Posts Tagged With: France


missing-youI feel a sense of missing, and I’m not sure if I am missing the travel, or the “roadschooling”, or the blogging…

I think it’s a case of all-of-the-above, actually.

We have been having a few “this time last year” conversations at home lately, so that brings about many reminiscences, and it’s interesting how each person’s perception of the memory differs from the others’, or how romanticized some memories have become already…

One year ago today, we were in Sauto. I wonder what we were doing? Darragh would have been playing with the dogs, no doubt, and we would probably be heading out for a hike somewhere in the afternoon, perhaps visiting our favourite mountain river if it was a sunny day, enjoying the deep jangling sound of the cow bells as the kids try to cross jumping from stone to stone. Or perhaps Dev was “challenging” us with a more strenuous afternoon at Carancas Gorge! Maybe we stopped at Casino or Super U on the way home to pick up some pasta, or even visited our favourite bakery in Font Romeu for a box of special surprises – tarte citron, pain chocolat…mmmm. Sounds so idyllic! And it was. Except for when it wasn’t.

And then there’s the “roadschooling” – frustrating at times, and quite stressful. Wondering if we were doing enough, and if the girls would be able to manage well back in the classroom.

Of course, now I see it in that idealized way we often see things when enough time has passed to erase the anxiety. Going back to Sauto, we would have eaten our supper and our tasty bakery treats, and then settled in for a couple of chapters of Danny Champion of the World – all five of us reading and talking together, worrying together about Danny and his Dad – would they get caught or not, wondering what was really the best way to catch a pheasant. What could be a better, more authentic way to teach and learn?

Funny, isn’t it, what the passage of time does? Back in the throes of our daily life, trying to finish the house, get everyone to their dance classes, band practices, and swim meets, going to work…it all seems so hectic. We never seem to have time, and then when we indulge in a little flashback to last year, it feels like we had so much of it then. And we did. But I do remember spending much of it doing, doing, doing, or if not, planning the next thing. I also remember feeling guilty for sitting doing nothing (on the rare occasions that actually happened). I remember thinking we really needed to cram every possible experience in to every available moment.

I don’t think we value “doing nothing” enough. As a society, even. Now I sometimes wish I had spent more of last year doing just that. Because how often do you get that opportunity!?  I wonder what it would have been like to just pick a place and stay put for a few months. Live life quietly together.

Nah, we would probably have been bored!

So, back to the missing…and the blogging. I miss that, too. And I know I said I would go back and write about the places I didn’t the first time around. But that doesn’t seem to be happening. It’s not immediate enough. That’s the thing about blogging, I guess. It’s now. Present. It never felt the same going back to blog something we did a few weeks ago, so to go back to a year ago or even several months seems artificial. Unless…

Unless then becomes now somehow. Like Sauto did this week as we spent time re-reading Darragh’s memoir. Or when we got all our unused postcards out over the weekend to find something for a collage someone was making for school, or when Mairi wrote about the Lake District a couple of weeks ago because Nana is going there at the end of the month, and she was reminded how much she loved it. There are so many of these opportunities – I just need to pay more attention to them!

So, I can blog.

Roadschooling Claytons is not over.

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On the eve of our leaving the Pyrenees Orientales, I feel compelled to mention some of the previously unmentioned amazing things we have experienced here. There have been many firsts for me. Here are just a couple of them:

Cave Paintings – always been on my bucket list, so when the boss of this trip (you know who you are) reminded me of some fairly local prehistoric caves, off we went to the Ariage to visit Grottes de Niaux, an amazing cave whose enormous mouth right on the side of a mountain is visible from the road below. This experience was a little different from the one I blogged about earlier. This system of caves was in more of a natural state – uneven, sometimes slippery floors, no lighting other than the flashlight provided at the beginning of the tour, and a few fairly narrow tunnels. It was a bit of a hike to get to the parts with the actual paintings, and along the way there was some “modern” graffiti on the walls. As in, 1605ish. Crazy. At that time, the people doing the graffiti didn’t know they were defacing prehistoric paintings because they didn’t know there were prehistoric people! It’s nuts. Really hard to get your head around. And when you get to the Salon Noir, where the really spectacular animal paintings are, it is just mind-boggling. They didn’t have language. They couldn’t count. But they could paint. And not just paint, but paint well. The likeness to the animals they depict is incredible. 13,000 years ago! Remember back when we were amazed at the age of the city of York? Built by Romans and Vikings? That was only 2,000 years ago. Like I said, mind-boggling.




