What I did in my holidays

I remember when I was at school we used to have to write an essay at the beginning of term about our summer holidays. I could never really think about much to write, except of course for the summer when my mother and I escaped from her third husband in her purple Ford Cortina and drove from England to Italy to meet my real father.

This summer we did so much I don’t really know where to begin. We started in London and ended in London, but in between went to Paris, Sainte Cecile, (our house in the south of France) Yorkshire and Scotland. Miraculously I was able to work from everywhere and I can’t see a situation where I will be forced to spend the summer here again.

We played the ‘what was the best bit’ game on the way back to Abu Dhabi, and all of us found it impossible to pick one thing. But among the highlights were:

The Chelsea football school and winning player of the week (Leo)

Being at Sainte Cecile (Bea)

Eating duck in Chinatown (Olivia)

Playing golf at his club and lunch at le train bleu (Rupert, see below pic)

My highlights included; food shopping at Waitrose (yes, I am a boring middle- class woman whose idea of a good time is spotting a box of Bendick’s bittermints or full-fat Organic Devon milk), realising how much I love Sainte Cecile as a holiday home, seeing friends (best thing of all actually, even better than the Bendick’s), travelling on London buses just gazing out of the window at the shops and life on the street, playing tennis on the most beautiful grass court ever in the English summer sun in Yorkshire, two visits to Stamford Bridge to watch us win (as well as Frank Lampard warming up just in front of me).

I was in a total panic about coming back here, desperate for something to happen to make it possible for me to stay there. But now I’m here, I’m pleased to be home. The kids are pleased to be back too, although Bea was apparently the only child in her class who said so.

The children loved England, and they seemed totally at home roaming around London on the buses and tubes, going shopping and meeting friends. Next year the plan is to send them all to school there, which I’m really happy about. I want them to have strong links to Europe, not just because our friends and family are there, but because eventually they will live there.

But for the moment it is a place we go for our holidays, and I can’t wait for the next one.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2012

Back at Sainte Cecile

In one of my past jobs I had a particularly irritating boss who used to make me send her a daily itinerary of what I was up to. So when I wasn’t sitting at my desk where she could see me I would have to let her know where I was. This itinerary was usually extremely tedious, consisting of items like a visit to the dentist, or some meeting or other.
I am pleased to say my daily itinerary here at Sainte Cecile is just as uneventful, if a little more pleasant. I get up and walk onto my terrace to look out over our valley where the sun is rising. I go down to our pool (with Rupes if he is awake) and have a swim in the cool clear water. Breakfast is succulent peaches from the local peach man and possibly a full-fat croissant or two. The rest of the day is punctuated by meals; lunches are always long, taken in the shade of the terrace at the source, and possibly with a bottle of chilled rose or two. Dinner is usually with friends on the terrace by the kitchen where we can watch the children play in the pool and run around the countryside. In between meals we have time for some work, the Olympics and (of course) a daily tennis match.
I was all for selling Sainte Cecile and moving to la belle maison. But having spent a holiday here, I am utterly relieved no one had the sense to buy it. It is such a special place, with so many memories, that are all priceless. Even my stepchildren, now practically grown-up, who have been coming here since they were children wander around saying things like ‘oh look that’s where Bea fell in the ditch’ or ‘this is Julia’s look-out’.
It is no secret that this is not my favourite region in France, but once we are at Sainte Cecile we are in our own world. There is no light pollution, not another house to be seen for miles and no barking dogs to annoy us. It is a bit like being on a ship, but the views are more interesting.
Of course when it became clear that Sainte Cecile was not selling and the belle maison (with tennis court) was promptly sold I was heartbroken. But having spent time off here for the first time in my life I now realise that it really is the perfect holiday home for us. With the exception of one thing of course. There is no tennis court. I must remember to include adding one to my daily activity report.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2012

Chelsea-Paris-Sainte Cecile-Bramham-Eaton Square

On Monday the children and I head off on our travels until August 31st. This will be the first time in four years that I will have been away for the summer. We arrived in August 2008 and since then, even if the girls have been able to escape for much of July and August thanks to my mother, we have been here. Poor Leo has had a very lonely birthday every year on July 20th with just us to celebrate with, along with maybe one other unfortunate friend who is not away.
Today is Friday, our weekend, and the children have only been outside to go to lunch or the mall. It is so hot you can’t walk anywhere, even once the sun goes down. Leo is going stir crazy, one day after school has ended. Yesterday afternoon he has his final football session, it was a bit like sauna soccer.
Hence the reason for escaping. We begin in London where we stay for a couple of weeks, then we go to Paris for two days followed by Sainte Cecile for a three-week stint. I always used to think Sainte Cecile in August was boiling hot, but it will probably seem quite temperate after here. After France the kids and I head up to my friends at Bramham while Rupert comes back to work, and then we all meet again at a lovely place we’ve rented in Eaton Square before flying back to Abu Dhabi and the start of school.
For those of you who remember the belle maison, the sad news is that we didn’t get it, so we won’t be heading there. I was heartbroken at the time, but have got over it, and it will be interesting to see how we all feel about our old home, which we were going to sell in order to buy it.
When we left Leo was only four, a tiny boy dressed in a Spiderman suit, and the girls were still very much children. They are coming back as different people. Olivia is thirteen, Bea almost twelve, young ladies really.
Bea is most excited about going to Sainte Cecile, while Olivia is desperate to go to London. Rupert is also looking forward to going home to France, and Leo is really excited about the Chelsea soccer school he is going to for the second week of July. I’m just looking forward to getting away from the heat, any of the above suits me. But it will be lovely to celebrate Leo’s birthday at home, surrounded by friends, fine wine, good food and maybe even a football match on the lawn.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2012

