Anxiously, we park up. It seems we are the last to arrive. We don't know where to go, or who we will meet, or whether this has been a terrible decision. I have just turned 50. What if everyone is mega fit and this place is like a puritanical health prison?! What is I have completely forgotten how to socialise?!
We pass in front of the shabby-chic chateau and across the vast lawn. I quickly register there is enough space for me to hide if I feel shy; but enough games equipment for if I feel sociable. I hear mumbling of 'conservatory' and turn to see smiling staff taking the covers off inviting nibbles.
In a rather over-tired brain-fogged state I say yes to a glass of ‘fizz’ just as the first bottle is de-corked. It fires out with a celebratory, excited, friendly pop that projects the attitude of holiday to come. Unconsciously my non-dominant right arm shoots up – and I catch the first cork. The strangers stood closest to me gasp and laugh.
Maybe being 50, tired and shy is not going to be a draw back. The cork is the catalyst for introductions and chatter until 90 minutes has passed and it’s time for supper.
Yummy supper, yummy breakfast – food definitely not going to be a problem for my connoisseur husband, carb stuffing son, fussy daughter or try-a-bit-of-everything me. Our apartment is perfect in a youth hostelly sort of way. Bunk beds for the kids (enough so they both get a top bunk) and a huge double for Ian and me. Bathroom ensuite. Comfy enough to be ‘home’ for a week; scruffy enough so I won’t worry about muddy shoes or piles of washing.
The staff member who had showed me around was a young man called Seb. I don’t think he could have been nicer! I felt truly welcomed.
(In fact all the staff were amazing. They seemed to really enjoy their work and to really like all of us – all 60 of us. They intermingled their jobs, which was strange at first. My French teacher was serving me dinner; the fencing teacher was leading karaoke. The name of the role is Animateur. It seems to mean ‘role model’ rather than teacher and all the children fell into good mannered, competitive, fun when around them. Both my kids ended up wanting to work there - I wanted to be a permanent guest!
Sore bum from cycling.
What I hadn’t appreciated when booking was that adults don’t just get a chance to join in with the kids’ activities to be a bit cute and spend family time together. Everyone has their own schedule. Today whilst the kids did Jedi Games and Mini Farm, I cycled (and saw Mont St Michel in the distance) and Ian did orienteering. I didn’t have to be responsible for anyone or anything!!
The children are already making friends and gaining independence. The Chateau is sufficiently big that it’s an adventure to traverse but sufficiently small that they can make their own way to meals and shout ‘just going to play table tennis with ……..’. We see the back of their heads, hear half a sentence but know that they are fine.
The schedule runs from 8.30am to 10pm. They fall into bed exhausted and smile in their sleep.
Mount Saint Michael trip with a quick sand experience first. We pad bare foot across the hard sands between main land and the mount. An enigmatic expert frowns in concentration as he watches our feet. Watches the sand. I follow the rules to the letter out of politeness but inwardly expect the sinking sand to be a like a ghost story, exciting but fantastical – derived only to attract tourists.
Enigmatic man turns physics teacher and explains the changing relationship between sand and water. He prophesizes that, were we to all jump up and down in a certain place, then the earth would open up – or at least become unstable and invite us to sink. I think not!
We jump: children with abandon; fathers with ferocity, mothers with pelvic-floored caution. And blow me down, we blink and the sand has changed into a bottomless cauldron of sucking, taunting, and frankly, terrifying quick sand. Suddenly, my cynicism vanishes and is replaced with complete admiration that this man can safety navigate all of us through the ever changing, easily fatal, maze. And I would like a pocket version of him to keep in my handbag to keep me and my family safe in all other outdoor scenarios.
The Mount itself was lovely but most striking is that it is only Day 3 and we are already sharing our picnics, caring for each other’s children and swopping seats on the coaches. And the pack lunch was scrummy.
Around the camp fire singing and laughing. We spent the afternoon in our family activity all covered in mud and rolling on the floor for the sake of the assault course. My skin felt super-smooth. Could it be real – or placebo?
Drinking the conservatory generated wine and eating toasted marshmallows I stretch the achy limbs from this morning’s fencing. My word we worked hard. So much so that I treated myself to a lazy read on the lawn in the afternoon. At any one time there was usually a couple of other adults who’d chosen the luxury of doing nothing. I say do nothing, of course they had the huge responsibility of checking that the beer supply didn’t run dry. It didn’t!
I mustn’t forget to record my faux-pas. Although I was aware of staff in funny costumes (fairies, princesses, jedis etc) during the day, I hadn’t really appreciated the daily themes. My kids told me what they needed to wear and I obliged.
Today was my first adult French lesson (the kids have been having theirs since day one). We were introduced to Valentin, the teacher. He had wild hair at the back, beaded plaits at the front and a floppy leather hat. He was a gentle, imaginative teacher and I assumed that to take such a job one maybe needed to be a little bit of a hippy – hence the hair and hat. At the end of the session my student-peer said in her best French ‘See you tomorrow, when you perhaps, won’t look like Jack Sparrow’. I was horrified! How could she be so rude? Valentin replied that he more likely he would look like Superman. In slow motion, my brain cranked round. The teacher was in fancy dress. The fancy dress was related to the day’s theme. He didn’t usually have beaded plaits any more than he tended to wear his pants over tights each Wednesday!
Aeroball! What a scream! A bunch of grown adults, all thinking that they will find this combination of trampolining and basketball childish and pointless, hollering encouragement to their team mates and mock insults to their oppos. Our ages ranged from 18-65 but we had the average mental age of an 8 year old.
While I am ‘regress-bouncing’, as the game will now be known, my kids are making bread and tie-dye t-shirts and my husband planning our fancy dress outfits.
Karaoke. We sang our hearts out. Ian and I did ‘Summer Loving’ from Grease. We laughed and cheered until we were hoarse.
Who’d have thought canoeing could be turned into a friendly version of Roller Ball. We started off sensibly canoeing and ended up pushing each other in and finding ever more innovative ways to cheat. The pond was so beautiful and warm. Any non-participants pottered on the banks, taking photos and laughing at our antics.
The kids – I forget I have kids – are safe and smiling as they take off for archery. They run to us at the end of a session to babble their happiness; then run away from us without a ‘Goodbye’ to the next event, arms round a new friend and squealing nonsense.
Nervous excitement as the kids are due in Jullouville market at 10am to put their French lessons into practice. We have rendezvous instructions and saying ‘au revoir’. Their task is to buy picnic items for our later foray to the beach. I am nervous for them but we hide it by pottering round the market buying garlic and cider. The children re-vien with tales of poisonarrie and crepes and euros and folk. They are thrilled with their achievements. I am a little choked.
An hour or two on the beach, body surfing and digging holes is followed by our final activities back at the Chateau. For some it’s clay pigeon shooting or archery. For some it’s practicing for the talent show. Two mums practice Frere Jacque on beer bottles, in a round. Ian shares his travel guitars. Talent sneaks out of the wood work.
Addresses are swopped.
Five of the 12 families state their intention to return same time next year. We are one of them.
My boy has made special friends he doesn’t want to leave. He doesn’t want this to be over. None of us do. But everyone has shared their addresses and photos. And at least five families are coming back next year. His sadness turns to joy. What an amazing place. I can’t wait for next year. A bientot!