Sunday, August 2
We left the house in good time. The never to be forgotten trauma of 2010 has had a lasting impact.
We even had time to stop for lunch where the boys enjoyed the distinctly unusual combination of Yorkshire pudding and chips.
The boat was uneventful which is probably the best one can hope for.
Monday, August 3
We arrived in France and it was warm and sunny. This alone was a real triumph. This summer in Ireland, the weather has been appalling.
We were staying in Normandy and only had a two hour drive from the ferry which I truly recommend. We swapped houses again and, by arrangement, when we arrived at their house, the French people were preparing to leave. Our hosts talked us through various logistics and we scooted off for lunch. We explored the local tourist office where the woman behind the counter was charming as she told us of the joys of the “Suisse Normande” Spoiler alert: it is nothing like Switzerland. We dropped into the local church – bombed in the war and rebuilt – and the cleaner bustled up to us and I feared the worst. However, all she did was show us a carving of a bat and ask whether the children needed to use the toilet. Truly these were bizarrely friendly French people.
And then we came back to occupy our lovely house.
When I have shown people the pictures of the French house, their response has been, “no offence but what did the French people get out of the deal?” I suppose we are urban and English speaking which has some attraction. Nevertheless only consider what we got out of the deal.
The swimming pool in the garden:
The trampoline in the garden:
The large house set in extensive grounds:
The front garden:
Front elevation as our friends the estate agents say:
However, we did not get a washing machine. Regrettably, our hosts’ machine had died the previous day and they left us numbers to wrestle with the local washing machine repair people. Sigh.
Another defect became apparent that evening. There were no blinds and no shutters. I was baffled. I have never stayed in a house in France without shutters or blinds. We contacted the French people. Apparently, the shutters had gone for repair and were due back, but alas, no sign.
In the bathroom, madame had left a note.
It says no one will see you, if you don’t turn on the light. As I stood in the shower facing the window and saw the man with the combine harvester working in the hay field across the road, I fervently hoped that she was right.
Tuesday, August 4
I was awoken by the noise of an alarm. On closer inspection, it transpired that the boys had found a monopoly game with a credit card machine that made an excellent zinging noise. The Princess and I drove into the boulangerie to pick up breakfast and for much of the journey I drove the car on the right side of the road. A win there.
We all went into the market in the little town and, as a treat, the children got pizza. Margarita was what they were hoping for but it came with the most extraordinary quantities of ham on top. I suppose French people like ham but Michael only likes it in his lunchbox surrounded by sliced pan. Alas.
Having spent much of the morning, hanging around the house and, more excitingly, the pool, I felt it was time to get out. The French people had left their lovely, lovely dog and their rather aloof cat so we brought the former with us which made the walk somewhat more acceptable to the children but not much.
Admire Michael’s refusal to remove his hoodie with fleecy inside on what was really quite a toasty day:
Our hosts had left us a tick remover – horrors – and we inspected the dog on our return but all seemed well despite the dog’s insistence on rolling in the dust.
That evening we had fried courgette for dinner. There was a vegetable patch and it was producing courgettes like there was no tomorrow. Also tomatoes though, personally, I find those much easier to get through.
Mr. Waffle pointed out that French people must have been dealing with a glut of tomatoes and courgettes at the same time for centuries and he wondered whether they had come up with anything other than ratatouille to deal with this. The internet indicates not.
Wednesday, August 5
To the children’s great delight, we spent the day in the house and they were able to play in the pool, on the trampoline and with the, surprisingly entertaining, badminton set. A man came and delivered a temporary washing machine. Our host was the pharmacist in the local village and we were discovering that his name was one to conjure with when it came to addressing domestic difficulties.
Thursday, August 6
After our day of indolence, we felt that some touristing was called for. We took ourselves into Caen. It was very warm. And dusty. It was in Caen that it started to become apparent to us that all history in Normandy is focussed on two items: William the Conqueror and the D-Day landings. Caen was a good example of this because much of it was bombed to bits by the allies in advance of the landings but among the surviving bits are William the Conqueror’s castle; the Abbaye aux Hommes where he is buried; and the Abbaye aux Dames where his wife is buried. Of course, we covered in some detail how he was known as William the Bastard for many years, until he became the Conqueror. This was delightful news to the children.
After our rather warm day out, we were delighted to come home to the pool. We had courgette pasta for dinner.
