Our family break in France was just what le médecin avait commandé.
When we planned this sabbatical, taking advice from others in similar family situations who have so benefited, and knowing a few things ourselves, e.g. that it is very difficult for me or Judith to rest properly and ‘switch off’ unless we are off-island, we made it our aim to have
– some time away for all five of us as a family
– some time away just the two of us, Judith and me
– some time travelling and visiting the people and places God had spoken to us about
– some time personally for us, and me especially, in reflection and study
We normally go to France for our annual family holiday so it was not really difficult to choose where to go and what to do. However as the girls have grown up and Judith and I have learnt a little more about parenting, we have realised that there are seasons in family life which need to be identified and responded to accordingly. Ignore these changes and developments at your peril; much like a farmer who decides to ignore the changing seasons and weather patterns will soon find that his crops are spoilt and his livestock sick. Like many families we all now enjoy slightly different things in terms of leisure and fun. When the girls were little, it was certainly easier: they did what Judith and I enjoyed. They tagged along generally to most of what we chose to do; in fact we made it our aim that just because we had toddlers and little children we were not going to let this affect our service to God, within reason, of course!
However that ‘within reason’ was not as limiting as it may sound. As a result you could have found us camping and sharing a tent with another family at a Stoneleigh Bible Week when Lucy was just a toddler and Grace only 8 weeks old. We have hosted people in our home regularly by getting the girls to share a bedroom between the three of them and/or Judith and I moving out of ours. On one occasion the girls had to share a room for a year whilst someone lived with us. Now of course this is nothing on African or Asian standards, but we say this because we have known of some Christian couples who, on becoming parents, virtually disappeared from the radar screen and became so besotted with their little darlings that you might have thought that they were worshipping idols! Suffice to say that we have never seen any fruit or benefit in this approach.
Quite the opposite in fact… the girls have grown up loving having people to stay and have benefited from getting to know many different types of people from many different backgrounds and places; from students to college lecturers, Africans and Anglicans, paupers and politicians, the famous and the infamous. In fact one person who fulfills at least two of those random categories, Jonathan Aitken, is
staying with us again in a few weeks time. The first time he visited, Lucy was just 11 years old and gave up her bedroom for Jonathan to use during his stay. Of course neither she nor her sisters knew who he was or his story, although it was not long after he had been released from prison; Jonathan had begun a theology degree in Oxford. One evening around the dinner table the children asked about him:
“Well, he was a politician for many years. Some say he would have been the next leader of the Tory party after John Major” [Our kids all knew who John Major was because it was a family joke that when I went to visit a local pastor friend Bill Mauger (pronounced ‘major‘ for you non-Guerns) Lucy had thought for years that I was regularly meeting with the UK Prime Minister! But that’s another story…]
“So what happened to him Dad?”
“He ended up in prison”
“We’re having someone stay in Lucy’s room who’s been to prison?!” [cue: shocked faces]
“Yes, in fact he’s not long been released”
“What did he go to prison for Dad?”
“It’s… er… like lying” [cue: greater shock; food drops out of mouths mid-bite]
[pause for effect…]
“You can go to prison for lying?!”
So I am sure you can see the parenting advantages of having an open home like this.
Nevertheless, their comes a time when a child is growing into adulthood and needs to learn to take responsibility, express themselves individually, develop individuality, and at the same time learn how to live peaceably and cooperate effectively with others who may not share the same likes and dislikes, let alone familial microbes. So when it comes to holidays, for example, we have found as our daughters all became teenagers, that Emily likes to do things, the rest of us in the main prefer to lie on the beach in the sun; my four girls like shopping for girlie things, I, ahem, prefer not [more about Claire’s Accessories in another post]; Judith, Grace and I like to read to relax (books, magazines, newspapers, property brochures… most things generally) the other two think that sort of activity pertains to school or work; Judith likes cities and suburbs, the rest of us prefer a sea-side town or village; and so it goes on…
Nevertheless we have had to learn to forbear with one another, to compromise a little, learn from each other and major on the things we do mutually enjoy together, namely eating out – seafood especially, listening to good music – anywhere and anything really but especially rock and jazz [in the car travelling fast – the favourite for 2009 was Snow Patrol’ s Take Back This City – fantastic!], French markets, good movies, C S Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia (this year it was the Silver Chair) – generally read by Dad late at night on holiday with silly voices, playing Scrabble or cards together – especially Gin Rummy… and, in the last 7 or 8 years visiting our favourite little sea-side resort on the Atlantic coast of France – St Palais-sur-mer.
