 30s. I’ll tell some tales about it, but here’s a minor episode – but one I found charming.

 

We were exploring, with our friends Nan and Steve from Scotland, the hinterland behind the coast from Nice to Cap d’Antibes, and on this particular day about lunch time we walked through the hilltop village of Gourdon. It was very attractive; all tiny streets with beautiful ancient doorways surrounded by pots of flowers, pretty shops, just delightful. In addition although not tourist free (yes I know WE were there, but we’re travellers, not tourists!) it was blessedly light on visitors, unlike the more popular but in no way more lovely town of St Paul de Vence which we had battled our way through the previous day.

 

At the high point of the village were three tables of a restaurant, shaded by large umbrellas, and with an absolutely stunning view right down the valley as far as Nice Airport. Belonging to (or possibly owning) this restaurant was a large grey cat, handsome, and I guessed a Tom judging by the size of his head, his large paws and his powerful neck muscles. When our host came out to discuss what we might have (he spoke only in French and there was no written menu), Monsieur le Chat padded out beside him, and stood with his head on one side for all the world as if he too would have advised you on what was the best choice. He went to each table and listened while the menu was discussed. Our host went off to organise our choices, and the cat remained, studying the tables with intent (rather reminding me of Ewan wondering where to entrust his chocolate egg.) After a thorough consideration of everyone, the cat came back and sat down at my feet.

 

I said to him, Do you speak English? The cat didn’t deign to look at me, but the twitch of his elegant back clearly indicated, I speak ‘Cat’. So, I thought, Cat it is.

 

John and I had both chosen to have a fish called St Pierre, (which tasted rather like bream.) So I said to the cat, ‘Come back when they serve us the fish, and I will share mine with you.’ With a small flick of his tail he walked off and disappeared out of sight.

 

We had a delicious first course of Soup of Melon with tiny dices of cucumber in it. Lunch was slow, but we had time. Two hang-gliders took off just beneath us and went soaring past on the thermals. The dishes were cleared away. Monsieur came back with our main course, and all of a sudden the cat was back at my feet, still not looking at me. The cat and I ate the fish together. I did not give him skin or lesser pieces, but shared the best with him. I ate about two thirds and he had a third: he also got some of John’s. He ate daintily, slowly and silently. He never made any call, nor did he ask for anything at all. Eventually we came to the last morsel. I gave him the best juicy bit, and I said to him, ‘I’m afraid that’s the last of it, Puss. All done.’ With a small flick of acknowledgement from his tail, he finished his meal. When he had eaten every fragment, he raised his head and looked me full in the face for the first and only time, ‘squinged’ at me from his beautiful eyes, and then made a leisurely departure to a nearby sunny window sill where he cleaned his paws and settled down for a post prandial snooze!

 

Did he speak English or did I speak Cat?

 

Bon appetit to the subtle and lovely cats of France!

 

(I do have a photo of the grey cat, but at present he’s stalking the corridors of cyber space, and I am unable to set him free.   I’m working on it!)

 

 

THINGS TO DO WITH A PINEAPPLE

THINGS TO DO WITH A PINEAPPLE

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(The photograph, courtesy of John Armstrong, shows Hily van Bladel and myself in Grasse, Provence.)

Prior to our visit to Provence in May of this year, it was some time since we had eaten in France, and though there are many things about the French one can deplore, one can always forgive them all their sins for the excellence of their food.

Sitting in the sun in the open central square of a town in Provence, little boys playing street tennis in the dusty space, drinking coffee – very strong – is nice.    Having a delicious white coffee in a narrow street in Grasse with shops full of embroidered linen all around us, and a meringue as big as my head, crisp and firm at the outside and chewy and melting in the middle, was even nicer.

In a street in St Raphael, (with tablecloths!)  over-looking the marina, I had Lobster Salad; the meat having been extracted and replaced in the shell for ease of consumption.   This was followed by Ils Flottants, its soft meringue floating in a sea of egg custard.   Nan, one of our Scottish friends who had come with her husband to meet us and our Belgian hosts for lunch, and I were comparing this pudding with one we had eaten in Vernon, near Giverney, when visiting Monet’s garden some years previously.   (I choose this whenever it’s on the menu!)

