Posted in Family, Travel

I is for Italy

License Plate

In her quest to find some English-speaking playmates on our French holiday, Laura has turned us all into licence plate spotters. Learning the country abbreviations on foreign cars is certainly improving her knowledge of European geography and languages.  While recognising a car labelled I is Italian is pretty  intuitive, identifying a German car from a D or a Swiss from CH  is rather more of a challenge.

Until now, whenever we’ve been abroad on holiday, she’s bonded happily with children of any nationality, whatever language they spoke.  Aged 3, she spent a happy afternoon playing with a French-speaking Swiss girl on a boat in a Greek harbour.  The same year, she received her first kiss was from an adoring Greek boy in Athens, transfixed by her blonde hair and blue eyes.  She had a memorable afternoon in a Greek playground with a huge von-Trapp like German-speaking family, ranging in age from about 12 to 2.  In their contest to see who could stay the longest on the roundabout, Laura represented the UK admirably – she was joint winner with the 12 year old.

But now she is anxious about not being understood.  Sadly, she’s just reached the age at which children on longer absorb a foreign language by osmosis. From now on, if she wants to learn another tongue, she’ll have to work at it. I hope her early friendships with foreigners will persuade her that the hard graft is worthwhile.

In the meantime, learning each country’s name in its own language is a good starting point.

While perusing the car park in La Charite sur Loire, I’m reminded of another interesting difference in languages: the names of car models.  It’s hardly an original observation – we all know the urban myth of the new car launched under the brand name of Nova.  To its American designers, it sounded like a classic brand in the making, with intimations of novelty, newness and being bang on trend – until the Spanish market rejected it as meaning simply “it doesn’t go”.  Not a great strapline for a motor car.

The battered silver car now parked adjacent to our van looks as if it won’t go, but it’s actually branded a “Manager”.  This might sound prestigious to the French ear, but to me it just sounds daft – talk about damning with faint praise! I speculate as to whether it’s a mid-range car, the poshest model being the President or Chief Executive.  The luxury version would be the Commodity Trader or Banker, while lower down comes the Clerk (make that a Senior Clerk if it’s got air-con).  And at entry-level for the first-time car-buyer, there’s always the cheap and economical Tea Lady.

But who am I to criticise?  If I dared, I could have a sticker on the back of our camper van saying “My other car is a Ka.”  The Ford Ka.  That’s got to be the worst named car in the world.  Now there’s an argument for Esperanto if ever I heard one.

Posted in Family, Travel

Bubble Mum

Temporary tattoo free with bubble gumHow to occupy a child on a long journey: teach it to do something a little bit naughty.  It will be completely captivated for however long it takes. Example #1: blowing bubbles with bubble gum.

Laura often surprises me with a new ambition, and the latest is to learn to blow bubbles with bubble gum.  I suspect it is inspired by watching Sky television: in her favourite show, iCarly, resident bad girl Sam is an expert gum blower.

For most of Laura’s friends, bubble gum is a banned sweet and she’s never tried it before. But she has good strong teeth and I decide it won’t harm her to fulfil her goal at least once in her childhood.  I therefore invest two euros in a hypermarket grab bag of bubble gum and cunningly produce it just when we’re getting to the “Are we nearly there yet?” stage of a three hour drive during our French summer holiday. Laura is enchanted.

For the next half hour, I sit alongside her on the sofa of our camper van, training her in this not so gentle art. It must be at least 30 years since I last blew a bubble gum bubble. But sinking my teeth into the solid pink rectangle, I realise that it’s like riding a bike: once learned, it’s a skill you never forget.

I demonstrate how to soften it up, stretch it with your tongue and catch it with your top and bottom teeth before slowly, gently blowing into the middle. The resulting pink globe emerges to a look of disbelieving rapture on my daughter’s face. Can this really be Mummy doing this? It’s a special mother and daughter bonding moment.

I’m about to screw up the wrapper and put it in the bin when I discover a hidden bonus: inside each paper is a temporary stick-on tattoo.  I demonstrate this on my arm (precipitating odd looks in the patisserie later).  Appropriately my tattoo spells out the legend “Bubble Team”.  We investigate other wrappers, branding Laura with French slogans such as “completement mabulle” and “ce dechire“.  With the help of a pocket dictionary, we translate these tattoos loosely as “completely bonkers” and “it’s ripping”.  If this doesn’t gain me Cool Mummy points, I don’t know what will.

Still chewing, I return to my seat at the front of the van, leaving Laura to refine her bubble blowing technique unobserved.  By chance, my husband has put an Eagles album on to play. It’s a Proustian moment: the heady cocktail of gum and Hotel California  transports me back to my teenage years at an international school, where many of my friends were American.

For the next few kilometres, I’m gazing out of the window idly blowing bubbles. It’s not the Loire Valley that I’m seeing, but the smiling faces of those fine gum-blowing gals.  I think about the parties, the dances, the in-jokes we shared; the teachers, the lessons, our pride on graduation day.

