I was sure that the hotel that Chris and I stayed at four years ago was La Bretagne in Douarnenez. I googled hotel+jacuzzi+Finisterre and the pictures of La Bretagne looked spot-on. I drove to Douarnenez yesterday afternoon, parked the camper van and checked in. It wasn’t what I’d been expecting.
Wrong jacuzzi. Wrong hotel. Wrong town, in fact.
It threw me at first. I took Ted out for a bad tempered walk round the port looking for a restaurant for dinner later, found nothing that appealed to me, and got back to the hotel just in time for the jacuzzi I’d booked at 7.00pm. By this time, I’d decided that everything about Douarnenez, Brittany, France, holidays in general, and this one in particular, was crap.
45 minutes in the jacuzzi gave me time to realise that my determination to repeat a past experience had come very close to robbing the present of any pleasure. I had a choice: to enjoy the evening as best I could or to wallow in my disappointment that things hadn’t gone to plan.
The hotel receptionist booked me a table on the terrace of a good sea-front restaurant. I watched the sun go down over the harbour and ate well. Ted and I made our way back up the dark cobbled streets to the hotel and slept until late. After breakfast, I set myself the task of having a good day somewhere that Chris and I hadn’t been; to enjoy the warmth of the sun and the feel of the breeze on my face; to be present to the moment as far as I could.
I didn’t manage a whole day or even half a day without getting caught up in nostalgia and longing, but I did have one glorious hour today without a care in the world, sitting on the headland at Trefeuntec, with Teddy contented at my feet, and a Breton mermaid story to read.
I’m hoping for more times like that.
This gorgeous establishment is La Crêperie Quartier D’été in La Forêt Fouesenant where I went for lunch on Saturday. Chris and I went there in 2011 and I traced it from the photograph of a chalk-board menu amongst our holiday snaps. I didn’t actually get lunch because it was full.
“Pardon, nous sommes complet,” said the Patron.
No matter, I reserved a table for dinner at 7.30pm instead and drove off to find somewhere to walk with Teddy, and for me to have a cup of tea and read. We ended up by the ruins of the Abbaye Saint Maurice, next to a large wooded lake and let the afternoon drift by.
Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Seated on the terrace at 7.25pm, I ordered a small carafe of house white and six oysters. To say that they were merveilleux would be doing them an injustice… they were exquisite .
Now for the main course: a buckwheat galette with scallops in a white sauce involving Lambig (a Breton liqueur distilled from local hard cider).
For desert: a sweet crêpe with caramel sauce and apple (sadly, no picture as I was too greedy and forgot) followed by a large espresso.
I know Chris would have relished every mouthful. I chose exactly the same items for each course that we had enjoyed together. The meal was a sort of gustatory homage to our shared love of good food and the delights of travelling in France.
Afterward, I spoke to the Patron and told him about the visit Chris and I had made before and how much it meant to me to be back there, now that she has died. I tried to explain in broken French how the evening had been parfait but that without her nothing is complet.
He seemed to understand.
You walk into the pissoir needing to pee and notice that there are three urinals on the wall. For ease of identification (given that they are otherwise identical) let’s call the furthest from you ‘A’, the middle one ‘B’, and the closest to you ‘C’.
So far so good.
However, another man (I’m assuming that you are also a man, otherwise what are you doing in the pissoir) is standing at urinal ‘A’. While you are still in the doorway, he finishes his business and moves away to wash his hands at the basin opposite.
Now comes the tricky bit.
Which urinal do you use? If you walk past ‘C’ and ‘B’ to get to ‘A’, the other man will think that you probably have a urine-related fetish or that you are stalking him. ‘C’ is closest and you could carry it off, but only with a well-practised air of insouciance, or the other man will think you are making a point of deliberately using the urinal furthest from the one he used in which case you almost certainly have a urine-related fetish or you are stalking him.
No, the answer to this tricky point of urinal etiquette is clearly ‘B’. Having avoided the obvious blunder of choosing either ‘A’ or ‘C’ you have found the Goldilocks solution (assuming Goldilocks to have been a boy not a girl). You have hit the sweet spot, so to speak. Then it occurs to you – mid-stream – that if the other man has also considered the same dilemma, he will necessarily conclude that ‘B’ is an elaborate double-bluff and that you definitely have a urine-related fetish or that you are stalking him.
Now your cover is blown and you will have to shoot him.
And those my friends are the opening lines of my forthcoming, best-selling, block-busting, genre-defining, thriller: The Duchamp Dilemma.
Can I put you down for a copy?
It’s been a mixed day today.
The good part was some nifty on-line detective work that tracked down a hotel Chris and I stayed in at Douarnenez, four years ago, and then booking Teddy and me in for one night next Monday. It has a private jacuzzi that Chris and I enjoyed during our visit. I’m pretty sure everyone makes love in it but you try not to think about the previous couple as you lock the door and climb into the bubbling hot tub.
The bad part was the pissing rain and being trapped inside a small camper van with a wet, frustrated dog. I did a bit of client work and translated a short Breton mermaid story (which wasn’t so bad, I guess) but I still felt stir crazy by about 4.00pm. I hung on until nearly 6.00pm before cracking open the whisky and managed not to get legless. That word looks odd, should it be Legolas? Nope, he was an elf. Legless it is then. Maybe I didn’t quite manage to stay sober.
The ugly part was the rage I felt at Chris for inflicting this bloody empty existence on me. They say that anger is a stage of grief but I’d not experienced it before. Take my word for it, it’s not pretty. You try to think respectfully of your beloved but you hate them for leaving you. In my semi-drunken state I turned to poetry. I won’t (dis)grace this page with what I wrote, suffice to say it’s called Fuck You.
