Back in the day

At the weekend we were invited by a friend to a local event. It wasn’t clear exactly what the purpose of the event was, but it had a distinctly Napoleonic flavour. The venue was a country house with an attached riding school, where small children in large helmets clutched at the saddles of short fat ponies.

When we arrived there was an evil icy wind blowing and I envied the soldiers their warm uniforms. Then came a shower of exceedingly cold rain, but luckily it was ousted fairly quickly by warm sunshine. It really was a delightful low-key event, old-fashioned and uncommercial, tucked away in a tiny hamlet that you wouldn’t find if you hadn’t expressly been looking for it. There was, naturally, a small tent dispensing red wine in plastic glasses, and some ladies selling biscuits made to an 18th century recipe, while two whole pigs with silver foil folded over their ears were turning on spits over open fires for a feast later in the evening.

There was much marching and drum beating, and a demonstration of decapitation by sabre. The ‘heads’ were plastic bags stuffed with straw, mounted on wooden posts, and the sabres were wielded by galloping horsemen. They were accompanied by a young lad on a pony, and although he had neither a uniform nor a sabre, he proudly galloped around the field to great applause and with a huge smile on his face.

I didn’t see one person with a mobile phone; neither were there any cans of fizzy drinks, and no disco, raffle tickets or fast food. What a pleasant, dreamy afternoon watching families and friends strolling around laughing and chatting. It felt very much like being back in the 1950s.

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#AllAboutFrance

EARLY WARNING

On Sunday 2nd April I’ve been invited ‘into the spotlight’ on the “We Love Memoirs” Facebook page where I will be revealing for THE VERY FIRST TIME the title, cover and publication date for MY NEW BOOK!

If you are a reader and don’t already belong to that page you may like to join it, because whatever your taste you will find something to enjoy. There are hundreds of titles from authors like NYT best-seller Victoria Twead, Joe Cawley, Jacky Donovan, Frank Kusy and Beth Haslem (and me!) and many, many more.

There are memoirs that will lift you up, shake you up, take your breath away, make you laugh and make you cry as authors open the curtains on their lives of adventure, misadventure, survival, laughter and joy, from dog lovers in Dubai to a dominatrix with her own London dungeon.

With almost 4,000 members it is a fun and sometimes rowdy but always super-friendly group, offering frequent giveaways, competitions and opportunities to relate directly with the authors.

I’ll be on-line from 11.00 am local (French) time to chat and answer questions about my books, thermodynamics and the meaning of life.

Click on image to go to the We Love Memoirs Facebook group.

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Quickly there and back – conclusion

The miserable little homunculus at the garage in Argeles sur Mer sneered when Terry said he was going to tow the caravan and drive the car home without an alternator.

“It’s not possible,” he said. “It cannot be done.”

Well, you nasty, pathetic little pipsqueak, it can, and it was.

And that was due to numerous people who offered help and support in one way or another, proving that decent, caring people heavily outnumber horrible little t-d-cs. (For the benefit of those who don’t speak French, t-d-c stands for trou du cul, which translates literally as ‘hole of the bottom,’ or as we usually say, arsehole.)

Yesterday I broke down and cried. Not because I was worried, or my feet were still too swollen to get into my shoes, and not because of all the horrendous expense this has cost us, but because of the overwhelming kindness of so many people. There were offers to take Terry to their home for a meal and somewhere to sleep. Offers to lend him another car. Offers to drive down to try to help fix the alternator. An offer, from people we have never met, to buy the alternator for us, and we could pay them back as and when. All day long people were phoning and sending messages asking how they could help and offering moral support. That really choked me up.

One of those friends undertook a 100 mile round trip to swap batteries, so that Terry could get the car and caravan home late last night.

When you have a disaster like this you are blessed, because you learn how many good friends you have, and how far they will go for you.

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Quickly there and back – Part Three

At 7.30 am, Phil has the tea ready, and the garage opens up. He has to collect a car from there to take back to England. The garage had refused to let him load it yesterday, for no reason they could give, but that had worked in our favour, because if he had been able to load we would not have met him and spent the evening with him.

