Should I stay or should I go?

It’s been a wonderful holiday, ten days watering my French side, visited relatives, caught up on all the family feuds, been fed royally by the family and friends and not spoken a word of English. It’s by the sea, so plenty of wonderful fish, oysters and mussels and lovely to drop off to sleep and wake to the sound of the sea.

In France you never leave a relative or friend, without a gift of some sort. This visit has included books from the reading  crew, including a new discovery, the wonderful Fred Vargas.  My aunt yesterday was shocked that I picnic in my hotel room in the evening, having had a good family lunch and a hotel breakfast. So she insisted on giving me half a melon and a strawberry yoghurt. She wanted to cook up some mussels for me, I had a hard time resisting.

I love the neighbourhood, this year I’m staying in a hotel as I can’ t make the six flights of stairs of my nearest aunt. But I know the neighbourhood well. The postman nods, the woman in the bakery knows the bread I like, the butcher has proper ‘ready meals’ of  salads and cooked dishes. I have a slice of ham and grated carrot waiting for me later and a proper quiche for lunch on the plane tomorrow.

But as ever I’m trapped in the should I stay or should I go narrative. I don’t get to speak French much anymore  except when I visit Mum in her nursing home. I play out the fantasy life in my head,   I could write here and live quite happily.

By chance the hospital calls to remind me of an important appointment on Monday.  Ah yes, I’m still seriously ill. I’ve managed quite well here, being careful of what I’ve eaten and walking as much as I can these days.

So of course I’ll get on the plane and enjoy the life I have back home, with all my friends and family there.

But a big part of me will stay right here.


Tribal tapestry

Visiting relatives I haven’t seen for a couple of years, due to my not being able to travel. Attitudes to health vary so widely between the Uk and France. In the Uk we tend to underplay our symptoms with codes that everyone understands. So if someone says ‘my ticker is playing up a bit’ you know to keep the defibrillator on standby. In France, everyone is an expert and full disclosure an imperative. Reveal any symptoms at all, from a headache to a gammy leg and they will not only give you unsolicited advice, but also something from their wildly overstocked medicine cabinet to tide you over while they get the phone number of the best consultant, who is a personal friend of their plumber’s second cousin.

I tend to underplay but having not seen then for a couple of years, I’m under the microscopic scrutiny. Everything from my eating and drinking habits, my tablets to the frequency and detailed production of my visits to the loo. Heads are shaken, amateur advice is freely available, references made to relatives up and down the family tree who might have displayed a similar symptom one Wedenesday fifty years ago.

Like everything else, health is tribal. We’ve been in touch by phone, but when I was exhausted and very seriously ill, I couldn’t face the tribal inquisition. So I’m getting the full treatment now, every day with a different relative. I’m excused for the lack of phone calls, but my entrails are thoroughly examined. And I know the phone lines will be red hot, comparing notes.

There’s no point in adopting the understated Uk approach. So I give them full gory details and they lap it up.  It comes from a place of kindness and concern. And also to sew me firmly back into the tribal tapestry.

Weekend breakfast

The breakfast room is full of weekenders this morning. It’s fun trying to work out where they are from and notice the different breakfast habits. A young Dutch boy hunkers down over his cereal bowl, eating first a spoon of cereal, then one of milk. His father wants some mayonnaise to eat with his hard-boiled egg and tries politely to ask the man replenishing the stocks. I’ve tried getting him to respond even to a polite ‘good morning’ without success. Eventually the Dutch guy just repeats ‘mayonnaise’ very slowly. Mr Grumpy understands and just snorts a firm, ‘Non’. Clearly the Dutch guy is not used to this approach to customer service and shrugs his shoulders in disbelief.

Breakfast manners show people at their most real, it’s rare to have breakfast with people you don’t know. So elderly husband of magenta hair reaches across me to get at the orange juice and almost knocks me over. I give him the beady eye and say, ‘be my guest’, but both are lost on him, he just keeps on going.

There are five mixed race couples at breakfast, an unusual sight in France. They’re all French and none of them stare at me and my stick, unlike the white couples. I guess they know how it feels to be stared at. It’s a relief to be with people of mixed race, more like home. France is still very racist and publicly white, most of the presenters and reporters on tv are white men of a certain class, very few regional accents.

I walk up to the shops to buy a snack for this evening. The bakery is full and lots of Sunday cakes on display, people generally buy little treats if they are going out to lunch. The cakes look too perfect to eat, individual jewelled works of art. Three young women serve behind the counter and they are efficient and pleasantly joyful. An elderly man at the front of the queue joshes with them, one of the young women threatens him with a smack if he doesn’t behave. The French word ‘fessee’ comes from the word for backside and is somehow more detailed and intimate. The man laughs and says ‘Yes please, can I have two? ‘ The whole shop falls about laughing. It’s funny and inclusive without being the least bit sexist. The man in the queue in front of me gets his change and says, ‘what no smack?’ The young woman laughs and says that when he first came to the bakery, years ago, she mistook him for a priest, he was so serious. ‘I forgive you, my daughter’ he says solemnly. More laughter.


After yesterday’s spectacular sunshine, I’m woken at 5.30 by a tropical rainstorm and what sounds like hailstones. I get up to look, but it’s only driving rain. Get back into bed thinking of all those people in Texas who don’t have that luxury.

Breakfast is a strange beast in public, particularly in France. You don’t get dressed up for breakfast as you would for dinner, you’re as near your normal self at home as it’s possible to be. And it’s fascinating.

There’s less hesitation in France about staring, so my entrance with stick causes a stir. A young girl stares inquisitively, which I don’t mind, her parents just stare and I smile and stare them out.

The telly is on low volume and an elderly couple are seated in front of it as though they’ve never seen one before. He dunks bread and croissant in his coffee, a normal habit in the country and at home. His wife is dressed to the nines, including stilettos and her hair is a weird magenta. She eats a piece of cake with a knife and fork. When I get up to get more coffee she stares and stares. For some reason I think of the tricoteuses at the guillotine, though she would probably have thought that not enough fun. When I turn back, she’s still staring so I give her the beady eye and we lock stares, which I don’t think she’s used to. My teaching experience holds me in good stead, I can do beady until the vaches come home.

She asks her husband to get her some more juice and he brings the jug to the table, long years of marriage have taught him that whatever quantity he pours will be wrong.

A couple at the next table start sneezing and coughing with no regard to the hygiene discoveries of the 20th century. My immune system can’t afford to be polite and I move tables.

A couple of middles aged gents come in. Yesterday I was having difficulty placing them. Golfers? English? French? I was too far away to hear them talking and they were quiet. English? Hungover? And then today one of them came in wearing sandals and socks. Definitely not French.

The elderly couple have finished breakfast and the husband takes one of the trays away. Wife begins to clean the table, as she would at home. I realise that she’s not used to hotel life and is terrified of getting it wrong, hence the knife and fork with the cake. As they pass my table, she tries a smile, but it’s like a hyena who has spotted a fresh carcass.