The Lost Bastille Day

It was Bastille Day last Tuesday and I must admit that I shed a little tear, for you see in a parallel universe without Covid-19, myself and my family spent le quatorze sunning ourselves in a Brittany camp-site with the prospect of a long French summer stretching out before us. Please forgive me this metaphysical musing as I’ve been watching The Umbrella Academy so timelines which avoid armageddon have been playing heavily on my mind! For you see, this summer was supposed to be our big break in France, our grandes vacances. For the first time in a while the stars had aligned to make this possible, I am obviously working at home so free from the constraints of annual leave while Niki (my wife) had organised for 6 weeks of parental leave in order to immerse ourselves in La Vie En Rose for the majority of the summer. Well I say immerse but really we were going for two weeks to the aforementioned camp-site and then for four weeks to a holiday rental is a small French town. So not quite a year in Provence but hey, it seems like paradise when I think about it now.

Myself and Niki have a strong affinity with France, we both studied French as part of our degrees in university. I enriched my soul with the works of Camus, Baudelaire and Victor Hugo while Niki learnt the French for Balance Sheet, Profit and Loss account and that most French of pastimes going on strike! But that’s not the real reason we have a such a strong personal connection with L’Hexagon (as the locals call it). You see when we first met in the bustling Market Bar in downtown Dublin all those moons ago, I’d say that the small chat was faltering slightly until Niki mentioned how much she loved Paris, “moi aussi” I declared. Suddenly cupid’s arrow had been notched and dispatched, the rest as they say is history.

In truth I think the plans for this year’s getaway were sown five years ago when we enjoyed a tremendous family holiday / life enhancing experience travelling to New Zealand for the wedding of Niki’s brother. On that occasion Niki was in the middle of a career break and I had a boss who was about to retire and thought nothing of allowing me take 6 weeks of annual leave over the Christmas period. Our trip which took in Singapore, Sydney and Hong Kong as well as the delights of New Zealand (both North and South islands) was truly remarkable and the fact that we were able to to share it with our 3 boys made it even better, although some of those long car drives across the rolling hills of the land of the long white cloud did drag. There were only so many times the boys would be impressed by another hawk sighting, “where are all the kiwis dad?” was a common refrain! The tales of that trip have been keeping us going through the many struggles of modern life, come on everybody let’s not have another fight about bedtime and daddy will regale you about the time we saw all those waterfalls in Milford Sound! However we felt that it was time to refill the book of family stories.

So five years down the line we have added another member to our happy crew and while the boys were keen for Ella to experience New Zealand, we decided to plump for the less expensive and slightly more convenient (memories of the endless flights with kids in economy class flashing across my brain) option of France. Now I’m not saying that myself and Niki were completely aligned in our visions of how this holiday was going to take place. Niki envisioned a full immersion into French culture whereby the boys would journey through vineyards to the local village and return with baguettes, croissants and tales of how Monsieur Bonmarche from the boulangerie had controversially won the local boules / petanque competition with an illegal over-arm throw all spoken in perfect French of course! I simply wanted a warm place where I could read a few good books, taste-test a few of the local organic beers and occasionally indulge my slightly unusual fondness for hypermarkets!

But alas it was not to be (but at least we got refunds), now all we have are the dates on the calendar telling us when we should be boarding the ferry, checking in to the camp-site, getting the keys for the house, etc. (I am always a bit trigger happy when it comes to putting stuff into the calendar in case it slips my over-crowded brain) cruelly reminding us of the joyful times that we are missing out on. But hey Aaron’s swimming lessons are back on so I can look forward to 6.15am alarms on Saturday and we have 3 days in a hotel in Galway in August if the country hasn’t gone into lockdown again by then! In the meantime I’ll just keep my French play-list on repeat, “Joe Le Taxi”, “Je ne regrette rien” and of course “Voyage voyage”.

Les Vacances part 2

Week 2 and the kids had started to call our 3 bedroom mobile home / cabin “home”! I think Ella (2) actually believed that we had permanently changed residence. When are we going home they cried as we visited another historic, well-kept and pretty Breton town. Mommy and Daddy had grown tired of sitting around by the pool and the waiting for the kids club to finish so in week 2, excursions became the norm rather than the exception.

