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Visiting Ben, Berengere and Camille in Marseille for the weekend on countdown-to-wedding arrangements.
An interesting journey. The Trainline sent me the wrong ticket. I’d stupidly trusted my confirmation email and hadn’t given my tickets more than a cursory look before putting them in my wallet. Silly me. Confusion and doubt caught me out at the station where I foolishly asked the ticket people for advice. A new ticket had to be purchased and naturally I wasn’t cut any slack by British Rail who gleefully charged me mega bucks to re-purchase the ticket I’d originally booked. Lesson learnt – check tickets minutely in future.
The next excitement was staying overnight in a Yotel capsule. The plane to Marseille leaves early in the morning (they’ve changed the flight times), making it necessary for me to leave Devon the evening before. The Yotel is a Japanese concept, which funnily enough throughstones mentioned in the dormouse nest tube post below (though this one did have a shower, loo and basin) at the very instant I was experiencing one! As I checked in there was this extraordinarily svelte expressionless American woman checking in at the same time. Chatting to the helpful, de-stressing check-in guy (I had failed miserably at the automated security point outside) about how excited yet trepidatious I was about staying the night in a luggage rack, I was never more surprised when the ultra sophisticated American tapped me on the shoulder and, with a very unexpected girlish giggle, said “Me too. It will be the highlight of my trip!”
I slept well, and so, apparently, had a lot of my fellow travellers, as I found out the following morning as we checked out. A chatty place with everyone apparently enjoying the novelty.
And then the pilot over-ran the runway when landing at Marseille! He managed on the second attempt as we held our breath and pretended we were as cool as cucumbers. Except, that is, for a child who began to scream “I want to get off. Mummy, mummy, mummy. Now. I. Want. To. Get. Off. Now!” Echoing what we were all really thinking.
I arrived in one piece. No more disasters and will be back on Monday night.
It’s 30 December and Berengère’s family are arriving to stay with us over the next five days. This is their first visit and I know they are really looking forward to seeing the farm, the animals, the surrounding countryside; absorbing the quintessential unspoilt ‘Englishness’ of the area. Roland, Berengère’s father, feels that that much of England, especially London, is loosing its distinctiveness and was hoping that he would re-find the special character of the country on this rural visit.
They are most interested in the farm and its produce and are intrigued by my passion for animals, farming and the countryside. Ben and Berengère have always championed our out-of-the-garden and from-the-fields ingredients together with my home cooking, so her parents were, I know, looking forward to some tasty meals to restore their faith in British cuisine, food and farming. The pressure was on! Normally cooking for ten doesn’t faze me, but I was ill and craving a hole in which to curl up and die. The thought of being a genial host and chef on top of routine twice-a-day stock care and farm work was beginning to make me feel wobbly.
“It doesn’t matter” said Berengère “Really, not at all. Look, my mother was in bed for the whole week when you came to visit! They’ll understand.” (Martine had injured her back when visited in May and was condemned to her bed by the doctor.)
“I know, I know. But I want it to be special for them. I’ve planned the meals. I’ve kept back the joints. I want them to have the whole experience!” And as always when you’re not 100% everything is blown-up by lip-quivery see-saw emotions.
In my head I’d planned the meals for the days ahead – ribs of our Red Ruby beef, sweet melting legs of Whiteface Dartmoor lamb, slow-roasted aromatic hand of pork and warm hearty white bean and kale casserole. I would prepare gratins of creamy potatoes and leeks, red cabbage and apple, tiny sprouts stirred into sticky chestnuts and port, steam fresh romanesque shoots and caldo nero kale (jealously saved in the veg garden). I wanted to make puddings of backberries and apples encased in the shortest of crumbly pastry, tiny mincepies with clotted cream, blueberries and currants in a cloud of fluffy meringue, a Christmas pudding (of course) and Christmas cake. I knew what I wanted to do…
It was fine! After a convivial first night where we celebrated the coming together of our families we planned the days ahead. Tomorrow we would take a tour of the animals and the farm, followed by lunch and whilst I stayed at home to prepare the New Year’s Eve meal Robert would take everyone on a hauntingly beautiful walk around Scorhill stone circle on Dartmoor.
