After a cooling off period of around four years, Jenny Hero once again suggested travelling together. The stresses and strains of taking THE BRAT to Disneyland were now just a distant memory, plus the brat was several years older by this point and Jenny Hero imagined that we could both have a relaxing time together enjoying the culture and scenery of Northern France. Sophisticated, grown-up holidaying. The way Judith Chalmers made it look. Unfortunately she had overlooked something: Jenny Hero and the brat were neither sophisticated, nor grown-up. Never-the-less, we began planning our trip, looking at brochures, teletext (a favourite pastime of mum’s) and scouring the internet for bargains. We finally put together an itinerary which went something like this:
1. Don head scarves and sunglasses and road trip it over to France, Thelma and Louise style (minus the suicide pact).
2. Soak up French culture -in the form of cheese, wine and pastry.
3. Hire bikes and cycle through the French countryside looking stylish, windswept and fabulous.
4. Stay in quaint bed and breakfasts and exchange bon mots with charming French inn-keepers.
5. Enjoy camping like the Europeans do. Sleeping in the great outdoors; mountains, beaches and beautiful scenery.
6. Come back looking tanned, glowing and relaxed, radiating an aura of calm and worldly experience.
I think France is definitely one of those places that inspires these kind of thoughts. All that I had heard and read of it up to this point led me to believe that even simply by being there, one could become more stylish, cultured and romantic. To a teenager who was none of these things, this seemed very attractive. I would be heading to university the following year and I thought that an experience like this would make me seem interesting, adventurous…all of the things I didn’t feel myself to be. So, with these things in mind, the itinerary was born. This was the dream. The reality was slightly different. Our trip actually went something like this…
We arrived in France after a long day of driving. We set off from our home town of Runcorn. We put some CDs (remember those?!) on in the car and danced in our seats, hands in the air, singing along tunelessly for the first hour or so. Things were good. The sun was shining and we were now officially travelers.
The England leg of the journey was long, but smooth. We stopped at Dover for a rest, a car picnic and a trip to the ‘beach’ before we boarded. In my mind, beaches were beautiful places with sand and clear waters where you could buy fish and chips and ice cream. Dover failed to match up to this description. It turned out to be one of the more charmless places I’ve been. Busy, industrial and interspersed with groups of people who seemed to a) not have much to do except hang around near ferry terminals and b) have the similarly glazed expressions of people who have definitely been taking something stronger than ice cream. I was sorely disappointed. But I consoled myself with the thought that this was the beginning of a REAL adventure. This was part of travelling. Experiencing the seedy underbelly of a country, even if that country were your own. But, no matter. I would soon be in France, that world capital of classiness.
We got back into the car and drove to the ferry terminal. Until now, Jenny Hero had maintained a veneer of calm, but this all changed as two police officers approached the vehicle and explained that they would search the car for drugs and weapons. They informed us that recently, pairs of women travelling together were being used to smuggle goods, as they were usually the least likely to attract attention. I nodded and got out of the car. They commenced the search. Jenny Hero joined me but I could see her body stiffen as the police popped the boot and began to search the back seats and glove compartment too. Jenny Hero has a habit of adopting a guilty look whenever she is near a police officer. Even when she has done nothing wrong, she will begin acting suspiciously for no reason. But I had to ask all the same.
‘What’s wrong?’ I said, briefly musing on the possibility that my sister was using our trip as a cover for her profitable drug and weapon smuggling business. Maybe I was a mule. I could see the beads of sweat forming on her forehead.
‘There’s a knife in the glove compartment.’ She hissed. My heart sank. Was that it? I was about to explain to her that when they said ‘weapons’, they weren’t including small kitchen knives which were barely sharp enough to cut up sandwiches for the car picnic. But instead I shook my head and waited for them to finish the search.
We arrived at our motel in Calais later that night. This was Jenny Hero’s first time driving on the other side of the road. I didn’t have my licence yet and knew nothing about driving. But I did know that she was driving the wrong way around a roundabout. I made her aware of this and we quickly swerved onto one of the exits and pulled in as soon as we could to gather our thoughts. Soon after we discovered a reasonably priced motel to stay for the night, surrounded, reassuringly, by high fences and plenty of barbed wire.
The following morning we awoke, feeling fresh and excited about our new, sophisticated French lives. The first thing we did was to drive along the coast in search of a beach and a campsite. The Europeans love camping. Healthy, wholesome, outdoors family fun. We tried to adopt their outlook. But we failed. Here is why:
Jenny Hero hates camping. I hate camping with Jenny Hero.
This is something we have both known for many years but time and time again, choose to gloss over. Several years will pass and we will give it another try, with exactly the same disastrous results. The first time we camped together was actually in France. We were on a family trip with the parents at the time. I was eight and she was twenty-two. The ‘grown-up’. The parents had bought us identical beach lilos to inflate and sleep on. Their way of making camping more comfortable for me and my sister. In principal it was a good idea, but after our first day at the beach, we brought them back to the campsite and made a discovery. One of them had a hole and wouldn’t stay inflated (this may or may not have had something to do with the ‘Gladiators’ style beach trials we staged that day). It was completely useless and meant that one of us was going to have to sleep on the floor. I’m sure you can all guess who this was. The brat was pretty disgruntled about this. I was certain that I wasn’t the culprit, but at least I learned something that day; my sister is sneaky and will do anything for a good night’s sleep. But it wasn’t too bad sleeping on the ground in my sleeping bag. I soon dropped off…only to be awakened in the middle of the night by someone shaking me by the shoulder.
‘Charlie dude! CHARLIE!’ she hissed. ‘I need the toilet.’
I opened my eyes and stared blankly at her. ‘What do you want me to do about it?’
‘It’s dark. I don’t want to go on my own.’
