It had all been going so well.
Originally, my mum had been reluctant to travel anywhere on holiday by aeroplane, on the basis that airports always involved lots of waiting around. I had replied that this was simply not true, unless of course one's flight was delayed, which doesn't happen that often.
Thus, this morning we had left home with all our baggage, passports, EHIC cards and even boarding passes which I had printed out the night before. This was the first time that I had ever travelled with a passenger for whom I was responsible, so I had been fairly determined to get as much of it organised in advance as possible. It's one thing to rely on God, but another when someone else may bear the inconvenience of my muddling through. What if this turns out to be one of those days when God doesn't seem to show up, and/or expects me to?
So, Mum and I had caught the intended train to Clapham Junction, changed smoothly to the following one to Gatwick Airport, been told at the ticket barrier that Mum's Freedom Pass didn't cover her this far but had been kindly waved through anyway, briefly queued up, and were now checking in our main baggage a good few minutes ahead of our schedule. We hadn't yet located the mobility desk to collect the wheelchair that I had booked to take Mum to the boarding gate in, but we would get to that once our bags had been sent on ahead of us. Any possible spare time to wait about was to get offset by my intention to treat ourselves to a duty-free lunch here. This ought to enable us to be flexible.
The baggage clerk looked at our boarding passes, and informed us that this was indeed Gatwick South Terminal, however our boarding passes clearly stated 'North'. I looked at them. They did. I had brought us both, quite punctually, to the wrong terminal.
I didn't know how I had achieved this, I remembered looking at the sign for North Terminal and everything. Apparently I hadn't looked at it again as we had been walking past it.
I asked if we could check our bags in here anyway. He said no.
No problem, I said, it was just a minor setback, we would simply push our laden luggage trolley onto the monorail for the nearby North Terminal, and check our bags in there instead. After all, we were still running a good minute or so ahead of our schedule.
At North Terminal, we still couldn't find the mobility desk to procure Mum's wheelchair, so with time draining away we quickly proceeded to the correct luggage check-in for flights with Easyjet.
The queue was about as long as our road. Several times over, because it snaked back and forth. (you know what I mean) We were probably looking at standing here for about 45 minutes, which was significantly longer than the five that my Mum was alot keener to remain on her feet for.
20 minutes later though, she had adapted, and figured out that pushing the luggage trolley provided a similar benefit to that of a walking frame - something to lean on. I was feeling increasingly embarrassed at just what a cruel slavemaster I was appearing to everyone who saw us. One lady coming the opposite way past in the next lane ahead of us looked at her with such sympathy. 5-10 minutes later we were passing her again, but this time she was going to do something about it.
Fortunately, far from admonish me for making my Mum do all the heavy work, instead she and her husband undid the cord between us and bade us both come through in front of them! Even better, they then undid the next cord and ushered us ahead of everyone ahead of them, and right to the front!
As we thanked them, I was struck by the irony that such an advantage was something that I was far less likely to have received by asking myself. Such a suggestion had had to come from a stranger, in this case one who also did not have the authority to offer it.
At the luggage desk, I asked about where to go to get Mum that wheelchair, but was told that the mobility desk was on the other side of security, in the duty free area. Yes, there would still be more walking before then I'm afraid, and queueing.
At last Mum was sitting down in the duty-free mobility area, awaiting the aforementioned wheelchair. Far from the long period of hanging around that she had earlier feared, it turned out that this would arrive in a mere ten minutes, together with an airport employee who would then take us across the terminal. My hopes for a relaxed airport lunch were well and truly scuppered, as I found myself instead charging hastily about buying sandwiches, and a £1.99 cookie dough Frijj that the self-pay machine wouldn't recognise.
From this point onwards however, things definitely picked up, both figuratively and literally. The wheelchair duly arrived with a friendly porter called Christopher, who pushed Mum all the way to the plane, and all I had to do was dumbly follow.
While we were flying, Easyjet's big friendly orange logo on the wing outside our window made me feel like we were on board a giant toy. (not that reassuring!)
Tailwinds helped get us to Nantes airport in France nice and early, where another helpful guy called Kane provided another chair all the way through customs and right out to the shuttlebus we had to catch. I think we both found ourselves wishing that we'd had this fasttrack service back at Gatwick, although in a manner of speaking, we had.
Half an hour of looking out the window at French streets and roadsigns later, I left Mum with our bags in the ticket hall of the Gare de Nantes to go buy our French train tickets.
I have never been to France before (stops at motorway service stations don't really count), so as I queued up, some of the differences in the way they do things were already beginning to strike me. Partly this was because of the language barrier, and partly the currency, but mainly this was because of the army guard marching up and down with the big machine gun. I briefly considered taking a picture of him, but the thought really was very brief indeed.
