You know when music can immediately zip you back to an exact moment in time – or can conjure up a feeling, period in your life or milestone in the first few bars?
This album by French chanteur, Christophe Maé is already going to be exactly that for me, this summer. It’s pop-y and beaty and catchy (yes it’s in French and I only understand 30% of what he’s singing, but it’s still catchy – okay?). Christophe Maé’s voice is Gauloise-smokingly gravelly (ding-dong) and the acoustic versions are dreamy. I appreciate Christophe is an award-winning, HUGELY famous singer in France but hey, he’s a discovery to me, okay?
Erm, I don’t know, how do you review music? I heard one of his tracks on the radio (I love listening to French radio, it’s like non-stop Eurovision) and immediately googled it as I couldn’t get the chorus out my head all day, then hey presto, I bought the album. That’s a pretty ringing endorsement, right?
Reliving my childhood summers in France – renovating a manoir, writing and wrangling two under 5s
As a child, the day school broke up we would load up our 80s Volvo and head for the ferry ports. Hopping across ‘La Manche’ and down through France for summer in the Dordogne region – spending two months swimming in rivers, drinking watered down wine, gorging on soft fruits from the street markets and falling asleep to the sound of crickets… We would return on the eve of the autumn term, brown as berries with sun-bleached hair, freckly noses and a serious injection of vitamin D to see us through the winter. All my favourite childhood memories are wrapped up in those hazy, sun-drenched summer days and guess what?
Fast forward 30 years and yup, I’m in France. For a whole 8 weeks, by myself with the two boys (4 and 10 months). Gulp.
As a family, we bought this beauty last year as a place for the whole clan to convene for summers, en masse. The OH has had to stay in the UK for work so I am here principly to oversee the builders (as the only French speaker) and to forward plan the next phase of internal major works for winter.
Since buying the house we have been flitting back and forward, frantically slapping paint on the walls and trying to get the main rooms we use most frequently habitable and furnished. The house was far from derelict when we moved in – the double glazing had been done, central heating, wood burners, kitchen, bathroom etc – but there is still a mind-boggling ‘to do list’ to make this 3,000sqm behemoth the dream family home we know it can be.
With two under 5s in tow I’m not denting the ‘to do list’ at the rate I’d like, but as I finish projects I will post some before/afters and do a bit of a house and garden tour – everyone loves a nose round other people’s houses don’t they?!
The boys are astonishingly good at cracking on and entertaining themselves. The 4yo is train mad and has brought his whole set with him, so can be left engrossed for hours in fantasy worlds of landslides, derailments and cargo deliveries. The 10 month old just wants to be near me. Preferably clinging to my leg at all times, which makes painting and decorating a tad tricky, but it’s amazing how distracting a set of Tupperware and a noisy, flashing toy can be.
Throw into the mix a few writing projects I’ve taken on and it all feels a bit like patting your head and rubbing your tummy at the same time!
That said, I am ensuring that it’s not all work, work, work (or is that werk, werk, werk?) and the 4yo and I sneak off to the newly finished pool every lunchtime while the baby sleeps to splosh about for a couple of hours.
As all our initial budget has evaporated, with only a quarter of the rooms furnished, I am having to get pretty creative to make any progress with the remaining portion of the house. I’ve been trawling local junk shops, antiques markets and charity shops and found some incredible pieces – again, expect various posts over the summer charting my French interiors finds.
It’s been 35 degrees and rising this week, which has been amazing – if not a little soporific! Mowing the 2 acres of lawns and orchards was a serious task with my little petrol push along mower!
We are heading to the beach at the weekend (we are approx. 90 mins from the Atlantic coast around Royan/La Rochelle) with friends and our steady stream of visitors (aka free labour) start arriving next week.
Until then, I hope you’re enjoying your summer! If you want more snaps from our French vacances you can follow me on Twitter for daily updates (@countryfille).
This new cookbook from Leon has seriously upped my salad game in time for summer in France
Is anyone else completely uninspired by the prospect of ‘salad’ this summer? We arrived in France on Sunday and on a whim I grabbed this new book from Leon in Waitrose before I left, in the hope that it may be my salvation over the next two months and help steer me out of the cheese aisle.
