A Few Holiday Reflections

It’s always a bit of a let down when you return home after a holiday. The weather isn’t that great, there’s a whole lot of washing to do of your holiday clothes. You start wishing things like, maybe we should have had another week? We were travelling in a motorhome and I start to think why didn’t we go there or go to see that? There’s always the next trip of course and the good thing is that as I’m now retired, I don’t have to go back to work. Anyway, while I’m feeling a little deflated looking out at the rather dull suburban view from my window it might be a good idea to take a look back at the last few weeks in France.

One of the things I’ve always liked about France is their laid-back lifestyle. Over there, and perhaps more so in the rural areas than the big cities, everything stops for lunch. No, not a quick sandwich grabbed on a 30-minute break, lunch times in France are something to be enjoyed and for care to be taken over. Shops close between 12 and 2 pm and it’s only in recent years that some supermarkets will stay open during those times.

At picnic tables all over france, the French descend on sunny days with huge containers of food and wine. Tablecloths are laid and the food is eaten and enjoyed at leisure.

Restaurants in France always have a plat du jour, a dish of the day and many are served as part of a formula menu comprising of starter, main, dessert and/or cheese. I always thought that the plat du jour was something a French restaurant had to serve but I couldn’t find any evidence of that on the internet so perhaps it’s just a tradition. Plenty of bread is always served with a French meal and it is usual for the waiter to top up your bread basket when he or she sees it is empty.

My favourite French restaurants are those which have a buffet starter. There is usually a small choice of main courses but over on the buffet table there will be a large selection of salads, cold rice and pasta dishes, pâté, cold meats in various dressings, shredded carrots and chopped beetroot. I try to avoid the various fishy dishes like cold rice and tuna but I usually find my plate piled with goodies.

House wine is usually served by the pichet, small jugs. Very small at 25cl and larger ones at 50cl. On hot summer days I tend to go for the house rose but more often than not Liz and I will share a pichet of red.

Cheese in a French restaurant with a pichet of vin rouge

Our first French meal this year was in the Buffalo Grill, a franchised restaurant you will see all over France. It’s like an English steak house serving steak, burgers, ribs and so on. A small salad in a bowl came first before our choice of mains. Mine was an excellent cheeseburger, Liz had a steak and the dessert was some ice cream.

In the town of Saumur, we had our first proper French lunch. The starter was the lovely French buffet I talked about above and the main was confit duck for Liz and a chicken in curry sauce for me. Curry is an unusual dish to find in France as the French don’t seem to go in for spicy food. The curry sauce was to me very mild and more of a slightly curry flavoured cream sauce. It came with fries and the traditional green beans and I have to say, I do love French green beans.

Curried chicken and frites

For dessert we ordered ice cream for me and cheese for Liz and we split the two between us. It was a lovely meal although perhaps a little too much for someone like me who rarely eats lunch.

Most weekends we scour the internet and find ourselves a few brocantes or vide greniers to visit. Vide greniers or car boot sales are usually part of a village fete and there will also be music, wine and food to be found. I remember going to one a few years ago which was interrupted by a pretty heavy shower of rain. In the UK, the vendors would have quickly packed up and been off but in France it was a different story. Plastic covers were quickly whipped out and people took shelter in the food and bar area. Liz and I stood at the bar and drank a glass of cheap red wine and when the skies cleared, we carried on looking for bargains.

I like travelling in our motorhome but after a few weeks living in a somewhat cramped environment I was glad to get to our French villa. I say our French villa even though it is a rental property. We have stayed here a couple of times before and it is ideally placed for everything we need although a bar or restaurant within walking distance would be nice.

The sun going down after a day by a plan d’eau

At the villa I usually try to act like a writer. I get up fairly early and after a cup of tea and a quick scan of my emails on my iPad I crank up my laptop and do some work on my writing projects. In my draft blog folder I’ve currently got eight blogs awaiting attention. Most are just ideas but some are partly written blog posts that need an injection of effort and inspiration to get them finished. The sequel to Floating in Space is still only half finished but I still chip away at it, a few pages at a time as well as a few other stories, screenplays and poems that all need urgent work.

