Although I have never been lucky enough to visit Provence and in particular the areas he describes it is on my bucket list and on hearing the sad news on Radio 4 today of his passing aged 78 I raised a mental glass of vin rouge to my memories of the man and his gentle stories.
I know I’ve always been a Francophile, there’s something about the French raison d’être that I really appreciate, such as a joie de vivre et plus choses. Well you get my drift…
Peter like me had a big corporate job, albeit in advertising rather than IT, but also grew tired of the pressures & constant air travel and so decided to make a change.
Mind you he “retired” to the life of a full-time writer aged only 35, made the “escape” to France at 50, so he beat by some margin my venture as a recreational blogger who arrived in Llanfoist at 55 three years ago!
I remember the John Thaw TV series based on his book and I have to admit to being one of the rare few who seemed to have enjoyed it at the time and subsequently.
Not as much though as the audio cassette tape set I bought which I believe was recounted by the author himself. I listened to it endlessly on the Jaslee, lying down in the extendable double bed in the aft berth, sipping on some St. Emilion and nibbling on some ripe Brie cheese with an occasional piece of torn baguette to accompany them.
I blame the fact that on the 20th May 1971, aged 11 & in my last year at Hilderthorpe Junior School, I departed on a French exchange trip to stay with the Lebas family. Mum & dad (papa) both worked at the PTT and they had my pen pal Stephane and Lydie as their son and daughter.
I was away from home for 11 days which cost my parents £13 plus £5 pocket money! I stayed in the Lebas high rise flat at 52 Boulevard de Strasbourg, App 123, 59 Lille, situated on the 16th floor.
Stephane subsequently came and stayed my family in Bridlington, East Yorkshire although despite my tender age I have to admit I’d developed a crush on his sister Lydie, aged 12 who sadly was not invited!
From a culinary perspective there was a lot of difference too with breakfast being a bowl of cafe au lait & a visit to Stephan’s grandparents who lived on a farm in the country slaughtering a sheep (or goat – I can’t really remember) in my honour by hanging it from its back legs and slaughtering it in my presence by a cut to the throat! I’ve always like my meat rare since, especially steak tartare…
This experience at a young age meant that I picked up quite a bit of understanding of French although my spoken word was less good but at least I would try. This held me in high esteem later on in my working life as quite often I’d visit our French distribution site in Lyon which of course is the gastronomic centre of France.
Colleagues such as the General Manager Vivian Masson, Head of Distribution/Customer Services Anne-Marie Neulat and IT specialist Nathalie Timmers became good friends of mine. So good indeed that when I’d arrive ostensibly to get them connected to email, a tray of les huitres (oysters) on crushed ice would await me for a welcome lunch, along with an andouillette (intestine sausage) ready to take home on my return to the UK! My favourite meal out was at the local market stalls (bouchon) where more seafood could be readily sourced.
I used to stay in the “pencil” hotel in Lyon and it was there where I held a Pfizer Medical Technology European conference on the use of Lotus Notes software that became the setting of my infamous checkout story. Essentially what happened was to keep expenses low as possible for attendees where their allowance wasn’t as generous as my own most of the drinks over the two days went on my room.
As I went to checkout I noticed that this seemed to add up to many thousands of Francs to cope with the large numbers of bouteilles de vin et biere consumed! As I’d taken in a big gulp of air thinking about how I was going to explain this to my boss, the receptionist then asked “monsieur, did you take anything from the mini bar aussi?”. My reply was inaudible!
My next adventure in France occurred in my first visit to Bordeaux and the Stryker factory there where I was the sole IT representative from Pfizer, the rest being the European IT managers from the acquiring company. I remember it was a beautiful hot sunny day with beautiful views from the conference room but I did feel a little like being put into the lion’s den and so asked to be excused and go to the toilet.
Unfortunately after reaching the cubicle, hermetically sealed to the outside world, the handle to the bolt came off in my hands as I “sealed the hatch”. About 20 minutes later search parties were dispatched to see what had become of the errant Englishman and howls of laughter escaped as they realised my situation & came to my rescue.
Eventually I was released from solitary confinement in Colditz fashion and keeping my head high I sat down to participate in the integration meeting. Unfortunately my luck was not in that day and I felt a crawling sensation up my right inner leg that itched so as I started rubbing a wasp stung me in a sensitive area. Shouting a large yelp I stood up, squashed the offending insect against my leg and promptly sat down! “Vive la difference” was all I could hear being whispered from my French host…
In later years alas I’ve not been lucky enough to visit France as often, a trip with the European CIO from OKI Europe, a favourite client of mine to his team meeting in Paris was great fun, a couple of trips to Gartner’s Paris office for training as well as a family holiday to Disneyland Paris. I’d like to go back to Normandy especially and Sword beach in particular one day to pay homage to my father’s experiences of D-Day 6th June 1944.
