Cracking the Second One-

We are in southern France, attempting to find some vestiges of the summer we felt cheated of in the UK.

I had also meant, whilst here to attempt to get the first draft of Novel 2 knocked off. In the event it’s proving more difficult than I’d imagined, for a number of reasons.

When I wrote the first novel I thought it was hard; now I realise that it was a proverbial walk in the park compared to the wild, flapping, untameable story that is the second book. Novel 1[ The Year of Familiar Strangers] ’s central character is loosely based around a person I knew in the past and many of the episodes in the story are real incidents that only needed a little embellishment, a little alteration, to form the basis of what I still consider to be a ripping yarn. Several of the peripheral characters were also lifted from real life and very little invention was needed. I even had the locations in my head [no surprise that much of it is set in France!].

Novel 2 is as different to 1 as a toothbrush to a vacuum cleaner. All of the characters are inventions. I’ve had to get to know them as the story has progressed, never sure if their actions are true to type or too far-fetched for credibility. The plot continues to escape my direction, twisting and turning and having a mind of its own. The nearer I think I’m getting to the denouement the longer it appears to be taking to crack it. There is a constant need to refer back in the text to ensure continuity and half the time I forget who did what, and when. I want to tie the ends up, bring the threads together in some semblance of logic, a conclusion that leads the reader to say ‘Ah, so that was why/where/ what, but like Alice, every step I take goes in the opposite direction to where I want to go.

A further difficulty is that having chosen to set the novel in the moderately near future and then taking too long to write it leads to ideas getting high-jacked by reality. Did George Orwell have this problem with 1984? I am now loath to tie it down to any date due to the rapid technological developments that are catching up with-and in some instances overtaking those in my novel! This is frustrating-technology moves along faster than my novel-writing! And the future is BIG. HUGE! It is a mistake to try and corral it into a novel.

Choosing to hand-write the last section hasn’t helped. Having visualised sitting in the sun scribbling away and penning the final words with a flourish I’m contending with strong breezes, insects and the lure of cycling, walking and sightseeing. Ah yes-I should be so driven as to eschew such pleasures. This morning we woke to rain, so if you will excuse me I can’t be frittering away my time on frivolous blog-writing; I need to get on before any more innovations come in…

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The Beauty of the Bike.

Thank heavens for cycling.

Since most foot-dependent activities are currently out of the question, cycling is the option that remains. [Regular readers will know of my aversion to water submersion-hence swimming is off the menu].

So cycling is becoming vital to maintaining an amoebic level of physical activity and to this end Husband has been rising to the challenge of hauling me around various routes and tracks in pursuit of improving my corporeal condition.

Of course the bikes are always on board when we are out and about in the van and were transported all around Italy, Sicily, Sardinia and Corsica despite being rarely employed. This was mostly due to the terrifying nature of the Italian roads, although in Sardinia there was a modicum of driverly care un-encountered anywhere else in Italy.

On the subsequent [most recent] trip to Brittany there was more cycling. Travelling by ‘velo’ in France is a whole different experience surpassed only by bicycle use in The Netherlands or Belgium. So we undertook some pedal routes-quiet lanes and tarmac tracks, not all of which were totally flat. As I’m aware that Husband is not over-fond of complaints during cycle rides I took pains not to comment that my knees were creaking, my wrists numb and I was becoming generally knackered.

Such are the nuances of marriage however that once returned he announced that I’d been ‘complaining silently’.

On another afternoon I opted to stay behind, not so much as to spare him my silent complaints as to get down to revising poor, neglected Novel Two. Thus I was heavily engaged in the task and oblivious to anything else when Husband reappeared after what seemed an unusually brief spell. ‘I came off’ he said.

He’d come off in spectacular style, judging by the holes in his elbow and his knee. In the customary manner of husbands he was eager to minimise the event, the effects of which were not a pretty sight. Novel Two went back on the back burner while I delved into the eclectic mix of items I call the First Aid Box.

Back home now, I’ve managed to cycle without complaint, silent or otherwise, ascended some hills without dismounting to push and achieved staying within sight of Husband’s bike most of the time.

I’ve also come to realise that the bike has other uses besides the exercise factor. If I need to nip up the road for a loaf of bread I can do so without needing to suffer the excruciating attentions of Neighbour, a man who speaks to me as if I am a miniature toy poodle and who I tend to avoid at all cost.

