Driving Home

Driving Home

One thing you should always bear in mind is that you should never put off until tomorrow something that you could do today. Or in our case, don’t go out for dinner yesterday and then sit up drinking a few beers with the neighbours instead of packing your stuff in the car. Why not ? Well, Friday night was warm and dry. Fit for sitting outside while eating dinner and drinking beer with the neighbours, in fact. Saturday morning was heaving it down. Not just drizzle or rain, but full-on heaving it down. Coming down like stair rods, as they say. “Il pleut des chats et des chiens” as they say in France. Which meant, of course, that the materials sufficient to provision Napoleon’s invasion of Russia had to be loaded into the back of the trusty 807 in the pouring rain. It’s not too much of a problem while you’re standing underneath the boot lid, but it is a problem when you’ve got about 15 trips of 50 yards each way to get there.

Kev got a bit soaked, and all those suitcases with wheels had to be carried to avoid dragging them through either soaking long grass or muddy French-style buff gravel/stones soaked with a couple of hours downpour. And of course, the buggy had to come out of the car and sit in said gooey gravel/dust while the rest of it got loaded up. One good thing though, somehow the decision to not dismount the back row seat from the rails and to shove a suitcase behind it meant that everything fitted in much better than on the way down. Either that, or we’re taking home less than we took down. To the best of my knowledge, the only things not going back with us are a box of Bran Flakes, a pack of nappies and box of non-bio washing tablets. That’s not enough to make the difference between seeing out of the back window and not seeing out of it.

The kids were woken relatively easily after last night’s excesses and we shot off around 8:30 am with an apparently generous 10 hours and 20 minutes to cover the 480 miles to Calais. No problem, we thought. The only possible source of disaster was that we were unable to find the car power cable for the portable DVD, thereby raising the possibility of a whole day of driving with the adult passenger having to navigate (Felicity the sat-nav is a bit suspect) and entertain the little ‘uns at the same time. How do you plan a journey like that then? Simple really. You resolve that you’ll make the kids tired by keeping them up most of the night before, and then whenever they get a bit stroppy you’ll pull into the next services for half an hour of kicking seven shades out of the walls until they calm down. Cunning plan brilliantly executed, don’t you think?

So in the immortal words of the Blues Brothers, it’s 480 miles to Calais, we’ve got half a tank of diesel and a full pack of Pringles, it’s raining and we can’t get the DVD player working….

We went off-road through Longèves to get to the dodgy N137 up through Marans and then didn’t really find any traffic all the way up apart from at the toll stations. No problem, easy to get to Calais in this amount of time, surely. In fact, lets start planning what we’re going to do with all that spare time at the tunnel while we’re waiting for our train.

The rain stopped about 10 seconds after we got in the car, by the way.

We hadn’t had breakfast so our first stop was about 90 minutes in at the Les Herbiers station on the road from La Roche sur Yon to Angers. And here starts the running theme for the day. We stopped here on the way home three years previously. Kev remembered the yellow fuel pumps. Anyway, we topped up the diesel and as luck would have it, we didn’t try to pay with a Romanian Truckers Union discount fuel card. If we had done, they wouldn’t have accepted it (there was a temporary problem, apparently. Sufficiently temporary that there was a permanent looking sticker on each pump advising of the problem). What the hell gets transported by road from Romania to western France anyway ?

We had a relatively cheap breakfast of pastries, coffee and juice. Izzy discovered a liking for sweetened yoghurt, cherry flavour. And Kev checked the DVD player and bought a car charger. It didn’t fit. We toyed with the idea of the “laptop” model, but this was €22, so thought this was too much to pay just to keep the kids quiet.

And so to the toilets. Being a motorway service station on a Saturday it was a bit busy. It got very busy by the time we finished breakfast, and the queue for the ladies was out of the door and halfway round the car park. It was so busy that the cubicles in the gents had a healthy queue of women queuing, actually in the gents room, with apparently no sense of guilt or embarrassment. I guess needs must. So when it was time to take Ami, we ditched the holiday’s protocol of assuming 5 is the age at which she should only go in the ladies. No way we’re waiting that long thank you. So Ami and Kev were all done while Kas stood in the queue with Izzy, and then Izzy came into the gents, so Kas got some peace.

Back on the road with Kev driving again for another tranche of autoroute boredom. This time we passed Angers, Le Mans and halfway up the A28 to the Haras service station. We tried to stop at the previous one, Dentelle d’Alencon, and had a quick déjà vu moment. We definitely pulled off at this one last time as well. However, unlike last time, Dentelle d’Alencon was heaving. It’s one of those where both directions of motorway traffic cross to the same station. And this was around 1pm on a Saturday in August. “A bit busy” would be an understatement. We cruised into the car park wondering why there were people parked on the grass by the exit. We queued to get around the outside of the scrum for the fuel pumps, round the back, and then decided not to stay. So we looped right round the back and saw the guy directing people into the overflow carpark, aka the field, and then back out onto the motorway.

Haras was busy as well, and we still had to queue to get around the scrum for the fuel pumps, but at least there were a few parking spaces round the back. We joined a substantial number of British cars obviously doing the same as us. Large fries, charcuterie and custard tarte, I think. And Kev found out the French for fork by asking for a knife (in French) and then saying to the lady “No, not that, the one on the left. What’s that called in French ?” A forchette, apparently. Obvious, really.

Kas picked up the driving for the next stint and got us all the way through Rouen and up to the Aire de Baie de Somme between Le Touquet and Boulogne. Last time we came home we missed a crucial turn south of Rouen and ended up going through the middle of town. Rouen is the one flaw in the French autoroute network in that there is no route skirting around the city. There’s a few going straight into the centre, but not all the way through. So if you go to Rouen, you go through Rouen. Felicity did a fine job, though she was being closely watched throughout. Her only slip up was failing to notify us of a couple of underpasses, which meant we queued for a couple of roundabouts that weren’t strictly necessary. However, she had us on the right road all the time and we got straight through to the A28 on the other side with no grief whatsoever. That’s a first for us in Rouen.

