With a Little Help From My Friends and Family Part II: My Folks Feck Off to France
I believe that although we like to think otherwise, we don’t realise just how much our friends and family mean to us until they’re, for example, 700 miles away. My folks and I email frequently and my father has even mastered the art of inserting emoticons into his messages to make them a little more personal. Well, almost mastered.
Email, phone calls and Skype dates are great, but I will never again underestimate the power of a bear hug.
Particularly the three-way bear hug I gave my parents having almost bowled over a small child in my sprint across Toulouse-Blagnac Airport.
I never did like French children anyway.
There’s something about having your parents visit you on a Year Abroad that feels like watching the two worlds you belong to crash into each other and cause a bit of a mess. For probably the first time in your life, your folks are completely reliant on you to make them understood. Just as they translated your baby babble, you now have to help them out as they speak slow, deliberate French with a strong Yorkshire accent, accompanied with pointing, confused grammatical gender and some interesting verb conjugation. You’re showing them around a place they’ll most likely never feel as comfortable in as you do, a place that probably feels more foreign to them than it did to you on your very first day. And it’s terrifying for all parties concerned.
Suddenly you realise just how the old folks felt as they tried to keep both eyes on you in the supermarket, with you wanting to see, touch and eat everything and them just crossing their fingers you didn’t end up under a trolley.
That’s not to mention the considerable stress of finding suitable cuisine for a tall and fairly rotund Yorkshireman when your own “eating out” habits extend to a Subway Student Deal. He raved about a good steak and cassoulet, the local speciality, but anything vaguely haute cuisine and you could just see his mind formulating a sentence out of the words “robbing”, “stingy”, “Froggy” and a mild expletive.
It was comforting to hear my parents praise my excellent choice of host city and the way I seemed to be coping with life abroad. And it was comforting for them to have a point of reference- although my accommodation (and university) are very basic, it’s nice to put a picture to a place name. And even more comforting was the knowledge that 700 miles and several months of separation had done nothing to endanger how in tune mine and my father’s senses of humour are.
Here, I refer to my parents as The Coordinator and The Bank. Classically, The Coordinator coordinated the trip and The Bank ummed and aahed about its cost. A month or so before their arrival mid-November, The Coordinator informed me that a trip out to see me before Christmas was going to be impossible, since The Bank had a new job and finding the time (and a convenient winter flight) was going to be almost impossible. I put a brave face on my disappointment. After all, I was brought up to expect nothing and to be grateful for everything- as a little girl, requests for new toys or the latest craze would most often be met with the same response: “Oh I don’t know about that. Mummy and daddy have to work very hard to be able to buy nice things.” But more often than not, a few days later, “nice things” would appear, as a reward for good behaviour or working hard at school. Unless the request truly was ridiculous- and my so far unbroken limbs can probably thank my folks for not caving in to my pleas for the first generation of trainers with pop-out wheels (a craze which lasted three weeks and left many kids with casts, slings and now ordinary trainers with wheels which refused to pop out).
You think I’d be wise to the way The Bank’s mind works. And yet when I received an email with flight and hotel booking confirmations attached, I was shocked and delighted. And a decade after the roller-shoe craze, I can now appreciate my parents for what I consider much greater offerings. They’d just earned themselves a new stamp on the Retirement Home card, earning them a shared, en suite room with golden taps (next up is the “within driving distance from one or both child(ren)” criterium).
Back to the bear hug then, after the near-ploughing over of a small, French child.
I presented The Bank with various ways of getting from the airport to the hotel. He rejected taxi and shuttle bus for the far more cost effective bus ride plus a walk. After 25 minutes of lugging a 30-kilo case (of The Coordinator’s making- and for which they had been charged luggage excess) over no less than three bridges (I ought perhaps to have mentioned the bridges), we checked in reasonably painlessly. And as The Bank recovered his breath and his sense of humour, he took a gander out the window at his surroundings.
“Well you can’t see the Eiffel Tower or bugger all.”
The Coordinator set about unpacking the 30 kilo suitcase. I’d made a few requests, including my Doc Martens and some Yorkshire Tea but she’d naturally come armed with items I couldn’t have imagine I’d wanted until that moment. My square French pillow which I’d folded up to fit inside my rectangular English pillow case could now be replaced by a rectangular pillow. Miraculous. And, having emptied the 30 kilo suitcase of 20 kilos of my stuff, we set about getting my weary parents some sustenance and several cold beers.
Despite the aforementioned Restaurant Strain Disorder (“Is there not somewhere I can get a good pie?”) and trying to persuade a French boulangère that a quiche is a perfectly respectable breakfast for a Yorkshireman (“I can’t be doing with this pain o’ chocolat”), we had a very relaxing and enjoyable four days together. Knowing the way to my father’s heart, I proposed we do the Airbus factory tour and take a boat trip along the Garonne. Both boasted typically Toulousain experiences, accompanied with crap or non-existent English translation. I was therefore promoted from guide to interpreter.
As a guide, I was perfectly competent on familiar territory, making regular trips to what we now call “Madame Miggins’ Sandwich Shop” and “doing Toulouse” but took us on quite a trek as we were directed by a wayward signpost to the Airbus factory. After asking members of staff in various Airbus buildings for directions, it was a group of Belgian tourists that finally pointed us the right way. Apologising to my father, who has arthritic knees, and my mother, who had the mother of all blisters on her foot, for having taken the scenic route across undeveloped or once-developed wasteland and then around the Airbus factory site (which was well worth a visit), The Bank, again recovering his breath and sense of humour, told me not to worry, sweetheart, and that I’d done brilliantly asking the locals and not-so locals for directions- “but was that the English speaking tour, do we reckon?” Is true zat ze guide require much concentration for understanding.
I did, however, manage to get us to Carcassonne and back by train. This is a destination my mum has had her heart set on ever since she read Labyrinth by Kate Mosse (note that “e”). The cité, the castle and village contained within its walls, was definitely worth seeing and paying a few bob to wander around. It has a fascinating history, which has been well preserved, although in the village especially there are a few traces of the 21st Century, such as satellite dishes and the like. My father did not miss the opportunity to ad-lib a sketch about Sky Medieval (with jousting over on Sky Med Sport and Carry On Caesar on Gold).
Then, just as we’d explored almost all of the walled city, the sky turned overcast and everything went a little dark. It was just after that I spotted this little guy and the colour drained from my face…
I wouldn’t have felt we’d done the thing properly if we hadn’t almost ordered raw meat in a restaurant, got tragically lost, been subjected to many Kodak moments by The Coordinator, laughed at the size of the coffee cups and forgotten to ask for milk. It was strange to see the evidence that I’ve adapted to French life and culture quite naturally- but for all I’ve changed a few of my habits, I’m still so very aware of the pitfalls waiting for Brits in France.
As my dad quipped, “I’d hate to be foreign, me,” his stony expression upon delivery of a joke for once breaking into breathy laughter.