Hot Springs – another phenomenon I’ve never experienced. So, off we went the other day to one of the many thermal baths in the area. We would have taken this one in sooner except that we had no bathing suits, but this particular place rented bathing suits, so that’s what we did. Weird, yes, but better than buying a $50 suit I’ll never wear again. And WAY better than Dev buying a Speedo, because that’s what the men-folk have to wear in there! It was great. Good for a few giggles due to the rented bathing suits, but all forgotten once we submerged. The sensation of being in steaming hot water while surrounded by the chill of the autumn air was both restful and invigorating. We could see the snow covered mountains all around us, and actually, we wished it was snowing, because that would have made the experience even more of a paradox. Anyway, we loved it, (what’s not to love?), and the kids loved it, despite some initial protestation from the one who does not like hot water.
Ugh, it makes my muscles feel all soft and floppy – like I can’t stand up. It’s called relaxing. Give it a shot. It’s good for you.


There’s more to say, but now I need to pack. A bientot!

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Caves: Who Knew?

I have never really understood the fascination with caves. Dev used to go “caving” when we lived in England, which always involved helmets, flashlights, and lots of dirty clothes. And in my imagination at least, lots of sheer drops, ladders, and narrow, dark tunnels. As inviting as that may sound to some people, it wouldn’t really float my boat. And maybe the caves he went in were like that, and maybe they weren’t; I don’t know. But after yesterday’s trip to Les Grottes de Grande Canalettes, my views on caves have changed quite dramatically.
There were no sheer drops, or at least, I didn’t have to go down any. There were no narrow, dark tunnels. Or again, none that required me to duck. And no ladders of any sort. (I researched extensively beforehand to ensure that this would be the case). In fact, there was nothing even remotely claustrophobic about this enormous, cavernous even, system of caves. Surprisingly, there was nothing scary at all. Except for the oddly deformed cat that was hobbling drunkenly around the gift shop after us at the end of our visit. Now that was scary.
Anyway, back to the caves. Saying they were amazing is so inadequate. I can’t think of anything that has filled me with such awe. And we’ve been to some awe inspiring places over the last couple of months. The beginning of the caves is a pathway of tunnels that were hollowed out by underground rivers millions of years ago. You can see the rushing water in your mind and imagine it carving away at the rock, millimeter by millimeter over the years. There are some stalagmites and stalactites here, and it’s really cool to see the water dripping onto the stalagmite, building it up even more. The kids held their fingers under the water and swore they grew!
But it’s when you get through these tunnels and come into the first of the chambers that it becomes suddenly mind-blowing. I can’t really describe it – in this case, the pictures will have to speak 1000 words. But the sheer vastness of the chambers, the columns of calcification that you can’t even wrap your arms around, the 30 foot high stalagmite towers, and the thousands of icicle-like stalactites hanging from the ceilings are just so unbelievably impressive. And they just keep getting more impressive as you move along. The chambers get bigger and bigger, you come across a lake full of cauliflower shaped calcifications, there are draperies of mineral deposit like lasagne noodles stretched across the ceilings, and the colours of the columns change depending on the prevalent mineral, from the pure white of lime, to iron red, and manganese black.
And finally, as you climb up to the most enormous chamber of all, it’s just everything. Everything combined and more. Accompanied by coloured lighting and classical music, we sit on benches here and just take it in. Weirdly, this is one of the most spiritual experiences I think I have ever had. Maybe it’s just the realization that you are sitting under a mountain in a cavern that has been shaped by Mother Nature over millions of years. Or you feel the presence of an omniscient being in such stunning, yet completely natural phenomenon. I don’t know, but it makes you feel very small and insignificant. Such a minute part of this vast, incredible world.
In any case, I’m a cave convert. Obviously.
Oh, and the educational implications….just an afterthought really, but still. Our oldest said it was one of the most amazing things she has ever seen. She wouldn’t let any of us speak as we went through! The middle one said, “Did you take a picture of this?” approximately every 4 seconds, so we’ll assume she concurs. And pearls of wisdom from the youngest? “This place would be so much better if it had burgers and fries you could eat on the way around”, and “This opera is giving me a headache”. Oh, well, you know what they say – two out of three ain’t bad.







