Our First Camp in the Mountains: Orlu, Ariege

Camping. We all had a lovely time on our first camping trip so promised the smalls another couple of camping adventures before the end of the summer and rentrée.

A friend had spoken highly of Orlu, just south of Ax-les-Thermes, where there’s a beautiful nature reserve. I’d read a blog post of hers describing it and chatted with her afterwards and based on that wanted to visit. It wasn’t too far away so just right for a short two-night trip again) so we decided we’d give it a go.

The campsite I chose was the municipal site in Orlu: Camping d’Orlu. It was fairly easy to narrow it down because it’s the only site in that valley – unless you have a mobile home or campervan. Checking the website over and also reading various reviews, it sounded like it would work for us: the valley itself looked stunning and facilities-wise it had a playground, a pool, plus access to the river. Everyone looked happy in the photos. It seemed to fit the bill better than others and it was right in the place we wanted to be. What could go wrong?

Our First (and maybe last) Municipal Campsite

Actually, nothing really did go wrong. We just discovered that this kind of campsite, the busy kind where the world and his wife arrive to pack out their permanently-sited and privately-owned static caravans (complete with satellite TV), are not for us. Actually, I think we already knew that but our experience at the first site lulled us into a false sense of security where camping-with-the-masses was concerned. This site, while in a quiet and beautiful place, was busy. Too busy.

Two big things got on our nerves there. First, dog shit. What the fuck is wrong with dog owners!? We all love our pets. Just like we love our kids. But what we don’t do is let our cats or our kids shit on the footpaths everywhere. So what is it with dogs that makes this okay? There were a fair number of dogs on the site. To be fair there weren’t that many shits on the campsite itself, but a footpath leading into and out of the valley alongside the valley ran through the campsite and this was evidently where all the TV watching weekenders were taking their dogs for their shits. Ugh. It’s grim as an adult but when you have two small and inquisitive children who want to pick everything up, sometimes put things in their mouths (if not the things they just picked up then certainly their hands end up there), and also tend not to look where they’re going – jeez, the stress of even a short walk! No fun for us, no fun for them.

The second thing about this site: the cars. People were driving it felt like all the time. It was a small and densely packed site with a one-way system. Fine, but with two kids who want to play on the road in front of the pitch, that was another stress. I was a bit more relaxed about that than James (not that I want them to get run over, of course!) but to be fair to him there was a regular flow of cars past our tent.

Then there a few niggles, like the pool, which had been on the list of site essentials when making the choice. It was a nice spot and well-maintained, plus it had a paddling pool, but that’s no use if it’s closed. We arrived on Friday and fancied a dip but it was closed. It opened on Saturday at 1pm but the water was cold (24 degrees). The pool guy wasn’t happy about that either but there was nothing he could do. Later it was so busy it was impossible to swim and increasingly difficult to manage the two smalls, who just wanted to bob about in the armbands. Because the main pool was first too cold and then too busy, we splashed around in the paddling pool before that also started getting a bit too chaotic.

Some things we did like about the site were the playground, which was perfect for DD and DS. It had a baby swing – one of the first we’ve seen in France – a fab slide, a see-saw (which DD made alot of friends on) and plenty of shade. The other children seemed nice and DD had a great time with a few other children, mostly other girls, of the same sort of age. She protested every time she was told time was up and constantly wanted to go back and play, which is great – one of the reasons camping is a great holiday choice with children. (In a gite after a day spent trapsing around as a four it would be back to the house or apartment then TV, dinner and bed, most likely! Just like home.)

There were a few standard things you expect on a French site, like fresh bread or croissants in the morning (order the day before). The facilities were varying degrees of clean, depending on where you were on the site. The block opposite us was very clean and cleaned regularly, and there was plenty of hot water.

But it wasn’t just about the site. What about the area?

Orlu Nature Reserve

Although the campsite didn’t tick our boxes, the location was excellent. The village, Orlu, is in an area just outside Ax-les-Thermes called the Vallée d’Orlu and is a national nature reserve covering 4250 hectares. Access is restricted to those on foot: there are no roads through the reserve and no dogs allowed in order to protect wildlife. It’s soooo peaceful. To get there you drive down the valley passing through the villages of Orlu and Orgeix, until you come to the end.

Driving down the valley, it felt just like being back at Wales! Spooky but wonderfully familiar. At one point it’s eerily similar: there’s a bend in the road and a little stone bridge over the river that feels just one of the villages en route to Betws-Y-Coed from Llandudno. What a shame there wasn’t an equally Welsh-feeling campsite! What it is with all these sanitised sites?

Anyway, back to Orlu. When you get to the end of the valley road your choices are park up and walk or turn around and go back. If you’re lucky enough to have a motorhome you can park up and spend the night there.

From the car park onwards is a visitor centre (for next time) and some other activities and workshops, including an awesome looking AcroBranch (like GoApe in the UK but way better), some cafes.

Because we were only there for a couple of nights, we only popped up, essentially our reccie visit, and made a to-do list for another time. Things on my lists include the Le Maison des Loups (The House of Wolves) and a proper walk into the reserve beyond the forge, of which there are many. In the reserve proper (which is closed off to dogs) there’s plenty of wildlife, including marmottes. I’ve never seen one yet so that’s a definite Must Do. There’s also Le Sentier d’Arazet, a walk through a woodland path and musical installations. Of course you have to pay (details on their website) but it’s another on the to-do list as it looks fab.

In future-future (because it’s not advised with kids younger than five) I want us to walk to and spend the night at Refuge D’En Beys, which is 1970 metres up, in the heart of the reserve and high on the mountain. Maybe we’ll try it next year (well, one of them will be five.) I can’t wait!! Aside from those two things, there are tonnes of things to do around there. Tonnes of walks and plenty of cycling opportunities, once the two small are up to that (if they’re into that.)

So that was Orlu. Stunning.

Will we go back?

Despite the positives, I don’t think we’ll be going back to that particular campsite, which is a shame because the staff at the main office were really friendly and helpful and the kids had a great time. Perhaps if we visit again our of season – so not August – we’ll have a different experience?

We definitely want to go back to explore the nature reserve and surrounding area, so perhaps I can persuade James to give the campsite another go if we see it’s less busy another time. Most likely we’ll opt for another one. In such a wild place there must be a wild campsite for people like us!?

What’s weird about this whole trip though is that I don’t think I took a single photograph. Not one! In order to pep up this post I’ve use pics from original website and also some stock pics from Unsplash. Sorry folks – I’ll get my camera charged up for the next one!

What happened next?

Based on our experiences this time my new Find A Campsite criteria were dutifully extended to now include:

  • in the mountains
  • quiet
  • no cars
  • no dogs
  • plenty of shade
  • no static caravans

Is that even possible in France? You’ll have to wait until my next post to find out whether I managed it or not.

Spoiler: Of course I did!


Main image: Photo by Ian on Unsplash

 

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DD’s First Big Ride! Esperaza-Campagne and Back

She started pedalling at the beginning of the holidays. I was impressed with how easily she migrated to pedals and attribute that to her riding the same bike without pedals for the prior 9 months. It meant she got her confidence on it, grew into it, and was as confident on the bigger bike as she had been on her little balance bike. After that the switch to pedals was straightforward.

