Sunday, June 9, 2013

Memoirs of France

I've been editing my French Journal which I kept during our stay there early last year and thought I'd share some of it with you. If you enjoy, then let me know and maybe I'll carry on and finish the job!


My dear old Dad used to call it “Sods law” because sometimes things don’t exactly work our as you planned. We had organized a 6 month house swap with a young family near Versailles, France and we foresaw ourselves heading happily for the airport with suitcases packed and ready for off, but that’s when the “toast landed on the floor marmalade-side down” and immediately it didn’t look like we were going to go at all! Out of the blue MJ slipped a disc in her lower back and was flattened by a monstrous pain. Even the tiniest personal “things” led to excruciating pain and I was in the invidious position of being both spouse, Medical Doc and expectant international traveller which made it hard to decide what was the best thing to do! One of the many blessings in our family is that one of our offspring had chosen to follow in the medical profession and is a graduate Doc: it’s just that he lives 2,500kms away in Sydney.

However, thanks to the wonders of modern communication and the help of the local pharmacist he saved the day by organizing appropriate, strong painkillers and steroids which had an almost miraculous effect, allowing us a couple of days later to take wing to Paris, speeded along with the good wishes and prayers of many good folk.

It was, what I could only describe as a smooth flight - not particularly comfortable, and not good at all for sleeping, but because of our apprehensive build up, nothing going wrong was everything going right for us. There were some hiccoughs, one being the sheer size and distances to walk at Dubai, which produced an escalation in pain and accompanying anxiety, but we learned from this and made sure we were prepared for pain in the future. It’s amazing how useless analgesics are when packed in a suitcase that you can’t access: so “message to self” - always carry enough medications to cover you for any long journey, and carry an extra one for good measure!

 Traveling in economy class is always going to be a struggle for tall people, even though the Airlines do their best to maximize comfort, unfortuantely one size does NOT fit all! So for those with known low back pain, take a lumbo-sacral roll with you: they are fairly easy to source from any good Pharmacy, and they’re lightweight and easy to carry.
When you sit in your seat place the roll across the lower part of your back: now the correct position is at the upper part of your pelvis - NOT the lower part of your spine! This is a subtle point, but can make a big difference to your comfort. You locate the correct point (best done before you get on the flight!) by locating the two dimples at the lower part of your “back” where
the spine joins the pelvis

General back care is also vitally important when travelling:
Do NOT carry one huge bag with everything in it. You still have to lift it on and off conveyor belts, tolleys etc and this is a sure way to turn a dream holiday holiday into a nightmare!  Pack you clothes into 2 or 3  smaller, user-friendly cases that are easy to manoeuver.
Keep up exercises to maintian strength in your “core stabilizers”. If you don’t know where to find them, then ask a Physio who does!

Then suddenly we were in Paris! CDG airport cannot be described as one of the more efficient airports in the world. When we arrived it seemed that they must be unloading the luggage piece by piece from the aircraft and then walking with each one from the aircraft to the conveyor belt: and it also seemed that there must have only been a couple of people performing this glacial task. However, others have told me that they thought that CDG operated on “oiled wheels” - so perhaps we just arrived at a bad time! Despite the snail-like progress of the luggage arrival we were amazingly serene about the whole wait: again, if you’re not in pain or watching someone in pain, then life is good.
We were met by a tall Frenchman holding a card with our name emblazoned on it in front of his chest, but he wasn’t looking at us. He was (rightly) distracted by his young female companion who I suspect may have been more than just his navigator
: it was such a “French” moment! They were a lovely couple and delivered us through freeways, tollways and tunnels to our new home in Bailly - pronounced Bi-eeeee). A word on French tunnels: entering into them is like being posted into a letter box. You are warned about the vertical challenge that they represent by a series of suspended balls across the road, which for the newly arrived, causes you to duck as you pass under them as they seemed so low. Then the long shallow slit of a tunnel sucks you in and makes you cower under its lowering roof: definitely not an experience for one of a jet-lagged, claustrophobic nature. But like all things, with time you adjust and eventually we stopped even noticing them.
Our new home was a little gem of a place. We immediately felt very much at home and were amazed at the similarity of tastes that our hosts share: the obvious difference being one of age: their house is relatively new and has all the wonderful features that one would like in such a house and put together with taste and style. The other feature is size. Our down under home is large on a large block and was wonderful for our  .. large family. But now we are two, our french home seems so much more “us”. The bed we slept in can only be described as delicious: and we made the most of catching up on lost sleep until the early hours of Monday morning.