Beyond Rouen Ami and Kev played a few rounds of I-spy, with the interesting variation of using phonetic sounds and sometimes doing words “ending in” instead of “beginning with”. Five year olds are great.

Aire de Baie de Somme seems to be simultaneously on top of a hill and in the middle of a seaside marsh. Maybe it was built with loads of water and marsh grasses to produce an effect. It’s quite an effective effect, whatever it is. There’s a little observation tower we didn’t have time to climb. We didn’t have time to climb it because we had only two hours for this stop and then a further 80 km of driving before last check-in time. Stops typically take minimum of 45 minutes for us, and so did this one. The girls had been in the car for two hours again and we wanted a stop before heading for the tunnel so that we didn’t need to stop at the tunnel. Ami immediately spotted the mini playground and so the rest of the stop was focussed around trying to get the girls away from here to do the things we needed to do, like wee and buy drinks. I guess playing was something they needed to do as well, to be fair.

Kev wanted to drive the tunnel, so we swapped drivers again. There was a near disaster shortly after when we arrived right up the tail of a little queue caused by a man in a yellow jacket clearing somebody else’s luggage off the carriageway. Don’t know where it came from. It was definitely clothing articles and what looked like bits of broken car, but no sign of the broken car or the bag from which the clothes escaped. Weird ! But not for long.

We arrived at the tunnel itself a mere 20 minutes before our train closed, 18:30. We were impressed by the number plate recognition device again and then onto a nice British passport guy that Izzy thought looked like Grandad. She had a point, although he actually looked more like Grandad’s brother Bill. He commented on the very low odds of having two kids three years apart with the same birthday. Yeah, we know.

There was a bit of a delay getting on the train (or so it seemed to us), but we did get away on time. We got the rear carriage downstairs again. On the French side, the 1.85m height checkers look lower than on the English, but the bus squeezed under again. By this stage the girls were getting a bit edgy, so we were glad to get parked up and let them have a wander around for a bit. The car in front had another man who looked like Grandad (or actually like Bill, again). The guard on the train was quite friendly towards the girls. He lent Izzy his radio, which she promptly dropped on the floor. He politely declined a chocolate finger, thereby leaving another for Ami. Kev spent most of the train journey washing muck off Izzy. First it was chocolate, second it was grime out of the air vents.

And then we were back in Blighty. Time for a bit of a stop to allow the girls a final run around. And to be doubly annoying, just as we were packing Felicity back into the bag we dug to the bottom and pulled out the power cable for the DVD. Oh well, at least we can have DVDs for the final bit through England.

We trolled up to the Maidstone Services for more toilet and food breaks. Kev and Kas couldn’t resist the pull of a curry. Two weeks without a curry is far too long for anyone to survive. Things were getting desperate. Even a motorway Chicken Tikka Masala would suffice at this point. The girls had fish fingers and chips.

Kas drove the final leg with the gentle sound of the Fimbles keeping the kids happy. It was uneventful except that getting across the Thames was slow again. This time around one of the two tunnels at Dartford was shut, so everyone had to filter into two lanes. It happened to be the two lanes on the opposite side from the “exact change” toll booth Kas had taken us through. So on the other side of the gate, we had to do the proverbial soft-shoe shuffle to get across about 10 lines of traffic into the two lanes actually going through the tunnel.

The M25 and M1 were both busy compared to the French motorways. Not slow, but given that there are 3-4 lines of traffic and it was after 9 pm on a Saturday, there’s a lot of cars going around London compared to the number in rural France.

And so to home. It was still there. Jools had been round and shifted the piles of mail into the kitchen. There was some two-week old fruit in the fridge which moved unaided to the bin as soon as the door was opened. Ami’s sunflowers were out, and we have strawberries on the little plant we potted up about 6 weeks ago. We unpacked the valuable bags and children and left most of the rest of it for Sunday morning, after all, it was after 10 pm and we’ve been up for 15 hours and travelling for nearly 14. Don’t want to have to unload all of the stuff too. You know how it goes – once the hall is full of bags you feel duty-bound to unpack a few of them, and before you know it you’ve spent two hours unpacking.

The girls were a dream all the way back. Neither slept much, just about an hour each, but neither got stroppy really and both quietened down whenever asked. The lack of DVD player through France didn’t seem to hurt much.

La Rochelle 2009 Day 15

Bags, Birds and Beers

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This was supposed to be a day of general slumming around the gîte and packing bags while the kids kept themselves entertained. Both got up fairly late again giving Kas & Kev the opportunity to sleep reasonably well. Good stuff.

The weather looked decidedly suspicious in the morning. It was grey and a bit windy, much like a typical summer’s day back home. Probably the first bad morning of the holiday though, so we can’t really complain, I suppose. Well actually, we’re British, so we can complain about anything, even if it’s something we like.

Anyway, we tried to munch our way through as much as possible for breakfast. There were still far too many pains au chocolat and brioches around the place. So we did as good a job as we could manage.

We also spent a few minutes round at the big house taking photos of each other. After all, it may well be the last time the kids see each other.

Following this, it was time to attempt a bit of packing and clearing up to minimise the effort required on Saturday morning. Kev and Ami packed up the many, many empty wine bottles and made a trip up to the bottle bank in Angliers. Strange recycling system here. You put all your cans, paper and plastic into a yellow bag, which the bin men fetch. However, they don’t fetch glass, so you have to make a special trip out to dump it in a collection bin somewhere nearby. Strange really, given that more things are supplied in bottles in France than they are in England. The dump in Angliers is at the back of the car park by the church. We think the church must have been having cable TV fitted at the time, because there was a big digger and a bloke with a very big compactor doing their best to shift rubble around and flatten it out over a couple of trenches. Much sport for Ami.

When we got back, Kas and Izzy had apparently got as far as you can go with the packing until the final rounds of showering and tooth brushing are completed. Toys packed, books packed, kitchen stuff packed, dirty clothes packed, clean clothes packed except for enough to last today and tomorrow. Swimming costumes and towels still accessible, obviously, in case the weather clears up a bit. And it was about 11 am. There’s no way we’re going to make the packing last all day, so we had a few minutes of cogitation with the objective of finding a short afternoon filler.