So bike is the way except for when it’s raining-which it is-a lot-at the moment…

 

The Freedom of Finistere-[except for supermarket car parks]

We are in Brittany, France; ‘bimbling’ as Husband calls it-meaning a slow-paced meander with no real plan.

This is in marked contrast to our April/May jaunt of Italian island hopping , which depended on ferry timetables and during which we spent very little time in any one place [insert link]. There are benefits and drawbacks to both types of tour, but travel this way-with no particular expectation or goal can have unexpected results.

So we look at a map. On this occasion, since ‘high summer’ and the holiday season is getting underway [and we are in motorhome heaven-France] we are attempting to do as much as possible without the need of campsites, rather using ‘aires’, which are either very inexpensive or free-hooray! The ‘aires’ Bible we use may dictate where we go to a certain extent, although they are mostly around the coast and are bound to be in popular spots. So far so good.

Since there is a heatwave both here and in the UK, the first aire, situated on a hilltop above the tiny, picturesque fishing port of Cancale is most welcome. It has shady, grass spaces and a pretty footpath down to the town.

We plant a pin in the map and head West to Tregastel. At first sight it appears very Cornish, except that the gigantic boulders strewn around the bay are smooth, organic, granite shapes like fabricated, concrete rocks on a theme park ride. Tregastel is postcard pretty, but the aire looks unpromising in a car park opposite Super-U supermarket. In the end we opt for it, meaning to move next day-except that next day we discover it is by the beach and a knockout coast path-perfect! The supermarket turns out to be an added bonus.

The aire becomes busy, a well-known and well-trodden route. We get into difficulties with renewing our ticket in the machine, which refuses to accept any of our bank cards. In desperation we take the van out and attempt re-entry, only to be refused. When I call the emergency number a weary woman tells me a van is on its way. Their computer system is down. Phew! Our bank cards have lived to finance another day.

Before leaving Tregastel we take the van into Super-U, where there are plenty of empty spaces in the car park, in a corner where a number of other campervans are parked. Having shopped, I am busy transferring meat from polystyrene trays into freezer bags when an elderly man stops by the door and I realise he’s saying something along the lines of ‘Do you have the right to be here?’

I’m nonplussed. Does he mean ‘in France’? Perhaps he is issuing a protest in the wake of the Brexit vote. I manage my best gallic shrug, bag of steak in hand, ‘Je ne sais pas’. He gestures at the parking spaces [empty around us, for the most part]. ‘Oh!’ I say, understanding, ‘Ici dans le parking? Mais il y a beaucoup des autres comme nous!’ It’s my turn to gesture. I point the steak bag at the massed ranks of gargantuan motorhomes lined up in the car park, at which he, in turn shrugs and shuffles away leaving us to wonder ‘why us?’. Perhaps it is the Brexit effect after all and we are no longer welcome. Tragic!

Snippets from Four Countries-

I last visited Strasbourg as a teenager. But Husband had never been and one advantage of becoming ancient is that you can revisit old haunts and not remember a thing about them.

       It is a gloriously hot, blue-skied day. We are able to cycle from the site into the city, which is thronged with shouting school parties but still gorgeous with its covered bridges, medieval architecture and sparkling waterways. We stop to rest our feet [a feature of sightseeing these days] at a table outside a bar in a pretty square and remember why we like to travel this way.

        Next day we are off through Germany, taking in the edge of the Black Forest, which is all cuckoo clocks and cow bells, and catching some squally rain as we climb higher, the temperature having plummeted as we arrive at Salem, near the Bodensee, our stop for the night. Just outside the village on a hillside, the site has a small bar with the type of German beer that Husband likes. The night turns icy enough for our little heater and extra blanket to be barely adequate.

The following afternoon we cycle to the Bodensee, a magnet for German tourists though precious few foreigners. Few places are open but look set to begin the season in earnest for Easter weekend. We lose the next day’s travel due to over-excited consumption of beer, but set out for the German/Austrian border on the next morning, settling for Wertach as an overnight stop. It is a pleasant, Alpine farming town. I am startled by the cigarette machine in the washing up area.

As we are leaving an older German fellow tells me ‘We CAN NOT understand the Brexit’ and I can only reply that ‘No, neither can we’.

