I am part of a Facebook group called We Love Memoirs (WLM). It comprises more than 2,000 authors and readers who share a common love of memoirs. One of the US members recently planned a trip to Europe to meet several other WLM friends, her last port of call being our corner of France. One of the reasons for this was because of Brutus, our ex-feral and moderately portly cat. She had followed his feline activities on my timeline, and specifically wanted 'bonding' time with him. Given his timidity I was doubtful that he would allow this to happen, but went along with it anyway.
We live in the middle of nowhere so she also assured me that she saw this as a period for "unwinding". However, for various reasons, it didn't quite turn out that way. Nancy McBride, artist and memoir-lover was with us for nearly a week, and it’s not one that any of us are likely to forget for a long while.
It all began at Toulouse airport. Max, one of our Australian Shepherd dogs, and I met Nancy and rushed home to see if I could persuade our shy moggy to say hello. Not a bit of it I'm afraid, but his sharp exit was amply compensated for by Aby (the other Aussie) who was so ecstatically happy at seeing such a lovely lady that she promptly had a wee on her toes. Not everyone's idea of a welcome, but Nancy took it in wonderfully good spirits, describing our mutts as being "wound up like lovely furry springs".
The first full day involved a walk along the banks of the Garonne River with our French friends. It wasn’t quite as tranquil as it might have been because most of my time was spent bellowing at the dogs to “leave those swans alone,” and Nancy filled the rest of the available sound waves loudly learning several new French words. In spite of the apparent language barrier she managed brilliantly well, and where the French word could not be found, she compensated with dramatic hand movements and use of available props. This mostly worked. However, judging by the quizzical expressions on our friends' faces, I’m still not convinced they fully understood that the energetic grabbing and flapping of Max’s ear was meant to be a sail. Come to think of it, I’m not sure that Max appreciated the significance of it either – but they nodded enthusiastically anyway.
By the end of our two hour circuit Nancy declared that she was now practically fluent in the language, and starving hungry. The latter at least I could agree with. We decided to have lunch at our favourite restaurant, which turned out to be super quality as usual. Each dish was decorated with flowers, and served with a smile. Our new American friend was in heaven and so were we. All very pleasant and tame at this stage, but that would very soon change.
With lunch over it was time to give Hunter a bath. He is an ancient dog we found a year ago lying abandoned in the middle of the road. He may have more maladies than are contained in the average veterinary manual, but he still potters around happily enough. His current illnesses include a disease called Cushings. This is the overproduction of the hormone cortisol by the adrenal glands that are located in the belly, near the kidneys. Some of the common signs include fur loss and excessive drinking. He displays classic symptoms of both. The poor lad drinks more than the French national rugby team, and has large bare patches on his body where his hair has dropped out. The vet has given us several eye-wateringly expensive products to combat this awful illness, some of which need to be applied during his bi-weekly bath. Nancy kindly humoured me when I explained that he needed to have his treatment. She watched on, cooing happily at the old boy as I cleaned out his ears with antiseptic lotion and then bathed him with a special shampoo for damaged skin. He usually ends up smelling a little like a chemist’s store, but it’s an effective way of keeping his problems at bay. After that we prepared for our next planned event, the tour of our domaine. However, what happened next was decidedly unplanned.
The recent spate of thunderstorms had taken their toll on our forest tracks so Jack drove us all, taking things very easy. We trundled up tracks and down trails stopping every now and again to take photos of storm damaged bridges, fallen trees, and to admire the greenest of meadows. It was a fun afternoon. Finally we turned for home and Jack took us along a stony track that leads back to our house. As we were pottering along, without any warning at all, the track suddenly subsided under the weight of the vehicle and collapsed into the field three feet below. Now I know that Nancy is game for an adventure, but being front seat passenger of a rolling vehicle probably doesn't quite fit her definition. When the car finally came to rest there was dead silence. Not a word or whine uttered from any of us.
I was in the back, the dogs in the boot, and Jack and Nancy were in the front. Realising that I was pretty much fine, I turned my head to find the dogs' faces about ten centimetres from my nose, peering at me owlishly. They too were unscathed. Then, thank heavens, Jack and Nancy spoke. With no obvious injuries to report, everyone except for Nancy was able to exit the vehicle. Her legs were stuck fast behind the steering wheel causing her to be curled up in a foetal position. It took both Jack and I to remove the offending item, but we finally managed it and Nancy was able to clamber out of the vehicle. That definitely deserved a hug!
We were just working out how we were going to get home when our attentions were drawn to the sound of a tractor. A couple of farmers had seen the accident from the road and had come to rescue us. After a bit of a struggle, the men collectively righted the car, and it was towed back. I was bunged in the back of a hunter’s van with the dogs, and Nancy was ceremoniously led to the front seat, whereupon she began to practise her new-found vocabulary on her latest French friend. What a trooper!
In spite of their obvious shyness, we persuaded our rescuers to have a 'merci beaucoup' drink with us and we later sat around the garden table sipping an impromptu aperitif. Thank goodness for the reviving properties of beer, Pimm's and medication. With our eventful day drawing to a close, as a team we decided that this was enough of the unplanned stuff – which, looking back on it now, we nearly achieved. Oh, and did Brutus come out to check on us and say 'Hi' to Nancy? Hah! Of course not!
