We were going on holiday! The suitcases were packed (attention burglars) my laptop was well hidden because I had no intention of taking it with us or doing any writing on my novel while we were away. We had decided to swap one parochial village for another – in France. Anna (local best friend) had recommended that we stay at her Uncle Nigel’s gite in St Helene near La Rochelle (disclaimer, nowhere bl**dy near La Rochelle). Lottie looked eagerly over my shoulder as I booked the accommodation online.
“What’s a git?” she exclaimed excitedly.
“It’s pronounced ‘jsheett’,” I informed her, which to be fair sounded a bit like a swear too. The accommodation looked perfect so we emailed Uncle Nigel and booked a week. The facilities included a pool/piscine (pronounced piss-in of course, lets hope there was no piss-in?) and an outdoor pizza oven within a grassy jardin all in a provincial setting. Sounded like a home from home apart from the swimming pool, pizza oven and grassy jardin (ours is 99% dandelions)….err so just the provincial setting then!!
After an uneventful flight we arrived at La Rochelle Airport where we were welcomed by dazzling sunshine and a cobalt blue cloudless sky. It was 30 degrees and a glorious dry heat. We waddled over to the car hire portacabins with all our baggage to look for the Renault Megane that I’d pre-booked. There were rows and rows of Renault and Peugeot. Car nepotism/patriotism – whatever – we’d have been merde out of luck if we had fancied hiring a Honda. I queued behind all the other Brits who were sweating profusely and fanning themselves ineffectually with their passports while Ted took the kids to find some shade. Eventually I arrived at the head of the queue ready to be served by Michel with his bright yellow polo shirt and bored disposition. I spoke to him in French, Michel eyed me up slowly, and thought to himself….
He had already sized up my inadequate French speaking abilities and he momentarily savoured his two choices. He could either continue speaking to me in French (speeded up of course) or switch to thickly accented but semi fluent English. He went French rapide, gabbling at me whilst flitting through the car hire form. He then marched me outside to view the vehicle and admire the shininess and complete lack of dents and scratches. On he gabbled, trilling away at me, of course by then My GCSE French had tapped me on the shoulder and said “Err non! I don’t think so love. You might have got a passable ‘B’ grade but let’s face it you were always crap at French Aural and what exactly does he want your credit card for?” And so I had to revert to English shamefaced. Michel had won, he and I could smell his victory like Boursin on baguette (actually that was probably just his after-lunch breath). We packed up the Megane with all our baggage, it just wasn’t quite-big-enough but there was a complimentary air freshener (small wins). Anyway, to cut a long car hire story short, about twenty minutes down the autoroute we realised that…….
By the time we reached the gite we had melted into the seats like portions of pungent brie and we were covered in a layer of grime from having to wind the windows down for the entire journey. The car Sat Nav had worked but only in French or Italian?? Again My GCSE French had had a strop – but we just about managed….tournez a droite…what?…tournez?? – oh drat!!! Ted was driving and I was distracted by the scenery. I was mesmerised by the fields and fields of delightful sunflowers and melons and other appetising delights. I couldn’t help wondering why people weren’t tempted to stop and pinch the odd melon or pick the occasional sunflower from the roadside and then I reminded myself…….
We passed through St Helene, which was a pretty but sleepy medieval village (no shops, not even a Pharmacy) on the river Autize. On the outskirts we found the gite address; everything looked strangely quiet and the colourful shutters were firmly closed on the house as we pulled into the crunchy drive. We were just scraping ourselves out of the car seats when an elderly man came hobbling over from the house opposite. His name was Monsieur Fremont, a kindly old Frenchman with rheumy watery eyes and a front tooth missing. He explained that he kept a key to the gite and that he’d be on hand for our stay because Uncle Nigel (it seems that everybody called him that, perhaps he was a mafia boss or something) was holidaying in Barbados. Monsieur Fremont directed us around the house to the beautiful old barn which had been converted into the gite, and there we found the swimming pool, turquoise and glistening invitingly……
Monsieur Fremont seemingly unfazed simply hoicked the lifeless bird out with an old broom. Nice. I was starting to wonder if we should have booked an all inclusive hotel in Nice. Old man Fremont chatted away in cheerful and thankfully slow diction (My GCSE French relaxed and chilled it’s arse a bit) and he gave us a welcome envelope of information.
