The words of Bonnie Tyler are ringing around my head: I’m lost in France.
It was an inauspicious start – we thought Heathrow was the worst airport in the world but, arriving at Charles de Gaulle, we may have to revise our opinion. The queue for passport control stretches practically to Heathrow. Fortunately we remember we are also EU citizens so can join the shorter queue. We escape within fifteen minutes to a packed baggage hall and six luggage carousels chock full of bags whose owners are still waiting to get into the country. We quickly grab our dizzy ones and get the hell out of CdeG. Or try to. The area from where we are to be collected by the car lease shuttle is blocked with shiny black Mercedes limos, cars and vans, the front one of which has no driver. It seems that French drivers aren’t particularly shy about using their car horns and a cacophony of tooting and blaring assaults our sensitive-from-air-travel ears.
We finally collect the car and hit the road. And quickly grind to a halt. It becomes a tedious pattern – drive a couple of kms, crawl for fifteen minutes, before we make our second escape in France and head towards St Lucien and the home of our friend, Catherine. Once off the motorway the road passes golden fields where huge machines harvest crops, the dust from winnowing drifting around them in clouds, the chaff edging the road. Every few kms we wind through quaint villages with mustard yellow stone houses with red-tiled roofs, all so pretty my brain begins to suspect my eyes are telling it lies. Neil wonders if French builders are so lazy they just look at a house and immediately build another one the same and as beautiful.
Leaving the airport, Neil had insisted on using the sat nav, despite it not allowing him to input our friend’s address. It’s a problem we’ve had before when a computer thinks it knows better than a human. (You can tell I’m not a fan. I like to look at a map and place myself within my surroundings – you can’t ask a computer what the name of that village/hill/river over there is.) We ended up letting it direct us to a village nearby, thinking we would then call her for the final details. It’s a good plan until we ‘reach our destination’, pick up the phone and… no service. So much for technology. We drive around for a while, looking for inspiration or something that looks remotely like Catherine’s house. The thought of driving back to where we can find service sends me farther into grumpiness – I’ve been close to forty hours without sleep. We can’t even ask for directions – even if we had the words in French, the houses in these villages may be beautiful but they all either look deserted or skulk behind high walls and locked gates. It’s looking bleak until we remember we have a Google maps printout of the route, Neil caving to my request for ‘a map’ before we left New Zealand. We manage to work out where we are and pick up the rest of the route.
The next day in Nogent-le-Roi, the nearest town, we find a boulangerie and buy almond and chocolate croissants for breakfast, and a batard so fresh and so hot I can hardly hold it in my hands. It pokes from the rucksack as we wander around, tearing off bits of croissant and stuffing them into our mouths bite by delicious bite, before sitting in the little square for a coffee. In the grocers we are greeted by a cheery ‘bonjour’ and I almost swoon at how fresh everything seems.
We load up on peches, abricots, cerise and the biggest bunch of small, peppery radis I have ever seen, the finger shaped pinkish ones Mum used to love rather than the globe reds. I pull apart an apricot, feeding juicy bits to Neil as we drive away. Later, the stone drops easily from the nectarine as I slice it in half and the flesh is soft and sweet.
Brechamps, the village in which we stay, is crammed full of the soft yellow stone houses that dominate the area. Others are painted creamy white with brick features picked out, behind them colourful flowers nestled alongside immaculate lawns. It seems it is illegal to have an ugly house in this part of France. Everyone we meet is friendly and helpful, although our French is terrible and not many here speak English. But they often try, the young woman at one place holding up her finger for our patience as she attempts to tell us the amount in English. Her smile beams as we confirm she is correct and our merci, au revoir met with a smiling thank you, goodbye. If we mention Nouvelle Zealande it generates an excited Kiwi – Les All Black! The rumoured French arrogance does not exist in this area.