Monday, 13 June 2016

Love, Nina

North London crescent
A friend of mine regularly sees Alan Bennett from her office in Camden and in moments of boredom texts me his movements. "He just nearly got run over - again", she sighs, virtually.

Alan Bennett also features in Nick Hornby's delightful adaptation of the memoirs of North London nanny, Nina Stibbe. (The memoirs were originally letters Nina wrote to her sister.) For television, names have been changed. But in reality the fussy Scottish poet Malcolm Tanner, who turns up to have his dinner cooked for him most nights and then complains about what he is served, was Alan Bennett. The mother of Nina's wards was Mary Kay Wilmers, the editor of The London Review of Books, and their father the film maker Stephen Frears. And Ray, the man in the wheelchair that Nina's boyfriend Nunney cares for, was the son (Tom) of biographer Claire Tomalin, by then married to playwright Michael Frayn. As a link to the past, Nina Stibbe's real ward Sam Frears (Joe in the series) plays Ray. It's what Joe's Riley-Day syndrome looks like 35 years on from our 1982 setting, where he has regular and alarming bouts of extreme ill health.

All this may be rather confusing. But suffice to say, Gloucester Crescent, Camden (or Primrose Hill in postcode snobbery) is the hub of the London literati. It's Lady In The Van territory, but here seen through the eyes of a 20 year old girl from Leicester who has no idea who any of them are. (She thought she recognised Malcolm from Coronation Street.) Instead of being in awe of them she is entirely at ease, and tactless in her opinions. Nina's neuroses are instead to do with whether Nunney likes her, how not to giggle in her yoga classes, how much turkey mince to buy, how to rehome the cat, how to upgrade a bin, how to redial quickly on an old-school Bakelite phone, how to clean genitals off a pavement, and how to keep the exuberant, football loving boys safely occupied in a skip. (The boys' derision of Leicester City is of course rather ironic in 2016.) I am not sure of Nina's previous child care experience. She walks barefoot through the streets of North London, which not many would advise. Maybe it's to prepare for the boy's much feared nuclear war, or maybe the pavements were cleaner in 1982. The property prices were certainly lower. Nowadays a nanny in a similar location would have to serve spoilt bankers, Russian oligarchs or Arab sheikhs, rather than the creative core of our cultural heritage.

How to redial quickly on a phone like this?
Helena Bonham-Carter as mother George is brilliant - gruff, whimsical, rude, encouraging, dismissive, affectionate, emotionless but (deep down) extremely caring. The boys are delightful, Nina suitably kooky and cross, but Malcolm isn't quite Alan Bennetty enough for me, if Bennetty can be a word in NW1.

Some of this literary circle obviously rubbed off, as Nina, after a confused and cautious introduction to Thomas Hardy by the more erudite Nunney, eventually goes off to study English. And write a book or two.

North London is one of my spiritual homes. Alan Bennett or Michael Frayn are the neighbours of my dreams. Admittedly, my actual next-door neighbours in North London were a loud Brazilian family, ten Middle Eastern blokes crammed into a one-bedroom flat and an elderly man with behaviour issues who used to stand at his window in his pants, watching me on our roof terrace. But this was Crouch End, not Primrose Hill.

Not that I would cook dinner for Alan Bennett if he was that picky. Maybe that's why people keep trying to run him over - they served him tinned tomatoes in his Hunters stew and couldn't hack the criticism.

Aviary, London Zoo from the Camden Canal
Primrose Hill - those beautiful views over the zoo and the City of London, and the Greek restaurant Limonia, where we shared many wonderful meals with our dear friend Tony, who died recently.  The charming cafes tumble down to the markets and canals of grittier Camden Lock. But up on the hill, the space is light and airy. It's its own special world.

Of course Nina and Nunney, once married, settled in Crouch End. Just like all the good people. And most of the cast of EastEnders.

Thursday, 9 June 2016

Child Friendly Holiday Review: Eurocamp at Camping Les Fontaines, Lathuile, near Annecy, France

We were slightly nervous about our half-term trip to France. Firstly, our amazing time at Bella Italia in Lake Garda was going to be a hard act to follow. Secondly, France was on strike. For the week prior to our trip the news was full of footage of cars queuing at empty petrol pumps, piles of burning tyres blockading ports and oil refineries, and police tear-gassing crowds of angry workers.

