This is the 2nd instalment of my serialised novel from a disastrous holiday I took with my family back in about 2004.  The full ebook can be purchased in a range of formats at http://www.trevorwhitton.com/.  Enjoy!

 

  1. Towards Catastrophe

 

‘There’ll be another hotel just around the corner.’

Mum, three hours before we found a hotel.

 

(Excerpt from the James Whitton diaries).

 

 

Before we began our trip, Lindy’s sister had lent us her video camera to record our journey and, naturally, we all took our own cameras as well. The result was that every photo stop resembled the shooting of the latest epic from Steven Spielberg.   Birds couldn’t hear each other over the clicking. Night skies were lit by our flashes like London during the blitz. Japanese tourists would gape in awe and point.   Our coverage of the terrain of Europe was more complete and comprehensive than the most detailed aerial surveys. Google earth offered to sub-contract us. Stocks in Fuji and Kodak soared. When all flashes were in operation, the temperature of the immediate surroundings jumped by ten degrees (Celsius).

We took a lot of photos.

But – you’ll be astonished to know – not all of this exposed film was of high quality. Our first video experiments weren’t enhanced (or perhaps they were) by the fact that Lindy constantly forgot to stop the camera, replacing the lens cap and leaving the blessed thing running in the back of the car. But they say every cloud has a silver lining, and this error did provide us with another record of our trip – a darker, more sinister record. You see that camera – whilst you couldn’t actually see anything – did record our candid, unedited conversations.

Some of it wasn’t very pretty.

This document provides an opportunity to catch the Whittons-plus-one during unbuttoned, unguarded moments.   Confident in the knowledge that what we were saying couldn’t be heard by anyone else, it gives an insight into life’s uglier side. One such memorable moment was when Lindy was busy looking for a toilet.

‘Why didn’t you go before we left the Hotel?’ says the helpful husband.

‘Because I bloody-well didn’t need to go then!’ says the little woman through clenched teeth.

Definitely adults-only viewing.

 

The third morning of our holiday was one of those marvellous driving experiences. The roads were relatively empty, the countryside glorious (even though the weather wasn’t perfect), and the distance to be covered in the day modest. We left very early and had to wait an hour before the patisseries opened. We bagged our gross of fresh croissants and several baguettes in a pleasant, quiet little town, then – sated and happy – headed south.

Not far down the road, we came across a particularly bucolic scene, and the paparazzi began harassing the local livestock, each of the older contingent trying to capture that perfect, cow-in-foreground-rustic-farmhouse-in-middle-ground-and-forested-hill-in-background photograph. Satisfied with our efforts, we jumped smugly into our car and took off down the road.

Now, to effectively explain what happened next I’ll need to carefully put our situation into perspective for you.

We had a hatchback Renault, and, because of the large number of cameras being transported, had to store them in the back and retrieve them from the (very full) boot every time we stopped. So, on this occasion – as with hundreds of others – we stopped, took out our cameras, took our photographs, then placed the instruments back in the boot before climbing into our respective places.   The last one in closes the boot.

Okay, got the picture?

How was it that we travelled nearly a kilometre with the windows closed, yet no-one remarked on the fact that the wind was blowing through our hair? I don’t know – it’s a mystery. And who was the last in the car and therefore responsible for closing the boot?   Again, nobody can say for sure.   Some say this person, some say another.   If we’d felt particularly strongly about it, I suppose we could have referred it to forensic experts – but to date the matter remains unresolved.

The issue for me was – how could at least fifteen cars pass us in both directions, and not one thought to flash their lights or sound their horns to indicate that our boot was wide open? Coats, baggage and croissants were strewn behind us like confetti at a wedding. And yet, remarkably – even though they were sitting on top of the pile – not one camera was lost to the asphalt.

Don’t tell me there’s no such thing as the paranormal!

 

Toilets. Things have improved out of sight since my first trip to Europe, when public toilets were rare enough to be awarded stars in a modestly sized Michelin guide. But there are still isolated parts of the Continent where the old challenge awaits the tourist willing to put in the effort required to find them. Some local councils see it as a community service, I’m sure, to resist the corrupting change sweeping the rest of the country and maintain a standard that they see is a major contributor to the building of character.