On to Austria, a slow crawl across the Fern Pass on an ill-chosen, holiday Saturday. But the scenery compensates for the traffic jam-snowy peaks glistening in the sun, ski runs zig-zagging down under gondolas and ski-lifts. Our chosen destination-Feriensparadies on the Natter See- is elusive, confusing Mrs Garmin, our austere SATNAV lady, who sends us off up winding mountain tracks filled with pole-wielding hikers in an unlikely quest for the site. At last we arrive to Feriensparadies, which justifies its coy location by being spectacular; a sun soaked hollow in the snow peaks with pitches facing the cherry blossom fringed lake. The staff are charming, the views are breath-taking, a free shuttle bus can take us to Innsbruck, where we can ride the funicular and gawp at the splendid medieval buildings and the services are nothing short of luxurious. All power to the Austrians!

Regrettably, after 2 nights it is time to crack on-and so on to Venice, which I don’t need to describe since a great deal has been written elsewhere about this extraordinary, watery city. It is another re-visit for me and new to Husband. As we meander the alleyways and over the bridges with our cornettos I ask him if it lives up to the hype. ‘90%’ he says, not revealing the 10% in which it fails…

Starting Out

I am standing in our kitchen, one hand holding the pull-out pantry door open. I am frowning at the shelves, thinking, ‘what the Hell do I pack into the van to go on an extended trip?’

We are preparing for our first trip of the year and have worked through the administration tasks; channel crossing booked, euros loaded on to travel card, banks informed, van serviced and cleaned, insurance [personal and vehicle] updated, guide books and atlases collected, neighbours and family told, lists compiled.

Laundry is ready, clothing and bedding and towels [two sets to ease laundry while away]. Much to non-motorhome owners’ surprise we don’t sleep in sleeping bags but use a duvet and fitted sheet, just like home, but with the addition of a blanket in case of cooler nights.

Then I am flummoxed by the culinary provision. We are in the habit of starting off with a basic set of tins, jars, herbs and sauces but for the life of me I cannot recall what. I DO know that industrial quantities of Yorkshire tea bags will be required, since proper tea is not something that can be found in a European supermarket. We are constrained by the space, which consists of two very small drawers and a tiny shelf with an area like the bottom of a single wardrobe underneath [used mainly to house Husband’s beer supplies]. I wait. I know this will all come back to me and sure enough, as I begin to select tins it does: 2 tins of tomatoes, 2 mini tins of peas, some baked beans and any other vegetables that might be handy. I add rice, pasta, miniscule pots of mixed herbs, cornflour and ‘Bisto’, mustard, tomato sauce and puree and a bottle of olive oil. I’ve just about done it. Then there’s the fridge…

We stumble up at what is an indecent time for late-rising retireds and I take whatever is left in the fridge out to the van’s little fridge. While it looks a modest quantity in the house fridge it takes more ingenuity than is readily available at an early hour to squeeze into the van’s cold storage. But it is done.

At last we are en route and wending our way up to Folkestone for Le Shuttle, a journey we have not made for some time, but is without mishap. Before long we have rolled into our place along the austere interior of the shuttle train and it is underway; little more than a half hour later and we’ve arrived in France for the first leg of this year’s odyssey.

We head towards northern France, equipped with a new ‘Aires’ book to inform our overnight stops. I realise we’ve left the new loaf in the bread bin at home. It will be colourfully hairy by the time we return but nobody is perfect and France, above all is not short of the odd Boulangerie. Alsace is luscious in the spring sunshine.

The first aire looks dubious; nothing more than a roadside parking lot and no other vans installed. We move on to another, next to a park off a quiet road, with ‘vidange’ provided. Almost simultaneously a French motorhome pulls in beside us and we are fine for the night.

Next morning is bright and sunny as we make tea and swing into van routines. It’s all coming back to me. I stroll up to the Boulangerie for a loaf, dithering over what to choose. There isn’t much left so I settle on two 60 cent baguettes. ‘Deux euros!’ The stern Madame, folds her arms in resolute emphasis as she sees me glance at the price label on the shelf. I am not willing to argue. I pay up in meek submission. Is this the Brexit effect? It remains to be seen.

 

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The Horrors of Rentrer d’Ecole

My school friend, Paula Booth and I were much taken with everything French. My parents took us camping in the Vendee-a long strip of beach-laden coast devoted almost entirely to camp sites and all things holiday. These days very little has altered there from those sixties summers. Paula and I were earnest students of the French language, revelling in all opportunities to practise the discipline. Opportunities came thick and fast due to my parents’ knowledge of the language being confined to what could be written on the back of un timbre sur un carte postale.

