Posted in Travelling to France

Are We There Yet?

Each summer, for the past twenty years or so, we have packed up our car, bundled the kids in the back and headed off to the Lot-et-Garonne region in France. Two adults and four children with luggage in a seven-seater Galaxy easily filled the space and the ability to stretch out or unfold was a valuable commodity.

This August, however, it was just the two of us. Our kids are no longer kids, and even if the youngest two siblings had wanted to join us, they couldn’t. Without a double vaccine, adults are currently not allowed to travel to France without an ‘essential reason’. Going on holiday is unfortunately not deemed to be essential and the two of them had not been double-jabbed at the time of departure. So with just us parents in our seven-seater, it certainly felt a little different.

When we first set off, I looked in the rear view mirror and saw empty space – a void that I was not used to. No teenagers slouched in their seats precariously held in by their seat belts; no limbs tangled in a blanket or draped over bags and no mishmash of piled high luggage limiting my view of the traffic behind.

I had taken advantage of our new ‘empty nest’ situation and had lavishly packed a multitude of items which would cater for any possible occasion on this holiday. I had a bag for my yoga blocks, belt and mat; a bag for my latest crocheting projects; an unnecessarily large wash bag; a bag for more clothes than days and a separate shoe bag with a range of footwear that I would probably not wear whilst away. Yet despite this, the luggage remained a meagre pile which lay low and lost in the boot.

The car was eerily quiet: no child had started on the snacks within five minutes of leaving home and no child was throwing up into a discarded empty plastic bag which had been found in desperation in a hidden side pocket. In the silence, I relished the idea of belting out a few tunes or enjoying a podcast at a higher than necessary volume. However, due to buying the wrong connector for my phone to access my playlists and podcasts (which I didn’t discover until underwater in the Eurotunnel) I soon realised that my entertainment was going to be limited to CDs. The upside of this was that it meant a trip down memory lane, delving into my music collection from years gone by.

As we drove, I felt strangely liberated singing aloud in-and-out-of-tune with no criticism from the back. There was no one to complain and no volume control needed to be maintained. I sang along to songs that I knew word for word which I hadn’t listened to in years: Barclay James Harvest, Melanie, Scouting for Girls and more.

At lunchtime, as family tradition dictates, my husband and I swapped the driving. Taking up the passenger role, I was free to fill the baguettes – baguettes which had been bought from a crowded and somewhat unsavoury service station. This year, it was quietly noted that we only needed one baguette. In the past, the kids’ unspoken rule was that I was the trusted lunch maker and with nostalgia, I recalled which family member had which filling. In my opinion, you can’t beat butter and marmite.

On these trips, crisps would often be passed back and forth, but it was hit and miss whether the bag would be empty before us adults in the front would even get a look in. This year, however, gluttony was rife as the crisps stayed firmly between my husband and me in the front.

After a doze, I became aware of an unusual comfort in my surroundings as I realised that I didn’t have a child’s foot propped at the side of my headrest. I sort of missed that foot, but I was equally enjoying the agreeable reclining position of my seat which had been newly unleashed in the space available.

As we swept past familiar fields of beckoning sunflowers and the undulating landscape of vineyards, I smiled a contented smile. Filled with nostalgia of the past and enjoying the tranquility of the present, I mused on how perhaps one day, when my husband and I are old and frail, we may be passengers driven by one of our children on this same journey through France. Will we be the ones snoring in the back, complaining about aches, asking for food and awaking from intermittent car naps asking, ‘Are we there yet?’

Posted in Travelling

Social Distancing on the South Coast

When I was researching travel blogs, I remember reading a comment about how it can be important to reflect on your own local surroundings as well as writing about any visited distant lands. Given the current advice of ‘social distancing’ in the UK, which has meant that we have had to abandon our travel plans for now, this blog is me taking time to pause and reflect on the present situation.

We returned to the UK just a few days ago, with a mix of apprehension, curiosity and uncertainty. After a planned pit-stop weekend at home, we had flights booked to Spain (which left yesterday without us) but with events changing daily across Europe, it was clear that our travelling was going to be interrupted somewhat. The countries we had visited for the last 10 days (France, Switzerland, Luxemburg and Belgium) had shown no signs of any unusual behaviour, but we were hearing stories of panic-buying in the UK and lack of stock.

From across the Channel, it all seemed a little unreal and if I’m honest, a bit of a joke, but just to be on the safe side, before we headed home, we did buy one pack of toilet roll when our daughter at home in the UK said that she couldn’t find any to buy. With the situation becoming more and more drastic by the day, we arrived home with news of a lock-down in several countries – some which we had been planning to visit in the next few weeks. Resigned to putting our travels on hold, now like many others, we are settled at home and living as official ‘social distancers’.

Thank you Luxemburg!

