Every August I shift my home and family from the heather-hued hills of north west England to the flat pine-strewn expanses of south-west France: from stone and moss to wood and sand, from being land-locked to being in touch with the ocean. In short, from the High Peak to Les Landes. It is a set of contrasts I adore, and a way of keeping me sane.
France has been in my heart and, I like to think, in my blood, since I was a young teenager. My parents used to take in students and teachers. One of the first ones we embraced was an auburn-haired creature called Cathy. I thought she was the bees knees. She had a fabulous French accent and I was so jealous of her ability to speak the language. I had passed many a family holiday in France, living as we did just across the water. Newhaven-Dieppe. It's etched on my psyche. The reason I particularly wanted to learn French,though, was because I am also particularly curious and I soon worked out that sitting in French bars, cafes and restaurants would just be a set of endlessly frustrating experiences if I was unable to earwig what was going on around me. Life, people, relationships. Fab. Have to see and know it all. So, no high-blown intellectual reasons or desire to read Proust. Non. Just sheer, blatant noseyness.
I did indeed go on to do French at university and have spent many months and years hanging around les Grenouilles. My intention was to marry a French doctor(who actually did cross my path, quite literally, in Toulouse), but being cautious and practical of nature I felt I had to return to England to finish my degree and continue my relationship with my English accountant (er, WHY?!). Yet here I am, nearly a quarter of a century later, finally with my own little patch of French soil. And very agreeable it is too. I don't think I ever really wanted French children anyway. Didn't seem quite right. But I love the exposure my little English Roses are getting to the land I have always loved.
And so we rolled off the ferry in St Malo in the same heavy grey shroud of rain-soaked clouds and howling gale that has greeted us for the last three years and toute de suite pointed the nose of the car south. By Bordeaux the skies had cleared and the temperature guage registered 27 degrees. That's more like it. We stopped by our friends house for a late lunch before finally arriving chez nous in the early evening. From afar, I sometimes think how boring it is to be going back to the same old place, but all I have to do is glimpse the front of this beautiful old Landaise farmhouse, bursting with character, atmosphere and stories, and all doubts retreat once more. Familiar smokey smells greet us as we open the heavy wooden front door, the hallway stretching through to the glazed door at the back and the forest beyond. The kitchen tells the most tales of the holiday gone before - the coffee cups washed up but not put away beside the sink, the children's paint brushes standing in a jam jar by the taps. A life continuous, yet gently interrupted. I open the kitchen door onto the slightly ramshackle terrace on the side with the millstone table, the rampant roses, the vine and the comforting watery jingle of the stream that embraces the house on two sides. We were last here at Easter with no leaves on the trees, so the atmosphere is entirely different now. We are enveloped by greenery, the new houses they built nearby thankfully blotted out by the lushness of summer.
The girls shoot up to their rooms and gather the soft friends left on their beds and fall to playing straight away. While they clatter and giggle about we unpack the car and sort out the goods and chattels of our long-awaited holiday. The air feels warm and we feel optimistic that this is going to be a good one. Perhaps summer, for us, has finally arrived.