A Donkey in the Drawing Room

Thirty years ago our son, Joe, had an exchange visit with a French lad, Paul. The boys kept in touch for around five years then communication lapsed, although I remained in Christmas card contact with Paul’s parents.

When Paul’s father died, I felt guilty we’d not been to see them for so long – there was a standing invitation to their family home near Grenoble. So we made the effort; there was a reunion this summer.

The large, almost-chateau they live in accommodated Joe, his wife, Vic, and their three boys, together with Tony and me with no problem. It has the dilapidated grandeur of a home that has been in the family for years, possibly centuries. Huge, elaborate pieces of furniture sit side-by-side with bits and pieces of the modern world.  It was a continual surprise to see if anything came out of the hot water tap. And the tangle of electrical wires would have sent Health and Safety into a panic. It all added to the charm.

Christine's home
Christine’s home
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…in its grandeur

Christine, Paul’s mother, offered us aperitifs in the large drawing room before lunch. French windows were open on two sides of the room but it was too hot to sit outdoors. The nose of a donkey peeped in. They have many animals among which are two donkeys, gentle, friendly beasts who like human company. Normally they remain in their paddock but when there are children around, they are allowed to wander up to the house, as entertainment. The boys were thrilled.

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The guilty donkey

After some delightful Sangria, we moved into the adjacent dining room. Christine was serving her homemade gazpacho when there was a horrendous crash. Paul went to investigate. He came back shrugging his shoulders as only the French can do and laughing. One of the donkeys had entered the drawing room, skidded on the polished wooden floor and fallen. Paul sorted out the problem. No-one seemed bothered. Vic could barely contain her hysterics. She whispered to me, ‘This is surreal!’

Much wine flowed with the main course, cheese and dessert (in that order, of course). There was no question of helping to clear up afterwards. The staff did that. We were expecting to wander around the estate after lunch – it is truly an estate, acres of it – but there was a surprise planned. Paul offered to take us up in his smaller plane (he has two). He gained his licence twenty-five years ago, the youngest pilot in France at the time, and has been flying ever since.

Paul’s plane

Tony and I went up with him first. My fears of air-sickness were happily unfounded as we did a twenty-minute tour of the area, passing low enough over the house to see the boys in the outdoor swimming pool. I saw one of them wave. Joe and Vic went up next, a trip to Alpe d’Huez where they stopped for a drink before returning. Both Tony and Joe had been allowed to take the controls for a while in the plane.

Such generosity! We’d all had a wonderful treat. Vic’s face was a picture of stunned amazement. She could not believe what was happening and the world she was in.

Paul invited us to aperitifs at the home he shares with his partner, Sandrine, before dinner back at Christine’s Domaine. It was another delightful place, an old family home and barn on land they owned, tastefully restored with a new swimming pool in a natural garden surrounded by mountains. It made the view from our garden in England pretty insignificant.

Eating dinner outside at a granite table in a perfect temperature finished the evening. We spoke in a mixture of French and English that worked well. My French started to disintegrate with the wine – champagne with the dessert finished it off. But we communicated and that was what mattered. Paul and Joe decided they must not lose touch again and were discussing Paul visiting later in the year. He would come by plane – his own, of course.

We left the following morning after breakfast, one of the dogs having stolen much of the brioche.  Christine said she hoped we would return again next year.

I expect we shall.

A Right Knees-Up

Eight.

That’s the number of knee injuries I’ve had while skiing. You might say my knees are my Achilles’ heel.

It started back in the eighties in Norway, where we lived and learned to ski. I managed to remain injury-free in our first ski season in spite of various mishaps, such as falling off a drag lift and getting stranded on a closed black slope. I was less lucky in the second winter. I fell and twisted my knee. Nothing dramatic and, with difficulty, I skied down to the bottom of the slope. By the time we’d driven the four hours home, I couldn’t walk. A visit to the Medical Centre resulted in large amounts of fluid being drained from my balloon-like joint. When I asked what I’d done, I was told, ‘You fell and twisted your knee.’ Not much info there, then.

Later that season, we went to Voss on the west coast of Norway. My knee had recovered by this time and so had my confidence. We were racing down a series of rollers on a lovely piste, going straight from higher and higher up, no turning, taking off as we sailed over the bumps. Braver and braver; more and more foolhardy. I crashed. Both skis came off so I avoided any more twists but I landed on a knee.

‘Mummy, your face is bleeding!’

‘It’s my knee.’

‘But your face is bleeding!

