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A whole month in the South of France where my mother lives and, somewhere in the middle, I would fly to the North of France to visit my son’s father’s family. The fact that all the grandparents live in France is pure luck, but somewhat handy given the cost of international travel. I planned and plotted for months, but as the time drew closer I wished more than anything that both the grannies lived in Potch or Polokwane, so that I would not have to undertake what seemed like a voyage of Iliad-like proportions. I had 25 kilograms of luggage and 19.9 kilograms of an often willing, but sometimes not, two-year-old child to co-ordinate. It was the first holiday ever where I started to look forward to coming home before we had even left.
I had begun explanatory preparation tales a month in advance, explaining that we would one day spend the night sleeping on an aeroplane in order to visit the grannies. He seemed delighted, charmed almost at the idea, until that day dawned and we reached the check-in counter at Cape Town International where he announced that he wanted to go home. We weren’t even an hour into our two-day journey. I reeled.
But then, thankfully, he laid eyes on the plane and jumped and jumped for joy. He ran on board as if he were charging into the ocean on a warm summer’s day. We were momentarily blessed; he ate, drank, played a bit and then fell asleep – stretched out in idyllic slumber across his seat and mine, with his legs resting on mine. I closed one eye and kept watch with the other.
All was well, until around 2am when he awoke with a blood-curdling scream. Eye patches were thrown aside, passengers leapt up as he screamed louder still. I picked him up, his little body heavy with the weight of sleep, and fled to the back of the plane. The area was well lit, two weary cabin crew skulked about looking less than charmed to see a traumatised toddler in their midst, but it was a better environment than the eerie darkness punctuated with the flickering lights of a few laptops to which he had awoken. He woke slowly, drank some juice, returned to his seat and nodded off again till daybreak. For me, sleep remained elusive.

Living off the land

A barely bearable day’s layover in Heathrow passed and then we touched down in France. Holiday heaven had arrived – rural summer life, no matter where, means no shoes, no nappies, much sunshine, paddling pools, butterflies and, in this case, fruit to pick from every passing tree or bush. We took baskets and barrows and descended upon hazelnut, plum, peach, fig and apple trees, we feasted on grapes from the nearby vines and ate blackberries from the side of the road. Granny picked sunflowers, lavender and roses on her early morning walks, filling the house with their colour and scent.
France, and large parts of Europe, are “summer family countries”. When summer descends, families often pack up and head out of the larger cities to, if they are lucky enough, a country home. Here many remain for the summer, with a working parent commuting back to work during the week. Failing this, you will see grandparents with grandchildren in tow everywhere. Fresh-produce markets are packed as families move through the heat, gathering locally-grown fruit and vegetables. We’d leave “our” market each week carrying baskets laden with prunes, cranberries, strawberries, cheeses, and melons so sweet the fragrance made you swoon. Summers like this seem a just reward for the punishing winters the locals have to endure.
One of our favoured activities became visiting the nearby night market (common occurrences in summer in many villages). Trestle tables covered in cotton cloth were lined up across the village square and all around, in various shapes and sizes, were stalls selling food, wine, cold beer and good bread. We went every Wednesday and sampled things like the tomato salad – 15 variations of tomatoes drizzled with olive oil and consumed with heavenly chunks of torn up baguette, and washed down with good red wine (or water if you are a small person).
On another occasion we tried tartlettes. The amateur chef’s young daughter was sent to sit next to us to get some honest feedback – she was devastated when we spoke in English and then insisted we tell her in French what we really thought of her father’s fare. The market was filled with families – teens, tots, parents and grandparents all sat together. My son, when he did get underfoot, was always treated with delight and on occasion lifted up, introduced to new faces and passed around; he loved every minute.
Whenever we could, we loaded up the car and took baskets brimming with cheeses, bread, chilled wine and strawberries and headed for the hills. Summer picnics in France are a popular pastime. Look for rivers, boating areas and canals, and you’ll be sure to find tables, swings, shade and other families all doing the same.
Recreational biking (sans lycra) is big in France. Getting from A to B on a bike often involves stopovers at patisseries for a pain au raisin and a strong espresso – both of which I consumed along the way as I bicycled one morning to our chosen picnic spot on the edge of the Garonne River, 40 kilometres away. There I met my parents and son, the latter had already joined forces with other children in a game of ball-kicking, and my mother had a chilled glass of rosé waiting for me. Holidays could not get better than this. So I’ve started plotting a cycling holiday for as soon as my son is old enough.

Air miles

A few things that I learnt along the way:
  • Nappies and wet wipes can be much cheaper in the EU and UK (chain-store brands are very good quality), so don’t take up your precious luggage allocation with supplies.
  • Take dried fruit and water to consume as the plane ascends and descends. Toddlers often don’t under­stand how to open a blocked ear with a yawn.
  • The days of quality airline entertainment packs for children seem to be over, so take some pencil crayons and age-appropriate activity books as well as a few bedtime story options and a stuffed creature to love.
  • Keep children hydrated – help yourself to small boxed fruit juices at the back of the plane and/or add water or juice to their water bottles from the passing drinks trolley.
  • Baby-changing tables in the toilets are only big enough for babies. If you have a toddler, try standing them up on the lid of the closed toilet to change their nappy.
  • Change your child into pyjamas once in the departure area – not having buttons and zips when curled up in a ball trying to sleep makes a difference and helps them tune into the concept of impending sleep.

Donna Cobban