Two weeks have flown by during our time in England. Modestine has now been given a clean bill of health and once again we are crossing the channel back to France to continue our travels around Europe.
First of all we would like to say an ENORMOUS thank you to everyone we have seen or visited during our brief stay, for the warmth of the welcome we have received. It was a very strange feeling to find ourselves homeless in our own city and we are indebted to friends and family in Exeter for making us so welcome in their homes. It was wonderful to see you all again and great to be so hopelessly spoilt with lovely meals and comfortable beds! As a couple of retired pleasure seekers, we are humbled to be shown such affection from friends so obviously overburdened with heavy workloads, document deadlines and management meetings, not to mention domestic upheavals such as plumbing disasters, or pressing responsibilities for elderly parents or children at university. We have tried to see as many of you as we could but if you escaped unscathed it was purely a matter of luck. Don't count on it holding when we come back next time.
We also need to thank our children Neil and Kate and their partners Jeev and Joe for the wonderful weekend of our 68th wedding anniversary (according to their "guestimate", we made it 35th) when we all converged on Didcot for a warm and wonderful reunion and a celebratory meal in the local Nepalese restaurant. Jeev and Neil then cooked Christmas dinner at the weekend, complete with crackers and paper hats, to make up for having missed Christmas together last year. It appears that our travel blog has given us a certain amount of credibility with our kids who seem delighted that we have forsaken the traditional retirement role of fluffy slippers and gardening for a vagabond existence on the byways of Europe.
Celebrating in the Nepalese restaurant in Didcot
Late Christmas dinner with Neil, Jeev, Kate and Joe
Having spent the last seven months criticising and observing the countries we have visited in Europe, we have tried to see England in a similar way. When you live in a country it is easy to take for granted what you see every day. Returning as a visitor, rather than returning home, certain things have struck us quite forcibly.
After months of marvelling at the wonderfully preserved old towns and villages in Europe, we still found the English countryside beautiful, even under the drab overcast skies of the tail end of winter. The villages and small towns between Didcot and Exeter were filled with a host of attractive buildings which had an unostentatious charm.
In Exeter the council seems intent on doing away with what little distinctiveness it has as an historic city and Land Securities have done more to flatten the historic centre of Exeter than Hitler and his Luftwaffe ever achieved. A vast construction site for an oversized shopping area dominates the city centre, with blocks of buildings looming up behind the roofscape of the Cathedral Close. Everywhere seems completely tangled up with traffic and parking is a complete impossibility.
However, Exeter has every reason to take a pride in the quality of the exhibitions in the Royal Albert Museum. We were fortunate enough to enjoy a morning viewing a superb national exhibition of ten cartoons by Leonardo da Vinci from the Royal collections and another on the imagery of Buddhism. By complete contrast but greatly entertaining we also enjoyed a colourful exhibition by the Museum of Childhood of 20th century children's toys ranging from Meccano, yoyos and Muffin the Mule, to Masters of the Universe, the Rubik cube and the Barbie doll.
Driving feels far safer on British roads and generally drivers are more courteous. While road signs and road surfaces are better than we have generally observed abroad, we were saddened at the amount of litter along roadside verges which are just as bad as, and frequently worse than, we have seen elsewhere, particularly beside motorways. Canine excrement is definitely better controlled in Britain than elsewhere in Europe but the streets are paved not with gold, but with chewing-gum!
Council recycling mania now means our streets look ugly with unsightly ranks of grey, brown and green plastic bins cluttering pavements for much of the week. This is also happening throughout Europe however and we are not criticising recycling per-se. Perhaps efforts should be directed towards producers rather than consumers. Reduced or eco-friendly packaging would seem a rather obvious way forward.
The work ethic in Britain is carried to extremes with people working longer and harder than appears to be the case in other countries we have visited. All our friends seem to be under the stress of continuous change and endless restructuring. While change is necessary, why can't it be evolutionary rather than revolutionary?
