Debunking the Myths: Summertime Survival in the South of France.

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Mrs Playmo wisely decided that the only way to enjoy an uncrowded beach was to visit by night with a good book, a torch a crate of rosé. It was a pity that Prince Charming had turned up before she had finished her chapter.

Mrs Playmo wisely decided that the only way to enjoy an uncrowded beach was to visit by night with a good book, a torch and a crate of rosé. It was a pity that Prince Charming had turned up before she had finished her chapter.

The school holidays have arrived and the temperatures have soared outside. A blanket of heat has descended on MM’s Languedoc home. Like every year, I have evaluated the insufficient available space for my angular frame between the frozen peas and the ice cubes, then resigned myself to a period of the year I associate with bored children, het-up neighbours, stifling heat, and water restrictions as the village spring dries up. The insistent scratching of the squads of cicadas camouflaged in the cedar and pine trees around the house does nothing to reduce the feeling of oppression affecting all bar the cat, who melts into a contented black puddle in the shade of the hedge, surveying his world in a lazy trance of warmth.

Behind closed shutters, the locals have gone to ground for the sacrosanct siesta whilst the sun beats down on the façades of their homes, and the streets of the village remain deserted until the temperatures reluctantly go down in the evening.

But not for long. The only nutters prepared to brave the heat have appeared on the horizon, bang on time to break the silence – a long line of metallic turtles shimmering in the heat that rises off the melting tarmac. In MM jargon, the word ‘Turtle’ designates family cars bedecked with roof boxes and bicycles, and crammed with suitcases, parasols and the infamous inflatable crocodile. Inside the air-conditioned beast, mum is sucking lemons for Britain. She glares at her husband. She had told him that there would be a traffic jam on the last leg of the journey, and once again he had preferred to follow the advice of that self-satisfied cow on the GPS. Her husband grimly grips the steering wheel with white-knuckled hands as the youngest child bawls and his sibling sings her favourite track for the 50th time since they woke up on the motorway uttering those words every parent dreads: “Muuummmy, are we there yet?” They are all desperate to arrive on the French coast, yet appear blissfully ignorant that they are en route for a tourist trap. The inflatable crocodile of the tourist season is poised, its jaws open and ready to swallow them and their holiday budget, before spitting them unceremoniously back into the motorway traffic jams.

When people plan a summer holiday in the South of France, the same old clichés pop up behind the rose-tinted spectacles. I’d like to get two of them sorted once and for all. I’m sorry to pop your bubble, but it’s better that you know.

Mr and Mrs Playmo take nothing but their love to the beach here.

Mr and Mrs Playmo take nothing but their love to the beach here.

Myth N°1:  Beach,  parasol,  book, cool drink and sun tan as the children play in the sand.

The reality: First, plan ample time and patience to find a parking spot, and enough cash to pay extortionate fees for the privilege (this does not mean that your car window will not be smashed by thieves: a little like God, the French police can’t be everywhere at the same time). Next, find a space on the beach. This is more difficult than you think if, like me, you do not like your nostrils being assailed by the smell of cigarette smoke, sweaty armpits or sun screen, or are allergic to the proximity of inflatable crocodiles, over-enthusiastic teenagers wielding rackets and balls, or women who yank their bikini bottoms up their bums and sunbathe with their legs wide open (presumably incase an old lady’s Yorkshire catches sight of their untanned crotch on the number seven bus).

 If you wish to be the ultimate bad mum, when the children are bored with playing in the urine-saturated surf, help them to collect cigarette butts to use as makeshift cannons in their sandcastle, and beer tops to decorate the walls – both are as numerous as the sea shells, if not more so. Or bag ’em up and bin them (the cigarette ends and the beer tops, not the kids), and do something for the planet. Then make your offspring’s day by buying them one of the overpriced doughnuts or ice creams sold by the leather-skinned beach vendors sporting little more than tight-fitting cozzies and Colgate smiles. These sun-warmed, edible nurseries for salmonella and sundry other bacterial bad-boys may not only wreck the rest of your holiday, but will give you a chance to sing the praises of the French medical system on Facebook.

MM’s Tips: Spread out your stuff! Bring sufficient beach towels to stake out your own territory. It doesn’t matter if you don’t use it all, but this simple step ensures that you don’t end up with a complete stranger sitting in your lap reading a gossip mag.

