Saturday, 9 September 2017

AUGUST HOLIDAYS

Just before the end of the summer holidays we decided to go away in the van and explore the coast in Aude for the first time. It's an area of salty lagoons surrounded by arid hills covered in vines, set behind sandy strips of beach and beyond, the Mediterranean. 


Somewhere on the journey there, through endless forests and gorges and hills the van became jerkier and we became quieter and quieter. We tried to pretend everything was fine. Stopped. Wandered around a beautiful town, swam in a river, ate ice cream, wilted a little under the heat. Then we carried on toward the coast but unsurprisingly the van hadn't got better and by the time we arrived at the sea there was no denying that things felt disastrous. We arrived where we had planned to spend the night and stopped short at a height restriction barrier, a feature we were to become familiar with. Eventually we limped along a quiet track and found somewhere to camp for the night.




The next morning we woke up next to a lake. So calm that the reflections on it were as still as paintings. We took a walk along the track. Schools of fish were circling near the surface and occasionally one or two would flip out and disturb the stillness of the water. As we were following the path up towards the top of a small headland Little I starting calling out 'bird' 'bird', leaning backwards in my arms and twisting her head to look upwards. In the sky were the unmistakable silhouettes of flamingos flying above us, we could hear their calls and whistling sound at the beat of their wings. It was a magical moment, made more special by Little I having spotted them. We continued our walk through coastal pines and vineyards and then back down when a second group of flamingos flew over our heads.





 
Back at the van and confronted with the reality of a vehicle that felt as if it were on it's swansong journey we found ourselves making phone calls in a Lidl car park, trying to diagnose the problem and decide whether to continue and probably break down or return home and probably break down on the way. The girls were clamoring to get to the sea, Florent was desperate to get home and I was pretending to agree with him but desperately hoping somehow we could still have a holiday.

Somehow the morning passed and after one more supermarket car park emergency engine inspection and a very welcome air conditioned shopping centre toilet break we decided to try to get to the sea.

And the holiday continued like that. Episodes of tense driving, tight-lipped Florent, wide-eyed me, oblivious and sometimes very impatient girls and then some hours exploring a beautiful village, craving shade and ice cream or scanning the lagoons for more flamingos and other birds.





We did get to the sea for the girls. The length of the beach was decorated with bright parasols, bathers with sun aged wrinkled skin, children carrying inflatables twice their size and enough sand and salt water to transport the girls to their own version of heaven. Everything was in technicolor. The brightness of the light above a glistening sea and under a cloudless sky made it feel like a film set.

 
We saw the salt pans and the mountains of salt, piled into pyramids. We saw two hoopoes as we sought shade at the bottom of a village surrounded by an almond orchard and opposite a door covered in hunting trophies. We learnt that it's impossible to use nearly all car parks along this stretch of the Med with a vehicle that's 2.7 metres high. The girls washed under the jerry can but mostly didn't wash at all. We spent each night not too far from a sign forbidding us to do so and wincing at each occasional pass of headlights, waiting to be asked to move on, but weren't. I was eaten by mosquitoes but the girls were thankfully spared.



 


 
 


 
Most thankfully of all we did get home again. Both of us completely exhausted and swearing never to holiday like that again. Now with some time having passed the sharper edges have worn away and I am already only remembering the sunsets and perfect morning cups of tea whilst watching the girls play in dirt.

PS.

About half way through our trip we realised what the problem was. The kind of fuel we'd been using... It turns out that our van's engine doesn't like the cheaper petrol we'd used and so it's back to the more expensive one and a lot less stress.

Tuesday, 15 August 2017

SUMMER OF SNAILS

I'm writing this to the sound of thunder crashes, in the dark of the attic. The gods of the sky groaning and rumbling, threatening downpours. Little I is next to me, asleep on the mattress, tiny beads of sweat on her nose. It's been almost two months since I last wrote and summer is passing by so fast.

