Behind closed doors

I think I have finally realized what it is that makes travelling so special and exciting – its unpredictability. You can plan a trip to the nth degree, rehearse it a hundred times over in your head before you go, you can wake up each morning and plan exactly what you will do and when, but the bits that are so special – the parts that stand out in your head for years to come, the stories that come to define your trip and the new culture you have experienced – are normally those that are unplanned, unexpected and brilliantly unpredictable.

I must admit that when my parents announced that, once again, we would be spending our summer holiday in France, I was somewhat disappointed (I hate to sound ungrateful but out of my 19 summers, I have spent at 17 of them in France – the exception being last year, when we cycled along the South coast of England from Land’s End to Petersfield – but that’s another story…). The cousins had just jetted off to India for three weeks of exploring new cultures, and I would be lying to say I was not somewhat envious. Other friends of mine were spending the summer inter-railing around Europe, teaching English in Peru and working on game reserves in Tanzania, but after six weeks in Central America two years ago, and 4 weeks in South East Asia last summer, I decided it would be sensible (and indeed cheaper!) to holiday with the family and save my money for climbing Kilimanjaro with university friends next year.

So on our first night in France, I was brushing my teeth in the campsite toilet block (we have been loyal to the same camping holiday company for the last 19 years) next to my mother and, in reply to her questioning of whether I was “excited to be back in France again, Kates?!” I nodded, but could not help asking, “but do you just not have that urge to see new places? Do you not have that craving to experience a new culture? To meet amazing people…To travel the world?!!” She shrugged, turned her head on its side, gave me a funny look (as though I had just asked her if we could spend our next summer holiday on Mars), decided “no, not really”, and continued brushing her teeth.

So from that moment I made a mental note to reserve holidays in France for family, and reserve experiencing new cultures (or indeed, anywhere other than France) to something I would do with friends. And that, I thought, was that.

During childhood trips to France, I would spend hours and hours painstakingly writing down the days events in great detail, illustrating such stories, and cutting and sticking leaflets and photographs into my holiday diary so that one day a few years later I could briefly flick through and remember ‘oh yes, that was the year we visited such-and-such a place’ and put it back on my bookshelf. I still do, of course, when visiting far off new places, like last year in Cambodia. But I must admit that I decided to opt out of writing a holiday diary this year and instead fill my time reading books such as Bill Bryson’s ‘Notes from a small island’ (which, by the way, is a great read and may have influenced my writing of this, just a little).

My youngest sister, however, is still insistent on logging down the day’s events, in great detail. And always about 4 days late – “Mummy, Mummy, what was it we had for lunch last Tuesday? And was it that day we ran out of milk or the next?” By the time each meal (and, most importantly, the time of that meal, and the fact that it was after ‘we got up and got dressed’) was carefully and meticulously described, I can’t imagine there is much room for anything else. (To be fair to her, meal times were probably by far the most exciting part of any day we spent 8 plus hours in the car on French motorways – which deserve their own account altogether).

Anyway, I digress. It was the final day of our holiday and I woke up almost certain of how my imaginary holiday diary for the day would pan out.

  • Birthday breakfast and present opening
  • Swim in pool
  • Cycle to Chalon-sur-Saone along the canal with picnic half way
  • Ice cream stop
  • Cycle back
  • Birthday cake back at tent
  • Another swim
  • Takeaway pizzas
  • Evening games

And in many ways, that is exactly what we did. We swam 100 lengths of the pool. We cycled along the banks of the Saone on a bumpy track in the midday heat, past fields of barley and a naked man sleeping in the sun (face down, thank goodness). We waved at empty river cruisers. We ate baguettes, Brie and ham in the shade of a tree. And we finally, and rather sweatily, arrived in what we thought was Chalon-sur-Saone, but, in fact, turned out to be a magical (you will soon discover why) little village called Lux.

But what happened next I think deserves more than just a bullet point in an old and forgotten holiday diary. Now, don’t get too excited, it won’t be the most thrilling and wondrous, nor side-splitting, story you’ve ever heard – by any stretch of the imagination – but I felt it worthy of a mention, if for nothing else but a reminder to the future me.

Lux was, like nearly every other French town we’ve ever cycled through, completely deserted. There wasn’t a soul in site, and not even a car for that matter. No shops were open – in fact, no shops seemed to exist in this quiet little village. It seemed the whole town were asleep, or had migrated down South for the summer. (How the French economy is the same size as ours is beyond me.) So you can imagine our excitement when we came across an ice cream sign and a shady tent with fridges bursting with ice creams, wine and cold drinks. There was only one thing missing – someone to serve us. After a while of searching and calling out, no one came, so we perched on a bench in a nice spot of shade, and waited, patiently.

We waited patiently for at least quarter of an hour – the only sign of human life being when a small boy, no older than 8, appeared from nowhere, poured himself a glass of red wine, and left.

Some moments later, a tanned man in skimpy swimming shorts emerged from a nearby house, wandering aimlessly in our direction. My mother used her best French to try to explain that we wanted to buy some ice creams, at which he asked her over and over again if she wanted a beer. Eventually he seemed to get the message that we didn’t want a beer (although that might have actually been quite nice), murmured in French that he would try to find someone, and wandered off.

After so many years of cycling trips in France, most of which involved pedaling through deserted town after deserted town (so deserted it was as though we had strayed onto an odd sort of film set and any minute James Bond would come screeching round a corner in the middle of a high speed car chase). Indeed, we were just having this exact conversation (in addition to my mother’s comment “ooh, wouldn’t it be nice to have a cool swim in a pool”) when a tiny young woman in a black bikini – presumably the owner of this lonely looking ice cream tent – crossed over the road and wished us a friendly, and somewhat puzzled, “bonjour”.

