I have thought long and hard about sharing my new adventures here in the plotting shed blog. I\’m quite a private sort of person but the world is so dark and troubled these days and my life is now so full of sunshine, I thought it time to spread it about a bit. What follows is a window on my life\’s dream – owning a tiny patch of the country I have loved since I came here, aged eleven in 1968 on a family holiday – France. It turns out that I have French genes which didn\’t surprise me at all as I just clicked with the place at that tender age and the sense of belonging has never left me. It\’s been quite a journey but I now feel extremely lucky to be able to say, despite many boulders thrown at us, we\’ve arrived.
Of course, being a writer, I\’ve kept a journal.
Where to begin? Before I was even born, perhaps. French blood runs through my ancestors\’ veins and into me. When I started studying French at school, I sensed I already knew the language. It sounded familiar, sane, rational. Something the magpie English language could never be accused of. Without being taught, somehow I knew how to pronounce these foreign words, and I loved them.
I first visited the beautiful country of France at the age of eleven, maybe twelve. I drove my family nuts as we slept our last night on British soil before the voyage by asking them, every five minutes, \’is it morning yet?\’ I had drawn a calendar of the weeks leading up to our first foreign holiday and crossed off each day with a determined, triumphant, diagonal slash. Now the penultimate night stretched ahead shrouded in black mystery and I counted the minutes, surely each one longer than normal, until my family shouted at me to shut up, united for once in their desires.
Brittany in 1968 was unmodernised, without good roads, signposts or services. The most frequent sign on the roads was \”chausée deformee\” and that really meant what it said. The roads were so deformed that the sensation of driving along them was not unlike the rough seas I\’d thrown up on as we pitched and tossed our way over La Manche.
Old women still wore tall white hats of beautiful Breton lace and ankle length black dresses above their wooden clogs. We saw them, wizened as oak bark, along the side of the road, herding a few goats or foraging for berries. Even then, they looked as if they belonged to another century.
And another century has dawned since then, bringing motorways, service stations, radios, the internet and far too many signposts. And yet, conservative France retains pockets of peaceful countryside that has changed little for millennia.
I have been visiting every year, pretty much, since then, even living here for a year between husbands. I picked grapes and worked as a camping courier – dogsbody would be nearer the mark – before ending up in Paris until Christmas lured me back to my British family. After such a long stay, I was more than ever convinced I was more French than English and longed to return.
Now, with our family flown and settled, Phil, my second husband and I are staring at the opportunity his retirement presents. After surprisingly little debate, we\’ve decided where we want to spend a lot of those years and for the last five have researched and driven through much of Poitou-Charente, hoping for an epiphany of recognition that this was the very spot to spend our golden autumn. But, strangely, frustratingly, it eluded us. The logistics were there – the train and plane connections; the distance from home; the affordability; but we still hadn\’t found IT.
This year, we decided to explore further south, in the midi-Pyrenees, with Toulouse in our sights.
The journey didn\’t begin auspiciously. We\’d both been working far too hard and started out tired and scratchy. As before, we were planning to sleep in our touring caravan on the dockside at Poole harbour, before boarding the boat first thing in the morning. Previous occasions had been fun. We had rolled up at a time of our choosing, snuggled up to the hangar wall and camped for free. Knowing how knackered we were, I had bought in some special easy pasta and a good bottle of wine. We would drive in the evening light and settle in for a cosy evening before sailing early the next morning.
Good plan. Didn\’t work out like that at all.
The British leg of the journey was fine, if you ignored our bad-tempered bickering. Poole harbour eventually came into view, looking much the same as usual except for enormous concrete barriers blocking the entrance to it. Dismayed, we drove on past and eventually found a nice security bloke who said they\’d had trouble in the evenings with \’gypsies\’ and had to block the portside off from the road. He had no idea when it would re-open. After a very tricky turnaround on the side-road, we parked up against the ugly barriers. I cooked the pasta quickly and we wolfed it down, not knowing when we would have to move and sat there, tense and cross until gone eleven o\’clock at night when, after the inbound ferry had disgorged lots of white-faced, weary travellers, a huge JCB came and removed the barriers. Our diminishing energy reserves had long since evaporated and we drove on to the dockside, put the caravan legs down and crawled under the bedcovers, too tired to really relax into slumber.
It was one of those nights when sleep eludes until dawn, so it felt like I\’d been asleep for all of ten minutes when a loud knock on the door woke me up. Groggy and disorientated, I grabbed my dressing gown and opened the caravan door to reveal a youth, who looked no more than ten, smiling sheepishly and telling us to get in the queue for the boat. It was six am.
We scrambled into our clothes and dutifully joined the queue at the boarding gate. Still half asleep, I passed over our passports to the brisk woman behind the rain-streaked glass. The wind howled through my unbrushed hair and stung my gritty eyes.
A man came and bleeped his machine over the dog\’s microchip and reported the number to the woman in the official cubicle.