She was so pleased with herself but still getting frustrated as she couldn’t start off by herself. She tried and failed. We reassured her that once her feet knew what to do she’d just start doing it and for now the best thing was not to worry about it. And then, one afternoon when we’d popped out to a quiet, traffic-free path with them, she just did it. the smile on her face said it all.

She was only riding in short stretches because we were on foot alongside, so we’d help her get going then she’d pedal a short distance away before stopping to wait for us. To help her actually ride and have a good go at pedalling, I dug out the old Trailorgator attachment that I bought for my oldest nephew close to a decade ago and hatched a plan with a friend, also keen to get her daughter happy on two wheels, to meet and ride out as a four while the two little ones were at crèche. She had the TrailAngel attachment, which is the upgraded and slightly more expensive version of the Trailorgator, for her daughter’s bike.

After an hour fiddling with the parts the fittings seemed robust enough for the ride ahead. It was definitely a job of bad-workwoman-blames-tools, as lack of the appropriately sized socket meant alot of swearing while using a just-about-fitting-but-almost-impossible-to-use spanner. All in a good cause. We were ready to go.

I didn’t get any pictures of that ride, unfortunately: I had my hands full with the two bikes and the every-so-slightly-twisted Trailorgator we came back with. Think bike in front at 90 degress and the one behind nearing 45 and you get the picture. We hadn’t gone that far, mostly because with all my bolt-wrangling we’d set off much later than planned, which turned out to be for the best given my kit wasn’t performing properly. Of course I’d forgotten the lacklustre spanner so any on-trail repair wasn’t an option. Lucky for us DD was a tired of cycling and wanted to run back! Sometimes I swear she’s part sheepdog.

After the relative success of that ride, I hatched a new plan. I wanted to try a short local ride to see whether I could manage DD and DS, both their bikes AND the trailer. Really my concern was the trailer: could I safely transport everyone and everything or did I need to hack a contraption (or find an extra trailer) so that I could keep the children and bikes separate? My friend also has a trailer and was planning to bring it along. It would be a good chance to test it out and with another adult as back up.

The day of the ride it was raining. In France that means no-one goes outside unless they have to, so I checked the forecast – still predicting a cloudy but dry morning – and messaged my friend to make sure she was still up for it (she was but her husband wasn’t so sure). All good. Then she sent a picture of the hole in the tyre of her trailer. Then another saying that her son, who’s a little older than DD, would just bring his bike and she’d carry her DD on the bike seat. Sorted! DD would bring her bike and ride too, I said.

DD was excited to be going on a proper bike ride with her friend! I was a bit excited too of course, but also worried: would she make it there and back, and – if she needed a rest, would the trailer carry everything given I’d also said the DS could take his balance bike along. In family-bike-ride mode I started packing food and quickly realised a trip to the shop was needed. As usual I had apples and water and no a lot else. Bad planning but better than nothing at all.

After meeting our friends we got all our kit together and set off. I didn’t quite know the first part of the route and whether we could get there totally off road, so we did the first part on the road altogether. It was only a short way and both of the two smalls on their big bikes were very well behaved. Watching your own child cycle their own bike on a real road is way more stressful than a group of children or adults wobbling around for a Bikeability session! We made it to the totally traffic free section without any issues: a tarmaced but restricted road between Esperaza and Campagne-sur-Aude. Now we could relax. And just pedal.

IMG_2336.JPG

So we did. DD pedalled along. DS got bike envy and came out on his balance bike for a bit but couldn’t keep up and soon needed a rest, so back in the trailer he went. Thanks to my excellent planning skills and experience in planning these family rides (ahem) there was a playground at the other end, which served as a place to let the trailer and bike seat-bound little ones stretch their legs and the big ones chance to stock up on food. In my case that was the aforementioned apples and also some cheese. Luckily my friend also had biscuits, which went down very well.

After a brief rest, worried the big ones would wear themselves out on the play area and be too tired to pedal back, we got everyone organised and started the ride back. The two biggies were definitely tired by now. DD’s friend was wobbling around a bit. DD was starting to get a bit stroppy. DS was asleep in the trailer (bless) and my friend’s youngest was happily bobbing along in the bike seat. At one point DS almost bailed: she misjudged a gap between a rock and the barrier (tired) blaming her friend for bumping into her, which maybe he did but we didn’t see. I persuaded her to stay on her bike because we were nearly back – and she did. She made it!

At 4.1 miles it was the longest ride she’s ever done and I am so proud of her for making it and also for sticking it out when it got a bit tough at the end. She had an epic first ride and then topped it off by tearing round the “bike park” (in inverted commans because it’s really just a couple of ramps – but hey) with DS and her friend while my friend and I ate most of the picnic.

Having done it this one time it’s definitely one to do again: it’s great route for a socialable ride that’s just right for little legs.

What, no Carte de Sejour?

We left the UK almost two years ago to the day, running from the island I had called home for my entire life. With the cataclysmic din of the Brexit vote still ringing in our ears our departure was not entirely the celebration we had hoped it would be. Instead of starting a new chapter full of hope and excitement our hearts were heavy with uncertainty. If we set up our new home, if we find what we are looking for, for how long will it last? Will our rights be lost, taken away? Not knowing, not having anywhere to look for or find the answers, was a huge burden on our shoulders during this time.

Aside from introducing uncertainty to our move, the Brexit vote has taken it’s toll in other ways. First it made the period from June to September incredibly frought emotionally. One of my parents (the insolent and Daily Mail reading one) voted FOR Brexit, which was the most fucking stupid thing she’s ever done given exactly one half of her family was planning to go and live within the EU in the six months that followed. In my opinion. Maybe it was some wierd passive-agressive thing where she didn’t want us to go and thought we’d be forced to stay if the UK left the EU? Who knows. Or maybe she thinks the 1950s were some sort of glorious hay-day (washing machines? fridges?!!) and has forgotten about things like outside toilets, caravan holidays in bognor, and tinned spam.

Whatever her reasons, “her decision” (nothing at all to do with Daily Mail brainwashing, of course) to vote the way she did caused a huge upheaval. Never in my life have I felt such rage towards my parents. And never before have I wanted to not talk to them – for weeks. Like so many other families who experienced similar fall outs, we’ve managed to move on but what’s left is a punctured relationship that I hadn’t realised was broken until it was. Now we’re here I think I miss them less than I would if Brexit hadn’t happened. I don’t feel particularly inclined to visit and when they come here it’s more for the kids. I feel apart from them in a way I didn’t before. I don’t care that they think they know better (“We remember how it was before. This isn’t what we voted for!”) As far as I’m concerned they have sold my family and the future of their grandchildren down the river. Part of me looks forward to them being stuck in a 4-hour immigration queue when they visit. If they’re allowed to. If they can afford to. C’est la vie.