After he has loaded up and driven away, we go across to the garage and ask if the quotation is ready. The secretary calls the unpleasant little man, who says he’s not going to the trouble of writing a quotation for people who have asked him to charge batteries. The cost will be 800 euros, and it’s 40 euros for the battery charge.

At 9.00 am I phone our insurance broker. There’s a recorded message. He’s on holiday until the 7th of July. In case of need we should contact his colleague, who only speaks French.

For the next four hours, I am on the phone, giving details, making explanations and trying to work out what to do. Once the insurance company learn that the car is broken down, and not damaged in an accident, they say that all they can do is either put us on a train, or provide us with a hire car. They do not have any responsibility to get the vehicles back to our home nearly 400 miles away.

The insurance lady had suggested that I ask if the garage will buy the car for spare parts, but from their unhelpful attitude so far I very much doubt it, which proves to be correct. They are not going to help us in any way at all. The little shit  belligerent, aggressive, insolent little chap at the garage is now demanding to know what we intend to do about the car that is sitting in the yard, and it’s clear that he’s going to start charging to have it there. Terry connects us one of the charged batteries and drives it to the parking area outside. That’s one small problem solved.

Terry is set on driving home on the batteries, towing the caravan. I am not at all convinced that we’ll be able to make it all the way, and one of us must get home, not only for the dogs but also we have two appointments booked for Wednesday, and I cannot contact either of them by phone from here.

The next option is to ask for a hire vehicle with a tow bar so that we can bring the caravan back. It’s full of equipment, including Terry’s mountain bike, and we cannot leave it there. Yes, says the insurance lady, she will ensure that we have a vehicle with a tow bar.

Backwards and forwards go the phone calls, each time bringing more difficulties. It seems our contract only allows us a small car, not one with a tow bar. Also there is a deposit of up to 500 euros payable up front for the car, depending upon which company provides it. I ask the lady to check with the companies and find out which will accept the smallest deposit, but she says she doesn’t have time to do that. If we go to collect the car and our card payment is rejected, it will be too late to do anything for us today. She is being as helpful as she can, but we’re getting nowhere. At mid-day she says that unless we make up our mind quickly what we want to do, she will not be able to spend any more time on our problem, because she has too many other clients to deal with. It’s now or never.

Terry is still determined to drive the car back, so reluctantly I decide to leave and take the train home. The caravan is well stocked with food, and it’s somewhere to sleep. I hate abandoning ship, but I can’t do anything practical and I can envisage this drama going on for days. Apart from the dogs and appointments, I desperately need to shower and put on some clean clothes. The taxi will collect me in an hour, says the lady, to drive me to Perpignan station.

In fact it arrives ten minutes later, with a very kind driver who says he didn’t like to leave me in such a hot and uncomfortable place, and I’ll be far better off at Perpignan. He drives me to the station, where I collect my tickets.

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Perpignan railway station

It’s a strange journey that will skirt the Mediterranean coast eastwards from Perpignan to Montpellier, then swing north to Lyons and from there up to Paris, where it will curve around and turn south to Tours. There I’ll catch a connection to Poitiers.

Even in such stressful circumstances, train travel in France is a delight once you understand it.  Your train ticket tells you your carriage and seat number. On the platform an electronic display tells you where to stand so that when the train arrives you walk straight into the correct carriage and find your seat. Also on the platform is a small yellow-headed machine that you need to ‘composte’ your ticket before getting on the train. You stick it in the machine which stamps it with the date. If you don’t the ticket inspector can fine you.

For the first part of my journey on the TGV, I’m ‘upstairs’- it’s a double-decker. It’s spotless, comfortable, peaceful. It arrives and leaves precisely on time.