Kev suggested an ostrich farm over on the coast at Marsilly, which looked like it might be good for a couple of hours, so off we set, planning to find convenient local cafe in a village to have some lunch beforehand. What a mistake that proved to be. We drove the scenic route via Longèves, Villedoux and eventually to Marsilly but didn’t find anything in any of those. The road down to the seafront at Marsilly looked unpromising and we didn’t find the entrance to the ostrich farm either. So we had a bit of a “moment” and decided to do another circuit of the old centre just in case. We did one loop around the fortified church and back to the road we came in on, and whilst we still didn’t find a cafe, we (Kas) did spot a very small sign on the side of a house with a picture of an ostrich. Guess it’s down there, then.

So now we knew where the farm was but not the nearest source of nutrition. Neuil-sur-Mer looked like a possibility, and after a couple of kilometres of new housing estate there is actually a nice little village centre, with a small town square mainly converted to car park and dedicated to President Mitterand. I’m sure a small town square in a village in the middle of nowhere is a fitting tribute. It did have a small cafe advertising Tex-Mex food, but what looked quite promising from the outside proved a bit less so from the inside. There wasn’t much sign of a menu anywhere and the inside was definitely a bar, not a restaurant. If we didn’t have the kids we’d probably have gone for it, but with the kids it didn’t look suitable. So we took a quick walk around the corner to prove there was nothing else (there wasn’t) and we decided that by now we were so close to the middle of that we might as well go and slum it at McDonalds. There’s one by the side of the motorway quite close to the airport.

I don’t know whether it’s just that all the villages were really La Rochelle suburbs, or whether there’s no call in small villages for restaurants or cafes, or just that the French don’t go out so much, but the village experience round here is less than satisfying. Around lunchtime most are deserted – nowhere to eat, shops all shut for lunch. Where is everyone? Probably at work somewhere.

Anyway, McDonald’s was easy to find but tricky to get to due to the complex arrangement of back streets and car parks. Once at said establishment, it was time to play a game of spot the difference between UK and French attempts at the franchise.

Difference number one was that they had a gnatty pre-ordering system which more or less removes the need to actually speak to the staff. You choose whether to order in English or French, and then you’re guided through a list of menu options on a touch-sensitive screen and eventually you confirm, shove your credit card in the slot and get a little ticket with an order number on it. The language option seems unnecessary because a photo of a Big Mac looks the same in any language, and unless you’re in Greece, Russia, China or Japan, it’s also called a Big Mac in every language. I suppose a Happy Meal is probably a “Formule Joyeaux” in French, but it can’t be that hard. What was hard was that the auto-machine wouldn’t take any one of our puny English credit cards, so we had to cancel the payment transaction and walk up to the desk, fully expecting to have to do the whole thing again. When we got there, however, one of the guys was right in the middle of saying “numero trente neuf” and some other garbled stuff (I think he was probably speaking French). Trente neuf? That’s me please. So in my best broken French I went for “Je suis Anglais. Il n’accept pas mes cartes bancaire.” “OK!”, said the supervisor, “stickez-vous le carte ici et pressez-vous les buttons, Monsieur.” The one on the desk worked fine except we thought they’d missed something off the order. €21 for two adult meals and two “formule joyeux” is by far the cheapest we’ve fed all four of us in a fortnight, including light breakfasts. We were so embarrassed that we felt obliged to buy some ice creams and coffee as well. And McDonalds’ coffee also comes in cup sizes that are more reasonable than the average French size. That’s another difference, by the way. No McDonalds milkshakes. What are they thinking?

Another thing that you always have to check at McDonalds is whether the toilets meet the brand image standard for cleanliness. They did, with nobs on. It was more like a posh wine bar. The seats were different too (not the toilet seats, the restaurant seats). They were comfortable modern leather bench seats. The tables weren’t screwed to the floor either, not at all like the UK standard all-in-one undersized moulded plastic table and four-seat combo. The UK ones look like they were designed mainly to be easy to clean (with a hose). The French one also had a posh cafe style breakfast bar jobby and a lower bar at a kids height containing some playthings. There was an outdoor play area as well, which was covered from the sun and rain and had padded rubber floors that were actually clean enough that you didn’t mind the kids taking their shoes off. Ami was her usual self, bossing around five-year-old French kids in a loud English voice. I think she’s practising for a career as a travel rep. If in doubt, speak English very loudly and very slowly. Izzy was regarded as being very cute by the assembled population.

Getting out of McDonalds in the car proved easier than getting in. However, we ended up in another suburb which looked like Seahaven in The Truman Show. All very polished, new and with infeasibly green grassy verges.

When we did find the main road again it was trivial to get back to Marsilly for the ostrich farm. It was open. It took a little while to distract the assistant from clearing up lunch for long enough to take money from us. They do lunch? Bum, we could have come straight here. Anyway, she didn’t speak English and apparently neither does Isabelle, the woman doing the guided tours outside. Guess we’re going around unaccompanied, then. The signs were all in French as well. All of which meant that there wasn’t a lot of interest for the kids or for us, because they aren’t patient enough to wait while daddy attempts to translate the signs. So we wandered around a bunch of enclosures containing ostriches, rheas, emus, and various smaller avians, mainly edible ones. Some of them weren’t even birds – there were baby goats, cattle and donkeys as well. The kids were going a bit mad though (our kids, not the baby goats), so we hurried around as fast as you can with a two-year-old, and ended up back at the entrance, where there was a large walk-on dice rolling game which was a cross between snakes & ladders and Monopoly, only in French, and with animals on the squares. The kids found it much more interesting than the ostriches, anyway.

The big dice game also proved to be the start point for Ami’s song of the afternoon, the bizarrely titled “Are we tatoes ?” as in, “are we a bunch of tuberous carbohydrate-rich vegetables of South American derivation, much favoured by the Irish during the Victorian era before they got the blight and everyone went to New York to be in that film with Daniel Day Lewis.” The song only had one lyric line – the same as the title, remarkably enough. The gist of the song is that you repeat the one lyric line over and over in a variety of different keys and at different tempos, presumably in the hope that eventually the audience will ask you to stop. We didn’t. It was quite cute, in a slightly surreal way, and it was far better than a boredom induced strop. The song lasted most of the way home via the small villages of Saint-Xandre and Dompierre-sur-Mer. There was a brief respite when we discussed the renaming of the latter to “Donkey Hair sur Mer”, but otherwise it was “Are we tatoes ?” all the way home.