The satisfaction felt in overcoming that challenge is impossible to put into words. Sure, for the male of the species it’s easy – many now just aim it out the window as they drive along (and I’m not just talking about the passengers!). Ever wondered why the wildflowers are so lush along the side of much of Europe’s roads? Well, regular watering and fertilising is the secret to any garden’s success. But, no – I’m not talking about satisfaction gained from simply peeing by the side of the road. To be honest, in many countries (France and Italy, for certain) I think it’s an actual offence not to have done so at least once a day. I’m talking about getting your actual bottom onto an actual toilet seat. With the added burden of catering for five, comes additional pleasure at overcoming almost insurmountable odds.

I can recall several occasions on this trip when I sidled into a restaurant/café/bar and respectfully asked if I could use their facilities. The waiter would shrug in a superior manner that bespoke of his pride in possessing such marvellous technology, and my spirits soared as I waved to the hordes waiting eagerly outside. His smug manner would disintegrate like ice from a heated windscreen.

Now that’s the kind of achievement even astronauts can only dream about.

 

I’ll never forget the moment in the Dordogne town of Argentat when I casually – almost indifferently – placed that first strawberry in my mouth. Yes, we’d enjoyed the strawberry flavoured ice cream in Orcival, but this was our first experience of the actual fruit – raw and unadorned.

How do I describe it to you? It sounds trite to say that it tasted like strawberry – but that’s exactly what it was like. Not the bland, tasteless fruit you get from supermarkets, but the real McCoy.   Sun-drenched sums it up for me – like the strawberry had absorbed the full blast of the sun as it grew, concentrating the flavour, only to be released at the first bight of the lucky consumer.

After the first effects of the shock wore off, I looked at Lindy and Enid, and saw that they, too, had tasted of the Fruits of Paradise. The sort of far away look in the eyes and reverent motion of the jaw is unmistakable, once experienced.   We thought we’d just been lucky, finding the one grower who’d just happened to stumble on perfection.   Well, it did turn out to be the best we tasted, but we were relentless in our efforts to deplete the Continent’s supplies of strawberries for the remainder of that Spring – and the others we sampled weren’t very far away from that first batch.

 

The French are a much maligned people. Many casual travellers – and those who’ve never been to France – maintain that they’re rude and arrogant. I’ve made it my Crusade to disabuse the world of this misapprehension.   The “Dordogne Picnic” event will help illustrate my point.

We were following the Dordogne south-west from Argentat – boxes of strawberries squeezed into every spare space in the car and occasionally tumbling from the inexpertly tied supplies on the roof – looking for a picnic spot. The weather had warmed, the sun was shining, and at last we came upon the perfect setting.   Located on a grassy lawn between the river and the road, surrounded by a shrubbery and devoid of other picnickers – it beckoned to us seductively. There was, however, a fly in the ointment. Or, to be entirely accurate, three flies.

It was lawn-cutting and hedge-trimming day in the municipality to which this slice of heaven belonged, and the workers were not those half-hearted fellows often associated the world over with such labours.   No, our men were getting stuck into their task with gusto – and they had the machinery to do it justice!   Drowning out all but the loudest lorry thundering past on the road, they were attacking the vegetation as if it were personal. Our spirits waned and we prepared to depart, when one of the workmen spotted us and signalled to his comrades. After a moment’s hesitation and a rueful sidelong glance at the temporarily reprieved grass, the mower grew silent.   Seconds later the hedge trimmer did the same. The three men packed up their tools, and stood by their truck, waving us towards the now vacant picnic area with a sad resignation. They stood watching, enjoying a leisurely lunch, and didn’t recommence the slaughter until we’d packed up and left, half an hour later. True gentlemen!

 

The market town of Sarlat is one of those peculiar towns that hides its attractions extremely well. Colmar in Alsace is the same – you wonder what on earth has brought you to such an uninteresting (nay, hideous) destination as you park the car.   It’s only when you’ve negotiated their forbidding exteriors and enter the old part of town that you look around and say to yourself, ‘Oh, so that’s what all the fuss is about.’ Sure, there are countless other places where you have to travel through ugly outskirts to get to the good bits, but the attractions are usually evident well before you dispense with the car.

We struggled through the traffic, followed the signs to the tourist parking, and finally found a small vacancy into which we could just about squeeze the beast. Lindy was just about to pull in when a little Citroen came from nowhere and beat her to it. As we stared out of the window in shock the driver turned his aged, beret-clad head towards us and – scowling furiously – waved his fist! We were all too stunned to respond, but I – for one – had learned a lesson which I was later to put to good stead.

As we finally disposed of the automobile, I could tell that Enid was wondering what we were doing in such a place.   Walking down the frenetic main street – dodging traffic from the six inch-wide pavement – I saw that, if anything, this pessimism was growing.