We tried not to worry. After all, we were flying to Geneva, which meant we could possibly skirt around French air space and its striking air traffic controllers. And the ever organised Swiss would surely have sorted themselves some petrol. And we'd be unlikely to need more than a tank for a week as we were staying only an hour's drive from the airport.

But then we read this article telling us that as of May 1st, it had become illegal for EU nationals to drive a non-EU registered car into the EU. In other words, British people are no longer allowed to drive a Swiss hire car into France. Luckily, when we rang the hire car desk at Geneva airport to tell them our plans they assured us that they could give us a car with German number plates and all would be well. And it was. Frankly, this new law must be affecting pretty much anybody renting a car in Geneva since it's almost entirely surrounded by France. As for the rest of the unrest, we saw only a couple of petrol pumps without fuel in the whole week. And no riots or demonstrations. Life seemed to be continuing as normal despite what had been in the press. We did have a power cut in the middle of our final night, but it was limited to the campsite.

We chose to go to Annecy simply because in the whole of the French-speaking world, Geneva was the only place we could find affordable flights to during May half-term. We paid £278 total for the three of us travelling with EasyJet from Manchester. I knew that good weather in the Alps couldn't be guaranteed, but I also recalled visiting Annecy with my family 30 years ago, and spending the whole time in boiling sunshine. Surely whatever happened, it couldn't rain every single day?

Well, yes, it could, unfortunately.

At the start of the week, the forecast was grim for the first couple of days, but improving from then on. But every morning, the forecast would change, and the magical moment of the skies finally brightening would be shifted on another 24 hours. In the meantime, the rain continued to fall, steadily and miserably. It hammered on our roof all night, keeping us awake. It turned the grass in front of our caravan to mud. It meant we were trying to entertain a five-year-old who was desperate to go out and make friends with other children all stuck indoors. It meant we couldn't dry our clothes or air our towels. And with only a blanket to sleep under and a single temperamental gas heater to warm the caravan, it was very chilly at night.

It's only seeing the news footage from Central France and Paris since we've been home that we've realised we got off lightly. There were no floods in our corner of France, and for that we must be grateful. Living in York, we endured a winter under water, and our city is still trying to recover from the aftermath of the Boxing Day storms.

All week, we had hopes for Friday. Friday was when the sun would come, said everybody. But Friday morning dawned just as damp and misty as the rest of them. We slumped into our chairs, defeated. How on earth could we fill yet another day of this? But mid-afternoon, there was a welcome break in the clouds and we headed down to the beach at Doussard. And by bedtime, we saw the Alps above our caravan at last! Just in time to go home early the next morning.

Sunny Doussard beach!

Looking towards Les Fontaines from Doussard beach

The snow-topped Alps appear at last above our caravan!
Mille feuille and religieuse from the bakery in Duingt
There was nothing we could do about the weather, so we tried to make the best of it. The good news is that in France, even when it is raining, the food and wine still taste delicious. We sat on our decking under the Eurocamp umbrella sharing a bottle of Haute-Savoie Apremont while the rain cascaded around us. And we did manage to see some of the local area between the showers. We didn't think it wasn't worth going on longer drives to places like Chambery or Chamonix in case we got there to find the mountains hidden by raincloud, especially as our five year old hasn't outgrown the "Are we there yet?" phase. But there are plenty of towns dotted round the lake which are worth a visit, Annecy especially. The Tuesday market was in full swing when we arrived, and it was wonderful to sample the vast array of cheese and olives, to smell the mounds of macarons and fresh herbs, and see the stalls laden only with local rather than imported produce - asparagus, artichokes, turnips, tomatoes. We also enjoyed Talloires, a small village of exclusive hotels and restaurants with eye-watering prices. How the wealthy spend their holidays on Lake Annecy.