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Living with Less

As I sit here applying a little lipliner from the stub of my MAC spice liner that happened to be in my purse, not in the broken-into car, I feel cranky again. This is the only cosmetic I have left. So, I’m applying a little and putting vaseline over the top. Why? Not sure…that’s a whole other blog post I imagine. Or maybe some sort of self help book…
Anyway, the robbery happened a week ago today, so we have been here at La Fougere in the beautiful Pyrenees for almost that long. And have we done much hiking? Have we enjoyed long rambling walks around the lakes and along the rivers? Have we taken advantage of the fact that we finally don’t have to drive every day? Have we been to the numerous amazing thermal baths we keep reading about?
No. We have not.
Why? Because it has taken us almost a week of driving around to any town big enough to stock walking shoes to actually get a pair of shoes. I have big feet, and apparently either all women in France have big feet and so they’re sold out (which is not the scenario I expect is true), or more likely, no women in France have big feet. Merrell lady’s shoes come in sizes up to European 44, but no store here has any over 41. I take a 42. So, every store I went in had maybe one or two pairs of shoes in that size, but all of them were men’s. Which is fine as long as they’re not really wide, and big and black and clunky and manly. Which they all have been. I did finally get a pair yesterday afternoon. They are big and manly and not something I would really want, but they were on sale, and so my thought process is that I can wear them now and buy something I really want when I get back to England.
This is only one of the inconveniences that has resulted in us not being able to fully enjoy our beautiful surroundings. It takes a really long time to find a place where we can buy underwear for the whole family. And don’t even get me started on bathing suits. I have a big body too, and buying a bathing suit generally takes me longer than buying shoes. Or any other item, really. Even for the kids, it is not the right time of year to be buying bathing suits. None of us has found any yet, and so no mountain hotsprings.
The thing is, we did not come here to shop. It is not a shopping sort of a place. Half the stores don’t even open unless they feel like it. In France, they close from 12-2, and then reopen. Maybe. And in Spain they open 10-2 and then close from 2-4:30 or 5. Depends. Some of them only open at the weekends. Some close on the weekends. Some close on Mondays. Some on Wednesdays and Fridays. In short, it is almost impossible to go anywhere with the intention of shopping without a written schedule of opening and closing times. Which, naturally, does not exist.
What I need is a mall, a really big one that opens from 10-10 and has stores I recognize. We could go to Barcelona, but with the car window still out, we can’t really go too far. Oh, and that’s the other thing; we have now driven to Spain twice where the closest Citroen dealer supposedly was, and it was closed both times. Yesterday we finally found one open in Bourg Madame, on the border, but they need to order the glass so it will be Wednesday or Thursday by the time we get the car fixed.
Now, this all sounds very negative, and I don’t want it to appear that we are not appreciating our time here. Most of the time, everyone is very positive, and we are just getting on with it. We are learning to live with less, which is never a bad thing. For example, when I get up in the morning, I don’t have to decide what to wear. If it’s cold and cloudy, I wear my long pants and my long sleeved top, and if it’s sunny and warm, I wear my t-shirt and my short pants. And up to today, I always wear my flipflops, regardless of the weather. Today, though, I will wear my men’s walking shoes.
Another positive, I asked one of the kids to go upstairs and get dressed this morning, and she said, “I have no clothes”. Right. Much easier. Pajamas are clothes and clothes are pajamas. Good.
Also, our kids have always been pretty good at entertaining themselves without much, but this brings new meaning to it. They have been playing very intricate and detailed games with a wooden chess set and board they found in a cupboard. I believe one kid controls the white guys and the other the brown guys who live in the “castle” which is the box. The pawns are villagers who also live in the castle, the bishops and knights are servants, and the coloured pieces from the Ludo game are the evil interlopers trying to take over the castle. Fabulous.
It’s all good. But I still get cranky over the fact that all our belongings are probably in a dumpster somewhere in Rome.





