How strange it was to return to Britain after two years away – the longest I have ever been out of the country. But how lovely it was to be reunited with the family and spend the all too brief eight days, first in Kate and Steve’s house and then with Jude and Ed. And how heartwarming to be greeted with such enthusiastic affection by all four grandchildren.
In Dulwich with the Gilllies family, it was almost like having a third grandchild in the house. Bramble is a giant cross between the golden retriever and poodle. (Despite being almost black in colour I think she is therefore officially a Goldendoodle.) She dominates life in the Gillies household, not just because she needs so many seriously energetic walks but also because she is forever wandering around (usually with a shoe in her mouth), leaping or sprawling over sofas, or lying on the ground, feet in the air, waiting to be tickled and stroked. She is a lovely, affectionate dog, but there is an awful lot of her!
I enjoyed the family walks in Dulwich Park and Dulwich Woods, but I especially enjoyed time with Otto, whose passion for the guitar now competes with a desire to be a basketball champion, and Willow, who – apart from beating me at Monopoly Deal – is talented in all things sporty and artistic. (We spent a lot of time discussing how to take photos on iPads and iPhones.)
Christmas Eve I took my suitcase over to the BP household and enjoyed watching Ella and Maddie opening the largest stockings I have ever seen followed by more presents. They had a lot but I was most impressed by the way they savoured the opening of each little package rather than moving on hurriedly to the next surprise. Indeed, Ella in particular likes prolonging the pleasure and there were still some parcels under the tree when I left.
Back to the Gillies house for Christmas Day, joined also by my sister, Deborah, whom the grandchildren treat as another granny. She has shared in the childcare in both households from babyhood till covid.
While yet more presents were exchanged, Ed adjourned to prepare the Christmas lunch – just across the room, as this is a giant kitchen/dining/family space. We were all very glad that Ed, who caught Covid while working in Gibraltar and then had to isolate in the BP basement – had emerged after two negative tests just in time for Christmas. Glad for him, and for us, who once again enjoyed a magnificent lunch.
After Christmas I enjoyed chilling out with Ella now a 12-year-old teenager, excitedly preparing for the next stage in her life, and Maddie, the funny, cuddly youngest grandchild. A highlight of the stay was a visit to The Old Vic, to watch an excellent production of the Christmas Tale, from the luxury (and covid-safe space) of a box. Then on my last night we had a somewhat drunken but delightful evening, having a delicious supper with some old friends of the BPs (who have also stayed here in France).
Then yesterday morning I had an early start so that Ed could drive me to Southwark Cathedral, which now has a covid testing centre at its entrance so I could get the necessary lateral flow test for my journey. And all too soon, it was time to take an Uber to Gatwick Airport (the Eurostar train the day before had been cancelled and I decided that despite my efforts to avoid air travel, the plane was cheaper and more convenient).
The plane was perhaps less than a third full and after an uneventful trip, all passengers – not just the minority of resident Brits like me – were subjected to a long, slow processing of our documents by the douanes. Waiting in the queue I spotted a notice reminding us to have ready the equivalent of a passenger locator form. I went into a slight panic – I had two or three other forms completed, but not this one. But I was not the only one: as passengers spotted the notice, they (and I) photoed the QR code and magically this took us to the form to be filled in. Lots of people struggling with their iPhones while hanging on to luggage and toddlers! What was really annoying was that this was the one form the douanes did not ask me for. They were only really interested in my Covid Pass and Carte de Séjour.
As I was not quite sure when the last bus left Occitanie, the other side of Montpellier, for le Vigan, I splashed out on a taxi, rather than risking delays in the navette and then tram. By the time I reached the bus stop, the sun which had started setting as we were landed finally descended over the horizon. This and the warm air made me feel happy to be ‘home’.
My daughters laugh at my tendency to strike up conversations with other travellers. Yesterday was no exception, so I chatted away with a woman of about 60 with a sad life story. She is Ukrainian, and used to be an economic consultant. Then she met and married a Frenchman, came to France, divorced, and is now commuting from le Vigan to a town half way to Montpellier three times a week, to work as a cleaning lady in some business. She clearly mourns her past life but says that the Ukraine is no place to return to these days.
It is complicated living in the country. You always need someone for the last leg, from bus to home, as there are no taxis or Ubers here. Margaret was there waiting for me – heroically – as this was her second or third time behind the wheel since coming out of hospital after the dreadful broken leg. Then I was home, after ten hours of travelling door to door.