Sitting down to lunch after the walk around the farm on gloriously hard ground (even our mud is beginning to freeze – total bliss!), the phone went…
“Paula, it’s Elaine from Spring House. Your mum’s had a fall. Well, a couple actually, we think… it’s a bit muddled. But the doctor’s been out. He thinks her hip could be broken. He’s arranged for her to be taken to Derriford to be x-rayed. She very confused and in a lot of pain….”
“What? Oh no! I’ll be there. Don’t let her be taken to Derriford, it’s New Year’s Eve, it’s Plymouth, it’ll be complete mayhem, she’ll be shoved in a corner. Don’t let anyone take her. I’ll phone the doctor. I’m on my way…Oh God, please let her be alright…”
With my heart pounding, I garbled hasty instruction at Ben for the evening meal and with an apologetic good-bye, grabbed my coat and fled.
part three to follow…
So where have I been? What blanket of fug was thrown over my head rendering me silent? The first was the same as for many of you, I shouldn’t be surprised…The Cold (of the virus type)! The second is slightly more distressing…
My slip-sliding into pre-Christmas panic disappeared and unabashed childish excitement and joy took over; our family arriving, friends popping round, unexpected invitations and out-of-the-blue visitors.
The tree twinkled in the warm firelit glow of the sitting room; banisters, mantels and pictures were decorated with binds of evergreen; mistletoe decked doorway and beam whilst freshly woven wreaths festooned the doors.
All was ready – larder shelves burdened festive goodies – ham, turkey and goose; Christmas puddings, mince pies and Christmas cake; nougats, navettes, glace fruits and marrons from France; cranberries, clementines, nuts and chocolate. I was all set to feed the army descending on us for the next ten days. But I hadn’t bargained on The Cold.
Olly, first to succumb to The Cold just before Christmas, was surprised to find he became worse rather than better. Will arrived home with the London strain. Camille brought the French version with her over the channel, her temperature soaring on Christmas Eve. The next in the firing line was me – whilst cooking Christmas dinner (naturally). Then it was Berengere. With rapid and single-minded intent it worked its way through us all. We had the added frisson of the more exotic, as our friends from across the Atlantic added their contribution to the melting pot. This was fast becoming virus heaven!
‘Hey bro –how ya doin’? Gi me five!’
‘Aw’rite mate. Didn’t ‘spec you ‘ere. Aint ‘alf bad – oi mean look at these fekking geezers…!’
‘Pardon…I ‘ave not zee Englieesh…mais oui, ici, c’est trez bon. ‘Ow you say? Bloodee marvellous!’
‘Good to see you all in this neck of the woods. The frog’s right when ‘e says it’s bloody marvellous. Never seen such a cosmopolitan gathering. Here’s one for united nations and entente cordial!
The viruses rub their hands in glee at the prospect of increasing their kith and kin by 500,000 billion in the next few days. They high five and in unison stream forward to launch their attack; bookies shout the odds on favourites, and humans didn’t stand a chance!
Yesterday, sadly, the house emptied. Today, as I gather up pine needles, escaped shreds of wrapping paper, broken toys, cracker jokes, squashed mince pies and baskets full of holiday detritus, I stop as I seem to the whole time at the moment to gaze out at the frost-sparkling countryside. Do you know we haven’t had a drop of rain for over ten days? I can scarcely believe it.
The more distressing part two tomorrow…
Firstly, before I write jot, my wishes and thoughts are speeding their way to you over the ether for a year in which you will find fulfilment, happiness and peace as well as buckets-full of energy and excitement for new ideas and projects.
I also want to thank you for all your support, encouragement, comments and debate; without you there really wouldn’t be a blog!
So here’s to you and the best 2009 can bring…A Happy New Year!