At home, now at around 4:30 pm, it was time to make the only two remaining decisions of the holiday, those being “who’s taking Ami swimming this afternoon ?” and “are we going out for dinner tonight ?” The answers were “Kas” and “Yes” in that order, although the swimming activity had to be completed before the latter decision was made. Izzy decided she didn’t fancy the pool, but she didn’t seem to fancy much else either. She sort of collapsed half on, half off, her bed. She seemed happy so Kev left to check the cricket score (Doh ! England were bowled out for 102). Some minutes later, Izzy wandered into the studio bedroom and lay down on the carpet under Kev’s feet, where she promptly fell asleep.

One final fling down in La Rochelle centre was planned (well, it had about 10 minutes of planning, anyway), and so we got the best posh frocks out for the kids and headed off down the N11 for one more time. As we were planning to leave early in the morning we decided to pop round to see Simon, Rachel, Edward and Lucy to say goodbye, which took a little while. Ami immediately shot over to the swing with Lucy and it took a while to separate them. It was mentioned that Edward and Izzy have the same age difference as Kev and Kas. It doesn’t seem an issue between adults, but it highlights that many years ago there was an 11-year-old Kev and a two-year-old Kas running around, albeit that they’d never met.

We went to yet another restaurant on the Cour des Dames, this time Le Winch. It was good. And by local standards, it wasn’t that expensive. Kas had a steak, cooked medium in the middle and blue at both ends like they only had a really tiny grill and it was hanging over the side at both ends. The daughters had nuggets and chips for the second time today. Kev had an assiette de crudités and paella. The paella required the use of the fingers to extract the shellfish flesh from the shells, but it was really nice. The girls got ice lollies for pudding and Kev and Kas waited slightly too long for their crêpes. “Slightly too long” means “long enough that Ami got bored with ‘Are we tatoes?’ and the two of them were starting to get rowdy.” So we paid the relatively modest bill and did a runner. It was quite late and for the first time on the holiday we couldn’t really be bothered to spend much time with the street entertainers. We had a quick look at the White Man again and set off home.

Neither of the girls fell asleep on the way home, but both went to bed fairly quickly and easily (still in their clothes) when we did get back. On the way by, Alun from next door asked us to leave them an email address so we could get some of their photos. Kev returned with some of Kas’s business cards and one of the last two remaining beers from the fridge. Kas appeared a bit later with the other beer and we sat for a while having our first actual adult to adult to discussion with them. Although, by adult to adult, it should be mentioned that this really means drunk to drunk. Alun and Matt were most of the way down a €2 special red wine from the supermarket and by the end of it, Matt couldn’t really be understood. Not that it mattered. They very kindly gave us more beers, so we were able to while away a couple of hours chatting about nothing in particular. Thanks guys, it was a nice end to the holiday, although it was the source of the opening paragraph on the “Day 16” diary entry. It was 1 am when we got to bed, with the alarm set for 7. Good preparation for a full day of driving…….

La Rochelle Day 14

St Martin de Ré

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Today involved no plans whatsoever. And when we did eventually make a plan, we changed it straight away. So what? We’re on holiday.

We had a bit of a rough night with the Izzy-monster again. The heat of the last couple of days was making her skin very itchy and there’s not much we could do for the poor little mite. However, after last night’s festivities both girls thankfully held out until a reasonable time, Izzy around 7:30 and Ami a bit longer. All very welcome, given that Grandad had gone home.

Kas had as much of a lie in as she could manage while Kev failed to feed either daughter properly and also failed to engage them in mindless TV watching. Just couldn’t get that satellite box to send a signal to the TV.

When Kas did get up, and did feed the kids, and once the kids had done the normal amount of playing outside while everyone else was still in their jim-jams, we decided to go look for the Eco-Museum of the Salt Marshes on . However, at the very moment we decided this, someone outside muttered something about going in the swimming pool, and it rapidly turned into a flood of children getting costumes on and heading off round through the barn, so we ended up spending a busy hour or so with Kev, Ami, Edward, Lucy, Simon, Rachel, Katy, Thomas, Matt, Jemima, Beatrice, Andy, Constance, Suzi and Jessica all dipping in and out of the pool and playing various splashy games, like you do. It isn’t that big a pool really, and all the little ones cluster around the shallow end, so it ends up being a bit like the “people game” on the Wii, with loads of people moving in the water in random directions and banging into each other. Excellent stuff. The weather anyway was nice and sunny, but with a prediction of thunderstorms in the afternoon. We’d better make good use of the sunshine while it’s here.

After much wetness Kas and Izzy eventually arrived, having had a girlie hour in the gite. This coincided with the realisation for most that it was a) lunchtime and b) time to get a shift on if we’re going to do anything but stop at home. Ami was out last and only then on the promise that we’d play with Lucy again later when we get back, if she’s here. Ami has taken a bit of a liking to Lucy. Izzy seems to like Edward too, which is a bit bizarre given the age and gender difference. Ho-tee-hum. More free child care now Granny and Grandad have gone home.

So we set off somewhat later than planned for a brief trip to the lovely little town of St Martin de Ré ( www.st-martin-de-re.fr ), capital of the island of , and hence involving a trip over the bridge again. Subsequent research uncovered that the bridge owners do, in fact, add a supplement of €7.50 a trip during the French summer holidays in July and August.

St Martin de Ré ( www.st-martin-de-re.fr ) was built as a fortified port and in the middle there’s quite a bizarre arrangement of a near circular (except for one walkway) harbour with a little island in the middle. The tide flows up and around the boats parked at their no doubt very expensive moorings.

