If you score fifty in cricket, one can generally expect a ripple of applause from polite English gentlemen, looking up from their warm beer. When you score fifty as a woman, the gentlemen neither applaud nor look up. Typically, they stare even deeper into their beer with a kind of mournful affection.
When I was young I thought that middle-age spread was a sandwich filling used on Saga cruises. Well, these days it’s the whole sandwich with full fat salted butter and a lifetime of lust and pleasure securely built in to my vertically challenged body. If I were still a poet I could write a true version of “The Waist-Land”. I could no longer put off the knowledge that it was time to leave the crease and take off some padding.
I am soooo lucky to spend a fair bit of my life in a small town in Charente-Maritime. No matter how I much I resist, the cunning native trap of bread, brie and brioche gets me every time. Increasingly in France, I am not alone. The old image of the chic weightless French maid has somewhat slipped south these days. Waistlines are probably the only thing growing in the French economy. Zee ‘amburgers (with or without horse meat) are very much established as part of the younger French lifestyle. However, my contemporary sisters still wave the tricolour of slim cool elegance. Agonisingly, this is apparently achieved on a diet of foie gras, fromage and the odd Cognac digestif. How can this be?
If food is the true religion of France, La Santé is the theology. One hears rumours of dirty tricks and wrinkles unknown to us Anglo-Sacks of spuds. My mission was to infiltrate behind their lines and into their kitchens to see what keeps these armies marching on their stomach free conquest. I hoped to emerge with a new Entente-Cordiale of lean cuisine. Not everything works out first time. We set out on a sortie.
Being a believer in determinism I have to accept that since my birth and the first design concepts of the cross-channel ferry “Bretagne”, I had been hurtling towards a moment of destiny. Ahead of us lay a starry night, our traditional Earth moving kiss on the deck as Angleterre slipped away to the north and a hairy Frenchman in orange overalls spraying water with a hose. As we crossed the heli-pad my leg folded under me with an agonising pop. As I lay felled by the French like Admiral Nelson at Trafalgar, I began to wonder how the crew of the rescue helicopter would be able to reach me on the treacherous gloss painted skid pan deck. I guess they carry a good supply of crutches. I knew that my trip home to France was not to be. Oscar cajoled and dragged me to the cabin and we summoned the nurse. She found the solitary ship’s ice pack which I think had been a left over from a close shave with an iceberg.
On arrival in France my leg resembled a black blue and green mottled snake that had swallowed a football. Our home lay 300 miles to the south and I could not bend my leg. We decided to keep me on ice in the cabin (they pickled Nelson in Brandy – but I did not think that Brittany Ferries would supply a barrel) and go back to the UK where we live a few minutes from the port. As a Brit I can get medical attention in the UK without complication and a long stay in a hospital miles from any home lacked appeal.
If you really want to feel insecure – plonk yourself in a wheelchair as a captive patient. The following afternoon as we approached the shores of Britain, my partner Oscar decided to take me out for a spin. Watching paralympic sport on TV had obviously inspired him into some kinda wheelchair sprint fantasy accompanied by Formula One racing car noises. He’ll make someone a lovely husband when he grows up. He does the same tricks with supermarket trolleys. You do realise just how tough it is for folks in wheelchairs. All manner of lumps and gulleys become hazards. With my leg straight out in front of me like a lance I felt like a jousting knight on a runaway horse escaping from the Findus buying department. At the self service restaurant a chef tapped rather impatiently on his steel pots of vegetables demanding to know which I wanted. I would have told him but my eyes were about level with the tray track. “Does she like beans?” he asked Oscar.
About halfway across the English Channel the UK coastguard carried out a helicopter rescue exercise. The kids wanted to offer me to the Captain as an authentic casualty. The red and white whirly-bird hovered above the ship while a guy dangled with a stretcher above the deck. Luckily he kept himself clipped on to his rope since the ice pack had melted and there was not an iceberg in sight.
Eventually I was trundled back to the car deck and levered into the car. Some 23 hours after we had boarded the ferry we got off again at exactly the same point. I must say that all of the crew of the Brittany ferry Bretagne were kind and helpful – but I’m not so sure about the orange guy with the hose.
In a couple of days I am setting out again to France. I am still a complete hop-along but if the sea is rough at least I’ll only have to find one sea leg. The quest goes on and will include a weight loss regime set in the vineyards of France and featuring a tandem bicycle, a poet and a romantic novelist on a mission. We call ourselves Le Grand Crew and if you’re in a car following my pumping rump you’ll know why.
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