Being on holiday this summer has reminded me of all the other holidays I have been on. Most have been lovely and trouble free, but one was quite remarkable in the number of catastrophes that occurred over a relatively short period.
It was fifteen years ago. Rob and I, childless, madly in love, had just got married. The wedding was on the first day of my school’s summer holiday and we went for a short honeymoon in St Lucia. As the start of the next term loomed we decided to try and get away again and found what looked like the perfect getaway, a sizeable gite with a pool just outside Parthenay in Western France.
It had two bedrooms and was a little pricy so we asked my lovely brother and his girlfriend (now wife) if they wanted to come with us. They eagerly agreed and we set off in our old blue Rover. We were staying for a week but looking back it felt like we were there for two months – it was a holiday packed with adventure, not always good adventures.
To give it some context, this was the first time any of us had been on a self-catering holiday. We were all in our late 20’s and had travelled all over the place, but as backpackers, or on package holidays. I remember this as being our first ‘grown up’ holiday together where we had to shop, and cook, and clean up after ourselves in a proper house. We were not ready for this. My brother and I act like teenagers when we spend time together now – we were even worse then.
We were delighted with ourselves as we managed to navigate our way there without a hitch using Maps! This was way before smart phones and sat navs at that time were far too expensive for us to even consider buying. Rob had packed a ghetto blaster and 15 CDs for us to listen to as we lazed by the pool. Blimey it sounds pre-war and it was only fifteen years ago!
Within ten minutes of arriving, after a hot and very sweaty journey (there was a baking heatwave that year) Brother and I were in the swimming pool splashing about and giggling, making up stupid games. Rob and Sister-In-Law-To-Be rolled their eyes and did sensible things like bringing in the luggage and making a shopping list.
The next day we made the mistake of having a leisurely morning, hanging out by the pool listening to our CDs and enjoying the sunshine. I say mistake because we didn’t realise the French seem to have a very narrow time frame in which one can have lunch. We drove to nearby Poitiers looking forward to a nice formule midi.
It was BOILING HOT. We parked the car and went in search of a restaurant. The time was just coming up to 2pm. We walked. And walked. And walked. Not one restaurant was open. Days passed. Years. The sun bore down. Sweat dripped from our brows. My Sister-in-Law to be was getting hangry. This was not good. Terrible things happened if S-I-L was hungry for too long.
We ventured further and further into town. The streets were deserted. Locals slammed their shutters closed as we passed. The soundtrack to ‘The Good the Bad and the Ugly’ whistled through my head. Tumbleweed blew across our path.
‘Shall we drive somewhere else?’ my brother asked in despair.
‘I can’t even remember where the car is,’ replied Rob.
My heart sank at the thought of the further two hours we would have to walk to get back to the damn car.
Then, joy! We stumbled across a brassiere with some people leaving. We shouldered our way in before the owner could shut the door.
‘No food!’ he said, crossing his arms. He tapped his watch. ‘Closed!’ With a flick of his eye he worked out we were English and hungry. We were so desperate by this point we had no shame and begged him for something, anything! S-I-L looked so wan he finally took pity on us. He whipped us up a salad niçoise so delicious I can still remember the taste today.
We fell on the salad like ravening beasts. Leaves and dressing going flying. We were outside as they were cleaning the main part of the restaurant and after lots of snorting and chomping we fell back in our seats, sated.
‘For fuck’s sake,’ said Rob.
‘What?’ we replied, wiping our mouths and preparing for the trek back.
He nodded over to the open space attached to the restaurant garden. ‘It’s our fucking car.’
Yes, we had spent two hours doing an entire loop of the village as none of us thought to LOOK LEFT as we got out of the car to see the restaurant adjoining the car park.
Exhausted and dehydrated we spent the next two days not leaving the house. We lived off bread and cheese as none of us could face braving the incomprehensible supermarket again. On day four Brother burst in as we were eating breakfast waving a pamphlet. FUTUROSCOPE it read.
‘We have to go!’ he exclaimed, ‘it looks brilliant!’
