How We Roll Back…

We’ve spent a lot of time visiting south west France now, which means familiarity with the route, as well as the entire area. Nevertheless we still search for new ways to get there and back [avoiding motorways and their tolls]. A few weeks ago I wrote how we set off, where we like to embark, the entire routine.

So then, after a few weeks ‘bimbling’ [Husband’s word], we have to turn the van northwards and consider how we might return. We select a day. On this occasion, Husband came up with a plan to return overnight in a cabin, which appealed until we discovered that the ferry sets off late, leaving little or no opportunity to schmooze in the restaurant and bar. Who wants to drive on, locate the cabin, clean teeth and get straight into a berth?

These days it is neither necessary nor desirable to scramble up the length of France in one, long day and we prefer a gentle, staged journey – still attempting to find hitherto unexplored places.

We opted to return from Ouistreham [Caen] knowing there is a very convenient aire next to the ferry terminal for our last night. We decided to spend a couple of nights at Dinard, which is only a couple of hours away and left us time to explore as well as execute the all-important pre-return shopping spree that is obligatory at the finale of all trips.

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Dinard is situated across the bay from St Malo and probably suffers for it’s glamorous, historic neighbour but we’ve stayed at St Malo enough times. A look at one or two lacklustre ACSI [off season discount card ] sites confirmed that the municipal site at Port Blanc would be a good choice and so it was-with an uninterrupted view of the beach and bay from our van.

The weather by this time had become blustery and drizzly-a reminder that we were on our way home.

The site offered  a bar and pizzas-surprising at this end of season period but not an option for us [I am unable to eat pizzas]. A five minute walk up the road led us to a lively area with bakeries, bars and brasseries. On Sunday afternoon a small stage was hosting a display of line dancing-

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The restaurant we chose was old fashioned but proved popular, as after we’d been seated every table was occupied.

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Dinard is a hilly seaside town reminiscent of Scarborough, with an air of faded elegance-enormous old hotels, a smattering of art deco, luxuriant gardens and promenades as well as ice cream parlours and bars. There is evidence of an interest in the arts, with a film festival running and some impressive sculptures dotted along the prom.

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We walked back to site via a path around the sea wall which wound around the town cliffs, narrow in places and in a bracing wind, but thrilling and with dramatic views.

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We left Dinard to scoop up items on our wish-list from a Carrefour complex the size of five football pitches then drove up our well-trodden route to Caen and to our customary spot next to the ferry. We dodged the motorhome-bore [‘I’ve Been Everywhere, Man’], showered and went to get a meal. next day the ferry’s engines woke us at 6.30am, just right for packing up and trundling the 500yards into the check-in queue. Drive on, climb up to the coffee bar, grab coffee and croissant, settle into a couchette. That’s how we roll back…

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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.

Fresh from Cuba-

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We have returned from ten days in Cuba, leaving the frozen, grey UK and taking almost ten hours to fly to a warm, bright and colourful Havana. After hearing about the plight of tourists to Jamaica, who must remain in hotel lock-down due to violent crime I’d advise anyone with Caribbean travel plans to choose Cuba-one of the safest holiday destinations in the world.

Even in my deprived-sleep-addled state, on the journey to the hotel I could see that there is NO advertising of any sort along the roads, not on the highway from the airport or in the suburban streets and nowhere in the bustle of the city. It is refreshing not to be faced with hoardings and neon everywhere.

Continuing this theme, there is nothing anywhere that resembles a ‘chain’ company. No Starbucks, MacDonalds, KFC, Wagamama, TGI Fridays, Specsavers, H&M, Monsoon, Wallmart, Top Shop or IKEA. Magic! It is, in fact difficult to determine where there are any shops at all. There are tiny corner kiosks nestling among crumbling facades or murky windows displaying manekins sporting faded, dusty outfits. There are also alleyways with market stalls touting Che Guevara T-shirts, baseball caps and a range of hand-made items. There is also a riot of lively, busy bars and restaurants thronged with tourists and locals alike and often alive with a band of musicians.

Bars. There is no shortage of these; some mere holes in the wall, others ornately panelled, art-deco monuments to a rum-and-salsa culture much celebrated by writer Ernest Hemingway [whose heritage is much exploited by Havana traders]. There is a limitless supply of musicians. In a small street outside a Hemingway-themed bar where exuberant music is entertaining the area an impromptu accompaniment was played on water bottles as several individuals ran fingernails up and down the furrowed sides [proving my theory that almost anything can be employed as a musical instrument].

Cars. Cuba is well-known for its old, American classic cars. I was unprepared for the number of them [allegedly 150, 000].They range from lovingly restored, smooth, gleaming limousines to pitted, filled and battered jalopies. All, however spew out a filthy, noxious cloud of lung-clogging fumes which requires some adjustment of the respiratory passages when out walking.