I have no excuse not to eat well here, our nearest market town has the most incredible bi-weekly street market – yes there are cheese and cured meats aplenty to indulge in but also tons of fresh, local fruit and veg – 101 different types of lettuce leaves and tomatoes (why do European tomatoes taste SOOOOO good?!)… but what else do I need for a killer salad? I can make a mean Niçoise and a half-decent Caesar, but that’s about it.
I’m only 4-5 recipes in but it has been a total game-changer. And a bit of a ‘duh’ moment. It’s full of really simple ‘why didn’t I think of that?’ combos. I really like that I can find all of the ingredients easily and inexpensively at the supermarket (capers, gherkins, avocados, sun-dried tomatoes, herbs, oils, vinegars etc), and lots of them double up. There’s nothing worse then having to buy a dozen ingredients that you only use a teaspoon’s worth off before letting them fester on the top-shelf of the fridge for all eternity.
My winner so far is the ‘chargrilled chicken and chorizo club classic’ a meaty, garlicky, finger-lickin’ salad. It was so good I FaceTimed my husband back in the UK to share the a-mazingness. I’m good like that.
Plenty of veggie, fish and meat options – all divided into ‘Classics, Naturally Fast (great for speedy lunches), Lunchbox (ditto picnics), Food for Friends, Food for Family – then a great section at the back for ‘crunchy things’ (who doesn’t love a crouton?!) and dressings.
It’s just a fab little book. If you need some oomph for your summer lunches, or ideas to pimp your BBQs, look no further. It’s rare that I find a cookbook where I know it is going to be my ‘go-to’ foodie inspiration week after week – this summer, this is it.
After travelling a dozen times to France in the last 18 months, plus last week’s jaunt to Italy and various UK staycations with the 4yo and 10mo in tow, I feel pretty qualified to impart my top bits of kit for travel with under 5s. For what it’s worth. None of these are sponsored and we own and love them all:
Snooze shade £24.99, www.snoozeshade.comThe 10mo is a stickler for routine, he likes his daytime naps and on holiday when it’s impractical to keep nipping back to our base so he can nap in his cot, this is a godsend. It keeps him shaded from the sun/wind/rain and gets things nice and dark. It’s universal and pops over pretty much any buggy. Imagine a sheet over a parrot’s cage. It’s a bit like that.
Travel blackout blind, GroAnywhere, £24.99, www.gro-store.com The only stipulation my two have for a good night’s sleep is a room that’s darker than Lord Voldermort’s soul. It literally has to be ‘can’t see your hand in front of your face’ black. Which is fine at home with their industrial strength black-out blinds, not so easy in European high summer where it doesn’t get dark till 10pm. This travel black-out blind folds down to nothing and converts any window into a blackhole. Literally not a chink of light. Genius.
This was a last minute purchase for Italy last week, how did I live without it?! It come in a teeny weeny bag that pops into my handbag or under the buggy and unfurls to reveal a slightly complicated to get your head around, yet non-the-less brilliant chair harness that converts pretty much ANY chair into a safe highchair for babies 6-30months. Just watch the assembly video before you go.
We did the 15-hour journey to France when our youngest was 5-weeks. And have been doing it every 6 weeks since. I know. We must really love our new house. Recommendations are that babies under 6 months don’t sit all hunched up in their car seats for long journeys. Their spine doth protest. This lay-flat car seat from Britax is FAB. I was sceptical as self-titled ‘Captain Safety-Conscious’, but once fitted it is literally super-glued to the back seat and they have a three-point safety harness inside. It’s not compatiable in all cars and takes up pretty much all the back seat, but he was so snug and comfy and it clipped straight onto our Britax B-Agile 3 buggy base too, so we could whip him in and out the car with ease. Best bit of kit we’ve invested in so far. Our offspring are vertically challenged (seriously, on the 2nd percentile), but longer babies might not fit in this for the full 6 months. He was touching the bottom by 4. EDIT: Shit, I’ve just seen this item has been ‘retired’ by Britax. It’s still available from other online retailers, SNAP ONE UP WHILE YOU STILL CAN!