Three anxious children stood around me. Sod my face, I thought, knowing something more serious had happened. The blood wagon arrived and ferried me down the mountain. It’s not a pleasant experience. Apart from the snow that’s thrown at you and the feeling you’ll fall out at every bend, people peer in to see if you’re still breathing.

I ended up spending two nights in hospital with a broken tibia. Voss is in the area where they speak ‘Ny norsk’ – ‘New Norwegian’. It’s different from the standard Norwegian I’d learned. But I struggled through – and even learned the word for a bedpan!

We returned to Oslo. Our house was up a steep winding path, a challenge on crutches in the snow. I remember hiding in the house, crying from sheer frustration, to be found by our youngest, Tim, aged seven. He was distraught; Mummies don’t cry.

Later on, I had a series of mishaps on ski slopes in France. As ‘camp-followers’ when Tim was ski racing, we skied in many resorts. There was the time one of the racers needed his rucksack at the start of the race and had left it behind. I offered to get it. Rushing along the narrow path to the start gate, I skied over the edge. As I fell and banged my knee, I remember shouting to my rescuer, ‘Get this rucksack to the start straight away!’

Then there was the time we attempted a steep, unprepared slope because the snow looked so good. I’ve never learned to ski powder properly and I certainly made a mess of this attempt. A twisting fall at slow speed, the worst sort; another ligament injury. And I know there was another twisted knee around the same time which kept me from the slopes, but my mind has blocked out the details!

I had a few undamaged years when my knees behaved themselves. But they are out to get me whenever they can. I was skiing alongside the piste in Couchevel, having yet another attempt at powder when I fell. Unharmed, I tried to pull my buried ski out of the snow. Click! I felt and heard my knee go. Another blood wagon ride, no more pleasant than the first time. More crutches. Ruptured ACL (Anterior Cruciate Ligament). At least this time I found out what I’d done. I recovered quickly and skied again the same season.

I knew by now I had dodgy knees. If, in the course of normal activity, I twisted the right one, something moved in it and I had to click it back into place. Painful for me and anyone watching. And it could happen at any time. Then it happened while skiing. I didn’t even fall. My knee would not click back. Here we go again. Another blood wagon ride. This time a broken cartilage which required an operation to remove it. I asked the surgeon if I’d ski again.

‘You’ll ski again if you want to,’ he said.

Of course I did. The operated knee was great, the stronger of the two.

I’m writing this with an ice-pack on my other knee. A stupid fall getting off a chair lift where I lost all grip. Maybe I skied over someone’s ski tails, who knows. Anyway, that put paid to my other ACL. I can still ski using a knee brace.

I’ve got fairly empty knees now. Four injuries per knee. It’s amazing what you can manage without. But it has taught me a little caution as there must be a limit!

B is for Bragging

Six of us, travellers in France, thrown together at a guesthouse. It turned out Alice and Alec lived ten miles from Brenda and Bob. The ‘A’ and the ‘B’ team; we two were alphabetical and geographical misfits.

‘My God! We’re practically neighbours! You don’t sail, do you?’ Alex bellowed.

‘Actually, yes. Have a 38 footer.’

‘Mmm, our boat is smaller. But we do have a second one, a clinker-built job.’

Bob changed tack. ‘Damned good food at the boathouse.’

‘We prefer our local gastro-pub. The one with a Michelin star.’

Brenda jumped in. ‘I dislike sailing. I renovate our lovely old house with its half-acre of land.’

‘Land? Into gardening?’ Alice’s eyes sparkled. ‘I grow all our veg now I’ve retired from Harley Street. Must use our acre.’

The ‘B’ team preferred to buy local organic produce.

Touché.

‘We’re joining our son in Provence.’ Brenda continued. ‘He needs a break – such a stressful job. He’s a partner in a large law firm.’

‘Really?’ Alice grew two inches. ‘Our son is a hedge fund manager in the City. Earns millions – but I shouldn’t mention that!’

‘Being a Harley Street doctor entitles you to boast.’

Alice had a fit of coughing. Her husband explained she had been secretary to a consultant oncologist.

In the fidgeting break in conversation, I mentioned our next stop was the ancestral home of Josephine de Beauharnais.

‘Before she married Napoleon.’ Nobody seemed interested. ‘So it’s an early night. Maybe we’ll bump into each other again.’

‘Who knows? Perhaps at that Beauharnais place, eh?’ Loud, dismissive guffaws.

‘Well, it’s possible. The place is for sale and we’re putting in a bid.’

Four pairs of eyes fixed on me; smiles vanished.

We left the room and waited. Silence. Then four clamouring voices.

Sometimes you have to lie.