If you enjoy people spotting, this is the place for you. Bring a notebook and jot them down. My favorites are those strolling along the water’s edge – the posers that strut through the surf and oggle at bare breasts, the topless wonders glowering at the posers, and the older generation tutting at the bucket and spade mafia who get under their feet (I secretly pray that they will inadvertently tumble into the appropriately grave-sized hole my children have conveniently dug across their path). Oh, and one last (serious) piece of advice: don’t take anything to the beach that you wouldn’t willingly donate to a complete stranger, and keep a close eye on your stuff. Otherwise, you may end up chasing the self-elected new owner of your beach bag down the main road like a screaming banshee, wearing no more than a red face and the bottom half of your bikini (been there, seen that, and got left without the T-shirt -read my topless tale here). For the same reason, don’t leave your car keys in your bag. I put them in Tournesol’s shoe – nobody in their right mind would steal those because even if they managed not to keel over, I’d sniff them out immediately.

Myth N°2. A wonderful three-course meal washed down with a bottle of wine on a restaurant terrace, all at a snip of the price you would have paid at home.

If you don't believe me about the translating skills of local restaurants, have a look at this menu outside a restaurant in Agde. The next page suggests a plateful of

If you don’t believe me about the translating skills of local restaurants, have a look at this menu outside a restaurant in Agde. The next page suggests a plateful of “seawolf” – a translation that could be qualified as a real howler.

TIP: The only way you will achieve this is either by asking the locals, or getting off the beaten track. Wherever you are in France during the holiday season, you can bet your bottom dollar that there are unscrupulous restaurants ready to relieve you of a maximum amount of cash for a minimum amount of effort, and these establishments are most often concentrated in the touristic areas. If they are out on the pavement touting for clients, they aren’t worth their salt. They are closed over the rest of the year, are generally snubbed by locals and only open to make a fast buck in the summer – so do yourself and real local businesses a favour, and either get off the beaten track and ask a local, or buy yourselves a picnic from the local market.

Reality: If you do insist on eating in one of these outfits, then at least you get the fun of reading the menu translation. In our region, very few restaurants are prepared to pay for a good translation of their menu, or (heaven forbid) train their employees to speak foreign languages well enough to explain what the guests can eat. Although my arch enemies, aka Google Translate and Bing, have added a grotesque twist to menus, I freely admit that if I need to cheer myself up I just need to read a few menu boards and I’m chortling again. It’s a laugh a minute. Many restaurants are totally immune to the idea that clients won’t (or rather shouldn’t) buy a meal if they have no idea what they are eating. Worse, they really don’t seem to care as long as their patrons cough up the money and leave.

Don’t forget that if it looks too good to be true, it probably is – many restaurants get their supplies from a huge supplier called “Metro”, where they buy entire pallets of insipid guck that they will then tout as ‘home-made’ on their astoundingly cheap menu board. The chocolate mousse may have been hastily assembled in their kitchen, but it’s about as home-made as MM is organised. If you are lucky, the jug of wine costing you 7 euros actually cost the restaurant owner 2 euros the litre at the local cave coopérative; if you’re unlucky it’s from a plastic bottle of beverage that the average Frenchman would only consider fit to descale the toilet.

Forewarned is forearmed, as they say. So now off you go. Happy holidays. And don’t forget a pin to deflate that damned crocodile.

Mrs Playmo illustrating how to deal with the inflatable crocodile.

Mrs Playmo illustrating how to deal with the inflatable crocodile.

Post Scriptum. This should have been an apology post. I have been a very bad blogger recently (MM strikes Beyoncé/Lady Gaga pose) and I have missed you all. I am very, very sorry and feel guilty about dumping everyone with no explanation. This is due to varied factors leading to lack of “me” time, leading to lack of reading and writing time, leading to a severe case of writer’s block. But rest assured that MM is fit, well and a little leaner than before. Mrs Playmo didn’t give me any support whatsoever. (She was too busy having baked bean jacuzzis with Mr Playmo. But that’s another story.) Those who excuse me for my absence will have more information about what I’ve been up to in upcoming posts. Love from MM. Mrs Playmo says hello too, from behind her bucket of rosé. 

 

Snapshots

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MM is back after a few days away from the ranch. Here are a few pics of what I saw there.  Back to service as usual soon – now I’m going to get my head around all the stuff you lot have written in my absence…..