Which brings me to the impact on the pound. When we first floated the idea of moving here, staring into estate agents windows 10 years before, the pound was riding high. I think at one point it was 1.5 euros to the pound. Maybe it was more? I don’t remember (and prefer not to think about it.) That would have been awesome. But thanks to Brexit , and in large part also due to the prediction that Remain would sneak through (social media echo chamber, anyone?) we didn’t rush to change our money from sterling to euros before the vote. Big mistake. In the days after we frantically set up a euro account and transferred all our money. That in itself was incredibly stressful: we had an “incident” with the bank where they submitted multiple buy orders on our behalf because when the first transction didn’t show on our account (we tried to do it online) we called and made the order – as it turns out again. We managed to get that sorted out but not without a huge amount of stress.

Given the situation, we got a pretty good rate by today’s standards, at least. It’s scraping the barrel compared to the rate both before the vote and in years past  which means we’re not in such a strong financial position as we hoped. Hey ho, it is what it is. We think about from time to time (like often) but what’s done is done. (Thanks, Mum!)

Then there’s the time pressure. All eyese on the 31st March 2019! What will happen then? If we’d come any other time – what’s Brexit? – we’d still have a whole lot to do but the pressure would be significantly less. We’d just be here, as is our right, happy and relaxed, just enjoying our time here, making a life. With Brexit looming it all feels like a very different proposition. We both feel a sense of urgency. Buy or build a house? Urgent. Set up and run a business (or two)? Urgent. Learn French? Urgent. Integrate? Urgent. Pay tax and be recognised as someone worthy of French citizenship in future? Urgent. The fact that we may run out of money sooner adds urgency to the urgency.

We’ve largely coped with the pressure we feel by focussing entirely on the things we can control and ignoring completely those we can’t. That’s why I’ve not read the news since we came. When people try to talk to me about the news, la, la, la, I can’t hear you (mature). Anything to do with Brexit brings me out in interchangeably rage and crippling despair. Instead we’ve been busying ourselves, learning the language (slow progress but progress nonentheless), setting up a business, registering for a carte vitale, registering the car, submitting our first tax return, paying our taxes – and so on.

All that doesn’t sound like much but anything admin here is a real mind fuck. Seriously, it can take a week or a month to complete a task that in the UK it would take me a day or a week max. That’s partly because the French system is paperwork intensive and also because of the language barrier. Fitting that in around childcare, school runs, client projects, and networking to find new clients – oh, and sometimes sleeping. Add to that searching for land or a house, trapsing around the countryside looking at houses we can’t afford because, well, Brexit.

So now, just when I feel like we’ve almost got on top of the admin and I can finally focus on work so that we can start to relieve some of the financial pressure and maybe even justify a day snowboarding this winter, there’s a noise from the Internet telling me I, we, need to apply for a carte de sejour otherwise we might lose our access to healthcare, be deported, or whatever. I read all this on a Facebook group, Remain In France Together, some time ago and had to turn their updates off because it was wreaking havoc with my blood pressure! The general consensus was that because no-one knew what we should or shouldn’t do, whether Brexit would happen or not, and whether that meant we could stay or we’d be unceremoniously chucked into the channel on April 1st, the best we could do now is something, anything, and there was always the option to PANIC!!! Wait and see seemed to be off the table.

Which is fine if you have nothing else to do all day and feel the need to do something to justify your existence, but I am already 12 hours short of the time I need to do all the things I need to do as it is. Stressing out about Brexit? Running around to the prefecture with my It’s Your Life style dossier of bills, birth certificates (officially translated at a cost of 100 euros, thank you very much) and all the rest of it, then finding a time to actually go to the office that doesn’t clash with school, creche, work, etc. Hah, you have to be joking.

So what to do? I read another blog recently which just about sums it up, and I quote:

What if, post Brexit, you need a special type of card? A card that isn’t a Carte De Sejour but a card that is for someone who was here as an EU citizen but then they weren’t. Just like all the EU residents in the UK. So, if I apply for a Carte De Sejour – it could transpire that I need a different card and what a waste of time that would have been #wails.

What if, they all agree, we don’t need any card for residents pre 2019. Or you just have a card issued that says you don’t need a card, as you were here before you needed a card. It does make sense you just have to re-read it.

– from Our Normandy Life: Why I Won’t be getting a Carte de Sejour

Nail On Head.

That said, I have done some reading about it – today, in fact. Maybe it is a good idea? YOu see, it’s confusing! There was a Government statement about this the other day, which I thought was reassuring. Except the people in the RIFT group assure me (and everyone else of the not-panicking variety) that that very sensible statement is only valid if (big if) an agreement is reached. Because I was struggling to cope with people online telling me what my own eyes were sure was a real thing complete with dates and everything, I decided to email the consulate in Paris, who pretty much told me the same thing as the Goverment. But RIFT (again) assure me that the consulate are also wrong (apparently they’ve now admitted it – to them, as in RIFT) that they, the consulate, mean only in the event of an agreement being reached. So what happens if an agreement isn’t reached? And here we go, around we go, again, again, again. No-one knows – and I Hate That.

So for now, no carte de sejour. If I get the willies about it I may just throw caution to the wind and make an appointment anyway. What the hell, eh? I don’t want to miss out on the ultimate Brexit experience! They say there’s a three-month waiting list, so that will give me plenty of time to gather the necessary paper work or follow the latest news and decide whether it’s necessary at all. Grrr. Fucking Brexit.

Photo by Jurica Koletić on Unsplash

 

 

La Rentrée 2018

It’s that time of year for the second time in our lives as parents. Yesterday we watched our DD, now nearly 5, skipping down the road to go off to her school. She loves it there and was so happy to be back. I don’t think we’ve bored her silly over the holiday but at the same time she hasn’t been entertained 24-7 and I think she needs the interaction with other kids – and she likes to learn.

This year she moves up to the la grande section (GS), which is the final part of maternelle before the more formal learning starts in CP1. Two years ago she was nervous and shy and spoke not a word of French. She spent 8 months in la petite section (PS), last year in la moyenne section (MS), and now she’s the same age and in the same section as the “big ones” who she remembers being kind and looking after her when she started. She’s doing great and it’s remarkable just how much she’s grown over the summer: her language, her mannerisms, her demeanour. Everything different yet everything the same.

Because it’s a small village school “moving up” doesn’t mean moving to a new classroom though: they have a single room for the whole maternelle (kindergarten) so she’s in the same room as la petite and la moyenne sections. Usually the next class, le cours préparatoire (CP1), are in the same room too but it turns out that as well as having a new teacher there are a few other changes this year. Instead of CP1, CE1 are in with the maternelle and CP1 are in the with primaire group. We’re not entirely sure of the rationale for this but the maîtresse seems to know what she’s doing so I’m sure there is a good reason, which may be to do with numbers (this way the classes are more balanced – 15 in one and 17 in another) and also to do with having a more self-directed class in with the little ones, who can be quite hard to manage, it seems.

Unfortunatley the back-to-work, time alone, getting-stuff-done rentrée that I’ve been waiting patiently for wasn’t possible until today thanks to DS picking up his first bug in I don’t know how long and starting with a temperature of 38.5 on Sunday night. By midnight he was up to 39 and when I checked again about half an hour later (he was still tossing and turning) pushing 40. I medicated him and not long after he cooled down and settled down to sleep but woke up hot again. So no crèche. Bummer. I had considered medicating him and sending him anyway (we were getting four hours out of a dose and he’s only there for three and a half) but he wasn’t right and was asleep by the time James got back from dropping DD off.

