About Grace Lessageing

Writer of novels, short stories, flash fiction, blogs. Leader of a creative writing group. Ex infant teacher. Living in Christchurch UK.

Housekeeping Secrets along the Road

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           Any lengthy foray into Europe requires aspects of domestic life to be undertaken; there is no getting away from it. Laundry, cleaning, shopping and [depending on circumstances] a degree of food preparation and cooking are all part of an extended expedition.
Luckily most sites offer the necessary facilities for such mundane household tasks as washing clothes and bed linen, with washing machines and driers commonplace-for a price. In spite of this we travel with spares for bedding and towels. We also have a line, clothes drier, pegs, washing capsules and hand-wash detergent. How organised we are!
Vans are equipped with fridges [ours will function perfectly well for a couple of days without electric hook-up] although they are seldom as large as in the average kitchen, so we supplement it with a cold box and aim to shop every 3 or 4 days, which often, though not always coincides with moving from one destination to another.
We don’t leave home without a basic ‘store-cupboard’ of ingredients; mine include: mixed herbs, English mustard powder, Oxo cubes, peppercorns, gravy powder, olive oil, cornflour, tomato puree, tinned vegetables, pasta and rice. We take industrial quantities of tea bags owing to the poor quality of ‘Liptons’ from which 2 bags are necessary to make one, weak cup of tea. Anything else is widely available in the supermarche.
Wandering around a French supermarket doesn’t feel too much of a chore as long as certain aspects are understood. A trolley needs a euro coin to be released; we are fortunate to possess 2 plastic, pretend euros that for some inexplicable reason we call ‘sniglets’, given to us at ‘La Chaumiere’, a Flanders site that is unique for a number of reasons. The supermarket car park must be accessible by van [ie no height barrier] and must have enough space. We look for an area where other vans are parked. Then we ascertain whether fruit and vegetables must be weighed and labelled before the checkout, as nobody wants to arrive with half a trolley-load unprepared.

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Larger ‘hypermarkets’ will often have large vats of delicious concoctions such as paella that can be bought and re-heated. There will also be huge fish counters with mountains of mussels, melancholy crabs and lugubrious lobsters as well as acres of assorted cheeses. So there is never any need to go hungry-

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At the boulangerie a modicum of restraint is always required. Some days we allow ourselves a pastry. I attempt to confine myself to croissants but am inclined to succumb to the pleasures of ‘pain au raisins’ or ‘pain au chocolat’ [Husband’s favourite] on occasion. The French have a proud tradition of ‘artisan’ bread and the array of different types of baguettes or grands pains can be confusing.
Last [but not least] is the beer and wine supply. I confess to being a lightweight these days and may choose a single bottle of white for myself. Husband favours ‘Leffe’ beer and red wine. In these alcohol-enlightened times, even in France the supermarkets are beginning to offer ‘sans alcool’ varieties, which can be very good.
Intermarché, Leclerc, Auchan, Carrefor, Super-U and the ubiquitous Lidl. We wonder what their British equivalents might be? Leclerc would seem to be the equivalent of Sainsbury’s, Super-U more of a Tesco?
For many the demands of shopping and preparing meals while away would not constitute a holiday, but they have not sat outside on warm, light September evenings with beautiful views, sampling the produce that is on offer. And when we feel like it-and the location provides a choice of venues [as last night] we dine out.

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The Lure of Simple Pleasures

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            We’ve been spending a few days at a favourite site here in South West France. Situated on the Atlantic coast on the peninsula created by The Gironde, Le Gurp nestles in pine woods by a beach that stretches on almost as far as the eye can see, stroked by azure Atlantic rollers crashing on to the sand in frothy crescents.
This camp site is almost entirely visited by German holiday makers, who flock here for the waves, which are perfect for surfing and for its proximity to the beach, which is surveyed by lifesaving personnel and has soft, white sand, a couple of showers and a car park. The proliferation of Germans [and surfers at that] makes for a Boho, hippy atmosphere where strings of bunting, flags, drapes and all manner of camper vehicles abound-like a Mad Max movie.

