Dingdong Holiday

Back in the Nineties, when mobile phones were the size and weight of a brick, the Internet was only accessible by nerds who called it  “Information Super Highway”, and navigation was done by using paper maps, we went on a family holiday to the Dordogne Valley in France.  Or, the “Dingdong” as our two children came to call it.

We had two little daughters aged 4 and 3 and we were keen for them to have a “close to nature” holiday where they could experience real life on a working farm.  My wife managed to find a farm in the Dordogne called “La Jasse” near the town of Doissat, which offered holidaymakers an opportunity to spend time with the farmers amongst the cows, sheep, chickens, geese, pigs, cats and dogs and consume the produce of the farm from the humble tomato to the potent farm distilled spirits.  Arrangements were made through a travel agent who gave us the farm details including the names of the owners and a local map on how to get to the actual place.

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We had a choice: either we fly and hire a car at the local airport or we drive our own car all the way from England to France.  Given the amount of “stuff” we needed to carry with us to keep two young girls amused such as books, toys, dozens of change of clothes etc., it made sense to dump half the contents of our house in the back of the car and drive all the way to our holiday destination.  Having booked the Dover to Calais ferry crossing, we were pleased with ourselves for our logical analysis and deciding to self-drive the 700+ miles.

The folly of that decision became apparent after about 30 minutes of leaving home when a little voice from the back seat rang out with the immortal words of “Are we there yet?”.  This question was to be repeated a couple of hundred times before we arrived at our destination.

It was during that trip that I worked out why airlines constantly ply you with drinks, food, wet towels, duty free goods, magazines, inflight entertainment, etc.  They lie to us and call it “value added service”; complete nonsense!  They do it at calculated intervals to stop us from mounting a revolt against being strapped to our seats in a metal tube in mid air completely under the mercy of anonymous pilots and the freakiness of nature.  Instinctively, this is what we tried to do with the children, we played them songs from Jungle Book and Dumbo, and we provided colouring books, toys, sandwiches, sweets and drinks.  The music drove us to the edge of madness, the sweets made them hyperactive and the drinks required frequent pit stops; not a clever tactic since unlike planes, cars don’t have toilets on board!

The actual ferry crossing came as a blessed relief because we had to get out of the car and wander round the ship so the girls had a chance to run around and restore their good mood.  But, up to that point, the trip was a little less than a third of the way to our destination so, we were not looking forward to the French part of the drive, not least due to the fact that we would be driving a right-hand drive car on French roads designed to advantage left-hand drivers.  Undaunted, we left Calais around midnight and began the drive on French roads heading south.  Having left home some 6 hours earlier, the girls thankfully slept for a couple of hours until the 4-year old, sitting directly behind me woke up and projectile vomited all over her blanket and the back of my seat.  Emergency stop, to clean up child and back seat, bag dirty blanket and clothes before setting off again.  More protests about the music, the darkness, loss of crayons, lack of sweets and enquiries about whether we were there yet or not.  Dawn crept on us slowly and with every mile gained in southerly direction, the weather improved slightly so the day ahead promised to be a fine one.

We promised them to stop off at a nice French café and have a hearty French breakfast.  I began to romanticise about the soon to be had breakfast of steamy coffee served in over-sized cups with warm croissants and home made jams.

I don’t know why life does these things but it does and that’s that.  As we drove round Poitier City, it was the two little back passengers who spotted it first and they both chimed the name together as though they had rehearsed it: McDonald’s!

Me: No, no, no we are not going to Mcdonald’s for breakfast

4-Year Old: McDonald’s Mummy!

Her: I will take you to McDonald’s when we get home sweetie, I promise

3-Year Old: McDonald’s, McDonald’s McDonalds!

Me: No way! I have not come all the way to France to eat McDonald’s! I am not even sure it is legal to eat junk food in France!

4-Year Old: McDonaaaaaaaaaaaald’s!!

3-Year Old: McDonald’s, McDonald’s, McDonald’s!

Her: Darling, I think we have to stop and take them; they are driving me nuts!

Me: Darling, I have not been to McDonald’s for over 15 years and I am proud of this record; I don’t want to lose such a record just because of those two little devils in the back!

4-Year Old: McDonaaaaaaaaaaaald’s!!

3-Year Old: McDonald’s, McDonald’s, McDonald’s!

Her: Well, they will not stop screaming

Me: But we went passed it already now, it will be a nightmare to turn around on this highway

4-Year Old: McDonaaaaaaaaaaaald’s!!

3-Year Old: McDonald’s, McDonald’s, McDonald’s!

Having had my will and proud “No McDonald’s” record broken by two little human beings, I drove south with a frown the size of the Loire Valley but with two temporarily contented passengers in the back.

