I’ve just come back from a holiday in France. We stayed with friends in Paris and then (after an almost divorce inducing navigation of the Périphérique Paris ring road) journeyed on down to a tiny countryside village called Thuringy. There we helped another friend in their annual wood-chopping, a process that involves chainsawing previously felled branches and stacking the wood which will fuel their fire the following winter. In return we are treated to amazing home-cooked food and eye-watering home-brewed ‘Eau de vie’! It’s a weekend of fresh countryside air in idyllic surroundings (ignoring the constant whir of a chainsaw) and creating the most precise stack of wood that is never more than a meticulous one metre high and one metre wide. It’s the perfect symbiotic relationship because while they thank us profusely for our hard work when we leave, we’re thanking them profusely for the food, silent (flight-path-free) nights, lethal alcohol and digital detox (more of this in The Summerhouse by the Sea which, incidentally, you can pre-order now!) There’s also nothing like the incessant drone of a chainsaw (them) and the lifting and stacking of hundreds of pieces of wood (us) to leave the brain free to plot the next book, so now I’m back it’s straight to work. But I just thought as I’m a HUGE fan of nosing at other people’s holiday photos, you might want to have a nose at mine. If not, look away now…
The Hotel Limoncello, owned by Libby and venue for The Sunshine and Biscotti Club, stands alongside the tranquil blue waters of a stunning Italian lake. Fringed with lemon groves and pine trees, it’s picture perfect and the best place to cool off when the sun gets that little bit too hot.
The inspiration behind it? Well, I have a bit of a love affair with lakes and rivers.
Much of my youth was spent in a rowing boat – going up and down the Thames in the freezing cold early morning. But as I got older, and better at rowing, I went further afield to the winding river of sunny Seville in Spain; a swimming pool turquoise lake in Munich, Germany; the deep, icy mist-laden waters of Switzerland and the picturesque beauty spots of France, Austria and Italy. When we raced in Italy, in the sharp blue water of the mountains, a lake surrounded with tiny villages perched precariously as if they might slip, it was so hot that we would dunk our caps and t-shirts in the lake before we went out for a paddle, water pouring down our arms and legs just to keep cool.
These lakes and rivers made a map of Europe for me. The towns I never saw, just the water. And now, years later, when I go on holiday, I drag us to a lake nearby – that I once saw only through a mirage of pre-race nerves or the endless laps of a training camp – and see it afresh, with eyes no longer focused only on the boat but instead the trees and the beaches and the cafes.
Last year we went to the lake in The Sunshine and Biscotti Club. Once one of the regatta lakes in my past. Now a tranquil sea of blue so clear we could spot the fish swimming. White ducks drifted past through air made wobbly from heat. There was music from a cool, hipster café that served hot dogs and beer in condensation covered glasses. We swam in water that was flat and calm and strangely heavy without the buoyant salt of the sea.
This time there were no megaphones, no starter guns, no crippling nerves and wild adrenaline. No oars, no racing kit, no spectator stands, no medals. Just the gentle lapping of waves on pebbles, the splash of a dive, the quack of a duck and the thump of the hipster beats.
This is the lake that I dream about when it’s wet and cold and raining in England. This is the lake in The Sunshine and Biscotti Club that forms the backdrop to the lives of Libby, Eve and Jessica as they reignite wary friendships, renovate the dilapidated Hotel Limoncello, dust off forgotten baking skills, and, in the warmth of the sun and under a canopy of lemon trees, re-evaluate what they have, what they had and what they need for a future that is stronger than their pasts.
I was wondering the other day if I’d lost it. ‘It’ being my ability to spot something that I liked. Most especially at vintage fairs, car boot sales and antique markets. It had been ages since I’d bought anything. I blamed the weather, I blamed the people selling things, I blamed the fact that I already have far too much stuff in my house and that was squashing my desire to buy. I was still finding clothes when I went shopping. And shoes. And bags and make up etc. But just not getting that hit when I went a hunting.
Many a Tuesday I have spent with my sister traipsing round Kempton Antique market in the freezing cold or boiling hot perusing the taxidermy, the old wine crates, the shop front letters, the school science equipment (remember those clamp stands that used to hold the test tubes over the Bunsen burners? [remember Bunsen burners!] Well there are whole heaps of them available to buy). My flat is laden down with odd little nicknacks and I eat my dinner off plates celebrating various coronations. There are so many pictures on my walls that it’s a strictly one in one out policy – I imagine the art cowering every time I leave for a car boot on a Sunday.
It was safe to say I was having a vintage dry spell. I was picking things up from tables out of desperation. Holding them up to whoever I was with only to see their faces crinkle with disgust. I bought a few things but they pretty much went straight into the cupboard under the stairs – a resting place for guilty car boot purchases before I can justifiably take them to the charity shop.
And then we went to France.
One week. A day or two of sun. Quite a lot of rain. Nice oysters. Horrid gales. No wifi. Teething one-ish year old. And quite possibly the best car boot sale I have ever been to.
It was the last day. We were taking a leisurely drive to Rouen where we were staying the night before heading to the ferry. All week we had seen signs for a brocante (french antique fair) in the nearby town. So many signs that we were pretty sure it was going to be a super dooper affair and had planned a number of hours into the itinerary in order to do it justice.
There were eight stalls. One of which was selling new crystal glasses. The one-ish year old was very bored. We were disappointed. We walked round forlornly. It started to rain. We bought a picture of a lobster (not found by me). And we left (working out which picture at home would be banished to the cupboard in favour of the crustacean).
It was as we were lamenting the tininess of our day’s activity and the amazing marketing for such a weeny event, that we saw more signs. They were less impressive, almost missable, tied to the odd lamppost here and there. They advertised a vide-grenier (french for car boot sale/ empty attic sale – I think). We definitely had the time, but did we have the inclination? We’d been burned by the brocante. Was it worth it? There was nothing else to do. So we snaked round houses, through parks, looped down cul-de-sacs until we finally found the football stadium which housed the vaguely signposted v-g. We followed the crowds. The poor one-ish year old could sense what was coming.
There it was. One whole field of stall upon stall of stuff.
It was amazing.
My french isn’t great. But it’s good enough to haggle. And I was back in the game. Now I know that what I buy isn’t to everyone’s taste, but I love it. And I loved this place. There were little ceramic jars for tea, sugar and spices, there was an old ice bucket branded for french liqueur, there was a small statue of St Teresa with only one eye that I bought for a euro from a woman who I think was a nun (it’s equally possible I made her a nun in my imagination), and for the one-ish year old there was a plastic crocodile and a plastic house thing.
It was magic. And what made it even better was at the end, unlike a British car boot, there was a big open tent selling little glasses of white wine, barbecued sausages in fresh baguettes and crepes with lemon or nutella, all for a euro or two. It was brilliant. I could go home happy.
I even found a space on the wall for the lobster so no pictures were banished or hurt in the telling of this tale.
Have you found any treasure lately? Tweet me and let me know @jenoliverbooks