Spectator: Real life starts

Lucy organises a last minute family holiday to Ile de Re.

Perhaps it was all the newness new schools from a new house, new university life for one, new post-school life for another, new views, new smells, a new butcher that prompted my last-minute decision. Something made me try to postpone the end of summer by booking an impetuous trip to an old haunt, a French island we used to holiday on as children, but which I hadn’t been to since.

I’m not known for my spontaneous travel plans (Zam and Will would be fishing in Scotland) and I was already regretting the idea when I received a text from Anna, who was on holiday abroad with a schoolfriend: ‘See you on Sunday.’ ‘See you on Saturday,’

I replied. ‘No, Sunday,’ she sent back with emphatic brevity.
Inspection of her flight details revealed that, although her flight did take off on Saturday, it landed on Sunday and we wouldn’t be on the flight I’d booked to France. I could only avoid losing the cost of the flights and hotel by rerouting, a little later in the day, to another airport many miles from our destination.

Our French taxi driver thus had plenty of time to explain the virtues of the Ile de Ré, to which he had recently retired. We discussed François Hollande, immigration, religious extremism, the weather, the EU, gypsies, his love of hiking, his loathing of boats and his quality of life. I say discussed, but this might be misleading. Mostly, he chatted slowing down in rather a pricey way every time he needed to make a point and I said ‘Oui?’, ‘Vrai-ment?’, ‘C’est bon’, ‘C’est pas bon’ and quite often ‘Je ne comprend pas’ although this last response was the priciest. Really, all I wanted to do was stare out of the window.

Not long after we arrived, it became clear that I’d chosen to prolong summer by coming to a place that had definitely had enough of it.

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We weren’t the only halfwits entirely flummoxed by the cycle paths on day one as we searched for la plage. But a briskly dismissive wave with ‘oui, oui, tout droit’ was the best we could get from locals as they pedalled past. Being on a small island encircled by beaches should mean that tout droit is entirely right, but it wasn’t. Tout droit took us up more dead ends than I care to remember.

At each junction, we joined forces with other map-scouring cyclists French, English and German forming crocodiles of beach-seekers with no idea which way to go. The bars and restaurants had also had enough, us latecomers being superfluous to their season. The pizzeria opposite was completely fermé.

None of this mattered in the slightest. It merely reinforced the feeling that we were on borrowed time as we swam and ate and basked in the sun. Once home, we would be faced with the name tapes, post and decisions that need to be taken about gap years, building projects and trying to make sense of the garden.

‘Real life starts on Monday’ reads the text message from an old friend, who I know means this cheerily. I don’t know how to reply because I’m standing at a machine at Southampton Air-port that’s presented me with an eye-watering bill, and I’m trying to work out why on earth I left the car in the short-term car park.

I begin making resolutions about becoming a better (more economical) traveller, about not revisiting places from my childhood out of misplaced sentimentality, about not making the children share my plane fever by getting to airports when the airport itself is not yet open. As I heave the bag onto my sunburnt shoulder, I resolve to use more suncream.

That evening, I make a predictable list for the last day of the holidays: new shoes, haircut, pens, toothpaste. I speak to a friend who’s signed up for several courses at Birkbeck College and another who’s given up wine. In all these conversations, I feel disconcerted. September is the real New Year.

This article was originally published in Country Life, September 17, 2014