And then there were two…

(View from the castle ruins… very familiar)

Two more sleeps until we leave France. I found another lovely place to spend the night. Actually we arrived around 10am so we spent the day here too. I didn’t realize it at the time I was choosing it but this town reminds me of Cashel in Tipperary, where I grew up.

(On top of the rock)

Domfront is a Cité Medieval and is built on a huge rock outcrop on an otherwise flat landscape. And so is Cashel. It was only when I was standing looking over the walls of the old town that I made the connection. The scene in front of me was not unlike the view I knew so well as a child looking over the wall at the Rock of Cashel into the town. There’s a long street in the distance called Friars Street, it runs at a slight incline. It has shops and the church and here was something very similar in Domfront, France.

(Ruins of the castle at Domfront, also familiar)

When I started reading the tourist information stands dotted around the town I realised Domfront is probably as much English as French. Some memory of history class reminded me the kings of England were also kings of northern France. Think of the region of Brittany. Domfront is in Normandy (to the east of Brittany) and the Normans although originally from Scandinavia, invaded England from Normandy. So this place has seen a lot of battles and a lot of blending and mixing of nations. As has Ireland.

(Gateway to the town)

Maybe that’s why this place feels so peaceful. It really does. We both felt very calm as we walked around the old town towards the runs of the castle. But maybe it’s just familiarity. The castle walls are made of grey stone, probably granite, very different from the finish of a Château or the red stone of the walls in Portuguese Silvas. But very like home. The roofs of the houses in the town are topped with slate, most French roofs have red tiles.

(Grey stone, this could be any town in Ireland)

Intentionally choosing this town even without knowing its history or its story reminds me of the time Denis choose to drive to Beja when we needed a garage. Or the time we drove into the motorhome dealer in Benet when we really, really needed a garage. Our brains take in far more information than we are aware of and then they offer it back to us when we seem to need it.

(Higgle-de-Piggledy houses)

It’s not always a given that I listen to the quiet internal voice because it’s hard to believe what’s not in front of my eyes. But the alternative is to work everything out and try to control the results. I would prefer to listen more to that quiet voice because it was right to bring me here. To a familiar place for the first time in a long time.

I love the unusual but maybe I’m getting ready for the familiar, Mairead.

(Domfront: free parking, motorhome facilities behind office of Mairie. Public parking. Best croissants in France!)

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The End is Nigh…

(Love, love, love doors)

So here we were with three nights and four days left in France, how will we fill them? There were only three more sleeps until we were going home. In an effort to cram every lovely thing into the last few days I found three pretty towns to visit. Anywhere other than France this might have been a difficult challenge. It was easy.

(Can you see the long straight road leading out of the town?)

We were exceedingly pleased with our route from Chambord. The romans visited France and did a great job building roads. The straightest roads you’ll ever see for miles and miles. Normally we would have opted for motorway travelling at this point in our trip as we’d be rushing for the ferry. But we’re not rushing, we have enough time. So we had a chat about time and money and we chose to spend some time instead of money on these last few days. We could call these austerity measures but we’re calling them time-rich measures instead.

(Pretty houses)

The town of Sainte-Suzanne could be used in a movie from the 1800’s and they wouldn’t need to change a thing. Old stone castle? Yes. Old houses? Yes. Narrow lanes? Yes. Cobblestones? Yes. Nature peeping around every corner? Yes. It is also one of Le Plus Beaux Villages de France (like Labastide in the French Basque region we visited.)

(Pretty views)

On top of that even though it was a Sunday every restaurant, cafe and shop was open. (The small supermarket and the Boulanger had closed at 12.30.) So it was a tourist’s haven and the place was hopping with people. Our new time-rich plan provided for one glass of beer or an ice cream and the ice cream was the more expensive option.

(Pretty flowers)

It’s interesting what happened when we started to notice spending… our time spending and our money spending. Ice cream was sweeter, walking was more enjoyable. We noticed what we were receiving, what we were seeing, what we were experiencing. There was an extra element to the time spending also. Although we had plenty of time, it’s not unlimited and noticing that distinction in this last week makes everything different.