While an Executive Partner at Gartner I loved working with one Executive Client Manager called Eddy Louchart who came from the Champagne region of France and I was lucky enough to meet his family when he invited Debbie and I to his wedding to Rachel in Windsor.
To keep my Francophile credentials I’m now reduced to reading tomes such as “A Year in Provence” by Peter Mayle or Karen Wheeler‘s “Toute Suite” series of books both of which I highly recommend. In the meantime I try to source mainly French wines, cheese and bread whenever possible.
So in the spirit of the current Presidential election there all I will say is “Vive la France“!
Without knowing it I became a father aged 25 while living in London, now I hasten to add this wasn’t a result of me blindly “sowing my seed” so to speak… In fact on the 27th February 1984 at 10.50am Debbie gave birth to David Alexander, known to everyone as Alex, in Merthyr Tydfil General hospital in Wales from her first marriage.
At the time I was blissfully unaware of this momentous occurrence in my life and as yet unmarried even for the first time! Debbie usually describes giving birth “like passing a football”, but on this occasion it must have been super sized as Alex had to be delivered using forceps which resulted in various indescribable stitches and her sitting on a rubber ring in hospital. Ouch!
I first met Alex on Saturday the 16th December 1989 as I walked through the door of Debbie’s house in Mount Pleasant, accompanied by Nana & Popsy who were on baby sitting duties that night, while Debbie and I went out for our blind date in Llanfrynach.
My first impressions of Alex centred largely on a quiff he had in his hair at the front that appeared to be gelled back. The other things I noticed were a mischievous grin coupled with a very strong & high pitched Welsh accent. He was also bouncing around the sofa in between Nana & Pops laughing at his mother struggling to get ready.
Now at the time although I’d seen Debbie on a video of a children’s party with his younger brother James Francis (D.O.B. 20th November 1987 of whom I shall write about later this year!) I’d thought it was Alex so it came as quite a shock to see two little ones running around the living room together.
For now though, let me return to the story and after a very successful evening in Llanfrynach, Debbie’s parents were taken back home in my Sierra by the friends that introduced us & chaperoned us during the meal, namely Rose & Paul.
On their return to collect me, Debbie mutually decided I should not go back with them, but that I should stay the night! I pleased to report to those with a moral conscience that after a long talk together I stayed tucked up in a makeshift bed downstairs in the living room while she remained upstairs with the children…
I woke up alone & confused at around 6am the following morning to the worrying loud sounds of hammers on metal and flashing lights and immediately thought I was a dead man. Fortunately it transpired that it was a group of workman working on the single track railway before the first train early on Sunday morning and so after a bit my heart rate returned to near normal.
After dozing a little more in rather troubled sleep I awoke to Debbie making me breakfast and a five year old Alex wanting to watch a film sitting next to me, with a 2 year old James fast asleep upstairs in his cot. Given Alex’s age I grimaced at the prospect of watching Huxley Pig perhaps, but warming to the little chap’s excitement I nodded acceptance.
With a wide smile Alex then recovered a VHS tape recording, borrowed from the local mobile library, not of some children’s cartoon but of an 18 certificate copy of Arnold Schwartzenegger‘s 1985 Terminator film! Now being of rather faint heart I’d not seen the film before, but it transpired that Alex new it by heart, scene by scene.
He proceeded to tell me in gory detail with his strong Welsh accent things like “watch this bit, he’s going to cut open his eye with a scalpel and remove it” which heightened the horrific anticipation greatly for me and made me question somewhat Debbie’s parenting skills.
Feeling rather traumatised after the early morning railway maintenance works followed by a cyborg assassin some may have thought that this would have spelled the end of any romance but as you all know dear readers this author is made of stronger stuff!
Well, of course they say a photo tells a thousand words, so please find a selection of Alex’s photos ranging from his Christening, to riding his first bike, meeting Richard Branson, going on his first school trip to France, celebrating his eighteenth birthday in Charlie’s Steak house in Florida and finally graduating from Royal Holloway!
All these years later I can honestly say it’s been an absolute pleasure watching Alex growing up from that little boy with a quiff, to the very grown up 33 year old that marries Emily later next month and both Debbie & I are very proud of him!
Oh and by the way, Debbie’s choice of DVDs nowadays is very different, “Houseboat” anyone? 🙂