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           Sites vary as much as hotels do. If your preference is for infinity pools, spas, cocktail bars, beauty salons and karaoke you could have it. If, like us you prefer a beautiful location, a clean, warm, efficient shower, security, space and the basics Le Gurp is the place.
We happened upon it the first summer we travelled to the Gironde with a tent, twenty or so years ago. The site we were on, near to Soulac [having supposedly booked to no avail] was tightly packed with chalets and boasted raucous entertainment each night. During a cycle trip we found Le Gurp beach and site. Could we book? No-it is a municipal site but is vast. There was plenty of space so we moved.
From the site a network of tarmac cycle tracks radiate through the pine forests to tiny, pretty villages like Grayan et l’Hopital and Talais or bustling seaside towns like Montalivets [which has an extensive and boisterous Sunday market] or Soulac-which is touristy but pleasant. On our first visits here we were runners, jogging every morning along the forest tracks in hot sunshine as many continue to do. Later [and older] we took to cycling. On the way to Montalivets by bike you’ll go past the tight brush-work fencing of ‘Euronat’-supposedly Europe’s largest naturist holiday park, although anyone hoping to catch a glimpse of naked tennis or boules-in-the-buff will be disappointed. If you’re bent on spotting unclothed bodies a stroll along the beach in either direction will reveal plenty of devotees-but it’s not a pretty sight!
A short walk [or shorter cycle] over the hillock from the camp site towards the beach takes you past a surf shop, a small supermarket, a newsagents/beach shop, a boulangerie, a launderette and several bars and restaurants-not a massive development but everything, in fact that the average German camper needs or wants.
During the day tiny children play among the pine trees, peddling madly around the tracks on bikes and ganging together to play with sticks and pine cones before being taken to the beach. Here there are no organised activities, there is no pool, nothing but a couple of swings and a climbing frame to amuse them-and so they amuse themselves. Camping is surely the best holiday a child can have?
In these late summer evenings, the sun sets like flames through the pine trees and as twilight descends the site comes alive with twinkly lights from tents and vans. There will be an occasional gentle strum of guitar and groups of al fresco diners will sit up chatting into the night over bottles of wine. You could sit outside with a glass or two or stroll over to one of the beach bars for a late drink. Wonderful.

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Aires-and Grace’s Guide…

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Nowhere in Europe has motor-homing taken off more than in France and while just about every nation has its devotees, the French have thrown themselves with gusto into holiday-homes-on-wheels, the bigger the better.

You can generally guess the nationality of motorhome owners without glancing at the coded number plate. A German will drive a camper-van fabricated from a vehicle that had a former life as a fire engine/horse box/burger van/security van/army lorry and will have been furnished with a wood-burning stove and decorated with artistic graffiti. The French will drive white, shiny, gargantuan gas-guzzlers furnished with their beloved net curtains crocheted with images of kittens, roses or boats.

In response to the explosion in French motor-homes businesses and councils of almost every community have capitalised on these tourist convoys by providing overnight parking with or without services, sometimes for a few euros-sometimes with no charge at all. The idea is that by attracting camper-vans [‘camping cars’ as the French call them] to their town the owners will spend money in shops, bars and restaurants.

Aires vary. Some are landscaped with trees and verges. Most are basic car parks with marked spaces and the addition of a machine selling water [typically 2 euros to fill the vehicle’s fresh water tank] and providing an emptying slot, a ‘vidange’ for the toilet cartridge. You have to hope that your fellow motor-homers are conscientious about keeping loo and water hose outlets separate [hence my regular disinfection of our hosepipe!].

Many aires are part of a larger, town car park. For a large proportion entry is gained by way of a ticket machine-and there are various types with vastly different operating systems for entry and exit. Heaven help those who mislay their exit ticket or number!

