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My first time 😉 in France 🇫🇷 by Di Phillips

Cast your mind back to 1966, yes, I know it’s a long long time ago BUT it was the year I ventured to France for the very first time. Everyone remembers their first time., don’t they ? lol

At grammar school during our French lessons we had been linked with French students in France to help improve our language skills. At this stage I was the 'proud' possessor of at least a dozen words, the idea of a pen pal was that we would write to each other and thus improve our skills. (For those under the age of 30 letters are how we used to communicate with each other).

I digress, my pen pal was called Jacqueline and lived in Riom in the Puy de Domme region, near Clermont Ferrard. Over the coming months we exchanged photos and letters and eventually it was decided we would visit each other during the summer holidays. Jacqueline had a brother called Remy and her parents were a teacher and a tobacco factory manager. (Times were very different ) I was to visit them at their holiday home by the sea, in Vendee, called Bretignolles sur Mer.

I had never been abroad alone before so this was a huge adventure, previous holidays had been to Wales, Bournemouth , even the Netherlands but never alone. Can you begin to imagine how anxious I was, let alone my parents ? Anyway with my bags packed and my passport in hand, my parents left me at Heathrow as an 'unaccompanied minor' for my first flight to Paris. I can remember the stewardess going round the cabin offering sweets for us to suck before and during take off, I told you it was a long time ago 😉

We landed on time and the stewardess handed me over to this little French lady whose English was on par with my French (negligible) but between us we managed to collect my luggage (to be honest we had left the airport before I remembered it !) and found our way to the station. The trains seemed so huge, higher off the ground than the ones I was used to, up we clambered aboard and found our seats. I was unaware how long the journey would be and had refused any refreshments, a big mistake as the train took several hours to reach Nantes.

It was dark by the time the train pulled into the station and my anxiety was through the roof, the journey had been awkward, lots of hand signals and and frequent use of my French/English dictionary. What would Jacqueline and her family be like, would we have anything in common, what had I done ? lol. There waiting on the platform were my new family, lots of hugs and plenty of kisses were exchanged, and we squeezed into their little Renault for the journey to Bretignolles sur Mer. Their holiday home seemed very basic when we eventually arrived, no comfy sofas, my bed was narrow and squeaked quite a bit , and the bathroom facilities were basic to say the least.

That first meal en famille consisted of cold meats and salad, covered in an oily dressing which I had never seen before, no Heinz salad cream , how would I manage ? But manage I did, the bread or baguette as I learned to call it was crusty and fresh, the salad was the freshest I had ever tasted, the tomatoes were huge but so juicy and delicious. I was in heaven, although some salad cream would have been nice 😊

I slept like a log and only woke when the shutters were flung open, they squeaked and the sunshine lit up the room. Jacqueline was awake and she took me into the kitchen for breakfast. Freshly squeezed juice, warm croissants, butter,jam and bowls of hot chocolate were on the table. The holiday had properly begun now. Remy was dipping his croissants into his bowl of hot chocolate, I decided to give it a try, and it’s delicious 😋. Not sure I would do it nowadays as I am more grown up but perhaps a sneaky dip when no one’s looking 👀

After breakfast Jacqueline took me for a walk to the beach, and to the little village where there were a few shops, a boulangerie, a pattiserie, a charcuterie and a tabac. The walk took us along the coast, the sand stretched for miles and was virtually empty, there were huge rocks which the sea crashed against hurling spray up into the air. The sun shone every day !

Most days were spent on the beach, or cycling around the areas exploring. I was a little homesick and one day we drove to a slightly bigger village where the bureau de poste had a telephone which I used to call home, it was good to chat to my parents and to put their minds at ease about my travels. (No mobile phones back then )

All too soon my two weeks had flown past and this time Jacqueline was coming to London with me, her mum took us both to Paris on the train and we stayed in an hotel for a couple of days so we could see the sights. Jacqueline’s grandfather had helped with the gardens near the Eiffel Tower, we didn’t go up but we walked beneath it. We visited the Sacre Coeur and Notre Dame, and even went on a bateau mouche trip along the Seine. Sadly I haven’t been able to find the photos I took, too many house moves have lost them, but I have got this picture , guess which one I am, yes the one with the ginormous sun hat !

It was the start of a friendship which lasted until we were 18 and then we lost touch, I often wonder what Jacqueline did in later life.

It was also the beginning of my love affair with France, and now we take our grandchildren with us and they have caught the ‘bug' !

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