The beaches around the lake were deserted. It wasn't yet summer season, but nobody else would have been foolish enough to visit them in our weather. Some beaches charge entry in July and August - how gorgeous they must be with the sun beaming down on them, with people leaping off the diving boards into the water and tanning themselves on the grassy lawns. We blew bubbles from the boardwalks and watched the paragliders spinning in the air above us. The paragliders, at least, come out in most weathers.
View towards Duingt from Talloires beach


We also spent half a day in Albertville, which hosted the Winter Olympics in 1992. There is a museum about this, apparently, but we failed to find it. We did enjoy some delicious crepes and sorbets while looking though. We also enjoyed the bunting strung across the streets ready for a stage of the Tour de France to pass through in July. It reminded us of York's great day hosting the Tour de France a couple of years ago, when the caravane and the cyclists came right past the end of our road. The little medieval village of Conflans up a hill above Albertville is also worth a visit. All the shops and restaurants were closed on the day we visited, but the houses and views were still lovely. I wanted us to visit the butterfly museum at Faverges on the way back to Lathuile, which an Annecy website had assured me would be open on Wednesday afternoons, but it turns out it was Wednesday afternoons by appointment only; an appointment which we did not have.


View of Conflans from Albertville, with Tour de France bunting
Albertville and jersey bunting
The closed butterfly museum and chateau at Faverges
We grew very fond of Les Fontaines. It is a small and rustic campsite, run by a friendly family who plainly love what they do. They are always out and about working on the pitches or paths, clearing drains, tearing around on golf buggies. The campsite is on a hill, but you can't actually see the lake, even though it's only about 500 metres away. Some mobile homes have better views than others, and the Eurocamp tents have the best of all, overlooking meadows and mountains.

View from the Eurocamp tents
Main terrace of Eurocamp caravans

We had booked an Esprit, which was never going to compare to the Avant we had rented in Italy. It was clean, but also quite dark and cold, and didn't have as much storage as other models we have stayed in. I possibly only noticed these things because of the longer periods of time I was forced to spend inside, rather than living mostly outdoors as on previous Eurocamp trips. The caravan was dark because it was under a tree, which may provide welcome shade if you were there in a hot spell. (It's so hard to imagine this!) The Esprit did have English plugs, which saved messing around with Continental adaptors. I think this site could benefit from duvet hire, as it really was hard to keep warm at night. We hadn't been able to bring bedding as we had flown over, though we had packed hot water bottles and thermals. However, the couriers brought us extra blankets on request, and this helped enormously.

Our Esprit caravan
The site has two pool complexes, only one of which was really in use. This one had a section with a retractable roof, which meant we could still use the pool even on a rainy day. The water was too cold for our daughter though - it is technically heated, but as it circulates to the outside, it never truly warms up. The icy jacuzzi was also not what you would call relaxing. On the last day when the sun briefly appeared in the afternoon, I went for a quick swim in the outside part of the pool, and the setting was amazing.

The main pool (covered area to the right)
Water slides (not really in use while we were there)
There is a small play area, a sports pitch, two table tennis tables and a large bouncy pillow, which was a big highlight for the kids when it was dry. Some adult supervision of children on the pillow (or at least a bit of caution) is required - two boisterous boys managed to badly hurt their sister's arm with some overly enthusiastic jumping while we were there. You could borrow boules, racquets, table tennis bats and board games from the Eurocamp couriers, which were all much appreciated.


Campsite cows

Resident campsite dog
The campsite had a small shop, which had just closed when we first arrived just before seven on a Sunday evening, but the owner very kindly opened up again for us so we could buy a few essentials and order bread for the next morning. Fresh baguettes, croissants and pain au chocolats were delivered every day, but had to be reserved in advance. For a more extensive food shop, there is a large Intermarche supermarket on the road to Faverges, about 15 minutes' drive away, and there is a Lidl opposite that. Doussard, the nearest village to the campsite, has a smaller but well-stocked Carrefour.

We ate in the campsite restaurant on the first evening - the food was hearty and rustic, and kept us out of the deluge which had just started and then wouldn't stop for 24 hours. I enjoyed my tartiflette very much, and they made a good pizza for our daughter. The restaurant was open every day for lunch and dinner, which is great, as there isn't anywhere else to eat in the immediate vicinity of the campsite (apart from another campsite). We walked down to the restaurant Chez Ma Cousine on the lake shore for lunch one day. Very good food here, but apart from the menu du jour at 19 Euros for three courses, it was expensive. It had its own private beach and offered a valet parking service in its tiny car park, which being on foot we didn't require.

Chez Ma Cousine

Even in the rain, it's a beautiful part of the world. I hope we have better luck with the weather if we go again, and that the situation in France calms before the big summer holiday. Thankfully, air traffic control called off their strike scheduled for the weekend we were due to fly home, so our journey back was without issue.