This Summer we took Mole, Hedgehog and Otter abroad for this first time in about five years. Mole has been abroad only once before, to Mallorca when she was about 10 months old, where she sweated a lot, and breastfed the whole time on the plane which was the only way to keep her quiet.
This was the first time for Hedgehog and Otter, and their passport pictures were hilarious. In the end I had Hedgehog standing on the stairs against the wall and staring at the camera in perplexed wonder. Otter has a similar expression on her face, laying on a white sheet of paper in our bedroom, with me straddling her with the camera, but this time her expression says “Ooh mummy is it lunch time yet?”.
We went Woofing in Normandy. For anyone who doesn’t know, Woofing is where you go and stay on a farm or homestead with a family, and they provide food and accommodation in exchange for work on the farm. In our case, Mr M&H was doing most of the real work, since I was with Mole, Hedgehog and Otter. It was a chicken farm, so while Mr M&H and Francois (the farmer) did the smelly and heavy work, Elodie and I (farmer’s wife and mum of four boys), picked beans in the garden, dug up potatoes, prepared lunch, and generally stayed nice and clean.
Mole and Hedgehog were usually off playing with the boys, rampaging about the farm in their welly boots, and Otter was content to either be worn in the sling, sleep in the hammock, or sit on a canvas bag on the ground and pick grass.
Elodie soon became my guru in all things permaculture, and I picked up lots of ideas for my allotment back home. The bathroom window looked out onto a sea of pumpkin plants, the back terrace had grape vines growing up past the windows, every spare bit of ground had something growing on it. Their living room was like a treasure trove of books on all things eco, it was just a shame they were all in French and I couldn’t read them.
Our schedule every day involved an early start (about 6am) for Mr M&H, mucking out the chickens, then a leisurely breakfast, followed by late morning work in the garden or the farm, then lunch, and by about 2pm we usually had a free afternoon to drive off and explore. It was an alternative sort of holiday, economical and one which offered plenty of cultural exchange for the girls, so this was our trial run. The results were mixed, mainly between being idyllic on the one hand and hardcore on the other.
The idyllic bits included hanging out the washing under the willow tree with Otter in the sling, watching the swallows swoop over the meadow in the morning mist, having a dinner party with lots of French friends on the terrace, and the time we canoed up the river which ran through the farm, Mole and Hedgehog perched regally at the rear, while I cradled Otter at the front and Mr M&H struggled with the oars. Hedgehog said idly at one point while Mr M&H flayed about trying to get us past a bramble bush “Daddy, are you rubbish?”.
The hardcore bits included the composting toilet (one shared between 11 of us), the sense of there being a layer of grime everywhere, and the constant mess indoors, all giving it a ‘cold comfort farm’ feel. On the flip side by the second week I’d adjusted to the griminess and was quite enjoying the lack of fuss about cleaning that the English are so obsessed with.
At one point, we were idly looking into estate agent windows checking out local house prices, as you do, and worked out that we could swap our house for a 4 bedroom place, with 10 acres of land, and 2 stables to keep the horses.
Our afternoons out included picnics in the local forests, (the French seem to put picnic tables in random spots in the countryside, with the enlightened idea that families might prefer a picnic table in the woods to a table in costa at the motorway services). Mole and Hedgehog chomped on the baguettes with creamy goats cheese and salami, before scampering off to find mushrooms and build dens against trees. Otter sat on the table and grabbed at everything in sight, she gets very excited about food.
We found plenty of sandy beaches too. Ginormous sandy beaches that stretched over the horizon.
My sightseeing list included a googled print out of the highlights of Normandy, such as Rouen and St Michael’s Mount, Monet’s garden and Versailles. But I didn’t quite appreciate the sheer size of Normandy, which is about the same as the South of England, so driving to Rouen for the day would be like driving from Cornwall to Kent. So that didn’t happen. We found things within our bit of Normandy, and didn’t meet many other Brits along the way, which we quite liked.
Our favourite bit was the slower pace of life and the great food.
Mole and Hedgehog’s favourite bit was the ice cream (so many flavours, Lavender was a hit), and the fact that the local Aldi had mini-trollies for the children. Mole also lost her two front teeth while we were there, so had a visit from the French tooth mouse, (it’s a mouse and not a fairy in France). She got two euros to spend on ice cream.
Otter’s favourite bit was probably my boobs, and maybe the plums from the orchard that she liked to smoosh into her face at breakfast time.
On coming home, the car journey from the farm back to Dunkirk ferry port was serenely beautiful and eerily quiet, even for a Sunday morning. The drive from Dover to Bedfordshire on the other side took about 4 hours, most of which was sat in traffic, it was horrendous. So observations are that rural France is practically empty compared with England, and a lot bigger.
My adventures into permaculture continue on coming home. Mr M&H built raised beds at the allotment for me, while Mole, Hedgehog, Otter and I were camped in Wales with Granny Purple Hair. He didn’t harvest any of the veg or do the weeding though, as he doesn’t have any botanical knowledge, but I guess you can’t have everything.
So would we do it again? I think so. It depends a lot on the host you end up with I think. But ours were lovely, and living on a farm for 2 weeks was a real eye-opener on a different way of life, and maybe on a different future for ourselves.
We might try another country next time.
Mole chooses Italy, and is already asking when we are going…