He’s better today. Tired, perhaps, and not quite as enthusiastic about being at crèche once he actually got there (the last two weeks he’s been demanding we turn the car around when leaving the town where it is!) but no tears, no drama, and no phonecalls and only 40 minutes to go ’til pickup.

And here I am. A slow start – I’m unlikely to properly organised and focussed until next week as this week will be catching up on all the little admin jobs and tidying up so I can think straight, but we’re getting there. Then it’s work, work, work. We had a great holiday but we definitely need to get focussed on our businesses here. And then there’s next year’s summer holiday to plan 🙂


 

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

 

Riding the Voie Verte from Lavelanet-Mirepoix (Part 2)

With the last week of the holidays looming, I really wanted to get out and finish the remaining 20km of Lavelanet-Mirepoix voie vert (greenway). I rode the first “half” (from Lavelanet to Chalabre) with DD and DS a few weeks before and it worked out well. It was much easier than I thought it would be and surprisingly enjoyable considering it was just me and the two smalls with the trailer. For the second half, not wanting to jinx it by expecting a carbon copy of the first ride, I asked a friend, P, if she wanted to come along with her daughters – both friends with my DD and DS. She agreed but was a little apprehensive about the distance and how it would work out with her two (who fought for most of the way back the last time we did a trailer-ride together!) but I was confident we could do it. We just had to take our time and make sure we had plenty of food.

A bike propped up against a large metal bridge with a child in a bike seat and a man wearing a blue t-shirt looking at another child in a bike trailer
Getting ready to go on the bridge in Chalabre

With a couple of day of warm but cloudy days forecast, Thursday was the day. We met at bridge over the river L’hers in Chalabre – the end point from the last ride – and after a quick bike check and a short delay while we waited for James to go back for my bag which I’d left at home (oops) we were off. Because P was a bit worried about the weight of the trailer over the distance, I took DD and L, the two oldest and heaviest children, for the first half. DS had a trailer all to himself, which he didn’t look all that sure about, and P’s youngest daughter was in the bike seat. We set off.

A child with her face covered in a cycling helmet sits in a bike seat resting her feet on her mother's back. Another child is in a yellow child trailer behind.
Looks no hands

DS was tired and looked like he wasn’t sure what was going on for most of the way. On the bike seat, I, was making herself very comfortable, having a nice chat with P as we rode along, and the two oldest girls, DS and L were chattering away in the trailer together, reading a book about The Romans that L had brought along.

A short way out of Chalabre, past the rearing horses statue (that DD loves) and through the tunnel, and we were into unchartered territory as I’d not ridden far past there before. The trail was in good enough shape for us to ride comfortably side-by-side and we talked about student life in London and French feminism, amongst other things.

A metal sculpture of two horses rearing with their front hooves touching in the air
A metal sculpture alongside the trail leaving Chalabre

We soon arrived at Camon – the furthest point along the route that P had ventured before. When planning the trip I had considered stopping there – there’s a nice park, a picnic spot by the river, and also a snack bar (that’s open, sometimes) – but once we got to that point, not all that long after leaving Chalabre, and given it was a bit of a faff to get leave the trail and find these places, we decided to carry on.

A stony track leading to a bridge with flower baskets along the top, green fields and woodland in the background
Approaching the bridge at Camon

What we really wanted was a nice spot by the river somewhere, so we kept on, keeping an eye out for the river and easy access from the trail. Past Sonnac-sur-l’Hers towards Lagarde, still nothing. By now we were starting to get a few whinges from the trailers behind and DS was looking incredibly tired so whether we had the perfect place or not it was time to stop. We came to a junction with the road leading up to a small hameau (Bordébasse) and could hear the river close by came off the trail onto road to look for a nice spot. Unfortunately access to the river wasn’t possible: it was shady and shallow on the opposite bank but there was no safe way to get there and on our side the water was deep and about 2 metres down from the bank. Shame, but we could see the river moving away from us after this to wandered down the track and found a grassy spot in the field that would do just nicely.

A field of corn (maize) with two children playing in the foreground and an adult and child walking away down the track. The village can be seen in the distance.
Our picnic spot, with the ruined chateau at Lagarde in the distance

The smalls were perfectly happy with our choice: there was a big pile of soil for dinosaur excavations and it was safe and quiet so they could run around. They played cache-cache (hide and seek) on the edge of the corn while P and I speculated whether it was possible to lose your children in a field of corn (we were fairly sure it was possible so this wasn’t very relaxing for us!) Then P also mentioned that snakes quite like it in the corn fields, so we were glad with the smalls decided to come out of there and play in the dirt instead. We talked some more, nibbled at the picnic while they played. They played some more, then they started to fall out a bit (there’s been a bit of a threes-a-crowd dynamic of late and I’m not really sure how we resolve it) so we decided, tired, it was time to put them back in their trailers and seats and carry on with the ride. So far we’d ridden for one hour and spent two playing in a field. I knew we’d be slow but hah!

Two small animal footprints dried in the cracked mud.
Wild boar tracks in the corn field where we picniced

We set off again – this time with DS and DD together with me in our trailer and P’s two girls back with her. This next stretch, where the trail skirted Lagarde, was full of blackberries, rose hips and apple trees. We stopped and started a few times, picking some and sharing them out, but our tired cargo was getting restless and complaining about the frequent stops, so we carried on.

A farm building with a large roof and the ruin of Lagarde chateau beyond
The trail as it approaches the village of Lagarde

It was just after Lagarde that the trail changed from a nice wide track with a good surface to a narrow path through the trees, riding in single file. There were also the odd stretches where it was definitely going up rather than down or flat. By the end of the rough section it opened out again.

We reached a junction, crossed a small road, and it seemed that we were heading in a different direction, perhaps on a different section of railway from before. The signs went a bit strange at this point so we had to check the map to make sure were chose the right section on track to follow. Then, shortly after crossing the bridge at Moulin Neuf, we arrived at slightly busier road and the route took us under a bridge on the road leading up to Roumengoux. A steep and uneven path led away from the road up to the trail, which carried on across the bridge that we’d just ridden under. At this point I think I would have struggled on my own and would probably have had to remove the smalls from the trailer and take everything up piece by piece because with DS and DD in the trailer, DS asleep, and got stuck about half way up! Thankfully L had extracted herself from her trailer and came along to give me a push. Saved by a five-year-old!
I got to the top, secured our bike and trailer against the bridge, then rushed back to help P, who had I (now awake) in the bike seat. L came to the rescue again. We high-fived then got back on the bikes and set off. I was hoping DS would go back to sleep but it looked like that had done it. Oh well.

A narrow shady path with a small group of cyclists in the distance
Some cyclists approach!

Despite the tricky ascent to reach it, the trail was much improved from this point on. Surely our next stop was Mirepoix? I was ready for it now but suspected we still have about 5km to go. I hadn’t looked at the map since a few days before and couldn’t quite remember the details. I’d picked up a message from James earlier and replied to say we were about 20 minutes from Mirepoix – about 30 minutes before. I really had no idea! The landscape had opened up, we passed a few fields of sunflowers and then started to see more people coming our way. As we’d hardly seen another soul day (a handful of cyclists, walkers and the odd owner-less dog) this suggested we were nearing the end. Before long the church spire came into view. Mirepoix!

