I’ve decided to serialise one of my books over the next few weeks, the following excerpt being the first installment. Just keep in mind whilst reading it that the holiday to which it refers was quite some time ago – before the days of the Euro and when online accommodation booking was pretty well in its infancy. The full book is available as a PDF, Plain Text or Epub (ie, formatted ebook) file and can be purchased on my website at http://www.trevorwhitton.com/. Enjoy!
Copyright © Trevor Whitton 2009
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise without the prior permission of the author.
First published in paperback 2014 by Completely Novel.
To Lindy, James, Thomas and Enid –
quelles vacances, oui?
- The ‘Eighty Kilometre’ Rule and Other Abnormalities of Physics
‘Always ask about everything in your rented car.’
As soon as you’ve got your rented car, ask the nearest person what, and (more importantly) WHERE everything is. You may find that – for some weird reason – your CD player is in the boot, or that the seatbelts are in the pockets of the front chairs.
(Excerpt from the James Whitton diaries).
‘Where’s the car key?’
‘Locked in the house.’
‘Where’s the house key?’
‘With the car key!’
My wife Lindy and I looked at each other with a terrible sinking feeling. This was the unpromising beginning of our holiday as we prepared to leave for the airport.
It was a long way from being our first trip to Europe, and the third with our two children, James (14) and Thomas (12). This time we had decided to take my wife’s 66-year-old mother Enid along with us as well. For her it was a dream come true, although she’d taken quite a bit of persuading. She couldn’t believe that she wouldn’t be a burden – bless her little floral apron – but she eventually gave in to our sustained pressure and was now eagerly (if a little anxiously) looking forward to sharing the adventure. Little did any of us realise what a roller coaster of an adventure it would turn out to be!
Locking the keys in the house before we’d even left must have made the Aged Relative wonder what she’d let herself in for! But as far as we were concerned, she couldn’t have been in safer hands. We’d begun our preparations twelve months earlier, with hundreds (well, dozens – I’m a little prone to exaggeration, as you’ll see) of emails backwards and forwards to sundry hotels and prospective hosts. We had the logistics of managing the travel of five people driving around Europe for six weeks planned to within a centimetre of its life, and confidently dismissed any qualms with a nonchalant wave of our souvenir berets.
Looking back, we should have had an inkling of our fate a month earlier, when I opened a message from Lucia – the owner of our Tuscan villa.
‘Where is your deposit? I was expecting it several weeks ago. Are you no longer interested in staying with us?’ Gripped with panic, I replied urgently reassuring her that we were, and that I would look into the delayed remittance straight away. I spent a sleepless night constructing the conversation I intended having with my bank the next day – each moment bringing a new and better way of destroying some unsuspecting clerk’s life and self respect.
You know how it is. You run through the scenario a hundred times in your head, always concluding with an argument or sarcastic comment to devastate your foe and has them admitting defeat and tearfully promising to rectify your problem with minimal fuss and no cost (perhaps even offering to compensate you for your inconvenience?). In reality – and it seems as inevitable as poo – the problem stretches on for days and days, then weeks, and in the end you’ve reduced your life expectancy by at least a dozen years, and the problem is only marginally resolved (at best).
This lesson was to be repeated over and over again in the weeks to come.
I can’t recall the exact conversation with the bank clerk in this circumstance, of course – but it ran something like this:
(Me) ‘Where the bloody hell has my deposit gone?’
(Clerk) ‘Which deposit would that be, sir?’
(Me) ‘The one I asked you to send off to Italy two months ago!’
(Clerk)‘I’ll just check for you and call you back in five minutes.’
(Me – calling back two hours later) ‘Well?!’
(Clerk) ‘Well what?’
(Me) ‘Where’s that bloody deposit gone?’
(Clerk) ‘Which deposit would that be, sir?’
– you get my drift. Multiply the above by the number ten, then factor in the need to eventually follow this up with an Italian bank (no – whatever you’re imagining isn’t even close), and you can see that we were well up against it. But, in my innocent naivety, once this matter had been resolved I dismissed the whole episode with hardly a second thought.
