But don’t think that I haven’t been taking notes. The moment you have all been waiting for – yes indeed, a blow by blow account of three weeks in France follows.
Wednesday, August 4
Oh the trauma. The ferry was to leave from Rosslare at 4 – a two hour drive from our Dublin home. We had all day to get there. We packed up the car and the children and left home just before noon. The traffic in Dublin was very slow and be the time we reached Wicklow, everyone was hungry and cranky so we stopped for lunch as we had all day to make our ferry. It was after 2.30 when we left the lunch venue. It was about then that we discovered that it is not in fact a two hour drive from Dublin to Rosslare. It’s really closer to three hours. As we crawled through the traffic in Enniscorthy at 3.25 with tension radiating from the two adults in the front, an innocuous comment from one of the children in the back led Mr. Waffle to snap – we are going to miss the ferry, we are not going to France which caused the children to cry, frankly, adding nothing to the gaiety of the party. At 3.45, we rolled up to the ferry port and, as ferries are not airlines, they let us on with 15 minutes to go. We were last on and I can still feel the waves of relief I felt at the time. This euphoria sustained us through a dreadful night on the ferry – a four berth cabin, five people and much bed hopping.
Thursday, August 5
La belle France – the excitement. We went to the Château de Kerjean which was nice in a low key way although Michael insisted on spending all his holiday money (€5) on a ludicrously expensive colouring book, something which he was subsequently to regret loudly and at length explaining that he hadn’t understood that there would be other things to buy in France. We went to a lovely old restaurant in the grounds of the castle and the children ate nothing. The waitress said that it was probably because they were spoilt. The unhappy habit of the French of failing to marry truth with tact. On the plus side, the bill for all 5 of us was €50. And this was pretty much the case every single time we went out. I was amazed how much cheaper France is than Ireland. Consistently. It looks like prices may have further to fall here.
We then took ourselves off to a slightly underwhelming although perfectly acceptable two star hotel in Morgat. But by God, the children loved that hotel. Even at the end of the holiday, they were still asking wistfully whether they could some day go back to the Hôtel Julia. Perhaps their affection was inspired in part by the really lovely beach a short walk away.
Friday, August 6
After breakfast, although it was cold and windy we took ourselves down to the beach where the children swam,
jumped up and down on a huge elastic thingy (provided by Messrs. Crapato – great name eh?)
and we all proved the dictum that it is possible to get sunburnt on an overcast day. In a day that the children would look back to longingly over the course of the holiday we then had table football, a merry go round, ice cream, a fishing game with prizes and TV.
Dinner that night was a resounding success despite Michael showing some evidence of difficulty with the linguistic regime.
Michael: Papa, comment est-ce que je dis “Je veux un pizza en francais”.
Mr. Waffle: “Je veux un pizza.”
Michael: Mais en francais.
Daniel is less chatty than Michael but better at French. So while Michael was saying blithely to a baffled French waitress “Et, after, mon pizza, je veux..” Daniel was hissing “après” from the end of the table. I was delighted to note that Michael’s desire to communicate was beginning to outweigh his hatred for French.
Saturday, August 7
We arrived at our holiday house which, against all laws known to man, was better than it appeared in the advertisement. It was 400 metres from the beach. The garden was huge. There was a big empty field beside it.
The house was also very big and for the first time in their lives, the boys enjoyed separate bedrooms. I thought they might miss each other, but no. They immediately started posting up signs on their doors (using their sister and parents to write as they cannot read or write) saying private, keep out and so on. Since the signs were largely addressed to the illiterate members of the family, their usefulness was questionable. Lest you think that the house was absolutely perfect, I should explain that it was last redecorated in 1974. The wallpaper was very exciting. It was the trendiest that the 1970s could offer. I was going to post a photo but, if you really care, you can go and look on flickr.
That evening after a slightly disastrous family stroll around the village of Ploéven (pretty but tiny) and inspection of its calvaire (never seen one in my life before as far as I can recall, Mr. Waffle suggested that perhaps I had not, in fact, been to Brittany before) I took myself off to mass alone. I have never seen an older congregation. There were no children at all and I was by far the youngest person there. I could only be thankful that my children were not there as they would have been terrifyingly loud and lolled about the seats in a manner sure to draw adverse comment. In fact at the end of mass I did see one small child but like all French children, he remained silent throughout. Mr. Waffle and I were very impressed with the manners of French children who unlike their Irish counterparts, still seem to be brought up on the “children should be seen and not heard” rule of which my parents were so fond. Seeing a French three year old sit up straight at table, use his cutlery properly and converse over dinner in a gentle, low voice is an astonishing sight. And it is available everywhere in west Brittany.
The holidaymakers were mostly French – there were far fewer foreigners than I remember from my own holidays with my parents in Brittany 30 years ago. And then, I didn’t notice that there were no black people, no veiled women, no one imperfectly dressed. It was a startlingly homogeneous population. The French middle classes en masse, all the BCBG people and their absolutely beautifully dressed and even more beautifully behaved offspring were in Brittany this summer. It was like a very genteel theme park.
