Saturday, 26 May 2007

Un petit peu de Martinique en Valence

Day 9: From Chablis we were on our way via Dijon to see Monette and Michael in Valence. We stopped off in Dijon by the side of a tres jolie lake (in which Moses swam unrewardingly after geese and swans), had a gorgeous picnic wetting ourselves as we continued to talk Pink Panther Clouseau at a completely inappropriate volume. Although it’s been loads of fun to take the piss out of the French speaking English, it’s actually proved a surprisingly productive exercise. The English talk with wide vowels and mainly with our jaws. French is spoken in the back of the throat with pouting lips. So Clouseau-speak is great training. And, as we’ve found now on several occasions, the French seem to understand English better when spoken in a Clouseau accent. Who’d have thought?

After bike riding and skating round the park, we booked ourselves into the campsite next to the lake and took a far too ambitiously long evening stroll with Mosie along the river into the centre of Dijon – a delightful old town in the centre but disappointingly no mustard to be found. However ice cream galore so Ellie was satisfied.

Day 11: Vonnie and I read some more of other people’s home schooling stories from the “Free range education” book. One example of structured school type learning programme with lessons in morning, text books and visits in the afternoons. Then another espousing the virtues of autonomous learning where you take the lead from the children’s questioning – they learn what interests them when it interests them. Both forms – structured and autonomous – seem to be inherently good and fruitful, so we’re gonna try both (and probably everything in between on that spectrum) until we find the right style to suit Josh and Ellie (and us). We stopped off before Lyon at another one of those “time to stop so let’s take that turning over there and see it where it goes” destinations and found ourselves by the side of the magnificent Rhone river 4km outside Marcon. I kicked the kids out to go on a long bike ride by the river to burn off the days drive and Von walked Moses to do the same while I had fun cooking up another morsel watching the fish jump as the sun set over the river running beneath us. It’s hard to describe just how it feels to park up by the side of somewhere so beautiful knowing you have everything you need in a home on wheels and not to have to pay anything to anyone. Experiences like that so far in our lives usually have a charge attached. But I guess from here on in on our journey they will be commonplace and free.

In the morning we packed up and set off to Valence to see Monette’s garden in Valence! So wonderful to see her and Michael again after so long. What a warm welcome. Treated like royalty and rested deeply for a couple of days, sharing stories, kids playing from dawn to dusk with Michael and his neighbouring mates. Monette is a spiritual person who has spent her life fighting and praying for reconciliation issues dealing with the world’s wounded history. Her home felt like we were stopping off at Elron’s house in the Lord of the Rings. Von’s dodgy stomach from Dehli began to ease a little in that healing sanctuary and we would have slept long if it wasn’t for Moses throwing up each night at 3am.

Coincidentally Monette and Michael were on their way on Saturday to see their friend Christienne in Nimes and we wanted to visit the old Roman aqueduct at the Pont du gard. So we took Michael and had a beautiful afternoon swimming in the river upstream to the old bridge, skimming stones and watching Moses swim with the fishes. That evening at Christienne’s house Ellie slept very little as she had an allergic reaction to the 4 long haired cats in the house. A reaction that lead to a severe asthma attack by the following evening after reaching Aix en Provence, where she would stay 2 days in hospital with Von.

Day 16: The site at Aix was superb. Massive and intimate at the same time, it’s built on a hilltop with over 700 sites cutely designed with hedges and trees in the grounds of an old chateaux. And a decent swimming pool that Josh and I made the most of while waiting for Eliie to recover. We also took the opportunity to cycle into town and fill up provisions at the Provencial street market in the town’s centre.

Rushing Ellie into hospital like that was scary. It was touch and go there and I thank God for Vonnie who remained very calm and sang to Ellie massaging her chest while we sped through the narrow town streets to the emergency department. And also for the staff of the hospital who were so patient to deal with my crap French spoken in desperation trying to explain the series of events that had lead to the attack and Ellie’s potted medical history. One thing that emergencies do do, is force you to communicate by any means necessary. If you are misunderstood the consequences could be serious.

Eventually Ellie was released with Ventalin, medication and advice to get allergy testing as soon as we were able to. What seemed to help her more than anything though was the yoga breathing that Von taught her in the hospital. It will be imperative that we do yoga regularly from here in – for so much more than just well being. We really saw with Ellie’s attack how not being able to breathe properly could kill you.