(Pretty buildings plus nature)

It’s not something I think about a lot (the unlimited time thing) but maybe here’s an opportunity to do just that. You know, to use this section of limited time to remind myself of the limited time I have… on earth, I mean. So… it’s not too cheery to think about impending death (I do intend to live for at least another 45 years in case you were wondering where this might be heading…!) but it could be a very useful exercise to focus the mind. To be intentional. To taste the sweetness of the ice cream.

How would you like to spend your next three days? Mairead.

(Sainte-Suzanne: we stayed at the free parking with no facilities. Very good public toilets in the town. There is another motorhome parking with all the facilities €12)

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My Summer Residence…

(Driving into Chambord)

We drove for hours after we left the policeman in Fontenay-le-Comte through beautiful countryside. The avoid toll roads was on again but this time everything worked out and we arrived at my Château in Chambord. (Not actually my château but for eleven euro I can pretend.)

(This is how close we are to the Château)

It was after five by the time we arrived so we had a quick cup of tea and some emergency long life Portuguese tuna patê on crackers and then off for a walk around the grounds. It was still sunny but not too hot and the French were doing what they do on a warm Saturday afternoon – walking in a royal garden. This garden is full of wildlife, birds swooped and frogs croaked and there were signs telling us about the wild boar. It seemed like our breakdown experience had reset something. The long drive hadn’t managed to tire us and we walked enough to hit our step goals.

(You can walk, boat, cycle and drive golf carts around the grounds of the Château at Chambord)

Next morning I was on a mission… I had been reading old reviews about the motorhome parking at Chambord Château and one of the reviewers was complaining about the early morning noise from the balloons… the hot air balloons. There were balloons? Wouldn’t that be amazing? Years ago I had seen pictures of colorful balloons flying over the countryside in France and the image had stayed with me. I didn’t want to go up in one but I’d love to see them floating over the Château.

(Sunrise at Chambord)

So I set the alarm (my 6am habit had taken a hit in the past week but here was my opportunity to start again) and hoped the rain would keep off. Next morning was cloudy and grey but I was energised. I had no idea, by the way whether there would be any balloons but even if there wasn’t, sunrise would be more than enough. I was half way across the field between the motorhomes and the gardens when I realised there was a big bird about 100 yards away from me stalking something in the grass. A very stork-like bird. Thanks to all my stork sightings I know it wasn’t a stork but I’ve no idea what it was. I couldn’t move in case it flew off but I needn’t have worried he wasn’t going anywhere he was dead still too. Then suddenly he grabbed at whatever he was stalking and swallowed it! That’s another reason he wasn’t a stork, they don’t grab, they’re very dainty.

(Sunrise on a grey day)

There was no sign of a hot air balloon and I realised I was expecting too much, I hadn’t even googled it to see when or where they go up or even if they go up anymore. I could just make out a break in the clouds where the sun was coming through so I went off to get my sunrise pictures. The hour after sunrise and before sunset are called golden hours and I was definitely getting opportunities on this trip to experience what that meant. It’s supposed to be a good time to take photos.

(Wild boar this way…)

There was no one around, I was completely alone taking pictures and wandering around, like I was a… I don’t know, a princess maybe? It does seem to be a theme… just saying. Next thing I hear something, not bird song, more a heavy breathing or wild boar snorting. I looked up, it was coming from above me (probably not wild boar then…?) And there it was… floating way, way up in the sky.

(Can you see the hot air balloon?)

A balloon! Yep, one solitary balloon way, way, way up high. Every now and again I could see the flame igniting to lift it higher, that was the wild boar snorting sound I thought I heard earlier. (Well, it might have been.)

(This was the closest I got to it)

I was so excited. The whole experience lasted only 15 minutes. I’m not sure hot air balloons have much control over their direction but on that morning some gust of wind brought this one in my direction.

And then it floated away, Mairead.

(Château Chambord: €11 parking for 24 hours, Princess experience included but no motorhome facilities except bins.)

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Where’s the Ticket?

(Wooden door)

We arrived in Fontenay-le-Comte in the evening but left after a visit from the policeman. I’ll start at the beginning… Everything went to plan at the garage and we were able to collect Ruby at 6pm. We said our thank yous, merci beacoups, goodbyes, au revoirs and sat in. It was great to be home.

(Fire hydrant)

Then we drove off to Fontenay-le-Comte where we could park for the night and fill up the water. All along the 20 km journey one or other of us would say, she’s going great isn’t she? Or, can’t hear the clunking, can you? And then we’d smile, Ruby was reliable again. That’s nice.