I’m hoping for better tomorrow.
This magnificent erection is Rosie’s drive-away awning (on a lovely campsite in the grounds of Chateau Lanniron in Quimper). It’s a fantastically useful bit of kit which allows me and Ted to disgorge the contents of the camper van and leave them, all zipped-up and safe and sound, while we drive off on adventures during the day.
However, it’s a bit crap technically because it needs over 30 tent pegs to stop it blowing away. This contrasts dramatically with the old Terra Nova Quasar two-person tent that Chris and I used for our many camping trips. That was a classic, designed to support life in a blizzard on Everest and requiring a mere 12 tent pegs to do so.
I suspect Chris would think the awning was a bit de trop but I make no apologies: it does the job. Putting it up takes a while and those 30+ tent pegs require liberal use of a good mallet. Chris and I always took a 2lb club hammer with us, which could drive a nail into concrete. For reasons that escaped me then and still elude me now, she called said instrument a collybonker.
It was undoubtedly useful but (as ultra lightweight campers limited by the infinitesimal carrying capacity of the Morgan) we were concerned about both its bulk and its weight. Our great – sadly unfulfilled dream – was to make our fortune by the invention of an inflatable collybonker.
Now I’ve given the idea away. I suppose someone else will cash in.
The week before she died, Chris and I had planned to share our Desert Island Discs with each other. We never got around to it so now I’ll never know which tracks she’d have taken with her as a castaway. Anyway, I decided to choose mine this week and make a playlist.
How does one choose the soundtrack to a life?
Well, after a few false starts, I discovered that it’s obviously not just about selecting your favourite eight “discs.” They would change, probably quite quickly as musical tastes develop and new music appears on the scene. These discs have to be more than that, I decided: they must represent significant phases or experiences in one’s life; important relationships and memories.
So, after much enjoyable deliberation, here, in chronological order, is the list I would present to Kirsty Young and the BBC Radio 4 Desert Island Discs researchers if they ever came knocking on my door.
- Green Onions (Booker T and the MGs)
The first record I ever bought. It’s as good now, 50 years later, as it was then and I still absolutely love it.
- I Get a Kick Out of You (Gary Shearston)
This came out when my first wife Sara was pregnant with our – very much alive and kicking – daughter, Nicky. We were young, naive, and very happy.
- Sledgehammer (Peter Gabriel)
I remember dancing to this terrific pounding rythym round and round the sitting room with my kids when they were young and bumping bottoms.
- Clay Jug (Jackie Leven)
I met Jackie Leven a couple of times in the 90s when I got involved in menswork. This track includes Robert Bly’s voice. It’s powerful, deep stuff.
- Life, Love and Happiness (Brian Kennedy)
This track was my solace and consolation during the agony of separation and divorce. How do your love yourself when you are hurting others?
- Baby Come Home (John Martyn)
Chris adored John Martyn; we went to see him together once. This wasn’t her favourite track but I would sing it to her anyway: Get your skinny ass home.
- Perpetuum Mobile (Penguin Cafe Orchestra)
Chris and I played this track as we came out of the registry office when we got married. It’s full of hope and possibilities, and reminds me of her unquenchable energy for life.
- Here It Is (Leonard Cohen)
We played this at Chris’s funeral service, as we wrote our goodbyes on her coffin. May everyone live, may everyone die. Hello my love; my love goodbye.
And which disc would you pluck from the waves if you could only save one? Kirsty always asks her guests in conclusion. My answer came quickly: I would plunge into the foam to retrieve… Green Onions. I discovered it when I was about 18 years old and the uncoolest kid in town. I had a beige jumbo cord jacket, Farah slacks, white Poplin shirt, brown knitted tie, and a pair of elasticated tan leather shoes that in hindsight had something orthopedic about them. Sex hadn’t yet been invented.
But discovering Green Onions back then and deciding for myself that it was great music made me feel good, and it still does. With a bit of luck, there’ll be someone around to make sure it’s one of the tunes played at my funeral, or maybe at the wake.
Have you made your Desert Island Discs playlist?
Remember, only eight discs.
Tough choices to make.
I’m back at Le Bateau Livre a hidden gem near Penestin: a bookshop that is also a restaurant. Pascal Mucet and Marie-Paule Gaudin came up with this brilliant combination in 2005. I was last here four years ago, on holiday with Chris in the Morgan. We discovered it by chance as we drove along the coast road and loved it so much that we came back a couple of days later for a second bite.
Much has changed since then but Pascal and Marie-Paule are just the same; their stock is still unusual and impossible to leave on the shelves; and L’Assiette Océane is still the best thing on a good menu. Being Sunday, free hors d’oeuvres and aperitifs and were on hand for browsers. There’s a lesson there for failing British independent bookshops, je pense.
It’s great to be back though I notice that my French deserted me entirely the moment I walked through the door so I guess something else was going on under the surface. I drove down from Quimper in the camper van with Ted in the passenger seat, closing his ears as I sang along to Everybody Needs Somebody (To Love) on the Atlantic Soul Greatest Hits CD.
I need you, you, you
Baby, I need you.
Here’s the holiday selfie Chris and I took, just down the road, in 2011 (though I can’t remember calling them selfies then). Inspired by the picture and our literary lunch at Le Bateau Livre, I wrote a wee poem to celebrate. I’ve always enjoyed the Gatsby – hats be rhyme, but I’m easily pleased by my own verse.
We went to France my girl and me,
She wore my flying hat.
I’ve yet to be convinced, said she
That I don’t look a prat.
But you my sweet are on the road,
To wear it is your fate,
Adornment that is à la mode
Perched gaily on your pate.
You resemble Mr Gatsby,
Henceforth ever let our hats be