The French are cunning about their use of aires and over-night their motor-homes just about anywhere, on pieces of scrub land, beside canals, in lay-bys or in town car parks. They’ll choose any spot with a view or that is convenient then come into an aire to use the services [especially if free of charge]. The powers-that-be are as laisser-faire about parking as the owners are gung-ho but we, the timorous foreigners tend towards towing the line and we park up carefully in a marked bay, whereupon subsequent travellers enter and take up any available spot as long as it isn’t next to us. We’ve grown used to this now-nobody wishing to have the Anglais for neighbours. Perhaps post-2019 we’ll be banned altogether?

In the morning there will often be a queue to empty and refill the vans-an opportunity to observe and to indulge in ‘compare and contrast’. You have to beware of ‘services rage’ or those who take a studied, unhurried approach to the task.

Of course other European countries provide stopover sites [although not the UK] but they are never so widespread as in France. Once we got the hang of using aires we never looked back. You wouldn’t want to use them all the time-although I suspect many French do; we use them for night stops and sometimes 2 nights if we want to visit a city. They are not to be confused with motorway ‘aires’-those landscaped picnic areas along the roadsides which are useful lunch stops but must never, never be used for overnight sleeping!

How we Roll-

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These days we cross the English Channel [our most trodden travel path] by taking the line of least resistance-and since we live a few miles from Poole that line is Brittany Ferries to Cherbourg, a four-hour crossing leaving at 8.30am.
Despite the proximity we know better than to hang about and we are sure to leave home by 7.00am. Once, inspired by Husband’s ‘It’s only half an hour away-we’ve got oodles of time-we don’t need to be there until five minutes before’, we arrived at the barrier just as the ferry was about to leave and winged it up the ramp with minutes to spare.
The ferry, the ‘Barfleur’ [named after a Normandy coastal town] is comfortable and familiar by now. We know that once on board there will be good coffee and fresh, buttery croissants as well as comfortable reclining couchettes in a quiet salon in the bowels of the ship. We know that we can mooch around the small boutique and peruse the eclectic array of merchandise both useful and otherwise. There will be WiFi and television news.
Mostly, these days the ship is peopled with retirees or young couples with pre-school children because since retirement we have the choice of avoiding school holidays. This time, however by setting off a little earlier we are beset by knots of excited, shrieking children who still have time for a quick taste of France before knuckling down to learning their tables. They gallop about the ship, throng around the games room, chase each other from the bar to the restaurant, use loud devices and shout to each other. I surprise myself by enjoying their excitement, which reminds me how I felt on early trips abroad when every experience was new.
A sulky boy wearing a onesie in a bear design makes several circuits past our table with his lecturing mother, prompting me to wonder what he has done and if his excitement got the better of him. A tiny, table-height toddler staggers about, chased by his doting father and shielded from protruding table corners by the various diners he is entertaining.
In the quiet zone I open my Kindle and continue reading Alan Bennett’s ‘Keep On Keeping On’, which is part diary/part memoir/part lecture in itself and a treasury of informative and amusing anecdotes. A couple of rows behind us two men slumber whilst between them a young boy plays on and with a mobile phone, the sound of which is just a little distracting-loud enough to hear but not enough to decipher. Husband, whose own hearing has been compromised during the last few years is immune to such irritations and dozes off easily.
We arrive to Cherbourg, disembark and set off-not tearing southwards as usual but this time meandering across the Cherbourg peninsula to the coastal town of Barfleur itself, where we have lunch and a wander around the curving harbour followed by drinking coffee. Then we continue a few miles on to St Vaast, another harbour town with a convenient aire for us to park up in.

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St Vaast is a delectable place; full of seafood cafes, narrow alleys lined with pretty seaside homes and beautiful gardens, boulangeries packed with luscious pastries, breads and tarts, a crowded marina and a working fishing harbour where sturdy mussel boats are tied up.

There are many, many West coast ports like this, with harbourside brasseries serving the freshest shellfish you can get. We take advantage and I am able to enjoy my favourite treat-a plate of fat oysters nestling on a bed of ice and tasting of the sea.