After a little of that it’s time for a late breakfast, brunch might be a better word, and to have a swim and a read by the pool. I remember once reading about Noel Coward that while staying at his house in Jamaica, he rose at 8 am and worked at his writing until 12 when lunch was served. No wonder he produced a fine body of work while I have only produced one novel and one poetry anthology.

A big disappointment on this last trip was the failure of one of my video cameras, my GoPro Hero. I had intended to put together another travel video and at first, I thought it wasn’t going to be possible as I hadn’t shot enough video. However, looking back through my video files I see I’ve got hours of unused video from our previous trips so perhaps I can just cobble something together after all.

Looking back through some of my old video I came across what was quite a scary moment. We were travelling through the town of Rouen, a lovely old town but quite a busy one. I’m always a little nervous driving in big cities, especially in an area where there is lots of traffic and also when the road goes into multiple lanes. I’m pretty good at driving on the right-hand side but in multiple lanes I find myself drifting to the left-hand lane and I usually have to say to myself, Steve, get over to the right.

As you leave Rouen, there are numerous roundabouts and the French have come up with an interesting congestion busting idea. If you are carrying straight on you can duck under the roundabouts down a tunnel and in fact, Google maps which we often use, tends to direct you down into the tunnels. The big problem is that our motorhome is between 2.8 and 2.9 metres in height, just over 9 foot and the tunnels have a height limit of 2.6 metres if I remember correctly. One year I was getting flustered and ended up in the lane for the tunnel but then realised I wasn’t going to fit. Luckily there was an exit lane back to the main carriageway and after some scary reversing we managed to get out.

A big disappointment this year was not seeing much of my favourite cheese, Rondele Bleu. It’s a blue cheese produced in a light mousse style. I think we managed to buy the last tub in one supermarket and then failed to find it again in any other store.

Naturally, we brought quite a bit of French wine and cheese back to the UK but already our stocks are getting low. Time to plan another trip perhaps?


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Motorhomes, Weddings and the Curse of Mobile Wi-Fi!

Holidaying in a motorhome is a great adventure; the open road, the open country, the sense of freedom, the feeling of self reliance. The joy of stopping where and whenever you like and switching on the gas, making tea and watching the sausages sizzle satisfyingly in the frying pan. Believe me, it’s a great feeling.

The flip side is baking in the 90 degree plus heat of a French summer and finding that your motorhome provides no shelter, in fact, it’s even hotter inside than outside.

The good thing though is that you can drive away, find a nearby lake or plan d’eau, park up and jump straight into the cool water.

On this eleven day trip we have meandered slowly through the towns and villages of north-eastern France. On our first night we parked up outside our favourite French restaurant in Zutkerque, Le Mas Fleuri, where we ate and drank heartily of the simple but wonderful food they serve. Monsieur Le Patron assured us that he would open his doors at 8 in the morning so we could avail ourselves of his restaurant toilets. What a lovely gesture indeed.

The next evening we arrived in Berny-Rivière and visited another old watering hole, Chez Micheline, where we had a superb pâté to start with and for me a rather tame pizza which was a poor choice on my part. It was the night when the French won the World Cup and they drove around beeping their car horns and waving excitedly back at us when we beeped ours. The TV in the restaurant bar was tuned naturally to the football station and everyone there was clearly overjoyed. The atmosphere was wonderful.

Grave of Wilfrid Owen, Ors, France.

Travelling through north-eastern France you cannot help but recognise many of the names on the road signs. Cambrai, Arras, the Marne, Verdun and so on, all are famous names from the First World War and as you travel further, it is inevitable that you will see signs for military cemeteries. The country is littered with these cemeteries, some huge and impressive and some small but all quiet, silent and filled with a sadness for a generation lost in the carnage of war. At each one we visited there are many graves labeled simply ‘A Soldier of the Great War. Known unto God.’ Soldiers whose remains were unrecognisable in death, their documents and serial numbers blown to pieces in one of the many artillery bombardments on the Western Front.

We went to the village of Ors to find the grave of Wilfred Owen, one of the outstanding poets of the First World War. He is buried in the village cemetery at Ors where there are a number of soldiers’ graves. It was sad to see that he died on the 4th of November, 1918, only a matter of days before the armistice. He was only 25 years old and interestingly for me, was a member of the Manchester Regiment. Manchester of course being my home town. We left Ors saddened by the events of a hundred years ago.