Sunday, August 8
We went to the beach in the morning and it was low tide. The tide went out for miles and it seemed like hours until we actually got to the water, dodging jellyfish carcases on the way.
Apparently global warming has lured the jellyfish out of the Mediterranean and up the Atlantic coast. On the plus side, this does mean that the water is surprisingly warm. In the afternoon when we went back, it was high tide and the character of the beach was completely different. Michael and Daniel made a little friend. An English boy called Joe. After that afternoon we were never on the beach at the same time and Michael pined for his friend.
That evening as Michael and Daniel slipped under the table of the restaurant where we were having pancakes (I have had enough pancakes for some time – I had no recollection that Brittany was full of creperies – Mr. Waffle asked me again whether I was sure that I had been to Brittany as a child – I was 9,10 and 11), I pointed out a little French boy sitting in his place eating with his cutlery conversing with his parents. “That,” said Michael scornfully, “is not a boy, it’s a baby.” He failed to appreciate that this made matters worse not better.
Monday, August 9
After a morning at the beach (much of it spent by Michael tearfully looking for Joe), we went to the beautiful old town of Locronan, named after the Irish saint, Ronan. It was heaving with tourists and tourist tat. Michael (who, you will recall, had spent his holiday money) kept up a constant drone of “I want, I want..” The church was loud with tourists and a woman was sitting in a pew unashamedly eating a sandwich. Say a prayer, I hissed to the children as we lit candles. “I don’t know how to pray in French,” said Michael indignantly. I wouldn’t say that I was entranced with Locronan but I entered into the mood sufficiently to buy the boys two stripy jumpers – essential items for the Breton tourist.
Tuesday, August 10
We ventured in to the nearest big town, Quimper. Scarred by trips there with my parents as a child, I warned that we would never find parking and be trapped in the one ways forever. It was fine actually. Again, Mr. Waffle enquired solicitously whether I was absolutely sure I had been to Brittany before. We wandered round in the rain, we yielded to the children’s importuning and gave them ice cream and a couple of turns on the merry-go-round.
At the Breton Museum we picked up our passeports culturels which I thought was a really nifty idea. It’s a passport sized document which gives a list of 20 sites in Finistère and information on them. Each time you went into a museum you got a stamp and reduced entry fee (entry fees were small in any case – typically €3 to €4 for adults and free for children). Entry to the 5th, 10th, 15th and 20th sites is free. I asked and none of the museums had seen someone who had been to all 20. I suppose you would want to be particularly keen to go to the Strawberry museum.
The museum in Quimper was staging a clever exhibit. The top floor was turned into an art deco flat with original Breton pieces from between the wars.
Wednesday, August 11
I began to enjoy reading the local paper which Mr. Waffle had started picking up in the Boulangerie in the morning. Apparently Ouest France (its logo is, in my mind, inextricably associated with holidays – see I was in Brittany) is one of the few models of a profitable local newspaper. What it does is cover national news in the first couple of pages, standard everywhere and then devote the remainder to the most local of local news. They put in a range of things to do, they cover what’s on. There was the account of the local boules competition with poor turn out. There is very specific weather and tide information. Terrific for the holiday maker. I found myself drawn to the deaths (my age?). In the French death notices they publish the age of the dead person. They were mostly in their 90s. The odd one over 100. There is perhaps something particularly salubrious about the Breton air. Or could it be that it’s the same at home but we just don’t notice as it’s not the custom to put in the age of the deceased?
After a quick inspection of the beach, its green algae and its jellyfish at low tide (as covered in Ouest France), we pushed on. Armed with our “passeports”, we took ourselves to the Musée de l’école rurale which was manned by a gorgon. It was an appealing building with a classroom downstairs and quite substantial living quarters upstairs as well as a vegetable garden outside. The woman manning the building on the day did not like small children and frowned disapprovingly at ours. It’s true that they were making some noise but as we were the only visitors, it’s not as though we were disturbing the other punters. You would think that in a school museum, they might have put in someone who liked children a little.
We went for a picnic in the grounds of Saint Marie du Menez Hom before our next adventure. I’m not sure I would have picnicked in the church grounds, if I hadn’t seen some French people doing it first but it was all very peaceful.
I took myself to the Thursday morning market in Ploeven. This was a disappointment. It consisted of a bored man in a van selling fruit and vegetables. Thereafter, we decided to sample one of the Ouest France suggestions and took ourselves to a bagpipe and bombard learning session. I quite enjoyed this but the others found it dull. Daniel was very good sitting quietly in the drizzle watching the men belting out loud tunes but the others went running around in the background. Nevertheless, when the demonstration was over and the man with the bagpipes asked who would like a go, Michael shoved himself to the front of the crowd and said “Moi!” to general laughter while poor Daniel hung on to my leg nervously. In the end, he got a turn too, herself couldn’t be bothered. It’s hard work blowing a bagpipe.