The next day was another scorcher which would have been perfect for the drinks party I had organised in honour of Nancy’s visit. However, after the previous day's misadventure, I wasn't at all sure that she'd want to go ahead. How wrong I was. She was determined to meet as many of our friends as she could, so we spent the morning creaking stiffly around a supermarket buying provisions which we later used to build our canapés.
With our soirée in mind, as a damage-limitation exercise, I decided to take our over-zealous dogs for a pre-party afternoon swim to tire them out. Re-fuelled with ibuprofen, once again Nancy rose to the challenge, and we staggered off to the lake. I'm relieved to report that on this occasion she chose not to indulge her professed love of aquaerobics. A dip in the water might not have been a sure winner for her on that day. Instead she took photos of our hyperactive dogs providing their own canine versions.
Our soirée went very well and it gave Nancy the perfect opportunity to teach our French neighbours how to speak American. This was achieved with great flair and enthusiasm, and generated yet more invitations for her to return to France soon. But there was notable absence to the proceedings. Where on earth was Brutus?
We may have been out of the woods, but the potential for danger wasn't over yet. The weekend brought the 'Feux de St. Jean' celebration which was held in our local village. This is the feast of St. John the Baptist. It was traditionally accompanied by bonfires, and broadly coincides with the summer solstice – originally celebrated with pagan festivals. Therefore, as you might imagine, my husband was a little reticent about going just in case we inadvertently exposed Nancy to a known danger such as being scorched by a flying ember, or accidentally set alight by an over-excited reveller. However the potential danger came from another quarter altogether.
Most attendees are given a job to do and ours was to collect meadow flowers for the trestle tables. I knew the exact spot to find some specimens and was driving us down some windy country lanes when a very important-looking motorcycle came around the corner with lights flashing and driver waving angrily at us. We were forced to stop. The gentleman told me that we were on the racetrack for a cycle race and that within MOMENTS the riders would be whizzing around the corner at 60kph using all of the road. He told us that we should have been stopped way back down the road. We weren't, but we had remarked at the young man we’d passed earlier who was holding a small red 'stop' hand-signal the size of a lollipop. He had been chatting to a pretty young girl – his mind clearly on other things. We were now facing a blind corner.
Nancy and I pondered our predicament and waited for a little while. Sure enough about six cyclists whirred past us, then nothing. Taking our hearts into our hands we crept forward and could see our destination ahead. Phew! We were safe. We gathered our foliage to the sound of bicycle tyres and French swear words and we followed the peloton, at a safe distance, back to the village hall. Our mission complete, and mercifully unharmed by flailing cyclists we rushed home to shower and change, and join the party.
The whole evening went superbly well and Nancy, becoming more Americo-French by the minute, made even more friends. After enjoying a sumptuous feast the bonfires were lit and us bon vivants held hands to begin a pagan dance around the sorcerer which was ablaze on the main beacon. This was a period of great tension for Jack and I, but fortunately we managed to keep Nancy a sensible distance from the flames.
Eventually our flamboyant evening came to an end, and as we were leaving Nancy spotted an elderly couple, ancient of days, painfully making their ways back home to their cottage. She was so inspired by the romance of these people that she produced a beautiful piece of artwork the next day – and here it is along with several other photos that she took during her stay in France.
Nancy’s final day had come. And although it was her last, she decided to join me in taking Hunter to the vet. She wanted to experience routine life as we lead it here, and regular visits to the vet are certainly an integral part.
We know that our poor old dog is reaching the end of his life now, so we are doing everything we can to make sure that his twilight months are as happy as possible. This means lots of vet visits and tests, and changes of medicines. As any animal lover understands, it's a difficult time. The tests would take all morning, so I took Nancy on a short local sight-seeing tour. Jack knew about my plan and, for obvious reasons, gave me a stern lecture about keeping her well away from the cliff edge, and nowhere near the edge of the canal. Fortunately there were no mishaps.
We returned to collect Hunter and while we waited for the test results I was happy to observe that Nancy had found a new friend. It was at this point that I feared her encounter might end up as being the closest she would get to cuddling a cat in France. As it turns out, I was right.
In spite of the heat Nancy was keen to make the most of her last afternoon. We spent it strolling around a favourite local mini-towns of ours, one that is noted for its ‘belle’ plants and architecture. Dating back to Roman times, it is a joy to explore and very beautiful. We returned via a country route which, centuries ago, had been used by King Henry IV of France. The tree that shaded him and his entourage while they enjoyed a royal picnic on 10 July, 1579 still exits, and it clearly appealed to Nancy’s imagination. I always suspected she might be a bit of a tree-hugger and it somehow formed a fitting finale to her visit!
Nancy’s stay was over. I took her back to Toulouse airport and bade farewell to a new and fast friend. She is a person with common interests, a passion for memoirs and a brilliant zest for life. She embraced everything our little corner of France had to offer, and I think became just a little intoxicated by the uneventful, yet eventual way of life here. Thank you WLM for enabling this to happen.
Brutus, of course, had materialised and was waiting for me when I returned home from the airport. That’s cats for you!