Now that we’re back in the UK, here are some random notes and photos from our five-day breaking staying at our friend T’s near Rouen.
Friday 30th July
It’s on long car journeys like these – about two and a half hours on both sides of the Channel Tunnel – that the differences between Isaac and Toby become really obvious. Zac, so often impatient, is at his most content in the car: watching videos on my iPod, counting every Mini he spots and sleeping. The normally placid Toby, on the other hand, dozes grudgingly and fitfully, and wakes up grizzling the moment the car stops moving. However, he will sleep during the day in a cot without a problem, something his big brother has never been able to do.
T’s cottage is situated in a quiet hamlet called Malleville-sur-le-Bec, about 15 miles outside Rouen. It’s a tranquil spot in the middle of nowhere, where the only sounds are the birds, the rustling trees, a neighbour’s donkey, church bells and the occasional farm vehicle. Oh, and Zac. The moment you drive through the gate it really does feel like you have stepped out of one world into another, from the hubbub of our modern society into a place of splendid isolation. ‘Idyllic’ is too obvious a word, but it fits. I spend the rest of my life driving flat-out uphill, but here it’s like I’m cruising in neutral down a gentle slope.
Zac certainly likes it here. Since we arrived, he has been running all over the place with a huge grin on his face. After being constrained to our postage stamp of a garden, being allowed off the leash at T’s – her cottage sits in the middle of a plot of maybe a third of an acre – is clearly a liberating experience for him. (Good – he’ll sleep well tonight, then!)
Saturday 31st July
A good day. Heather went out shopping with T, leaving me to feed Toby his lunch – always a messy affair – and put him to bed. That left me half an hour or so of pure, unadulterated freedom to do a bit of writing and read my book (I’m currently on the cyclist Bradley Wiggins’ autobiography) in the midday sun. This never happens at home, where there’s always something urgent that needs doing. Even though it’s only half an hour, this is why we’re here.
Lunch is properly French: a fresh baguette, meat, rillettes (pâté) and a variety of regional cheeses, eaten leisurely out on the patio. We just don’t get this at home, and even when we do try to replicate it it isn’t the same: the cheese isn’t as good, the baguette is shot full of preservatives which kills its freshness, and the whole thing costs five times as much.
It’s the same with produce. Fruit and vegetables don’t conform to our modern idea of regularly-shaped, regularly-coloured food which lasts forever without spoiling without ever being properly ripe. Nectarines, white peaches, tomatoes, avocados, lettuce – everything you eat here reminds you what fresh food used to taste like before science engineered everything out of it for the convenience of us fickle consumers. Sometimes ‘better’ is anything but.
While it was bright and sunny this morning, I took a few pictures of the interior of the cottage. Combine that with the food and the relaxed pace here, and you’ll understand why we’re so envious of the lifestyle. We couldn’t do it permanently, or even for the duration of all the inter-term holidays as T does, but it is such a wonderful place to just be for a few days, far from the madding crowd. I just wish I’d remember to duck under the low-hanging beams a bit more frequently than I do …
Sunday 1st August
Zac is fast becoming a proper big boy. He has been sleeping on his own in a double bed and has really taken to it. This morning, he woke up just before 5am. I found him sitting up rubbing his eyes grumpily, clearly still tired. Normally, there is no getting him back down, but I was able to persuade him to snuggle up under the duvet with me, and we fell asleep together for another couple of hours. So sweet.
We popped into Brionne, the nearest town, to have a wander round the market – both boys were magnetically drawn to the fish stalls – and buy some petit fours for afternoon tea. Splendid.
I think the relaxed ambience has affected the boys too. It helps that they are both spending most of their days outside – Zac constantly challenging me to races, Toby sitting and observing – so that come bedtime both are knackered, but even so they have been remarkably unstressed (and unstressful). Both were in bed and sound asleep by 7pm tonight, allowing us to enjoy dinner and then settle down to watch the first hour or so of A Knight’s Tale on DVD. Simple pleasures, but rare ones.
Monday 2nd August
All our meals these last few days have been leisurely, drawn-out affairs, but it is breakfast I will miss the most. There’s nothing special about what we have done – a combination of cereal, yoghurt, croissants and really strong coffee – but it is nonetheless a very civilised way to start the day. At home, breakfast for me entails necking some fruit juice and then wolfing down a couple of slices of toast; it’s not so much a meal as a very brief pit-stop.
We’ve both been delighted by the way Zac has embraced French during our time here. Okay, his vocabulary comprises primarily the most fundamental of basics – bonjour, s’il vous plaît, merci, de rien (you’re welcome), un, deux, trois and a few days of the week – but that’s not bad for a two-year old. I also tried teaching him danke schön and grazie mille (the German and Italian equivalents of merci beaucoup), with somewhat less success. The same went for my attempts to teach him how to order two beers in a variety of European languages, something I feel very strongly is a vital life skill. Oh well. Maybe next year.
Tuesday 3rd August
Having overslept slightly, even with three pairs of hands to manage the boys and foregoing niceties like showers, it still took us an hour and three quarters to get ready, load up the car and say our goodbyes. (And even then, as we have subsequently discovered, we left a load of stuff behind.) I can’t believe how quickly the last few days have passed. Always the way, isn’t it?
It was a fairly uneventful trip back, which was fine by me. Halfway to Calais, Zac leapt out at the service area and made a big thing of walking right up to and around the windmill which helps power the building, looking up at the giant blades and hugging the base. (I suppose it’s an alternative to tree-hugging.) Toby slept and then was calm until we reached the French terminal, then got a bit grumpy, which was fair enough.
All in all, we were home by about 3pm. And so began the endless cycle of unpacking, laundry and tidying away, washed down with a takeaway curry. Holiday over.
I’ve been back in the office today. I always find it a bit discombobulating (my word of the day!) to go straight back to work the day after a holiday, but at least I’ve only come back to a three-day week. And although I’m involved in some big meetings over the next couple of days with European and American VPs, I’m still feeling nicely chilled after our break, despite being dragged out of bed by a wide-awake Zac at 5am today. I know I’ll have to step back into gear at some point, but hopefully I can roll along in neutral for just a few days longer …