Beach babes.

The sun battered through the windscreen as we crawled our way at snail pace through the afternoon traffic. People were making their way to the beach on foot, toting lorryloads of parasols, beach mats and toys. A woman in vicious pink flip-flops flapped across the road in front of our car, dragging a screaming child in her wake. She was scantily clad under a tight, crocheted dress, resulting in a disconcerting effect of blancmange trying to escape through a fishnet stocking.

The roundabout was jam-packed with determined holidaymakers and locals, all jousting for a place in the traffic. My muscles crisped as P.F swore in his usual elegant way and threw himself into the battle. I stamped my foot on non-existent brakes in the passenger foot well, grimly realising that just one season driving here would be enough to make my pelvic floor tauter than Paris Hilton’s G-string. Hell, my idea could maybe save the French state millions in postpartum physiotherapy.

P.F is no beginner in the bumper-car game; his studies in Marseille made him a champion of driving in the French vehicular jungle. He pushed dexterously in front of a battered Citroën. The oily, sweaty, and determined local clutching the wheel promptly hit his horn and waved his arms around in indignant French semaphore. P.F. grinned, waved at him and yelled “Thank you, so kind!” out of the window. There was no doubt about it, we were on the infamous Côte d’Azur.

After squeezing the car into a minute parking space, we finally unloaded the kids and beach towels and headed towards the sea. A pocket-sized piece of beach was all that central Juan les Pins had to offer. The remaining 90% of the pristine sand was covered with empty restaurant tables and plastic recliners, all jealously guarded by seasonal pit bulls who were apparently awaiting the improbable arrival of George Clooney and a team of German top-models to break the monotony of their day.

St Raphaël: under all this there is a beach.

We found a space between a family of four and a young couple on the miserably small area left for the population to squabble over. It  strangely resembled a refugee camp, with blankets, parasols and beach tents jostling for space. Laurence of Arabia’s eyebrows would have hit the roof at the amount of rubbish required for the average French family to survive 6 hours on the sand. Whilst towels and a bottle of water sufficed for our beach needs, the rest of the population had brought everything bar the kitchen sink: blankets, tennis rackets, parasols, beach mats, inflatable crocodiles, footballs, sun-tan lotion, half of the shelf at the local magazine kiosk, mobile phones and an icebox full to the brim with victuals. This junk was then distributed over the minimal space available on the sand, hence creating a protective barrier to keep other people at bay.

I hate swimming (I learned how to swim for the same reason that I learned to run: it’s what I would term a survival tactic). However, I have found the ideal activity to avoid getting bored whilst my husband swims to the buoy and back and my kids build multi-storey castle complexes for miles along the beach:  I “people watch”.

“Voyeurism, aha!” I hear you mutter under your breath. Non, non, et non, mon ami! Does anyone remember those “I spy” books? You could tick off multitudes of trains, birds, buildings…. Whatever subject floated your boat, you could buy the book and get ticking. I have my virtual list of beach populations, and check them off every time the kids hit the waves.

“Blancmange in a fish net” arrived, and stripped off to reveal newly imported white flesh wrapped in a mini-bikini and decorated with maori tattoos. She pulled a cigarette out of its box and lit it, then left the fag hanging out of a corner of her mouth, squinting and blowing smoke into her child’s face as she tied his float belt around his waist. She launched him seawards with his bucket and spade, then collapsed on to her towel hissing like a punctured tyre, a copy of Gala magazine clamped between her strassed purple claws.

My trained eye wandered off to investigate further. All my favourites were on the beach, and I almost squealed with the frustration of having forgotten my notepad and pencil to jot everything down. This was the ultimate whammy for my collection.