I suppose a lot of Sarlat’s attraction is that you turn directly from its traffic-congested, uninteresting main road, directly into the attractive, historic pedestrian-only zone. The difference is startling and impressive.   The sound of traffic abates, the pace becomes more relaxed (despite the hordes of tourists), and the old stone buildings, narrow alleyways and mysterious cul-de-sacs begin to weave their enchantment. The adults had a ball exploring these attractions, as well as the craft and art shops, and ended up feeling that the effort to visit the place was well and truly worth the effort.

James and Thomas – despite the usual ice cream bribes – just saw the town as a necessary evil that had to be endured before they got to the swimming pool at that evening’s accommodation!

 

Two years earlier – on our last trip with the boys – we’d chanced upon the chambre d’hote from heaven whilst touring through the Dordogne near le Bugue. We’d followed an insubstantial signpost through a remote, unsurfaced forest road to a farmhouse whose outbuildings had been converted into discrete, characterful and comfortable accommodation, run by an Englishwoman and her husband.   Naturally – for no self-respecting chambre d’hote from heaven would dare be without one – it possessed a swimming pool, as well as acres of meadows, forests, and even a small lake. We stayed there only two days, and it rained for most of the time, but we retained extremely fond memories of the place.

Les Sarazzines – the Saracens? The owners themselves weren’t quite sure where the name had come from, but it dated back many centuries to a time before the house was built. Intending to pass through the area again, we’d booked it for a couple of nights and hoped desperately that we’d be able to find it again. This was made all the more challenging by the fact that we were approaching from the opposite direction this time, and we knew there were no signposts at all on the road by which we intended to arrive.

We got very close at our first try, but – it must be admitted – did get a little lost. Lindy (with urging from the AR) insisted on stopping beside a couple of farmers and forcing me to ask directions. I mean – how? Even if you manage to ask the question, how on earth are you going to understand the bloody answer? Flushed with embarrassment, I wound down the window, smiled and offered them a hearty ‘bonjour’. Like all decent Frenchmen, they returned my greeting with a smile and waited. Broadening my smile, I asked:

‘Ou est les Sarazzines?’ which, I think (in retrospect) means ‘Where are the Saracens?’ Fortunately for me, they tactfully ignored the fact that I was obviously a congenital idiot, and pointed into the distance. This was followed by a string of words, which included a lot of ‘gauche’s’ (lefts), ‘adroit’s’ (rights) and ‘tout adroit’s’ (straight aheads). I continued smiling and nodded – always a sure sign that I haven’t understood a word – while Lindy thanked them and began backing up the car.

‘You understood them?’ I asked in awe.

‘Most of it,’ – was the not-altogether-reassuring reply. Nevertheless, I was impressed. I suppose we understood more French than the average tourist (and we’ve improved over the years since then), but this was scaling new heights. I may have whispered ‘my mate’ or ‘my hero’, but the boys were reserving judgement until we’d actually arrived at our destination.

 

I remember the first time I heard my wife speaking French. It was on our first trip together, and – after several days in France in which she’d given no hint that she possessed anything beyond ‘bonjour’, ‘merci’ and ‘au revoir’ – we stopped at a petrol station and I heard her string out a whole sentence – complex and word perfect (or so it seemed to me). As she got in the car I stammered ‘What did you say to him?’

‘I told him I couldn’t speak French.’

 

Les Sarazzines was under new management – but still British.   Lindy and Mike greeted us like long lost friends, and we basked in the luxury of being their only guests. We unpacked the car, settled ourselves in, and made the most of the fine evening by dining al fresco. Lindy (my wife, not the owner – I’ll call her Lindy One to save confusion) produced a veritable feast of fettucine alla carbonara, mixed green salad, baguettes, brie, camembert, strawberries and (luxury!) a bottle of red wine for the father. The children wolfed down their dinner with minimal ceremony, and ran off to play in the pool.

As the sun set and evening descended, not a sound could be heard but for a quiet, persistent ‘cuck-oo, cuck-oo, cuck-oo’ from the surrounding woods and the occasional splash and quiet, secret conversation of the boys – invisible behind the nearest wall of the swimming pool.

 

James and Thomas opted out of our excursion the next day, deciding instead to spend some time playing table tennis, swimming, and generally relaxing. The adults had a terrific time exploring castles, enjoying the forests, fields and isolated hamlets of the Dordogne countryside, and nearly buying a painting in the hilltop town of Domme. Unfortunately, the artist didn’t take traveller’s cheques or credit card, and none of the banks were open, so his masterpiece remained in France. Seeing our disappointment, he told us where the scene in the painting was located, presumably so we could go and paint it ourselves!

