Wednesday, 17 August 2011

So, where was I?

'France' is the short answer to that, although I have to confess that was only for the last ten days or so and doesn't quite justify my absence from the blog for almost a month. I always struggle to keep up during the school holidays (with the blog as well as much else, like ironing and getting dressed before 3pm) but this year I've been slacker than ever. (Hmm. Am tempted to pretend I've been languishing in a wi-fi-less house on the other side of the Channel all summer, rather than merely for the last week.)

Cleverly I put myself ICO venue-finding this year, hoping that no-one would detect my cunningly hidden agenda of combining family holiday with sneaky research trip for the book I'm trying to write, which is partly set in WW1. The house I found (or rather, two houses as we forced the same friends as last year to come with us again) was a couple of miles outside Montreuil, which is where Field Marshal Haig was based during the war but (rather tellingly) a pretty long way from the front line, which ensured my obsession wasn't allowed to dominate too much. It was also gorgeous. Last year we holidayed boy-scout style, in tents which, despite my best efforts with bunting and solar-powered fairy lights remained more Slumdog Millionaire than Out of Africa. This year I was determined to aim higher in the Gracious Living stakes - to the extent of a proper bed at least - and achieve a week of proper relaxation.

The research part of the week involved a day around Arras, the scene of much action in April 1917, and a trip to Vimy Ridge. There you can walk along reconstructed Canadian and German trenches only 25 metres apart and see the grassed-over scars of old trenches and craters and shell holes, as well as the magnificent monument to the 11000 Canadian missing...

We were pretty close to √Čtaples, site of the enormous British transit camp and field hospital during the war, but there's little there to see now. Bearing in mind the 'summer holiday' aspect of the trip I'd made a resolution not to drag everyone round endless cemeteries and cast a pall of solemnity over the whole week, but we could hardly drive past the Military Cemetery, with its crazy-beautiful Lutyens arches and steps, now could we? It was just after lunchtime when we stopped, but the sun was casting long shadows behind each headstone by the time we reluctantly left.

The rest of the week was spent lazing about in or beside the bathwater-warm swimming pool, eating bread, playing the odd, incompetent game of tennis (me, not the athletic-ace kids), drinking insanely cheap Muscadet and eating more bread. We did manage trips to Agincourt and the beach, but the wind was fierce at the coast and the sea considerably colder than the pool back at base-camp, where swimming could go on late into the night...

All in all a fabulous week, right up until the moment when Daughter #3 woke me up with the words 'I feel sick' and reality came crashing back in. On the upside, it was very clever of her to leave it until the last day of the holiday, and there's no doubt that a poorly child is a whole lot easier to look after in a house stuffed with comfortable beds, sofas and en suite bathrooms than a tent, but there was no putting off the journey home the following day. We stopped for one last time in Montreuil to buy a bucket and raced up to Calais. Probably best to draw a veil over the rest of the trip home. We were, however, so relieved to get back that it distracted us from the contrast with the immaculate and stylish house we'd left in France and the one we returned to, with the overgrown, jungly garden strewn with windfall apples and the rancid yogurt in the fridge.

Later, with Poorly Daughter safe and sleeping in her own bed and the washing machine on, we collapsed on the sofa and turned on the TV. Pictures of riots and looting - news that had escaped us in our technology-free French idyll - filled the screen. Switched it off quickly, dug bottle of Muscadet out of its swaddling in a bag of washing and retreated gratefully into twilit apple-scented jungle garden to talk wistfully about ditching TV and internet permanently, and moving to France.