They were all there. The cool young couple who barely acknowledge each other’s presence, sending text messages (perhaps to each other) between sips of Perrier water. The poser papa with white-framed, Polnareff sunglasses, prancing through the surf and tossing his curly locks in the sea breeze whilst his silent, wiry wife desperately tried to control his gobby offspring. The bored grandparents. The pseudo-philosopher, ostentatiously waving his copy of Bernard-Henri Levy in the air and thoughtfully chewing the end of a brand new pencil. The African selling beach junk, a tower of straw hats listing dangerously on his head. The aspiring pin-up. The English tourist with his beer belly flopping over the elastic of his pink Hawaï trunks. His son, yelling “Did you see a shaaaaaaaark?” at his sister as she emerged from 60 cm of urine-saturated surf wearing matching Barbie flippers, mask and snorkel. The Thai masseur, hoping to be paid for the pleasure of feeling up complete strangers on their beach towels. The ogler, strutting along the water’s edge like Aldo Maccione, ignoring the vast turquoise waters with his head turned at right angles to shamelessly evaluate the boob community on the beach. The topless wonder, breasts sagging like grandfather clock pendulums, checking from behind her heavy Prada sunglasses that the ogler had seen her. Even the sunbathing granny was there, uncomfortably stretched out across the rocks in a grey swimsuit. She was so motionless that when I first saw her, I thought she was a piece of driftwood.

Cool couple in foreground, Poser papa Polnareff in background.

And there were my all-time favourites: The over-concerned parents with the three-year-old they still see as a baby. You know, the frustrated kid with the huge hat, sunglasses and enough buoyancy aids to refloat the Titanic. This child runs more risk of getting lost or injured because he can’t see where he’s going than getting sunburned -he’s so generously smeared in sunscreen that if they tried to pick him up he would shoot out of their grasp into the sea, where his factor 700 Bergasol would bleed into the Mediterranean and kill off more species than the Erika.

Anyone else who indulges in people-watching?  Hands up, folks, don’t be shy! Chances are that if you smiled at any of this, you do it too…..

Post scriptum: This is a post written last year; I am reposting it as a) it went unnoticed and b) I am currently on holiday in the same context, so i would have written about the same topic anyway!

In Hope of Thunder

Summer has arrived with a vengeance – a heavy blanket of dusty heat has descended on us. The cat has melted into a black puddle in the dust and cedar needles. Eyes closed, he is waiting, somewhere between consciousness and sleep, for the evening wind to rise and release him from the sweltering heat.

The shutters on our old building have all creaked closed in unison against the omnipresent heat and glaring sunshine. Behind them, in the gloomy coolness of the thick, nineteenth century walls, the older generation living on either side of us has gone to bed for the sacrosanct siesta until the heat-imposed curfew is over. To my left, memories of the good old days are no doubt being selected and revived in ageing but agile minds. To my right, I suspect that the perfect revenge is being concocted for these idealistic newcomers with too much enthusiasm for their own good.

The washing hangs rigid and still on the line, baking in the heat that rises from the dusty ground. Cicadas scratch away relentlessly in the pine trees behind the house, a constant and audible reminder of the suffocating heat. Towards nightfall, they will grudgingly give way to the nurse toads and frogs and their lazy, night-time concerto of whistles and chattering.

Clouds are gathering now, expanding like sky-born shaving foam. The trees are motionless. Nature seems to be holding its breath in expectation, in the hope of rainfall. “Maybe tonight….” the garden seems to whisper.

I also long to hear the distant rumbles of thunder and see the sky light up tonight. I will get out of bed and pad barefoot down the corridor in the dark, enjoying the basic, primal pleasure of walking on the cool tiles. Then I will step on to the balcony, and watch the storm approach as the pine trees sway in anticipation. My skin will prickle as the chilly storm air hurries past me into the house to announce the imminent arrival of redemption from the heat. I smile: peine perdue, my friend. The sleeping occupants are busy chasing dreams, and will not notice your presence at their sides.

lightning from Hell

Photo credit: phani_astronomy®

I will count in my head after each lightning flash: one elephant, two elephants, three elephants…. before the rumble and crash of the thunder. I will enjoy watching nature’s self-indulgent show as the blue and white streaks rip the night sky from top to bottom, tearing a strip out of the dark blanket wrapped around our world and illuminating the night for a few seconds. I will laugh at Mother Nature as she cheekily switches the lights on and off in this world we mistakenly believe we can control.

When the first drops of rain fall on my face, I will return to bed, and listen to the rain and the soft swishing of the cedar branches as they brush against each other. Goosebumps  will appear on my skin as the thunder rumbles away across the sky towards other awaiting storm lovers.

The plants will silently and gratefully soak up their long-awaited nightcap, and the amphibian concerto will start up again with renewed enthusiasm. I will breathe in the heady smell of wet earth as the cool breeze blows across me. Then I will pull the sheet over myself, smile, and fall asleep again.