Tuesday, 28 December 2010

Clutching at straws!

The next milestone since the D-day invasion in 1944, is the 70th anniversary in 2014. As each year passes, there are fewer veterans alive and the 70th anniversary may be the last time we see some of these great men attend the celebrations in Normandy.

A few months ago, whilst taking a walk on Utah Beach, I had a conversation with an English gentleman about the D-day landings. He was asking questions to some of the other people who were looking at a monument and as I knew the answer to his question, I enlightened him. What struck me about this man was his sheer ignorance of what had happened here. Having grown up on a diet of war films, action man and airfix models, I assumed that everybody had a vague idea of what happened in Normandy. How wrong could I have been.

It turns out that this man had come to see what all the fuss was about and found it hard to believe that people would actually visit places like this. At the time of this conversation, the D-day museum at Utah Beach was being extended and the new wing was due to open in the spring of 2011. Although this man wasn't nasty, the statements he made were, in my opinion, disrespectful. His response to the extension of the museum was that they probably needed to fill it with "tatt" to attract more tourists. Was there some truth in this statement? Probably yes if it meant attracting people like him!

Normandy is a special place and it is hard to imagine what happened here all those years ago. There are enough reminders but without them, and the knowledge of what happened here, yes, you could be anywhere. What makes this part of France special is the history. It is easy to overlook things, especially when you live here; but what happened here, changed the course of history.

Although we are relatively new to the area, we are doing our best to honour the memory of the brave soldiers who liberated France and the rest of Europe. In the short space of time we have been here, we have had the honour of meeting many great people. What makes those people great is the determination they have in doing their bit to preserve the memory of World War 2. Sure it is true that many need to make a living from it, as we do, but it is a lifestyle choice. The choice we have made is to pursue a passion and to share that passion with people who come to Normandy.

Paul Woodage is a good example of one of those people. Although I have not had the pleasure of meeting him yet, he came to Normandy to establish Battlebus. He successfully ran the Normandy battlefield tour bus company for many years and from comments littered everywhere on the Internet, he has shared his knowledge and passion with thousands of tourists from all corners of the world. I am not sure if he has been honoured in some way for his efforts, but in my humble opinion, people like him should be. Without that sort of passion, will the memory of D-day fade? In the opinion of the gentleman on Utah Beach, it probably has already and we are clutching at straws to make a living from what interest is left.

So the big question is: are we clutching at straws? In my opinion no! We are doing our bit to preserve the memory of D-day and if you would like to come and have a D-day beaches holiday, we would be more than happy to welcome you to our home.

For the record, Paul has now discontinued the Battlebus service and is now doing private tours. His website is called D-day Historian and if you are planning on visiting Normandy, his services come highly recommended.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

SNCF - What does it mean?

I had planned to take the kids to visit their mum and new brother in the hospital at Cherbourg. As a treat for the boys, I thought it would be more interesting to go by train. I am a big fan of public transport and having worked for the British Railways for nearly 25 years, I prefer the train to the car.

S.N.C.F, the French national railway system has a world renowned reputation for being a fantastic transport system. If you have read some of my previous posts, you will get the impression that this is not the case. With that said, I was prepared for a few delays due to the snowy conditions. What I wasn't prepared for was the attitude of the S.N.C.F staff.

We arrived at Carentan train station about five minutes before our train was due so we rushed to get a ticket. Luckily, there was not a queue so no problems. In French, I asked the ticket clerk for a return ticket to Cherbourg. This was greeted with a brief glance and then a shrug. This was followed by a two minute silence whilst the man just looked at his computer screen. I looked at my two sons and the eldest asked why it was taking so long; good point. With that comment I indicated to the clerk, in French, that the train was due in two minutes and I can take the train without paying if that would make his life easier. This was greeted with some swearing. I was in shock and lost for words. In England, I would be fired if I talked to a customer like that.