I won’t have a bad word said against this travel cot. Yes, cheaper travel cots are available, but I defy you to find one with a comfier, thicker mattress, nor one you can set up one-handed while holding a sleeping baby. I rest my case. This still looks like new and our 4yo slept in it almost weekly till he was 2.5yo. It’s roomy, but folds into a neat travel case that wears a mere 6kg. That’s less than my cat. For us it doubles as a playpen during the day on hols and you can unzip it all from the sturdy steel frame when they projectile vomit at 2am. Bonus.
Agree? Disagree? Let me know your tried and tested travel essentials!
Sometimes the simplest laid plans turn out to be the most stressful don’t they? In the midst of end of term mayhem, organising our 2-month trip to France for the next phase of Chateau renovations and a teething 10 month old, we decided to just nip to Naples for a brief weekend to eat pizza, look at volcanoes and hang out with the OH’s family. No biggie.
Only Easyjet had other plans.
Our first attempt ended in an 8-hour stand-off at Bristol airport, an overtired baby and a gutted 4yo. So back home we came, disappointed but not defeated. Some diary-wrangling and a week later we were soaring through the skies, Napoli bound. This time minus the OH (god love self-employment), but with pizza firmly in our sights…
We were staying with family in a gorgeous converted Palazzo in the centre of Naples and arrived (late again) at the stroke of midnight, to 30 degree heat and a baptism of fire for the 4yo. I forget what a total country bumpkin he is and how mind-blowing a city like Naples is for the uninitiated. It was hot, noisy and beguiling. His little nose was pressed against the taxi window drinking in the cobbled alleys, moped horns and asking in a tiny voice ‘why are all these people not asleep?’
We awoke next morning a little travel-weary but determined to explore. With no set plans and the mercury hovering around 32 degrees by mid-morning we aimed low and settled for a day down by the water at the castello, eating fennel sausage pizza, looking for the fabled crocodiles in the moat and taking the train-obsessed 4yo on his first tube ride… to a station named after him. Mind. Blown.
Toledo station routinely tops the list of ‘world’s most impressive metro stations’ – it’s like an underwater cave/gallactic mash-up, crammed full of artwork.
In the decade I’ve been with my Italian OH I’ve been to Naples and the Amalfi Coast countless times (you can read my pre-children full city guide to Naples here), but this was my first with kids and I hadn’t appreciated what a child-friendly city it is. The underground was a breeze with the buggy, clean and with lift access at every station. The 10mo was not such a great fan of the noisy, jolting journeys but we found our fellow commuters more than willing to play, sing and cajol him into a smile. It’s a cliché but Italians really do adore babies. We saw photos of beloved grandchildren proudly whipped out of wallets and a great deal of doe-y eyed smiles and cooing in shops, queues and restaurants – our sons have particularly Neapolitan names, which went down a storm with their new found fans.
Eating out is a breeze; pizza and pasta are the staple diet of most under 5s (ours more than most) and the waiters entertained our two without the blink of an eye, even medicating the grouchy teething 10mo with some lemon granita for his gums.
Day 2 was spent shopping on Via Roma for a/ sfogliatelli for moi (my all-time favourite Neapolitan pastry) and b/ the 4yo’s first Swatch watch. Such a Euro kid tradition that the OH and I remember well. We finished the day travelling up to the hills overlooking Naples on the finicular railway to the Vomero. Quieter, wider pavements and cooler. A good shout when Naples reaches boiling point.
If we’d had longer I’d have loved to take them for a boat ride to Ischia, or perhaps when they’re older out to Pompeii, or for a peer into the crate of Vesuvio… next time, we’ll be back – my love affair with Naples has just begun a new chapter.
Tomorrow: My Top 5 bits of travel kit for travelling with under 5s.