 

Our hosts had invited us for a drink that night.   Consequently, there was much discussion over what we should do during the course of the day – there being a little reluctance on the part of Lindy One and Enid because they were teetotallers.   I’m usually a bit of a social recluse myself, but I liked and felt comfortable with Lindy Two and Mike, so eventually I convinced Lindy One to be polite and join me in accepting their hospitality.

The amazing thing was that we were only staying two nights, yet they treated us like regular visitors who’d come to stay for weeks. There were about half a dozen bottles of wine lined up on the table when we arrived (not to mention the complimentary bottle presented to us upon our arrival the previous day) – and we were rude and ignorant enough to come without so much as a packet of peanuts!

Mike was the voluble one, and we chatted animatedly while I shamelessly swilled his alcohol. After much discussion and drinking, Mike decided to open his heart and admit his deepest secret – he was a Francophile! Lindy One and I, being very fond of the French ourselves, became interested.

‘That’s why you bought this place?’

‘Of course. And particularly because it was in the Dordogne – I just love the castles.’   He then went on to tell us about his adventures exploring the nooks and crannies of the area, and the obscure ruins he’d run to ground over the years.

‘We went to Bonaguil castle today – it was terrific!’ I replied, getting into the swing of things. Bonaguil is a very popular tourist destination, about eighty kilometres away (or one hundred in our case, due to the eighty kilometre rule).

‘Where?’ he replied, blank faced.

‘Bonaguil.’ I replied, spelling it in case my perfect French pronunciation had thrown him.

‘I don’t know that one.’ he admitted. Now it was my turn to look blank.

‘How do you get on with the language, living here?’ asked Lindy One, quickly changing the subject.

‘I don’t do too bad.’ admitted Lindy Two.   ‘But Mike doesn’t speak a word of French.’ I exchanged a nonplussed glance with my wife, our mouths hanging open in the vain hope that our minds would find appropriate words to fill them.

So – not really a Francophile, then, we thought.

 

When I look back on the following day, I’m reminded of butterflies flitting peacefully in the sunshine from fragrant flower to fragrant flower, oblivious to the napalm about to be unleashed from the low flying plane above them.

We spent the day travelling the gorgeous Aveyron valley. The sun was shining brightly, and the countryside alternated between forests, meadows, streams and isolated medieval, hump-backed bridges. And those beautiful, honey-stoned villages and their spectacular castles! Najac – strung out along a wooded ridge with its ruined castle sticking up like an exclamation mark; Saint Antonin with its spectacular backdrop of cliffs; Penne with its impossible finger of rock, which upon closer inspection turns out to be a castle; and Bruniquel, where the horror began to unfold.

Gradually, during the course of the day, the tourist numbers had steadily increased from virtually none, to hundreds. Still oblivious to what was to come, I entered the tourist office in Bruniquel and casually asked if they could find us a chambre d’hote in the area that could accommodate five. The woman behind the counter looked dismayed.

‘I’ll try,’ she promised – not very encouragingly.   ‘But it will be very difficult.’

It was a valiant effort. Despite her scepticism, she persevered for a good 40 minutes (calling everyone within a twenty kilometre radius) before surrendering to the inevitable.

‘Je suis desolee,’ she said (I’m sorry) – then those dreaded words: ‘C’est complet!’

‘Full? Everything?’ I asked, amazed.

Still we remained unaware of the true horror of our situation.

‘Not everyone will be listed with the tourist office,’ said Lindy confidently as we left. ‘If we just keep driving, we’ll come across something.’

Three hours and eighty kilometres later (there’s that distance again!) we arrived in Moissac – exhausted, desperate and beaten.   We’d stopped at every hotel, chambre d’hote, and bus shelter along the way – but always the same response:

‘C’est complet!’

But for some reason the tourist hordes had stayed away from Moissac. The place was a magnet for those travelling the popular pilgrimage route to Santiago in Spain, but they all seemed to be staying in the pilgrim’s hostel. I sighed audibly as the concierge of the hotel admitted that they had a vacancy. The price was affordable, and the rooms comfortable and clean. I left to break the glad news to the eagerly awaiting family (their expectant, anxious faces pressed up against the car window as I approached brought a lump to my throat), just as the heavens opened. To this day I believe it was an omen.

We rushed through the rain into the hotel, and I went to reception to sign the registration forms.