Before long, the dreaded “are we there yet?” was sang out in so many different tunes and my wife answered it each time in a surprisingly different way to keep the natives pacified.  A new game was accidentally invented when my wife passed wet flannels she had prepared at McDonalds and kept in a sealable plastic bag for the girls to freshen up.  The older sister wiped her face and hands and threw it back in to the adult half of the car and it landed squarely on top of my head.  Three people in the car burst out laughing and the fourth one (guess who?) kept the Loire Valley etched on his forehead.  The flannels were repeatedly recalled and now both little darlings were practicing flannel throwing at me to howls of laughter.  I may have cracked a smile once or twice, I do not rightly recall.

By midday, we reached the town of Doissat and according to my navigator wife, we were but a few miles away from the farm; the official map said so.  From this point onwards however, we had to use another map.  The other map was not the kind of map you purchase in book stores where every little detail is set out by professional cartographers of repute and excellent understanding of international notation of distances, turns, bends, highways, byways, A roads, B roads, landmarks, bridges, tunnels, elevation, inclination, and every conceivable means of aiding you to reach your destination.  No, we had a special map specifically for that part of the Dordogne supplied by the travel agent and presumably prepared for us by an illiterate idiot with a hangover and resentment towards visitors to this part of France.

The map was simplicity itself.  There were lines, blobs and scribbles next to the blobs, which were nigh on impossible to read.  Helpfully, the lines themselves had numbers on them, which looked like distances in kilometres, we presumed.  But these numbers did not help at all.  On and on, round and round we drove and we came across farms and hamlets that had names which sometimes resembled the scribbles next to the blobs but often they did not.  For three and half hours we drove and became very familiar with all the local landmarks from the bars, restaurants, shops, potteries, wineries, police station, and churches galore.  It felt like the French remake of Groundhog Day.

To make matters worse, the local drivers upon seeing a foreign car in their midst, insisted on overtaking it irrespective of their mode of transport.  We had a strong and nifty Saab 9000 and local men driving 2CV or smaller vehicles with no more than 100 cc engines were trying to overtake us on bends, up hills, down hills, on single track dirt roads, they did not care; it was their national duty to have our car behind them!

The day was drawing to an end and so was my stamina and patience.  My wife and I were irritable and tired and truth be told, so were the poor little girls at the back who were falling asleep with exhaustion.  My wife was sure the farm was on top of a hill and she knew the name of the hill from the holiday brochure.  So, we were certain we were on the right hill but we kept on going up that hill on one side and then finding ourselves going down the other side without coming across the dreaded La Jasse Farm.

As dusk descended on the hill and in the fading light, my wife spotted a sharp left turn up a very narrow dirt track and suggested we took it.  Having tried everything else, it did not seem logical to dismiss this unlikely possibility.  The road was not one we tried before and it went through very spooky tree-lined stretch then widened as it ascended up the hill, we passed one farm with dairy cows being herded inside for the night, then another farm with heavy machinery strewn everywhere and finally my wife screamed:

Her: LA JASSE!

Me: Where?

Her: We just went passed it on the left

Me: Are you sure?

Her: Yes, I am bloody sure! Go back

Me: okay, I hope you are right

I reversed the car until we came to this rusty sign with faded letters, it was just about possible to read the letters:  Ferme La Jasse

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I turned the steering wheel to the left and drove down an uneven track towards some farm buildings in the distance.  As we approached the farm gates we could see two figures approaching us followed by three dogs and we concluded they were our hosts.  Our relief was short-lived, as the two figures and three pooches loomed larger and clearer.  The man and, presumably his wife, looked rough; very rough indeed.  The dogs looked like they were ready for a spot of trouble.  There we were, in the middle of nowhere, with no means of contacting the outside world, at the mercy of two very rough and dangerous looking people who could easily murder us and God knows what they might do to our most precious possession, our children; presumably eat them!  No one would be able to trace us, or our remains; the dogs would see to it no bones would be left to aid identification.  We had to devise a Plan B and very quickly.

Me: Don’t get out of the car

Her: I don’t like the look of this

Me: shall I reverse quickly?

Her: Don’t be silly!

Me: I am not being silly; look at them! The woman looks rougher than her husband

Her: Let us try it out for one night, we are tired and hungry and the girls need a bath and proper bed for the night

Me: We will be lucky to survive one night!

The couple and their dogs came up to the car and suddenly they both broke in to a big smile and beckoned us in.  The woman said something to the man who proceeded to open the farm gates for the car to drive through.  The dogs seemed a little disappointed and stood back.  My wife insisted I drove in and told me our welcoming party seemed friendly enough so, I chose my next words very carefully as I thought they might be my final words in this life.

“Well darling, I hope you are right about this one because if you are not, I am going to blame you, and you alone, in the afterlife”.

These words seemed foolish and melodramatic then, they sound totally stupid and judgmental now.  Not only that, my words were totally misplaced because we spent the most glorious two weeks at that farm (more on this in future blogs) and our hosts, rough as they looked, were the gentlest, kindest and most hospitable couple we have ever met.  I will never forget that holiday at La Jasse and I will never forgive myself for being so wrong headed.

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