On our first day back in the UK, we took a trip to the supermarket as we had nothing in the house. This was an interesting experience: there was a calm sense of almost-inaudible eeriness as people pushed their trollies around in hope of filling them up. Every so often, a customer was heard to exclaim, “I can’t believe it!” as they fruitlessly walked past an empty shelf or down a deserted aisle. I was quite astounded to see so many products absent, but I was adamant that I wasn’t going to allow myself to get annoyed. Instead, I felt the urge to start clearing up and flat-packing the vast amount of empty discarded packing boxes.

Continuing with an open mind, we mused on the profile of the customer who was buying up all those essentials, not just the obvious items but even products like sesame oil. I was so glad that I had bought that pack of precious toilet roll in Luxemburg before travelling home because we haven’t been able to buy any in this area. At odd moments, I half-heartedly find myself doing mathematical calculations on number of sheets x people in the house x visits to the loo. Plans for a compost toilet are in their early stages and use of newspaper or rags are up for discussion! In reality, it doesn’t matter; I am sure we’ll find some if we get really desperate. Toilet paper is the least of problems when you consider the issues people are faced with: jobs, health, finances, childcare, housing, isolation…

So far, I think I am doing this social distancing thing pretty well. Yes, I know we are only at day 4 so positive thoughts all round at the moment! Ask me next week and my optimism may be waining. Initially, I was worried that I would have endless hours indoors and end up watching pointless TV and eating for England, but the beauty of ‘social-distancing’ is that you can still go out for a walk, run or amble as long as you keep a sensible distance from others.

Yesterday morning I went for a gorgeous 8 km run around my local area and it was perfectly fine. At the start of my run, it was lovely to bump into a friend I hadn’t seen for a while. When I say ‘bump into’, we actually stopped and had a catch-up, each standing on opposite pavements with the road as the sensible safe space between us. For a good number of years, we had been playground mum friends, but since our children have grown up, we don’t see each other often, which is a shame, but if I hadn’t gone for my ‘social-distancing’ run, then I may not have seen her so it was a bonus!

Observations during my run were that most people are mutually maintaining a respectful distance from each other in public areas. Where necessary, it was acceptable to cross to the other side of a road, veer off onto the pebbles on the beach or pause and reroute in order to avoid a person or to distance from a group of people enjoying a more spaciously aware chat than usual. People moved out of each others’ way and we did it with a smile.

It was lovely to be able to say ‘Good morning’ to everyone I ran past. This is, however, with the exception of one person and I must belatedly apologise to them. In my somewhat poor defense, I was at a rather tense moment in my Archers omnibus podcast (if you listen, you know what I am talking about!) and so I have to confess, I skirted around the lady without acknowledging her.

I circulated the Oyster Pond at least once to ensure social distance

There was only one slightly awkward moment on my run when I was about to turn inland and run down an alleyway. Coming towards me, down this particular narrow walkway, was an elderly woman walking her dog, so I turned and jogged along the grassy area just off the beach until she was clear of the alley. As she exited the path, she appeared to look nervously across to me. I hope that this was because she didn’t want to pass too closely to another individual rather than her feeling offended that I had deliberately waited until the alley was clear, but better to be safe than sorry.

People will have various thoughts on this difficult and unfamiliar situation that we are currently experiencing here in the UK and elsewhere; there may be acceptance, denial, refusal, confusion, sadness, uncertainty – even humour. Whatever these unusual times bring to us over the coming weeks, if you don’t have any symptoms and do have the opportunity to go out and enjoy the outdoors, I highly recommend a walk or run. Exercise can be a real tonic for both physical health and mental well-being.

And if you are out and about, please don’t forget to smile and call out a friendly hello to anyone you pass at the now socially-acceptable-greater-than-usual distance. If you do see me and I ignore you, it will only be that I am gripped in the middle of a dramatic moment in a podcast – I apologise in advance!

Posted in Travel

French Glorious Food!

Dressed in black salopettes and sitting opposite me in a restaurant on a French ski slope, a wise man was once sipping a rather luxurious looking ‘café Viennois’ and said, “This is what I go skiing for.”

It’s true. Food and drink can be an important part of a skiing holiday for some people, but perhaps not the reason for booking one! Here in the Haute-Savoie région, particular sumptuous consumables have become firm favourites in our family. They are not necessarily unique to this region so you may have enjoyed them elsewhere, but wherever and whomever, when ordering these heavenly French recipes, you know your taste buds are in for a treat.

A favourite ‘Schumy pizza’ with goat’s cheese and honey

Fondue

An absolute must is a fondue. This has become a firm family tradition: an evening out that includes a shared pot of heavenly fondue where every single calorie of melting cheese is worth it. After a few hours skiing, sufficient energy is burnt off so it is, of course, understandable that one deserves a treat of dipping countless cubes of bread into the rich cheese deliciousness for one evening. It would be rude not to! I’m sure the compulsory green salad on the side is only there to ensure that the arteries relax a little during the meal.