Before I write the next paragraph, here are translations of the words that were mentioned:

Putain - F*ck, F*cking, F*cking hell (you get the idea)
Merde - Sh*t

With a combination of putain and merde coming from the ticket clerk, what seemed to be a nice family day out on the train, turned out to be an insult. This man, obviously not happy to be working on a Saturday afternoon and having to talk to an English man who speaks French, saw fit to swear at me and my kids. Even my eldest son asked why he was using gros mots (swear words). I told my son that he was using swear words because he is miserable, he is French, has the backing of a union which would get him his job back even if he was fired by bringing the whole French transport system to a grinding halt, probably insecure and is behind an inch of protective glass. Would he have done the same without the glass; I think not.

I thought about lowering myself to his level; however, this is not a good example to set for the kids so I just took my ticket and wished him a bonne journee (good afternoon) with a wink. This seemed to wind him up and no doubt he will hate the English even more; for what reason, I don't know. I have always been told, by French people, that they dislike English who make no attempt to speak French and expect them to speak English. This is not the case for me so perhaps I just have a face that people love to hate. I certainly am beginning to get that impression the longer I stay in France!

For those of you who do now know what S.N.C.F means, it is Société Nationale des Chemins de fer français; simply put, French Railways. For me it means: Surely not customer friendly!

Friday, 3 December 2010

Snow Laughing Matter

The weather seemed to be deterioating quickly; just as quick as the contractions were coming. After much deliberation of where we should go to have the baby, we decided to stick to plan A and go to Cherbourg. The alternative was Bayeux, which I would have preferred; however, Emma decided that it would be Cherbourg all the same.

The stress levels were pretty high before we left for the hospital, due mostly to the snow. I have lived in a city all of my life and have complained in the past when the snow made my journey to work that bit longer. As we are now living in a rural part of France, it almost seemed like we were isolated from the outside world. Would the roads be clear or would I be delivering the baby in the car whilst trapped in a snow drift. This thought crossed my mind so many times along the way and this thought did not help my blood pressure one bit!

So far so good, we thought. The roads were not as bad as we first thought and the stress levels seemed to be stabilising. That was until we reached the outskirts of Cherbourg. My wife uttered the fatal words "That's it, we are almost there. Nothing to worry about now". Nothing to worry about, apart from the snow that seemed to be falling at a great rate and the road starting to become a worryingly shade of white.

In the distance, the bright red of tail lights signalled the impending doom. The thought about delivering the baby in a snow drift came back into to my mind and the stress levels were raised to Defcon 1. For those of you who do not know Cherbourg, there is one important factor to note. To get into the city, there is a steep gradient and although I am not an expert with physics, one thing I do know is that whilst travelling downhill, you have more momentum. More momentum and less grip on the road means delivering the baby in a wrecked car.

In England, we have a car that has an automatic handbrake; however, this is not the case for the car we have in France. After sliding and having a near miss with another car, I decided to pull over and wait. I had seen the snow plough and the gritting lorry pass in the other direction and my logic told me that it would come back. As we are in France, this logic does not seem to work in the same manner. We waited for what seemed like an eternity and as many cars passed me on their descent, I felt my male pride take over and decided to go for it. I wondered if the snow plough had stopped at the top of the hill in order for the drivers to have a smoke and a chat. No doubt organising their next strike to bring down the Sarkozy government.

With my male pride at full power, I slowly started to make my way down the hill. I could see that my wife was nearly in tears with the stress of the situation. Me too; however, for the record, I had a fly in my eye. I kept shouting "merde" at the car. This stupid car wanted to go sideways down the road. This stupid French car didn't want to go straight and this raised both of our stress levels to maximum. I wont write the words that I shouted at the car but I am sure you will get the idea. By this time, I was sweating and the car started to steam up. In the heat of the moment, literally, I had forgotten that I had the heating on full and, was wearing my wooley hat and gloves. This heat did not help the nerves, especially when I felt the sweat running between the cheeks of my backside.