Looking through blue metal railings down to the a wide and tree-lined river
Crossing Le Grand Hers river at Moulin-Neuf

The trail spits you out unceremoniously at the Super U car park on the main roundabout into the town. What was a car park (I presume for the trail) when we first came to the area about 10 years ago is now a petrol station. There is what looked to be a nice shady spot with access to the river right on the edge of the carpark but there was a “yoof” with a radio blaring, a large untethered dog, and what looked like a can of lager, so we decided to give our paddle in the river a miss, which was a shame because we’d earned it. We made up for the paddling deficit by offering ice-cream. A popular decision.

A wide tree-lined and shady path with a graffitied building on the left had side.
Arriving in Mirepoix!

While heading towards the supermarket entrance we spotted James, waiting for us there. He’d been there about 10 minutes, so the timing wasn’t too bad afterall. Because P couldn’t get a lift home for a while, we all went over together to a little park that has recently been refurbished. This gave our trailer-bound cargo a chance to let off some steam, which they duly did, while we (P and I) sat wearily on the bench chatting some more.

The wide and tree-lined path leading from the current end of the voie verte into Mirepoix and beyond

The park is just off what looks like a newly-renovated area, which I suspect will lead onto the next section of vioe verte, which is due to be extended from Mirepoix up to Bram, making it possible, in future, to ride all the way from Lavelanet to join the Canal du Midi. Once there there’s the possibility to head west towards Toulouse, eventually reaching the coast at Bordeaux, or heading south east towards Carcassone and joining the coast at Narbonne on a route called le Canal des 2 Mers à Vélo route. That’s 400km of traffic-free cycling and the seaside at either end!

This being France, it’s almost impossible to find out when this new route is likely to be finished but that’s okay because we’re not ready for a 400km ride – or even a multiday ride from Chalabre to Carcassone, just yet. We have plenty to keep us busy locally and some training to do. Next in my sights is the voie verte from Foix to Saint Girons – another 40km ish route and top of the list for next summer. Given it’s a similar distance to Lavelanet-Mirepoix it would work best for us – with small children and trailers – to break it up over two days. Of course by the time we left for home I’d already gained approval from James for a potential overnight camp (or B&B) stop and may even have persuaded P to come along too. I may also ride all or part of the Lavelanet-Mirepoix route again on my own as that will give me the chance to stop at a few more places along the way and explore a little. And for day-to-day riding I think my next ride will be to take the trailer from Chalabre to Camon, which is such a pretty village it definitely deserves a good look around. There are always more rides so it’s great that we all had a good day together as riding is always more fun with ride buddies!


Download the route information brochure from
rando-pyreneesaudoises.com.

Download the GPX track from GPSies.


Have you ridden or would you like to ride this route? Do you have any questions about it? Please post in the comments below!

Why 8-weeks isn’t enough – and blogging is back on

Last year, as I wrote in an earlier post, I really struggled with the long 8-week summer holiday. This year? Well there was the four week buffer at the beginning, with DD at the Centre de Loisirs part time and DS at crèche, meaning just four weeks to fill – and also only four weeks where it would be virtually impossible to get things done. My predictions re working being a total write off were pretty accurate but deciding not to beat myself up about it on the basis that everyone else living here is also probably off work in August, really helped me to relax into the swing of it. And it helped that the majority of my clients are also France-based, so either off enjoying a holiday themselves or busy working to provide those holidays to others.

With rentrée just around the corner, I’m actually feeling quite down about it. We’ve been having a lot of fun together. Camping was really lovely; a chance to really slow down and focus on quality time together, free from the distractions of the modern age. And over the last 8 weeks the two smalls, DS now 2.5 and DD now 4.5, having really grown and also become close, I think. Where one was a baby and the other was a slightly disinterested sibling, I now have to children who I think are friends: they play together, laugh together, and show that they care for each other (they fight a bit too, but they also seem to be able to work it out – with a small amount of encouragement – and move on pretty fast). It’s a special thing to see them grow together in this way. I think they will miss each other when life starts to speed up again, so hope we can recreate this ambience at the weekends and in the holidays to come.

For my part I’ve had a bit more time to reflect and it’s been nice to turn my attention back to this blog. We’ve been getting out and about, doing touristy things as a family, exploring the area, and I’ve enjoyed writing about some of the things we’ve done over the summer (most of which is still in draft, but hey, we’ve been too busy doing stuff!) I enjoy writing about tech stuff for my work blog over at Languedoc 121 Tech, but really I moved to France for the life, not the work. After many 40-hour corporate weeks I’m trying to resist the temptation to throw it all in and work-to-live, not the other way around.

While riding this wave of enthusiasm, I’ve signed up to a few blogging networks. Whether they’ll lead to an increase in traffic or not is anybodies guess – but what the heck. But, if you’re new here and came via Bloglovin or any other blogging network, I hope you like what you find and enchante!

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First Family Camp in the Pyrénées-Orientales

It’s the summer holidays and we live somewhere breathtakingly beautiful. In the UK we were always off camping for the weekend, usually to Wales, sometimes to the Lakes. We would walk, rest, read, revive and restore ourselves. Then we had DD, then DS, and then we left the UK and moved to France. We were busy and didn’t have chance to get away. Consequently, the summer holidays dragged on and on. We missed our little camping trips. That wasn’t going to happen again this year, so we decided on a few two-night stays way, to give us a much-needed change of scene and also as a way of checking out other areas we might like to live, since we’re doing so badly at finding a house where we are now! With a few changes to our original Welsh-holiday setup we were ready to go for our first family-of-four camping trip.

What camping used to look like

A field, a tipi, and a wood burner: child-free, all-weather camping

We managed two camping trips with DD: one when she was about 18 months old and another later that same year when she was a little older. The first was less than a success: the temperature dropped to minus something that night which meant we’d heat the stove and we’d all drop off to sleep sweltering hot then we’d wake up once the fire had burnt out, all freezingl. DD somehow managed to sleep pretty well until 5am but then was wide awake and crying. Just what you want when you’re the only couple with a small child on a mountain biking weekend away with the club of mostly child-free by choice 30 somethings (okay, we weren’t the only couple there with a small child but our friends were in a camper and so were much more soundproofed!) I was as tired as hell the next day and James was ready to go home, which really took the edge of my mountain bike ride, as did the torrential rain that followed. It was really good fun – not.

Scotland in May – Camping with DD: All smiles before a night of minus temperatures

The second time was much more relaxing. We had a few days with a toddling DD at the lovely Graig Web campsite would no doubt have gone again if I hadn’t been the world’s most grumpy and uncomfortable pregnant mummy to be. And after that, once DS was born, we were preoccupied with our move to The Continent. And now here we are.

Finding a family tent

Another barrier to a big camping trip was that we didn’t have anywhere to sleep. We decided we needed to “upgrade” the tipi for something more… wildlife proof. Here there are ants, snakes, and – maybe not worst but certainly most annoying of all – mosquitoes. Our tipi, being single-skin canvas was bought on the basis of having a wood burning stove, keeping us both warm and dry in autumn, winter, and spring, and cool, if it ever got warm enough to want to be cool, in summer. Pests were not on radar. Nor were two small children.

