Monday, 23 April 2012

La Grande Reunion?!

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away...well, Rotherham back in 1973 to be exact! (*gasps of horror at how long ago that was*), I did a school exchange trip to La Mayenne in France and was lucky enough to be randomly paired with Claudine. We hit it off straight away and became firm friends, we shared secrets, shared friends  and became part of each other's family. We continued to visit each other independently every summer right through our teenage years (but some of our exploits should not be discussed in polite company, especially as our offspring can read my blog!). My parents went to Claudine's wedding to Gerard - I was in Canada at the time so I couldn't go. Claudine and Gerard came to my sister's wedding and, later, to my wedding with Himself 25 years ago.....and that was the last time I saw her, even though we stayed in contact until about 15 years ago when young children and house moves on both sides of the channel meant that we lost touch :-(

                                         Ower Dave, Claudine and me in 1976
Fast forward to last year. I had long wanted to find Claudine again as she and her family had been a large and important part of my life. I had tried all sorts of things without success then, one day, a spark of inspiration hit me....that doesn't happen very often, so I have to go with it when it does!! Knowing the names and approximate ages of her sons, I searched for them on Facebook!
RESULT! Within 24 hours her First-Born son had replied to me saying that Claudine was so happy  to hear from me again she had cried least I think that's what he said! :-P

Claudine and Gerard came to visit us for a couple of days last November. It was a wonderful and easy visit, but Himself and I wimped out big time on speaking French! Anyway, when the invite came to visit them in Paris AND to go back to La Mayenne to see the rest of the family (who Himself had never met), we just had to do it.....and, given that the majority of the family don't speak any English, we set ourselves the task of getting our French and our confidence up to scratch!

Me and Himself have very different learning styles (surprise, surprise!). Himself went for the Michel Thomas CDs, with all the rules explained - well, he IS a mathematician after all! I went to the French Assistant at school! Himself loved finally understanding all the rules and how to build up the language. I loved chattering away in (frequently corrected!) French and, surprisingly, doing my homework each week!

Thus sorted and confidence (mostly) built, we tootled off on Eurostar for our Easter break en La belle France avec la famille! I was excited and nervous in just about equal measures as it was 32 years since I'd last seen the family and, let's face it, I'd always had a bit of a crush on Didier - Claudine's older brother!!!

 Claudine and Nutty Gnome chez mamie (Gerard's mum)

 Gerard, Claudine, Nutty Gnome and Himself

La famille as I remember them - a larger version of this photo was on the wall in Claudine's parents' house whenever I visited, so seeing this one brought so many memories flooding back...and you've got to admit that Didier was rather cute!

I'd always called Claudine's parents Monsieur et Madame, never by their Christian names (Sacre Blue, il n'etait pas possible!) and, even now 32 years on, Monsieur et Madame they remain! We were greeted with such warmth - 4 kisses...full family honours, and Monsieur's assurances that he would have known me anywhere....I could have cried with joy!  
Saturday night saw us at a birthday party in the village hall  for one of the granddaughters. There were 37 of us in total, and it was a scary moment walking in to a sea of familiar faces spanning 4 generations - the genes run strong in that family!  We spent about 90% of our time with la famille speaking French. Himself was a revelation - for someone who is generally quite reticent and quiet when meeting groups of new people, he amazed me by chattering away quite happily AND making jokes in French with complete strangers. It. Was. Awesome!   HE was awesome!                                          
Monsieur et Madame et moi :-D

Most of La Famille of my generation. One brother couldn't come and one was still at work when the photo was taken. Not quite as neat as the other family photo!

 Moi et Didier! That's all I'm saying!!! (but he's a grandad  now!)

On Easter Sunday 24 of  the clan gathered chez Monsieur et Madame for lunch. I got a touch of vegetable garden envy....and coveted Monsieur's chickens and sheep!

There was the obligatory Easter egg hunt for the great-grandchildren (or was it the adults?!)

...and a very slow, careful ride on a quad bike for a much loved nephew

before champagne aperitifs and a 4 hour barbecue lunch in the garage, with Monsieur plying us with wine and making us laugh as each new bottle he produced went up in quality from 'good' to 'better' to 'best' to 'superior', before he brought out the big guns of the home distilled calvados, or Calva as it is locally known. Good job there were lots of bottles of water on the table or we'd have been under it!
It was wonderful and to be there and to be part of the love, laughter and warmth of la famille was a real privilege - it was so like when my own family are all together, only with double the people and in French!
We stayed at La Fleurie, Gerard's mum's farm. It's out on the edge of the village.....

 so it doesn't matter how noisy the neighbours are!

 Mamie is an amazing woman and almost as sprightly as I remembered her, in spite of her being 91 now - and only giving up milking a few years ago although she still checks on the herd daily. She also did us the very great honour of giving us a bottle of her husband's home distilled Calva - a gift not to be taken lightly as the bottle is around 50+ years old! It tastes amazing :-)
Himself, Elisabet (one of Gerard's sisters), mamie, Nutty Gnome

Monday saw us return to Paris and the rain, accompanied by Gerard's niece. I'm suspecting it was her parents rather than Melanie, who thought a couple of days with us would be good for her English. That's a laugh! Who wants to learn English with a Yorkshire accent?!

We spent Tuesday doing the sights, but didn't go up the Eiffel Tower as there was a 1&1/2 hour wait to walk up it or a 3 hour queue to go up in the lift! 
                                         La Seine in the rain
 I still have the photo of me pushing the Eiffel Tower over when I was 20, so it just had to be done again - much to Himself's despair!
 Parisienne flower shop
 Garden near Notre Dame
 Notre Dame
 Part of the queue to go in Notre Dame...didn't bother to join that one either!
 Bikes for hire to use round Paris - a bit like Boris's bikes in London although these don't seem to get nicked and end up in Romania!

You can also hire electric cars to use in the city, but I didn't have chance to look at how much it costs or what deposit you have to pay.
 I love French shutters and balconies
 We went by the Moulin Rouge, but weren't prepared to pay bucket loads to go in so we had to make do with looking at the paintings above the entrance!

 A random Paris side street.

 French food shops....mmmmm!
 Heading up towards Sacre Cour
 It's a bit of a climb, but at least the view is good!
 After Sacre Cour, which we did go inside, we went to Montmatre to have a look at the rather soggy street artists,
 have a little beer whilst giving Melanie an English lesson(!)
 and looked at a few more paintings
 before falling in love with une petite maison on the way back home.
 Our final day in Paris took us to the Champs Elysees to  look at the shops. We ventured into the Louis Vuitton shop to look at the world's most expensive - and most hideous handbags.  I definitely prefer my (much cheaper) gorgeous leather bag that I haggled for in the souk in Marrakesh last year! We also spotted a shop with shoes I could fall off!
 Time for a last photo call
 or two

before heading for the Gare du Nord, the Eurostar and home, very, very happy with the reunion! It won't be 32 years before we're back next time!