.... well actually we've been but Sir Cliff hasn't conveniently sung a song about returning from your anuual sejourn in foreign climes. Well I'm sure, dear Reader, you have been wondering at the reason for my cyber silence for over 2 weeks (what do you mean you hadn't even noticed?). It was that time of the year when we decamp to France so The Girl can do her High Security Music Camp. It works like this. I pay 500 euros and she spends a week in France putting on a musical from scratch, sleeping in a dodgy tent, being fed on cheap food. But she loves it and I love her so I cough up. It also gives us a chance to catch up with our lovely friends w1.hich is a definite plus even though they are now spread a bit further and wider than before.
People talk about the difference in culture between the French and the English, usually by comparing French High Society to Chavs but let's not go there, but for me, the difference was slightly more basic, lavatorial even.
1. The toilets have no toilet seats. What in God's name happens to them all? They start off with them but within weeks they are gone. It's as bigger mystery as the whereabouts of the Scarlet Pimpernel. Is there a Phantom Potty Seat Pincher? Is it really true the French women don't get fat so the ones that appear to be just have a stolen toilet seat shoved up their dress? If anyone has any ideas please do let me know
2. The toilets have no toilet paper. The schedule on the wall clearly shows that the toilets were cleaned half and hour ago so where has all the toilet paper gone? The same way as the seats maybe? All I know is there is nothing worse, when you are already suffering screaming thigh muscles from hoving above the seatless porcelain pan, to discover the toilet roll holder is empty and you now have to try and scrabble around in your bag for a suitable replacement, the bag which is of course on your knee because...
3. The toilets have nowhere to hang up your bag. I absolutely refuse to put my bag down on a toilet floor. Think about it. It's not the cleanest of places, particularly in France (and some other countries to be fair) but with nowhere to hang your bag you put it down on the floor, then later at home, you put your bag down on the table, then you eat lunch and voila! E-coli
4. The hand driers don't work. If I had a euro for every time I've been in a French toilet and found the hand drier to be Hors Service, I'd be living in a mansion in the country. I do have a sneaking suspicion that it's because post-lavatorial handwashing in France is an optional rather than a mandatory procedure. Just remember that when you go to the supermarket
5. O.M.G! Shock... Horror.. sometimes you don't even have a toilet pan. Has somebody stolen that too? The so-called Turkish Toilet (or squatty potty as I like to call it) is supposed to be more hygienic but that's not a theory that has been borne out by my own experiences. I had the unpleasant experience of going into a toilet in Agen, a relatively bourgeoise town, to find the filthiest toilet I have ever seen. I instantly lost the desire to pee and headed for the door. The handle was sticky. With what I can only guess. Never mind, I could always wash my hands.... except that I couldn't because there was no sink.
I could possibly be accused of having something of a fixation on Squatty Potties, having blogged about them before but that's only because they are so universally awful.
But on to nicer things - well not the weather because that was awful for most of the time, I mean, 14 degrees in July? - it was lovely to see some of our dear friends, now all spread a bit far and wide sadly which meant we just couldn't fit everyone in. It was less of a pleasure to run into the founder members of the local Coven of Sour Old Hags at the village cafe. They had already heard of my arrival ("What? Daily Mail Wylye Girl". Sometimes don't you just wish for a little bit of dementia). They were huddled round a cauldron bubbling over with oeil de gecko and foie de grenouille or I suppose it could just have been a table, with faces like slapped culs - I am so bilingual! There was an almost audible intake of breath at my audacity then they were desperately disappointed when Monsieur M, who for reasons known best to himself was sitting with them, leapt up to give me a kiss and have a long chat. I wished them a cheery good morning. They glared at me with mouths turned down like so many dead trouts and stayed silent. No wonder their poor husbands were sitting inside nursing alcoholic drinks when the sun was barely over the yard arm.
We stayed with lovely friends who, bless them, had postponed leaving on their holidays for a day so we could spend time together. As ever the welcome was warm and the conversation lively. They let us have use of their house while they were away in return for catsitting the oldest Persian cat in France, at an impressive 21 years old, although as she has a UK passport the French were recognise her claim. I won't lie and say I wasn't concerned that she might chose my watch to shuffle this mortal coil and on more than one occasion I stood over her to check she was still with us but I'm happy to say that she survived our tender loving care. All I can say is I hope that I am that sprightly at 92+ (I can't give you her exact age because the Purina 'How Old is Your Cat' calculator only goes up to 19.
The following day we delivered The Daughter to High Security Summer Music Camp, where, for a significant sum of money, she stays in a municipal campsite in a dodgy plastic tent that resembles a Turkish Bath in the daytime and a fridge during the night, and puts on a musical from scratch, including props and scenery, in a week. She loves it and we love her so we stump up the cash and off she goes. It attract students from all around the world, many of whom are at drama school and the standards are high. This year was the 10th Anniversary so they were putting on a cabaret, with songs from the last 10 years' productions and a gala dinner, but more of that later.