The Rules: we were strictly forbidden to throw anything down the toilet except for loo paper and what came naturally but we were welcome to burn the place down by using the real pizza oven and rudimentary BBQ area. Inside, the gite had been recently done-up so everything was new and clean, the walls were horribly horribly white. The paint was probably called – Blanc de Snow Blindness – It was a potential parental nightmare. The kitchen glistened (hmmm, give Ted a couple of glasses of wine and a pot of bolognaise sauce) and the bathrooms were also white and pristine (give Toby and Lottie one bathtime). After Monsieur Fremont’s guided tour there was still a few hours of sunshine left so we unloaded the car, ransacked the cases for swimwear and pitched up poolside.
Le Van de Pain (or Pan Van) or indeed Le Pain in the Arse Van.
du pain, du van, du Boursin…..
Being in such a remote, peaceful and idyllic location (read- cut off from civilisation, and needing to drive miles to go anywhere or get anything) our information pack informed us about the Pain Van, it rhymes rather nicely Pan Van. Anyway, this rural service rattles around the local villages stopping here and there so that the residents can buy bread straight from the Pan Van Man! He had a distinctive klaxon hooter which alerted us to his arrival. The Pan Man, who went by the name of Henri had a neat moustache which moved like a hairy caterpillar on his upper lip and greasy hair slicked back with enough oil to pique the interest of fuel giant ESSO.
So on our first morning I went in search of the Pan Van when I heard the sound of the klaxon. My GCSE French was feeling confident, I was just buying bread so I dropped a casual, “du pain s’il vous plait,” which of course was met with a barrage of colloquial French from Henri and from what I could decipher – which bread did I require? Like seriously they all looked like baguettes to me, a van full of identical baguettes? I panicked and pointed, hurriedly gesturing the quantity with my fingers. I don’t think I was appreciative enough of his Artisan Pain! Henri shot me a withering look…….
Every morning after that I would go out and buy fresh bread, and the Pan Van Man never parked in the same place twice?? So I had to listen hard for his hooter if I wanted to locate him. On one of the mornings when we wanted to spend the day at the gite and needed bread, I heard the familiar and distinctive call of the Pan Van and hurried to find my purse (which of course I couldn’t) so I grabbed some euros from Ted’s wallet and ran out towards the place where the Pan Van Man was last spotted. By the time I had found him, he had just finished serving the last basket-wielding local. I swear he saw me come running, waving my arms like a loon but he deemed it necessary to wheel spin off. “Oh gite!” We had no bread unless Ted or I made the 14 mile round shlep to Super U – what a complete Pain in the arse.
That day the weather was blissfully and unrelentingly hot. I could feel the sun rays seep into my bones and we spent most of our time playing in the pool. Mid morning Madame Fremont popped over to introduce herself bearing a freshly made and delicious looking Tarte aux Pommes. She had her twin grand daughters Elise and Elodie in tow. They were a little older than Lottie and after initial shyness they stayed to play in the pool. To combat the language barrier the children just shouted loudly at each other in their own languages…seemed to work?!?! Ted helped Toby and the girls drag over a garden slide from the Fremont’s jardin and they spent the whole afternoon sliding down it into the pool. I’m not sure we adhered to health and safety guidelines but Ted and I lounged about in view of them reading a book (owners of toddlers don’t hate me, you’ll have tweenagers one day).
Later that same afternoon, we were invited over to the Fremonts for an aperitif.
“Are they alky-holics Mummy?” Lottie wanted to know. Luckily their English wasn’t too merde hot or they might have been offended by this remark. Monsieur Fremont offered to give us a tour of their small holding. I knew this would amuse the children because they love nothing more than heavy petting pooey farm animals (and then giving themselves stomach upsets before I could get anywhere near them with the anti bac spray). We were introduced to the chickens, sheep and the goats and taken to the impressive orchard. Rows and rows of apple, pear and soft fruit trees filled the paddock and the air buzzed frenetically with wasps. Well it was August! But…it wasn’t just wasps (les guepes) – let me introduce you to the super wasp – Un Frelon (pronounced Fraylon for anyone remotely interested) this is like an uber wasp, a large hornet if you will. These beasts were about the size of a big thumb! Monsieur Fremont proudly showed us one of his impressive frelon traps, made simply with a cut up plastic bottle part filled with white wine and sugar syrup. Darned waste of good vin blanc if you ask me. Just as I was gazing with morbid curiosity at the freaky frantic frelons incarcerated in the plastic trap I heard a howl louder than the Pan Van klaxon. Ted, in his flimsy flip flops had stood on a fallen rotting apple…one that a Frelon was feasting on and now he was hopping and cursing in agony. “Oh gite”.
Other Multifarious Holiday Moments Before The Great Frelon Sting.
