Island Life by David Slack


Couldn't hit it sideways

If you don't own a car registered in France, it will probably not vex you to learn that 30 million of that nation's citizens will have to get themselves a new set of number plates within the next year or so. Pardon me if I have some of that wrong. I watch the evening news these days with a different perspective, namely that of one who is scrambling to keep up.

I watched that item with particular interest because technically we own a two-week old Renault Clio. I would call it a shopping basket car if I hadn't spent the last fortnight doing high speeds down 130 kph autoroutes. Those things can go. I say 'technically' in the sense that if I put a big end through the block, I pay for it. If I back into a truck, and walk away in one piece, I - supported by the insurance company - pay for it. Thanks to the boundless imaginative powers of the car leasing people, when we return to Paris at the end of November and hand over the keys, ownership and liability is transferred and no fiscal adjustment is necessary. Or something like that. Ask Karren.

We have been in a freewheeling mode for the past fortnight. When you're in your twenties and single, rolling into a town and finding a hotel and an interesting looking bar is a large part of the charm. I know a man who posts regularly on this site who is a year or two older than me and still finds great pleasure in doing just that. Once we're not responsible for an eight year old, Karren and I might enjoy doing things that way again, but for now, that strategy has less charm and more grind to it. We started with a relaxed attitude. We picked up the car in Paris early in the afternoon. After the obligatory half hour of making sense of road signs, and letting your wide-eyed daughter see how Dad deploys the F word when he really means it, we dropped into the groove and set our sights on Chartres. Wait until you see the Cathedral, said Karren. The fields were golden in the late afternoon light, and the skies were blue.

Once, heading south, we started looking for a hotel around Waitomo. We didn't find one until Wanganui, although we did pass up a chance in Raetihi where the hotel billboard offered nothing so sophisticated as Sky TV or spa baths, but simply "clean sheets".

Chartres was hosting a festival. There was no room at the inn. Nor was there room at the next town or the one after that. We found a Raetihi with clean sheets about an hour down the road, but decided to punt for a good night's sleep on beds with still-functioning mattresses in a bigger town. As night fell we reached Orleans, which was also hosting a festival. In the time it takes for one client to phone in their cancellation a window opened and we were in, but chastened. You don't want to make an eight year old sleep in a car.

For the past two weeks we have been getting into town early, and finding a decent place to sleep, ideally with wifi. We have been in charming old hotels, we have been in modern and substantially less charming but more cyber-enabled rooms.

We have been on the run. Most of our time from now on will be spent in apartments and gites, but we had allowed some space for going wherever we felt inclined to drive. The problem with such a banquet is that you need to remind yourself how much room you have on your plate. On the run: down the Loire valley admiring chateaux and trying to work out, in response to Mary-Margaret's questions, whether Francois I was good or bad or both; standing in the room where Leonardo da Vinci died, and thinking how hopelessly meagre most of us all are by comparison; on to the Massif Central, into Clermont Ferrand and getting stranded looking for a nice place for dinner down a one way street with a mosque at its end, and waiting until the faithful had all driven in and parked their cars; on to Lyon and its inexplicable Peripherique. A freaking hour it took us to find our way in. I needed to go for a run almost immediately. Fittingly the iPod offered Sister Ray. Man, that motorway system. Talk about couldn't hit it sideways. Daddy said the F word again. On to Haut-Provence and Sisteron to stand at dusk at the top of the fort that might have barred Napoleon's return in 1814, but did not, and down to our hotel just along from the one bearing a plaque: Napoleon dined here in 1814; down into Provence and on to the Cote d'Azur where a month of perfect late summer weather got blown away by the Mistral.

Let me be measured in my criticism. Driving in that benighted corner of France is the living end. You crawl from light to light. You ask a passing old lady for directions because you have found that even with your strangled pronunciation, the French have been admirably willing to help you. Your luck has run out at Cagnes sur Mer. A look of disgust and exasperation fills her face as she makes to say something then thinks better of it and waves her hand dismissively and walks on. Here is my assessment of the people there: their home is Vegas with a waterfront and a tax haven. They have an undue concentration of old rich people. It is as ghastly and unreal as I recall Orakei to be when I lived there twenty years ago. The concentration of wealth brings chancers, criminals and unlovely parasites. Security signs and gated communities are everywhere. People look wary and sour. Oh, you may say, you're generalising. Not everyone in Cagnes sur Mer can be like that, to which I say: you're right. I'm not making a generalisation about Cagnes sur Mer. I'm making it about the Cote d'Azur. That's what we tourists do.

Now we're back in France, in an apartment attached to a stone-walled house in Provence. We are surrounded by olive groves, parched earth, and sitting beneath clear blue skies. Today I wore jandals, so French have I become. It is idyllic, and we have wifi. Occasionally you get a work related email from home that makes you roll your eyes and say I came here to get away from this shit, but essentially it's bliss.

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