Fiction Month 2

       In Part 2 of ‘Chalet Concerto’, Anne finds a sympathetic ear in Angela, to whom she begins to open up. As she starts to tell her story it takes on a darker note…

Chalet Concerto Part 2

         ‘I couldn’t help noticing your hands, Anne. They are beautiful. I’d love to have nice hands. Mine look like piles of sausages compared to yours!’
She sniffed, spreading her long hands out as if she was going to do a magic trick. Her voice was small. ‘I was a concert pianist once, a long time ago.’
I leaned towards her. ‘How wonderful! I’ve never met a concert pianist! Do you still play?’ She shook her head and was silent, staring down.
‘First time here, is it? We’ve been coming here for seventeen years, Dave and me; always this time of year and always to this chalet. Dave likes the golf and I’m happy enough. We get to meet up with folks we know and there’s a bit of entertainment in the evenings. It’s Bingo tonight and Karaoke tomorrow. Do you fancy coming along, Anne?’ I realised I was prattling but I couldn’t seem to stop. I don’t mind my own company but I do like a gossip when I get the chance, although I was beginning to think Anne was not much of a one to chat.
She put her teacup on the table. ‘I’ve left my husband’ she whispered. Just like that!
I waited for her to continue but she sat silent. ‘Oh’ I said. ‘Did you want to tell me why? You don’t need to. I know what husbands can be like. I’m luckier than most, I suppose, what with Dave being out on the golf course so much and staying for drinks with his mates. He falls asleep snoring most nights before I’ve finished cleaning my teeth!’ I grinned at her. But I was blathering.
She looked away, across the table at the rows of chalets. ‘I couldn’t stand to be in the house with him a minute longer.’
I nodded in what I hoped was an encouraging way.
‘My husband is French. He is a conductor. After he met me at a recital he pursued me. This was thirty years ago. We married. We had a son. I gave up my career.’ She paused.
‘But children are such a blessing, aren’t they? Our two girls came here with us for years but it’s not exotic enough for them now they’ve grown up. They want to go abroad-Majorca or Florida. I still miss them but I’m hoping one day the grandchildren will come with us. I haven’t told Dave that though!’ I was jabbering again.
‘Our son left to go and train to be an army officer. Sandhurst. My husband wanted him to have a career in music.’ She shrugged. ‘They have to be what they want, not what we want.’
‘I never had what you’d call a career’ I told her. ‘I work in a garden centre. I’ve got no qualifications but I do know a lot about plants. I love it; that’s the main thing I reckon. You have to like what you do.
But you haven’t said why you left, Anne.’
‘My husband travelled for his work with orchestras. I stayed at home to look after our son in our Bayswater apartment. I played the piano a little when I could but without the rigour and demands of an orchestra I wasn’t able to maintain a performance standard. When my husband came home he derided me for my lack of polish. He began to sneer. My son started school. You’d think I’d have had more opportunity then but somehow I lacked the will. My fingers became stiff.’
She flexed her fingers with their long, tapered nails. They were unadorned except for a pale gold band on her wedding finger. ‘I became concerned only with domestic matters. I cooked. I looked after our son. When he was at home my husband would sometimes invite associates to dinner, soloists, composers and so on. These occasions became a cause of great anxiety for me because he would badger me for days about the menu, about the décor, about my appearance. I worried that nothing would be good enough, that I was never good enough. The dinner party conversations would concern recent tours, new compositions, the benefits of one soloist over another. I began to be marginalised-as if I’d never been part of the musical world. One evening a principal violinist turned to me to ask me what I did and before I could reply he said ‘Oh you don’t work, do you?’ as if a career was the only defining aspect of a life.’
‘Hold on a minute, Anne’ I said. ‘I think we need more tea, don’t you? Or would you prefer something stronger? How about a glass of White? I’ve got a nice Chardonnay in the fridge.’ I dashed in and returned with two full glasses and a bowl of crisps.
‘So there you were’, I prompted, ‘at home, feeling a bit left out, I suppose.’
‘I didn’t mind taking a back seat.’ She took a cautious sip of the wine. ‘but he began to find fault with my housekeeping and my appearance. He seemed to have lost respect for me, seemed to have forgotten who I was and who I’d been. He started criticizing my hosting skills, my cooking, my choices, my conversation. He undermined me, suggesting we get caterers in.’
I had a little laugh to myself about that one. I wouldn’t mind Dave suggesting we got caterers in, especially after a cold day at work. Then her story took a darker turn.
‘Some of the visitors were women, of course and many of them single. We had a small studio apartment in Paris where he stayed and I began to realise he was having affairs, using the Paris flat as a base. But I couldn’t really care too much about it because I knew by then I didn’t love him; that my feelings for him had died with his contempt of me.’
I topped up our glasses, noticing that the wine was loosening her tongue.
‘When our son was ten my husband told me of his intention to send him away to school, to a conservatoire near Paris where he would study music. I was horrified. My son had become my raison d’etre, my purpose in life. I railed against the idea until my husband became enraged, shouting, threatening me physically so that I was really afraid-for myself and for the boy.’
‘And your son, what did he think?’ I wondered why she never once called her husband or her son by name. It sounded odd.
She sighed. ‘He was a tall, confident boy, studious. His teacher said he excelled in sports activities and enjoyed organising his class-mates into games. He was always volunteering to help others. He showed no interest in singing or learning an instrument. When anyone asked him what he wanted to become he’d say he wanted to join the armed forces. When his father told him about the music school he became withdrawn, taking meals in his room. His schoolwork deteriorated, worrying his teacher, who called us in to discuss matters. It was she who convinced my husband that our son was not musically inclined and explained what his strengths were. My husband relented and he was sent to a private school as a day pupil, where he worked hard and achieved three ‘A’s at A-level, easily gaining himself a place at Sandhurst, which was all he wanted.
I was lonely when he went but I was relieved that he was out of the flat, out of the poisonous atmosphere and away from his tyrant of a father. I spent my time reading, playing a little piano, walking and visiting galleries. Then my husband’s behaviour changed. He started arriving home without warning, often late at night. It would be obvious that he’d been drinking as he’d blunder in, swearing and tripping over the furniture. He’d order me to get up if I was asleep, demanding meals and drinks. I lived in fear of his return to the apartment, never knowing when it would be.’
‘So you left?’