 Flying from East to West is easier on the body clock, but even so, it does take some days to fully adjust. Make sure you try to adapt to the local time ASAP which includes re-setting watches and elctronic gizmos. Try to exercise daily and avoid long naps during the day. Avoid caffeine drinks and alcohol in the evening as they will keep you more awake than ever!

Monday was a day of delicious contrasts: the joy of a lazy breakfast - scrambled eggs with local ham on a freshly bought baguette can only be described as sublime! But then we took a step too far and thought we could navigate French roads, in a foreign language whilst driving on the other side of the road! A feeling of abject panic set in  as, whilst attempting to drive to the local train station we were once again sucked inexorably into the post box tunnel and taken “where you would rather not go” as it says in the Good Book, and ended up in the southern suburbs of Paris! This produced a mixture of claustrophobia not experienced for years and almost tearful frustration for being powerless with no way out. But like most things, this too passed and we returned by another route to our delightful village and comfortable home.

 Message to self:
Always study the maps prior to setting out for the first time in a foreign country - and don’t trust Sat Navs unless you know that they’re up to date too!

“Our” village was wonderful, and the joy we experience as we walk down the street of this scenic village with its aged houses and welcoming inhabitants was balm to a jet lagged soul. Our neighbours introduced themselves - extraordinary, gentle and generous people who made us feel even more at home.
And yet I had a strange dream about my father that night: why I do not know. He was caught up in celebrations and was pushed and fell down several steps and I watched helpless from afar. My brother appeared and as we walked along I burst into tears: “why are you crying” he said? I was unsure at first and then I realized that I wanted to be there for my father in his final suffering and be a gentle presence to him: and I grieved for not being able to do that.*** he was to die suddenly, despite his great age on September 1st 20012.
Why I dreamed that I have no idea, but it stayed with me during the day.
And what a day it’s was. We grasped our courage and took to the car again and headed to a shopping centre 12kms away, although to us it seemed almost like going to another country! But it was not all smooth sailing. In our travels we had to ask a policeman for directions - the GPS having “confused” us - and as we turned to leave, M tripped on a rough surface and almost fell flat on her face. Unfortunately it stirred up her back and her pain troubled her greatly all day although, like most women who have reared 5 children, she did not give in to it.
Talking of ladies in pain, whilst we were at the Pharmacy getting some paracetamol, an elderly lady with porcelain skin around tired eyes was leaving in a staggering sort of way and so I helped her home. She was from Nice originally and we shared stories as we walked down the street. She was young once and knew Nice in the “early” days. Now she is old and falls frequently and lives alone since her husband died. Time can be cruel.

 Staying on your feet.
The aging process is fraught with challenges and one of the biggest is not falling over. At the extremes of life our environment becomes a physical challenge. So stay fit and work on your balance - try standing on one leg whilst brushing your teeth: or walk sideways into the hosue from your car. Do regular
Quads exercises to keep your legs strong and practice “falling” forward from a kneeling position onto a carpeted floor to strengthen the forearms and shoulders should you actually have a fall.

Yet again, the peace and quiet of this house and the real feeling of being at home made for a relaxed and healing evening. Hopping half way around the world meant that we were now eligible to join the “bed by 9 sect” even though we deceived ourselves by saying that we go there to read - within 20 minutes, eyes sting and the call of sleep becomes irresistible. But by midnight I have had 3 hours of deep sleep and I wake for the first time. By 4am I have been in bed for 7 hours and my body tells me to get up, but it is so so dark and I resist for another 90 minutes before I can’t lie there any more. But despite an interrupted nights sleep,  I found myself actually singing when I got up because I was so happy.
But we want to get into our normal morning routine as quickly as possible so it’s cut up oranges and a nice cuppa tea, then check the news on the iPad. Feeling frisky we decide to get up at 6.30 and go for a walk - which proved to be not the greatest idea I ever had as MJs leg gave her a great deal of pain and we limped home for another lie down.
But pain was not going to hold the young lady back and as we had talked of cycling to Versailles,  I prepared the bicycles and the genius of 2 wheels was that M did not have any pain whilst cycling. The relief and happiness that this engendered is hard to describe - tears might lubricate their telling. But we cycled for 2 hours and had the most amazing experience. Even 12 hours later it still seemed unreal that we actually cycled around the “canal” at Versailles with white swans gliding over the cold, grey surface, and the Palace of Versailles in the misty background benignly watching over us.
Back down the forest track and home for lunch followed by a walk to the shops - another less than inspired choice by yours truly as the pain in M’s leg returned with an awful vengeance to remind us that it is only 9 days since she was flattened by a prolapsed disc in her spine. But then it’s amazing what a positive attitude and a beautiful hot bath can do to restore ones spirits, and over tea we talked about living life in the moment and how each of our lives had been modulated by unexpected health issues. Yet again, tears lubricated the moment but they were even more enriching than that hot bath!

