A few weeks ago, we decided to institute French night. Ian and I get to hankering for Paris every now and then, and the boys like any event that involves planning, participatory preparation, and eating.
We started by getting out recipe books and my old French course books. The boys wrote out French food words and stuck them to the kitchen wall where — I now realise — they remain. We scoured fridge and pantry to work out what we could cook with what we had, and we thought about what we could watch as after-dinner entertainment.*
I took on potato galette, cauliflower in olive oil and lemon juice, and a lamb, olive and preserved lemon stew. Ian made apple tarte tatin and put out bread and olives for starters. The boys made a salad and the Cat picked flowers.
When it all got too much, the Cat ran a soccer academy in the hallway for the Rabbit. In the middle of everything, we shifted firewood from the driveway to the side of the house, and I think we cleaned the bathroom and vacuumed, although God only knows when or why.
Predictably, it was all both more wonderful and less relaxed than the event I had in mind when I first broached the idea. My vision of us talking quietly with each other while slowly eating our way through a well-paced and elegant little feast was tempered by a few scraps, a bit of mess, some ratbaggery, and the usual appalling table manners, but it was a celebration of our own making — a wordy, colourful, mayhem-adjacent, not-too-fancy, delicious little party.
* We ended up with a Top Gear episode set in France, which culminated with a bridge that set off my vertigo big time. One day, we’ll be classy.
13 May: Paris | Lyon
An earlyish start with Métro/TGV links that leave us all stressed and short with each other. We have slightly more luggage than is comfortable, and we are carrying too much food. We’re now a group of seven again, so the dynamics are shifting and I can’t speak for anyone else, but I’m finding everyone annoying in quite particular and ungenerous ways. Actually, everyone else is fairly well behaved and happy, so probably I’m just a hopeless, bad-tempered introvert.
But Lyon is beautiful, strikingly so, and our friend is there on the platform to meet us. He lives in the old part of town, in an apartment set high in an old, old building, perhaps 700 years old, with worn, winding stone staircases, thick walls, sudden courtyards and alleys.
With our small domestic circus slowly unravelling, we make it through lunch and into an afternoon walk around the old city. We arm ourselves with sorbet, then catch the funicular up to the cathedral and look out over the city. All parental powers of persuasion are needed to get the Cat down the hill to the Roman amphitheatre ruins. But the old charms of stones and open spaces start to work, just a little. We play in the ruins, letting ourselves be washed by time. Contentment is close at hand.
In the evening, we go out for a late dinner. I take the Rabbit out for a couple of walks, once to see the building over the road, which has a mural covering the outside — a huge wall of painted windows, each housing one or two local historical figures. The Rabbit circles the building many times, freshly enchanted on each circuit. The second walk is to a square a few blocks away. We see the moon and trees and lights. It’s magic.
15 May: Lyon | Aix-en-Provence
A stressful trip, with a long wait for a bus in Aix that leaves everyone more or less catatonic. I dig through the food bag and pull together a late afternoon snack of cous-cous, snow peas, tomatoes, avocado, cucumber, and ham. The house is French country lovely, with a long, grassy field for the boys to run in, a view of the mountain, and green shutters. I’m a sucker for a shutter.
The menfolk depart on a long and late market shopping trip, and we play with a ball in the fading light. I reach the end of my parental and travelling energy.
16 May: Aix-en-Provence
We’re all moving slowly this morning, finding our rhythm as a group. The grandparents head out to look at Cezanne’s atelier and explore the city, while we have the morning and lunch at home, needing the quiet and a break from seeing and doing.
After lunch, we go into town to organise a hire car for our trip to the Camargue. The market shop yesterday provides a good dinner: potato salad with sausages, asparagus, green beans, and a mustard/lemon dressing.
I don’t think it’s as warm here as I was expecting.
17 May: Aix-en-Provence | Camargue
Ian, Dad, the boys and I set off early to pick up a hire car. Ian heroically drives on the “wrong” side of the road through small towns and thunderstorms while Dad and I helpfully navigate from the satnav, which seems to have an aversion to toll roads and highways.
We make it to Saintes-Maries-de la-Mer in time to eat our baguettes in the car while the Rabbit sleeps. We find a café for coffee and cake — the owner is so warm and welcoming that I am inspired all over again to have a midlife crisis and open a café. Luckily, I’m not yet middle-aged. I don’t think. We head back up the road to the Parc Ornithologique de Pont de Gau, a vast wetland reserve full of birds, including FLAMINGOS.
We walk all around the park, entranced by the birds, frogs, and coypus (a water-loving mammal somewhere between a musk rat and a beaver), the horses, the water and reeds and sky. The Cat gets bored of flamingos after the first 1000 or so, reserving his greatest delight for a European bee-eater, but I am punch drunk in love with them, with their long, balletic legs, their miraculous flight, their fish-hook beaks. I’ve never seen a bird more ridiculously exotic, nor more exotically ridiculous either. They’re like magnolias on the wing.
18 May: Aix-en-Provence
Another date day! We should travel with the full extended family more often. Provence is getting record levels of rain, so Dad, Ian and I venture out in it to run errands and visit the market. The market is in the old part of the city, and we buy the makings of a good lunch — roast chicken, olive dips, lettuce, asparagus, peas, melons, tomatoes, etc. I feel bold and stompy for most of the morning, then suddenly just cold and wet.
We dry out over lunch, then Ian and I head back into town to see The Great Gatsby. I don’t know; I really don’t. I like Luhrmann’s take on the era — his over-the-top, anachronistic style seems a good fit for Gatsby’s 1920s, and I like how DiCaprio plays Gatsby. But I don’t think any contemporary actress should be playing Daisy as empty as Mulligan plays her, whatever the limitations of the book or the script. And I remember very little of the book, but I do remember a haunting sense of loss and sorrow at the end, but with a lightness and ambiguity to it that rescues it from schmaltz. Luhrmann’s ending feels too resolved, too firm in its moral judgements. Maybe I just don’t like being told what to think or how to feel.
We have a good time debating all this on the way home, and I hope I don’t entirely ruin the film for Ian. It’s possible I go on a bit much.
19 May: Aix-en-Provence
Our last day in France. In the morning, we walk to the little park where Cezanne painted Mont Sainte-Victoire. I am seriously enjoying all the wildflower action in this part of the world, and I realise how much Mum liked to use these soft, anarchic plants. The grasses are left unmown, and the seedheads are beautiful in the morning light.