‘May I have your credit card number please, Monsieur?’

‘Of course. I’ll just……’ Ten minutes later I was standing in the hotel room with Lindy – all the colour drained from my face.

‘I’ve lost my credit card.’

 

 

 

  1. The Saga of the Lost Credit card

 

 

Prepare yourself for a story so tragic, so epic in its scale, that your view on life may very well change forever. Compared to us, Job (you know, from the bible) was a whinger who was prone to moaning over the slightest setback and Jean Valjean (the pessimist from Les Miserables) was a man blessed with indescribable good fortune, but tended to dwell too much on the few negatives in his life.

It wouldn’t have been so bad if we’d eventually found my credit card. And it wouldn’t have been so bad if it had been a simple matter to contact the Credit card people to organise a replacement. And it wouldn’t have been so bad if we’d been able to organise a replacement quickly and easily. And it wouldn’t have been so bad if the replacement itself hadn’t gone astray.   And it wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadn’t been pelting with rain that morning in Moissac when Lindy and I wandered the streets trying to find a telephone service that would allow us to call the free call numbers provided by our Bank for just such an occasion. But for all these circumstances to have occurred all at once betrays evidence of celestial planning on a massive scale.

Which was the worst bit? Getting soaked to the skin while we went from telephone to telephone? Enid and the boys waiting in the car in the pouring rain for two and a half hours not knowing what was going on? No, I think it was the endless phone calls on the mobile trying to get a number we could actually use.   You see, the mobile service was provided from Australia, so the dollar signs rolled around like tumblers in a poker machine for every frustrating minute spent battling the bureaucracy.   The trouble was that France didn’t allow you to access free call numbers through a public or mobile telephone.   Why? I don’t know. Perhaps it’s another one of those character-building things. Nor would the operator connect you – not for all the begging, pleading, bribing or threatening in the world. But could the Bank grasp this simple – though inexplicable – fact? No they could not. We’d call them up, explain our predicament, and they’d produce another, miraculous telephone number. We’d try it, only to hear yet another recorded message beginning with the dreaded ‘desolee’. So we’d call the Bank back, only to get a different person to whom you’d have to explain the whole situation all over again. After several minutes of explanation, they’d just try and give you the standard phone number again.

‘But we can’t get through on that one,’ Lindy explained. So she got another one.   That didn’t work, either. Back to the Bank and a different operator.   Explain it all over again. Get the same contact number. ‘No, that doesn’t work.’ Get the second number again. ‘No, that doesn’t work, either.’

‘Well, try this third number.’

To this day I’m convinced they had a jar of telephone numbers, into which they randomly dipped their hands every time they got a phone call. But we were desperate – we kept calling back. Eventually they promised to get the credit card company to call us on our mobile. Two hours later we rang them back.

‘The credit card company hasn’t called us.’

‘You’ve lost your credit card?’

‘Yes!!!’

‘Then call this toll-free number……………’

 

Earlier that morning I’d gone alone to visit the church of Saint Peter. Like I said, Moissac is an important stop on the pilgrimage route to Santiago, and has been for centuries. The tympanum of the church and the carvings in the adjoining cloisters are justifiably famous, but I found them difficult to appreciate.

I wandered the cloister with a definite air of distraction, before being stopped by a doe-eyed British pilgrim.

‘You’re from Australia?’ she ventured. I shook myself out of a dark reverie and looked at her quizzically.

‘How did you know?’

‘I heard you say so in the ticket office.’   (They ask where you’re from for their survey.) ‘Are you on a pilgrimage?’ she asked. She was pleasant enough, I suppose, but I’m afraid I was in no mood for her flakiness that morning.

‘No. Just on holiday,’ I replied somewhat curtly. She looked me up and down thoughtfully, then seemed to come to a decision.

‘You will – someday,’ she pronounced. A hundred replies clambered for life, and the one I chose was:

‘No I bloody won’t!’ and stormed off. Not something I’m very proud of, but at least I’m being honest. You get all the story, you see – warts and all.

 

The car games took on a sinister aspect during the course of that day. Each story beginning or movie title invariably ended up with a bank clerk being decapitated by a credit card. But now, with the benefit of hindsight, I can step back and see the silver lining in that dark, ominous cloud.

The fact was that our frustration with the telephones distracted the others from the real cause of our misery – me. For it was I, dear reader, who lost the damned thing in the first place, but we were all so preoccupied with trying to redress the situation that this simple fact had escaped our attention. Who knows what would have happened otherwise?   The newspaper headline ‘Father torn to shreds by maniacal family’ swims before my eyes each night before I go to sleep.

