It's not that I was bothered about the language barrier - I can remember all 20 words of my O-level French, so I'm practically fluent. It was the driving on the other side of the road that worried me.
When Beloved and I used to go on holiday to France, he did the driving. Because with him twitching in the passenger seat, and stiffening every time I went round a corner, I began to believe that I was far too emotionally unstable to drive anywhere but down deserted country lanes in dear old Blighty. And only then with someone walking in front with a red flag. Driving Abroad became something that only Terribly Successful People who could have passed the co-ordination tests to become RAF fighter pilots were capable of. The fact that ancient French persons with single eyes, wooden legs and three goats on the passenger seat seemed to manage it totally escaped me.
So by the time we drove off the ferry into a bright, sparkly French autumn, I had Bunny and Buster chanting "right hand side, right hand side" in the back seat in case I suddenly lost my marbles, drove on the left and killed us all (thereby proving to Beloved that I truly wasn't safe out on my own).
But I didn't. I just tootled off the ferry and on down the road, just as if it were something everybody did every day. "Oh," I thought, "driving. Like what I do all the time. Hundreds of miles of it. Only on the other side of the road."
That's how I discovered that I could have been a) Very Successful or b) an RAF test pilot. Which made me extremely happy, and I zoomed off through the countryside taking in freshly ploughed fields and dinky Breton houses, and feeling full of new confidence and a conviction that I could drive to Vladivostok if I wanted. I began to plan selling the house and setting off around the world for the next 10 years, with Bunny and Buster as travelling companions. Perhaps we could even take a film crew and that nice Mr Palin with us.
Ridiculously buoyed up by my discovery of a missed career in jet planes, I brilliantly negotiated all the little tests of a French holiday. I found where to turn on the water outside our gite; I got the heavy shutters off the windows; I used all 20 of my French words in one visit to the supermarche. We really began to enjoy ourselves, cycling to the village to buy croissants, ordering chocolate ice-creams and coffee at cafes, scrounging at street markets. For the first time since Beloved bunked off, the three of us felt like something approaching a unit, rather than three bruised cabbages thrust into a dark sack.
That's about when I started seeing Beloved and Bonk. On first sighting they were drinking wine at a seaside brasserie; then I saw them pushing a supermarche trolley together; after that they were regularly spotted in cars beside us at junctions and traffic lights. It took me a couple of days to work out that I wasn't hallucinating. It was just that every French man and his beautiful, chic wife looked just like them.
I lost it in a big way after that. All the Breton houses and their jolly red remnants of summer geraniums stopped being cute and started being irritating. Cooking on a single gas ring lost the charm of peasant simplicity and began to be a bloody hopeless way to feed two kids. Even the shower got on the at risk register when idiosyncratic spurts of cold amidst the hot had me nearly pulling the entire unit off the wall.
Within two days the kids were reduced to silent fear inside the car while I drove to the next tourist spot wondering if British Consulates still existed, and if so would they take children for a couple of hours while their parent went off and lay on a railway line.
Only the ferry home redeemed the holiday from being a week's worth of miserable memories. It was full of homely, cardiganed Britons and their Crimplened wives. Not a Beloved or Bonk lookalike in sight. The sea was like a piece of stretched cling film, and we ate patisserie out on deck in lemon-juice sunshine. Hey, I thought, I've been travelling with my kids. Vladivostok here we come.Reuse content