Futuroscope is not brilliant. Well it certainly wasn’t then. It’s a very odd place indeed. Imagine a group of hip French jazz cats had got together in the 1970’s, having been inspired by reading 1984, and decided to use the novel as the basis for a theme park.
Upon arrival you were shepherded into a big hall with flip down seats. Facing you, and I am not joking here, was about a thousand cathode ray TV sets all piled up on top of each other. I mean proper, bulky, some framed in wood, TVs like your nan had with sticky out buttons.
An Art installation? We thought in excitement. Some daring expression of a critique of technology?
They were all gathered together to create a giant screen – a poundstretcher version of IMAX – to put on their FRANKLY TERRIBLE introduction to Futuroscope.
I remember it being in black and white, but that can’t be true? Clearly filmed in the mid 80’s a Frenchman in a tweed jacket gestured with excitement as he wandered round the park pointing out highlights and explaining the history of the place. Well, I presume that is what he was doing. None of us spoke a word of French and there were no subtitles.
Understanding was also hampered by the fact a number of the TV screens were broken leaving black, blank spaces like missing teeth. Others, on the brink of breaking, just sat and flickered every so often we couldn’t see what the enthusiastic man was pointing towards.
The mysterious talk lasted for about an hour and finally we were released out into the day light ready to explore the wonders of Futuroscope. We noticed rain clouds were gathering…
The grounds were interesting and I remember lots of modern sculpture things dotted about. I say modern, I mean late 80’s early 90’s modern so already felt dated. (To be fair to Futuroscope, it looks a hell of a lot better now!)
The highlight was a big dome thing where you could go in front of a blue/green screen and get your photo taken against a fantastical background. The photographer explained through mime, as we were so crap and could speak no French, that we would be superimposed upon a row of surf boards in a cool surf dude shot on giant waves.
He made all four of us line up and adopt surfing poses which we duly did. Twenty minutes later the photo was in our hands.
We looked absolutely ridiculous. Instead of the giant surfing wave we had been promised, our background was a mermaid palace under the sea. In our surfing poses we looked insane. Brother had adopted such an odd meercat-on-hind-legs position I could not stop laughing.
In fact it made me laugh so much Rob had to take the photo out of my hands before I wet myself. I got the giggles so badly, passing French families with their children stopped to stare and point.
Once I recovered we went back out into the park. As we walked the clouds swooped in low, heavy with rain. It began to absolutely tip it down. Within 30 seconds we were all drenched. Sopping wet, we ran to the shelter of the distant gift shop to find a scene of absolute chaos.
Water was pouring in through the ceiling, the light switches, and running down electrical wires. Customers were jumping over and dodging through the rapidly forming puddles. There was a fizzle followed by a great cracking BOOM and all the lights went out. The shop assistant huddled behind his desk yelling, ‘Je suis desole! Je suis desole!’ I understood this to mean, ‘I am desolate! I am desolate!’ which made me think – alright, love – calm down, no need to be such a drama queen – but later found out it just means ‘I am sorry’.
Not able to bear the madness, confusion, and rain pouring down INSIDE THE BUILDING, we escaped to our car, drove back home and watched lightning crackling across the farmer’s field next door.
Another exhausting experience and Rob was determined not to leave the house for the rest of the holiday. We holed up another few days but on the last night decided we had to make the most of our time in France so agreed we would gussy ourselves up and go into the next big town for a meal out at a posh French restaurant.
We saw the ideal place straight away and circled round and around until we eventually found a tiny space right next to the restaurant. We were just about to go in when Brother saw a stern sign right in front of the car. It showed a large lorry towing away a car with lots of words like ‘forbidden’. We couldn’t read the French warning, but we could decipher enough to understand the car would be towed away if we left it there for any length of time.
I protested it would be fine. It was Saturday night, there were no traffic wardens around, let’s just go eat. But Brother and Rob were adamant we would have to move the car.
Sighing, we all got back in and continued to circle round and around, not wanting to be too far away from the restaurant we had spotted that looked so perfect. It was pitch black dark by now and it seemed an age before brother spotted a multi storey car park. At last!