You’ll think I’m exaggerating, but I promise you it’s not the case. I’m giving you the abbreviated version. My therapist has succeeded in getting me to block the worst excesses of that day, but I can tell you that this fiasco lasted until we arrived at our destination in the Pyrenees later that evening. As we pulled up outside the hotel, our phone rang at last. It was the credit card company – they did exist!

‘I understand you’ve lost your credit card?’

‘Yes. Can you arrange a replacement?’

‘Nothing could be simpler. Just call this toll-free number…..’

 

We were a sorry bunch of campers as we tramped, sodden and miserable, into our hotel. The rain was still falling, but the one bright speck which had kept us going all day was the thought that at least we had our rooms booked and didn’t have to repeat the misery of finding accommodation.

The five of us filed up to the front desk nonchalantly – almost arrogant in the knowledge that we had a booking. In fact, I told the concierge as much:

‘I have a booking,’ I said.

‘What name?’ he replied.

‘Whitton,’ I said. He frowned. He scanned, then rescanned the page before him. ‘W-h-i-t-t-o-n.’ I repeated – spelling it out. I was growing agitated. The man shook his head.

‘No – no booking for Whitton.’ I swallowed hard.   I delved deep and somehow summoned the strength to ask:

‘Do you have accommodation for five people tonight, anyway?’

‘Desolee – c’est complet,’ he replied, shaking his head emphatically. I staggered, and my lips began to tremble. Let’s go back to the beginning, I thought.

‘But you must have a booking for me – Trevor Whitton.’ His eyes suddenly grew round with comprehension.

‘We have a booking for a Monsieur Trevor,’ he said, happy to throw me a lifeline. I threw my arms around the astonished man and sobbed uncontrollably.

 

Out of adversity comes a fuller appreciation of our blessings.

As we were settling into our room later that afternoon the mobile phone rang – it was the credit card company.

‘We have arranged for your card to be sent to Avignon in a week’s time, as you requested,’ said the delightful little soul.

‘That’s perfect,’ said Lindy, visibly relaxing (she may have even smiled a little).

‘Simply present yourself to the Banque National de Paris in the Rue de la Republique, and ask for Monsieur Masoni.’ This must be the real thing, we thought – they’d even given us a name! Well, I’ll leave that story untold for the moment – but remember that name – you’ll hear it many more times in the course of my narrative.

Lindy and I embraced with delight once she’d rung off, then we collected the others and headed downstairs to dinner.

 

You remember me telling you not to judge French restaurants by their appearance? Well the Hotel d’Ossau was a perfect illustration of what I meant. As we entered the smoke filled room it resembled something out of “The Den of the Secret Nine”. Not at all what we were hoping for that night! Men sat alone in corners, casting furtive glances in our direction while they waited for their drug dealers, arms shipments, biological weapons, or whatever. James turned to leave, muttering something like:

‘This never happens in McDonalds.’ Lindy caught him by the collar.

‘It’ll be fine,’ she said soothingly. But James wasn’t having a bar of it.

‘No it won’t – it’s horrible.’ he said – loudly.   As the sweat broke on my brow I was sure I could hear the subtle click of switchblades being opened surreptitiously beneath the tables around us. Then the waiter-cum-concierge arrived and showed us to our table – and the entire atmosphere changed.

He led us into the back of the restaurant, where there were no smugglers, drug addicts, assassins or serial killers.   But – more importantly – there was no cigarette smoke! Other families filled the premises and waved to us encouragingly, and the waiter smiled good-humouredly.

That meal was one of the most wondrous events of my life. From unpromising beginnings (to say the least), we soon relaxed and ended up thoroughly enjoying ourselves.   The food was quite good – trout a-la crème (again, fresh from local streams), fettucine in a salmon and cream sauce, the ubiquitous (but still outstanding) omelette, and chicken cordon bleu – just to give you a sample. Nothing particularly fancy, but just what was needed after the day we’d had.   Once again, even the boys found something they enjoyed, and I ingested the muscle relaxant (a large, cold glass of beer).

But the true accolades must be reserved for the waiter. He knew just when to bring each course, he was attentive and flattering to the ladies (Enid talked casually about the benefits of late-life marriages and toy-boys at one stage), and he treated our attempted French with the dignity it never deserved. Most of all, he was just good company! The relief we all felt after the day we’d endured was indescribable.

Viva la Hotel d’Ossau!

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