We are on a bit of a mission to get down south, so we fit in a day of driving. Emma is purring up and down hills along the very straight Routes Nationales of the french countryside, the sky is a deep blue and Frank and I exchange stories from the past as we are heading towards the Charentes where Jim and Jess live, Frank’s friends who we met on the boat. There is a LOT of space inside France, miles and miles of countryside, roads going up and down, gently undulating from one town to another. We experience three sunsets in short succession and arrive at Jim & Jess’s just as the last light fades.
The next morning, we explore the place. They have a fantasic dance studio with a sprung floor and a lovely garden with a stream in it. There’s some hedge and tree cutting going on, so I join over the next few days. It’s great to get physical, wield the saw and drag large piles of branches to the big bonfire pile.
Jess’s sister is also around, and her husband – they recently bought a house nearby too, and together they set out to hunt for furniture and fittings. We reconvene in the evenings to share food and stories. Frank and Jess make some fantastic meals and a lot of stories are shared in front of a large open fire.
After a few days, we drive on, our next stopping place being Helmut’s (my first boyfriend), who lives with his lovely wife Emma in the Corrèze where he bought an old dilapidated house about 15 years ago which he painstakingly restored – or shall I say is restoring, as it still an ongoing project. The nights are cold, putting a thin layer of ice on the pond outside the house and making for beautiful frosty sunrises. Here too, we spend time just hanging out and catching up with each other’s news and delving into family memories.
On we go, to visit some friends of Bini’s (our current Mango head-chef), a Dutchman called D.K. and his English wife Angie, who run Puissentut, a chateau near Toulouse that offers many courses and events, from weddings to healing retreats for cancer patients. They bought the chateau as a ruin with not so much as a roof on it and completely restored it in the space of 2 years! D.K. tells us that at age 19 he had a vision quest at which he formulated his life and about 25 years later he has realized it. This included many trips to Indonesia and gathering an enormous amount of things with which to fit out a large place one day. Over twenty years he collected paintings, lamps, furniture etc., then sought and bought this chateau in the South of France and restored it. Every room is renovated individually and to top spec with the finest furniture and fittings. Two years after the purchase, they opened their doors to the public and with 30 events per year are pretty much fully booked throughout the year by now. Oh, and ‘incidentally’, they also have two delightful daughters who are fully integrated into the French education system and they grow their own vegetables! The amount of energy coming from these two people is unbelievable! We are very impressed, because despite a formidable schedule, they are relaxed and smiley and find time to hang out over meals.
From Puissentut, we move on towards Toulouse where we’ve agreed to meet with Tony, a friend of Frank’s from over 40 years ago when they trained as dancers at The Place in London. Tony lives in Australia and occasionally comes over to Europe to visit his daughter. He made the special journey of flying from Vienna to Toulouse to meet Frank again after all these years. We spend a few days with each other, cycling around Toulouse, looking at this beautiful city, sharing meals and many stories. Frank is very touched and honoured by Tony’s effort, spending several days of travel and crossing several countries, to reconnect.
We fell in love with Toulouse – people are friendly and relaxed, the cycling infrastructure is amazing, parking near the centre on a big island in the river is easy and free of charge, the architecture is beautiful and the sun is shining J. One day we wake up to find we have a neighbor in a blue Mercedes. Tom is a circus artist, also doing high-risk abseiling work – the type of person who climbs down skyscrapers on ropes to clean windows etc!
He has a damaged shoulder though… Frank offers him a massage, which he gratefully accepts. It must be hard for someone like him to be out of action for months on end.
We would have liked to have spent more time in Toulouse, but time is pressing a bit, with a boat to catch in Genova in about a week’s time.
There is one more friend on our itinerary, another dance connection of Frank’s from decades ago. Nelson and his partner Richard live in a little village not far from Carcassone. And when I say little, I mean the kind of village where, seeing a car park on the entrance, we decide to park there for fear of getting stuck if we drive on. We like this area of France very much, and we decide to come back this way one day with more leisure to explore.
Nelson and Richard kindly have made space in their forbidding schedule of Christmas visitors to share a meal with us, and again, we delve into stories and memories of the past. After a lovely lunch, we stroll through the village and introduce Nelson and Richard to our Emma before heading off again, to cover a few more miles before sundown.
There is a way of relating to people when they are precious and old-time friends, even when one hasn’t seen each other for a ling time. Somehow one cuts straight through to a deeper place and every conversation carries the knowledge of shared experiences. We are more likely to open up and speak about our worries and vulnerabilities too. This is a rare experience when you are travelling as generally you tend to meet people for the first time. Travelling through France like this feels like one deep long dive into our history, and while journeying, Frank and I share many deep conversations, ‘digesting’ the feelings that were brought up by every visit.
For more photos on this chapter, click here
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