Tides ebb and flow, but time waits for nobody.
Until COVID brought things to a crashing halt in 2020, we had spent 20 successive annual holidays in Port Bourgenay on the Vendée coast of France about 10 miles south of Les Sables-d’Olonne, all but one in the apartment we bought there in 2000. Previously we would go for three weeks. Now in our mid-sixties and almost entirely untethered from professional and family obligations, this year we extended our stay to six weeks. But, whatever the duration, the pattern is the same.
We travel by car between either Ringaskiddy or Rosslare and Roscoff or Cherbourg with a distinct bias for the Ringaskiddy — Roscoff route. Rosslare is half as far again from Clare as Ringaskiddy and the latter timetable suits better. You get off in Roscoff early on a Sunday morning and traffic is light for the 300 mile journey to Bourgenay.
Ringaskiddy was our departure point this year on a fine Saturday afternoon in July.
The holiday begins moment the car goes up the ramp on to the ferry. The sense of collective pleasurable anticipation among the passengers is palpable. Whatever the weather, most people stay out on deck to watch Cobh pass by on the left, Haulbowline on the right, as the boat makes stately progress out of Cork Harbour. We always have a good dinner and get in some early and thorough practice on the French wines before tottering off to bed to be woken by Breton music piped into the cabins at 6 a.m. local time the following morning. On the road before eight, we belt down the continuous dual carriageway staying close to but generally under the generous speed limits, heading east through Saint Brieuc to Rennes before turning south through Nantes to Les Sables and then we are there.
The flat is on the second floor. Before unloading, we run up the stairs and do a quick check to make sure that all is in order after a year’s absence. It is looked after in our absence, so the check is largely superfluous but reassuring nonetheless. We are lucky enough to have a small cellar in the basement, so it’s a twin track process of unloading the car and bringing sheets, blankets, kitchen and bathroom “stuff”, and other durable basics from the cellar, not least a few bottles of wine stowed away from previous years.
Getting installed takes an hour or so. After a breather, we have the same simple dinner on the small balcony, pasta and pesto that have made their way from Ireland accompanied by half a bottle of white as an aperitif and a full one of red. Stroll the few hundred meters down to the small harbour, walk along the pier and watch the sun go down in the west. At day’s end, we are simultaneously up and running and ready for bed.
There is more comfort if less excitement in repeating the same routine so many times. We have traded the excitement of discovery for the tranquility of the familiar. Holidaying is a case of moving home somewhere else.
When three weeks was our norm and life more stressful, I would say the first week is for mental detox, calming down and becoming human again. The second week was luxuriating in the suspended animation of apparent timelessness. The third was one of gradual adjustment to the ever darkening encroaching clouds of having to return to reality. And the only change this year was to extend “Phase 2” from one week to four.
The daily routine set itself. A run on various routes along the Atlantic shore and through the woods alongside. A short stroll to the boulangerie for fresh bread and croissants. Catch up lightly with the news over breakfast. A few minutes on domestic chores, a bit of reading, a stroll and/or a “dip” in the sea or pool according to whim, light lunch. For the afternoon, rinse, recycle and repeat. Dinner generally in the flat, but interspersed with visits to favoured local eateries. The car barely moves. Everything we need is within walking distance. As well as the boulangerie, there is a poissonerie, small fruit & veg shop an outlet wine from Vendée vineyards and a mini-supermarket within 5 minutes’ walk. Different days of the week bring different “pop up” food stalls offering cheese, charcuterie and other diverse regional products. You need only forage more widely if that is your inclination.
We existed in the zen zone of pleasant tranquillity that lies between business and boredom. Time never raced, never dawdled, just ticked along. Overall, the weather ran to past form, the equivalent of a really good Irish summer. A little bit of rain, a few days without sun but mostly fine, mainly sunny weather. As in Ireland this summer, there were more days than usual when we might have liked to peg the temperature back a bit, but that’s a first world problem. In the dampness and darkness of November and January, we will look wistfully back even on those torrid days.
But, like every other time, the final few days if not the final full week is a series of “lasts”, last dinner in our favourite restaurant, last run to the beach and back, last swim in the sea, managing the provisions down towards zero. Then the cellar stuff goes back into the boxes and black bags and downstairs, the balcony furniture comes inside, the flat is closed up again, the electricity and water turned off, the last bag of rubbish and empty bottles suitably disposed of and off we go on the long, joyless slog to Roscoff and a ferry journey brightened only by the contrast between passengers’ healthy tans and the pasty faces of a few weeks earlier.
But just as the arrival of St. Stephen’s Day reduces the number of days to the following Christmas to 364, we are only eleven months, ten at a pinch, from starting the whole gig again. It is all a metaphor for life itself, just a continuing series of comings and goings. But life is sadly also as linear as it is cyclical: opening out expansively when we are young but funnelling inwards as we get old.
At our age, there is the rueful recognition that the prospective supply of future holidays is dwindling, perhaps slipping from double to single figures, compounded by the unspoken awareness that the time is not so far away when only one of us will be left alone with the difficult decision whether to make the trip at all.
But so long as we retain decent health and modest vigour, those are issues to be consigned firmly to the back of the mental filing cabinet.
A l’annee prochaine!