We loved the department stores, spending hours wandering around ‘Monoprix’ or ‘Au Printemps’ searching for small gifts to take home and lusting after the clothes. Back then French clothing was expensive.

But even then one element of the shopping experience was tantamount to torture for us; there would always be large banners plastered over every window bearing the words: ‘Rentrer d’Ecole’. Horrors! No sooner had we escaped into our own summer adventure than we’d be dragged back to reality by this sinister reminder.

Becoming a teacher did little to assuage the ‘back to school’ syndrome. You’d flog your way through the last, painful weeks of the summer term buoyed only by the prospect of the long break. You would manage the last days, despatch the little charges to their disgruntled mamas, pack up everything, recycle the ‘best teacher’ mugs and the scented candles then set off in a haze of exhaustion and euphoria-only to drive past a plethora of shop signs bearing the hated exhortation to purchase the Autumn term’s necessities.

[This is the point that elicits, from those in non-education related occupations a deluge of remarks about ‘easy life’ where the teaching community is concerned. ‘9-3’, ‘part-time job’, ‘nothing but holidays’-yes, yes. My one answer to all of those is ‘why aren’t you doing it, then?’]

And while the ‘taking them out of school’ debate rages on Husband and I are finally able to take advantage of the off-season benefits that others enjoy after careers of being stuck with peak season prices. I’m not launching into a diatribe this time about why children shouldn’t miss school, but it always seemed to me that it was the parents who wanted the Spanish beach or the Disney park. Frankly-most kids like nothing better than messing around in a rocky stream in wellie boots or riding round a camp site in a pack of bikes. Most parents of young children would agree that to be a success, adult and child holidays have to be centred on the children.

So if you want a holiday like you had pre-children your options are a] leave them behind with a doting relation or b] wait until they are grown up.

Since Husband and I are in our dotage we fall into the latter category. Not only can we holiday when we please but also where. Hooray! We are off to Europe!

 

 

 

A Potted Driving History

I learned to drive when I was twenty four. It was the mid seventies and I had all my lessons in the dark of a snowy winter in London. As my first test approached the instructor suggested I have some lessons during the day because I’d had no experience of driving in daylight.

I hadn’t needed a car for work, as I walked there. I was motivated by a need to be independent. I remember going to a party, staying late and having no means of getting home to my shared flat in Putney. A man I’d been chatting to offered me a lift back to my flat, which I gratefully accepted. Feeling I should reciprocate, when we arrived I offered coffee-an offer that was rejected. He didn’t want coffee, but he did want sex. I considered myself worldly as a twenty something-having been a student through late sixties hippy-dom, the freedom of ‘the pill’ and beyond into laissez-faire student territory, nevertheless I was shocked that someone would offer a lift and expect sex in return.

I needed two tests, failing my first [in Guildford] and taking the second only two weeks later [in Teddington]. Neither test venue was familiar to me. While waiting for the second test, with a new, female instructor we got a coffee and she proceeded to regale me with a tearful discourse on the subject of her messy divorce, an experience that I later conjectured as a device to avert pre-driving test nerves.

I got a car, a classy Austin A40 with a steering wheel so enormous that simply rounding a bend almost wrenched my arms from their sockets and only one door that would open; this was the rear tailgate. Entering the vehicle involved climbing into it and diving to the front seat-not a dignified manoeuvre. None of this mattered. I had my independence.

I got to like driving-I still do, but roads, traffic and vehicles have changed in the intervening years. Here in the UK there are few major roads that don’t become clogged with traffic for at least some time during every day. A few days ago, sitting overlooking the M1 motorway at Leicester Forest services the road seemed like some future dystopian world where colossal titans spewing noxious gas had taken possession of the planet and had multiplied until every vestige of space and air were exhausted.

I’ve also noticed that age strips some driver confidence away, resulting in fearfulness of the speed and aggression you find amongst traffic in large conurbations or on five-lane motorways. I am spooked by angry hooting, vehicles cutting across mine at roundabouts or pushing out from junctions in front of me. ‘Be my guest’ I want to squeak, ‘you go first-if your need is so urgent you must terrify everyone else to satisfy it’.

Symptomatic of today’s society? Perhaps. In larger countries with more space and in less populated areas driving can be reminiscent of my early driving years. This is often true for travel away from the autoroutes in France, although time must be no object. How will it all pan out? I can only imagine the vehicles nose-to-tail habit will progress to being conjoined-and then what? Oh of course-railways.