In we drove, up and up until we found a space. In high spirits we parked and prepared to make our way back to the restaurant. Brother spotted an exit and we all followed him. We pushed open a big metal door and went through to the other side, it swung to with a giant clang. This is when we realised there were no handle on the outside.
We couldn’t get back in and, looking around, we could see we had obviously gone through a one way fire exit and were now standing in the bowels of some kind of industrial estate.
It took us a good hour to stumble through the dark over fences and down dark alleys until we made our way around the car park building and found the town again.
A little dishevelled by now we eventually got to the restaurant and sat down, looking forward to a wonderful meal.
The menu was in French and we didn’t want to show ourselves up by asking the waiter to translate anything as he was incredibly snooty and was already looking at us as if we were shit on his shoe. We decided to take a chance and just pointed randomly at entries on the menu. Wine was ordered and we settled in for a good night, chatting merrily about the events of the holiday.
We weren’t used to the French way of doing things in nice restaurants which is to serve you VERY SLOOWLY. We are used to this now, but at the time we assumed it was because we were English bastards and they were just being xenophobic.
An hour passed and our starters arrived. Delicious. Then an hour and a half went by before the main courses came out. Except for designated driver Rob, we were very sloshed by now.
Brother had ordered what he thought was some kind of beef or steak. The plate was placed reverently before him. It even had a silver cloche over it, which the waiter removed with a flourish.
We all leaned forward – none of us had been served our meal with a cloche! What was so special about his?
A gleaming white mountain of salt was crusted around what we assumed would be a piece of beef.
‘Ah,’ I said knowledgably, ‘that must be a French speciality – to keep in the flavours or something.’
Everyone except Rob nodded drunkenly.
‘Yes, look,’ said Brother, ‘it’s got all herbs dotted over the salt.’
‘Mmm I bet that will make the beef all lovely and tender,’ said S-I-L.
We all started eating. Brother cut off a chunk of salt and started chewing.
‘What’s it like?’ I asked.
He smacked his lips. ‘Nice’ he said. ‘Lots of flavour.’
‘Good,’ I replied.
‘It’s quite salty…’ he said, his lips now curled inwards and sticking to his teeth.
‘What’s the beef inside like?’ asked Rob with interest.
‘It’s good,’ Brother went on, reaching for another gulp of wine, ‘but quite difficult to get to it through the crusted salt thing.’ He tried to unpeel his lips from his teeth.
We carried on eating and chatting. I noticed some of the waiters giving Brother an odd look.
Eventually Brother threw down his knife and fork. ‘I can’t eat this,’ he said crossly. He pushed aside the remaining half of salt encrusted beef, ‘I don’t care if it’s a French delicacy, it tastes disgusting. I reckon they are taking the piss.’
We were all very drunk (except Rob) by now, and worked ourselves up into a right old frenzy, agreeing with each other loudly that it wasn’t right they served us inedible food, ‘taking their time about it too!’ Brother said in as loud a voice as he dared – not very loud. The rest of us nodded and muttered the waiters probably had some kind of stupid hatred of us English. We conveniently ignored the fact that all the rest of the food was mind-blowingly delicious.
We didn’t find out for about a year that the beef was indeed a speciality of the region and that YOU ARE SUPPOSED TO REMOVE THE SALT CRUST – NOT EAT IT.
We paid the bill and left in high dudgeon. It was getting very late now – gone 11 – and we staggered our way to the car park. Giggling and snorting like fifteen year olds we found the car after some earnest searching on the wrong floor.
We all piled in and Rob made his way to the exit. This is when it stuck us how empty the car park was. In fact, on the lower floors there wasn’t a single car! How odd!
When we got to the bottom and tried to leave via the exit it dawned on us why the car park was so empty. It was because it closed at 10pm. It was now 11.30pm.
We sat in the car in front of the barrier which steadfastly refused to rise. Everywhere was dark and quiet. The only sound was Brother hiccupping gently in the back.
‘What are we going to do?’ said Rob. ‘I want to go home.’
We sat for another ten minutes. Our wine fuddled brains trying to work out a solution.
‘I could press the button?’ Brother burped, getting out of the car and reeling towards the barrier. With a lop sided grin he pushed the button.