On Monday we went to Agen so I could buy some linen curtains. We stupidly thought we would get something to eat in the evening. In a reasonable sized French town, in the peak tourist season. You'd think wouldn't you. But no. Apart from the Station Buffet as recommended, bizarrely, by Rick Stein, everywhere was closed. I keep thinking that there must be another buffet in another station because it's average at best and in the evening it is THE place to go to find a lady of the night. It's distinctly seedy. After two hours of looking we had lost our appetites and in the end we went home for sausage sandwiches.
Next stop Albi. We jumped into our very nice Citroen C5, a free upgrade from Avis, thank you very much, and headed off to some other friends who live there. They are guardians of a very lovely property which belongs to....we I couldn't possibly say but it's for sale if you've got 1.5 million euros stuffed down the back of your sofa.
We spent a day in Albi. I am in love with Albi. It's a well deserved UNESCO World Heritage Site. Go, go tomorrow. The Cathedrale de Ste Cecile is wonderful, all Gothic austerity on the outside and serious frou-frou on the inside. And the Jardin de la Berbie behind the Musee Toulouse Lautrec is stunning in an very formal and anally retentive way. Photos... photos I hear you cry. Unfortunately they are all on The Husband's laptop which is in Bulgaria. But that's a story for another time. Lunch was a steak which had been briefly shown the pan and which was a bit like sucking an open wound but at least the waiter opened our bottles of water between his thighs with great panache rarely seen outside of Thailand.
After three days of great food, conviviality and lots of Trivial Pursuit we headed back to try and fulfil the long shopping list of clothes The Girl suddenly needed and spend a night with some other friends who live among the vineyards of Cahors. Yet more conviviality and great food. I was asked if I miss living in France. Despite the lovely setting we were in, the answer was still no. I don't miss it. Not one bit.
The following day was show time. The Girl had had to learn 17 song and dance numbers. One of the choreographers had worked on Fame in the West End and had taught her enthusiastic bunch of amateurs the same routines. The show was marvellous, the food less so. If you ever wanted proof that food in France can be complete rubbish, this was it. The starter was tinned peaches stuffed with pate of some sort reposing on a deep bed of grated carrot, very deep. The main course was Mystery Meat cooked with olives and peppers and watery rice. Some thought the meat was pork, others lamb, some even tuna. Most didn't eat it. It had a curious smell of baby's nappies. Hooray for the cheese course, which was at least edible and the tarte tatin, mass produced by still quite tasty.
The Girl was fabulous, making a wonderful Maria in The Sound of Music, a talent she no doubt gets from her mother. It was, no doubt, a very tiring week. The Girl came up to us at the end and promptly burst into tears, half of exhaustion, half of sadness that it was all over for another year. She decided she wanted to stay another night at the campsites so we headed off to our comfortable beds while she headed off to another night being knawed by mosquitos. I've never really understood the French predilection for siting their campsites around lakes.
The following day was the big trek home. The Husband had been working in Manchester so he had flown out of Liverpool while we had flown out of Bristol. We were all flying back to Liverpool then driving back down to Wiltshire. The flights from Bordeaux leave from Le Billi, a poorly air conditioned metal box which is your punishment for flying with a low cost airline. All the flights were delayed. It was distinctly Third World. Eventually we were called for our flight. The departure gate had about 8 seats. We waited... and waited.... and waited some more. Eventually the Captain turned up, which is never a good sign. He had noticed a nick in one of the tyres and needed to get an engineer to come and confirm that it was OK to fly. Thank God it wasn't lunchtime or we'd have had a 2 hour wait. We all sat down on the floor. Within minutes, the two couples in front of us were swapping birth stories. Call me old fashioned but give me a good bit of Southern reserve any day.
Eventually, two hours late, we arrived in Liverpool. You know you're in Liverpool when the woman at Border Control looks like a WAG. Down South they are generally paunchy middle aged men with the pallor of an uncooked sausage. She was all beehived and eyelinered.
So that was it, another year, another trip to France. Next year I fancy Barbados. France was much as I found it last time. It's a shame to see two local boulangeries have now become franchises and the prices are horrendous. We bought a kilo of sausages and a cote de porc in the market and it came to 30 euros! And petrol was far more expensive that I pay here in Wiltshire. I certainly couldn't afford to live there.
Next week we head off to Devon for a holiday with my extended family. We've never done it before and it will either be a huge success or a terrible disaster. Either way, it should provide some good blogging material!
Guest post by womagwriter Keith Havers
3 days ago