And then I remember another small detail about the art of gum-blowing: never blow a bubble into an oncoming wind.  Sticky-faced, I furtively close my window, hoping that Laura wasn’t watching.

Posted in Travel

A Lay-by By Any Other Name

From the MUTCD. These are the two signs under ...
Image via Wikipedia

Heading south from Fontainebleau on the N7, we settle into the mindset required to endure a long drive before we will allow ourselves to stop for the night.  We sit in companionable silence, which is welcome after the non-stop background music in Disneyland the day before.  Laura, exhausted by her 12-hour day there, dozes behind us.

We’ve chosen the non-motorway route for most of our French tour, not only to avoid the cost of the peage (toll road) that is the faster option to Provence.  We actively enjoy driving through the quiet towns and sleepy villages that punctuate long rural roads.  Passing through farmland and forest, we occasionally exchange observations about little oddities that we spot along the way. But when Laura awakes to demand a toilet stop, a longer discussion begins.

“Why are those two girls just sitting by the side of the road?” asks Gordon as we pull into one of the many convenient lay-bys.

I frown.

“Hitch-hikers, I expect.”

Knowing Gordon, he’ll want to pick them up.  He’s a soft touch for hitch-hikers, having used hitch-hiking as his main means of transport in his teens.  I realise that for two girls who are not much more than teenagers themselves, a family in a camper van will be preferable to a lorry.  Comfy seats, lots of space, a cute child to play with and probably the offer of tea and biscuits somewhere along the way.  We’ve rescued similar pairs of passengers from torrential rain when touring Scotland and I resign myself to a noisier journey from here on.

But to my surprise, the two girls barely glance in our direction.  Instead, they  gaze dully at the oncoming traffic.  I feel rejected.

“Probably on the game,” I remark, meaning to be funny, but in a sour grapes tone of voice.

Then a small French car pulls up in front of us, driven by a lone man.  Is their driver going to offer them a lift?  The car obscures my view of the girls.  As our van is English, Gordon has a clearer view of the kerb from the driver’s seat.

“No, I think he’s just gone for a pee,” he says, guessing my thoughts.

Laura is back in her seat by now and  as we pull out to continue our journey, Gordon glances in his wing mirror.

“There’s only one girl there now.”

We continue in silence, soon passing another of this road’s generous supply of lay-bys.  There’s also a girl on her own at this one, but in a small car this time, parked at right angles to the road.  She’s sitting in the driving seat, on the left of the car, so that no passing motorist can fail to notice she’s on her own.  I’m surprised at this: if I ever have to sit in a lay-by alone, for safety’s sake I do everything to I can to make it seem that I’m accompanied by a man.  Moving over to the passenger seat is meant to be the best safety precaution.  Potential muggers and rapists will then assume you’re just waiting for your husband to come back from answering a call of nature.  Don’t they have any personal safety public information films in this country, I wonder?

By the time we reach the next lay-by, we’re engaged in an earnest census of the population of lone females.  Here we spot not one but two white transit vans, each at right angles to the road, and each with a solitary girl in the driver’s seat. In one van, attached to the driver’s head restraint is one of those large inflatable bath pillows that you can get in the shape of a pair of red lips.  With a start, I realise this may be a form of code.

“So what do you think?” asks Gordon, as we pass it by.

I hesitate, considering, not wanting to believe what is uppermost in my mind.

“I think my earlier assessment was correct,” I reply slowly.  “They’re on the game.”

There’s a moment of synchronised jaw-dropping before I ask in a small voice: “I wonder what the French is for lay-by?”

Posted in Family, Travel

Always Read the Label

A butcher shop specializing in horse meat in P...
Image via Wikipedia

Eating local food and drinking local wine or beer is as inseparable a part of the holiday experience for me as sending postcards, without which no holiday is complete.  When abroad, I steer a wide berth of any cafes offering an English style menu.

In my mission to eat local, I’m aided by a daughter with an unusual aversion to the staple foods of most eight year olds.  Not for her the ubiquitous chicken nuggets, fish fingers or burgers. But give her a crepe nd she’s happy.

I’m torn the other way by a husband who equates holidays – wherever they are – with Full English Breakfasts. I still remember the look of horror on his face when presented on a Greek beachside taverna with a supposed English fry-up garnished with cucumber.  “Cucumber?  For breakfast!?”

On our French odyssey, I’m particular keen to eat native because one of my holiday reading books is  Julia Child‘s autobiographical “My Life In France” – a highly enjoyable account of the American chef’s love affair with French cookery.

So we hit the patisserie to start each day.  Croissants for Laura, pains au raisins for the grown-ups, plus the occasional chausson de pommes for good measure.  For lunch, we combine the inevitable baguette with charcuterie, salad and fruit bought from local markets or local producer’s roadside stalls.

Evening meals are compromised by my desire to minimise the use of gas and water, both of which are in limited supply in our van.  Quick cook pasta, never used at home, makes a frequent appearance on any camper van trip, as does bread in all its forms.  Canned food and ready meals are a godsend.  And here in France I must make judicious use of the tin opener, with the proviso that any product used must be of French manufacture.  I don’t think Julia would approve .