Britain is generally more expensive then the countries we have visited so far. Accommodation, fares, fuel, transport, car repairs, meals and a general shopping basket in a supermarket all cost more. However the quality of English pub meals can hold their own with anything we have seen on our travels and the atmosphere of a Devon village bar should be regarded as a national treasure.
Overall we cannot agree with the views of many of the ex-pats we encountered in our travels who said that they would never return to Britain because it had "gone down the tubes". Frequently isolated on their campsites or in English ghettos, they may not always have appreciated the many social problems faced by the countries where they have made their home.
Everywhere we have heard tales of cold and drought in Southern England. We are told it has been a long, cold, unpleasant winter. For us it has seemed that the cold and wet that followed us around Southern France, Spain and Portugal accompanied us across the Channel to share our visit home. Today though, as we returned to Portsmouth, the sun appeared for possibly the first time during our visit, transforming the countryside, dappling fields with light and shade and washing everywhere with colour. Fields were bright and green, daffodils tossed in the breeze and primroses speckled the base of the hedgerows. Bare branches were tinged with a green haze and at last it feels as if spring may be about to arrive.
Thursday 30th March 2006, Caen
It must be something about us – no sooner have we arrived in Caen than the rain arrives hot on our heels. So the morning was spent in the house, sorting out ready for stage two of the journey, washing clothes and rearranging things in Modestine for what we hope will be a milder few months. In the afternoon we decided to brave the weather and take a tour in the Suisse Normande, the rather ambitions name given to the hilly area about 20 Km south of Caen where the river Orne cuts through rocks in a picturesque series of curves. The rain made the undulating landscape a bright green and the hedges and winding narrow roads were reminiscent of parts of rural England. Everywhere flowers are beginning to appear, yellow being undoubtedly the colour of springtime, from the pale tones of primroses, narcissi and cowslips through the bright shades of the forsythia and the tossing daffodils to the vivid gold of celandines and dandelions that speckle the grassy fields. By contrast, mauve clumps of violets and white patches of anemones add colour amongst the wet leaf mould of the woodland. Unfortunately our sorting out of the morning meant that we did not have the camera with us to capture the pretty little villages through which we passed, such as Clécy, closed for the season, which typically is deemed to end tomorrow. In the evening Geneviève started to look out guides to unexpected corners of Paris in preparation for our trip there next week.
Currently France is in a state of political turmoil with student riots and manifestations across the country that are closing universities and lycées and bringing young people onto the streets in their thousands. They are protesting against the CPE, a first contract of employment offered to young people starting their working career. Simply put, the present plans being put before the Conseil Constitutionnel are interpreted as making it easier for employers to dismiss young staff without needing to justify themselves. Such violent opposition means forcing Prime Minister Villepin and President Chirac to backtrack or risk defeat during the forthcoming elections.
Young people in France certainly have major problems in finding employment of any sort. In Britain the unemployment rate for under 25s is 12.9% while in France it is 22.3%
For such reasons we are slightly anxious about our visit to Paris as further mass demonstrations are expected next Tuesday with official buildings closed, the Sorbonne boycotted and a general transport strike throughout the country. We have already seen something of young people's anger over the CPE when Ian was nearly hit by an egg in Caen before our return to England.
Friday 31st March 2006, Caen
This morning Ian woke with a headache. The fact that he could actually be unwell if he wished and lie in bed until lunchtime may have contributed to his state of exhaustion. It turned out to be nothing that a few hours extra sleep couldn't cure. We have had so many changes of the clock in the different countries we have passed through recently and the changes from summer to winter and back, that we have both found it tiring. Losing two hours over three days takes its toll. So Jill went down alone to the weekly food market in the town where she spent a pleasant hour amongst the stalls purchasing herbs and flowers for Geneviève's dinner party next Saturday.
Ian had recovered by the time she returned home though the rain had recommenced. So we spend a largely restful day catching up on emails and phone calls, arranging to visit Paris on Monday and Brittany the following week.