Sainte Cecile For Sale

When we bought Sainte Cecile in the year 2000, I never thought we would sell it. “These people must be crazy, selling this place,” I whispered to Rupert as we were shown around. “It’s utter heaven.”

It is utter heaven, as anyone who has ever visited us will confirm. And we have seen so many momentous events there; the babies, several books, unforgettable lunches with, among others, great friends who are sadly no longer with us.

But the time has come to move on. We are not leaving France, but leaving the region. It is too difficult to get to from here, added to which La Belle Maison, a property I have had my eye on for years, is now ours. Well, we have had our offer accepted, and we just need to sell Sainte Cecile to pay for it.

So if you feel like relocating to our former paradise, please let me know. The house has five bedrooms (three with mezzanines), two sitting rooms, a kitchen, dining room, office and terrace from which you can watch the swallows diving into the pool to drink while enjoying a glass of Languedoc white.

It is sad in many ways, even looking at the pictures now makes me nostalgic. As Bea (the family member I was most worried about, who has always maintained she wanted to live there forever) summed up: “It will always be my first home, but it is time to move on.”

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2011

La Belle Maison

Ever since we have been visiting our friends Norrie and Mary in the Savoie, I have been in love with a beautiful old farmhouse on the top of a hill in same hamlet as they live in. I call it THE house or La Belle Maison. It is actually very English in aspect I think, solid and imposing, with a tennis court and a view over rolling hills and a church (see below pic).

We always said to the owners that if it were ever for sale we would love to buy it. In 2009 they told us they did want to sell it, so we went inside to look at it and asked them how much they wanted it for it.

Sadly it didn’t work out, the price was too high and then they changed their minds about selling. So we left La Belle Maison and decided to rent it next summer instead.

Two days ago – a miracle. The lovely owner of THE house emailed to say that they do now want to sell, and that the price is substantially lower and, most crucially, she wants us to have it.

Yesterday we made an offer and it has been accepted. There is still a long way to go. We have to sell Sainte Cecile (not a popular choice with most of the children, although Hugo likes the idea of La Belle Maison in part because of the tennis court) and then there is the interminable French bureaucracy to deal with.

But at least we are one big step closer. Maybe we won’t be renting it next summer, but living there.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2011

Solvitur Ambulando

When we lived in France, we would go for around three walks a day. One mid-morning, one late afternoon and one after dinner. Mostly we would up to “the cross”, as we called it, the end of the small road we lived on, marked by a metal cross at the edge of a vineyard. On this walk we would walk over two small rivers and pass our almond orchard. We would often (on the mid-morning walk) run into the postman, who would stop for a chat but then take our post home anyway to save us carrying it.

I hadn’t thought about these walks for a while until Rupert woke up the other morning and said “I’d like to go for a walk to the cross.” It was the weekend and I think he was wondering what we could do for the day. The heat is still pretty unbearable and so there really is a limit. It’s basically the mall, or stay at home or drive to Dubai and go skiing, in a mall. Faced with those options, a walk to the cross seems like heaven.

I think one of the most unsettling things about living abroad is the constant question of ‘when are we going to go home?’ It is becoming more and more difficult to make any kind of decision. The longer we stay here, the more complicated it becomes. The kids are now all in the British School where they seem to be blissfully happy. In fact Olivia says she won’t leave here until she has finished school. Bea is literally blossoming and comes home every day with house points. Leo is just about to get in to (fingers crossed) the football, rugby and cricket squads so will be utterly content.

As for us, well things are fine, obviously we can’t walk to the cross, but we do have more time to hang out with our children because the lovely Nirosa does all the domestic stuff, leaving me free to read Winne-the-Pooh (genius book), play tennis and write. I remember my stepfather once advising me never to move in with a boyfriend “because you won’t leave until it gets really bad”. Which I suppose is the case with us and going home. And unless we fall foul of the (sometimes less than predictable) law or disaster strikes, I can’t see it ever getting really bad.

There is that Latin saying, Solvitur Ambulando meaning ‘it is solved by walking’. I remember we used to chat about problems on our walks and often come up with solutions. When I walk alone I come up with plots and ideas for the book. We do walk now, but instead of rivers we cross major road intersections and instead of our almond orchard we walk past a royal palace. And of course one of the major topics of discussion is how long to stay here. Most often we come up with the same conclusion. A while longer.