‘You don’t think it’s some kind of omen, do you?’ asked Lindy apprehensively. It wasn’t just the children she was concerned for, remember – there was the fate of her mother to take into consideration, as well.
‘Don’t be so pessimistic!’ I replied confidently. ‘This was our one piece of bad luck. Now we can look forward to our holiday, confident in the knowledge that we’ve already dealt with our disasters.’
Anyway – back to that first day – after squashing young Thomas through the only window we’d left open, we retrieved the house and car keys and were eventually on our way.
There were no other incidents en route to warn of what was to come – in fact, the flight to Paris was relatively pleasant (as far as twenty-four hours of medieval torture can be). The movies on offer were particularly appealing – the only drawback being that I foolishly forced myself to stay awake in order to watch them all. As the other passengers dozed and snored all around me, I was using matchsticks to keep my eyelids open. Unfortunately, I was so exhausted by the experience that I couldn’t remember a single detail afterwards. Months later when we ended up borrowing the DVDs, it was like seeing them for the first time.
Nevertheless, the issue for me was – and shall always remain – to make the most of free offers. Especially from airlines.
When I did finally get to sleep, Enid (who’d drawn the short straw and was sitting next to me) was kept awake for the remainder of the journey by my gentle, fairy-like snores. Such sensitivity to tiny noises did not hold her in good stead throughout the trip, although it has been suggested that the experience was perhaps a little worse than I’ve described.
The highlight for Lindy was when the cabin crew distributed the mini-Magnums. Her face lit up like a startled rabbit before the headlights, and her smile nearly split her face in two. Fortunately for me, she’s always been impressed by the simple things in life.
James and Thomas watched a few movies, pushed every meal about their plates suspiciously without tasting a crumb, and were only truly happy when the plane touched down at Charles de Gaulle and we were on terra firma once more. The Aged Relative and Son-in-Law embraced excitedly, and within a reasonably short time we’d collected our bags (Burke and Wills set off with less luggage than us!) and car, and were on the road.
We now confronted our first real challenge of the trip. I suppose I should mention at this point that Lindy was to do all the driving – we had a manual car, and I can only drive the wind-up kind (i.e., automatics). It was therefore very important that our journey on that first morning be as short and stress-free as possible. No one wants to drive much after a twenty-four hour plane trip (let’s face it, breathing in and out is almost too much to be bothered with), and we’d booked somewhere that was only about eighty kilometres from the airport.
This figure became a sort of numerical jinx throughout the trip. It’s probably some strange kind of dimension-warp thing, but every time we estimated that we were about eighty kilometres from somewhere, it ended up becoming a lot further – and I mean, a lot further!
On the morning in question it became two hundred kilometres.
I remember seeing the car’s mileage meter tick over the eighty kilometre mark, then looking out the window and feeling the tears stream down my face as I watched a plane landing at Charles de Gaulle airport, a couple of hundred metres away on our right.
Have you ever tried driving around Paris without using the ring-road (Peripherique)? That particular highway has a justifiably bad reputation, and I maintain to this day that it’s not a bad idea trying to avoid it when picking up an unfamiliar car after a twenty-four hour plane trip – especially if you’re still trying to get used to driving on the other side of the road! But, let me tell you, it beats the hell out of trying to negotiate your way around the poorly signed country roads of the Ile de France. I expect wartime Britain was much the same after they took down all the signs to confuse the invading Germans. I, for one, can guarantee that it’s terrifically effective. An invading army wouldn’t have stood a chance, and the Whittons-plus-one were like lambs to the slaughter.
The trip was so long that we were forced to stop for some refreshment. Enid craved a hot chocolate, and I was looking forward to my first cup of French coffee. Lindy needed a break, and the boys were happy just to have something to stick in their mouths.