I shook my head but I got up and followed her. I waited outside the toilet block in my pajamas, yawning widely.
‘I really don’t know what you think I’m going to do if someone comes. I’m eight.’
We headed back to the tent together. But this was not the end of it. Since my sister has the bladder capacity of a thimble, this became a nightly ritual. I was woken up with even more frequency when the thunderstorms started. Jenny Hero became convinced that a tent was not the safest place to be because the metal pole in the centre would act as a conductor and attract lightening. The brat was tired and couldn’t care less. I reasoned that if I were hit by lightening, I could at least look forward to some rest.
So, with past experiences like this, it’s surprising that we opted to camp together again. This is the kind of relentless optimism which I have always admired in our relationship. Sadly, the optimism was misplaced. Once again, we had bought lilos very similar to the ones the parents had purchased for us years before. Our first discovery on putting up the tent and inflating them was that, once inflated, they would not both fit in the tent at the same time. One of them had to be deflated. I’m sure you can guess whose it was. The brat once again slept on the floor. Jenny Hero, huffed and puffed, tossed and turned. The following morning, I woke up to find her sleeping in the car. That was our first and last night of camping.
From here, we decided that bed and breakfasts and small, family-run hotels were the way to go. We found a company in France which rented bikes, maps and offered a service whereby they booked accommodation and transferred your bags for you. It seemed to be the perfect solution. We started out it a small, picturesque town called Dinard. Two bikes, in excellent condition, were delivered to us and our luggage was collected. The adventure began. We took a tow path by the river and began cycling enthusiastically, enjoying the beautiful summer weather and the peace of the surroundings. We sang songs, cracked jokes, played silly games and were in constant competition. Trying to race and overtake each other. It was the perfect day. We arrived at our destination, exhausted but with a sense of achievement. The best kind of exhausted where you know you’ve worked hard, had fun and achieved what you set out to achieve. We parked our bikes up outside a small bed and breakfast, which, according to the instructions, was to be our home for the night. On entering, we were greeted by the smell of warm pastry and hot chocolate. Exactly how French bed and breakfasts should smell according to my imagination. Nothing was more welcome after several hours of cycling in the sun. We were given a room key, shown to a small breakfast table and offered some baked treats. The place looked exactly how your grandma’s living room may look. Plenty of pottery and nic nacs on display, chintzy furniture and worn rugs. All ornaments were covered in a fine layer of dust. But what she lacked in cleanliness, she more than made up for with her cooking skills. The pastry and hot chocolate were delicious. The beds were comfortable and we quickly passed out for the night.
On waking up the next morning, however, we both came crashing back to earth. Lifting my legs out of bed and putting my feet on the floor felt oddly difficult. As if a large, invisible hand were pressing down upon them from above. I stood and winced. And that’s when it occurred to me. While I was far less adverse to exercise than I had been as a child, I was not what you’d call an avid cyclist. It had been a few years since I’d ridden a bike with any regularity. And I was extremely saddle sore. I wasn’t the only one. We walked downstairs to the breakfast table in tandem, doing our best John Wayne impersonations. The old French lady who owned the place tilted her head with concern and uttered a few words in French. Either words of sympathy and comfort or something equivalent to ‘foolish English tourists’. I couldn’t tell which. While I was able to speak some school French (most of it forgotten now), and read menus, signs and other simple forms of written communication, I absolutely can never understand the French when they speak. Everything rolls together and I cannot distinguish one word from another. I smiled politely at her and haltingly ordered breakfast.
I clambered onto my bike with all the grace of a splay legged baby deer. Everything hurt. My calves, my thighs, my bum. It was impossible to sit comfortably and cycling was considerably more difficult than it had been the day before. But once I tuned out the pain and cycled through it, the next few days passed in a happy blur. The sun shone. We stopped in a small fishing village called Cancale and enjoyed oysters on the beach, bought fresh from the market. One of my favourite things about visiting another country is always tasting all of the local food they have to offer. We ate mussels, crepes, lobster, steak with bearnaise sauce, apple tarte tatin, cheese, pastry and bread fresh from the patisserie. We sipped wine, brandy and coffee. At the end of each long day of cycling, we would find a quiet spot outside. A patio, a beach, a balcony at the hotel. We would watch the sun go down and relax our aching muscles. This was exactly what I’d had in mind. There was one problem with all of this eating out together though. This problem can be summed up in one sentence which can frequently be heard at mealtimes with my sister: ‘JENNY DOESN’T SHARE FOOD.’ Jenny Hero always believes that what ever you have ordered is a) more delicious and b) a larger portion than whatever she has herself. Even if the meals are identical, she will still believe yours is superior in some way and try to steal food from your plate. However, you will never be allowed to return the favour. Jenny Hero defends her dinner plate with a ferocity usually only seen on nature programs, when wild animals defend their cubs. Things can get brutal. Having grown up together, I have developed cat-like reflexes when it comes to handling cutlery and fending off her attacks on my food. I am also able to finish any meal in a few minutes flat. But when I hear the words ‘Awww, yours looks better’ and I see the fork begin to descend, I know I’m in trouble. There were several food casualties lost to Jenny Hero during those two weeks. The most lamented of which was my apple tarte tatin. RIP.
There would be more of the trip to come and more lessons to learn. But so far, we have discovered:
1) Jenny Hero hates camping. I hate camping with Jenny Hero ( we did actually pay attention to the lesson this time. We have never camped together since our trip to France 10 years ago. Our holidays, and our relationship generally, have been all the happier for it).
2) If you’re more used to sitting on a sofa than a saddle, cycling several hours a day really REALLY hurts.
3) French food is everything they said it would be…and more.
4) JENNY DOESN’T SHARE FOOD.