Friday, August 7
We decided to go and look at a two star Michelin chÃ¢teau. Because. Due to poor organisation, we left just before lunch. The whole of the French countryside in August is a desert containing no restaurants. In Saint Pierre sur Dives we found ourselves going to a restaurant with napkins and older guests and a supercilious waiter because it was the only establishment open. As I picked up the menu, I nearly cried. I thought there was absolutely nothing the boys would eat (a note to the effect that at least my daughter eats most things should be inserted here as she points out her virtue is never acknowledged and I know she is going to read this). However, to my astonishment, the boys ate some of the charcuterie and, though not advertised, the restaurant supplied chips and, on request, ketchup. It is hard to say which of these things is the most surprising. An elderly lady hoved up to our table to tell me to enjoy these years which are the best of my life and to wish us a lovely holiday (we were clearly the only non-locals in the place). The Normans are the friendliest French people I have met; the fact that there appear to be no foreign tourists in rural Normandy may contribute to this, I suppose.
The chÃ¢teau was fine. As we were walking in, a man who looked very like Ed Milliband was walking out, subsequent inspection of the photos of the owners revealed that it was none other than the count himself dressed in the standard French bourgeois gear of brightly coloured trousers and a jumper tossed over his shoulder. He seemed cheerful unlike poor Mr. Milliband. The castle was built in the 1750s. Apparently the owner was keen to incorporate the church from the town in the demesne but not the town so he had it moved 800 metres down the road. There is something about that story that says, “Revolution is around the corner.” Oh, wait. Anyhow, the castle has an extensive collection of miniature furniture that the Princess and I inspected while the rest of the party explored the gardens. Undoubtedly the best part of the garden was the “surprise water garden” (is that even a thing, in English?) where jets of water kept appearing unexpectedly. It was clever. The children were not entirely displeased which is pretty good for a trip to a castle.
Saturday, August 8
We went to the big museum in Caen about World War II. As we went around, I kept thinking about the granny in the family in Paris where my mother-in-law was an au pair in the 60s. Apparently she (the granny) used to say, “ils nous ont envahi trois fois” and that does come across. What I hadn’t realised is that the D-Day landings were a bit of a disaster for Normandy because although they were liberated, which was welcome, much of Normandy was bombed to bits in June 1944 to make way for the allied advance. Some 20,000 people in Normandy were killed, and as they said beside a picture in the museum, “The Normans, welcomed their liberators, particularly in places where they hadn’t been bombed”. I can imagine.
It’s a modern museum with lots of interactive material and for three hours I think we all found it really interesting. If only, we could have left then but, my besetting sin, I wanted to see everything and that last hour was a mistake (though interesting – it was about the cold war). When you are nine, four hours in a museum, however, interactive, is too long.
The boys were very doleful and hungry on the way home. They did not like dinner and while Daniel gloomily ate a little, Michael and I entered into our own cold war over what is known in the family as “The Chipolata of Doom”. As we took up our entrenched positions, I was irresistibly reminded of the rutabaga scene in Jonathan Franzen’s “The Corrections”. Though I would just like to say that Michael did not have to sit there all night (or even after dinner ended) and the portion was a minuscule piece of one sausage. Still, not my finest hour. At the end of dinner, Michael asked sadly when we were going home.
Sunday, August 9
We go to mass in France so that the children can understand how speedy mass is at their local church in Dublin. We went to mass; it was lengthy and hard to understand.
Given we were at peak understanding for all parties of the logistics of the D-Day landings we took ourselves to Sword beach. It was unpleasantly filled with seaweed and somehow the coast felt more like the North Sea than the Atlantic, so I can’t say that I recommend it, unfortunately. I can’t feel that the experience was improved by my asking the children to imagine the soldiers swarming onto the beaches.
After our swim, the Princess and I went for a walk and she spotted a “brocante”. In we went, filled with delight. After some deliberation, we bought a profoundly impractical duck-shaped water jug. On our return to the house, after a family conclave and, in honour of the local big man, we named the duck “Guillaume le Coin-Coin”. That’s right, you may laugh but do you have a novelty jug which fits in the side of the fridge? I think not.
As night fell, the boys came downstairs to look at the bats: “we want to go on a bat walk”. They were entranced looking at the bats flying around in the deep blue early evening light and it was quite magical. Mr. Waffle said quietly to me, “Did you know that there was a pond in the grounds?” No, I had not noticed the pond but the bats were swooping over it hoovering up insects. That is a big garden where a pond goes unnoticed for days.
On the minus side, the dishwasher started to leak.
That’s enough for tonight. Stay with us for week two – coming soon – when our heroes go to Paris for the day.