(Red berries)

It was dinner time when we were filling the water and paying the parking meter and we were starving. With all the excitement of going to get Ruby back we had missed the narrow French lunch window and had not eaten since McDonalds breakfast… and yet we were unusually chirpy. We had decided eating out one last time would be ok and give us an opportunity to chat about the whole experience. We’d looked up restaurants and found a little tapas place so when we had finished filling, we parked up, pulled the blinds down and set off.

(This sign was in the tapas restaurant)

The tapas place was open, the nice man even had a sign up to say we speak English. Unfortunately, they were only open for drinks, they serve food at lunchtime, inside my lunch tummy was crying. But he could recommend the restaurant across the road. My dinner tummy was thrilled. Unfortunately, they didn’t open for another half hour. My dinner tummy started growling.

(The view out the window of the tapas bar)

We had a drink and the nice man gave us a large bowl of peanuts, we ate every one of those peanuts before it was time to go across the road. There was one other couple at a table in the middle of the restaurant when we arrived. We said our bonjour to the owner (should have been bon soir, oh well) and indicated we would like a table for two. Did we have a reservation? Nooooo! Both my lunch tummy and dinner tummy were on the verge of tantrums. I was resigning myself to another bowl of peanuts in the tapas bar. After a nerve wracking few moments of checking the reservation book, they found a spot! Yippee! Here is your table… right beside the one other couple.

(Save the snails)

And God love them if they thought they were going to have a nice private conversation… turned out they were Irish. The first we’d seen in two months and we could understand every word they were saying. They were very quiet but Denis jumped in with, is that an Irish accent we hear?

(Love daises!)

Now to be precise we were actually overhearing… aren’t you supposed to pretend you don’t hear what you’re overhearing? They didn’t seem offended by our bad manners, yes we’re Irish. On their way to the Dordogne, they always stop here, stay the night and have a meal, great food. Yes, they did have a reservation.

(Might be a carnation?)

We all stopped talking when the food arrived and it was truly delicious. We were only having a main course so we were first to leave and you know how the conversation gets better as you’re leaving? It’s like everyone sees an end in sight and we’re all more relaxed. That happened and it was a lovely thing and then we were on our way back to Ruby. We never did get to chat about everything at dinner so we chatted on the five minute walk. Who needs longer?

(Foxglove?)

In the morning we slept late and were very cozy under the covers when a knock came to the door. It was 8am. Yes, remember the policeman? Well in all our excitement the previous evening we forgot to put our parking ticket in the window. We both jumped out of bed to greet him in our pajamas. He was undaunted. Le ticket?

(Here’s the ticket!)

We searched every one of my pockets, my purse, my coat… no ticket, he went off to check on the other campers and would be back. I searched again, upending my handbag, the glove compartment, the door, nothing. Eventually Denis checked his jeans pocket… there it was.

(These smell great)

The policeman came back and saw the ticket and told us where the market was and the bins, all in French. It was a lovely experience.

I’m kinda glad we forgot to put the ticket up, Mairead.

(Fontenay-le-Comte, parking €8, water €2. Restaurants nearby. Policeman visits in the morning.)

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Into the Ibis

(Our new home…)

We are in our room at the Ibis hotel in Niort. The room is bigger than Ruby and the toilet doesn’t need to be emptied. There is hot water, a shower and the high point: a bath! I am cleaner than I’ve been for 72 days. This is the life. Although we do miss a kitchen.

(Not McDonald’s breakfast…)

We’ve had breakfast and lunch in McDonalds and we went to a restaurant in the French chain, Au Coutelle for a snack. Which turned out to be a bit more complicated than we imagined. We spotted a lovely sounding platter of meats and patês.

(These wildflowers are everywhere)

They take the drinks orders first and Denis ordered a glass of wine while I had a mint juice drink. Then the very young food waiter arrived and we told him we would just have the platter, between us. He was a little taken back and asked hadn’t Denis ordered a drink? We agreed yes he indeed had.

(Can’t get enough of the blue)

Fortunately he spoke the next bit in English because it was getting a little complicated. “Oh you must have a main course meal if you have alcohol” Denis looked at me and I looked back, well that’s interesting, we were saying, in silence. More food? Less alcohol? Denis picked the second. I said, Stop the alcohol order and he (literally) ran to the kitchen.

