For the first time since the world went into lockdown five months ago we have travelled abroad! Having spent 5 months during which we hardly left Puxley, contemplating a future with seriously reduced travel and our life balance between cosmopolitan Camden and rural Northamptonshire becoming far more weighted towards the latter, we are now at Le Plan, my brother-in-law’s lovely house in the Gers in the far south-west of France, roughly midway between Bordeaux and Toulouse.
We I drove down with my mother-in-law leaving Puxley at 6.30 in the morning, through the Channel Tunnel and then all the way down to Le Plan arriving here at about 10.30 at night, 850 miles with a couple of stops including a picnic in the sunshine at one of the well-organised ‘aires’ which are so much nicer than any UK motorway service station. The French roads, particularly the péages, are excellent, the traffic was light, cruise control superefficient and we did shifts of a couple of hours each, a long drive but manageable. After the limited horizons of the past few months it is wonderful to be once more under the large skies of south west France with its rolling vineyards and fields of sunflowers.
On every visit to France, fortunately two or three a year, I am reminded how well most things work here and wonder always at the parochial Brexit voting Brit who insists that we do things better than everyone else in Europe. It is patently obvious that in most areas that really matter, the infrastructure of roads and railways, education, healthcare, availability of broadband and almost any other measure of the quality of life we lag behind most of western Europe. a few days ago my mother-in-law fell and fractured a bone in her hip late in the evening. We are in a rural location, a few miles from the nearest village and half a mile from the nearest neighbour yet the ambulance was with us in less than 15 minutes, the patient x-rayed and comfortable in a hospital bed within an hour. She was operated on the next morning and in a few days’ time will move to a convalescent home where she will be kept in the care of the French medical system until they consider her once more able to walk unaided, all, thanks to her EHIC card which will be cancelled on January 1st next year, free.
It is as ever an absolute delight to be here. Le Plan is a low rambling farmhouse nestling in the rolling hills of Gascony, dating from the mid-19th-century, its rooms large and airy with high ceilings and a stunning view, the Pyrenees hazy in the distance.
There is a guesthouse on the slope beneath us with five bedrooms and three bathrooms where Vivienne’s two nephews are staying with a group of their friends. There is a large swimming pool, the temperature of which is perfect at this time of year, with a large old fig tree at one end, heavily burdened with fruit, sweet and purple and luscious and quite unlike those found in British supermarkets. Since we got here these have featured stuffed with goats cheese as a starter, with Roquefort and walnuts in a galette at an impromptu picnic among the vines, roasted with honey at the end of a good dinner and unadorned at breakfast.
The number of recorded Covid infections in the Gers is the lowest in France so I allow myself to make occasional visits to the local supermarkets, an excellent Intermarché and a not-quite-so-excellent Carrefour. I love the range of tomatoes, red, gold and purple, smooth little spheres and huge gnarled lumps, all sweetened by long days of warm sunshine. During lockdown I have missed my weekly visits to the Shellseekers fish stall in Borough Market: the fish counter at Intermarché is almost as good.
We haven’t any firm date for our return – we need to see how the patient recovers and how she will travel back to England. When we do drive back we will have to quarantine ourselves for 14 days, ironic in that the infection rate where we live is many times higher than it is here, but that will be no real hardship and a small price to pay for the pleasure of being once more in the EU.