Visiting Leclerc supermarket for wine and bread we found a collection taking place to provide essentials to needy families. Twice a year volunteers are permitted to collect outside major supermarkets. As we went into the store we were handed a bag, the idea being we would purchase a few non-perishable items which we would pack into the bag and donate to the volunteers as we left. Almost everyone was taking a bag and an entire team of volunteers was packing crates of tinned food, soap, nappies, dried foods and toothpaste into a van to be distributed to those in need during the coming months. There was an excellent atmosphere amongst customers happy to donate, assured as they were that their donation would not be swallowed up in administrative costs as so often happens with donations of money.
Handing our bags for contribution to Banque d'Alimentation, Caen
During the evening, once Geneviève returned from work, we visited her mother Germaine together for an aperitif in her still sunny lounge on the top floor of a local apartment block with open views over the town with the twin towers of the Abbé aux Hommes, burial place of William the Conqueror, silhouetted on the city skyline.
Saturday 1st April 2006
The weekend has arrived giving our hostess a couple of days without worries of work. At last the sun has shone for us and we have been able to enjoy lunch with Geneviève in her garden.
Ian enjoys lunch in the garden
Geneviève and Jill on the terrace
Later we spent a pleasant afternoon browsing the garden centres of Caen together searching for a trellis and plant container for the patio. This evening Yves and Christine, Geneviève's brother and his partner from Rouen, joined us for supper. Trying to keep up with highly animated arguments in French about Chirac's attitude to the CPE and the effect it will have on future elections, young people and their employment prospects, left us feeling quite drained! Supper was wonderful, starting around 7.30pm and continuing until well after midnight. Genevieve is an excellent cook and accomplishes it with a cheerful calm that fills Jill with the deepest admiration. Home-made salmon rillettes were followed by a side of lamb with roasted vegetables and French beans. Later we enjoyed a selection of French and English cheeses and a green salad and we finished with an apricot flan and a citron tart. All the courses were accompanied by several bottles of highly palatable French wine.
Relaxing with an aperitif
Sunday 2nd April 2006
When we eventually got to bed we slept like logs until 9 am this morning. Today has been colder and more windy but generally dry. We returned with Modestine to Jardiland, the local garden centre, to collect the huge trellis we purchased yesterday which turned out to be far too big to fit into Geneviève's car. Later Ian fixed it to the garden wall where it now looks very smart. Before lunch we walked across town to the castle where a new exhibition opened yesterday which offers us a foretaste of what we can expect in Italy. The exhibition is called Splendeur de Venise and comprises a superb selection of over 100 paintings by Venetian artist covering the 16th century. The paintings are taken primarily from the municipal collections of Bordeaux and Caen who have jointly hosted the exhibition. It is a truly spectacular exhibition and includes works by Titian, Veronese, Tintoretto, Bassano and Palma. We are very envious of the cultural activities taking place here in Caen where there are superb museums, art galleries and concert halls and where money seems to be available to invite major exhibitions, artist and composers to participate.
After lunch – indoors today as there has been an evil wind despite the sunshine - we drove to a little village on the outskirts of Bayeux to visit Chantal, a work colleague and personal friend of Geneviève. Chantal lives in a large, partially restored and very happily cluttered house in the village centre next to the church with its memorial to those who died during the first World War. In a former life it was the village school. Opposite is a field of speckled Normandy cattle. Some years ago, when such things were more common, Chantal made a couple of visits to Vietnam with her rucksack and a carry cot, returning on each occasion with a tiny, orphaned Vietnamese baby. (Not quite as simple as it sounds though, everything being carried out in strict accordance to both French and Vietnamese law.) Today these adorable, happy children are as French as their playmates, bright, artistic, capable and achieving well in their local school. They have bright futures and have brought much happiness to the lives of those around them, including Geneviève who is the godmother of the eldest little girl.
The old school house
Our heads were in a daze by the time we left, listening and coping with so much rapid French conversation. Jill certainly dozed all the way back to Caen where after supper we sorted essential luggage to take with us to Paris tomorrow.