It was the end of October 2011, and we were rather wearily heading for Provence, but our spirits slowly lifted as we headed south once again. We were looking forward to yet another birthday within our small family group, the birthday of our youngest member! Having already bought the two-wheeler with stabilisers that was tightly strapped and secured to the back of our ‘old girl’, our long-suffering Citroen, we anticipated much use being made of the bike in the ample grounds of a Provence gites complex.
My menfolk were all suffering in the aftermath of a particularly virulent gastric bug, so there were many pit-stops en route, and we arrived a little later than we had agreed with the owners of the gites complex. However, that didn’t appear to be a problem, a lovely pot of tea appeared within minutes of our arrival.
As we sat and talked about ‘roles, responsibilities, expectations’, I noticed Madame B was not as visibly jovial as her husband; in fact, she looked distinctly nervous! Just as I was beginning to wonder when we would be taken or directed to the cottage for our ‘sole family use’, Monsieur B suddenly told us that he and his wife had heard about our ‘dreadful ordeal’ from friends who live further north. Without further ado, he proceeded to clarify a new agreement that he and Madame B felt would be in our ‘better interests’. Based on his understanding that we are pensioners with little to no chance of securing paid work, the new deal was that we should rent the cottage for €460 per calendar month, pay for our own utilities, and gas for cooking, carry out the full list of ‘jobs as previously agreed, in return for the low rent’, and consider it a ‘long term arrangement’.
By the time Monsieur B finished with, “Now, how does that sound?” Tom and I were virtually slumped in our chairs, we knew we could not afford to go with what the guy was suggesting. It was as simple as that! Furthermore, despite the €50 worth of fuel we had put in the car that morning, and the €50 worth of fuel it would take to get us back up-country to friendly faces, we were not prepared to be taken advantage of in that way.
I pulled myself together and politely asked Monsieur B if we could please revert to Plan A, as Plan B didn’t suit, and it certainly didn’t equate with his advertisement in a particular forum’s Classifieds section. Madame B swiftly agreed with my request, but Monsieur B just shrugged (had obviously lived in France for a long time) as he uttered the immortal words, “Well, I don’t believe you have much choice, Chrissie, your only alternative is to spend another winter in a tent.”
Family and I still have something left that is of immense value to us, our dignity. I thanked Madame B for the tea, and I saw honest tears in that woman’s eyes as she caught hold of my hand and gently squeezed it, mouthing one word, “Sorry.” We quietly headed up the drive, back to our ‘old girl’, and the sun was dropping beyond a beautiful blood-red horizon as we drove off to find the nearest, open camping site.
Provence in late October – an open camping site is a tall order! That night, we slept in the car, behind evergreen shrubbery that divides most French lay-bys from motorways. Just after 3am, the menfolk and I were wide awake and fascinated as we watched the drug-dealers at work. My word, there are certainly some busy night owls in the south of France! But, in reality, that was the lull before the storm!