People are friendly, happy and not above exploitative. We were offered welcome, advice, conversation and cigars or a visit to an outlet. We were never, at any time hassled or pursued. Rejection was accepted with relaxed, good-natured smiles. There were a small number of beggars, some of which had gone to lengths to create artful outfits to enhance their plight-a frayed and patched jacket or [in one case] a masterpiece of sackcloth trousers. There was no evidence at all of rough sleeping.

There was an overall sense of well being. Nobody appeared embittered or unhappy with their lot. The population is a mixture of black and white with all groups of diners, musicians, shoppers and travellers joining in together as one, never allied to one or other ethnic type. It is safe; a tourist could walk alone anywhere at any time of day or night without fear of molestation. We were unlucky with the weather, which was uncharacteristically overcast and windy. Otherwise it was a fun-filled and happy experience. Thank-you Cuba!

 

 

 

Beware Scooters!!!

Nobody can deny that those with a disability get a raw deal from society. For most, employment, income, social life and travel are all sources of difficulty. So it can only be a good thing if practical improvements such as public toilet upgrades become the norm. I read that the mum of a disabled child has produced a toilet-selfie advent calendar as part of a campaign to improve public toilet facilities for the disabled, a cause I wholeheartedly endorse. No one should have to lie on a filthy toilet floor to have their needs attended to!
And then there are mobility issues. Of course we must provide parking for those who need it. We should be making access to buildings easier and simpler for wheelchair users and making space for them at concerts and sports fixtures. No one can argue with any of this.
Mobility scooters, however are becoming ubiquitous; so much so that a miniscule fibre of doubt has begun to pervade my thoughts over whether the vast number of mobility scooter users are really, really in need of their machines. Is there a chance, perhaps that some may be merely obese and that walking on their feet might be just the activity they need to be able to dispense with the contraption altogether? Worse-there are some monster machines for couples, like tandems, which are larger than ever and cause even more mayhem.
Here, where I live mobility scooters are everywhere. A quick excursion to the supermarket becomes a hair-raising exercise much like attempting to cross a dodgem ride at the funfair wheeling a shopping trolley whilst it is in action. Two scooters in an aisle effectively blocks it for all other shoppers. Twin this with the supermarket staff members busily plucking items for their delivery vans and you may as well go home and get a takeaway.
But the issue that bothers me is not the existence of mobility scooters. It is the speed at which those on them travel. Couple this with a sense of entitlement and you have a recipe for many disasters-especially as the Christmas shopping shindig cranks up to a frenzy. A short walk down the street on the pavement from my house to the town in the company of a small child becomes an anxious dodge as one scooter after another looms up behind us, veers around us or hurtles towards us with no mind for the safety of a tiny child. I’ve taken to calling after them to slow down, a plea that is only ever a lost cause.
Many will, I know be affronted and take this to be a rant against the disabled. I have to stress that it is NOT a criticism of those who genuinely are in need of help with mobility. I would just like motorised scooters to be regulated and to be given a speed restriction when using pedestrian areas. Is it too much to ask that they be limited to pedestrian pace? What say you?

The Loneliness of the Self-Scanner

Been to a supermarket lately? Noticed anything?

Those of us in the UK who don’t have our groceries delivered [and I have penned a blog post about this in the past: Wandering Around in the Bagging Area] and who frequent supermarkets are being subjected to an offensive regarding the way we gather our comestibles etc.

It goes like this: A number of members of staff are allocated to diverting we unwary shoppers into the self-checkout tills, or worse, into the scan-as-you-go system.

From the shop’s point of view, I suppose the aim is ultimately to cut out manned check-outs altogether, chopping their wages bills and perhaps maximising shop floor space.

A quick glance around the store tells me I’m not alone in being unenthusiastic about the automisation of the shopping experience. For a start, it’s not like I haven’t tried it; it’s just that they are never fully automated, are they? Something always goes wrong. A number of people have to be employed simply to sort the glitches which renders the machines pointless-

Then there’s the term ‘self-check-out’. It’s a little too uncomfortable for those in later life. Myself, I’m not ready to ‘check-out’ yet.

Scan-as-you-go may well be the answer to the supermarkets’ prayers but it has no appeal for me.  We have grown used to weighing and labelling our fruit and vegetables in French supermarchés, however I’ve no desire to scan each and every thing I want to toss into my trolley. I want a carefree wander among the aisles, browsing and speculating.

Our nearest grocer is an upmarket, dearer one and dominated by older, retiree shoppers. Some of them are very elderly, shuffling around in slippers and comfort clothing, dependent on the trolley for support. In my younger, more ignorant, more impatient, time-poor days I’d castigate the elderly shoppers, fumbling for their purses, dropping things, peering with rheumy eyes at the card reader, but as one whose hands are no longer entirely at their owner’s bidding I have more sympathy for the slow, muddled, dithering old folks as they dawdle up and down deliberating at the freezers and pondering over the bread.

For a number of the lonely elderly a chat with a checkout operator may well be the only small piece of human contact they’ll get that day. If the human interaction element of the shopping experience is denied them they’ll be deprived of an essential bit of contact. I too want this minute bit of engagement. I want to be greeted, to be asked how I am, to have a snippet of conversation about the loaf I’ve selected or how beautiful the apples look. Maybe when I worked all day [talking] and only wanted to lie down in a dark room when I got home I’d have relished the thought of completing the shopping quickly and in solitary silence but I’m not sure that becoming fully automated is such an advantageous initiative.