After more expletives, the car decide to start bleeping at me. "Jesus Christ; what now", I shouted. My wife indicated that the I had left the hand brake on and that is why we were going sideways down the steep gradient. My male pride was hurt now and I didn't know what to say. I did what most men would do in this situation and sulked.

One of the things that seemed to be working well in this car was the rear view mirror. In this, I could see the flashing lights of the snow plough and the gritting lorry. My wife did not see this and I knew this, so I became all macho. "I'm fine now", I said, rather unconvincingly. I regard myself as being a reasonable clever person who is aware of my surroundings. Because of this, I pulled over the car to the side of the road to let the oncoming snow plough pass. I could not believe my eyes when I saw the cars behind me start to overtake. After another round of Jesus Christ's, I sat there in amazement. The cars were trying to overtake me, despite the trecherous conditions. Do they not have rear view mirrors in their cars? To add insult to injury, the driver of the first car that passed me had the audacity to flash a disaprooving glance and shrug towards me for holding him up. Bloody French!

When we finally arrived at the hospital, it became apparent that despite the contractions, the baby would not be born that day. My wife was disappointed as she has a thing with dates. She thought that the 1st of December was better than the 2nd. All I could think was how I could bring my blood pressure down.

As we live far from Cherbourg and due to the poor driving conditions, the hospital admitted my wife and kindly allows me to stay too. After a poor nights sleep on the floor, we were greeted with the news that my wife would be induced. He was to be born on the 2nd of December after all.

At 1445, Loïc was born. Weighing in at a healthy 4.340kg, he made us both cry with joy. No doubt the crying also helped to relieve some stress as well! Another night was spent sleeping on the floor but as we are very much in love with our new son, I did not notice the bad back and stiff neck as much as I did before he arrived!

They say that love can make you do strange things. When I look back, which is one of the reasons I write this blog, I will no doubt see that we have done some strange things! Exciting, stressful, sad and happy things; but no doubt strange!

Monday, 29 November 2010

Going Green

It seems a long time my last post so I thought it was time for an update.

It is reputed that France has one of, if not, the best health services in the world. With that said, they certainly got it wrong this time. We were told by the Doctor that the baby will arrive at least one week early. The baby has still not arrived and now Emma is officially overdue. I have a sneaky feeling that he may decide to come in the early hours this morning; perhaps that is why I am up late writing this?

In the time I have been waiting to welcome my new son, I have been taking time to get some work done around the house and the gites. We have decided to go green and have a heat pump system installed in the house. This heats the house just like a central heating system except that it runs on electricty. The system is outside and it sucks in cold air and does some fascinating stuff to heat the water for our central heating. It seems to be working well and the great thing is that it costs a quarter of what a normal system would cost to run. That is good news in my book!

As we have taken our first step into green energy, I am obsessed with going further and exploring solar and wind energy. It seems to be windy most days here and that is the next thing I hope to install. There is something very satisfying about renewable energy; apart from the cost of course! Being able to free yourself from the slavery of the energy companies is a liberating thought; literally!

The temperature has dropped considerably over the last few days and the snow is on its way. Now we have the heating in the house, we feel relieved; however, I am finding more and more drafts. I have been like a man possessed today and have been searching out all the holes that are letting the cold air in. As I do not have sufficient material to close the holes, I have been putting masking tape over them. This will stop the drafts in the short term and will help me to remember where they are when I get round to doing it properly. The parents in law are staying with us at the moment and I am sure that they think I am mad.

I am sure by the time of the next post, we will have a new addition to our family. This will be, definitely, the last one mind!

Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Can it get any worse?

French striking about the retirement age being raise
The news is making very grim reading for us just lately. A couple of weeks ago, it was announced that there is an alleged terrorist plot in Europe and many governments were warning it's citizens about traveling to the UK, Germany and France. In the days that followed this news, we had two reservations canceled. Perhaps it was coincidence; however, it made us groan a little.