Midsummer's day finished with a terrific storm, sending a river down our road and the children insane with glee and without inhibition. We went to the van with a plan to drive and watch the storm but instead played jazz loudly with the girls dancing off adrenaline from the crashes of thunder. I had imagined a midsummer meal with candles, an evening walk and wild flower wreath weaving but this turned out to be much better.




Then the girls and I returned to the UK for a couple of weeks. The girls met their newest cousin for the first time and were reunited with Little M, their long time cousin and fellow ragamuffin: Lots of joy and cuddles and some arguments and tears.
 
The weather was beautiful, we tripped to London and the girls had the time of their lives riding the red buses and discovering play parks of anyone's dreams and meeting with friends. We spent a very nostalgic day in Bristol,  more time with dear friends, paddled in Exmoor rivers, indulged in charity shops, ate fish and chips and pies (though not enough) and finally returned to France full to the brim with time spent with family and friends and completely exhausted! I swore never to travel alone with the girls again after Little I's wild behaviour in the airport had me very nearly in tears and apologising to nearly anyone in a uniform. She's certainly has proven her disregard for border controls.





Back home we have tended the garden, hosted visiting friends, continued with the building and enjoyed the simple day to day joys of summer here. On our walks Little I continues to hunt snails and often has a couple clutched in her grubby hands. If she sleeps on the way home from a trip up onto the hills or to the garden they creep out and trace their silver trails across her clothes and hands. Later, we negotiate and she reluctantly returns them to the wild.
 


 




This summer has also brought more questions from Little L than ever before. Not so long ago we came across an injured stag beatle. It's entire body had somehow been hollowed out leaving just it's head and front legs and one hind leg. It was struggling on it's back, miraculously still alive and desperately fighting to right itself and somehow continue to live. Little I was intrigued but too young to notice anything amiss. Little L was wide eyed and whispering 'what's wrong?'

We come across the end of life often. A body of a swallow chick, fallen from it's nest, a moth lying in a pathway, beating out it's last wing beats of it's short life or a squirrel, casualty of the cars on the road.
 
I have an urge to protect the girls from every sadness or tragedy however large or small but I also know that to hide them from this would be a disservice to them. The end of life is part of our life and the end of life gives life and makes space for more life. We challenge ourselves to be honest and enable them to see the wonder of life and death and be in awe of life because of death. It's been humbling to see how Little L seems to understand this.

And there is also the very beginning of life. Today we met a neighbour's tiny, day old kittens ; slowly scrambling over one another, nudging in to their mother, pushing their faces into her chest and searching for her milk. Then in the garden a newly fledged bird, still unable to fly, hopping under the bushes and fixing it's gaze upon the three of us with a perfectly round eye.
 





PS. Just to provide some balance, for each time we marvel at the wonders of life there are many daily frustrations! Their ongoing habits of deliberatly wearing shoes on the wrong feet (creating all manner of painful rubs and sores) or the elaborate negotiations around brushing teeth in their daily quest to make bedtime that little bit later are some current challenges... Highs and lows and all that.
 

THE HOUSE

So, we have the courtyard ! An outdoor space which we have eaten nearly every meal in since it has been finished. It is also already a sea of dens, soft toys, colouring pencils, story books, 'treasures' from every walk we take (mostly sticks and stones and one badger skull...) and sometimes there's space for Florent and I to enjoy a drink together in amongst it all. The BBQ isn't finished and there's a small about of pointing yet to complete but they are mere details.
 
Over the last few days Florent, along with generous help from a friend, has been removing a window and creating the space for the doors which will lead from the courtyard into the kitchen/ living area. Then we'll do some roofing and then back to the kitchen. This is not the right way to do things... Generally starting at the top of a building and then working down makes most sense but for various reasons this is how we are doing it. Every time the plans change we resign ourselves to another month or so using our trusty camping stove but these are small sacrifices and we remember often that we are indeed very lucky to have a roof over our heads at all and a leak now and then just adds character....
 