\”This number does not correspond. You cannot sail today with this dog\’s passport.\” She looked at me with wide-awake eyes. She\’d obviously slept in a proper bed after an early night and a long soak in a fragrant bath. Her manner was as crisp as her uniform.
\”You should have checked this number yourself before presenting yourself for boarding.\”
\”How could I do that without a micro-chip machine?\” I didn\’t feel I was being unreasonable, just logical and pleased my brain was functioning at all.
She sighed and repeated more slowly, as if I was deaf or senile, \”I cannot let you sail on this boat with this animal\’s passport. You will have to get a new one. You can get one at the local pet shop but you only have one hour before we sail so you won\’t be able to catch this boat. You will have to rebook and sail tomorrow.\”
She folded her thin lips.
I gathered my scattered wits. \”Are you saying that we have to cancel our holiday because of one digit on the dog\’s passport?\”
\”Yes, I am. If you go to France with that passport, your dog will be quarantined and you will not be able to return with him. I wouldn\’t like to face French border controls with invalid documents.\”
\”Look, read the description. You can clearly see that this is the dog described. It\’s just one number!\”
\”That could be any border collie. I cannot let you sail.\”
\”We are catching this boat.\”
\”Look, I\’ll phone my colleagues in Portsmouth who have more experience.\”
I nodded and waited, trying to ignore the furious stares of the ever growing queue of other travellers. Many pairs of eyes glared at me as I waited for her terse telephone conversation to end. I looked away towards the ferry which puffed smoke from its funnel in a very unconcerned manner.
The ferry official slammed the phone down and turned to me. She was fuming. \”Apparently I can\’t actually prevent you sailing.\”
\”How very disappointing for you,\” I didn\’t say this out loud, but I really wanted to.
She continued, \”You can sail, I can\’t stop you, apparently, but you must understand that this is entirely your responsibility. I suggest you phone your vet. It\’s his mistake and it\’s what you pay him for, after all. You can get a French vet to complete a French dog passport, but it will be very expensive. In the meantime, I shall have to fill out a \’Failure Form\’, which I\’ve never had to do before.\”
More heavy sighs accompanied this procedure and much tutting at the photocopier which was playing up. I was invited to sign away my dog\’s destiny and our human passports were approved. Clamping our official status as failures to my chest before it blew away in the wind, I climbed back into the car and we abjectly crawled forward onto the boat, to the obvious relief of those queuing impatiently behind us.
For weeks, while I had been over-working, I had been picturing that moment of boarding and leaving all my cares behind me. When slogging away at my computer, many a vision had been conjured of standing on deck in the summer sunshine, the wind in my hair, a beer in my hand as we floated past Brownsea Island among white yachts full of happy sailors waving us on towards my beloved France.
Not this time. I made frantic phone calls to our vet, Bill, before the signal or my battery ran out. Bill is the most charming, funny and handsome vet you could ever meet. He was deeply apologetic about his mistake. We explored various avenues of how he could possibly wing a new passport to France for our dog, Sky, who though thankfully oblivious of the problem was currently stuck down in the depths of the ferry, probably wondering what the hell he had done to deserve being abandoned amongst the squashed in lorries and motorhomes.
Suddenly, in the midst of our brainstorming session about French post, train courier services and the expense of French vets doing his job, Bill said, \”Hang on a minute, where are you going?\”
\”France, Bill, I told you.\”
\”Yes, but whereabouts?\”
\”We\’re heading down south, below Bordeaux, towards Toulouse.\”
\”How long are you staying for ?\”
\”Three weeks, if we\’re allowed in.\”
\”I\’m going to be on holiday in the Dordogne during your last week. I will bring six passports, have each of them checked a dozen times, and meet you there.\”
\”Really? One would do, as long as it as correct!\”
\”Done! Send me an email quickly, before you lose signal and text me your destination as well. See you soon!\”
A frantic half an hour ensued while we sent texts and emails from every device we carried. We were halfway to France before we could relax. I went to visit Sky in the hold. We\’d not had Sky for even a year since rescuing him from the RSPCA and had no idea what kind of a sailor he\’d make. He was very glad to see me and gave me a hug. Sky loves to hug. Every ten minutes preferably. I reassured him we were halfway across the channel, even if he was travelling incognito. He settled back down, mollified and I returned to my long-suffering husband.
The rest of the journey passed in a blur and we held our breath as we went through border control on French soil. Luckily they waved us through, without checking our dodgy documents, and, after an abortive attempt to fill the car with diesel, we travelled southwards, on a nearly empty tank.
In the nick of time we managed to get fuel and carried on down south, breaking our journey for a couple of nights in a delightful, but expensive, campsite in Tours. We started to relax as we walked around the lake admiring the tree houses. Sky demonstrated his swimming abilities by jumping straight in and casting about in the cool, green water. I started to believe he would cope further south in the hotter weather and tried to remember why I\’d brought the dog in the first place.
to be continued…