One Summer in Normandy
It was 1978. I was 14 and in the third year of secondary school. I enjoyed French, it was my favourite subject. I was helped by having a very Francophile father who had taken us on holidays to Spain driving through France in our Morris Oxford estate. From an early age I had been fascinated by the strange looking cars in France with their yellow headlights and the strong whiff of Gauloises everywhere.
Our little town of Henley on Thames was twinned with Falaise, a small town in Normandy, famous for its castle and for also being the birthplace of William the Conqueror. I knew that our surname was of Norman origin and was excited about the idea of visiting the town. Mr Brown, our French teacher, mentioned the upcoming French exchange to our twin town and I managed to persuade my parents to let me take part.
So, in March of that year, us exchange students travelled via ferry and coach and arrived in Falaise late at night. Our host families were waiting for us at the school. We had communicated by letter so knew where we were staying. I stayed with Madame F and her son Paul, who was a couple of years older than me.
We spent some days attending lessons at school but also had interesting days visiting Bayeux, Mont St Michel and also a Sunday trip with the host family to see Versailles. On the days when we had day trips my host mother, Mme F,packed me massive lunches – very often a whole baguette filled with chicken or plain omelette, loads of fruit and a huge bottle of coca cola.
When it was time to get ready to go home, I remember the awkwardness when she asked our teachers, and my family too (not sure how as she didn’t have a telephone in her tiny apartment) whether Paul, my ‘correspondant’ could come back to Henley again. I am not even sure why she wanted to pack him off again, but, in any case, it happened. We got on okay but I’m not convinced we were great friends.
Madame F had an idea for the Summer. Paul, his German pen friend and I would all go and stay in a little house which she was going to rent, by the sea. She was thinking of a nice little town called Granville. For whatever reason, I can’t remember, the German boy couldn’t come and then, as she wrote in her letter in her distinctive French handwriting, Paul’s father, who lived in the Pyrenees and had long been either separated or divorced from Mme F, had demanded that Paul go and stay the Summer with him there. The question came from Monique (not that I, as a 14 year old, called her that to her face) whether, despite being disappointed about the plans not working out, I would, nevertheless, go and stay with her in her little apartment in Falaise.
Paul would return home towards the end of my stay and my parents had already arranged to come and pick me up to take me back home to England at the end of the two or three weeks. They were going to have a short holiday in Brittany. Mme F must have been in her 40s, and I was 14! Neither I nor my parents thought the plan for the Summer was in any way odd. This was 1978. Imagine a teenaged boy going to stay with a middle aged woman in a different country in 2020! Safeguarding probably hadn’t even been coined as a phrase back then!
The night before my holiday some old family friends came to visit. Eventually they left but I didn’t get much sleep because I had to be up early. My Dad drove me to Southampton, which was still a passenger ferry port in those days and I took the ferry on my own to Cherbourg. As the ship sailed into port I stood out on deck and I could see Mme parked up on the harbour wall, standing outside her Renault 4. She had replaced the old white one that she had had when I visited in March with a kind of bronze coloured one. I think the colour is called marron glace. We stopped at a shopping centre and I remember having an ice cream.
The drive from Cherbourg to Falaise was about an hour and a half. We got back to her tiny flat. It was not far from the castle, opposite an impressive church whose bells would ring for ages and very loudly. Also in front of the building was a large statue of William the Conqueror. The flat was connected to her job, she worked in a tax office. I guess money was quite tight. You had to go up about three flights of stairs to reach her little flat, which was just about three dormer windows from the outside. She had about three cats who didn’t go outside but had a mesh cage constructed for them around each of the dormer windows so that they effectively had large balconies to walk around with grass growing in pots.
The flat had only two bedrooms so that, if I and her son were there, she would have to sleep on a sofa bed. I remember, too, that she had a piano, but she didn’t seem keen to play that much. She had the tiniest galley kitchen but she seemed to prepare lovely meals effortlessly, in no time at all. She began to find out things I really liked such as a nice cream caramel she made for me, although the first couple of times she made it, she left the caramel out of it, so it was just a milk pudding. I didn’t like caramel then!
Everything was really nice, except once she cooked me ‘cuisses de grenouilles’, which, although I thought tasted okay, I did have to rush to my bedroom to look up what they were in my French-English dictionary. Frogs’ legs!!! I thought so! Still, I ate them and thought they were okay.
She had a really nice cookbook too which she showed me. Amazingly, at the end of the holiday, she gave the book to me with a message to my parents in English. Last year, on a visit to my Mother’s in Reading, my Mother asked me whether I would like the book. So that cookbook is sitting in our kitchen in Plymouth and I have used it! Long before my drinking days (!) I remember Mme F giving me the odd sugar cube which had been drenched in Calvados (apple brandy from Normandy). No wonder I love the stuff now!
So Madame and I spent about two weeks together, just she and I. She took me out in her little Renault 4 every day, sometimes to visit some of the local chateaux, other times we went to some of the little seaside resorts on the Norman coast. I remember very clearly: Courseulles sur Mer, Luc Sur Mer, Cabourg, Houlgate, Trouville. She lay on her towel, wearing a bikini, doing her arrow word puzzles in the TV magazine while I was swimming in the sea. I remember it wasn’t a very good summer, but that wouldn’t stop me from going in the sea!
Whenever we left her flat in the morning she would rub her shoulders and say “Pas chaud!” (Not very warm!) The family originally came from the South of France.
About two days before I was due to leave (my parents were coming to pick me up) her son came home and I remember thinking the atmosphere had changed. I had preferred being there just with her, than with her son too! Like I have said before, it didn’t strike me or my parents as at all strange that I had spent more than two weeks as a teenaged boy with a middle aged woman!
Nearly 20 years later, I was driving through France with my then partner, sadly no longer with us. We were heading further south in a little red Suzuki car of his but, given that we had not slept that well on the overnight ferry and it was a sweltering 32 degrees plus, we decided to stop off in sleepy little Falaise. We visited the castle and then called in at the building where Mme F’s flat was. I asked after her. It seemed that she had remarried and moved away. Her son apparently worked in the nearby hospital. We called by but were unable to track him down. We headed out of town.
I have passed through Falaise just once more since then but will definitely pay another visit to the little town when we go on a trip to Normandy this year!
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