First, let me go back a little to explain that we’d gone to great lengths before setting off to tell the boys that this holiday was going to be different – we weren’t going to be constantly stopping at McDonalds like we had in previous trips. In fact, we probably wouldn’t even stop there at all! Not once! In the entire trip!
Half an hour after landing in Paris we pulled into McDonalds for coffee and hot chocolate.
The thing with McDonald’s in Europe is that the few advantages it usually offers – quick service and the opportunity for a cheap, hot meal – have been stripped away. It took a good twenty minutes for our humble order to arrive, and it cost a bomb! My first coffee of the trip wasn’t worthy of the name.
Many hours later, we finally arrived at our destination, (after stopping at the wrong town and conducting a – not surprisingly – fruitless search for our hotel). I was able, at last, to advise the concierge – in word-perfect French – that we had a reservation. Six months of rehearsal had prepared me for this moment, and imagine the disappointment I felt when my speech was met with indifference. I suspect Olivier would have felt the same after hearing crickets in response to a masterful performance of Hamlet. To add to my humiliation, he did something I had never expected – he replied in French! In a mad panic, I responded with ‘Comment?’ – which (for those of you who don’t know) is roughly the equivalent ‘Huh?’ in French. Unfortunately, this only encouraged the fool to spout more French. The torrent of incomprehensibility gushed again from his mouth. Totally lost on me, of course. I tried smiling helplessly and – believe it or not – it worked. ‘Do you need help with your bags?’ he asked – in English. I was shattered after only my first conversation. Well, I say conversation, but it was hardly that. A conversation requires a two-way dialogue. Once we’d switched to English, though, I was fine. Quite fluent, in fact. (Although Lindy would say that English is only my second language – drivel being my first). I could have chatted all afternoon if need be, but that wasn’t the point. After a brief shake of the head to indicate that I could carry the bags myself (the thought that he might say something else in French – a distinct possibility, given that he was French – filled me with terror), I was directed up fourteen levels of staircases and along twenty miles of corridors to our rooms.
This being our first night, we were forced to endure this monumental trek accompanied by our entire collection of baggage. By level twelve I was beginning to regret my pride. It was intriguing the way the hotel seemed to stretch on forever on the inside, but from the outside it looked quite small. Just like Doctor Who’s Tardis. Another one of those dimension-warp things, I guess.
Eventually, after ensuring the madams were comfortably secure in their own room, the boys and I collapsed on our beds and began to doze. Just as blissful sleep descended upon us, we were awakened by the sound of foreign syllables (presumably French) being bellowed from a public address system outside our window. For a moment I had a vision of the Concierge standing below and attempting to carry on our earlier conversation, but soon realised it was coming from further away. The boys and I exchanged bewildered looks, and eventually summoned the strength to get out of bed and take a look.
At first I thought I must have been dreaming. It seemed like the entire town had assembled on the banks across the river and were fighting each other with wooden swords, while the woman on the PA tried futilely to somehow choreograph the mayhem. We watched with a mixture of amazement and horror, until it suddenly dawned on me that they were rehearsing for one of those son-et-lumiere productions that every town in France seems to put on for visitors over summer. This particular entertainment seemed to be recreating some long forgotten battle. From what we saw that afternoon, the battle of Moret-sur-Loing was one of the silliest in history!
In fairness, I suppose the fiasco would have looked more impressive if they’d been decked out in their period costumes – but it was difficult to suspend my disbelief when they were dressed in jeans, t-shirts and runners. James and Thomas found the spectacle hysterical, and vowed never to attend a son-et-lumiere. A bit like having the magic trick revealed, I guess – all the mystery and romance had been destroyed.
Our journey had begun in earnest. We looked forward to it as an adventure and an opportunity to bond as a family. Well, looking back it certainly was an adventure, and every adventure shared is a bond strengthened, but the process was not quite what we had planned.
