Sunday, 20 April 2008

Spilling over

When I look back over these six days, in my mind is a brown hessian sack slung over a red shoulder. It’s a full sack – over-full you might say – and the shoulder belongs to Father Christmas. His sack is lumpy with odd-shaped packages, some squashy and rounded, others whose sharp corners tear through the weave of the bag. Each one is thrilling and although the sack is awkward, Father Christmas carries it along expectantly.

The party was in the light-hearted Hotel Ibis on the edge of Troyes’ magical centre, all cobbles, half-timbered buildings and improbable gravity. We two arrived peacefully last Monday morning and by five o’clock we had become six when Cathy, Andy, Owen and Bryn arrived from Gloucester in time for tea. Two days later we swelled to ten with Kevin, Chris, Charlie and Amelia down from Chipstead. A gathering of directions in a town we might never have visited but for the coincidence of school holidays and long-promised journeys to find us.

Some packages inside the sack were teasing and some were absorbing and educational. They were cuddly and quizzical. They were loud and colourful. There were party poppers and dull socks. There was chocolate but also apples and oranges, at a picnic table by the Lac d’Orient:

Owen quietly prowled behind and around us, camera in hand, weighing the shots and taking them unobtrusively like a true photographer. Tall and lean as a telephoto lens.

Amelia’s daintiness and old-fashioned style. A perfect mini Parisienne in her belted mac of bright flowers, tripping in summer frocks whatever the weather.

Bryn the detective, following the children’s tourist trail of a mammoth thirty-three questions. No matter that it was all in French: with remembered words and sprinkling of help he leapt like a born linguist from the French to something similar in English and worked out the sense and the answers to them all.

Cath delighting in the absurdities of shoe fashion in the shop windows, from the frankly frumpy to the delectably insubstantial.

Charlie speaks the French he knows but his awareness of ‘foreign’ equals his awareness of ‘shy’. There are policemen, museum guides, hotel staff, waiters and random passers-by throughout Troyes whose baffled faces greeted his life story and ambitions.

The feathered and beaked heads of the chickens and ducks nestled coyly by their naked bodies on the market hall counters. Those heads disturbed no-one; but the crab stuck upside down on the oxygen bubbles in the vast lobster tank was too much for tender-hearted Amelia.

Andy’s enjoyment of the way old Troyes architecture was echoed in modern and refurbished buildings, bringing to life for us the wooden slats and tiles and the geometry of natural colours.

Bryn, introduced to espresso coffee by David, having to be bodily restrained from imbibing two double-shot cups before 10 am.

Owen bridging the ages on our ambles to and from the restaurant in the evenings. The open piazzas of polished cobbles were too tempting for the young ones, but Owen was always alert to bring them to a halt before the pavement ran out.

Amelia’s dedication to keeping a low volume all morning to earn the joy of a ride on the mermaid ‘with the big boobies’ on the carousel.

The long minutes with Owen and Bryn watching the sci-fi ugliness of a cock turkey who was too stupid to figure out the persistent meekness of his hen. We adults holding our breath at the kitchen sink drama.

Charlie transfixed and silent only when reading or creating worlds of adventure round the toys in his hands. A totally different boy to the one who shouts so loudly he takes the precaution of putting his fingers in his own ears.

Chris slipping from her chair with giggles when I accidentally introduced a B word into the pirate story I was reading to Amelia.

Kevin’s thriving schoolboy humour finds its outlet in the dreadful jokes he whispers for the twins to repeat out loud. After the groans and chuckles, Chris’s deadpan timing with “Do the children still find you funny” earned roars.

The first sip of lager in the Latin Quarter restaurant as our day in Paris ended. A steamy and cacophonic day of Eiffel Tower queues, perplexing pyramids, traffic-versus-child races, double-decker metros, springy spiral staircases, toilet trips and broken water beakers had finally paused to let us catch up.

Bryn, David, Owen and Andy in endless Top Trumps challenges as we picnicked in the bedroom while Troyes, Cathy and I went to sleep over lunch. Jabba the Hut’s Sailbarge was the winning card.
Owen, edging close to the time he’ll be off to University and adulthood, is mature enough already to enjoy sharing our carafe of wine or to choose to stick to water, as he sees fit.

Bryn’s perfectly logical sulks and “Why ask me what I want if you won’t let me have it?” on learning he could not order the vodka-laced ice cream like David.

The avenues of mud and water-filled moats on our walk through the Forêt d’Orient. Bryn chose pole-vaulting but for us it was log-balancing or falling in: Andy was resignedly exasperated to learn Owen had brought only one pair of shoes …

In turns the lounge and large bedrooms of the hotel, the restaurants in the old “maisons a pans de bois” near the main square, the whole of Troyes’ “bouchon de champagne” district bounded by avenues and the river in the shape of a champagne cork became the sack that was filled to bursting with laughter, stories, colours, music, conversation, competitions and, like those hard corners pushing out of the sack, sometimes with screams, tears, jealousies and misunderstandings. Like a Christmas holiday, the atmosphere was special, the food rich and the treats overdone. As we waved goodbye to the final four this morning David and I turned back to the silent hotel and sighed, at once lonely and calm; unsure how to entertain ourselves but relieved at the thought of plain food and housework.

20th April 2008

1 comment:

Rachel Escott said...

From an email from Cath:

My favourite bits (no particular order): the conviviality esp of the last evening; the walk in the sunshine through the woods & by the lake; those amazing buildings; Dave lending me his binoculars in the Cathedral - how come we never thought of that before (though we have used them to look at the moon before - have you ever done that?); the eating, the drinking, the leisurely pace, the comfortable bed; not finding driving in France all that worrisome at all; the emptiness & space; grand creme.