After extensive research, reading reviews, trawling websites, Facebook lurking to see what tents friends had and recommended, I took the executive decision to buy the HiGear Zenobia Elite 6 from Go Outdoors (which seems to now be out of stock and replaced by the Eclipse, which is of an almost identical design). In years gone by, while in thrawl to my corporate job, I’d probably have made quite a different purchase (hence the Tentipi) but having a limited budget made it quite a different proposition. I wouldn’t have thought of HiGear except that friends had recently gone down the family tent route and recommended it. Since I know they’re both pretty discerning when it comes to outdoor gear I decided it was a pretty solid recommendation. And that’s how I ended up with the Zenobia. We toyed with the idea of getting the inner for the tipi but we decided that 500 quid was a bit steep and ideally we could use more space. With a budget of 300 quid the Zenobia fitted the bill and had pretty good reviews. Good enough. Not so much Go Outdoors but that was a chance we were going to have to take, given HiGear is their own brand. Postage was a bit steep – £39.99 on top of the cost of the tent – but I managed to pick it up for a great price and even with the postage we were in budget. And it came with a carpet too. Very grown up!

Choosing a campsite

Another reason it had taken us so long to get our camping shizzle together is that we tend to like a certain kind of campsite. In days gone by we were always looking out for remote and quite wild locations, happy with or without hot water, even toilets. There were a few sites we liked but only ever at times when most other people were away somewhere else: with the Welsh mountains’ proximity to several major cities there was a tendency for campsite to turn into giant drinking parties, especially on public holidays – and we hated them when they were busy. We also rejected any site that was good for caravans, so any sanitised site with electric hook up available or, god-forbid, static vans. Oh My Days, noooo! We would not be seen dead on one of those sites (actually, I camped at a few like that and had a perfectly nice time but that was on mountain bike weekends with “The Girls”. For James, if it had a no-fires policy it was a no. And no, chucking a few cheeky sticks onto a barbecue is not the same as having a fire.)

Our favourite site: no neighbours and a “weather-proof” fire

Such sites being hard to find here in France, a new campsite in a new place is always a bit of gamble. With kids, however, and now we’re on The Continent, camping takes a different turn. We are all about sites that are bursting with facilities. Okay, maybe not bursting, but at the very least our list includes: a play area (parc de joue)? check; hot running water and showers? check; a swimming pool (or access to a swimming lake)? check; allocated pitches? check! We still love the mountains though and I struggled with the idea of booking somewhere close to the sea with more of a “holiday camp” feel. But I’m sure I’m just getting warmed up to it and it won’t be long. Maybe next year.

Choosing a location

So having decided that we were ready to brave a well-managed site with good facilities, we then had to decide where to go. Given France is vastly larger than the UK and we don’t know any of it, how to narrow it down?

Apart from having a well-needed change of scenery and chance to just chill for a few days, we definitely feel it’s time to explore some new areas. Remember, we came here to find a house, and that hasn’t gone so well. We’ve ended up renting, which we didn’t want to do, and having seen many, many shoddy and overpriced houses, we’ve also started searching for land with a view to building. Given we’re not doing much better in the search for land we’ve decided it’s time to start searching further afield. First though we need to figure out where we might want to go. Hence our little mini-trips branching outwards from our home and planned in all directions.

In May we spent a few days with my parents in Ceret. 
I wanted to write about it but the opportunity has passed. If we go there again I’ll make sure I try a bit harder and share my thoughts about the place. In short, I liked it. I’d read a bit about the fairly recent history of the area when I fell into a WWII reading rabbit hole last year, discovering Love And War in The Pyrenees: a really fascinating book that makes grim and humbling reading.

That aside, it was nice to be somewhere a bit… smarter – and busier. To say it’s quiet here is an understatement. It’s not just that there’s not a lot going on. It’s also that there isn’t anyone here! The houses are run down, they’re overpriced, there’s no work. It’s really quite dead. We like that but because of that it’s always quite exciting to spend time somewhere that has a bit of a buzz about it. And then leave, of course.

Rather than going back to Ceret I decided it would be quite nice to explore the next valley along, which is therefore a bit closer to our home, making it easier to get to and easier to abort our trip if for any reason it wasn’t going so well.

And so we ended up at Camping Lac du Vinca.

Our Campsite & the Surrounding Area

Vinca is a small village just off the N116, which is the main road running from Perpignan into Andorra via Prades. It’s on the edge of lake that was formed in 1976 as a means of serving the city below with water.

The campsite itself borders the section of the lake that is to the West of the N116. When we first pulled off the main road we thought I might have cocked up with the site choice, as we could see camping cars from the road. Luckily that was the municipal site and our site was a bit further away from the road, tucked away at the other end of the village. It’s a 3*** site, which by UK standards means a well-equipped site, usually with a simple pool or access to a swimming area, hot running water for showers, a laundry room, usually a kid’s play area, and often, in high-season at least, a snack bar/buvette.

The area is good as it’s fairly close to the sea (about 30 minutes) and also close to the mountains. I wasn’t expecting we’d do much on our first visit: usually the first time anywhere we have a good look around, pick up a tonne of leaflets, scour the map for interesting places to go, and make more touristy plans for subsequent visits.

And the outcome?

I won’t go into too much detail about the site (I wrote a Trip Advisor review when we got back, and that says it all) and will just say we all had a fabululous time! The small beach, which was just perfect for the little ones, was barely a minute away from our pitch. We also had a steady stream of “friends” for DD in adjacent pitches, and she and DS had alot of fun interacting with their new companions. The first family – German – had two children who spoke German and some English but DD insisted on speaking to them in French, which was quite entertaining. They left after our first night but were replaced by an large (and sometimes rowdy!) group of French and Spanish women – relatives and friends – with a 6-year-old boy who DD spent the rest of the time we were there playing with. One of the reasons we didn’t bother going anywhere was because DS and DD were fully occupied and content on the site, and it was nice for us just to stop and do not much at all other than just hang out with them.

Our Family Tent and Pitch

Despite having a really nice time in our little camp, we weren’t that excited about the area, at least from what we saw as we drove along the main routes. Prades was nice – quite busy and less shabby than Quillan but not as polished as Ceret – and next time we head that way we’ll go onto Villefranche-et-Conflent, which is an old fortified town which some interesting tourist sites. We were a little underwhelmed by Marquixanes, where I’d seen a number of houses for sale. They looked to be in good condition (nicely renovated stone houses) and at sensible prices so, but that may be because there’s the threat of an enormous road building programme looming over the area, if the signs alongside the route are anything to go by. After all my efforts with the Save Swallow’s Wood campaign at our old house, I don’t really have the stomach for another anti-road campaign!

But back to the camping trip.

DS was so sad when we left the site. He really had a lovely time. DD was devistated that we were taking her away from her new friend. I think being somewhere with a steady stream of children to play with, along with a nice swimming spot, is her (current) idea of heaven. We asked if they want to go again and it was a definite yes. So we definitely will. Now we have all the gear it’s just a case of deciding when and where.