Thursday 12th Jan. I have to put in a date every now and then otherwise I lose all sense of time. Each day is different and littered with new experiences and it seems belittling to label it as 08.01.12, but for the purposes of recalling events at a later date, I need all the help I can get.
Today was the second day that I got up and started singing - I even did a quiet pirouette out of sight of M, just in case I came a cropper - and I cannot remember when/if I have ever done that before. Today though was another chance to meet the challenge of French roads! To the untrained, and un-french eye, you get very little warning before an intersection comes up. That, plus the fact that street names appear on maps and Google earth, they don’t seem to appear on the actual street. Major road signs, D3, N4 appear perched atop poles like pigeons but are of a smaller stature, all on roads where speed and narrowness make it imperative to maintain your focus on what is happening in front of you. This can make for extreme anxiety to the novice: especially the elderly novice! But the french motorist is conservative when it comes to the use of the horn. In the past 4 days I have only heard it 3 times - and all of them from an elderly lady who was following me. The amusing thing is that the French klaxon is a bit of a let down. I expected a car horn with a throaty Gaulois sound and yet what you hear is a rather apologetic pre-pubescent peep.
We set ourselves the target of finding the closest station that will take us to Paris and in this we succeeded. The second objective was to find the shopping centre at Versailles and this we did - a great food hall downstairs with those meticulously crafted, mouth-watering patisseries and breads, and for one who is not a meat eater one can only marvel at the displays of our slaughtered bovine friends in the butchers shops.
But M had pain that continues to teach us new things about ourselves. Life is about change, life is about suffering and coping with it. We promote this idea that suffering can be stamped out if we do this or if we do that, and whilst that does give us hope and it does help us recover from one challenge quicker in order to prepare for the next ordeal, suffering is the thing that makes we humans great. M is a fantastic example of that.
The sun came out in the afternoon and we eventually found the Biblioteque open and the charming lady who mobilizes the literature duly sent us off with several books on the history of Bailly - in french of course!
Today was also the first day for a jog in France: M is comfortable on the “velo” and so followed me as I did 2 circuits of the block. It felt good to be back on the road again and it’ll be even better when the two of us can explore new areas together.
With the short days and long nights being distilled with our habit of waking early - around 5.00am in Perth - means that by the time it gets light here we have already been awake for almost 4 hours and it feels more like time for a zizzz than the time of the hunter gatherer! But we enjoy these lovely long lazy starts to the day: why do we make ourselves so busy and then spend all of our lives trying to keep up with our own hectic agendas?
Today - Friday 13th - was a day for a drive to Plaisir again: and yet again, we found our way there perfectly and yet again we came back via a completely different route! Our return was courtesy of Madam Lash - the GPS device - who “came up trumps” this time and delivered us to where we actually wanted to be. We had decided earlier that once a week we’d have lunch out and we booked a table at the local restaurant in Bailly -the Pavillion. This turned out to be an inspired choice! Warm and friendly staff complement the warm and friendly ambience. The menu was varied and our choices provided us with a superb meal topped by the chocolate pudding desert which was, I can only describe as, ball achingly excellent!
It was an amazing lunch and yet again, time seeped soothingly slowly along, perhaps aided by a nice bottle of wine from Gascony. It did however completely blitz the afternoon as our siesta didn’t start until 3.00pm and we awoke to a ringing phone at 4pm. A quick stock up on supplies ie baguette and milk, then home again on the bike as M finds this form of transport the least aggravating for her back/leg.
Tomorrow offers the chance of more adventures and more discoveries, but just the first five days have been a revelation and we are very happy.

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1 comment:

Mariodacatsmom said...

I loved this post. Since I have only been to Europe once (cruise to Italy) I hang on every word in your post and find it so very interesting. I for one vote on your continuing to do this.