I was bought up by Francophiles – we’d get off the boat and my dad would breathe deeply and intone ‘Ah, La Belle France‘ like a communion rite. From an early age it would be my job to plan the route to our holiday home and book the overnight stops. I’d arm myself with piles of information from the French Tourist Board in Piccadilly (now alas no longer – a victim of the internet age) and pore over maps and leaflets to find the perfect hotel with the meilleur rapport entre prix et qualite – we’ve always lived life simultaneously high on the hog whilst balanced on a shoestring.
And I found some doozys – the truck stop outside Dijon where we feasted on melon with port and steak frites and the truckers necked pastis after pastis then drove off at speed spinning their wheels; the down at heel in the middle of nowhere where every course at dinner had a hefty dose of garlic; the goldilocks cottages by the river where head height wasn’t generous but the kitchen certainly was; the remote, charmingly decrepit semi chateau where the proprietor made us omelettes with the ceps he’d collected that afternoon; and many many more, north and south, east and west, some wonderful, some the subject of hilarious stories later (though not quite so amusing at the time).
And then we’d arrive in Provence or Brittany or the Languedoc. Once or twice we camped and I have vivid memories of inflating an airbed as my dad struggled with the tent and a colossal, apocalyptic thunderstorm bashed and rattled its windswept way around the mountains. But every time it was 2 weeks of heaven, a little slice of paradise nestled in the vines or minutes away from the dunes or tucked away in verdant foothills. Every 2 weeks was another line on the love letter we constantly wrote to France, our amour.
Of course there were bad times – the time I decided to dive for my brand new bikini bottoms (white with silver rings holding the 2 triangles of fabric together) and found they were no longer on the sea bed where I’d placed them (duh, clearly my knowledge of the tidal movements of the ocean was not great), the time the iron shorted out and nearly electrocuted my aunt, the time my kid brother and our cousins spewed red wine and cider copiously over their beds. But that was the worst it ever got. The rest of my memories are bathed in that particular golden light that only occurs in childhood when those 2 weeks stretch out under deep blue skies forever before time snaps back as you pack the car and leave.
My parents finally signed off that love letter and moved to La Croix Haute on Valnetine’s Day 1997. I went to visit later – one too many bad relationships and a loose end in my so called ‘career’ – and stayed…and stayed. The light was perhaps not quite so golden but it healed me anyway. Long walks down quiet lanes and good cheap wine will do that eventually. I fell in love with teaching kids who paid me in chickens and trips to Noz, austere medieval churches and local fetes, aperitifs with voisins and balmy star filled nights.
Unpacking a box of stuff one day I found a scrapbook I’d made of a long ago summer holiday – postcards and sugar wrappers and a horse chestnut from the Champs Elysees and the tale of the trip in a clear schoolgirl hand. I’ve been hoarding nuggets of memories like that horse chestnut from all my years of being in love with France. Every journey had its unexpected pleasures, its hidden treasures, truffles to be snuffled out by my childhood snout – and I’ve been snuffling them out ever since.
I started thinking about the unexpected journey that we’ll be taking in about a year’s time and the reasons for doing it. Those reasons are rooted deep in the way that our whole family – whatever stresses and strains and tensions there had been in the previous 12 months – would collectively relax as soon as we trundled off the ferry, ready for another adventure in la belle France.
I’m ready for that unexpected journey now. My name is Suze and I’m a hopeless Francophile.