by David on September 25, 2009
It was twenty years ago this month that Helen and I went on our first holiday together. We heaved our bicycles, panniers and rucksacks onto the train from London to the South Coast and without having booked any hotels in advance, caught the ferry to Cherbourg.
It was my first visit to France. In later years I got to know the country better and even worked a little in Paris but on this first trip the country and the culture were almost entirely new to me. The rhythm of the days was determined by France’s strangeness; if we cycled until midday and stopped to buy food, the small food shops — the charcuterie, the boulangerie — would be shut. When it got late and we needed to find a place to stay, I’d have to struggle with my rudimentary French and never did get the hang of quickly counted change passed over after a purchase, or of asking for the bill in a restaurant or bar. I still think you’re is supposed to ask for l’Addition but I’ve never heard anyone else do it.
We cycled down the Cherbourg peninsula to St Malo, where we stayed for a while. Then we took a train across to Caen and cycled back via Bayeux to Cherbourg. The day we cycled from Caen to Bayeaux we were caught in a downpour and found shelter in the doorway of a church in the tiny village of Coulombs. While we dried out and waited for the rain to stop, we carved our initials into one of the stone walls of the porch.
carved initials from 1999
Purely by chance we were passing through Normandy ten years later — ten years ago — so we drove through Coulombs again and visited the church that had sheltered us a decade before. We found our initials and we added a second set. 1989 and 1999.
Inside Rouen cathedral
We drove to Coulombs again. We couldn’t find the original carved initials this time but we found the second set from a decade ago and we added another carving to commemorate our third visit and twenty years of being together and taking holidays.
carved initials from this year
We have photos of ourselves taken in Coulombs on that holiday twenty years ago, and of our second visit ten years ago. This year the village felt at first very unfamiliar; the roads seemingly not crossing at the right place, and not heading off in the remembered directions, or the tree under which we sheltered appearing smaller than I recalled; then the memories of that first visit slowly returned as if the span of two decades was just a few months, or at most a year; not twenty years. As I grow older it isn’t the prospect of ageing that scares me; it’s the prospect of the time that’s gone, a sense of depth to the time that’s almost like vertigo.