We stay 2 days despite the drizzly intervals and walk the coastal sea wall to see ‘La Hougue’, part of some anti-British defences of 1664. Then it’s time to move on.

 

 

Nature Red in Tooth and Claw

There is no quick fix for a garden. At our last house I laboured over the garden for twenty years and waged a constant battle with the difficulties it presented: blustery, coastal breezes, dry, dusty soil with never a sign of a worm, cold winter gales and unforgiving summer sun. I learned to grow things that liked the conditions and gave up on desires for luscious rose bushes, cottage garden displays and tumbling, old English cottage looks in favour of tough, architectural plants like palms and Cordyline, resilient sea-holly and ornamental hops.

After two years of our new [to us], very different garden we continue to wrestle with a challenging set of problems although they are quite different. The dry areas here are caused by large trees and we’ve swapped relentless sun for dominant shade. Dry shade is reputed to be one of the most difficult conditions to address in a garden, this being also exacerbated by slopes. Dry shade slopes.

During our spring expedition three clematis [out of five] turned up their roots and expired due to drought, after which I watered, since we were not subject to a hose pipe ban and fed every last plantlet. In spite of this mildew set in to such traditionally hardy stalwarts as honeysuckle and geraniums.

In our semi-wild garden we are fortunate to see regular wildlife visitors such as foxes, bats and squirrels as well as a large range of wild birds. In late May a speckled juvenile robin became so tame as to perch on my fork as I delved into the compost heap and accompanied me on all evening watering sessions. We christened him ‘Speckle’ and he continues to visit now-although with a handsome red waistcoat and a little less intrepid.

In the dried out lawn bumble bees set up home and have kept us entertained throughout the hot, dry summer with their coming and going. They vary in size from small, agile creatures to gargantuan, furry bombs whose improbable flights are ungainly. They lurch in drunken circles in efforts to land and access the tunnel they’ve constructed.

I hankered after a hedgehog to complete the wildlife in our garden, which should be the perfect habitat-with a miniature copse, piles of leaves, piles of logs, abundant snails, water and all hedgehog mod-cons. We constructed a small hole in the base of the fence to allow access and departure.

I visited the garden late at night with no results, until one morning Husband woke up and spotted one on the grass in broad daylight, just beside the bumble bee nest. He brought me the news: the creature was lying on its back, lifeless. My one and only hedgehog-deceased!

Did it stumble into the environs of the bumble bee nest? Did a fox attack it? Or an owl? We will never know. And I have yet to see a real, live hedgehog availing itself of the garden facilities. Ho hum…

 

 

Silly Season Selfi-shness

Here we are in the midst of the holiday season; overpriced, wet [now], crowded and frustrating [airports and traffic queues].

Schools are out, parliament is out, railway networks and road systems have chosen to upgrade or get repairs done as usual.

At the seafront in our nearest town the beach was thronged with families on Wednesday, so that finding a small space where we [GrandOffspring and I] could plop down long enough to construct a teeny-weeny sandcastle proved problematical. We’d already had a bus ride, done lunch and visited the funfair [a serious blow to the granny purse] and this next activity was sandwiched [see what I  did there?] between expenditure of industrial proportions on the rides and the obligatory ice cream.

For a brief rest [essential for grannies] we sat on a bench, where I was asked by a smiling young woman to take a photo of her with her husband and two small children-which I did, taking an extra one for luck. She thanked me, whereupon GrandOffspring was moved to ask me if the woman was my friend.

In these times, a request to take a photo is a refreshing breeze wafting through the forest of selfie sticks that crowd into every popular view. I read this morning that an unseemly scuffle broke out at The Trevi Fountain in Rome between two rival selfie-takers competing for the best spot [ fisticuffs at the Trevi Fountain ] and I remembered when, a few years ago whilst being escorted around The Alhambra Palace in Granada it was nigh impossible to photograph any of the inner courtyards, fountains and architectural marvels owing to a posing woman and her doting husband, who insisted on draping her coiffed and made-up body over everything and snapping all angles.