At a water mill in Montauraux, in very beautiful surroundings in the garden, we first had, courtesy of the house, little toasts with different pates.   Then a tiny cup with fragrant cream of asparagus soup, and only then what I had ordered – cooked rabbit with vegetables.   The meat was curled around a little twig and tasted rather like a game bird – stronger than chicken.   And for pudding, what the English menu the waiter had insisted on our having (I often find the English incomprehensible and prefer to take pot luck with the French) quaintly described as Different Things to do with a Pineapple.   (I could think of plenty of different things to do with a pineapple, none of which were suitable to put on a menu.)We had fried pineapple, grated pineapple, and pineapple sorbet.   Then coffee or tisane and dainty sweetmeats.

But I also saw surprisingly many obese people, so I conclude that the French have abandoned their divine cuisine and eat fast food these days, for the fat people cannot all have been visitors.

In the market places there were stalls piled high with wonderful fruit and vegetables, others filled with crusty loaves, and gloriously aromatic ones displaying herbs and spices…

After a period in France, you despair of their dangerous driving, their hauteur, their cumbersome bureaucracy, their lack of interest in plumbing – but even as these things irritate you, when you remember the food – well, what do these trifles matter?

La cuisine – c’est la gloire de la France.

PS

Things To Do with a Pineapple:

1                     Lob it as a weapon

2                     Use it as a hat stand

3                     Use it for darts practice

4                     Display it as a still life

5                     Take the skin off, slice it, reassemble it, stick cheese on sticks in it

6                     Play football with it

7                     Give it as a gift

8                     Play boules with it

9                     Use it as ant bait.

LA FRANCE EN ETE

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We’ve been in France, always a pleasure at any time, but especially in June.       We flew to Nice, and stayed with Belgian friends in their lovely ‘mas’ in the small wooded hills inland from St Raphael.     It was good to spend time with them again talking of earlier times we had met, in Scotland, Sussex, London, Antwerp and on the Belgian coast.   John enjoyed swimming in their large pool and just resting and reading in their garden was very relaxing.

We ventured out with them on various outings of course.   Even the local supermarket in France is always fascinating.   We went to an interesting market in the nearby town of Fayence which was hilly and picturesque.      The market contained clothes (I bought a white dress decorated with poppies);  linen (I bought some of that too);  leather goods;  jewellery;  spices;  food.   We drove to St Raphael, where I had never been before, an attractive coastal town with a pleasant promenade where we met up with friends from Scotland and had lunch sitting outside in the sun.    We also had lunch another  day in the garden of a lovely old mill in Montauroux.      We went to Grasse, and visited the perfume house Fragonard where I bought some small presents, and a pair of white china birds (I seem to be amassing a collection, though I don’t ‘collect’, I just acquire things and yes, there is a difference!)  and we walked its narrow streets (some of them have steps ) and entered a 12th century cathedral built on a massive scale with columns of enormous girth, and looked at their war memorial.    Mort pour la France, they say.   I said to our hosts, we don’t say. ‘Died for Britain.’   What do you say, they asked?  I thought, there is no equivalent,   After some thought, I said, we say, ‘Their name liveth forever more’.   They thought that was a good enough alternative.

France did not seem entirely in good order.   There was a faint air of sullen resentment about the population, and you got the impression they were uncertain of their future.    People were not generally as kind and helpful over the wheelchair as they are in the UK (though there were notable exceptions to this of course.)      John practically had to fight to preserve our chairs in a cafe when Hedwig and I had gone briefly to examine a nearby stall.    He had to go so far as to ‘stand up’ ( as he described childhood encounters with the bullies.)   But all was in order when we got back to our chairs except that we could see that the men were still coming down from their adrenalin rush!

As for the driving…   Even John, fearless explorer and adventurer that he us, decided that should we return to this area, it would be inadvisable to attempt the twisting, narrow roads and apparently suicidal drivers with a British car, and he would feel more comfortable flying and hiring one.

But these were minor irritations and we had a lovely time.   The company was fun, the food DSC01725delicious, the weather glorious.

La France en ete.   What more could you want?

(The first photo shows me beside the market, the one of John and me is beside the cathedral in Grasse.)   Both courtesy of John Armstrong.