I barely speak any French, so at the ticket desk I held up to the glass the print-out I'd brought with me displaying where we wanted to go, and on what date ten days' hence we wanted to return. This worked! Getting with my plan to use written language, the guy duly rotated his computer screen to face me and pointed out the departure time and platform number etc. We had about 40 minutes to go. Just time for a cup of tea!
And there it was. Having got up in England, suddenly my Mum and I were now in France, sitting outside an actual French coffee shop, drinking tea, in France. This was exactly what the trip was supposed to all be about. Did I mention that we were in France?
Today also marked the first time in my life that I have looked upon either of my parents outside of England. This little sparkle was just the sort of reason why I had been so keen to take my Mum onto the continent for a change. It may only be France, but anywhere over the border is a little bit exotic.
We rushed for the train, and I was disappointed to abandon our latest luggage trolley with my deposit of a one Euro coin still inside it.
90 minutes of rushing past white buildings later however, as we alit at the terminus Saint Gilles Croix de Vie, once again our journey came to a figurative and literal standstill.
It was now about eight o'clock in the evening, and the darkening town outside was deserted, including the station's taxi rank. Yet again I left Mum behind while I had a brief recce, and was pleased to at least find an abandoned taxi parked in another nearby rank, opposite what appeared to be the only establishment in town that was open - a bar / crêpere called Les Roseaux.
I figured that its driver was probably inside, but decided not to go looking for them, preferring to instead just jot down the cab company's phone number from the back of the vehicle.
Then he went and came out anyway, confounding my expectations by doing the polar opposite of offering to take me somewhere.
Physically covering up the phone number with his arm so that I could not see it, in somewhat stunted English he explained that he worked in faraway Paris, and was merely on holiday here. Ordering a taxi from Paris would really not do me much help on France's west coast.
So I returned to the train station and unsuccessfully tried to call a more local service from the payphone, but was interrupted by the Paris guy's return, this time with a lady friend in tow. They would drive Mum and I where we wanted to go anyway, even though they didn't know the local area themselves.
I didn't feel entirely comfortable about this. You're not supposed to accept lifts from strangers. But then he was a taxi driver. But then, you're not supposed to accept lifts from taxi drivers who approach you either. But then, we had been looking for a taxi, and this was a taxi, which I had found in a taxi rank, and it said 'taxi' on the top and everything. Just for a city over 200 miles away, that's all. He wasn't a taxi driver here.
As he struggled to get his SatNav to understand the print out I had given him of the holiday camp's address (there are about four systems for French addresses), I watched these dark unfamiliar streets sweep by outside the window, doing everything I could to ascertain that we were indeed on the correct route to wherever it was we were going, even though our driver appeared to be just as in the dark.
And then suddenly there it was! "Le Pas Opton"! Spring Harvest Holidays' Christian holiday camp for the English!
A guy from the camp called Simeon met us, explaining that, since we had no car, they had all been wondering how we were going to arrive, and now they knew the answer!
Having dropped our luggage into our cabin for the trip (number 88), what Mum and I both really wanted to do now was simply eat.
With Monday night being the start of the holiday week, it was also traditionally the holiday camp's 'welcome night'. Being the final week of the season, rather than the site's full capacity of 1,100 people, when we entered the bar there were more like just a dozen people in there. They had apparently spent their evening waiting to meet the two of us, got bored, and put on The Hobbit instead. (despite the video projector only offering them two of the more traditional three colours)
(So I got off the plane, and there was New Zealand again...)
In these circumstances, it was impossible to interrupt the movie to say hello to people, and anyway Mum and I were hungry, ordering from Rose a 'classic burger' meal and vegetarian pizza while the occasional person politely came over to greet us anyway.
As my head hit an unfamiliar pillow in our cabin that night, I had to reflect on just how much God had looked after Mum and myself today, through both circumstances and people. Despite challenges, everyone had been so helpful. The UK ticketmaster who'd waved my Mum's out-of-zone pass through anyway, that kind couple at Gatwick Airport, the wheelchair guys, the ticket vendor at Nantes, and of course the lost taxi driver from Paris. Some of these people had really gone out of their way to make the effort to help us. Some of them barely spoke English.
I had to admit that I had never expected such hospitality from a rich country like France. Poorer ones, yes, but not the ninth largest economy in the world! It was a pleasant presumption the have been proved wrong about, and as I waited for sleep, I was trying not to allow a track from my CD of music off The Simpsons to dance through my head:
A stranger's just a friend you haven't met...!
(Day 2: Culture Shop! here)
(Day 3: France Plants here)
(Day 4: All Alone On The Site here)
(Day 5: The Haunting Of Cabin 88 here)
(Day 6: Saint-Gilles-Croix-De-Vie here)
(Day 7: SunDay Service here)
(Day 8: C'est La Vie here)
(Day 9: Olonne Sea here)
(Day 10: Camp Sights here)
(Day 11: Nantes Jaunt here)