Early on in the trip, we find ourselves parked in a layby just south of Montdidier in Picardy, enjoying an unbroken view of rolling farmland hills.  To reflect our position on the edge of French Flanders, a tin of that popular Flemish dish, Carbonnade Flamande is on the menu.  We once enjoyed this in a restaurant in Ypres.  A hearty stew, it’s more of a winter dish, but we’ve burnt off a lot of energy with an afternoon at Montdidier’s municipal pool and my appetite is keen.

With two diabetics to cater for, I’m an inveterate reader of labels.  From force of habit.  I’m scanning the ingredients of the tin when an unexpected animal catches my eye.  “Viande de cheval.”  Horsemeat.  My hunger is instantly abated.  I edge up to my husband, mouth silently “This is made of horse” and await his reaction.

“Mmm, great!” he replies, licking his lips.”I could eat a horse!”

My daughter – a newly converted vegetarian, due to her love of animals – must not find out.  I hope she won’t notice as she tucks into her omelette that I’m having only potatoes and haricots verts while Daddy lays into the stew.

At the next hypermarket stop, I’m more cautious.  I check out the fresh meat counter for a ready-prepared local dish that lacks an equestrian theme.  I opt for a comforting, beefy looking package that shows some kind of tidy-looking meatball with mushrooms in a sauce Madere.  They look smooth and shiny and there’s something vaguely familiar about them.  There’s a clear mention of boeuf as the creature of origin, and it’s only when I’m warming the pack later that I realise what these sleek knobs of lean meat are. They are rognons.  The boeuf has kindly provided its kidneys.  Oh well, I suppose it could have been very much worse.

For the rest of the holiday, I’m awfully careful to make sure I always read the label.  And I’m very glad that I know that the French word for tripe is tripe.

Posted in Travel

Lost in France

Senlis - Office de tourisme
Office du Tourisme, Senlis – Image via Wikipedia

Every time I go to France, it is my ambition to be mistaken for a French woman.  This is not so much to do with my linguistic powers, but with the ability to appear effortlessly elegant.  I’m not sure why I feel this compulsion, given that I’m usually such a scruff, but feel it I do.  And I’m on holiday, so what the heck, I’ll self-indulge.

So I’ve planned my holiday wardrobe carefully, packing crisp, simple linen shifts (well,  the two that I possess, anyway).  A trilby serves as a sunhat – a regrettable necessity for my English fair skin.  (I don’t suppose that French women wear sunhats unless they have to).  Simple leather flats, just a couple of pieces of jewellery and a totebag complete the look for a stroll down to the market through the ancient cobbled streets of Senlis, half an hour north of Paris.

When I pause at the tourist office en route to ask whether there’s a swimming pool in the town, the helpful assistant, Raphaelle, asks me which country I come fro.  I experience a fillip of triumph that my accent is not immediately identifiable.  This gives me the confidence to decline her kind offer to converse in English.

Having established the pool’s whereabouts and opening hours and that it’s découverte (open air) – a welcome discovery on this hothouse of a day – I head down the hill to the market.  Carefully I choose the best strawberries in the most promising barquette , hoping I’m indistinguishable from the milling French housewives.  In my exchange with the stallholder, I take a different approach to my grandmother’s tried and trusted “speak English in a very loud voice”.  Instead, I speak French in a very loud voice.  I not only to sound more confident but feel more confident too.  To my delight, the old farmer running the stall treats me just the same as his other customers.

“I think I’m getting away with it,” I smile to myself.  Even so, I am filled with admiration for those war-time spies who successfully infiltrate a foreign country, passing themselves off as native.  Travelling as I am with my husband and his unique approach to the French language, recollections of the English policeman’s comical Franglais in “‘Allo, ‘Allo” are never far from my mind.

On my way back to the camper van, I browse the rails outside a couple of dress shops, now selling off their summer ranges at a discount.  I note contentedly that the most popular style is very similar to the dress I’m wearing.

In a little cloud of self-satisfaction, I potter back up the cobblestones.  I’m reaching the outskirts of the shopping area when a white Renault Clio pulls up alongside me.

“Madame, s’il vous plait?”

A pleasant looking Frenchman leans out of the window to peer up at me, enquiringly.

“Bonjour, monsieur,” I venture, loudly.

He fires off a rapid, complex query as to how to find a particular address in Senlis.  My smile disappears.  He might as well be asking directions to Mars.  I’m fooling no-one after all, not even myself.

“Desolee, monsieur,” I falter in a small, low voice.  “Je suis une étrangère.”

I am a stranger/foreigner.

He nods and waves in sympathy before driving on.  My confidence shattered, I take a wrong turn, lose my way, and for the next fifteen minutes, I am Lost In France.  When the camper van with its GB sticker eventually appears on the horizon, this tiny piece of home territory is a very welcome sight indeed.