Home-Exchange in Versailles, 8-16 August

‘We’re all going on a summer holiday
No more worries for a week or two.’

So goes Cliff Richard’s carefree song of 1963, and for me on our first motor trip off the island since 2019, holiday meant strolling around Versailles, spending soporific afternoons in brasseries drinking ice-cold la Goudale, then possibly a gastronomic meal in a quiet restaurant.

Almost at the M1/M25 junction, I cried ‘Look, that car has a UK plate.’ Suzanne’s research on the phone revealed that we were unaware that British cars on the Continent now had to be plated UK and not GB, and, anxious that there might not be stock at the Eurotunnel shop, stopping at three motorway services I acquired a huge, magnetic, oval UK that I later realised was for vehicles the size of a juggernaut. And at Eurotunnel, which was selling the new UK plates galore, we also bought special covers for the GB bit to the left of the European number plate. Slight panic over and Sir Cliff’s sentiments returned to my breast.

Not for long. We endure a horror Eurotunnel crossing owing to passport control delays, queuing in the car in over 30 degrees, getting to the shuttle only to wait more than an hour before departure, owing to a ‘technical fault’. A dreadful experience and bollocks to Brexit, the act of self-harm voted for by only one-third of Britain’s electorate. We don’t get to the flat in Versailles until dark, slowed by a major-road closure that tipped us into the stop-start of the northern Paris banlieues, then into the grip of the Périphérique. Of course, with a new house there is security to learn, such as getting the garage-door remote from the flat, where the landing light is not working (and never worked) and in total blackness fiddling with an unfamiliar door lock. But this most-welcoming fourth-floor flat is, as the owners say on their HomeLink listing, spacious (above photo is from the balcony). Nevertheless, shut up for several days, it’s now as hot as hell. That was the arrival, but the exchange-home was of itself comfortable and good to come home to – not always the case with home exchange. Mornings were pleasant, opening windows to admit a breeze. We marvelled at the extravagantly displayed memorabilia mostly of things British: photos of the Beatles, Premier League football crockery, and walls covered with stars from French, British and American film noir.

The first day-trip was to Rambouillet, whose chateau was acquired by the ill-fated Louis XIV in 1783, but the temperature climbed to over 35℃, so sending us home. Anyway, the town was practically closed, as we expected for a French August. A better day was in Chartres, where the French Gothic cathedral was just stupendous, with a remarkable sculpted indoor frieze and its famous indoor 13th-century 42-ft diameter pavement labyrinth. But, sorry to relate, again the heat, roaring into the late 30s, drove us back home and lunch by 1.30 and sit quietly for the rest of the day. On Sunday, Suzanne went to mass at the Dominican Sainte-Jeanne-d’Arc a few minutes away where a hundred people turned up. Later, we walked locally again but Suzanne took the bus home. The sign at the bus stop admirably fitted my feelings.

Exchanging email with one half of the flat-owning couple, I found that his 18-year-old dual French–German father was conscripted into the Bundeswehr in 1944 but deserted and joined the invading Americans as a parachutist. I speculated with him that our fathers might have fought each other had not a shrapnel wound at Caen got mine shipped back to Blighty (he also trained as a para to drop behind Japanese lines in Burma, but the atom bomb put a stop to that). In the early afternoon, we revolved endlessly around the four quarters of the market square looking for a restaurant to suit my neurotic needs; that near-panic performance of mine has led me to hard soul-searching and consequent professional help.

The last full day, when the temperature mercifully dropped to the late twenties, was to cap the trials of the week. In the morning, finding ourselves in a deserted shopping-centre car park controlled by automatically lifting boom-gates, I crashed the car into one and we both agreed that to our eyes it had been a chimera that seemed to be much farther away. Shock and the trials of the week laid me out for rest of the day. The ‘illusion’ of the boom-gate reflected the holiday.

 Next day was the longed-for, blessed return to England, but not until another unpleasant wait for the absurd passport-stamping, and, believe it or not, another shuttle with a ‘technical fault’. When it finally got going, after thirty minutes it broke through the tunnel at midday for my eyes fnally to savour this summers’ bleached fields of Kent.

Looking back, it was a mistake to travel in August; even without record temperatures it’s just too hot for people like us with a combined age of 164. On these supposed holidays, we sat around at home every day, trying not to stir without good cause. On the brighter side, it was nice and French for me, each morning before breakfast, to buy a freshly baked baguette from the corner Carrefour, and to Suzanne’s rather diluted pleasure we did manage lunch on three occasions. Oh yes, and the marvellous cathedral.

Our next exchange is in October in Chester-le-Street, coincidentally French-sounding but firmly in my country.