So, we’re off back over the channel to France this week to meet the builders and get some more renovation plans scheduled for the summer (namely some more bathrooms, the house currently has an 11 bedroom: 1 bathroom ratio!). We are flitting back and forward every six weeks at the moment, which means we are become quite adept at 15-hour journeys with a new baby and a fidgety 4-year old.
Whilst my friends think I am nuts, this will be our 12th trip in 18 months, and my second solo one with the boys, so we have pretty much got the schedule down pat. It’s an early start (5.30am), but we are tucked up in our French beds by 9pm.
Which isn’t much of a hardship when we wake up to this:
The four-year old is hardened to it now, he’s been making the trek since he was 2. The excitement of being at the docks and then on the ferry still doesn’t grow old (the cranes! the smell of diesel! cargo!).Neither does the 12-hour window when all good parenting skills go out the window and he gets to play on the iPad for hours and eat more chocolate than he does in a month. Here he is at a pit-stop 10 hours in, slightly crazed on Mikados.
So, what are my top tips for travelling long distances with under 5s?
Make life easy
Travelling with small people is exhausting for all concerned, so if it makes life that little bit easier to spend an extra £5 on a closer car park to the airport, to get the ready-made formula or say yes to ANOTHER ice cream – do it. You won’t ruin them, my mantra is ‘when in transit, all parenting bets are off’.
2. Plan, plan, plan
I am pretty confident that with a bit of forward planning I can pre-empt most scenarios on the journey now after a dozen trips. Before we leave I ensure we have plenty of blankets, water, snacks, batteries, toys, WIPES, a thermos of hot water (I had to give the 7mo a strip wash in a layby after a rather explosive bowel movement once), Calpol, first aid kit, audio books (hands down the best thing for car travel), spare clothing for everyone and chargers. Although I know the route in my sleep, we have often had to be diverted, or I simply want to know our ETA, so I use the Waze app to track our journey. I also have a travel wallet by my side that contains all our documents, passports, health cards etc, plus bank cards for tolls, spare Euros and driving licenses for when I get stopped for speeding. Ahem.
3. Make the journey fun
It might sound simple, but from the moment you close your front door, you are on holiday. Once I got into this mind-set, rather than having to ‘endure’ the journey to our destination, it made things easier. If you’re children are old enough, make the journey an adventure. We play stupid car games, discuss the sights we see from the car window, have frequently stops for a swing at the playpark or ice cream and sing, LOUDLY. Yes it makes the overall journey that little bit longer, but if we’re going to be stuck in a small metal box, hurtling down the motorway together for 15 hours, we might as well make it fun.
4. Pack light
Unless you are going to outer Mongolia, pack light. Ironically, having two small children has made me a much more efficient and frugal packer. Especially if you are travelling to the developed world, you can buy nappies anywhere people. Ditto wipes, toiletries, even a few cheap clothes. Obviously specific things like formula or medicines will need packing, but we now only take minimal clothes for the boys and do a big supermarket shop the day after we get there for the rest. I am also unabashed about siding up to another French mum in the supermarket and asking her advice on the best brands. I’m sure they think I’m nuts, but it’s great to get some insider advice when faced with a wall of jarred baby food.
5. Finally, aim low
I was a travel writer in a previous life, flitting off to the most incredible destinations as part of my day job. I remember fondly the days when I used to relax with a glass of fizz, waiting to be called for my flight, then don my eye mask and get in a good solid sleep on board…. Once you’re a parent you need to aim A LOT lower. As long as you don’t lose anyone, you avert most major tantrums and everyone remains on speaking terms you’ve won, and you’re on holiday!
If anyone is travelling to France this summer and wants any specific tips/advice then just ask!
I’m off this afternoon to get my hair done for the first time in forever. Only mums will truly appreciate what a ‘fist pump’ moment this is. 2 WHOLE hours without someone attached to my boob, wiping anyone’s bum or being asked 1829 questions about volcanoes and pyraclastic flow.
My hair is just coming out of that new mum funk; it fell out in clumps after having my second and no amount of backcombing would give it any oomph. I now have that downy, fluffy regrowth and thanks to the amazing John Frieda volume range, a bit more swish going on.