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Sat Nav Shenanigans

So, for those who are not aware, a sat nav is a gps system, you know the ones that talk to you and tell you when to turn, what lane to be in, and generally lead you straight to your destination once you plug the address in.
We’ve never actually used one before, but on the way down to St Ives, we tried out the one Dev’s brother had lent us, and by the time we got through the motorway confusion at Birmingham, we were sold! The girls named our sat nav voice “Josie Porgie” and Josie quickly became like part of the family. We praised her constantly, and she got us to Plymouth, then Swanage, without incident. Right to the doorsteps of the places we were staying. Fantastic. We even joked about the sat nav in the Picasso and pretended to be Bryn talking to Nessa….(you’ll understand that if you’re British and you’ve ever watched Gavin and Stacey).
So yesterday morning, we left for France feeling pretty confident, and ready for our 10 hour drive. Josie was fully charged and ready to go. But I wasn’t sure I really liked the way she got us out of Swanage – wasn’t the quickest way. So, we lost an hour there. This should have raised suspicion, but I think she may have been lulling us into a false sense of security. And you know how the rest of that day went if you read my last post…
Then when we finally got to France, Josie kept trying to get us off the highways onto little roads. Little roads that would only add time to our already arduous driving schedule. I started to get cross with Josie and turned her off from time to time. But I forgave her each time for her misdemeanors, and when we were finally able to get her to accept the name of the town in which we had booked our hotel, we went back to full reliance on Josie. Even though the route she was taking us was not the same as the one on the iPad. Which again, should have raised suspicion. But we still trusted her (although not as much, it has to be said). So, when she announced, at 10:30pm (which was already an hour and a half later than we were supposed to arrive), that we had reached our destination, we were very relieved.
Until we realized we were at a motorway service station. With one guy working. Who didn’t speak a word of English. Then I wanted to swear at Josie.
Turns out, she took us to the service station because it was sort of close to where we were going. On the map. But unfortunately, there was no exit to get to it. So after three very stressful attempts at communicating with the guy in the services, during which I realized how bad my French actually sucks, we figured out that we had to drive another 12 km down the highway and then double back on a parallel road to get to the hotel. Meanwhile, I had managed to contact the hotel, and a very stressed and tired sounding woman informed me that reception closed at 10pm (it was now 11), but that she would come back when we got there. When we got there, it was 11:53. Which made the grand total of driving time 14 hours, with three short bathroom stops. This was no sat nav misdemeanor. This was a full on felony.
Josie has been disowned. I turned her off today and shoved her in the glove compartment. If she had been ours, and not on loan, I would have shoved her under the tire. Right before we drove off.

On the up side, when we woke up this morning and ventured outside our hotel (Hotel Arts et Terroirs – which I suspected at midnight last night may mean Arts and Terror, and wondered why I would ever book a place with a name like that), we were deep in the Burgundy region. The little walk down the street to find a bank machine for euros, a post office to pay the toll fine we incurred last night when the toll booth would not take a credit card, and a patisserie for some breakfast, we were greeted with right-out-of-a-movie vineyards as far as the eye could see. It was really beautiful, and we regretted having to rush off so quickly to begin today’s driving adventure.
And another upside to the day was confirmation that we have the three best kids in the world. What other kids would quietly endure 14 hours in a car, making their own sandwiches along the way, and silently panicking as their parents flounder until 11:53pm?





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So today is slightly stressful for me. I can’t seem to control everything. Well, I cant actually control anything!
First of all, we stayed at a B&B in Swanage last night, which was wonderful, don’t get me wrong. That’s not the stressful part. We had a fabulous full English breakfast, our hosts at The Castleton were lovely, and the weather was glorious. There is so much we would have loved to explore there. We managed to get to Monkey World, an ape rescue centre the girls had been dying to go to, and we saw Corfe Castle, a spectacular ruin on top of a hill that literally makes you gasp as it appears on the skyline. We also had a great dinner at la Trattoria, a family owned Italian restaurant. This was all good.
The part that gets a little stressful is that we enjoyed our breakfast from 8:30-9:30, so we were much later getting going than we would have liked. Then everything seemed to take much longer than we thought. We did not make the best route choices, so we were delayed even further by that.
Then when we eventually got to Folkestone to board the Chunnel, went in the wrong lane, had to get out of that lane, only to find out our ticket would have been a LOT cheaper if booked in advance. So then we had to go into the terminal to buy a ticket instead of going straight through. Consequently, we missed the crossing and had to wait 45 minutes for the next one. Then we went into the wrong lane to actually get on the Chunnel, and had to go back and start over. Oh, wait, forgot to mention that when we got to passport control the passports were in the trunk in the bottom of a suitcase. “Who planned this trip?” said the passport officer with a little shake of his head. Hmpf.
So, now, we are finally on the thing (which, if you didn’t know, is a tunnel under the ground under the ocean, as Dev keeps enthusiastically telling the children). So it’s hot and claustrophobic in here, and my ears are popping, and I keep thinking of the fact that we are under the bed of the sea…
Oh well, we’ll be out soon. Then it will be about 4pm, and we will have 6 hours of driving to get to the hotel I booked us for tonight. Excellent. OMG. I forgot we now have to go back to driving on the right. But in a lefty car. And it’s not even 4pm because we just entered a new time zone. It’s 5pm. Crap.

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