After two hours I have 8 minutes to change trains at Nîmes.  The platform is heaving with people and luggage, so I have to shove some of them out roughly of the way while I find out which part of the platform to stand on. This time I’m in a downstairs seat in an almost empty carriage for the next leg of the journey which will take four and a half hours. Luckily I had put my Kindle in my bag before we set off from home at what now seems a very long time ago, so I have plenty to read. At Valence a group of cheerful men come and sit opposite me and pass around a wooden box filled with luscious golden apricots, for which I am really grateful, because all I’ve had to eat so far today is a hot apple from the caravan.

They leave at Lyon and are replaced by a couple of polite youths with a giant bag of Maltesers. I’m not a chocaholic, but they are my favourites.

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They don’t open the bag, but leave it lying tantalisingly within my reach, on the table between us, and as the hours pass I begin to feel hungry and thirsty, so I go to the bar – conveniently located upstairs in the next carriage – to see what they have to offer. There’s quite a long queue, and just one man serving. I’m thinking I’ll have a sandwich and drink of water, but then I see somebody with a steaming bowl of creamy risotto. It takes quite a while to reach the counter, and when I do I find I have insufficient cash for the risotto and the water, so I have to go back to the carriage to find my credit card. When I get back to the bar the queue is even longer, but it’s well worth the wait because it’s possibly the best risotto I’ve ever tasted. I kept the wrapper to remind me of the ingredients which included cream, rice (obviously), mushrooms, courgette, peas, mozzarella, onion, pumpkin seeds, leeks and green asparagus. The very small print showed that it also contained chicken stock, but I’d already eaten half before I saw that.

It’s 9.30 pm when I arrive at St Pierre de Corps. The next train leaves 15 minutes later and reaches Poitiers at 10.30. The insurance lady had told me to wait at the exit for the taxi to collect me, but none does. From the depths of my bag I can hear my phone buzzing, but I can’t get hold of it without everything spilling all over the floor. When I finally answer it, a very angry voice tells me to hurry up and get in the taxi, he has been phoning me for ten minutes. I find him on the taxi rank outside, a huge Humpty Dumpty of a man, and he’s extremely rude. When I say I was told to wait inside for him, he sneers how would he be expected to recognise me out of 200 people on the station? I say I thought he’d have a card with my name on it, and he tosses both hands up in the air to express his disbelief, letting go of the steering wheel as he hurtles through the back streets of the town.

By now I am too hot, sticky, swollen and tired to bother, so I close my eyes and lean back, leaving him to mutter to himself.

After a few moments, he asks me how I found the weather in Paris. I say I haven’t come from Paris, but from Argeles sur Mer. I’ve been on holiday, there, then? No. But my car is broken down. He asks why I’ve left it there, and I explain about needing to get home to the dogs.

Suddenly, as if I’ve waved a magic wand, he changes. He’s a passionate animal lover. He has a five month old chocolate Labrador called Leo, who is adorable and always up to mischief. He also has four cats; sadly he lost a fifth one recently to typhus. The vet said it was highly contagious and all the other cats would get it, but none of them did, thank God. He goes on about all his animals, how they interact and play with each other, how much they mean to him and his wife. I learn about the wonderful kennels where Leo went while they were on holiday, and how he totally destroyed the nice bed the kennel gave him, and how they fed him on the best food. He’d only recently learned that chocolate can kill dogs. Oh la la! Every night he has two squares of dark chocolate, and he’s always given Leo a tiny piece. But the lady at the kennels has told him how dangerous it is – there’s a molecule or something which poisons them. Also that dogs shouldn’t be given pasta, because they can become diabetic from too much carbohydrate. I tell him that dried fruit is dangerous too, particularly sultanas and raisins. He’s going to check that on the Internet. He doesn’t eat raisins, but he does like figs. He gave Leo one, but Leo only played with it, as he did with a cherry. So we continue sharing animal anecdotes until we reach home, by which time we are best friends. 🙂

When I walk into the house the dogs stare in astonishment, then delight, although I think they recoil a little from my feet.

So I’m back home, but in the meantime, what’s happened to Terry? His phone battery is flat, so we’ve no means of communicating.