The cross will have to wait. The good thing is, even if we don’t go back for another ten years, chances are it will still be there.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2011

Return to Sainte Cecile

We have been home for a week and are getting ready to leave again. I am not quite sure what to think. Part of me wants to sort out the whole house, unpack all the boxes and just never ever leave again and yet part of me thinks ‘thank God we don’t live here any more’. It’s all very confusing.

Of course it is the most beautiful house in the world, with views to soothe your soul and walks that you never tire of. And coming back this time I really felt at home, the house and garden look lovely and everything is so familiar.

It is amazing that despite the burglary most of our things seem just the same. Rupert pumped up Leo’s bike and off he went as if he had never been away. What was really lovely was how happy the older children (Hugo and Julia) were to be here. It made us think that if we can possibly avoid selling it we should. It is like Howard’s End, but with less rain, a place where they will come to heal broken hearts, get married and nurture their children.

But there is always something TO DO. In Abu Dhabi I can quite happily spend the weekend planning my afternoon kips. Here I am planning how to get as much as possible done in the least possible time. Twas ever thus.

But it has been really lovely. It has been great to see people, to have lunches and dinners by the source and on the terrace and to be reunited with such essentials as Leo’s integrated Atlas with CD, Olivia’s teddy’s jumpers and my curling tongs. The children were also reunited with ‘Mami’ Chantal and ‘Papi’ Gilbert – my old childminder and her husband who have looked after Olivia since she was one and the other two since birth. The girls had their friends over and at one stage with all the kids in the pool, it was like a thousand other weekends.

Now there is no more time to rifle through boxes I realise that by the time we come back again the children will have grown out of all their old clothes. And either I will have done (got to get back to that gym as soon as we get home) or the mice will have eaten them.

Sainte Cecile is now not ours again until the end of 2011. I hope as little has changed here when we next come back. And that I can stay a little longer so I don’t feel I have to do stuff all the time. Maybe I can persuade our ‘bonne’ Schamanee to come along with us.

Sainte Cecile with a maid, now that really could be as close to heaven as I could imagine….

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2010

Near disaster

Just had this note from our tenants at home…

‘The house is OK but we had a serious fire here yesterday and had to evacuate the area. The hill opposite the house (to the north) was affected with the fire coming over the top from the other side and then travelling along this road towards Gabian. It even crossed the road in a couple of places. All very worrying at the time. Horrible black landscape now.
The fire services disconnected the electricity & therefore water etc but all working again today. However, all the phone lines have burnt down. The cables are molten and some of the wooden poles have been burnt down. Who knows when it will all be reconnected as it looks like a big job.’

I can’t bear to think about our lovely home in such peril. It seems there is a fire every year now. We don’t get there until the end of August, maybe some of the grass will have grown back by then. I have been dreaming about walking up that hill to Julia’s lookout (as we have named the top of the hill) for months and looking out at this view….

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2010

A different world

This morning Leo talked to me about “the other France”, by which he means the France where Norrie and Mary our friends in the Savoie live and not the Languedoc where we are. It got me thinking about how different a child’s world is.

England is waking up to a new world this morning, although final results are still not in. Personally I think it will be a better one. At least Dishy Dave will make a fresh-faced change from crusty old Gordon.

I can’t believe only 65% of the population voted. OK so I have to admit I didn’t, but the administrative nightmare of organising a postal vote is just too much. And actually as we were residents in “our” France for nine years before coming here I’m not sure we’re even eligible.

In August we go to France; both our France and Norrie and Mary’s. I can’t wait to see all our friends and the familiar landscape. We will also go to “my” London, where I hope we will stay with our friend Virginia and close to all the things that make London so special (M&S, the Phoenix pub, Waterstone’s, LK Bennet etc) whoever is in charge.

Have a good weekend and I leave you with a picture of the now almost totally toothless wonder and his sister.

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2010

Two of my favourite things…

So my Zeldafication begins in earnest on Tuesday when I go to an advanced adult ballet class with our lovely new lodger Una, who was at ballet school until she was 14. Yes I know that I am not advanced, but did that ever stop Zelda? So wish me luck.

Meanwhile if you have a moment please sign this petition to save a library in Montpellier. I had this email from a friend yesterday and said I would do all I can to help: ‘The Anglophone Library (formerly called American Library) here was abruptly closed by the university Paul Valery in January. A group of us are trying to save the books( 30,000) as the university was planning on putting them in boxes and storing them. We are hoping that a new venue will be found for them and have a lot of backing, including that of George Frèche, but we’ve been advised to build as big a support base as possible. One of the things we’ve done is to put a petition online and if we get signatures of stars that gives us even more credibility. Now I know there was at least one of your books in the library, because I read it, so your name would be very significant. If you feel the cause is good, here’s the link :


Dancing and reading are the two things we Zeldas most appreciate…..

Copyright: Helena Frith Powell 2010