Despite the fact that I had spent numerous holidays in this region as a kid, I have no recollection of the really picturesque towns in Morbihan such as Quiberon and Auray, although the numerous sailboats of La Trinite-sur-mer did induce a mini Proustian moment of recollection (definitely was bored there as a youth!). I do remember visiting Vannes and not being impressed by it, whereas this time around it appeared to be a nice mid sized town with an impressive pedestrianised old town, complete with medieval parade on the day we visited. We tried to convince the boys that the parade was just for us but they weren’t buying it.

I must say that Brittany seems to have really gotten behind tourism as a way to bring visitors and by extension cash into the region. Plenty of artisinale this and organic / bio that. Everything clean with tours (mostly in the form of road bound trains) and parks by the dozen. There is a great emphasis on local products and nowhere is this more visible than in the many La Trinitaine biscuiteries (fancy biscuit shops to you and me) around us. Now I had a vague idea that Breton biscuits were a thing, but not to the extent that La Trinitaine has turned into the French equivalent of Starbucks in expansion mode! Just to explain, La Trinitaine was founded in the 1950s in the aforementioned La Trinite-sur-mer. It become famous for its cigarette biscuits, you know the ones that look like a cross between a sea shell and a spliff, and commonly found stuck into the tops of ice creams. From there, it has morphed into an organisation with 46 shops that produces 11,500 tonnes of biscuit a year. Perhaps the most noticeable thing about La Trinitaine is that it has become a beacon for Breton produce so if you enter one of their stores, in addition to the multitude of biscuits, you’ll be confronted with Breton cider, Breton fish soup, Breton crepes, Breton, well you get the jist. Safe to say that it was a one stop shop for all our homecoming present needs!

On a more philosophical note, why is it that the first week of a fortnight’s holiday seems to last forever while the second week goes past in the blink of an eye? Is it because even I can become tired of going down a water slide at breakneck speeds everyday, like an aqua junkie, do I need a bigger kick, should it be longer, higher, faster? Is it because during the first week of the holiday you load up the fridge, while in the second week you become aware of the pressing and quite Irish requirement to eat everything in the fridge, hey there is nothing wrong with a Camembert and blue cheese sandwich covered in dijonnaise! Is it because you have exhausted your collection of €1 coins so the boys can only hover around other kids racing motorbikes in the camp-site arcade and look at you with downtrodden puppy dog eyes? Or is it simply because that phrase “this time next week we’ll be back in Dublin!” hangs over you like a cloud in the otherwise clear perfectly blue Breton skies.

I’m really going to miss Brittany. I did have some reservations about this trip and the prospect of the 6 of us being in such a confined space for a fortnight, but the weather has been excellent and camp-site holidaying is better than I remembered it. Even taking the boys for pony rides wasn’t the pain I had expected (I’m deeply distrustful of horses and also a bit allergic). In typical French manner, once we paid we were left to our own devices with the ponies. We were given a suggested route and told how to hold the bridle and then ushered on our way with a gallic wave. Being the dutiful sort, we followed the route to a T (well apart from the time Niki let the pony eat some grass “off track” and he quickly deduced that she was a pushover), but could have headed to Paris and enrolled in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe for all the pony owner cared!! Most importantly the kids loved Brittany. Sure, they didn’t drink any milk because they didn’t like the taste and their diet consisted of more pizza and chips than it had in the previous 6 months, but they want to go back next year and suggested we book while we were on the ferry home.

I have previously written of my love for Paris but now I think that amour can be extended to France as a whole. The bread and pastries are great, the hypermarches are fantastic, the weather is for the most part a lot better than back home and the cheesy music is exceptional. Every evening the camp-site would host a mini-disco for kids which included not one, not two, not three, not four but five songs with intricate dance routines. I think I looked forward to that more than the boys did, “hurry up with your ice creams there lads or we’ll miss the start of Danse de la Pingu!”.

So it is definitely a case of merci and au revoir France.

Les Vacances Part 1

Ah the big family summer holiday. So much preparation, so much expectation, so much time with mommy around to help with the kids! This year, after a break of three years we had decided to return to France. I think the boys would have kept on going to Killarney indefinitely but Niki in particular wanted to improve the odds of seeing the sun so we had decided on a two week camp-site holiday in Brittany.