‘Chalet Concerto’ continues next week. Part 1 is in the previous [last week’s] post. Anne continues with her story and Angela makes the unwise decision to intervene…

 

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When the High Tide of Expectation Drops to a Catastrophic Low

The research took some time. It was tricky finding a suitable date, near enough to the actual big day plus an itinerary that would be acceptable. It had been impossible to find a Rhine cruise that allowed us to drive overland to the embarkation point, so I’d had to select flights then change them [at a cost] because they were at some obscene hour of the morning like 6.30am. A 6.30am flight, as I pointed out to the lady on the phone hardly constituted a birthday treat, especially as airports these days require you to be there two hours before take-off. This would be 4.30am. 4.30am!
Then there was the complimentary taxi to the airport, which would need to collect us at 2.30am. 2.30am! How would anyone manage this? Would you sleep beforehand, retiring at a ridiculous hour then getting up at 1.30? Or would you stay up and be almost comatose for the first couple of days of the trip?
No. I changed the flights. I reserved a room at the Heathrow Hilton. The taxi would take us to Heathrow at a respectable hour of the afternoon, we’d check in to the hotel and enjoy a leisurely meal, get a decent night’s sleep and be at terminal 5 at around 8.30am for a 10.30am flight. Sorted.
Husband had chosen a Rhine cruise as his birthday treat. These days there is precious little ‘stuff’ that he wants or needs, and being a man, if he wants or needs something he gets it. As regular readers know, Husband, that character who features in many posts, had a particular milestone birthday two weeks ago and as a result had an entire post written about him…
I’d been startled by his choice of a cruise, as we are great avoiders of such holidays [this, reader has also been much documented on Anecdotage], but river cruises are as unlike sea cruises as cycling is to motor bikes. The boats are not vast, floating monstrosities and passengers must not endure days and days at sea getting stuffed with gargantuan meals, enduring endless, tedious cabarets, ‘dressing’ for dinners and making small talk with those with whom they are incarcerated. The modest cruise boat makes frequent stops at places you can walk around and the ambience is casual. There would always be something to see, even from the cabin. We’d have begun at Amsterdam and finished at Basle. I was frustrated that we’d had to fly such a short distance [Amsterdam is a city that can be driven to in a day from Dunkirk] but when the detailed itinerary arrived in the post it looked thrilling. We’d be stopping each day at beautiful, historic places and get walking tours, as well as travelling through the beautiful Rhine gorge and seeing the Lorelei rock.

I bought new suitcases [ours hailing from a bygone era], bought shoes, organised, laundered, ironed, primed the neighbours.

‘You should see this’ Husband informed me as I returned from shopping. It was an email from the river cruise holiday company to the effect that they were changing the itinerary to mostly coach travel. This was due to a lack of water in the Rhine. He [and I] never at any point wished to embark on a coach tour. I cancelled.

I must admit to feeling slightly nauseous [yes, yes I realise it is a ‘first world’ issue].

We packed our camper van and drove off to the beautiful Isle of Purbeck, 30 miles away from our home and parked in the sunshine overlooking the hillside at Corfe Castle. We strode out over the hills and enjoyed the breath-taking views of our lovely Dorset coast. I stopped feeling bereaved.

Out in the van, we are never disappointed. Yes, there are sometimes challenges or difficulties. Yes, we must make the odd meal, wash up, empty various tanks. But we are not dependent on flights, hotels, plans others have made.

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Next week Fiction Month begins! Check in to Anecdotage for fresh, new fiction…

The Husband Post

Regular readers will know of Husband. He gets frequent mentions in posts, mainly due to being my significant other and travel companion, so that the events I’m involved in tend to involve him, too.

