Taking road trips through France during the summer. Starting from England, you knew you had to gird your stomach for the ferry or hovercraft crossing of The Channel. Even if the water looked as calm as a mill-pond, you knew that it could get choppy, and then woe betide us all as the boat rocked and rolled and yawed. Sick dogs, this way. But, let’s skip that and the prospect of a meal on the boat. La France (Calais or Boulogne) lay a short while away and then it was the open road.
You car should have been serviced and the requisite driving documents obtained from the AA. Your glove pockets were filled with your set of Michelin maps for your planned itinerary; this year’s vintage or earlier years did not matter so long as you had all the sheets for your route. But, the joy of the maps or the Michelin Guides was that you could change those plans and decide to make new arrangements. Get more maps, as needed, for wider area or more detailed if you felt you wanted to venture deeper into the French countryside.
As nervousness about driving on the ‘wrong side of the road’ eased after navigating a few roundabouts and remembering ‘priorité à droite‘, the foot could ease into the driving. The window could be rolled down; the trees could roll by; the lookout was on for somewhere nice to stop to buy baguettes, saucissons, cheese, beer, wine, and all that the French would offer during their hot, languid summers. Better to enjoy all of this en plein air, au naturel.
Whether the ultimate destination was a cottage or campsite, the getting there was very much part of the fun, and allowing days to drive easily to the destination was important. Taking in some major sites on the way would always be a thrill–just think of chateaux, many. Once at ‘the site’, mobylettes or bicycles or feet would work for little trips into the local village for supplies or for other trips that were part of the lazy two weeks, or whatever. Most of the French were doing the same–the country was in one deep slumber.
I visited France during the summer more times than I can recall, the first time was on a school trip to the Loire Valley, when I was about 13. We stayed in a large farmhouse and made good friends with our French school hosts. We enjoyed baguettes and cheese and jam with bowls of hot chocolate for breakfast. We swam. We played billiards. We tried news drinks, like diablo menthe (lemonade with creme de menthe). We toured. I was hooked.
I travelled to France with friends during university years, when we were all PC (pre-children). We rented isolated farmhouses, set in fields far away from any other houses. We drank wine as we could find from local vineyards. We grilled our food and shared the chores happily or not. Beds were not always a priority; sleeping bags were always at the ready. Sometimes, we pitched tents and slept outside the house to be able to enjoy the open sky at nights. We took camping holidays and enjoyed the ‘luxury’ sites with designated spots and power outlets; their communal shower stalls and kitchen areas–amenities which far outstripped many a ‘camp site’ in England. They were good in the 1970s and 1980s and, I imagine, are very good now. When the budget was tight, though, the canvas cover was a savour–money left over to spend on more important things than accommodation.
We also travelled for many years to spend holidays renovating an old farmhouse in the Massif Central bought by my then in-laws, which stood with a clear view to Mont Blanc. Many rocks and stones were moved. Much wood was chopped and cut. Many hedges were made from scratch. Much sweat and blood was shed. As children appeared, they would spend their days running freely in fields whose boundaries we could not see, or playing in nearby streams. Many summers were spent with no prospect of sleeping or eating inside that farmhouse. Then bathrooms and bedrooms started to take shape and be operational (on a rotating basis–you could time your trip to raise your chances of sleeping indoors); the kitchen got finished.
The pleasures of enjoying a variety of French food and drink–rustic or more elegant; on the road or at little restaurants or cafes–was only matched by the joy of buying goodies to take home. Your car had to come back laden with bottles of (cheaper) wine, cheese, Nutella, cheaper and different looking clothing that was sold in hypermarkets such as Carrefour, at a time when such shopping opportunities did not exist in England. Then, the ‘dance’ under the ever-suspicious eyes of the Customs officers, who knew that under every bundle of ‘dirty clothes’ lay oodles of items that people wanted to bring in to enjoy at their leisure till they could restock next summer. Sweat pouring down armpits. Hands getting clammy. Not too much blinking. No unnecessary jokes. Hope that we did not have to open the boot/truck or unpack the ‘camping gear’. Just get through 🙂 In the excitement of having dodged again, not forgetting that we should be driving on the left again. How embarrassing it would have been to have an accident just outside the ferry port.
‘And me, of course’ has travelled to France a few times, but only in the refined style of children whose parents have travelled a lot and learned to ease their burden of taking infants on trips. She knows Paris has a large airport and that the city has wonderful hotels and shops. She has an outstanding offer to spend summer in La Rochelle with a family we met in Guinea. It may be time to think about taking up that offer, so that she can get another immersion in French language and culture.