A screenshot of a 5-star review with the title "Nice spot for a family camping trip"
My Trip Advisor Review of Camping Lac du Vinca in the Pyrenees Orientales

Disclaimer: This article contains affliate links, which pay a teeny amount of money to me if you click on the link and then make a purchase.

Riding the Voie Verte from Lavelanet to Mirepoix (Part 1)

Before the holidays, determined to make a better job of it than last year, I started putting together a list of microadventures we could have over the summer. One of the things high on that list was riding the voie verte that is closest to us here: the 38km trail from Lavelanet to Mirepoix. My original plan involved an overnight camp, with James acting as chauffeur enabling us to ride the route in sections then spend the night in a tent before carrying on the next day. I originally thought three short rides with two overnights. Then I thought it would be fun to do this with friends. Then I decided the logistics of organising said trip with friends or even just between the two of us was giving me a headache and that I’d do it alone. Then I decided that it was too sunny and hot for any kind of bike ride let alone with children and a trailer, so sacked the whole thing off and tried not to be down about it. Did I let it go? Of course not.

Then we spent the morning up on the mountain at Bonascre where there are some pretty sweet looking downhill mountain bike trails. I got excited about riding my bike. I needed to ride my bike.

Me & DS having a “babychino” and getting fired up about bikes – Bonascre 2018

As luck would have it the forecast for the day after our visit to Bonascre changed from upwards of 30 degrees with full sun to an overcast morning topping out at about 24 with rain to follow. I needed something to do with the two smalls as James planned to work, so what to do, what to do? A morning ride then. Yippee!! In my head the route was 45km (I’m sure I’d read that somewhere) so I figured three rides of 15km would keep it nice and short for the smalls and also fit well around the weather forecast.

After an early start (as is usual these days) and a half-arsed attempt at breakfast, my two passengers were briefed and ready to go. I was worried that they’d both want to bring/ride their own bikes, only one of which has pedals, which would involve a whole lot of stop-starting, an epic amount of faffing, not least I still haven’t figured out how to attach their bikes to the trailer while they are also in the trailer. I was starting to get planning fatigue again so was relieved when DD said she didn’t want to ride her bike and just wanted a trailer ride. DS was not so readily convinced but I got around that by leaving his balance bike here accidentally on purpose. Oops, sorry. Car packed, children loaded and secured, bike unelegentally lifted onto the roof (I am soooo unfit!) and we were off.

The advice online is to start the ride in Lavelanet as then more of it is downhill than up. That certainly proved to be true for the first 5km or so. It was a breeze! The surface was good, there was plenty of shade (not that that mattered as there wasn’t any sun to hide from) and we were all happy to be off on a little adventure together. The last trailer ride was me and DS alone while DD was at maternelle – and he hadn’t liked it at all! But now with his big sister holding his little hand (cute), DS was calling out, “faster mummy!” too. Just brilliant.

Passing under a bridge en-route from Lavelanet to Chalabre

I didn’t want to stop to take pictures because stopping and starting was a massive faff, so I had the camera round my neck and took pics as we came to the main crossings or places of interest. I did really well on that front for the first half of the ride, which was actually pretty easy thanks to the terrain and the surface. We quickly got to the 8km marker and I was starting to think we’d shoot for 20km and not the 15 I’d planned.

By now the sun was out and I realised I had forgotten the suncream. Actually not forgotten but dismissed because we were half way out of the village when I realised I didn’t have it – and we trusted the meteo. Fools. Now DD was hot and hungry. Time for a snack stop. We pressed on, past La Peyrat, to the junction with the D620 just before Sainte-Colombe-Sur-l’Hers where I hoped there was a picnic bench. There was. We crossed over the road and stopped under a shady tree for a snack.  My kids are so spoiled: I’d packed apples. Just three of them. And water. They did the job. DD of course wanted more so after a happy little jump around the picnic table we continued on.

A snack stop alongside the D620 between La Peyrat and Sainte-Colombe-Sur-l’Hers

It was at this point that my legs started to feel like lead (I was pulling about 40kg in combined child-trailer weight), I was worrying a bit about the suncream, and the track surface turned from leg-friendly, trailer-friendly pedal turner to bumpy farm track and ever-so-slightly up hill. Not as easy goibg as before. DD was still mithering for food but DS was soon asleep, thankfully. I called James to report on our progress and requested lunch at the park in Chalabre for 12h30. Confirmation received, I started to fantasise about food, which is a bit tragic given I’d only ridden 11km by this point.

Voie Verte Lavelanet-Mirepoix: The bumpy approach to Sainte-Colombe-Sur-l’Hers

Full sun, some shade and still a terrible track, from Sainte-Colombe onwards was some welcome almost downhill again. I say almost because mountain bike plus trailer doesn’t roll too well on a rough track, so there was quite a lot of pedalling. DD helped to keep me motivated by whining from the back about being hot and hungry. I pedalled on. DS continued to sleep despite bumps and also the squeak that had developed, and eventually we arrived at our destination: Chalabre.

A shady old railway bridge between Sainte-Colombe and the old station at Rivel

I didn’t get any photos from there, unfornately. We were too busy tucking into our picnic! I like Chalabre. We spend quite alot of time there these days – it’s where DS goes to crèche. I like it there. For anyone attempting to ride the voie verte in a day and looking for a place to rest midway – or a place to camp (there’s a municipal site as well as a nice but unofficial spot by the river) – you can do worse than the stop there. You’ll find some shops (chemist, grocer, butcher, boulongerie), which are open in the mornings and afternoons (usually everything is shut for lunch, so you’ll struggle between 12h30 and 2h30), and some cafes. The best place for a picnic is down by the river, where there’s also a little park. The park is tucked away under the big red metal bridge, which is the continuation of the voie verte towards Camon, over the L’Hers river. The park has shade and is a good place to contain small children while also allowing them to let off some steam in the playground, where there’s a climbing frame, slide, and a see-saw. Because it’s right next to the river, which you can walk down to to sit on the bank and have a paddle, or have yourself a proper cooling off just a few meters down where it gets a bit deeper. For grown ups sans children there’s a picnic bench there and, again, big trees so plenty of shade.

After eating our picnic and having a little play, we headed home. In the end we’d ridden 17km and just under half of the route. This makes the rest is manageable in a single day as long as I plan a decent midway stop. Now all I need is another un-sunny day. I’m sure one will be along at some point but until then we can settle back into good-weather-mode.

Part 1, done!

We did it! Read all about the second part of our adventure here:
https://aleapintothevoid.wordpress.com/2018/09/01/riding-the-voie-verte-from-lavelanet-mirepoix-part-2/

Summer Holiday Survival Guide 2018

So far so good. Since I last updated the blog the French long summer holiday, les grandes vacances, started and we’re now the best part of four weeks in. We learned a few lessons last year that set us good stead for making a better job of it this year. Thanks to better planning James and I have managed to squeeze in a few hours of work meaning it’s been much easier to do a lot of fun things together as well.