 

 

 

 

Quickly there and back – Part Two

If you break down in a dangerous situation, you imagine that sooner or later somebody will notify the nearest police, and something will happen. Help will arrive. We cannot contact anybody, and after an hour of roasting and continuing to expand in the heat, it looks very much as if we are well and truly in the mire.

Burrowing around in my handbag I find my little white plastic 9 euro mobile phone, which, miraculously, has a full battery. I only carry it for emergencies. To my surprise, when I phone our worldwide breakdown the call actually connects. It is the first time I have ever found it to be useful.

I explain to the lady at the other end that we are broken down, and give her our details, contract number, vehicle registration, date of birth, address, and location. She keeps asking for our GPS co-ordinates, which we don’t have because the battery is flat and our GPS isn’t working. I explain numerous times that we are on the N11 one kilometre from the French border, but she cannot locate us. She keeps asking for more details, and I cannot tell her anything other than that we are on the N11, outside of La Jonquera, and just before the French border.

We are both getting frustrated, and I’m in danger of losing my temper, because I am very, very big, now, from the heat, scarlet in the face and soaked in perspiration. We seem to have reached an impasse, when a scooter pulls up just ahead of us, and a man walks towards us asking if we need help. He takes the phone from me and has a go at explaining our location, and eventually the lady pinpoints us. She will call out a breakdown vehicle, but it may take some time.

While we are waiting, our new friend introduces himself. His name is Pascal, he lives in Perpignan and had come down to La Jonquera to buy cigarettes, which cost half the price there than they do in France.  He is very concerned that we do not have the compulsory red triangle, and when I explain that we can’t get it out of the boot, he offers to drive down to La Jonquera and notify the police. Twenty minutes later he’s back. He’s told the Spanish police that we are broken down on a bend, and they have said OK. He’s not optimistic that they will do anything. He has also spoken to the French police at La Jonquera, and asked to borrow their red triangle. They don’t have one in their car.

It is impossibly hot, and he is wearing leathers. I thank him for stopping, and urge him to carry on now that we know the breakdown vehicle is coming, but he insists on waiting until it does, an hour later. With a handshake and a ‘bon courage,’ he drives off.

Our breakdown insurance mentions that it will get us home from anywhere in Europe, so when the recovery vehicle arrives we can sit back and relax, once the car is loaded and the caravan attached. The driver is taciturn and somewhat disinterested, but efficient. He announces that he is taking us to Argeles sur Mer, to a garage. That isn’t what we want, I reply. We want to be taken home. That won’t be possible; he will only take our vehicles to the nearest garage for repair. Our insurance, he tells us, only promises to get us home, not the vehicles.

That’s a shock, but at least, for the time being, we are on the move. I can hear the driver telling the garage that our alternator is dead and that we want them to replace it. I stop him. We do not want the garage to replace the alternator because we cannot afford it. What we want them to do is to recharge both our batteries, and we will get the car home. The garage reply that without an alternator the car won’t move. I reply that it will have to. It’s brought us 120 miles, and with a recharged battery it should continue to move us closer to home.

When we reach the garage there is an extremely belligerent little man waiting for us. (I’m beginning to think there’s a Little Man Syndrome, which makes very short men unpleasant.) He’s both aggressive and insolent and I’d like to whack him round the ears with the dead alternator. Instead I ask politely if he will be kind enough to recharge our batteries, for which we will happily pay him. He replies that it will take all night, and we’ll just have to wait. We ask him for a quotation for repairing the car – for insurance purposes – and he says he will do that in the morning. He’s really quite intimidating, standing unreasonably close to me and trying to stare me down.

Luckily the garage is in a clean, peaceful area, and the caravan has been put on a spacious car park just outside the garage. There’s a large car transporter parked there, too, and a friendly English driver comes over to chat and hand us a couple of bottles of beer.

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Terry with our new friend, Phil. Who makes an excellent cup of tea.