- Tips, Traps, and Words of Wisdom
How much should you plan a holiday, and how much should you leave to chance? I’ve always leant more towards the former, but I understand the attraction and benefits of the latter. In our circumstance – needing to find accommodation for five people every night – we had no choice. On our previous visits with the children we’d sometimes spent hours looking desperately for someone to take us in, usually ending up in the most miserable flea-pit and paying an exorbitant price for the privilege. Add an extra adult to that equation and it spelt potential misery – so this trip we opted for pre-booking as much as we could.
There are two risks involved with booking your accommodation. First, the gorgeous looking abode whose picture you had examined minutely on the Internet, nevertheless turns out to be a week short of being condemned. Second, it leaves you with little flexibility in your itinerary. This means that the adventure is a little less adventurous, and that mishaps which cause delays in your schedule take on greater proportions – but more about that later.
The next couple of days were spent travelling south at a steady rate into the Dordogne area of central/southern France. That first morning we stopped down the road from Moret at the great Abbey church of Saint Benoit sur Loire. Being a Sunday, we got to witness a service (accompanied by the famous Gregorian Chant of the monks of Saint Benoit), followed by a short organ recital of Bach. Nice start, thought I. Afterwards, we picked up some provisions in the village shop and headed off into the temporary sunshine.
As we left the town, Enid asked when the church of Saint Benoit had been built.
‘Between the 12th and 13th centuries,’ I replied – happy to show off my knowledge.
‘Would that be the oldest church in France?’ she asked.
‘Where is the oldest church in France, then?’ she persisted. Just then, I looked up from my map at the sign on the village we were approaching. It said ‘Germigny-des-Pres – Oratoire Carolingian: circa 806AD’.
‘Would you like to see it?’ I asked nonchalantly.
For Lindy and I, one of the delights of travelling in France is the pique-nique. Not only is there a wide variety of choice available (not the least of which is the humble but unsurpassed French baguette!), but the countryside is liberally strewn with meadows, forests, rivers, streams, lakes, and picnic tables to ensure that the whole eating experience is as pleasant as possible.
Unfortunately, whilst it looked nice from inside the car, for that first week (it was early May) the reality was near-hypothermia – particularly for the suffering Aged Relative. Enid braved the cold with fortitude – an invisible mouth devouring food as if by magic from under the deep, all-enveloping folds of her blanket. The rest of us (the mother and father, anyway) pretended it was all jolly good fun, whilst sawing away at the frozen Brie with the carving knife.
Our second day was devoted to the more popular chateaux of the Loire. As we passed through the trees and Enid caught her first glimpse of Chambord – all bristling with towers and chimneys, and dripping white like a gigantic, renaissance wedding cake – there was an audible gasp from the back seat.
We lunched in the surrounding parklands (carefully choosing a spot that would best protect us from the arctic winds), dreaming of southern sunshine and balmy Tasmanian winters. Enid still resembled an overdressed Eskimo, but soldiered on despite the frostbite.
The icicles had melted and the sun made a brief appearance late that afternoon as we arrived at the romantic Chateau of Chenonceau. The gardens sprang to life in the sunshine – as if they’d been given a nudge and told to wake up and get their act together – and (some of us) began peeling off layers of protective clothing. The palace cast picturesque reflections in the river across which it was built, but the boys remained unimpressed. Thomas, in particular, was more intrigued by the water rats which populated the fetid waters of the nearby canals!
One of my great ideas (and I had more than a few) included the car games devised during quiet moments at home over the preceding year. Infused with my inexhaustible-but-not-always-(well, never)-appreciated humour, they were intended to be the saviour of long hours on the road. Did they work? Well, yes and no. They certainly achieved their aim of occupying time, but also served to polarise personalities in the car.
For example, there were a number of progressive stories that required each person to add their own contributions to a set beginning. They’d start out with a rather bizarre or macabre situation, then Enid would invariably invent a beautiful princess who needed rescuing. Thomas would immediately have her devoured by a dragon, only to have the poor maiden resurrected (or worse – regurgitated) during Enid’s next turn. This created some friction – which was not helped by James’ insistence on introducing Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggy to every story. Then, as if to pour petrol onto the flames, we had the appalling idea of scoring the contest. I think we imagined at the time that it would introduce an element of healthy competition, and provide another dimension of interest. What we failed to take into account was that Lindy had brought along her own, personal lobbyist. At first it was quaint as Enid awarded her daughter the highest points for each game – but over six weeks (and as she drew further and further ahead) it wore very thin indeed.