Like other places we love, St Palais was discovered by accident one year when we were staying near the larger and modern city of Royan. We had been to a few beaches around the area and stumbled across St Palais as we were venturing up the northern Gironde estuary towards la Grande Côte, la Palmyre, and the island of Oléron – places we had actually been to before in the mid 90s. We don’t know how we missed St Palais-sur-mer back then, but when we discovered it a few years ago it was small, neat, virtually French-only tourists (and by that I mean – with apologies to German and Dutch friends reading this, but everyone knows I’m being honest here – there were hardly any German and Dutch tourists, in fact very few Brits either), it was also picture-post-card idyllic, and most importantly, possessed all the ingredients which would please us all as individuals and as a family.
So ever since then we have endeavoured to spend at least a couple of days here en route down south or back home – it is ideally situated just over 4 hours drive to/from the St Malo ferries. But please keep it a secret – we don’t want it to be spoiled!
Here’s a few of the things we like the most about it:
- it has a small crescent-shaped bay which is safe but often has some excellent surf;
- the cove is surrounded by several belle époque period houses whose Edwardian art nouveau semi-distressed look add to the Alice-in-Wonderland feel of the place; often these four or five storey houses have back gardens with steps down to the beach or rocks;
- evidently it is a place where many Parisian families retreat for the summer: A house or appartment is rented near the beach for a month or two of the school holidays. Maman travels down with the children to stay for the duration while Papa continues to work in the city but commutes down for the weekends. This practice is dwindling as both parents often need to work now, but we’ve seen an increase in grandparents coming down now;
- there is a lovely little bar à moules called Chez Lola, built on stilts on rocks in the beach, and if you like moules marinières or mouclade (the local Charentes spiced version) as we do then it’s the place to go . We’ve often ended up here to celebrate Lucy’s birthday either because it’s around that time or because we won’t all be together on August 22.
- near the beach there is a promenade with some quaint bars, cafés and restaurants. We particular have grown to like Nausicaa – not only does it serve fabulous sea-food, but especially because it often has live jazz. This time there was a brilliant small band playing one night we ate there. The female vocalist, Rachael Magidson, an American francophile, sang all our favourite numbers, including excellent renditions of the Kahn-Donaldson My Baby Just Cares For Me, and Bowman-Brooks’s East of the Sun which was almost as good as Diana Krall. Just to prove her versatility she picked up a trumpet from time to time and played that brilliantly also as well as playing percussion. Then for one song the bass was taken over by a guy who looked suspiciously like Billy Gilvear (pastor of Shiloh Church). Hey Billy – you keep your light under a bushel that’s a mean bass you play man!
- also along the little promenade there is always a guy in a gateway selling the best chi-chi in the world. The flavour of this dough-nut stick food-stuff used to evade us. Then this year someone identified it. But I’ve forgotten it again! In addition there is a candy-floss/cotton-candy/barbe-à-papa (the French means Daddy’s beard) stall selling mean flavours and huge barbes!
- there is also a plaza or square near the beach where a variety of animations take place during the summer, an excellent automatic-cleaning toilet that we’ve had hours of fun running in and out of like scared cats, a great sandwicherie on the corner selling super-stuffed baguette sandwichs of course (you don’t use –es for the plural in French), and more recently a wicked chocolatier has appeared nearby (this is a useful place to go when it’s hot as it is air-conditioned, and you can browse and… select a florentine or two);
- then to cap it all there’s a daily market which takes over the municipal carpark in the mornings and sells all the typical French market produce like dozens of varieties of delicious olives, more types of bread than you can imagine, wines, eaux-de-vie, oils & vinegars by the gallon, as well as fish, shoes, meat, bikinis, fruit, spices, cheeses, thongs, watches, couscous-taboulé, jewelry etc.
So there is definitely something for everyone. For our last two days as a family in our beloved France it was just perfect. We made our way home each of us having enjoyed each other’s company, many laughs, happy memories, and for me six books read.
Now that’s the sign of a good family holiday right there!