The time we were invited by Madame Fremont to the village Fete de Champignons de la region street party…”What? so we have to go and eat mushrooms in the road?” Toby wasn’t impressed at all.
The time Lottie spilt my favourite nail varnish (of course that colour is discontinued!) on our ensuite bathroom floor. I thought she had been gone a while inside the gite, eventually she appeared poolside to ‘fess up’. She had tried to clear the mess up and I only needed to wipe the floor tile over with some nail varnish remover. At least she hadn’t pebble dashed the arctic white paintwork with Savannah Sunset Rouge. No biggy…….
The time Ted returned from Super U suffering from low level post traumatic supermarket disorder. The first thing that hit him was the shop odour – a heady mix of BO and rancid meat. Ted’s understanding of French (he did Spanish at school) was non existent but he got through the bakery and wine sections relatively unscathed – only to be bamboozled by the overwhelming choice of cheese and yoghurts. Onto the fruit and veg section where all the produce seemed to come with clods of earth and half the bush it was grown on and Ted completely overlooked the electronic weighing scales! When he came to pay there were no bags – now this is a good thing, too many placky bags in the world etc but I hadn’t had the forethought to pack our…
In order that he might collate his purchased goods Ted had to buy 2 jute effect Super U bags at an exorbitant price of €5 each – that’s 2 extra bottles of crap wine we could have had. The lady who served him at the till *Delphine* then gave him a good dressing down for having the temerity to bring the fruit and veg to the till unweighed. “Well, it certainly didn’t bring out the Super in U!” I quipped feebly on his return.
The time we had a good day out in La Rochelle. Anyone who had to study the Tricolore textbooks at school might remember learning that oh so useful phrase “Avez vous un depliant sur La Rochelle” – anybody? *Have you got a booklet about La Rochelle*. Hah! I might finally get to use this seemingly useless phrase after all as I marched into the Office de Tourisme with purpose. Most thrillingly of all we ate out with the children near the historic harbour in what can only be described as an epic restaurant win. Toby and Lottie had – Steak Hache frites. A tasty slab of beef (we hoped) with fries served with neither salad nor any other form of vegetation, the children couldn’t believe it and when it was followed by an ice cream with no fruit components, they were over the moon. I wouldn’t be so smug when I was googling scurvy when we got home!
A slightly Septic Au Revoir
The last evening of our holiday was spent in A&E! Ted’s Frelon sting had blown his foot up to Elephant Man proportions and it looked a little err….septic. The nurses, who were very pleasant, tried conversing with us in french medical terms but My GCSE French soon stormed off in a right old huff. The Doctor took one look at Ted’s grotesque foot and put him on strong antibiotics tout de suite. The following morning, after a fitful night’s sleep (Ted had moaned the duration) we were woken to loud protestations coming from the garden, I peered out of the window bleary eyed to witness Monsieur Fremont and another vaguely familiar man talking heatedly over the bubbling septic tank.
It turns out that the other man was Uncle Nigel back from his holiday in Barbados and – “Oh gite!” – Lottie had bunged up the Fosse Septique with the hundred or so wet wipes (unbeknown to me) that she had flushed down the loo when she had helpfully cleared up nail-varnishgate. Let’s just say we didn’t receive a very warm greeting from Uncle Nigel. Thankfully we were leaving that day as the septic tank groaned and belched out some more gloops of unmentionables……
We packed and made a swift getaway, thanking Monsieur Fremont at his gate and narrowly missing the Pan Van as we sped out of the village, arriving back at the airport in plenty of time for our flight. We found Michel at the car hire counter and handed him the keys to the not-quite-big enough Renault Megane – complete with dysfunctional air conditioning. Thanks to Lottie I was wetwipe-less so I hoped he’d be pleased with the complimentary….
More next time.
As you were!
PS, a big thank you must go out to Google Translate without which this holiday would not have been possible. And a also a mention to My GCSE French for at least having a go (mostly at me).
PPS, to the erroneous burglar who may be reading this – we’ve been away on holiday and come home now and this blog is fictional anyway you twerp.
PPPS This is not a review, I certainly don’t endorse shouting at the Pan Man “I’ll give you some French Stick,” when he wheel spinned off without selling me a baguette and I’m also not promoting Boursin, a creamy, garlicky, cheesy delight though it is. Have you tried stirring it into spaghetti – works quite well. Enough! No endorsements!
Note to myself: The one about French Jsheetting!!
Very chuffed to be a featured blogger on Friday Frolics – c’est magnifique!!! 🙂 x