We spent our second night in a bed and breakfast (chambre d’hote in French). We had deliberately left this night unbooked because we wanted to stay in a French B&B again, and they were difficult (back in 2003) to reserve in advance. When the time came to settle down for the night, it was simply a matter of following the signs.
Our hosts that evening turned out to be an elderly couple, the male of which was apparently hard of hearing. I make this presumption based on the fact that, when we first arrived, the television was turned up so loud that it could be heard by aircraft passing several kilometres above us. Their house was very comfortable, though, and they had a swimming pool!
It must have made a curious sight for our hosts with Lindy and Enid huddled beneath a blanket, whilst James and Thomas frolicked in the water. Tasmanian children are made of strong stuff, and, once a hole had been carved through the surface ice, there was no stopping the boys enjoying the luxury of a swim. From their perspective, it might have been their last opportunity for the whole trip. Enid was heard to mumble something about it having to come from my side of the family.
The true benefit of staying in a chamber d’hote, however, was only truly appreciated the next morning. Upon entering the dining room, we were assailed by the delicious odour of freshly baked baguette, the most sublime, fresh coffee, and a plethora (is it plethora – or perhaps a gaggle? Or pride?) of home made jams. We gorged ourselves unashamedly, and utilised what little French we knew (or could invent) in chatting with the owners.
‘Bonjour madame, monsieur. Comment ca va?’ I said, to which our hosts replied in eloquent French. I understood the words ‘bon’ (good) and ‘café’ (coffee) only. Naturally, I smiled and nodded knowingly – looking askance at Lindy to indicate that I needed her assistance. Fortunately she’d understood enough to make some sort of reply, and our reputation was saved.
Eventually, the friendly couple went off to enjoy their own breakfast in private, whilst we finished at our leisure. As the last of us stumbled to their feet and waddled off towards the car, I went looking for madame in order to pay. I was devastated to find her seated with her husband at a tiny, plastic covered table before a humble bowl of corn flakes and – I shudder to write it – a cup of instant coffee. The spell was broken – the magic was gone – and the scales fell from my eyes. I realised in that one, horrendous moment, that many French people don’t sit down every morning to breakfast banquets, but have to slum it like the rest of us. It took days of grieving before I could come to terms with this revelation, and it is a scar I’ll carry with me forever. I can only be grateful that the others were spared this devastating spectacle.
The morning was spent in the city of Bourges. We headed straight for the medieval palace of Jacques Couer, and discovered that we were to be subjected to that terror of Europe – the guided tour not-in-English! For myself, I was happy to just look around and let the music of the words wash over me, but the children were counting the seconds like prisoners awaiting parole. The guide rambled on and on, oblivious to their misery.
We also visited the great gothic cathedral of Saint Etienne with its huge, overwhelming nave and beautiful medieval stained glass. But the highlight, for me, was when I bought the postage stamps for Enid. Call me shallow, but I strutted like a peacock after successfully negotiating the transaction without having to resort to English! The youthful, pleasant postal clerk looked impressed (or perhaps he was just relieved), and Trevor inched up a few notches in mother-in-law’s esteem.
When we hit the Auvergne later that day the countryside really became spectacular. The sun was shining (albeit weakly), the leaves were freshly open on the trees, and the green, grassy meadows swayed under a gentle breeze. I swear that even the cows were smiling as we sailed past, accompanied by theatrical oohs and ahhs from within the car.
Naturally, this trip was planned with the interests of the children in mind. On our previous visit they’d been impressed with ruined castles, and the Auvergne offered one with a bonus – live, period-dress entertainment. The guidebook said that it’s a “must” for the children. Well, perhaps for some – but our children certainly didn’t see it that way. For a start you have to climb a short rise (or, as James and Thomas described it, a high alpine pass) to get to it from the car park. That set them against the project from the outset. Then came the entertainment.