One interesting aspect of using a motorhome is how you become aware of your consumables, not only power but water. Power was not a great problem due to our solar panel but water was an issue, especially as we drank more and more in the high temperatures. It was great to find that in France, motorhomes are welcome in many places and there are plenty of municipal motorhome sites where you can dump waste water, empty your toilet and top up your drinking water.

On our first stop at one of these sites we set about our first toilet emptying. I successfully removed the toilet container, emptied it, swilled it out, added some fresh water and the toilet liquid that helps break down the waste. It was all a little pongy but not too bad. The next day when we were preparing to leave, a French motorhome arrived next to us. We murmured a few bonjours at each other and the French driver set about emptying his toilet, however we weren’t prepared for the horrendous stench of what smelled like the entire contents of a Paris suburb being flushed away. We rapidly battened down the hatches and fled.

The one disaster of this holiday was our mobile internet connection. I had got myself a mobile router arranged and a data SIM courtesy of Three.co.uk. I tried everything out in the UK and everything seemed OK. Fast forward to France and nothing worked. In desperation I made an expensive call to the Three network and when I finally got through they assured me my SIM was registered OK, roaming was set up so everything should work, only it didn’t. Next step was to buy a French data SIM card, slip it into my router and hope for the best. Did that work? No. We tried the SIM in Liz’s iPad and finally got a connection. The router was at fault then. Back in the UK I had a moaning email all ready to complain to the manufacturer but then I thought I’d have one last try. Going through the instructions once again using a magnifying glass -they were written in very tiny type for some reason- I noticed a password I hadn’t seen earlier, typed it in and my little wi-fi router finally connected. If you happened to be on the Fylde coast that day and heard a piercing scream, well you can perhaps guess who was responsible.

The objective of our trip to France was the wedding of Liz’s nephew Michael to his bride Anaïs in Alsace. The wedding venue was high on the top of a mountain, well it seemed like a mountain to me. Actually it was a very big hill accessible only by a mountain track normally used only by goats. It was a bit of a scary trip uphill but we somehow made it and a very nice time was had by all. The bride and groom made their vows, a number of speeches were forthcoming, happily for me there were even a few in English. A great deal of alcohol was consumed as was a large barbecue consisting of three medium sized pigs and a small lamb and plenty of salad and wine. This being France a halt was called during the proceedings for the serving of the cheese then after a suitable period the music and dancing commenced.

The Bride and Groom watch a special dance performed by their guests.

At the wedding one surreal event occurred which I must tell you about but first I need to introduce this week’s classic film which is Romancing the Stone. Not a classic in the same sense as Casablanca perhaps but still a pretty good film, well worth watching the next time it comes up on TV. If you’ve not seen the film it stars Michael Douglas as Jack Colton, an American adventurer in Colombia who is helping out novelist Joan Wilder, played by Kathleen Turner, whose sister has been kidnapped by a nasty drug cartel. At one point in the film the couple are lost in an unfriendly village full of aggressive gun-toting individuals. They are directed to the house of one fellow in an attempt to get transportation. Negotiations are going decidedly nowhere and fingers are on triggers when the gang boss eyes the novelist and asks ‘Joan Wilder? Are you Joan Wilder the novelist?’

OK, fast forward to France at the wedding on the top of the mountain and Michael, the groom if you remember, introduces me to one of his French friends and this fellow does a double take and asks ‘Steve? Steve Higgins, writer and blogger?’ I was so surprised I nearly tripped backwards and went splat right into the buffet table. I mean writing a blog post every week hardly makes you famous does it?

Anyway, when I had calmed down it turned out that many moons ago Laurent, as the French chap was called, and I had both commented on some long forgotten family Facebook thread and he had checked out my profile and found my Facebook writers’ page titled ‘Steve Higgins writer and blogger‘. ‘Have you read Floating in Space?’ I asked. ‘I will when the french version is available’ he replied.  Yes, he might have to wait a while for that one!


Floating in Space is a novel set in Manchester, 1977. Click the links at the top of the page to buy or for more information.