The centre of town is all pedestrianised apart from service vehicles and residents, but sadly there seem to be quite a few of those. To be honest, they might as well not have bothered. Anyway, Ami was fascinated by the little red & white stripey bollards that go up and down in the road to allow authorised traffic in.

Once around the water’s edge, two things became obvious fairly quickly. Firstly, the sun was out, so no sign of the thunderstorms yet, but because we all came out with no sun cream on, the sensation of burning skin arrived pretty quickly. Second, Ami was having a grump because she was tired/hungry/bored (take your pick). We think it was most likely just tiredness, but a five year old will never admit to that. So it took some effort but we eventually got her back to a direct course and reasonable speed with the promise of a chocolate crêpe. We stopped at a creperie called the Phare – on the harbour “island” right near the walkway. Nice, except Izzy ate nothing and Ami didn’t eat much. Guess she really was more tired than hungry.

Post-crêpe we had a quick walk around the island and then up onto the sea front in the general direction of home. There’s lots of great big thick walls built as part of the fortifications. These have occasional peep holes. There’s also a little lighthouse which Izzy enjoyed walking around, much to the amusement of the French people she turfed off because they were sitting in her way. Some poor dad never did get that arty shot of his son at the foot of the lighthouse, at least not a shot of him on his own. He might have got one that included our mucky little munchkin’s back as well.

We noticed that the clock had somehow crept round to nearly 4pm, and decided to call it a day, albeit not a very long one.

Getting out of the car park proved the most challenging part of the trip. First, Kev went the wrong way and discovered there wasn’t a loop round at the top, so it was lucky there was an empty space to reverse into. Second, when we did get to the exit we discovered it was also a very narrow and high traffic entry point, so multiple streams of traffic trying to go both ways through a tiny gap. The car park, by the way, is basically a huge graveled area with no markings at all, and it’s much wider at one end than at the other, which means space for parking four or five rows deep at one end narrows in irregular fashion to only two rows at the top end. When it’s busy, it’s chaos. The chaos was made worse by a guy who reversed out of a space right next to us and then despite being positioned behind us decided he absolutely, definitely deserved a place in front of us. So he caused much reshuffling of cars with his persistent attempts to nudge past, regardless of who was coming the other way and what they were trying to do. We tried to position so that he couldn’t possibly shove past, but the pillock did so anyway. Not really surprising that his Megane Scenic had a ‘kin great dent in one of the side doors. It was probably caused by the last person he tried to pass like this. Numpty ! Never mind. No damage done.

Neither of the girls slept on the way home. We were in fact interrupted by a number of loudly voiced requests for food, drinks, music, less music, or recovery of the Ninky-Nonk from the floor. Most of the things requested could not be delivered in a moving car. We must teach them the basics of automotive transportation some time soon.

When we got home, all was fairly quiet. Everyone else seemed to be out. We had a quiet tea indoors ( because the thunderstorms were trying to arrive ). We have begun an attempt on the summit of the European “Terrine de Campagne” mountain, which had been building up quietly over the week. There were also some sausages from last night and a salad including a massive cucumber grown in the owner’s garden and given to us a couple of days ago.

Shortly afterwards Edward and Lucy arrived home from an afternoon in La Rochelle ( www.ville-larochelle.fr ) and they played with us out front for a little while before they went for their tea. This was interrupted a one point by a nappy of mass destruction and the consequent requirement to empty the rubbish bins. Another one of Izzy’s finest that wasn’t ever going to be allowed to sleep in the house.

Alex wandered over a little after Edward and Lucy left too. He and Ami played nicely in the sandpit for a while, with both acting like typical kids of their age, i.e. making up games with rules that neither understand and then getting upset about it, and attempting to occupy exactly the same small piece of sandpit despite the vast acreage of available space, or fighting over the same bucket when they had four to choose from. I will never understand this aspect of small children’s play, but that’s how it goes, apparently.

We found a moth on a wall which Alex decided needed to be sandblasted, a crime which resulted in the mandatory minimum sentence of a trip back to his bedroom. Izzy was being a pickle throughout and ended up in the naughty corner (in fact, just sitting on the grass looking away from us all) a total of three times. If she was in California she’d be on death row by now. After Alex left, William came over to display some fine gymnastics on the swing and the asymmetric bars (which hold the swing together), but by this time it was past 7:30 and therefore plainly time to get the little darlings off into snoozy land. Apparently, the asymmetric bars have been officially renamed the Uneven Bars by the Fédération Internationale de Gymnastique.

This day could have been much worse given the late night yesterday, but neither child was particularly stroppy for an extended period. Maybe between them they’ve realised it isn’t going to get them anywhere. Yeah, and monkeys might fly out of my butt……

The Big Barbeque

The Big Barbeque

Today promised to be a bit sad, because today Granny and Grandad were going home. They were both out of bed fairly early then, to ensure they managed to get properly packed up and sorted before their trip home. Getting up fairly early is a rare thing for Granny.

The girls got up fairly early too, and so required their parents to be awake too so that they could be kept occupied and kept from being under Granny’s feet. Ami, as usual, was easy to keep occupied. It just required the slightest mention of the swimming pool, with the vaguest hint that some of the other kids would be there too. So Kev dived round there. And whadda ‘ya know, Kas found Kev’s swimming goggles in the beige nappy-change bag. Been wondering where they got to ever since we arrived. There’s my answer. The swimming was also made more fun by the presence of a big yellow hot and shiny thing in the sky, which promised to turn the day very rapidly into another scorcher.

The fun was cut short at 11am by Grandad telling us it was time to get out and get dressed to go to the airport. A couple quick showers and some more sun cream later and we were off to the lovely little La Rochelle – Île de Ré Airport ( www.larochelle.aeroport.fr/EN ) again. It really doesn’t seem like 10 days since we fetched Granny and Grandad, but 10 days it is, and therefore it’s time for them to go home. We’ll miss having them around for the last couple of days.

The airport is, as we may have mentioned before, very small. Departures has all of five check-in desks and one bar. Granny and Grandad got in a queue behind one other couple and got their bags checked in before you could say “Bob est ton oncle” We havered around the bar for a bit and then retired outside for one final meal together – a hearty affair involving two jambon-fromage sandwiches, some chips, some crisps, and a pile of cold drinks. It really was quite warm outside. We clustered around half a bench in the only shaded area.