 
 

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

ONE YEAR AWAY

It's just been a little over a year since we packed up our home in Bristol and set off with a temperemental van toward the south of France. It feels like a good moment to look back over the past twelve months and catch our breaths.

There has been the discovery of places so beautiful that they seem to reach out and share their peace with me. There have been moments of true loneliness. There have been times when I have been wide eyed in awe at Florent's unfaltering rhythm as he builds a house around us. There have been times when mothering the girls without a break has made me feel broken. There have been times when I have thanked the universe for the good things in my life as I watch my girls play, crouching down to entice a ladybird onto outstretched fingers or wading into rivers to float leaves downstream.

Last summer was a overheated introduction to the village, the paperwork and perfectly slow yet unrelenting time with the girls. No internet. It was a summer of sticky skin and reading any books I could get my hands on. It was endless days by the river trying to keep cool as Florent began the mamouth task of renovating this ancient home. It was meeting new people and seeking out friendship.

In Autumn we moved in to the house. It as such a celebration to finally be living in the home we are creating. It was also a new reality of living in a single room of 10m2, flushing a toilet with a bucket of water and trying to eek out corners and space for the girls to play and the beginning of an endless battle with clutter. But we felt so proud.

Winter was the draping of woolen blankets over doorways and the spreading of them across the floor, preservation of the precious heat. Endless craft with the girls : Painting, drawing, creating and cooking, cup of tea brewing and layers of clothes for short walks. Tears as the cold pinched through children's gloves.

Wished for and waited for, Spring brought the garden, sowing and planting. Afternoons on the hill topped with a chapel and watched over by the Virgin Mary statue. The scent of violets and endless cowslips, the first butterflies and one devestating last frost.

And so it's summer once again. Sticky skin, again. Afternoons inside. Late lakeside evenings perfumed by woodsmoke and musky woodland. The girls strip off at every opportunity. I force on hats but never really win. Little L has dainty freckles and Little I turns caramel.

Our time in Bristol seems so long ago and yet we are still finding our feet here. I still miss my friends and family and my old home but it feels like there's been another shift toward some anchorage here too. Some deepening of new friendships, some meetings of minds and exciting plans. Little I calls me 'Maman' and Little L speaks perfect 'franglais' and asks for roquefort with expert french 'r's.

----------------------------------------------------------------

 
 
When, earlier this month, Little I turned two, we took off to a little cabin in the mountains of Ariege. Parking the van when the track became impassable, we walked the last two kilometres in the fog and coming dark. Florent had a raging headache and walked on ahead and I walked at child pace with the girls, trying to be enthusiastic whilst calling after Florent through gritted teeth. Sometimes we hate each other and this was one of those times. Florent hated me for not expecting that a cabin for only 10€ a night would have a hitch such as this and I hated Florent for not finding the beauty in a muddy track whilst carrying a tonne of tinned food, my watercolours and Little I's birthday present of books. It was the recipe for a weekend of resentment and not really the marking of the two joyful years Little I has shared with us all.

As it turned out, we arrived and it was beautiful. Wood, buddhist prayer flags, candles and enough cushions for send the girls into a frenzy of nest buiding and baby bird impersonations.

The next morning the mist had cleared and we awoke to an incredible view over the mountains. We attempted a walk, got stuck in a bog and decided to return to the cabin, found the path we should have followed all along and spent the afternoon painting and trying to coax the girls outside, away from the supersized birds nest.

 



 




The next day we travelled back, winding our way through some mountain villages and over some passes before following the valleys home. We descended from Port de Lers, a mountain pass of just over 1500 metres, pulling twice into a layby to let some cyclists past (!?!), the girls were asleep, the mountainside became covered in woodland and waterfalls roared down towards us and then under the road. I felt a feeling close to freedom and Florent and I didn't hate each other anymore and it all seemed right.