Hatherleigh Carnival. As predicted the weather’s turned atrocious. I’d just finished making a second batch of quince cheese scenting the house with a honey sweetness; fires burnt snugly, curtains drawn, muffling the sound of wind rattling and shaking the world. I sunk into the sofa cradling a mug of hot tea. Bliss; so tempting just to snuggle in for the evening. Robert was away in London.
The phone rang, it was Adam. “Just phoning about the carnival. Are you still going? It’s such a shame – the weather, so dreadful. I was only popping in to see the judging and will probably be going straight home after. If you want I…”
“No, no” I interrupted “It’s okay. I’ll make my own way in. I want to take pictures of the tar barrels so I’ll be hanging on a bit. I’m sure I’ll meet up with Sally and Marcus. But thanks anyway. Maybe see you.”
The phone rang again…
“Are you still going?” it was Philip “We were all ready to, but, it’s just too appalling.” Philip, Lisa and their twins generally meet up with us on carnival night.
“Well, yes, I am. I want to get some photos of the tar barrels. The weather’s turning it into rather an adventure.”
“I don’t think you’ll get much of a photo in this!”
Olly came down stairs. “Mum, surely you’re not going. Have you seen?”
“Yes I am. I’ve got to. I feel sorry for everyone. So much hard work. Some of those floats take almost a year to work on. But they said the storm will be swift, if violent. And look, I can see the moon!”
I donned my mountain walking gear, wellies and waterproof trousers. Outside the back door a torrent, no, a flood hurled past the door. The dip in the lane had turned into the Amazon as water careered across the culvert, no sign of the surface anymore. Onwards I drove. The road down to the river meadows had become a series of rapids foaming with the detritus of branches, leaves and acorns; blocked ditches and drains spewed great gouts of angry water hurtling towards the river. The two miles into Hatherleigh was more of a car swim than a drive. After parking in a flooded gateway where the water almost came to the tops of my wellies, I sloshed the last quarter of a mile into town, the moon now shining though scudding clouds.
The atmosphere was exhilarating. The crowd, large enough to cause a buzz, was still small enough to create a tingling intimacy. The black slicked roads reflected lozenges of colour and light. The air hung with a concoction of musty wool, burning paraffin, the metallic tang of beer, with fried fat and the hot sweetness of fresh doughnuts. I found a group of friends and was handed a flask of warming ginger wine spiked with whisky.
The band struck up, drums resonating and vibrating inside us. The torch bearers followed leading the carnival parade, headed by the president, the queen, the prince and princess. Then the floats of intrinsic and exquisite work pulled behind gargantuan tractors, their lights hard and bright like slant-eyed monsters. The walkers joust and tumble in an array of topical satire, goading, egging and capturing the crowd with their capers and antics.
Suddenly it’s over, the procession with all its din, colour and excitement has passed into the quiet seclusion of the market place. The crowd wait, the darkness throbs with electric expectation.
At the top of the hill a shout goes up, raw and harsh “Oggie, oggie, oggie. Oy! Oy! Oy!”
The response slow to begin with growing in strength and volume
“Oggie, oggie, oggie, Oy! Oy! Oy!”
And down they hurtle, the chosen young men of the town, blood up, veins pulsing, their faces blackened by smoke, dragging a raft of wildly flaming tar barrels. Egged on by a swelling crowd the shout becomes a guttural chant “Oggie, oggie, oggie. Oy! Oy! Oy! Oggie, oggie, oggie. Oy! Oy! Oy!” Faster and faster they career down the streets the mood changing from one of light-heartedness to something far more raw and instinctive.
Now running on pure adrenalin they arrive at the bon-fire, heave the barrels onto the stacked timber to set it alight, only to lie gasping on the ground as the exertion, admiring girls and crowd catch up with them. Soon the flames and heat capture and still both thought and limb. The people of Hatherleigh, satiated and contemplative, start to remember who they are, returning reluctantly to the present from some distant time when the elements held sway and nature was a mysterious and capricious force to be respected and placated. A time when just occasionally it was OK to let primal, tribal, instincts reign.