Thankfully the crèche remains open during July, so it’s been business as usual for DS, and by enrolling DD into the Centre de Loisirs for two full days a week she’s had plenty of active play and also maintained something of a routine. In English-speak the Centre de Loisirs is the out-of-hours/holiday club, so it’s not school – there aren’t any formal lessons – but there are organised activities. There’s a small fee to pay but much of the cost is covered by the commune so it’s minimal. They stay all day (half days aren’t an option) and are provided with lunch and groups are split along similar lines to the schools, with places for three-to-sixes and another group for the older ones (up to 10, I think). I’d heard about it last year but was bogged down with all the admin involved in registering a new business and getting my carte vitale sorted out so didn’t have the mental bandwidth or the confidence in French to find out about any of this, I just heard other parents talk about it when asking them what on earth they were doing with their children during the holidays!

Having decided to investigate ahead of the holiday this year, I went along to ask about places and prices and generally scope the place out. I had pretty much decided that she would be going – it’s a nice looking place, a relatively new building with a large lawn area, plenty of shade, some climbing frames and other outdoor gear, plus it’s convenient given DS’s crèche is only a few minutes away – so it was really just about finding out what paperwork I needed and getting her name down! James was not so convinced (I’m not sure he’d even considered it until I turned up with the forms) but I made my case and with the go-ahead from him ran it past DD, who seemed quite into the idea of being able to play with other kids all day rather than being stuck at home with us. On the first day, with varying degrees of trepidation we all went along. (I should add this wasn’t a totally cold start: James had taken DD one Wednesday afternoon before the end of term, so they’d both met some of the staff and the other children and she was familiar with where she was going, and having had a nice time she was quite looking forward to it.) We received a warm welcome, one of the staff showed us where to find a peg for her hat and bag, and then took us into the main room where the other children were busying themselves. There were toys, play areas (some dens), some stencils and coloring pens out on one of the tables and a small group of the older children playing a card game together. One of her English friends was there, which was a brilliant stroke of luck. DD’s friend was also looking a bit nervous so after pep talking them both DD prized herself away from me and joined her friend at the table to do some colouring. Time for one last quick goodbye from me and a sharp exit!

James pretty much paced all day hoping she was alright and was keen to get her as soon as the day officially ended, so at 4.30pm there we were. Bad timing, apparently. I took DD’s sad face and clingyness to be a sign that she’d had a difficult day but it turned out that the upset was because we’d come to take her home and she still had playing to do! Plus they were just about to sit down for le goûter, which involved a squeezy compote, a drink, and a small piece of cake – nice. Who’d want to go home and miss out on that!? She wanted to join in so went off with the group into the garden while we sat and waited, all the while restraining DS who also wanted to get in on the cake/compote action but wasn’t allowed to join in.

The next day her friend wasn’t going to be there and from what she said they’d spent the whole day together and she hadn’t made any new friends. That would mean spending the day with a cohort of entirely French-speaking children, most of whom already knew each other from the village school. As expected she was a little nervous going in but soon drifted into an activity so away we went. Before leaving I asked whether she wanted us to come for her earlier or leave it until after le goûter and it was a hands-down 100% after le goûter – so that was that. We returned at 5 and all was well. Another successful day.

With this and another regular activity, which we we’ve been able to keep up, we’ve had a pretty steady routine on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, which I think has helped us get to this point without feeling too overwhelmed. On Thursdays DS had crèche and I had some meetings to go to, so we’d drop him off then James would come along with DD and they’d play in the park while I did my thing then we’d all head back to get DS and it was just the afternoon to fill: a regular Thursday but with some one-on-one time with DD, who would usually be at maternelle. Fridays were a definite holiday day with everyone at home, so a little more hectic but it felt like a three-day weekend and it’s been nice to have that time to wind down a bit.

This time last year we were four weeks in and already tearing our hair out wondering how do other parents cope with these eight long weeks. But the answer, in the absence of grandparents and extended family, is the Centre de Loisirs and crèche. Even with the two days at the Centre de Loisirs it’s been way more relaxed than term time as it’s a later start and both children are in the same town, so much less back and forth, saving time and money.

With the extra time we’ve also been able to accomplish some really nice “firsts”, including:

  • first family camping trip. I can really vouch for the HiGear Zenobia Elite 6 and like it so much we may even make a video review next time it’s up.
  • first time swimming with arm bands (feet off the floor!) for DS
  • first vegetables from the garden (two different types of courgettes plus cucumbers, chard, and haricot vert)
  • first time putting her face in water for DD (she’s been scared of getting her face wet ever since we took her Puddle Ducks at 9 months so this was a Big Deal)
  • first time catching a cray fish
  • first time feeding caterpillars and watching them turn into butterflies (they were cabbage whites)
  • first snake sighting! (this was on the path outside of DD’s school on one of the last days of term)
  • first invitation to a school friend’s birthday party
  • first bike ride, just me and DD, with her hitched up to my bike using the old Trailer-Gator I bought for my eldest nephew 10 years ago!

And probably a whole host of other more mundane things too. Lots more blog fodder for when the time allows.

But what of the next four weeks? Well, pretty much the whole of France is going to be on holiday so I’ve decided I’m not going to beat myself up about getting next to nothing done. Is anyone? We have a couple of other camping trips lined up, if we can just figure out some good dates with the camp sites, plus some day trips and play dates. Then, with the heat and now both smalls confident splashing around in the water with their arm bands on, I envisage spending as much time as possible in a lake or river keeping cool. They play so happily outside, the time flies by.

I had thought about some bigger adventures, wanting to do a small overnight trek to a mountain refuge and back, but just thinking about the organisation – and in this heat – I’ve decided that’s the kind of trip to make when they can walk all the way and also be persuaded that they want to do it, rather than being dragged into the unknown. Family camping with all the mod-cons is a good option for now.

Now to let a few pictures do the talking…

A large blue tunnel tent surrounded by tall conifers with camping chairs and stove on the ground outside
Our Family Tent: the HiGear Zanobia Elite 6
A yellow globe zucchini cut into three pieces
Sweet and Tasty: Homegrown Yellow Globe Courgette (Zucchini)
Four children looking down into container of water
Studying the day’s catch: a freshwater crayfish

 

What We Did in June

Wow, June already. It’s been almost a month since I last managed to write something. Time is flying. May has been pretty non-stop, so while I have a big bunch if ideas for posts about specific things, I think I’m going to settle for a recap – placeholding for a future in which I have more time to get back to this. So, since my last post, life has looked like this:

  • Tax returns submitted: 2 (yay!)
  • Public holidays: 2
  • Strike days (impacting school): 1
  • Days parents spent at our house after their flights were cancelled due to the aforementioned strike day: 6
  • Blog posts written: 2, but on my work blog, which is all about IT stuff. The two posts are Your Website and GDPR: Privacy Policy and Consent and Are You GDPR Ready?, if you’re interested.
  • Tick bites: 2
  • Trips to A&E: 1
  • Days at the seaside: 1 (Argeles, very nice)
  • Other countries visited 2 (Spain & Andorra)
  • Sewing projects completed: 3
  • Worm bins sorted out: 1
  • Days without any rain at all: Maybe 2?
  • Bike ride, with and without the trailer: 3
  • Episodes of Fargo watched in one sitting: 1

Lots of blog fodder there – just no magic time-making machine, unfortunately!

And because, as the saying goes, a picture tells a thousand words, here are a few photos.

a blog about family life in France, discovering a new place, new people, and learning a language