Before long we are friends, and decide to walk into town for a pizza. I jam my feet into the trainers with difficulty. Because we were expecting to be back home by now, I’d only packed a toothbrush. No change of clothes. I am aware of looking frightful and being rather unfragrant.

We find a small restaurant and sit at a table on the pavement. Inside, they’re watching a football match – England vs. Iceland. Our new friend, Phil, is great company. He transports prestige cars all over Europe, from Lapland to Portugal. He shows us photos of some of the vehicles he has delivered – Bentleys, Aston Martins, Lamborghinis. Last year he delivered Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren P1 to Monaco. Although Phil didn’t meet the driver he left a note in the glove compartment saying that his young son was a fan and had hoped to get the driver’s autograph. He left his address, and within a couple of days Hamilton had telephoned to talk to the little boy and sent him his autograph together with a beautiful scale model of the car. (Or it may have been a Mercedes model, I’m not sure.) Anyway, a lovely gesture.

While we are eating, a handsome, fit man comes over and introduces himself and asks if he may join us. He speaks fluent English with a slight American accent, having lived there for three years. He also speaks five other foreign languages fluently, plus his native French, and says he’s studying another two. He is a money market trader, and we talk for a couple of hours about Brexit, sport, life in general. He buys us all a round of drinks, and shares Terry’s pizza; he’s charismatic, amusing, interesting and friendly. What are the chances  of meeting not just one, but two such nice people to spend the evening with and forget our problems for a while?

Although we have the caravan to sleep in, there is no access to water or electricity and no means of washing, so I use the restaurant’s loo and splash some water from the hand basin on my face and arms. As we leave the restaurant, somebody calls out “Second Brexit for England – knocked out by Iceland.” But it is said with a friendly smile and a wave, there’s no malice.

My feet are still alarmingly swollen and I hobble back to the caravan, which is like a furnace and smells of sweaty clothes and feet. In the morning Phil will make us a cup of tea, and at 9.00 am we will phone our insurance broker, who speaks perfect English and is always a tower of strength. My French is pretty good, a level below fluent, and I can manage most things, but it would be a help to be able to speak to somebody who can communicate in English while we try to sort out the mess. That’s the comforting thought in my mind before I fall asleep. Help will arrive tomorrow.

 

 

Quickly there and back – Part One

This is a long story, so I’m breaking it into parts. If you have never broken down far from home and running out of money, and you want to know what happens, read on.

We needed to bring our caravan back from where it had been in storage 600 miles away in Spain. We would drive down, collect it, turn around and come straight back home. Our neighbour would feed the dogs while we were away. It was a simple plan. Those of you who know us, or have read my books, will hear warning bells going off.

On Sunday morning we left at 5.00 am and had an (almost) trouble-free run. Our car has a slight quirk, in that it occasionally decides to set itself in a slow mode. Switching off the engine and restarting gets it going again. The quickest route was down the west coast of France, via San Sebastian and Zaragoza then down to Valencia. Northern Spain, as we discovered last year, is mostly made up of mountains, and the car decided to put itself into the slow mode as we climbed up them, bringing the speed down to 30 mph. If it did that with the caravan on tow it was going to be a problem – maybe it wouldn’t be able to pull it up – so for the return journey we’d come back via the eastern side of the country, following the coast up to south-eastern France. It would make the journey longer, but avoid the worst of the climbs.

We reached the storage site near Valencia just before 5.00 pm, and  collected the caravan from a rather dour and unsmiling little man. We hitched up and set off. The van is a twin axle and tows beautifully, and we were batting along nicely. The car was running well, and Terry was keen to keep driving through the night so we could get back home to the dogs. The back door was open so they could get in and out, but we don’t like leaving them with nobody to talk to, so were anxious to get home as quickly as possible.

However, after driving for three hours we were still south of Barcelona and starting to get tired, so decided to stop overnight and leave early next morning. We came to rest at Calafell – a large well-organised and well-maintained site with excellent amenities, just a 30 second stroll to the fabulous beach.

