La grande famille

There is something about family that brings out the best – and possibly the worst – in me. Rather like these oddly decorated post boxes recently spotted in Wales. We laugh at the same things, tease each other, argue and basically drive each other crazy after a few days. But I wouldn’t trade time with my family for the world.

After my Greek island adventures, travelling to the UK for Easter seemed pretty tame. We did have the joy of arriving at (and later, departing from) Manchester Airport at a time when the frequently changing rules around the pandemic were exacerbated by staff shortages. But as soon as I’d ditched the suffocating FFP2 mask, collected my bags and sailed through customs (there was no one checking anything), I was happy to find my daughter waiting. She had driven an hour-and-a-half from Ripley in Derbyshire to pick us up.

My husband’s flight from Basel, which was already scheduled to arrive a couple of hours after mine, was going to be an hour late, so Madeline and I went shopping for the groceries we would need at our Airbnb (her place is far too small for guests), and a quick bite. By the time we got back to the airport to pick up Stefan, all the airport shops were closing. We waited as groups of travelers, mostly Brits returning from holidays in sunnier climes, wafted through the gates. One guy, sunburnt and wearing flip flops, called out to a another in a shop with its shutters half way down.

“Can I get a sausage roll, mate?”

“No, sorry, we’re shut!”

This had Madeline in stitches. “They’re absolutely crazy about Gregg’s sausage rolls here,” she said. “I mean, it’s nine-thirty at night and he’s just off a flight. And the first thing he thinks about is a sausage roll?”

No sausage rolls here!

The two of us were still giggling together as my husband finally arrived, cursing as he does every time he flies with the low-cost airline. “I hate EasyJet! Always late, and why pay for Speedy Boarding and an extra cabin bag if there’s no room in the lockers near your seat and you have to wait until the whole plane has emptied out before you can get it?” For some reason his predictable rant made us laugh harder.

By the time we reached Belper, a pretty little town where we had rented an Airbnb for a few nights, the kindly fellow who waiting to give us the keys looked like it was way past his bedtime. He showed us around and explained the complicated ‘Nest’ system to regulate the heat in the flat via various radiators. In the end there was little point as no matter what we did it was always too cold. But the place was comfortably furnished, and we quickly made ourselves at home.

The next couple of days were spent exploring the area, visiting Nottingham and our daughter’s place. It’s a small terrace house, with the kitchen and living room on the main floor and a bathroom and bedroom upstairs. The living room has a couch, a TV and a large cage for her Degus. Even if we had been able to squeeze in a bed, the constant rattling of rodents running on the exercise wheel would have driven me nuts. But she’s a vet, so I suppose it goes with the territory.

The next phase of our trip was in North Wales. Madeline’s boyfriend Jack drove us all to Gwynedd, where we met our son, Elliott and his partner, Anne. They are expecting our first grandchild in mid-June, so this was their last chance to travel before the big event. We rented a lovely, restored cottage with plenty of room for all of us. Once again, heat and hot water were in short supply. You had to run the wood-burning stove in order to heat the water, although thankfully the shower was electric. The weather was too cool and damp to sit outside in the lovely garden but I imagine this is a big draw in summer.

We were in a fabulous location near southern Snowdonia Park, just a short walk from the beach. I had no idea the beaches in Wales were so spectacular. We all enjoyed walking by the water and soaking up the invigorating sea air.

Our three-day stay included a hike into a former mine, a visit to a castle and soaking up a lot of gorgeous views. Entirely restorative!

We did do a lot of driving over the week and what stands out in my memory is how funny it was to be passengers in the back seat with the children doing the driving. Neither my husband nor I was up to driving on the other side of the road (I’ve finally trained myself to stop saying the ‘wrong’ side) so we let ourselves be driven. At one point Stefan and I were bickering­­­ over something or other and it occurred to me that the tables had turned since the kids were young and we would have to tell them to stop squabbling in the back seat!

At the end of the week we bade farewell to the family and took the train to Liverpool. We only had one night there but I would have loved to spend more time in this city which had a very cool vibe. What’s not to love about a city that gave birth to the Beatles and my heart throb Tommy Shelby, not to mention Jody Comer, the actress who blew me away in Killing Eve? Unfortunately there was no time for the Peaky Blinders tour. But I would go back in a heartbeat.

Love Liverpool! And that accent…

Our return flight from Manchester to Basel, followed by a two-hour train ride home, was uneventful. Our other ‘kids’, the two Frenchies and our new-old cat, were happy to see us. And, as my late belle-mère used to say, there is nothing like going away – unless it is coming home again.

So that’s it for this trip. Thinking about a visit to Canada to see family in late summer (if they ever relax their masking rules), and later this year a longer trip during a planned one-month sabbatical. We are thinking of southeast Asia or Japan, although I would be happy not to go so far if we could find somewhere with nice weather.

If you could travel anywhere (or not) where would it be?

Blindé

blindé Titus

Something has changed for me since the latest terror attacks. Something subtle, yet disturbing. It’s as if the shock and horror of so many innocent lives lost has diminished a notch, as if somehow this has become the new normal.

Paris. Brussels. Nice. Orlando. Manchester. London.

Yet how can we accept terrorism as the status quo?

The same way the world has grown immune to stories about the migrants drowned at sea. Just as America accepts the hundreds of lives lost each day to guns – ten of which are children. And not so different from our increasing immunity to the latest lunacy of its president. It is becoming harder to separate the tragic from the comic.

Perhaps we have become blindé.

Like the armoured vehicle shown here, known in French as ‘un blindé’, we have toughened our exterior. I read that this model, called Titus, was being tested in Paris to transport security forces following the attacks at the Bataclan. It is tough but moves quickly, and can safely carry 13 men and wounded under fire.

It is not uncommon to see heavy artillery on the streets of Paris.

When I first came to France in 1986, Paris was the midst of a wave of terrorism. A bomb went off in a popular store called Tati on Rue de Rennes, killing seven people and injuring 50. Suddenly there were machine gun-toting military and army tanks on the streets. I was frightened and perplexed. Were we at war?

I learned that for the French it is vital to have a show of force at such times, to see that the government is doing something to maintain order — whether to control student riots, to bring an end to massive strikes and demonstrations, or to protect the people from acts of terror. While I was terrified to see so much visible weaponry, most people found the police presence reassuring.

Yet, how can you protect anyone on the street from a maniac behind the wheel of a van? From someone with a hammer or a knife who takes another by surprise? You can’t, of course, and that is why we must grow tougher. Learn to live with the threat. Keep calm and carry on.

Not immune. Not blasé. But tougher none the less.

‘Se blinder’ means to become used to a threat, to toughen up, thicken one’s skin. It also means to go on a bender, to get rip-roaring drunk.

In a weird way that makes sense. Either way, we are feeling less pain.

So what will it be: get tougher or get drunk?

Do you feel you have become ‘blindé’?