We’re just about to leave this pretty site and head off to our next destination – probably St Tropez (as you do) – but not before we spend the evening in this vivacious little university town of Aix en Provence. Off to cafĂ©’s, shopping and hopefully an evening meal overlooking fountains and watching the French do their thing. We’re not far away from Italy now, I can hear her calling me, but I will miss France. A lot more than I ever thought I would. Her food and wine, her endless ancient villages and towns, her history and art, her people with their little dogs, little dresses and shoes, and jumpers thrown over the shoulders and their little cars. And most importantly of all, her joi de vie. But not time for au revoir just yet. Still life by the sea to taste and share with all those rich playboys in their yachts. The French Riviera and St Tropez here we come. Hopefully we might even get to pop into Cannes on Friday to mix with the A list celebs on the final day of this year’s film festival.

Sunday, 13 May 2007

Un chien, deux enfants et le joie de vie

Who would have thought just one week in France would be so lovely? We’ve spent time in France before, but not like this. Last August we drove down with the Purdays to a sun soaked villa in the impressive and delicious Dordoigne. But holidays are different. Holidays have the rush of the getting there; the stress involved in finishing off a week’s work so you can take your earned break without leaving anything for anyone else to do in the office and at home. Followed by the frenetic dash to the destination. And once you’re there somehow each day has to be packed with as much experience, even relaxation, as humanly possible. So to enjoy France with no agenda, no time frame, just pure aesthetic existential appreciation, feels actually quite French and the way one should live in France.

Ben Hagemeyer said to me on the phone yesterday while walking Moses in a Porchefountaine wood (Versailles, Paris), that this trip will allow us all “to breathe”. Boy was he right. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed breathing so much in my life. Each breath deep, slow and thankful. Alive. Each tiny facial muscle carrying all the weighty tension of life in the city, of the expectations of work, of the relentless eking out a living, is being soothed. Simply by breathing in and out. The scales of my old skin are falling away. And we’re only one week in. Everything is still in front of us.

Last Sunday after a wonderful “bon voyage” from Alison, Gail, Kyla and Rouirc in the New Forest we set sail from Portsmouth and landed in Le Havre at 7.30 in the morning. Where to go first? All of France to choose from. Roughly heading south. Probably crossing into Italy after a visit to our dear friends from the Lifeline Walk, Monett and her son Michel in Valence, just south of Lyons. Yet all of that choice, just like in the Billy Connolly sketch about aisles of shampoos, can sometimes be strangely paralysing. We got over it pretty fast and headed for a campsite in Les Anderlys, on the banks of the Seine, just a few miles north of Giverny. Unlocked the bikes, set the kids free, plugged into the lecky, lit the gas Barbie (oh yes, the marvelous Mosiemobeel even has an outside gas port), opened a bottle of local plonc, turned up the volume on one of Joel’s albums and sat with Von watching 2 suave swans drift and preen themselves effortlessly along the river in front of us. I cried. Free at last. Free to enjoy my family. Free to enjoy life. Free to be.

Next day, day 3, we converted the hotel on wheels back to a driving machine, filled up with water and left at midday before we incurred another days charges. Parked up in the charming town square and looked for round for an open boulangerie or a boucherie. Der! France stops for lunch! So we went for our first excursion up the hill to the old ruins of the Chateau Gaillard. Simply stunning views from the top both ways along the Seine while reading a little of the historical geographic importance of this site involving various royal treaties between Richard Lionheart and Phillippe Augustus. Moses cordially acknowledged the significance of the moment with the first of his poops at altitude. Good boy. Returned back to the Mosiemobeel and feasted on fresh bagettes while watching life go by around us. Sweet.

After a little siesta (I’m gonna love these I just know it), we set a course for a piece of heaven on earth that is, of course, Giverny. We arrived too late to enter Monet’s gardens that day so the nice man on the door said we could stay in the car park next to the entrance. How cool is that? Free accommodation right outside Von’s only ‘must see’ destination in France. All set for first entry into the gardens bright and early in the morning. And what a morning it was. To see Von’s face mesmerised by the beauty of Monet’s creation will stay with me my whole life. She knew instantly this is what she wanted to do in her life. To build a garden like that. Now all we have to do is find land magnificent enough to build it on. Easy.

Josh took a billion photos. Ellie took a few. Then they sat with their A2 sketch books on a bench and drew what they saw. Again the tears welled up. This would beat any art class they would ever expect to have in London. It was the sense this type of experience would now be the norm that touched me most. Or maybe it was just the beauty of the irises that overwhelmed me! But I am in France. To live is to cry n’est ce pas?