When we were halfway through our food there was an announcement about their flight. Apparently, despite the tiny airside departure lounge and despite the fact that their plane was still 30 minutes from landing, Granny and Grandad were required to walk though to their gate. Seems a bit bizarre, but in a way no bad thing because it made the decision for us over whether to wait and see them leave or whether to leave as soon as. There was no way the girls were going to survive outside in that heat for another hour so we all said our goodbyes and Granny and Grandad wandered through. It’s sad to see them leave, but then not too bad, especially for Ami, because she knows she’s got another week’s holiday at their house before going back to school.

We had packed a shed load of swimming gear again and so we headed off down to Châtelaillon-Plage ( www.chatelaillon-plage-tourisme.fr ) again for a couple of hours. It took only 15 minutes to drive down there, so we were actually in plenty of time to park and walk on to the beach in time to see what was probably Granny and Grandad’s flight leaving over the Pont de Ré away to the north off us. Nothing but a tiny speck, but it was at the right time, and therefore probably the right one. On later discussion with Grandad, we found out that they actually took of thirty minutes late, so it wasn’t them in the plane we saw, and it further justifies our decision not to wait at the airport.

We spent a happy couple of hours on the beach building two fantastic sandcastles and watching them get trashed by the incoming tide. The first one was a very hurried job which got washed away before it really even got started. The second was an altogether grander affair, including a well engineered moat and four jolly impressive bucket turrets on the seaward side for added defence. This one probably took half an hour to build, but of course took no longer to destroy than the first effort. It did, however, draw a couple of compliments from the locals.

By this time everyone was looking and feeling a bit the worse for wear with the heat, so we jacked it in and went for an ice cream. It proved to be a long journey. We parked a bit further down the beach than the last trip, so the walk to the yellow and white hut was out of the question. So we drove out along the main street and were disappointed to discover no ice cream parlours. Is this a seaside resort or not ? So we progressed on our merry way and decided to follow the scenic route home by driving through the little villages instead of trolling round the motorway. This proved fun. We had promised Ami an ice cream and vowed to stop at the first place we saw. We also needed more bread and milk for the following day, so a supermarket of some variety was needed. Intermarche in La Jarrie satisfied the supermarket requirements but didn’t have the right kinds of ice cream. The village of Sainte-Soulle was very nice but didn’t seem to have a single shop that sold ice cream. The Coop didn’t have them, the tabac was just a tabac and the bar was just a bar (connected to the tabac). No inviting ice cream based signage at any point along the route. Bottom, bum, and other mild expletives. Just as well we’d got a little bit left in the freezer at home.

A bit of swimming with Edward and Lucy and family and then back indoors for cleaning up, team snooze and getting ready for the barbeque. Kas got all clean first with Izzy and then Kev discovered the soporific qualities of Massive Attack’s Mezzanine album. Neither girls really wanted a sleep, but the music was enough to do the trick, despite various “getting ready” noises from Kas in the bathroom. It worked so well that Kas had to wake Kev up at 6:40 with now only 20 minutes before the barbeque. Ami stayed on the bed fast asleep until 6:55 but somehow still managed to shower and get out just after 7. The get up and go soundtrack was provided once again by Abba. Seems to be good at getting Ami up and about. She got showered and dressed before the end of the “Take a Chance on Me”. Not bad at all.

The barbeque was one of our normal “bring your own drinks and dead animals” affair with everyone having an invite. Everyone attended.

Paul and Edwige, our hosts, supplied us with a bucket load of sangria and a pile of nuts, crisps, chorizo, tomatoes, corn on the cob (home grown), and other bits. The kids did a fine job of raiding the nearby field for some unripe cobs of corn. They were duly chucked on the barby, but I’m not sure anyone ate any of them. So we all spent a fairly pleasant evening of getting quietly drunk whilst allowing the kids to do whatever they felt like. Most of this was good stuff. Most visited each other’s apartments. Ami decided she wants loads of dolls like Lucy’s. Edward seemed to adopt Izzy like a big brother. All the adults learned a bit more about each other and pretty much anything having an alcohol content was dispatched with enthusiasm and speed, mainly by Kev, it has to be said.

There was some argy bargy towards the end. No, not the leading lights of the UK Oi! / Street Punk movement, fronted by the legendary Watford Jon and with Cock Sparrer’s Daryl Smith on guitar. Not that kind of argy bargy. The kind of argy bargy involving one of the kids breaking into the service area in the barn, which resulted in Paul having an unpleaseant kind of conversation with the relevant parents. And then there was a bit of back-chat around the subject between various parties, but it’s probably not fair to mention who was the guilty party, so I won’t. I didn’t really see the incident or understand what had happened, I just overheard a few snippets of less than friendly discussion.

So a bit of a sad end to an otherwise excellent night, in which most of the children surprised their parents by staying up late without any major tantrums (or should that be tantra).

A Lot of Not a Lot

A Lot of Not a Lot

Today, we didn’t do much. We didn’t go out much. Kev didn’t even get out of bed until 11am. Kas and Grandad and the girls had done all sorts by that time.

It was a day when we planned to do nothing other than rest and save energy for a final night out with Granny and Grandad, but nevertheless, this day reached a new peak of inactivity. It should probably be a trough of inactivity, I would guess.

To be honest, so little happened on this day that we can’t even remember what we didn’t do. It probably wasn’t anything important.

There was some lunch involved at some point, and it’s almost certain that Ami went swimming at some point. Can’t remember who with, or who else was there.

To be honest, I think we all decided it would be good to have a day of doing nothing whatsoever. Recharging the batteries, as it were, after a hard nine days of doing not very much.

The highlight of the day was therefore undoubtedly going down to La Rochelle in the evening for a final night get together for Granny and Grandad. On the way from the car to the restaurant there was a street entertainer dressed as a WW1 soldier, only spray painted silver. He might be the same guy that later in the evening turns into the White Man, but it’s difficult to remember the detail of a silver-painted face. How many guys can there be in this town who paint their faces silver every night, anyway ?