Whilst helping us to our ice creams she must have asked us at least three times if we were “touristes?” to the village (it was as though she assumed we had the wrong translation for “touristes”) as though this were the most absurd thing she could possibly imagine. I got the strong impression that our brief ice cream stop was the biggest drama the village of Lux had experienced since, well, since at least last Saturday… Although perhaps this was made somewhat less surprising when, according to the map, satnav and Google Maps, Lux – the village in which we were standing – didn’t actually exist.

Having paid this lady for our ice creams, she looked my mother in the eye and said “I haven’t got a pool, would you like to swim?”. First confused, we told her not to worry, but at her insistence that we must swim, we soon realized she DID in fact have a pool (future conversations became a lot easier when we discovered she used the word ‘haven’t’ to mean ‘have’), and we gratefully accepted her kind and unexpected offer.

She found us a suitable little spot to keep our bikes, showed us through the gate, and scuttled around to pull up some chairs next to the pool. The pool was perfect. We had the whole thing to ourselves (by this point we had discovered she ran a gite for at least seven other families at a time), and we cooled off in the water while young children played and a cockerel pecked happily around us. How marvelous. I knew there was a reason to wear my bikini!

After a while we were wary not to outstay our welcome, so we dried off and wandered towards the gate to say thank you, farewell, and to ask if there was a better way back by road to avoid the bumpy and uncomfortable canal-side track. Expecting a mere “yes” or “no”, or a point in the right direction, we were once again amazed when she scurried off to fetch us a map, leaflets and all other kind of information. While working out our route, she told us that she had five daughters of 9, 8, 7, 6 and 4 – two of whom (Anna and Luna) were sat around watching us curiously. It seemed unbelievable that this tiny, slim, seemingly young and busy woman had been able to or had the time to have even one daughter, let alone five. She told us “I haven’t got many animals”, and then proceeded to tell us she had 2 dogs (Romeo and Juliette), a one-month-old puppy, 3 rabbits, a bird, a horse, and a cockerel who lived in doors with the family. Wow. She must have had 101 other things to do (with five daughters, 2 dogs, a puppy, 3 rabbits, a bird, a horse, a house cockerel, and a business to run – and it was approaching dinner time), yet she treated us as though she had all the time in the world.

She scurried off once more, and this time, she did a dangerous thing – she woke her husband from his afternoon siesta. But Herve (as we later learned from their business card) didn’t seem angry or unhappy at all – slightly dazed perhaps (she later explained “he’s from Corsica, that’s why he’s so relaxed”). He greeted us warmly, picked up his keys and, in her best English, she explained, “my husband will drive and show you the way”. We could not believe it. She had given us an ice cream, got us some seats, let us use her glorious and private pool, introduced us to her daughters, shown us her animals, and now – and NOW, she was offering her previously sleeping husband to escort us in the right direction in his car. All, I must remind you, for the price of an ice cream. How many ice creams do you buy in the UK that come with a complementary swim in a private pool and a car escort to the edge of the village?! By this point I was growing so accustomed to this kind woman’s generosity that I almost expected her to say “why don’t you stay the night? Here, have my room…!”

Was this all some kind of sick joke? Would they suddenly announce they expected us to pay €50 each for the privilege?! No. She gave us each a smile, a wink and a handshake, gave us her business card, and bid us farewell.

We fetched our bikes (which were still there, thank goodness – a sudden fear had come over us that they might have run off and sold our bikes and would suddenly emerge cackling “there’s no such thing as a free swim” – but thankfully, this was not the case) and set out following her husband in his open top Beatle (not the classic French car we might have expected – but then again, we hadn’t expected any of this). After a twisted and complicated route out of Lux (maybe this is why no one except us can ever find it) the road opened up and the route from here became obvious. Herve pulled out into a side road, pointed us in the right direction and waved us “au revoir” as though old friends, and I felt a heartwarming fondness for Amandine, Herve and family, and a sadness that we would probably never see them again.

We cycled on, our faith in humanity restored, and, as though it had all been a dream, didn’t see a single soul on the entire 9-mile route back to the campsite. Apart from, of course, a naked Frenchman asleep at the side of the road.

And, once again, as I did the day I was offered a plastic chair in the middle of a Cambodian shanty town, I was beautifully overwhelmed and overjoyed with the kindness and unnecessary generosity that can be shown by complete strangers in a foreign country.

So it seems the French aren’t all lazy, they’re not all bad drivers, they don’t all just sit around drinking wine and eating baguettes, they don’t all lie naked sleeping in the sun on the banks of the Saone, and they don’t all, it seems, travel South in August to the likes of St Tropez and Cannes – they’re there, Amandine and Herve, their 5 daughters, the 3 dogs, 4 rabbits, the horse, the cat and the cockerel – just behind closed doors.

So next time someone says “France” to me, yes I’ll think of all the fabulous pools we swam in, yes I’ll think of all the markets we explored, yes I’ll think of the thrill of parasailing 50 meters above the Med (which, by the way, is easily the most exhilarating and memorable €50 you will ever spend), but I’ll also come to think of that magical little off-the-map place called Lux where we stopped for an ice cream and got, well, so much more.

And that, as they say, is the moral of this story – that the most lasting, fond and heartwarming experiences of any trip are often the most unexpected – they can spring from the most mundane of tasks – a toilet stop in Cambodia (as described in a previous account), or an ice cream stop in the middle of Northern France.

 

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