Day 5, Paris. John and Joel you know how I know the French are gay? Have you seen that Eiffel tower? A bigger monument to the penis there is not. Millions of Frenchmen worship there every year. At night it lights up. Then at 10pm it sparkles for 5 minutes. Anyway, von and the kids went to the top while I lay in the sun with Moses in the Trocadero gardens on the opposite bank of the Seine. Paris was magical as usual. We were on one of its bridges in the evening when the tower sparkled. Ellie cried. With happiness. She couldn’t believe where she was. What she was doing. Or that it was really all happening. Bless. We nipped up the Avenue Montaigne to gape at Gucci, Nina Ricci, D&G, Chanel et al before heading down the Champs Elyses and almost missing the last train at midnight to our motorhome waiting patiently for us in Versailles.

Day 6. Decided to make our way to Dijon. 20 miles out of Paris on the A6 we took an exit to some chateau, just cos we could. The kids and I went for a ride and found a delightful little farm shop and stocked up. Parked up by the river Ecole in a space by the side of a meandering country lane, looking out on an archetypal rural landscape of wheat fields lined with trees, cooked up a succulent poulet noir stew and pretended we were eating out at a posh French gastro. We stayed the night at that impromptu place, just cos no one said we couldn’t.

Day 7. Popped into Chablis as you do. Picked up a couple of bottles in a 13th century Cave du Connasseur where another nice little Frenchman shared with us his knowledge of the various categories of Chablis that us English seem to be so enamoured with. Found yet one more idyllic and empty municipal campsite in Ligny-sur-something where we’ve recharged all our batteries for a couple of days. Just had what we’ve decided will be a weekly treat eating out at a local restaurant. The Auberge de Bief. Exquisite and charming all at once. The French sure can cook. Highly recommended if you pass this way.

Sunday, 6 May 2007

India and the Beamsley Beacon

Finally after a few little diversions via India and the Yorkshire moors, we are off on our Poop in Europe tour today. We leave London this morning, pop in to see our old friend Alison Foster with Rourke and Kyla in the new forest for lunch, then take the ferry from Portsmouth tonight and arrive early tomorrow in Le Havre on our way to see Monet’s gardens in Giverny.

After the Lifeline walk finished at the end of March, Von nipped over for a well deserved break with fellow yoga teachers Su and Michelle to India. She started on a beach in Trivandrum and ended up travelling north on trains to Delhi, Varanasi and the Gangees. She’ll post up a few of her amazing experiences of her month long trip plus photos later.

Moses, the kids and I spent April really chilling out at Grandma and Papops house in Dulwich and enjoying London’s fine sunshine. We had a great weekend with my cousin Helen and goddaughter Cleo at their gorgeous new Malt House in Addingham village at the base of the Beamsley Beacon in Yorkshire. And enjoyed a lovely few days at a campsite in the middle of the New Forest with the Purdays - John, Caroline, Maya (goddaughter #2) and baby Violet – where Moses met his first horse and cow. Ellie said her goodbyes to Connie and Livi from school, Josh likewise to Halim and Tyran and we all cried buckets this week leaving the Jagos of Brockley for the last time in who knows when.

Home schooling is in full swing. Josh and Ellie will share how it’s been going and what they’ve been discovering on their next post. Anyone not entirely happy with the idea of forcing their children through a school system they might suspect is no longer fit for purpose, must read “Free Range Education” by Terry Dowty – the book has blown my mind. All my fears about whether or not we are doing the right thing by taking on the responsibility for educating the kids were dispelled immediately by the end of chapter 1. We’ve joined Education Otherwise and feel not only completely legit but also fabulously free. Free in the knowledge that they will love learning from the experiences we have together as a family, in ways they prefer, and in their own time. Free to wonder. Free to enquire. Free to explore this thing called life.

So our huge Motorhome (we really do need a cool name for our new home soon – any suggestions?) is packed ready to go including a brand new top box (cos like a muppet I knocked the first box off under a bridge only an hour after buying the bloody thing). Clothes? Check. Educational materials and dvds? Check. Lonely planet guides? A few. Food? not much. But so looking forward to ventures into little European markets buying enough fresh stuff for the day, cooking it on the barby that plugs into the side of the motorhome and washing it down with local vino. Music? All our CDs on the laptop. Golf clubs and cricket gear? Josh’s kit’s on board and I’ve sneaked on my Sand Wedge. Kids’ wet suits? Yep but keen to head south for warmer waters and buy our own surf boards.

Itchy feet? Oh yeah. Plus some rather large butterflies flying around at faster than the average butterfly flutter pace in our stomachs. What on earth do we think we are doing?