We went back to the restaurant we used on Sunday night, the Bistro Le Canot on the Cour des Dames. This time we sat outside. There was much pasta, chicken nuggets, chips and similar items consumed between us, and both girls were little sweeties, both being well behaved if a little wriggly.

When we finished we had a very leisurely stroll back through all the market stalls and street entertainers which the girls absolutely loved.

Kas got a hair braid which matches Ami’s exactly. While she was having it done, we sat on the kerb in and watched the White Man doing his stuff. Eventually both girls softened up to the guy and were brave enough to go drop a few coins in his bucket and were duly thanked with a little handshake and a smile. In Izzy’s case, she missed the bucket and she missed the smile because she just wanted to nuzzle into Kev.

Izzy spent her holiday money on a flower-shaped balloon and lighty-uppy fibreglass thingy which looks nice when you waggle it in the dark. Ami bought herself a pink clog keyring with a small Littlest Pet Shop pig attached. Ami was jealous, obviously, because Izzy got two presents and she only got one, but that’s what kids are like. Even reminding Ami of what she spent her money on wasn’t enough.

The trip home was uneventful and the kids went to bed nicely. A good evening to end Granny and Grandad’s time with us.



After last night’s excesses we decided on a relatively relaxed day, intending to take the girls for a plodge in the sea in the afternoon.

On our previous trip to La Rochelle we didn’t make any proper trips to beaches, but now there’s two kids now instead of one and beaches provide good entertainment.

We had a fairly relaxed morning with a few bits and bobs going on but nothing much. Grandad did a fine job of looking after the daughters again until everyone else surfaced.

We went swimming in the morning too, or at least Ami and Kev did. All was quiet around the gite. Everyone else must have gone out already.

It was also time for another visit to Marche U to stock up on essentials, so Kev, Izzy, Granny and Grandad headed off in the car while Kas and Ami stayed at home to pack the swimming bags and make the picnic.

Marche U was uneventful. It was full of supermarket stuff. And this time around, we remembered to buy some small plastic bags to put food into.

When we got back, we were pretty much ready to head off for the beach. Lunchtime was approaching so we all piled into the car and off we went. We decided to try the beach at Châtelaillon-Plage ( www.chatelaillon-plage-tourisme.com ). The guys in the “big house” last week told us it was good, so it must be worth a try.

Châtelaillon-Plage is about 10 km south of La Rochelle. It’s on the coast, funnily enough. When you pull off the motorway you get the feeling that something is a bit different. First of all it all looks very new. Secondly, it’s a different colour. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it until I realised that all the verges have grass on them instead of the normal French buff-coloured gravel-sandy mixture. The houses were all twee looking, with white or pastel painted walls and tiled rooves. Most of the rooves were red ridge tiles except for one place which had shiny bright blue tiles. The whole effect was a bit like Seahaven in the Truman Show. It should also be noted that the roads were all coated in very smooth and very clean black tarmac. The kerbs and paths were all perfectly light grey in colour with no cracks and no moss, grime or chewing gum. Compared to other villages round here it is a bit other-worldly, to say the least.

Châtelaillon-Plage also has its very own TGV ( www.tgv.co.uk ) station, presumably so you can get here quickly from other bits of France and be transported to the “other world” directly from your home without having to change trains anywhere unclean. The TGVs that stop here probably don’t stop at La Rochelle as well. By the time the train got going it would have to stop again, especially seeing as TGVs seem to be very, very long. Right next to the station is a pretty confusing roundabout, confusing because on the road in from the motorway the road is split into two lanes (with a central reservation). If you follow the signs for “Toutes Directions” you get directed into a one way system from which it is far too difficult to escape, given that this is quite a small time. The straight on lane actually takes you right to the middle of the main shopping street with immediate access to the good section of the beach, but more of that later. Where we ended up was a roundabout with a left turn for “Plage” and a right turn, also for “Plage”. Quick Kas, flip a coin………

Left (south) was the chosen route and this lead to a shopping street that had the same kind of establishments you would get on the first street back from the sea in a British resort – lots of cafes, boutique shops and amusement places. We assumed there would be parking right by the beach and turned in that direction. The Gardners good parking karma hit in straight away and we pulled straight into a spot on the sea front right next to a paystation and also right next to an entrance through the sea wall onto the beach. As we were pulling up, Kev caught sight of some familiar faces out of the corner of his eye. It turned out to be Simon, Rachel, Edward and Lucy from round the corner. To be honest, it would have been difficult to miss them. Evidently the French don’t take a picnic to eat on the beach, they retire from the sand into a cafe. So there was a massive beach with pretty much no one on it.

We set up our base camp at a polite distance away from anyone else and prepared for some lunch. The beach itself maintains the Seahaven image. Unlike the beach we went to on Ré, this one is covered only in lovely, evenly graded yellow sand. No stones, no rocks, no litter, no seaweed, and definitely no turds. It gives you the impression that this is where Alpine piste-bashers come on holiday. In fact, it’s pretty obvious that some kind of device like this is used on here every night. It seems likely that the beach is not natural at all. It was probably put over the top of what used to be here, or at the very least it has been raised up a bit. The giveaway is the fact that the sea wall looks like it has never been wet. The sand is piled up a long way above the high tide mark. The beach also has a few change huts for rent and some bronzed looking guys sweeping sand off the deck boards outside them.

Lunch consisted of sand sandwiches, sand flavoured crisps and a bottle of diet sand, sorry, diet coke. How does it manage to get in there so quickly ? I’m absolutely sure I didn’t drop my first sandwich into the sand, or even onto the towel, but somehow it was crunchier than it should have been.

After lunch it was time to go check out the sea. This is the one thing that is a let down on this beach. The water picks up a lot of sand off the ground so whilst the water is wonderfully warm it also takes the top layer of skin off. You wouldn’t want to trip up and fall over in there anyway. By this time Edward and Lucy had finished lunch as well, so it was swimming gear on for everyone and off down to the water’s edge. Kev took Ami and Izzy for a while so Kas could have a mini snooze and Granny & Grandad went for a walk in search of a bucket and spade. This was the one item we forgot to pack. I guess we’ll have yet another set in the garage when we get home. It proved to be a much longer walk than they were expecting. They initially headed off down the road right by the sea, which took them away from the town centre down a road containing no shops at all.

