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Tuesday, July 20, 2010

The end of the Exelmans era

For almost ten years we have been more than fortunate in having access to a base in the 16eme arrondissement of Paris on the Boulevard Exelmans. We, I hope, have shown sufficient gratitude to Max's maternal aunt, known by all simply as "Tatie", whose generosity has meant we have a memories stuffed full of Paris and our séjours there. Sadly, but for good reason, that era is at an end.  We drove to Paris in the trusty Citroën ZX with the Bopes the first weekend in July to do our bit of removing pictures from walls and using Polyfilla to make good the resulting holes.

It was my very first time there being driven in a car, apart from the occasional taxi ride from the Gare du Nord, so it was also my first experience of navigating the "roundabout" around the Arc de Triomphe. Not so much a roundabout but more a free for all as 12 roads converge, some traffic-lighted but no road markings to be seen. Seems this is one of the few places in France where the priorité à droite rule still applies on roundabouts. Terrifying. I am certain some people pay for such a thrill.

Over the course of those ten years, Paris has gone from pricey to expensive though we have always managed to find some little gems that have cost us nothing or very little. Mostly we ate at the flat having done a shop at Carrefour Auteil, though sometimes we ate out at either the brasserie opposite, then called the Brussels Café but that "went off" then latterly at Le Fétiche in Auteuil village but that became overly expensive: we realised that two unexceptional salads a small beer and a water had cost us nearly £40!

Of course the 16e is very well-to-do, it's nose pressed up against the villas of Neuilly and bordered by the Seine and the Bois de Boulogne. There are less expensive areas, to which we will, no doubt, be headed in the future.

We didn't get to ride the Métro this time but we did have a run in aforementioned Bois. There was something about running through this famous green space alongside the BCBGs.  We'll be back, perhaps not so frequently and not so comfortably, but the draw of Paris is still there and calling. Au revoir.

The L Word

Or 2 birthday barbecues and a christening, was my alternative title.  But before I get too clever for my own boots, let me explain that this blog entry is primarily about life away from Lille, indeed away from France and back in the good old U of K.  We visited for almost ten days with the Bopes (beaux-parents) in their economical Citroën diesel estate driving some 1600km in the process and getting as far as Seaton Sluice on the North East coast.

So what is this L word?  I think it is Lots of things. Of course it stands for 50 in roman numerals and is my slightly coquettish way of not vulgarly shouting out my newly acquired status as a quinqua, and equally it stands for the Love of family and wonderful friends and of one's own country, even if I don't choose currently to live there. Hey it also stands for my chosen town of residence. It's an 'L'-ementary letter!

Long planned and long awaited, this was to be the first trip to the UK we had made in the Bopes' company. I'd booked crossings and hotel way back when the days were a lot shorter but June arrived soon enough and before we knew it we were pootling down to Hersin-Coupigny, where they live,  to load up the car. Taking the autoroute des anglais, we zoomed up to Calais, or more precisely, Coquilles, where le tunnel sous la manche pops out on the French. A quick detour via a branch of Majestic Wine whose offer on a very pleasing cava was too tempting to miss and before we knew it we were being directed onto a shuttle two hours earlier than our booking, so that by six o'clock UK time we had already missed most of the rush hour traffic on the M25, had a relatively painless Dartford Tunnel transit (oh how we'd agonised about finding the correct change to chuck in the basket) and found our way to our Travelodge at Fenstanton, near Huntingdon.

The hotel was, as expected, adequate and acceptably clean. Sadly the adjacent Little Chef had not been 'Blumenthaled' and yet offered a sufficient menu. I always doubted that Little Chef would ever fully submit to a full Heston overhaul. Why spend all that money when you've just had what amounts to millions of pounds worth of free advertising? Our fish and chips really was OK and the accompanying bottle of wine not bad for the price. Luckily I had vouchers for a buy one main meal get one free deal though head office mustn't have thought the process through as the only way our helpful and pleasant though rather "local" waitress could ensure we obtained said discount was to separate the bill into three elements and for me to make three separate payments.  Pay attention Little Chef - big hassle!

The next morning we were soon on the road and, having made a pitstop in Barrowby to drop off our finery for the impending christening plus booze for the birthday barbecue, arrived in time for lunch at our destination: Penshaw.

This was already our third visit to Christine and Chris and each time we have gone back a month earlier. August 2008 was wet and cold, July 2009 was a little better as I recall actually sitting in the garden but June 2010 was the best yet. The neo-classical monument was always in view and we actually had dinner outside one evening! Our ever fabulous hosts looked after us magnificently and gave the Bopes a real flavour of the area. We checked out Durham, drove up the coast as far as Seaton Sluice, admired Newcastle's bridges and The Sage, and experienced the Angel of the North up close. Add in a very special birthday treat dinner at a local find, Amiros, and Bob's Christine's dad, not her uncle.  Oh, and we fitted in a couple of shortish runs too, to keep our half marathon training up to speed.

Saturday morning wasn't exactly promising weather-wise. OK for driving though. Our destination was Grantham via Holmfirth where cousin, Luis was celebrating his 18th with an all-day barbecue. Luis's fascination with being able to drink legally took me back quite a number of years/decades the difference between our celebrations being that I fully intended not getting drunk! I think I achieved mine. Luis? It was also an opportunity to catch up with Tracy, whom I had not seen since celebrating her 40th 10 years ago.

On to Grantham where another barbecue was planned as an informal celebration of my impending half century. Typically it wasn't quite nice enough to be able to be outside but a good time was still had by all including almost all the immediate family. Cajoled into opening presents a full two days early, I was genuinely thrilled to be give a gorgeous notebook computer by my nearest and dearest as well as a host of other thoughtful gifts from friends.

The big event was Imogen's christening. Sunshine and smiles all the way even when two rather exuberant youngsters discovered the delights of plunging their fingers into the christening cake. Luckily I had already taken a picture for posterity and in any case sister Michelle is the epitome of calm and outwardly at least unafflicted by stress. Max and the other godparents carried out their duties admirably. Mim was duly dunked in warmed water (!) and made not an iota of fuss. The funniest moment of the day has to be when nephew Will-yum (according to his Facebook entry), 19, did a great back flip on the bouncy castle but then slipped off in a pleasingly comedic moment.

L day too dawned hot and sunny. Breakfasted we togged up and went for another run - who'd have thought - and then off to the Fox and Hounds in Old Somerby for a birthday lunch and a cake!

We shopped till we dropped vacuuming up goodies galore in Grantham's many bargain shops the next day. Indeed we spent some six hours indulging in retail therapy and were concerned that it might not all fit in the capacious boot. A couple of glasses of wine later feeling refreshed and relaxed, we decided to extend our stay by a day as the extra cost was less than a cinema outing for the four of us. Thus we had a restful Wednesday and an easy drive back down the A1, A14, M11 M25 and M2. Even Renée was at ease with the ferry as the Channel was millpond-like and the setting sun bathed us all the way to Dunkirk. Easy? Peasy.