When you think of how detailed and intricate individual personalities are it’s surprising that any relationship endures beyond a week or two, let alone years. But, given a moderate number of interests in common and similar backgrounds after a few years people grow alike. I could never imagine sharing a small space like a camper van for weeks on end with anyone except Husband, and while we do have differences of opinion [who doesn’t?] we seem to manage.

We did not meet as fresh-faced teenagers, up-and-coming twenty-somethings or even high-achieving thirties career people-no we met as world-weary forties veterans of previous marriages and relationships, so the entire enterprise was a triumph of dogged hope over experience.

First impressions are telling. When we met, on a cold winter’s night in a pub, the attributes in Husband’s favour were:

  • His open, friendly, unpretentious, chatty manner.
  • His offering of crisps alongside the glass of port he bought.
  • His brown, leather, lace-up shoes. Men’s shoes are crucial to a first impression. Had he worn trainers, reader, he’d have been put down to experience.

During the first weeks Husband was unerringly persistent [in the face of my haphazard lifestyle at the time-another story]. On the way back from one of the first dates, his car [a Vauxhall Astra with a coat hanger for an aerial] developed a flat tyre. Without hesitation he pulled into a lay-by, whipped out the requisite equipment and changed the tyre so that within minutes we were on our way again-and all this late at night, too!

Husband Facts:

  • He is a devoted fan of Gloucester Rugby
  • He was a keen runner when younger, ran a number of marathons and now enjoys walking and cycling, except in cold weather-when his hands get cold.
  • One of his favourite activities is pottering about making what he calls ‘modifications’ to his pride and joy-the van.
  • He is a domestic god-and does not shy away from such chores as hoovering, washing windows and cooking.
  • He likes old rock/blues music, in particular The Rolling Stones but is not a fan of cinema. [He can be persuaded to watch a Bond film on occasion].
  • He likes beer [also red wine].
  • He is Dr Husband, having completed a PhD, post degree, a label I’m always hoping to capitalise when booking airline tickets but as yet with no success. His thesis, leather bound and languishing, as it has for years, on the bookshelves details his many experiments coating grains of wheat for some obscure purpose. I’m sorry to say I have not been able to read it.
  • Despite his impressive qualifications in botany, the number of garden plants Husband is able to name would fit easily on to an average sized postage stamp.

This weekend Husband is reaching a ‘milestone’ birthday. It is probable that he will be grumpy about this post, but that is a risk I’m taking and hope to be forgiven. For those who follow and have read of him, here he is:

Graham train

Happy Birthday Husband-here’s to the next adventure!

 

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…

Mangez comme les Francais!

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One aspect of life the French have perfected is the art of dining out. And anyone who wishes to observe the French at this only needs to visit a restaurant on a Sunday afternoon to understand how seriously mealtimes are treated. Every bistro, brasserie and café is packed.

But restaurants are not the sole venues for the French penchant for large, family gatherings to share food and company. Any park, aire, picnic area, seaside bench, canal side or car park will be packed with groups of friends or family sharing a meal.

And this Sunday meal will not be some hastily wrapped cheese and pickle sandwich, a packet of Golden Wonder crisps and bottle of coke. Oh no. This will be a proper full-on, sit-at-a-table, cloth, knife and fork, wine and glasses, side salad, napkins, several courses kind of meal. During a cycle ride from Jard sur Mer to La Tranche sur Mer we passed a large family party seated at two tables [one for adults, one for children] made up of all manner of picnic tables. Everyone had a seat and a laid-up place-and all under the trees in the woods by the beach.

So how, then did the French acquire their reputation for sylph-like, uber-cool, modelly bodies? It is my theory that they [the women, especially] chain-smoked their way to skeletal skinny-ness. In any case the same cannot be said these days, for the French are no longer slender wraiths like Coco Chanel and Francoise Hardy but have become as chubby as every other nation.

Their haughty, sniffy attitudes to cuisine have taken a slight tumble, too since they embraced MacDonalds and took to fast food. Yes-you’d still be hard-pushed to find a better cooked steak than in France, but along every street there is a pizza joint, a burger bar, a kebab shop, ice creams galore and the inevitable chi-chis, galettes, crepes and doughnuts.
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And what is more-the French are not averse to strolling along with a bag of chi-chis [for the uninitiated these are strips of fried dough rolled in sugar-sometimes dipped in melted chocolate] munching as they go.

Pockets of resistance do exist, though. A mayor on Isle d’Oleron, Gregory Gendre is fighting to keep MacDonalds off the island [https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/aug/24/choose-a-side-fight-keep-france-ile-doleron-mcdonalds-free ]

Most days we endeavour to choose and buy fresh produce and prepare meals in the van, [see last week’s post for the shopping experience]. We like to make the most of such delicious items as the huge, luscious tomatoes, sweet, juicy melons, smooth, creamy cheeses and salty Toulouse sausages, sometimes using the deli counter to buy slices of thick quiche or pork cutlets.

But when in France it would be sacrilege not to dine out on occasion so every few days we do. I indulge in my very favourite French menu: oysters/steak/crème brulee, and very delicious it almost always is.

 

 

 

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.

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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