Our previous trips to France had involved less kids, longer journeys south (this being related to the first point) and holiday rentals with friends. They had also involved the ferry departing from Rosslare so it was a bit discombobulating to stare at the Bull Wall and Dollymount beach from the top deck of our ferry as we began our journey south, with Dublin being Irish Ferries new starting point. The crossing itself was a calm one although I (being a very bad sea traveller) kept on imagining the ship moving up and down even before we had left the port! The best that can be said for the sleeping arrangements was that we all got some level of sleep although I would never recommend the six in a cabin approach (I think we broke the world record for the number of times saying “be quiet” in an 8 hour period). Niki woke up early the next morning to say how badly she had slept but was quickly berated by four of us for her loud snoring during the night (Ella remained strategically quiet on the matter).

The first thing we noticed when we got to France was the heat. The car thermometer immediately headed towards 30 degrees and didn’t budge for the rest of the day. This was quite a relief for yours truly as I had pushed hard for Brittany despite having first hand knowledge of how erratic the weather can be from my own childhood holidays. A fortnight listening to rain on the metal roofed mobile home would not have been fun. The 4 hour drive to Carnac went smoothly with Niki taking up her customary role as driver and me as navigator (basically confirming that the sat nav was correct and handing out sweets to those in the back). We did switch for one hour of the drive but my slightly more gung-ho approach to the numerous French roundabouts had Niki quickly suggesting that we return to our original positions.

We made it to La Grande Métairie in Carnac just as “rush hour” traffic was kicking in i.e. plenty of campervans on a narrow road. I had been to La Grande Métairie twice as a youngster so it was with a fondness that I spotted the alignements again just outside the campsite. These standing stones or menhirs for Asterix and Obelix fans are the main tourist attraction in the Carnac area. Our three bed mobile was a bit cramped but we quickly realized that the covered decking outside would in fact become our most used “room” and added significantly to our space. We had planned an early night but the noise from the soirée in the camp bar (they still love their cheesy dance songs in France) kept us all up until close to midnight which the boys loved and the adults just about tolerated.

The next morning we were faced with the cool empty shelves of our new accommodation so there was only one thing for it, L’Hypermarché!! I love hypermarkets, I remember being astounded as a child that you could buy car tyres and bread in the same shop! I still have the same sense of wonder but now it is mainly focused on the cheeses, so many cheeses and only 2 weeks to eat them!! It’s also a good place to legitimately lose the family for five minutes of quiet time, oh a free crepe sample, merci beaucoup! We loaded up on €200 of top French produce (Niki had pillow cases on top of her list, Lochlan an inflatable stingray, Ella a pain au chocolat, Aaron & Oscar icecreams and I was only allowed 5 types of cheese) and made our way back to the camp site.

La Grande Métairie has been significantly upgraded since my last visit and in particular, the addition of water slides and a lazy river has been a real bonus. There are lifeguards near the water slide but let’s just say it’s no coincidence that laissez-faire is a French word. You’d want to be trying something pretty Evel Kneivel-esque for those boys (and girls) to get involved. At one point Lochlan was about to head down backwards on his back before I grabbed him. This level of enjoyment has meant daily visits to the pool are the very least of the boys’ requirements. While this is great on many levels, I had not been prepared for the amount of sun cream this would involve. Being married to a true Irish freckled cailín means that we are extra careful with the kids and we need a good half an hour each day set aside to it. Oscar seems particularly aggrieved at this, maybe because he senses that he wouldn’t look out of place in a Swedish travel brochure. I also grumble occasionally but honestly my skin has never been so moisturised in my life as a result of the sun factor regime!

Otherwise the week has flown by with the experience being generally positive. Although there have a few standout peculiarities along the way, such as why Aaron didn’t specify the difference between feeling sick and feeling like he was about to get sick (vomit in a mobile home is not pleasant), my puzzlement at what smurf flavor ice cream tastes like (in Quiberon the kids went with all the plain and normal flavors much to my dismay) and the look of disdain and disgust the creperie waiter gave us when we asked if his chocolate crepes contained Nutella! Ah France, never stop being French! Really looking forward to another week of it!