That was yesterdays news and people forget pretty quickly. Well, they would do but we have had our next dose of bad news. It seems that the French are not happy that they might have to work more in their lives. From what my wife tells me, the Prime Minister of France, Sarkozy, wants to increase the retirement age from 60 to 62. This seems to have whipped the French up in to a frenzy. The translation of Frenzy in French means strike!

I don't know if it is all linked and I am in no way a political commentator; however, as they are in this frenzied state, they have decided to block the oil refineries. I am told that many of the service stations are now running out of fuel and rationing is taking place in some areas. Not content with that, the French also want to go out on strike. This means that the transport system may start grinding to a halt. With all that said, can the tourism business get any worse in France these days?

It is easy to forget the reality of the situation when you are worrying about yourself an your interests. Maybe we should stop and congratulate the French for standing up for their rights. They are standing up for what they believe in and saying now to a tyrannical government. I remember this happening in Britain during the Thatcher years. Perhaps we have become too soft in our country and accept government policies too easily. The last thing I read about the retirement age in Britain was that it was going to be raised from 65 to 66 or 67. Contrast that with the French and you can see what a difference we have culturally. When that announcement was made by our Government, I can't remember any protesting. In fact, legally, companies cannot make you retire. As long as you are in a good health, workers can carry on past the retirement age should they wish!

All we can do now is sit back and watch this melee escalate on the TV. We are seeing a dip in reservation enquiries these days and you can't blame people if they are avoiding France at the moment. Many people are happy to come to France to spend their hard earned money on a holiday. This money, that was earned in other countries that have already accepted that they have troubled economies and have gone about tightening belts; a vital injection of cash that would have gone in to the French coffers. Sadly, this money is looking like it will be spent elsewhere.

So, can things get any worse? My wife is due to give birth in some weeks and the nearest maternity hospital is about 40 minutes drive from our house at Utah Beach. All I can say is that if we have no diesel to drive her there, and I have to deliver the baby in the house, I will pack up and return to England! Even if I have to work until I drop! I think that even if the retirement age was 62 like the French are fighting for, with all this stress, I don't think I would make it anyway!

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Where is home?

This is a belated post as I have been busy over the last few days. I also didn't want to remember the particularly bad train journey I had last week.

It was time to leave Normandy, once again, to head back to England. Without sounding like a stuck record, I thought I might describe the train journey from Normandy to England.

The day started badly with a not very pleasant ticket clerk at Carentan. With the modern ticket offices, they have an intercom system to talk to the passengers. This is necessary as they sit behind three inches of re-enforced glass. Each time I spoke with the ticket clerk, she would switch off the intercom so I could not hear what she was saying to her colleague. I couldn't help getting a bit paranoid each time this happened. It is the sort of feeling you get when you walk into a corner shop that is run by Indians or Pakistanis. As soon as you walk in, they immediately start talking in their own language. You can't help feeling that they are talking about you. With the bout of paranoia over and done with, I now had my tickets for the next few journeys.

It is not long before we are advised that the train is delayed. Due to operating problems, the train is expected 20 minutes late. Not to mind, I have about an hour and 15 minutes to change in Paris for my Eurostar connection. 20 minutes pass and the train has not arrived. No more information and no idea when the train will arrive. I look across at the ticket office and I see the two ticket clerks talking to each other with no regards to the passengers. I can tell by the expressions on their faces that they are planning their next strike. I can see why they are behind re-enforced glass now!

Another ten minutes pass by and then we here the noise on the rails that indicate that the train is arriving. This is the only way we would find out as the ticket office blinds are now closed. Maybe the strike has started already!

Safely on the train, I bid my wife farewell and prepare myself for the 2 1/2 hour journey to Paris. I had come prepared this time with my laptop and 3g internet card. I am pleased with myself as I had remembered to bring the British to French power adaptor. I would need that as the battery on the laptop lasts for about two minutes, despite the screen telling me I have 3 hours of power!