Nothing happened. He pushed it again. No luck. Nothing.
‘Fuck.’ Rob said.
I got out of the car and joined Brother at the barrier.
‘Look!’ I said, nearly falling over as I swung my arm round. ‘There’s a speaker thing with another button!’
We ran over to it and tried to read the notice beneath it. The small print swam before our goggly, wine blurred eyes.
‘Nope, can’t read it.’
‘Shall we just press it?’ I jumped out of my skin as Rob blasted the car horn, indicating we should hurry the fuck up.
Giggling, Brother pressed the button. A man’s voice bellowed from the speaker, an incomprehensible volley of rapid fire French.
‘Help!’ my Brother suddenly yelled in my ear, so close I was deafened. ‘We are stuck in the car park!’ he continued. ‘Can you help us?’
Another stream of French but this time with a question make sound at the end of it.
‘We have to do it in French!’ I whispered. I needed the loo so badly and was giggling so much by this stage with nervy panic I had to tightly cross my legs.
‘What’s help in French?’ Brother asked.
‘Au secours?’ I said, I don’t know how I knew this.
‘AU SECOURS! AU SECOURS!’ Brother started yelling at the top of his voice.
The speaker man replied, basically it sounded like this ‘!!!????’
‘You can’t just yell help,’ I said, still a bit hysterical, ‘you need to give him more information.’
‘Je suis stuck dans la car park!’ Brother bellowed into the speaker. ‘Au secour monsieur! La voitures est… em… est STUCK Dans le CAR PARK. Je suis like to, VOUDRAIS, er exitay le Car Park!’
‘I think it should be nous avon stuckon dans LE car park?’ I said.
‘Nous avons stuckons dans LE CAR PARK!’ Brother repeated at the top of his lungs. He fumbled in his pocket and pulled out some coins – waving them up in the air at what he presumed was a camera.
‘Je avez le money pour le parking,’ he went on. ‘CAN YOU LET US OUT PLEASE! Urm.. por favour liftez le barrier?’
There was a grunting sound from the speaker and we heard the angelic sounds of the barrier beginning to lift.
We were in front of the barrier but that didn’t bother Rob. He turned the engine on and floored the car so it shot forward. Brother and I had to leap out of the way like stuntmen responding to an explosion. Luckily we were too drunk to feel anything when we fell to the ground, and watched open mouthed as Rob sped past the barrier. He wasn’t taking chances.
‘Merci monsieur!’ we both yelled at the speaker, running after Rob. ‘Merci Beaucoup Beacoup!’
Panting we hurled ourselves into the moving car. Rob wasn’t going to stop for anything – he just had to get out of there.
We drove out of town hysterical with relief. After about half an hour we realised we were completely lost. In the inky darkness Rob hunched forward, trying to make out any road signs to give us an idea where we were. After a lot of shouting S-I-L spotted a familiar village name and we ended up on a very long, very lonely, single track country lane that would take us back home.
The moon appeared then disappeared again, a shy child hiding its face in the motherly shoulders of the cloudy night. Fields stretched endlessly on either side. We had all fallen silent in the car. It felt very eerie and we were all a bit spooked. We couldn’t wait to get home.
Then, out of nowhere, swooping down out of the darkness, wings stretched as wide of the car, a HUGE snowy owl flew into our windscreen, only just lifting itself up in time to prevent itself from hitting us.
We all screamed at the top of our lungs. Even Rob and my brother sounded like seven year old girls. How Rob kept it together I’ll never know, but he managed to keep his head and the wheel straight and we continued home without incident, our hands still shaking from the shock of the ghostly white owl.
I am pleased to say we are all now rather more culturally sensitive, and have subsequently holidayed in France together happily and peacefully and are much better at communicating with others as our French has improved. Despite the disasters it was one of my favourite holidays and I still have that ridiculous photo on show in my office and it makes me laugh whenever I look at it. Also, on that holiday my Brother proposed to his girlfriend and they married the following year. We still remember and laugh about how stupid we were – no excuse really at that age – and Brother has never again eaten the salt crust of a beef tenderloin.