While they were away, we entertained ourselves by plodging in the sea (up to around bum height) and generally splashing around with Edward and Lucy. We passed on the rubber dingy though. Not really safe for Ami as her swimming isn’t really strong enough. We had forgotten swim nappies for Izzy as well, which meant if she fell over in the sea her nappy would suck up enough water to compensate for the melting of the polar ice caps. Swimming nappies are just nappies that aren’t very good at absorbing water. They just stop it from escaping round the sides, as it were.

Granny and Grandad’s eventual return several hours later was the prompt for us to begin the great English seaside tradition of building a sandcastle. An Englishman’s home is his castle, and an Englishman’s castle therefore has to be a good one. There’s national pride to think of, you know. Building sandcastles is a serious business and I’m sure if it was an Olympic sport then team GB would win every time. The art of a good sandcastle is obviously in the selection of location to give optimal timing. What you have to do is to pick a spot that is sufficiently high above the incoming tide that you can finish just before the tide arrives, so you complete the engineering work just before the tide starts to wash up into you moat. Too close to the sea and you don’t get to finish. Too far from the sea and the kids get bored waiting for the inevitable. If you go too far up the beach then your castle will survive the tide, which just isn’t the done thing, don’tcha know….

Edward and Lucy seemed to have a different idea. They had long since retired to the back of the beach and had seemingly decided that France was rubbish, so they were going to dig a tunnel through to Australia. It sure was a big hole they were digging. Severe likelihood that the piste basher would be lost forever.

It got close to the time when our parking was due to run out, but someone mentioned the possibility of ice cream, and that was that. Time to find more loose change for parking and walk further up the beach to the yellow and white hut. We emerged with a collection of magnums in differing colours and an ice lolly for Izzy. Most of us managed to eat our ice creams without any sand. Most, but not all. All of this consumption seemed to switch everyone into snoozy mode, so we all went for a lie down on the towels. Except for Ami, that is. Ami decided that Kas would really love to have a tan line on her back that was the shape of a five-year old. Don’t know how could stand having Ami on her back, but both of them seemed pretty happy.

It was a shame to have to leave, but around 5:30 the parking was running out again and both girls were asleep so we decided to jack it in and go home. It was an uneventful journey home. It was also a fairly uneventful evening meal, followed by an uneventful evening with no crying. It probably involved some beer.

New Friends

New Friends

Today we resolved to do nothing in particular during the day, and hope to get the girls to go to sleep nice and early so we could go out for dinner in La Rochelle in the evening. Grandad got up first and in traditional style kept Izzy and then Ami busy until everyone else could be bothered.

Any dreams of a quiet day was quickly gone with the discovery of lots of new friends who arrived last night. In the “big house” we say hello to Katy and Thomas from Cambridgeshire and their parents Matt and Suzi. With them are Beatrice, Jemima and Constance, also from Cambridgeshire, with their parents Alun and Jessica. Round the corner in the duplex we say hello to Edward and Lucy from Yorkshire with their parents Simon and Rachel. And by evening time we also were joined by William and Alex from Northampton with their parents John and Kelly (I think). Anyway, that probably makes a full compliment of 12 adults and 11 kids, the oldest of which is 11 and only three of whom are over 6. It could be a bit loud this week and there’s probably going to be loads of playground incidents.

Most of our day was spent getting in and out of the swimming pool and being joined by various friends at various points. First up in the morning all the kids from the big house and their dads joined us for a very splashy, shrieky and generally enjoyable bonding session. In between visits to the pool Ami spent most of her time in the sandpit with Katy, Thomas and Jemima getting properly acquainted.

The afternoon was also spent with various groups of kids engaged happily in various forms of play, with occasional adult supervision or participation, but nothing outstanding. And so we prepared ourselves for an evening out “on the town” by all having a jolly good shower, listening to Abba and grabbing half an hour’s shut-eye.

The drive to La Rochelle was as uneventful as you could imagine, mainly because we knew the way there now. We parked up round the back of the Arsenal. No, not that Arsenal, you numpty. And we went for a wander.

Being a Sunday evening and being after 7 pm it was as busy as a busy thing. The main street along the Vieux Port was shut off and full of street entertainers, stall holders, and all sorts of strange gubbins. Ami was out looking for something to spend her holiday pennies on and was quickly engaged by the idea of having a hair braid. This was maybe in part due to some encouragement from Kas, who apparently always used to have them when she went on holiday with her folks as a kid. So Ami got a lovely braid in shades of pink, purple, red, white and light blue, which she has spent the remainder of the holiday showing off, playing with and getting irritated by in equal proportions.

For dinner, we picked the Bistro Le Canot, one of many cafes and restaurants alongside the Vieux Port. We picked it partly because of the wide ranging menu including pizzas and pastas, a “formule enfant” and French style set menus as well as French a la carte. We had a debate over whether to wait for an outside table but the better choice seemed to be to sit inside so that we had enough space for the little darlings to stretch their legs in between courses. This proved to be a good thing as late night = twitchy children. The review (follow the link above) basically says it’s not a bad restaurant but for the same money you can eat better elsewhere. Yeah, you can, but if you went elsewhere then you wouldn’t be here, and here is where La Rochelle is at, especially for tourists. Everywhere else is going to be suburban or a backstreet. Of course you pay a premium to sit outside here because it’s right on the Vieux Port.

The food was decent enough although the service was a bit slow towards the end. They were a bit full. The girls got suitably topped up with nuggets, frites and (in Ami’s case) Granny’s chocolate mousse.

On the way back to the car Ami spent further pennies on a necklace from one of the many little stalls along the Cour des Dames and as usual. She’s starting to act like a much older girl than she really is.

The drive home somehow always seems much faster than the drive out. We got two kids in bed quickly, and then two parents in bed quickly, cha-ching, job done. Can’t be bad.