The next dose of bad news. The design of the plug on the train prevents me from putting in my adapter. There is a metal lid that lifts up to reveal the plug. Unfortunately, the adapter is too bulky to fit in it with this lid. The next 30 minutes or so is spent trying to snap the plastic adapter to make it fit. The only thing I managed to do was smack my knuckles on the table by trying to hard. No Internet for me then!

In the process of trying to adapt the adapter, I hadn't noticed that the train was running very slowly. I also failed to notice that we were in Bayeux for quite a long time. Once again, no information was given for why we were getting later and later. Needless to say, the train was delayed just long enough for me to miss my connection in Paris.

On arrival in Paris, I quickly went to the ticket office in Saint Lazare to exchange my ticket for the next Eurostar departure. The lady was very helpful and was smiling as she gave me the new ticket. I knew that the next train left at 16:13 so I made my way to Gare Du Nord to check in. As I arrived at the station, I noticed that my ticket was for the 18:43 departure. No wonder the nice lady in the ticket office was smiling; she knew I would have to wait 3 1/2 hours for the next train.

What was I going to do for 3 1/2 hours? I could have gone sightseeing but with the rushing around, I was getting hot and sweaty. I also had a rucksack and a suitcase and I didn't fancy lugging that around Paris.

Having given it some thought, I did what all Parisians would have done. I thought about going on a strike march but decided on a long late lunch instead. I am quite used to eating at the table for long periods of time so a few hours would be a piece of cake. In fact, I had to order a piece of cake to kill the last hour of the lunch.

Finally, I am on the Eurostar and waiting for lift off. Just before we left, I was joined by a nice man who immedieately made conversation with me. Geoff, or Jeff, lived on the opposite side of the Cotentin Peninsula. Turns out that we are neighbours in France. There is about 50 miles between us, but we are almost neighbours. We chatted about the life in France, strikes, fosse septics and all things French until the train came to a grinding halt. We were politely told that there are operating problems and we will be delayed. These polite operating problems ultimately delay the train by 30 minutes.

Sitting at the table opposite ours, was a young family. It turns out that the man was Irish and his wife was Colombian. They had a long distance relationship before they settled in England. When I explained my long distance relationship for almost the last ten years, they were amazed. I think they felt some pity for me for having to do this, but were amazed all the same. As I tried to make my story sound amazing, I tried to look pitiful to get some sympathy.

This journey has taught me two things. The first is that although I love train travel, I hate train travel. The second is, if we talk to people around us, there are some great stories to be heard. I am not sure if my story is a great one, but the fact that a few people out there know what I am doing to make this life work, is quite reassuring for me. Don't ask me why but it is.

If the people I have met today ever read this post, for their information, I managed to make my connection in London with just two minutes to spare. I got home after 13 hours of travel. Where is home anyway?

Sunday, 3 October 2010

Updating the accommodation

It has been a fair few days since my last post so I thought I should post an update tonight before I sleep. Talking of sleep, I have been washed out since my latest all night drive from England to Normandy. I left at 0200 on Friday morning and arrived here at about 1500. Needless to say, I felt exhausted when I finally arrived!

The reason for the all night drive was to enable to bring all of my tools from England. We have a refurbishment programme for our gite accommodation which is planned for November. When our last guests have departed, work will commence on our new social area. Our plan is to turn an unused room in to an area where guests can hang out and socialise. I also plan to put in a PS3 and large screen TV. This will be used for Call of Duty nights during the high season. Guests will be able to battle it out safe in the knowledge that no real guns will be fired. In very different circumstances to that of 1944!

There are a number of other upgrades that I plan to do, but for the moment, I am concentrating on the social room. You know how men can be; start a job, but never finish. I have no choice as I will only have a couple of months before the guests start arriving in 2011. Two months sounds a lot, but with a new baby due smack bang in the middle of them, I'm sure the time will pass by quicker than I imagine. They say that time flies when you are having fun; does it fly when you don't?