Twenty-six years ago, my parents took the ferry to France and made their way down to St Jean de Monts, with four of us rattling around in the back-seat. The roof-rack that held our suitcases was covered in water-proof tarpaulin, secured with rope. My parents found their way by following a big, unwieldy map; cracked in places where it had been folded and re-folded. We got lost, and it was very late and very dark by the time we arrived at the campsite. The gates were locked and reception desk was closed. But Ireland had beaten England in the 1988 European Championships that day, so the green-clad half of the campsite were still up celebrating. Determined to help a fellow countryman, they got us into the campsite, found a courier, got a key, and got us safely into our mobile home. Ray Houghten was the Irish legend who went down in history that day, and inspired a small side-note in our family folklore too.
This year, I made the trip again, with my husband and our three children – back to St Jean de Monts. There’s no rattling around anymore – the kids are safely belted into their car-seats. The roof-rack has evolved into the ubiquitous and far more efficient roof-box. Paper maps have been replaced by Sat Nav’s nasal voice and anglicized pronunciation of French villages. Which means we didn’t get lost, and we arrived while it was still bright. And raining. I don’t remember any rain in 1988.
But then the sun peeked out, and it started to feel more like the place I recall. The beach in St Jean de Monts with its yellow sand that comes right up onto the main boardwalk. The ice-cream sellers, with impossible rainbow flavours, and children squishing noses to the glass covers. The shops with stands of braided jewellery sitting tantalizingly outside, drawing every magpie-child close. The mugs and notebooks with names of French children but never those of their ever-optimistic Irish counterparts – then and now.
The Café on the seafront – La Belle Epoque – a name that rang loud in my memory as soon as I saw it; a rush of déjà vu. A favourite spot from 1988 that I’d forgotten about until now. Details are hazy but irrelevant. Nothing had changed.
The church in the town centre and the square that brought back memories of a bonfire festival two and a half decades ago. The family bikes that we rented both times. “Is this the same one that you were on when you were small mum?” the kids ask, and looking at the rust, I nod – it might just be.
I remember asking for bread in the campsite shop, self-consciously attempting it in school-girl French. I watched my children say “merci!” to a waiter, with none of my awkwardness – but they’re younger than I was – no doubt it’s all to come. I remember our tradition of “goûter” – eating Prince biscuits or chocolate croissants in the afternoon, and I perhaps unwisely told my children about it – the instinct to pass childhood traditions is stronger than the need to restrict sugary treats. They chose Bonne Maman Madeleines.
I remember flashes and moments and words and names but that’s all. I was fourteen – it’s surprising to realise just how little my kids, at six, five and two, will remember of any of this. We go to such lengths to make the holiday perfect; to create memories for them, but most of it will be lost. I don’t remember my parents being tired or frustrated or cross, though surely with four of us in a tiny mobile home it wasn’t easy. I’m hoping that’s another parallel – remembering only the good stuff. Twenty-six years after one holiday and just a month after the other, that’s how it is for me.