Getting Away From it all…and Coming Back

I love being home after a holiday. When we drove off the Boulogne ferry very early on Monday morning, it was only the lateness of the hour and inadequacy of the setting that prevented me from falling blissfully to my knees and kissing some English sand, as did the bemulleted Kevin Costner in Prince of Thieves. I managed to work the phrase ‘my native land’ a full seven times into conversation during the drive back down the M4, buoyed with a bubble of happiness that managed to stay afloat even when the alarm went off at 7am the next day.

The return to the UK was all the more satisfying, coming as it did at the end of a truly wonderful holiday. We spent just over a week in a picturesque, rambling country house in the middle of Normandy, which was filled only with fantastically ugly antique furniture until we filled it even fuller with fourteen people.

Lovely house...

Tim and I slept in a tiny attic room with a sweeping view and a bed with a gaping crevasse in the mattress; my unofficial waking up time became 2am, as I would lose my grip on the edge of the bed and roll, inexorably, downhill to wherever Tim was.

We ate large, baguette-related meals in the dining room and out of cool boxes in the car, went on sunny, dusty walks, swam in green lakes overhung with tangled trees, and only once pulled out onto the left side of the road by accident (quickly rectified; no casualties). The most confusing thing about the roads was not the right-hand traffic but the roundabouts – easy enough to drive around, but each with its own, hilariously random collection of sculpture, ranging from six full-size plastic cows to five-feet-long paperclips to a selection of hanging baskets on decorative fishing poles. And as you gape, and one of you says ‘Is that…a cow?’, you miss your exit. Rubbish.

On Monday we visited the castle at Falaise, the birthplace of William the Conqueror (or William the Bastard as he was first known; one suspects he was keen to get some conquering done in order to shift his awful nickname). For reasons best known to the renovators, the castle had been decked out on the inside with a mixture of sandstone and stainless steel, and the audio tour initially seemed reluctant to dwell on William at all: we were treated to philosophical musings on the similarities of chess to medieval society, and an account of a Christmas party given by Eleanor of Aquitaine. Then in the final room we were directed to the far wall, which sprang to life with a projected animation: William, crossing the sea to invade England, pauses to remember the touching story of his royal father seducing his peasant mother (ah, romance), then enjoys some highly dramatic, musical flashbacks to his own upbringing and rise to power. It was all very…French. And brilliantly enjoyable.

Claude Monet’s house and garden at Giverny was a botanical paradise, from the jumble of flowers spilling out onto little pathways, to the more ordered calm of the famous lily pond. Considering Monet was a painter, he had some very funny ideas about decoration. For instance, everything in his kitchen, from woodwork to accessories, was bright yellow. It’s like he had only one pot of paint left over and just thought well, what the heck. Splash it everywhere boys. I would’ve thought the guards in the house might have suffered from eye-strain, but they didn’t seem to mind: they were startlingly overprotective of the house and its contents, leering threateningly at people with cameras (which weren’t allowed), and raining a torrent of outraged abuse onto Seb as he accidentally leaned against a stool. Bad boy. Don’t you know whose stool that was?! The rest of the village was similarly beautiful, but I bet Monet won the Giverny In Bloom prize every year even so – in the late afternoon sunshine the garden was glorious.

The final two days were spent visiting D-Day sites and memorials, a sober and somehow ennobling way to conclude, I thought. I had unwittingly prepared myself by reading Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front a couple of nights before (see Appendix A, later, for why this is the best first world war book ever written). Foolishly, I read the last third all in one go before bedtime, and spent several hours afterwards staring dry-eyed and shivery with horror at the ceiling, repeating Wilfred Owen’s ‘Futility’ to myself because that’s the only war poem I know by heart. A different war fought on the Normandy beaches, but the same devastation of young life. From a distance, the Commonwealth cemetery at Bayeux, with its four-and-a-half-thousand grave markers in cream stone, looks peaceful and serenely dignified. When you stand in the middle of it, and realise that every one means a 19 or 20 year old boy died painfully, and violently, and that four-and-a-half-thousand families had to make peace with that for the rest of their lives, it’s almost unbearable. It puts the famous verse ‘At the going down of the sun and in the morning/ We will remember them’ into context, doesn’t it? I was overwhelmed by their bravery, and by the insignificance of my own concerns, which I suppose is what these memorials try to help us remember.

All of which really put me in the frame of mind to appreciate home and all its comforts. I promise you my emotions were quite as fervent as Kevin’s, and I would have seized with pleasure the opportunity to embrace the soil of my native land, mullet stirring gently in the stiff English breeze.

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