Tuesday, 9 August 2011

Picnics before Pricknicks

Sorry, but I think I may have neglected to mention that I was going on holiday for a couple of weeks before the high-dose chemo starts. My wife, daughter and I have just been to Brittany, returning on 6 August, since when I have been collecting wits, organising finances against those moments over the coming three weeks or so when these may be difficult to get to grips with, and wondering what to pack for the stays in hotel and hospital (pyjamas, certainly).

Here are some pictures taken during our time in France...

Actually, this photo is not one of mine, but I did not take any pictures on Day 1 (aka 25/7/2011).
Thought, though, that you might like to see a picture of Normandie Express, which can whip you across the Channel from Portsmouth to Cherbourg in 3 hours. She has been our preferred mode of transport for this crossing for a couple of years now. Food on board is a mixed affair, but I always treat myself to a vanilla yoghourt: it somehow confirms to me that the holiday has begun and is suitably soothing after the rush of packing and the hurtle to the port in time for the 7am sailing.

The weather was dull when we arrived at the house where we stay in the late afternoon of 25 July, but things stared to brighten up the next day, so that by evening on Tuesday the 26th, we were able to enjoy a leisurely walk after supper along leafy lanes in golden light. I treasure these moments, although on this occasion my back was killing me! Note to self: must get this problem dealt with once chemo is out of the way.

Stop me if I am being boring about how well the French do certain things, but I really do love the way they often do townscapes. This is Ploërmel, just a short hop up the main road from the house, although on Wednesday 27 July, we went on our bikes along one of the fab Voie Verte cycle paths that make up a national network and from which the British could learn a thing or two – oops, there I go again!
One of the matters to be attended to on this trip was upgrading the power supply to the house to 9 kilowatts, in order to ensure that heaters can be kept on the in the winter at the same time ass you boil a kettle. On Thursday 28 July, the friendly man from the electricity company came in his neat overalls and van to install a new power switch (visible at the bottom of the board attached to the wall of the spider-infested cellar). Once he had done his work we went to a local market and bought some fruit and veg and I bought olives marinated in mustard from a man who looked like an ancient Gaul.
Seen in Rennes, the capital of Brittany on Friday 29 July. The – to Anglo-Saxon eyes – unfortunately named gentleman after whom this street is called was a mayor of the city. I trust it is not also a comment on his administrative style. Oh dear, that really was a cheap shot...
On Saturday 30 July we walked the 12 kilometres around le Lac au Duc, one of the largest freshwater lakes in France, which lies just to the north west of Ploërmel. It was a brilliantly sunny day, but most of the path was mercifully in shade and beautifully wooded. Thanks (but no thanks) to the lack of a signpost at the crucial point, we went a bit astray at the mid-point of our journey, but this photo shows the point at which we finally identified the way south and back to our starting point. It made me think of the journey my family and I have been on since my diagnosis nearly a year ago and I liked the sure footing given by the wooden boards raised over the terrain, which was marshy at this point.
Much of Sunday 31 July was spent reading the garden. In the right of the shot is a pale English knee.
The lovely estuary at la Roche Bernard on the south coast of Brittany, where we on Monday 1 August we enjoyed a lunch of galettes de blé noir, Breton buckwheat pancakes with savoury fillings (washed down with a modest dose of local cider). The expectant lady on the right is having her picture taken.
Tuesday 2 August saw us cycling by the side of the Nantes-to-Brest Canal (part of Napoleon's legacy). Our destination was...
…Josselin, where this castle rises up on the bank of the canal. Here we had a picnic lunch of left-over chicken and couscous before wandering through the medieval streets of the town.
Part of La Gacilly, permanent home to the Yves Rocher perfume and toiletries business and temporary home each year to an open-air photography exhibition, whose theme this summer is forests. Some fabulous lenscraft was on display, not all of it as large as the panels visible on the side of this building. The pretty town is also home to numerous craft shops and I spent some time chatting to a man who paints miniatures on the leaves of trees, cured until they take on a texture like that of leather. Wednesday 3 August was the last sunny day before the weather broke.
Also seen in La Gacilly. Another example of what I like about the French way with trees and townscape.
The weather broke pretty comprehensively on Thursday 4 August, but the rain held off in the afternoon so that we were able to take a walk around the spectacular display of hydrangeas that adorn the south-eastern end of
le Lac au Duc.
The way the flowers on this particular plant were shading between green and blue in the momentary bright sunlight brought me to a state of brief ecstasy. It gave me hope in the continuity of life and its endless possibilities for beauty.
Back to Josselin for the last evening of our holiday on Friday 5 August. We ate some of the best steak and frites I have ever tasted, while in the square outside there was traditional music and dancing. Bagpipes, bombard (an early reed instrument, a sort if raucous oboe) and accordion accompanied dancers in a mixture of Breton costume and everyday clothes. All ages were represented in the large circle of dancers. The sense of joy and community, as well as the earthiness of the tunes – so linked to the traditional musics of our own islands – always move me to the core.
Rushing through Normandy on the way to the return boat from Cherbourg on Saturday 6 August, we happened upon this quick and easy solution to our hunger and need for a loo. Yes, I know, how could we? Also, red meat twice in two days is against current dietary guidelines, but at least the buns were wholemeal...

When my brother and I were considerably younger than we are now, our doctor father worked for a time at Hillingdon Hospital in West London. There was in the ground of the hospital a pleasantly secluded garden where we could enjoy fresh air and play ball games. Arriving there one Saturday, Dad broke with tradition by parking outside the main entrance and turning to my brother and me as we sat eagerly in the back seat of the car and announcing with his usual kind, but on this occasion somewhat mischievous, smile: "pricknicks before picnics". It took only a short while for the penny to drop and for my brother and I to understand that there was to be no fun until we had received injections for whatever we needed jabs for at that particular stage in our tender lives. Nice one, Dad. It took us quite a while to forgive him his loving subterfuge, although the afternoon did look up considerably once the medical necessities had been dealt with.

Little did I know then what a part needles would come to play in my life several decades later. No more picnics for me for a while: not until the next needlefest is over. Soon I will learn whether the blood taken from my arm some hours ago is of a suitable quality for me to present myself at UCLH for high-dose chemo tomorrow. I will let you know, whenever possible, how things are going. In the meantime, the memories of golden evenings and birdsong in Brittany remain strong and hold a healing power.

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