We are on our annual holiday in France. I can call it our annual holiday now because this is the third consecutive year. It is our yearly pilgrimage to visit the mother of the Angry French Chef.
She lives in a picturesque village in Provence called Fontaine Du Vaucluse. There's rivers, trees, little bundles of lavender tied up with string, young virgins on old bicycles in cotton summer dresses with baguettes in baskets and a soon to be crushed Joie de vivre. It's that bit of France you've seen in every film concerning coming of age, long summer holidays and innocence lost to strange plinky plinky music.
It's also fucking hot.
The first week was just the three of us drinking cold beer and cheap rose, taking dips in the pool, reading throw away thrillers and having little bbq's. For the most part a very relaxing endeavour. Until I foolishly suggest we play some cards one night after dinner. They both shrug casually. Deceptively casually. It's Gin Rummy, what could possibly go wrong? Twenty minutes later I notice my hands are shaking as I deal another hand and pray that I lose. Neither of them have smiled since the first cards were dealt. I'm not sure either of them have blinked. La Mamon, who is normally a warm, affectionate and loving woman now looks like a professional card sharp and the Angry French Chef is squinting at her, looking for any tells, any crack in her stony facade. We play in utter silence. Years pass. I go to bed and stare at the ceiling.
The following morning we eat fresh croissant from the local bakery and chat about the food we're going to cook that day. It's casually suggested that perhaps, maybe, if anyone can be bothered, we might pick up the card game again after dinner. I keep my head down and bargain with any passing deity that might be listening. Let them forget. LET THEM FORGET.
By day three I have developed an allergy to the sun. I have a lovely tan and a bubbling blistering rash up both my arms that is hotter than hell and itchier than a bath of ants.
La Mamon lets me experiment with over the counter medication for about a week until she insists I let her take me to the doctor.
The doctors in France don't wear uniforms. They wear jeans. And converse. And trendy t-shirts. They have cool wire rimmed glasses and their office walls are covered in framed photographs of them on exotic holidays. He takes a brief look at my arms, nods and prescribes very strong antihistamines. He tells me to wear a hat, long sleeved clothing and avoid the sun for about two weeks. It's 36 fucking degrees in the shade. He says it's okay to swim as long as I remain at least a foot under the water. So presumably I need to grow gills.
I decide to take the pills and mostly ignore the advice but every time I lounge in the sun with a book La Mamon appears out of thin air and throws a damp towel over me.
In addition to this we are both the new hot spot in town for mosquitoes who arrive in large groups with tiny napkins wrapped around their evil necks. Or whatever passes for a neck in the form of pure hatred. We're sort of used to that though and pass the cortisone back and forth with minimal griping.
Two of our friends, Mr and Mrs S, join us for the second week of the holiday and within ten minutes we're enjoying cocktails by the pool. We're excited to have them here and I secretly hope the mosquitoes will enjoy a new source of food and leave me and Angry alone for one sweet minute.
Mr S is in his absolute element. Two of his favourite things in life are fine wines and cheese and of course both are abundant here. Mrs S has a dip in the pool and gurgles with laughter as she tries to teach Mr S an exercise involving a noodle. She then lies in the garden as the sun dries her un-blistered skin. I sit in the shadows smoking a cigarette and slap away another mosquito that has settled on my neck.
Sunday brings the World Cup Final and there is an air of nervous anticipation from the moment we wake up. La Mamon has arranged a party for the viewing. The first to arrive is her neighbour, Nicole, who is around seventy and sporting a France T-Shirt, a comedy hat, red white and blue sunglasses and the French flag. She is beyond excited and shouting “Allez les Bleus!” before she's even through the door. Within half an hour there's thirteen of us. Everyone is facing the TV except me. I'm facing a bottle of prosecco and liberally adding limoncello. When they all stood for the national anthem I knew they had to win. The alternative was unthinkable and terrifying.
Two hours later a giant speaker has appeared from somewhere and people are dancing in the garden, arms linked, heads thrown back with joy. Raymond (a man built like a brick shit house) is naked in the pool swinging his pants around his head. Homemade liquor appears, cherries soaked in something toxic also and before long it's riotous. The last thing I see as I drag myself up the stairs is La Mamon wrapped in a yellow sarong, hands in the air shimmying across the garden, her glass of rose spilling in to the grass.
The next day is a quiet one. Everyone moves slowly with muttered groans. Mr S has maybe the worst of it. The last to bed and the recipient of many whiskey top ups he stares in to space and I can hear him blink.
My niece La Dude joins us the following morning from Toulouse where she now lives. Knowing she likes the rougher booze I ply her with Papa Doble's that contain large measures of a terrible white rum we've bought called 'Old Nick'. And rightly so. Only Satan and my niece could enjoy that immediate and unceasing burn.
The evening is spent peeling gallons of prawns cooked by The French on the plancha in the garden. All of the women are in bed by midnight (La Dude face down on the sofa with a mirror by her mouth) and the boys stay up till 4am talking about whatever it is men talk about in the early hours and drinking anything cold.
Since then I've cooked a giant Paella in the garden with the help of La Dude and Mrs S and afterwards we played a ridiculous mime game called Heads Up. During one memorable round Mrs S had to guess the word we were all frantically miming. The word was 'Tourist' and so we all kept pointing at ourselves. She called out 'FRIENDS!' and everyone paused and collectively sighed at the loveliness of it.
Today we kayaked down a gorgeous river and marvelled at indigo coloured dragonflies all around us. Afterwards we walked through a stream to get to a bar that served icy cold Vedett.
We are all now so relaxed we can barely acknowledge each other. Some are lazing in the pool, some napping, some reading and I'm doing this though I can hardly be bothered to finish this damn sente...