So, here’s the image I’m taking with me to show my stylist.
Okay, so there is pretty much nothing I don’t want in this pic. The brows, bee-stung lips, that coat’s quite nice too…. but let’s just focus on the hair – the perfect mum cut.
I love the darker roots and lighter whispers around the face, like a good instagram filter it surrounds you with a warming halo, so even if your skin is dog-tired, your hair gives it that back-lit glow. The blunt cut is great if like me you need to add the appearance of volume back to new-mum hair and having a heavy fringe helps me look like I’ve got some semblance of style, even if my hair is 90% dry shampoo and it’s 8am on the school run. See? The perfect mum hair.
Before then, I’ve got a bathroom to paint and to start packing for our France trip next week… just me, the boys and a 15-hour journey. Gulp.
Breastfeeding – is there a more divisive parenting topic?!
Well, here goes. I’m nailing my colours to the mast. I love breastfeeding. Hands down my favourite thing about motherhood thus far.
Why? Because after two really hard labours ending in emergency c-sections (and a lot of tears), it helped me bond with my boys. It gave us that time together, just us, like a secret exclusive club, be it at 2am snuggled up in bed, or curled up on the sofa watching Friends re-runs. Whilst giving birth was obviously something I wasn’t so great at, this was something I COULD do. Others could help out with the nappy changes, winding and settling but feeding was MY role, it defined me as their mum.
But it wasn’t all rosy, milky joy however, don’t worry reader. Whilst most breastfeeding advocates will tell you breezily it’s ‘so easy/cheap/practical!’, I will beg to differ. It is bloody hard work; it’s a serious skill to master for both mother and baby (it took my eldest 5 days to successfully latch) and it takes serious determination to keep going, through growth spurts, teething, sore nipples and the big M, mastitis. In fact, in some ways, bottle feeding is infinitely easier. The onus isn’t entirely on you and your body which, after labour has quite frankly gone through enough trauma. But I say to all new mums that ask my bfing advice – if you can, stick with it, just to the month-mark. That maybe enough for you and your baby, but chances are your supply will have sorted itself out, you’ll have got over the 3-week growth spurt, aka the 24-hour feedathon, your baby will be a much more efficient feeder and you’ll be FLYING.
I could also bore you with the latest health stats on why it’s the bees-knees for their immune system and future health but I won’t. As much as I adore breastfeeding, I’m no sadist. I stuck at it because I loved it, not out of some feeling of duty or guilt. If it hadn’t worked for us I would have happily switched to bottles, in fact my husband has given both boys a bottle of formula at around 11pm each night to allow me to rest. I know, shock horror. Yet funnily enough all the scaremongering stories have yet to materialise. It didn’t give them breast:bottle confusion as every midwife swore it would, my milk supply didn’t dwindle and it kept me sane. Win-win.
So, the purpose of this long, rambling post is my current predicament: when to wean? Both boys were given solids from around six-months, whereas my eldest soon became supremely disinterested in the boob, favouring cottage pie and yoghurt over my own Gold Top, I am currently still nursing the 8mo every 4 hours or so. He eats well, sleeps 12 hours at night with just one feed, yet still breast feeds with such enthusiasm I can’t see him weaning any time soon. I’m in no rush, and I’m very fortunate that I can work from home around his feeds, so I figured I’d just leave it to happen naturally.
But in the last two months I’ve noticed my continued feeding has garnered some startling questions: ‘Isn’t he eating food by now?’, ‘Isn’t he too old to be doing that?’, ‘Haven’t you done that for long enough now?’, ‘he’s got teeth!!!!!’… yup. If you thought there wasn’t enough breastfeeding support for new mums, I can attest there is even less for extended breastfeeding… I can safely say I won’t be picking him up from school and shoving my boob in his gob, I figure as he gets more independent and active he will gradually become less bothered about it, but I’d love to hear from other bfing mums as to when they weaned? Did you experience any post-weaning depression? Do you feel it was the right length of time for you and your baby? Let me know!