There are already threads in the media over our screen use; how we choose to peer at tiny screens instead of conversing, how we’d prefer to play solitary screen games rather than engage with other humans. What effect is all this solitary behaviour going to have on us in the future? Answers on a virtual postcard…

Christmas is not for Life-it’s just for Christmas.

Christmas is almost upon us again, returning with almost indecent speed. With a couple of weeks to go I’ve begun to turn my attention towards gathering up some gifts and writing some cards.

As I stood at a till yesterday the cheerful sales assistant enquired as to whether this was the end of my Christmas shopping quest [we were waiting for the card issuer’s response]. It made me smile. “No!” I told him. “This is my first go.” His eyebrows shot up. “I did all of mine in September. I’ve followed my mum’s example. She always begins in January and does it all throughout the year.”   I explained that in September I would just be going off on holiday and still in summer mode but his behaviour is not unusual. What kind of lives do people lead, that their entire year from January is devoted to preparing for the one day that is Christmas?

Husband is at the other end of the extreme, proclaiming each year that he will begin on Christmas Eve and reminding me of the time-honoured male boast that ‘the garage will be open late the night before’.

Christmas, however is changing. It takes on elements of other cultures and evolves like other celebrations and festivals. In my childhood my mother made Christmas puddings months in advance to allow the flavours to develop and we undertook the magic ‘stir-up’ process of making a wish. I am sorry to say that I haven’t perpetuated this tradition due to the fact that none of our progeny can stand the sight or smell of Christmas pudding. The same applies to mince pies and Christmas cake. Having been brought up in a similar way, Husband and I are more partial to these treats than is good for us, so I’ll be purchasing a tiny, delicious pudding for us to share and some chocolatey, indulgent desert for the next generation. I will, however be making some mince pies because it is an activity and an outcome that I cannot resist.

As a child Christmases followed a routine-from the arrival of one or other maiden aunt to the strict recording of who’d given what [in preparation for the hated ‘thank-you’ letters]; from the division into three of the pound or ten shilling notes [a tricky business] given by aunts and uncles to the round of Boxing Day visits and evening party games. If we’d seen Santa Claus it would have been in a department store with a sparkly grotto.

We woke on the morning to feel the weight of a crackly, knobbly, woolly sock filled with the expected items [a tangerine, a sixpence] and some unexpected ones. I can still remember the excitement of finding a hardback copy of ‘The Lion, the Witch and The Wardrobe’ next to my stocking, the gift I had longed for more than anything on earth.

Christmas is no less exciting for small people these days but I do wish it didn’t have to start cranking up in September!

 

Keep it Local

What kind of environment would we like generations to come to inherit? Do we even care about the world that we will no longer inhabit?

In a week that has seen a brand, spanking new shopping centre opening amidst much celebration in large city in the North of the UK I cannot help but heave a weary sigh. This has all happened before. In the 80s there was an explosion of shopping centres, vaunted as exciting, innovative temples to consumerism and incorporating restaurants, cinemas-even an indoor theme park with fairground rides [at The Metro Centre, Gateshead].

The UK is entering an era of financial uncertainty. Many areas of trade, finance and employment are already showing signs of slowing and inflation is set to rise after a long, settled period. You have to wonder why anyone would view a large, new shopping centre as a good idea.

My own, subjective, personal view of shopping centres is that they do not represent [as one of the instigators of the Leeds structure suggested] an ‘experience’:

“You can’t just build the same environments you’ve done for the last 15 years,” he says, “you have to create places that people want to touch, want to feel, want to be in. The retail is almost secondary. Experience is everything.”

The retail is almost secondary? Why go then? And what does he mean by ‘spaces that people want to touch, want to feel’? I am imagining crowds of shoppers, bags in one hand, the other feeling along the walls outside the shops or perhaps bending to pat the shiny floors. I can think of more uplifting ways to ‘experience’. Why not visit an art gallery or a museum? Better still, go outside and walk-in a park or along a canal tow path, or across a field.

I can’t remember when I’ve ever spent an entire day at a shopping centre. These days I take the view that if I can’t find what I’m looking for in an hour I won’t bother. And when I shop I don’t want to run the gauntlet of endless traffic to be enclosed in an emporium consisting of malls, escalators and mile upon mile of over-lit, over-heated, stuffy shops. I may want to visit a couple of shops, but not to be stifled. I want to go outside between one shop and another. I don’t want to spend hours trundling up a multi-story carpark ramp attempting to find a space and then not be able to locate my car again afterwards [or even remember which storey it is on].

Not everyone is fortunate enough to live where they can walk to buy items they need and not everyone is willing to do so, but in these times of increasing traffic and pressure on our economy shouldn’t we be looking to work, shop and pursue leisure activities in our local areas?