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Calafell beach, 10.00 am.

We had a good night’s sleep, woke up refreshed and ready for the drive home. Everything was going well until Terry started the car. The noise startled people within a radius of 100 metres, as the engine clattered and thumped and sounded like a tin can in a spin drier. Some smoke escaped from the front. There was clearly something very wrong.

I expect you are thinking, why didn’t they call a garage?

This year we have had four major expenditures out of a very small pension – even smaller now thanks to Mr Cameron and Brexit – and we could not afford to pay a garage anything, so that left the only option of carrying on for as long as possible to get as near to home as we could. The car pulled well, it was just the awful clattering noise.

Terry recognised that the alternator had failed, as the battery was not charging and various warning lights and messages kept coming on. We would keep driving for as long as the car would go. There happened to be another battery in the caravan that we could connect when this one ran out.

We bumbled along. I made one navigational error and led us into a 50 mile stretch of narrow, winding roads, hairpin bends with coaches coming round them, warnings of falling rocks and jumping deer, and one mountain after another, but the car pulled gamely on until we were able to get back onto the motorway.

Five hours and 120 miles after leaving Calafell, we passed La Jonquera and were half a mile from the French border. The car started missing very badly, coughing and spluttering, and two minutes later it ground to a halt, on a bend. It rolled slowly backwards, crashing the caravan into the barrier.

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Sign one kilometre from France, where we ran out of luck.

The temperature was just below 100F, and my feet and hands had swollen almost beyond recognition. No knuckles were visible, and my feet were oozing out of my trainers. Because the battery was dead, we couldn’t open the boot to get out the compulsory red triangle. Instead Terry put the only red item we could lay hands on – a red thermos flask, on the road to warn traffic.

I picked up Terry’s smartphone to call our worldwide assistance. Nothing happened. No ringing tone. Zilch. The battery was almost but not quite flat. I hate mobile phones, they never seem to work for me. It wouldn’t work for Terry, either.

Cars hooted as they passed. Inside our car was a furnace and my extremities were visibly growing. Outside was dangerous, with high speed traffic shooting past.

What next?

Things are going to get better, before they start getting worse again.

 

 

 

 

Dem bones

Last Sunday the small town of Charroux in the south Vienne departement of the Poitou-Charentes region (not to be confused with the town of the same name in the Allier departement of the Auvergne region) hosted an ‘ostension’, a parade of holy relics through the streets.

It should have been a good opportunity to capture some interesting images, but the weather wasn’t helpful. It wasn’t as awful as it has been elsewhere, and could have been worse, but it was a dull, grey day. The town was decorated with thousands of yellow and white crepe paper flowers, strung across the streets, wrapped around lamp posts, adorning garden gates and window sills. These flowers are all hand-made, a labour of love that takes two months.

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The roses are real.

The procession started at the church, from which a stream of people emerged bearing banners, and boxes, cushions and glass cases containing parts and pieces of saints.

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The bishop brought up the rear, walking within a canopy carried by four men. As the procession covered a fair distance both down and uphill, it must have taken some concentration for bishop and bearers to keep in step.

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Some of the participants wore costumes, others were in mufti.

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I don’t know who these bones belonged to. They are clearly visible.

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This lady found a novel way of ensuring her husband didn’t get lost in the crowd. 🙂

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This altar at the foot of the 11th century Tour Charlemagne (our local version of the leaning tower of Pisa) was beautifully decorated, but the procession by-passed it, which seems a shame.

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Behind the procession came a flower-decked van with speakers on the roof, where people took turns to pray and sing hymns for the benefit of all to hear.

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Flower children scattered rose petals.

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For some it was a solemn occasion.

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But not for everyone, it seemed. 😀

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The saints must have been watching over Charroux on Sunday and kept the rain at bay for the procession. Because for as far back as I can remember, it’s been raining almost non-stop.

This post is linked to the #AllAboutFrance linky, where you’ll find some other great blogs about France.