There was also last year’s visit to Venice, during which hoards of excited teenage girls were selfy-ing themselves to death on every bridge, corner, fountain, square, path, archway and step, taking up their ‘model’ poses with a leg bent out, chin up, breasts stuck forward and lips duly pouted.

My nearest and dearest know only too well that I am phobic about having my own photograph taken and that few images of myself exist since about 2003 [when Husband and I took the plunge into matrimonial decorum].

You have to wonder why this self-obsession has taken hold, why this desire to show oneself off at every opportunity is so overwhelming. I have a modest collection of grainy, black and white photos of previous generations of my family and something they have in common is that they are all taken whilst everyone is engaged in some kind of activity. There is a picnic, a walk, playing cricket on a beach. There are uncles with trouser legs rolled up, aunties with skirts hoisted ready to paddle, people eating ice creams and children batting at makeshift wickets.

This is why, when I photograph my own grandchildren I like to capture them doing what they do, not posed. Maybe the selfie fashion will die a death one day-I can only hope…

A Sorry State

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I know I’ve nailed my colours to the mast on a previous occasion but despite eschewing political views generally I’m posting this week in a brief return to the UK’s most bitter, divisive and hackneyed topic of leaving the EU.

It will be no surprise to regular readers to learn that we are Europhiles, Husband and myself. We make frequent and lengthy trips to Europe and have done for many years. These expeditions are for leisure purposes but I’d have to include education within the leisure definition, since discovering hitherto unvisited places, viewing landscapes, towns, villages, architecture, galleries, learning history, seeing what is grown [and what grows!], how people live, where people live, what they grow in their gardens, what is in the shops, meeting people and conversing [or trying to]- these benefits are more compelling than any sun-soaked Spanish beach can be.

We have grown addicted to exploration of our near neighbour countries. Is there any other continent as divers as Europe? Our cultures, cuisines, music, languages, customs and even weather systems are vastly different and this is what makes it a magnet for tourists from other continents.

Yet the EU knits countries together without loss of culture, language or any other individualism. Together the countries are stronger. Together they can work towards shared goals, combat human rights atrocities, be a louder voice on the world stage. They can deal better with mass migrations using a coordinated approach and consider difficulties over climate change or environmental problems.

So about half of the UK population has been duped into believing that this benevolent organisation is bad for us. They have been fooled by a few meddling, bullish, selfish individuals who are interested only in the furthering of their own careers at the expense of the greater good and by the gutter press whose main aim is to peddle hatred and spread jingoism.

The process of leaving has been left to an inept, disorganised and disjointed government who’ve no clue how to progress except by ‘carrying out the will of the people’. But we can surmise from their hints about stockpiling that things are not going well.

Marvellous.

This summer, as we experience one of the worst droughts since records began and know that our own food production is bound to be reduced we learn that supermarket stocks should be reserved and that shortages are going to be a certainty. Add to this the likelihood that ports will struggle to process imports and that those firms large enough to re-locate are beginning to do so [eg financial institutions to Germany]. Add again the numbers of immigrant workers quitting in droves, leaving horrendous voids in National Health Service personnel, the agricultural workforce, hospitality and elsewhere.

So there you are. The future looms, stretching away in a long queue for dwindling bags of potatoes or a desperate trawl through the internet for ever scarcer blood pressure tablets. Meanwhile triumphant Brexiters delight in goading ‘put up and shut up’ style posts, calling those of us who are heart-sick ‘remoaners’. These are the very people who will be squealing like stuck pigs at the empty shelves in the supermarkets when it happens.

If there were a way to buy EU citizenship I would be doing it-but I can only claim a Maltese great grandmother in my heritage, which I don’t suppose will do. I am so very sorry, Europe for the ignorant foolishness of my country. Please may we continue to visit?