In the afternoon following our “passeports” we went off to look at the Musée des Vieux Metiers. This was pretty much an unqualified success. The idea is that elderly people man various stations showing how things were traditionally made. The day we were there they were making butter and all the children there turned the handle of the churn until, eventually, the cream turned into butter.
I had never seen that done before and was fascinated. Then they buttered some bread and handed it around and sold little boxes of newly churned butter. A woman showed the Princess how to turn flax into thread and another how to spin wool. A woman embroidering asked whether the Princess would like a turn. I looked dubiously at the delicate pattern, “Well, she can’t sew…” The lady looked shocked and whispered, “What’s wrong with her?” “Nothings wrong with her, she just can’t sew,” I said. “Ah, I see,” said the lady, “they don’t teach them at school [in your godforsaken country – clearly implied] and the discipline is lacking at home.” The French and their frankness. Afterwards, we went to a park where they had Breton games, mostly variations on the theme of throwing but the children had a great time.
Earlier in the week we had sourced a local teenager for babysitting duties and we hurried home to be there when she arrived. She’s only 15, I said to Mr. Waffle, “I bet she’ll come with her mother because, if I were her mother, I would want to check that we weren’t mad axe wielders.” This was wrong. She came on her moped. We turned the children over to her – she seemed phlegmatic. She was a very pretty girl and she clearly hadn’t needed to polish her conversational skills to any degree because talking to her was like drawing blood from a stone. We went out, took in the night market at Locronan and returned reasonably early to find all was well. In fact the Princess had really taken to Mathilde the Silent and they had spent the evening playing marbles together.
Friday, August 13
Mr. Waffle and the Princess went together to conquer the Menez Hom, the tallest point locally. At the top there was a notice explaining that on May 1, the Celts celebrated Beltaine as they lit fires to Bel. There was mild excitement as Mr. Waffle was dying to find links between Irish and Breton and Bealtaine is the Irish for May. On the whole though, the languages seem pretty far apart.
The boys and I went down to the local campsite where they illicitly played on their swings and kicked a ball with some other children. It reminded me of both the agreeable and disagreeable aspects of camping – agreeable there are always loads of other children to play with – disagreeable there are no dishwashers and there is no running water in a tent, I don’t mind the communal showers so much – call me weird. After half an hour or so, Daniel fell and cut his knee. He wailed. There was one small drop of blood. A passing woman sympatised, “You need a plaster,” she said kindly. “Georges will get you a plaster. Georges, Georges!” A man with a walrus moustache emerged from the campsite reception and, like a Jane Austen heroine, I felt all the awkwardness of my situation: illicitly playing in his playground and demanding attention for what anyone but the afflicted child would consider a minor injury. Georges looked grave. He asked Daniel if it hurt. Daniel confirmed that he was in agony. Solemnly Georges brought down from the shelf a box with a large red cross and showed it to Daniel. Together they selected the largest plaster in the box which, when applied, entirely covered Daniel’s knee. He was cured!
In the afternoon, following our “passeport” (are you beginning to see a pattern emerging?) we went to the port museum in Duarnenez the local, slightly rough, fishing port – probably the edgiest place in Finistère . Very right on, it’s twinned with a refugee camp in Palestine. The port museum was a surprising success aside from the open quays which nearly gave me heart failure. Sample dialogue
Me: Stay away from the edge.
Me: Because you will fall in and drown.
Me: Because you can’t swim.
The museum has a number of real boats that you can go onto at the quayside. They’re really well laid out and everything is cleverly explained.
Afterwards, we went to a local baker who opened up his premises to an audience and showed them how to make the Breton speciality, the Kouign Amann. This was extraordinary popular and there was a huge queue outside the baker’s. I thought that we might not get in but we did. This was, as it turned out, a bad thing. The baking session was mildly entertaining for adults but, frankly, dreary for children. We were all gathered round his kitchen with no way out – children at the front, parents some way behind. It started off well when he began his patter and said, “What will we be making today, ladies and gentlemen? What delicacy are we going to create?” and Michael said loudly and clearly, to general laughter, “I know what you’re going to do, you’re going to make a cake.” Alas, using tu rather than vous as he has never had to use vous at home. A mortal sin in French. And then, it went on, the type of flour to use, the water and so on. Michael tired of the general patter and deciding that the conversation could be improved by his intervention, poked the baker in the back and, having got his attention, told him that he, Michael, had a sore knee. The baker who was an excellent show man asked “Who owns him?” I raised my hand and blushed. Eventually after an hour in the toasty kitchen with the Princess wilting behind and the boys fighting in front and only a couple of bits of cake to leaven the children’s boredom, it was over. Even the French kids (compass for good behaviour) were looking distinctly droopy. We hot footed it for home with, of course, a kouign amann in hand.
A bit dull this, I appreciate but at least my children will be able to prove to their spouses that they had a family holiday in Brittany, should the need arise. More tomorrow, if we’re both feeling strong.