Fondue Savoyarde

Les crêpes

Another must-eat is the well-known French crêpe. (I speak on behalf of my family on this one as I don’t usually eat them aside from cadging a corner of someone else’s.) In the UK, we seem to wait for that one day in the year to allow ourselves to indulge in pancakes, but here on the slopes, they are readily available and provide a welcome afternoon treat and essential sugar fix after a few downhill runs.

Toppings are plentiful and diverse and a quick family poll would suggest Nutella as the most popular choice (with a large dollop of ‘chantilly’ on those occasions of additional indulgence). However, the more traditional may opt for the lemon and sugar or if you need a boost, go for the Grand Marnier crêpe because they will lavishly soak the pancake in alcohol. They certainly don’t skimp!

Tartiflette

Tartiflette is a gorgeous French dish and although it is traditionally made with ‘lardons’, we did find one restaurant that made a welcome vegetarian version without the bacon. Sadly, they no longer offer it and so with veggies in the family, we have reverted to a homemade version using, of course, the local cheese. The Aravis region is famous for its Reblochon, which is a soft-rind cheese with a slight nutty taste and is the basis for a tartiflette. Add potatoes and onions (and lardons if necessary) and you have the most delicious golden brown and bubbling cheesy meal. Staple ingredients at their best.

Our homemade tartiflette with Reblochon

When I think back to that wise man’s words, he can be forgiven for his exaggeration. Obviously the skiing is the main reason for a skiing holiday, however it would not be the same without the glorious French food. Bon appétit!

Posted in Travelling

Le Ski

Skiing is a glorious activity particularly when the conditions are ideal: plenty of snow; a cloudless, blue sky; a beautiful sun, which feels wonderfully warm on your face and a crisp air temperature that is suitably cold enough to allow you to wrap up in appropriate ski gear.

And those were the conditions we were hoping for as we drove the twelve hour car journey to the French Alps, leaving Storm Dennis in the UK.

Good old Storm Dennis (if you say his name enough times, he soon starts to feel like a long lost relative) led to some interesting family chat on the journey: the origin of storm names, the definition of a storm and what happens to the name of a storm as it crosses the border to another country.

It was one of those fun family banter sessions that any eavesdropper would think highly mundane, particularly the part when, having found out that there is no storm name beginning with Q, U or X, Y and Z, we, of course, needed to suggest a few.

Finally arriving just before ten p.m in Le Grand Bornand (a lesser-known ski resort which is best kept that way – we don’t want too many of us English clogging up the slopes!), we sighed with welcomed relief that the lovely local establishment ‘La Croix St Maurice’ would still serve us food despite the late hour. They thankfully agreed to rustle up some pizzas. Settling down with a bite of a slice, we relaxed and unwound ready for the next few days skiing.

Although I have been skiing for many years, I am now not a skier who likes to go too fast: I am more of a leisurely skier, who enjoys taking in the surroundings and musing on life as I ski. Saying that, I am secretly proud of my recent recorded speed of 51 km/h. It’s just when I compare it to my eldest daughter, who has exceeded 90 km/h then it doesn’t sound quite so fast!

On the French slopes, it’s amazing to see almost toddler-aged children on skis – children as young as three years old. Without a care in the world, there are those that look like they were born with a pair of skis attached to their feet as they shoot down the slopes with skill and speed. Meanwhile others look a little bewildered as though someone has just left them at the top of the slope and given them a nudge. Yet they still manage to reach the bottom in one piece and without fuss, almost clueless as to how they got there. You should hear me when I am negotiating a slope that is a little too steep for my liking!

Today I was minding my own business as I sashayed down the mountain, deep in daydream, when I heard a scream – a continuous high-pitched scream that was approaching me at high speed. Judging by the flow of the noise, I knew it wasn’t an injured skier splayed out on a nearby tree so I deduced that it was an out of control child heading towards me.

Glancing back, I saw this very small person (about 3 or 4 years old) hurtling down the slope screeching like a banshee. Slight panic hit me because I wasn’t sure how to help and, to be perfectly honest, I was a little concerned about doing myself an injury in some pathetic haphazard rescue attempt.

Luckily, out of nowhere and as if on cue, the older brother (and when I say older – he must have been all of six or seven years old) swiftly caught up with his younger sibling. He skied alongside her calling out encouraging words of support as he then subtly manoeuvred his skis slightly in front to cause her to position herself at more of angle across the slope to help her slow down.

It all happened so quickly and it was just admirable to watch. He was like a trained member of the SAS, who switched into action as soon as he heard the first note of the scream. Meanwhile, I continued slowly downhill feeling a little ashamed that I hadn’t stretched out my arm to even pretend that I was trying to help. In all honesty, I was best out of it as I probably would have unintentionally done more harm than good, however I shall definitely be musing on how I could be more effective should someone require my help on my next outing on the slopes.