Mother, father, and granny were enchanted by the mock King, Queen, Princess (no dragons for Tom to feed her to) and guards who greeted the new arrivals as they passed through the ancient gateway and approached the tumbling remains of the keep. We snapped away happily with our cameras – behaving as embarrassingly as only the parents and grandparents of teenage children can – whilst James and Thomas looked desperately for disguises.
The only spark of interest for the boys was kindled when Thomas went exploring behind one of the ruined walls on the hillside. His excited shouts brought us running, and he proudly showed us a small plot with five grave markers basking in the late afternoon sunlight.
‘Count them.’ He said. ‘Five. That’s the same number as us.’ (And they say our public school system isn’t effective!). With a shudder of disquiet, the grownups smiled indulgently and went back to the entertainment, leaving Thomas taking his first photographs of the trip and James rechecking his brother’s mathematics.
After a beautiful drive across the mountains of the Monts Dore – snow-capped on its peaks and flower-strewn in its meadows – we arrived in the tiny village of Orcival. Our hotel for the night was located right next to the glorious Romanesque church – Lindy and Enid’s room enjoying a first-class view of the belltower.
After mother- and son-in-law shared a short, pleasant walk along a remote, sun dappled lane above the town, we rejoined the rest of the family and entered the hotel restaurant with not a little trepidation. The only table available for five people was occupied by what appeared to be the village lout – a cigarette dangling from his lips and a cloud of foul smoke engulfing the room from his epicentre. We looked confused for a moment – not knowing where to sit – before he smiled and stood up to let us have the table to ourselves. We mumbled our thanks, then watched in horror as he donned his apron and went into the kitchen to begin cooking – the smoke following him like the wake of a funnel from an ocean liner.
Well, this was France and you should never dismiss a cook – or a restaurant, for that matter – by his, her, or its appearance. No doubt you’ve heard claims in travel books before that start out saying ‘the food was simple, but delicious’ and then go on to describe something both exotic and complex – bison roasted in aardvark jelly with a truffle marinade, for example – but I won’t let you down. I’m talking omelettes (no, without the truffles), and trout (caught fresh that morning in the local stream) – pan fried in a simple cream and almond sauce. The glory of this dinner was not just the quality of the cooking (how do you make a humble omelette taste so special?), but the fact that it satisfied everyone – including the two gastronomic philistines! Later, we washed it all down with lashings of home-made strawberry ice cream.
This was our first introduction to that astonishing product – the European strawberry. It was a revelation. Moses experienced the same sort of thing as he glanced over the Ten Commandments after descending from Mount Sinai and putting his feet up in his favourite chair next to the fire. ‘Mon Dieu!’ I expect was his reaction, as was ours.
Now, I’m afraid that this is the point in my story where I’m going to disappoint. I know it’s expected that I describe the wine we enjoyed during this meal, but I’ve got to break the news to you that I was the only member of the expedition that touched alcohol, so bottles of wine were rare and, when indulged, inexpensive. Sorry, I know I’m breaking a fundamental rule of travel books, but there you have it. Take your purchase back to the shop and see if you can get a refund if you feel strongly about it.
That night I was enchanted by the centuries-old bells ringing in the church outside our hotel window, and it was then that I discovered that not everybody found this experience as romantic as me. It was to be a constant source of irritation to the rest of the party for the remainder of the trip, and one of my most pleasurable memories. It was not to be the last time that my happy, early morning, smiling face was greeted by bleary-eyed scowls. To add insult to injury – or injury to injury – Lindy and Enid had found that their room was designed with Chinese water torture in mind. The shower dripped incessantly all night, and absolutely nothing they could do would stop it. On the positive side, they did discover that they’d have made lousy spies – having been willing to give up the most closely guarded secrets in a nanosecond in exchange for a peaceful night’s sleep!