(Old mile marker)

Very soon he arrived back and said he had talked to his supervisor and it was ok but… (looking at Denis and holding up one finger) you can only have one! Denis promised he would only have one. One small glass of wine was produced. The platter was indeed very good.

(There was a bread machine in Benet too)

It’s funny what you miss when you’re just visiting… there may be a particular alcohol license that requires a full meal? Or this chain is concerned about food intake versus alcohol intake? Orwell, I don’t know what else…

Learning the customs, Mairead.

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The Lessons of Benet

(1. Watch out for the signs…)

We are still in the town of Benet but… today the part arrived! We are over the moon. Could it be that difficulties arise in order that we can have an opportunity to be over the moon? About a piece of engineered metal getting transported to a small town in France to a man with mechanical skills who is available to do something very specific with it?

(2. Notice the beauty…)

I am also over the moon about all the hours Denis spent with Duolingo in bed each morning practicing French (it’s a free language learning app…) because when we stood in front of the French receptionist there was communication and understanding.

(3. Grow where you land…)

I am also over the moon that we have a place to stay tonight while Ruby overnights in the garage. There will be a bed, a shower, a desk and WiFi and there’s a restaurant and it’s not expensive. There’s even a Lidl supermarket next door.

(4. You might have to go round and round…)

When everything goes well it’s natural to expect everything will continue to go well. When things stop going well, it’s natural to expect things will continue to stop going well. But at precisely this moment we had a choice…

(5. Don’t be dramatic!)

It was easy for us to become disillusioned and only see things going badly now. Today it seems we have an opportunity to be over the moon, notice and be grateful for ever little teeny tiny thing that goes right.

(6. You don’t have to be perfect to be useful…)

In that way we are neither expecting everything to go well or expecting everything to go badly. We have suspended our expectations in order to look at what comes to us in the moment and be grateful for it. If it is something we like we will be over the moon, if it is something that makes us uncomfortable we will deal with it.

(7. Take the next step… open the door)

After sitting for days with the discomfort of a not knowing what will happen next we know the next step… we are off to a hotel to spend the night while Ruby is in the garage.

Missing her already, Mairead.

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On a Time Out

(Want to buy a shop?)

We are stuck in a very lovely small French town called Benet. I say stuck but that’s just me being dramatic. We are kinda stuck yes but we could be in worse places. The part for Ruby is due tomorrow and we’ve only been here for three days… Plus, most things we need are here.

(I love the font)

There’s a supermarket (closes for two hours at lunchtime) a cafe (closed today) another cafe (open today) a library (but is it really a library? I don’t know the answer to that) a magazine shop, a post office, an old church, a rustic toilet and three flower shops (all open today and smelling beautiful) and washing machines (open 24 hours.)

(The wool shop)

There’s also a wool shop but I just looked in the window. I’m not going in because the window looks too good and there’s no more room in my craft cupboard… anyways, it’s closed today.

(There are flowers in the car park…)

Yesterday I couldn’t see all the nice things in this town. I was grumpy and had fallen out of love with France. But today it is raining and I realise that love is not always happy… I am weirdly thrilled by today’s rain. (Yes, weird.) Yesterday it was sunny and I was grumpy and uncomfortable. Hot weather is not always wonderful. Life is not always comfortable.

(…and washing machines)

France is France. This is a great place to be if you are irritated by little things because she says, this is how we rock, take us or leave us we will still be here when you come back and you will be glad we have not changed. If you don’t want to come back to us that’s ok we will be just fine without you. With love and beauty from your pal, France.

(The old church, Benet)

Today I can love that France. She is who she is, she is not trying to woo me. She will not be concerned if I do not woo her. She will still take two hours off for lunch and close on Sundays and every Monday and the one Wednesday I’m in town.

(Love the shutters and the lacy railings)

Because, when I go home she will still have to live here and mind her children and water her garden and buy flowers for her Mum. She will still have to get up at 4am four days a week to bake the baguette and croissants and if she knows how to take a break then maybe I should be thrilled because it’s possible that taking breaks makes her croissants taste so good.

My relationship with France just got more complicated, Mairead.

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