I awoke on my first morning in France tired from lack of sleep and unsure where I was. It was a bit overwhelming for a naive seventeen year old. The sound of a train chugging near to my window reminded me fairly quickly. I opened the wooden shutters to be greeted with the most idyllic garden bathed in warm sunlight. Those of you who have been to France will know what I mean, when I say, that it didn’t smell or feel like home. It was … well it was…. French. I dressed quickly dusting myself in Morney’s sandalwood talc. I only have to get a whiff of sandalwood all these years later, to be transported back to that room in St. Marcellin. Breakfast was served in the garden. Fresh croissants and a sweet cake were breakfast fare. What appeared to be a large soup bowl was put in front of me but instead of soup, there was tea. I hesitated unsure what to do. The rest of the family drank the tea straight from the bowl and I with some amusement did too. We would not
do that at home, I thought.
My two weeks in St.Marcellin were spent absorbing French life. Many things were different. My French friend openly lit up her cigarette and smoked in front of her parents. That would never have been allowed back home in 1966. Over the two weeks I experienced French life and was taken to the places of interest in the area. To the amphi theatre in Vienne, to Romans with its beautiful St. Bernard church, Pont en Royans with its three castles and it’s hanging houses clinging to the cliffs, Valence, with its colorful history. A beautiful part of France bordering on the edge of the Vercors national park. I returned there many years later with my own family
After two weeks we packed up and went to Grenoble where we stayed overnight in an apartment belonging to the family. A shopping spree in one of the department stores helped deplete my pocket-money but I wanted to bring something to the family back home. We packed up once again and headed for a Citroen CV parked outside. To my amazement the 17-year-old sister took the steering wheel and we set off. For a while it was fine but then we began to ascend. The roads became like country lanes and the sheer drop below was terrifying. The two sisters and their brothers started singing songs one of which I suspect was a French version of ‘Now is the Hour.’ I covered my eyes and concentrated on trying not to be sick.
When we arrived in St.Bonnet I was white as a sheet and unable to greet the relatives who rushed out to meet ‘ la petite Irlandaise.’ As they were about to give me the traditional kiss on each cheek I threw up. The combination of the drive and the lack of food had made me decidedly queasy. I must explain that I had not adapted to the French menu and was living on Rice Krispies and boiled eggs. I had been taken to the nearest shop in desperation and in the hope I might see something I could eat. Thankfully cereals had reached France in 1966. I had also discovered that the family stored a huge number of chocolate bars in the food cupboard. When I woke up in the middle of the night starving, I would tiptoe down and help myself. Imagine my embarrassment when on one occasion, I turned to go back to bed, salivating from the chocolate, and there was Madame B standing at the kitchen door. I muttered something in English, made a few gestures about being hungry and beat a hasty retreat. The house also had a cellar filled with cheeses. The smell was ..well, it wasn’t very pleasant and I dreaded when I was asked to go down and bring some up to the kitchen. I have to admit I was getting homesick at this stage. I consoled myself by listening to Adamo on an old fashioned record player. Adamo was top of the french hit parade and I loved his haunting melodies. I still have the L.P. I bought back then.
Lack of communication was a big problem. I was now receiving letters from home. It had taken all this time for them to reach me; such was the speed of the postal service in France in the sixties. My family were on holidays in Bunbeg, Co.Donegal, one of my favourite places and I was quite jealous. I had no money left. This was remedied by a rare phone call home when my dad asked Madame B to give me some money and he would refund it. With the money I went to the local hairdresser in the village and had my beautiful long auburn hair cut short. Not sure whether it was the altitude that affected my brain. However, what I had done hit home when the hairdresser handed me my hair tied in a ponytail. My mum had to look twice when the bus from the airport pulled up at the Gresham Hotel.
I saw plenty of the Hautes Alpes region. The skiing resorts of Orcieres and Merylette were close by and Gap was the nearest big town. I had by now got used to the narrow roads. My favourite trip was the Route de Napoleon that took us though Aix-en Provence, passing the many fields of vines and culminating in my first sight of the Côte D’ Azur and the Mediterranean sparkling in the sunshine. A bit ironic that the watch that had given me such a fright during my first night in France was stolen from the car as we bathed in the Mediterranean. I was taken by the family to Grenoble where the watch was replaced by a much more expensive one than the one that had been stolen!
Though I enjoyed most of my time in France I was glad to be home. As I headed home at the end of July, little did I know that the month of August 1966 would determine my future.