Having discovered the French medical system and seen close-ups of my poor knackered knee, I wasn’t surprised when it quickly became as temperamental as it did. Painkillers are expensive when your EHIC card is apparently not worth the crappy plastic it’s printed on and I was resisting the temptation to prescribe myself a merlot or five. So when The Coordinator told me she was coordinating a second visit, this time sadly without my father but with two of my aunties, I was delighted. She was bringing a seasoned GP and a stash of codeine-based painkillers. The mummy doctor was in.
Possibly having sensed I wasn’t quite my old self in the face of terrifying prospects such as “taking it steady” and “avoiding over-exertion” (oh and surgery), she also came armed with Cadbury’s Creme Eggs and Chocolate Digestives, just two of the things I miss most about the UK (and not only because Creme Egg season provides numerous opportunities to ridicule my good friend Columbo’s oddly French pronunciation of “Creme”).
In fact, she brought so many items intended to bring me joy, peace of mind or just to make life easier that the toiletry bag she’d packed for herself was comically empty by the time she’d made her many medicinal offerings.
A few weeks prior to their arrival, I received an email from one of my aunties, in questionable French, addressed to “ma petite”, reassuring me of her level of schoolgirl French. I should have warned Toulouse of their imminent crash-landing there and then.
And so it was on the train platform that we had our emotional and many-legged reunion (since I was by this point with crutch), as I marvelled at the fact they’d made it from Carcassonne to Toulouse without incident. They checked into their hotel, again without incident. And then we went out for dinner…
I’d chosen a simple, not overly French joint for eats, knowing it was late and the Intrepid Three could most likely eat a, well, Hippo. They made marvellous attempts with their French à l’anglaise, but in my excitement at having them there I forget to give the “you can go wrong with a steak” tutorial. After my auntie had politely requested (begged) hers be shoved under the grill a little longer (and it is of course against one of the Ten French Cuisine Commandments to suggest “blue” and “medium” are not culinary synonyms) it came back no longer mooing with an extra portion of veg and chips. Bref, we ate a Hippo and a half.
We spent some time exploring the sights of Toulouse: its places, its ponts and its people. All of which are usually more than up to scratch. Until Two Generations on Tour show up of course. I’ve had a theory for some time, which I call the Crazy Ratio. The Crazy Ratio can be as high as 3:2 outside peak times on public transport. You could assume the two crazies on either side of you are talking to each other. But you’d be sadly mistaken. Of course it turns out that at least one member of my clan is a insanity magnet. It’s usually me. Having politely declined to hand out my barely existent pocket money, I’ve been serenaded, called a slut and informed that this particular beggar does in fact take cheques. I’ve never been simultaneously called a slut and punched though. I left that honour to Rocky Auntie, who apparently has a surprising amount of feist hidden behind a cultured exterior. She would have brought home the nutter-wrestling lightweight… If she hadn’t had to run away. I’m just glad she didn’t understand exactly what was being bellowed at her.
When we’d seen plenty of Toulouse, my two aunties decided they would visit Carcassonne on the Saturday, leaving The Coordinator and I to have some mother-daughter time. My non-crazy-wrestling auntie, who has a few coordinator genes in her, had booked open train tickets, picked up a timetable and accosted an English-speaking tourist for a map. Yet Rocky Auntie and The Navigator, despite their best efforts and my own, managed to make it onto a train originating from Carcassonne and destined for Toulouse. Where it planned to stay. Oops.
My mum and I learnt of this an hour or so later as we sipped coffee outside a small café a good distance from the train station. As it happens, The Navigator had expertly found her way to a market at Place du Capitole. Of course, finding my rellies at said market was like finding two middle-aged women in middle-aged haystack.
They did make it to Carcassonne the next day. We rose early and over a Quick breakfast rehearsed our “pauvres anglaises” act, ready for the SNCF staff who may or may not decide to exchange my aunties’ already composted tickets. Thou shalt compost (validate) your ticket, says the SNCF, and obey its tiny printed gospel, lest all Hell break loose. It was a tense moment.
For their penultimate evening in Toulouse, I decided on a Lebanese restaurant, so my clan could sample some more unusual cuisine. I say restaurant in the loosest sense of the word, however. What I should have told them was that I was taking them to a glorified takeaway by the name of Chez Nous Les Libanais. My rellies were perhaps less surprised than the staff, who were far more used to groups of students coming in for their pre-Place Saint Pierre kebab. For those not in the know, Place Saint Pierre (which is what the French call Saint Peter’s Square) is precisely the opposite of its counterpart in Vatican City- party-goers hail the beer and worship Le Saint des Seins (look it up) more than anything else… Safe to say, I marched the Intrepid Three quickly through the swiftly-forming crowd of Saint Pierre earlybirds and hoped they wouldn’t notice anything too depraved at this point in the evening.
The time quickly came to say goodbye and send my loved ones on their merry way back to Carcassonne Airport. Having waved them off on the train, I returned home to receive a string of email messages from my still-in-Carcassonne mother, who couldn’t believe she’d managed to choose the one French airport which will seemingly not be finished for some time. Having said that, my theory that France as a country is a tad unfinished stands.
Carcassonne Airport, some time before the time of writing, was apparently made of plywood, inviting in the aromatic odour of plane fluid and vibrating violently every time a plane passed (which, admittedly, is only every time a Ryanair flight dares touch down, distracting its passengers from a runway under construction with over-enthusiastic fanfare). Check-in consisted of a single assistant behind a desk probably nicked from the nearest primary school, buckling under the weight of a domestic printer, which he accidentally sent crashing to the floor, causing the same amount of noise as a Ryanair flight parking itself in the middle of the terminal and delays of an hour and a half. The same assistant, having checked the flight in, then took his position as the security attendant and began scanning hand luggage. The Coordinator says they were only playing at airports…
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.