Saturday, 27 October 2012

Flying my Empty Nest for a weekend in Paris!

Sitting back in my empty nest, not a twig out of place or a feather ruffled, so to speak,  I sip a warming cup of coffee and smile to myself, as I remember back to early December of the year 1999.  My nest, at that point in time, was only empty when both children were at university in Scotland, but the emptiness was a new concept to me, and I missed my brood!  Katie was spending her year abroad in Paris, and, as I shut the door for work on a cold and frosty December morning, I dreamt of sharing an espresso with her, in a little café in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower.

Placing the post on my boss's desk, I wait for his usual preoccupied acknowledgement, but this morning he looks up over the rim of his tortoiseshell reading glasses and enquires, "Your daughter is studying in Paris at the moment, Heather, am I right?" Rather taken aback and, quite pleasantly surprised that he had remembered, I reply, "Yes, indeed, Mr Williams." "It's just I heard on the radio, while driving in this morning that one of the budget airlines is offering return tickets to Paris for £7.50."  Thanking him for his kind observation on my behalf, I return to my desk and share the news with my colleague, Jane. Needing no further persuasion, I make up my mind to go for it and, to my surprise, Jane announces she has never seen Paris and would love to join me. A quick phone call to the airline and we find ourselves booked in and scheduled to depart two days later, all for less than £10!

Leaving the runway behind as we take off for Paris, I confess to Jane that flying is not my forte.  With a twinkle in her eye, she reaches for my hand and laughingly suggests I think of it as a roller coaster ride at the fair. For the first time I get just what she means and, throwing caution to the wind, like 'Thelma and Louise' we head off to join Katie for our French adventure.

In her little flat in the Opera district of Paris, I hug my daughter and looking around, take in this tiny but oh so Parisian space. In the living room, a long window looks out across the narrow street at a similar architecturally beautiful building opposite, mirroring the ornate wrought iron work adorning the façade of Katie's apartment. The floor is of ancient dark wood with a rich sheen from years of polishing. Over an ornate mantle piece hangs a shabby but chic mirror; the mottled spots of age only adding to its allure. Jane and I, quick to absorb the French ambience, 'fait le tour' and inspect the rest of the flat.  It doesn't take long.  The bedroom adjacent to the living room is about the same size, with two beds and similar French charm, although this time somewhat hidden under the clutter of student life! A tiny kitchen looks down onto a small courtyard below and finally, a minute shower room approached by two steps, completes the tour of this bijou Parisian pied-à-terre.

Over the next few days, Katie shows us the sights of Paris, as we take in the shops on the 'Boulevard Hausmann'.  Laughing under the sparkling lights of the 'Galleries la Fayette', we try on designer outfits one can only dream of buying. Later, queueing for hours next to the famous glass pyramid at the 'Louvre', we bathe in the splendour of the old masters, each of us trying unsuccessfully to mimic the famous enigmatic smile of the 'Mona Lisa'.  Later on, worn out by walking, we share an espresso at the café 'Les Deux Magots'. Sitting in the same seats once frequented by the most influential writers and philosophers of the 20th century, we discuss Sartre and the meaning of life, until it begins to get dark.

On our way back to the flat later that evening, Katie takes me by the hand and whispers, "Follow me, Mum!", as we disappear down an alleyway off the busy street, closely followed by a curious Jane.  Passing by the walls of a huge ornate building we finally turn the corner and step out onto a huge terrace.  The view in front of me is something I will never forget, for there, stretched out before us, is the whole of Paris lit up against the night sky. Right in the middle, the 'Eiffel Tower' rises up, announcing the year 2000 in bright iridescent lights. Standing to one side on my own, I look out over the city in wonderment, while welling up inside a feeling of elation fills me with hope for the new millennium, and love for 'la vie française'!

Wednesday, 17 October 2012

Stepping Out of my Nest onto the Cote d'Azur!

I look out from the aeroplane window as it sweeps around the azure bay on our approach to Nice airport. The facade of colourful buildings lining its shoreline gleams like the jewels of a decadent necklace, perhaps once worn by one of the many film stars, who made the Cote d'Azur their play ground, since the early 1920s.

In the hills above the town a weekend nest awaits me, where a table sits under an ancient olive tree, ready to shelter me from the heat of the Mediterranean sun. Once again, my daughter, determined to stretch my horizons, has arranged this wonderful weekend as this year's Mothers' Day treat! (You can read about last year's treat in my blog, 'Nesting in a Medici Hunting Lodge').

Arriving at the airport, my husband and I share a warm embrace with Katie and Olivier.  Already relaxing into their holiday, they are quick to whisk us off through palm tree-lined streets, to start our weekend in style, with an ice-cream at the Lido by the Promenade des Anglais.

Le Negresco
Later that evening, as we leave our nest in the hills, Katie and I make an extra effort to look stylish, stepping out onto the Boulevards, where glamorous figures like Bardot gave Nice the name of  'the playground of the rich and famous'.  Of course, we are neither rich nor famous, but one can always dream! And dream we do, as we saunter into the decadent hotel, 'Le Negresco' and savour its extensive collection of art, before sharing a cocktail in the bar, serenaded by a devilishly handsome young pianist in a tuxedo.

The Maeght Foundation
Day two finds us driving through the hills to Saint-Paul de Vence, one of the oldest medieval towns on the French Riviera, where we stop off at 'The Maeght Foundation' nearby. This amazing place houses one of the most important collections of modern art in Europe. Wandering arm in arm with Katie, we lose ourselves in its serenity, lulled by the song of the cicadas and intoxicated by the rich history of art that wraps itself around us. Finally, finding ourselves on the roof, we dare to stare down through the trees to the Mediterranean below and I think to myself, could it be, that somewhere inside I am falling in love with this magical place?

On our last night, sitting around the table in the shade of the ancient olive tree, my head is filled with images of hilltop villages overlooking the sea. Glitzy resorts like Cannes and St.Tropez, their vibrant colours reflected in works of art by Picasso, Matisse and Cézanne, complete the intoxicating heady mix of all that is the Cote d'Azur. In front of me, the table is laid with bowls of fresh herb salads, olives and tomatoes of every colour, from our trip to the market this morning.  As darkness falls, the sound of laughter around the table, under the stars in the hills above Nice, will return to me in my empty nest, along with the magic and colours of this beautiful place.

Chateau Noir Oil Painting by Paul Cezanne

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

The Family Return to Our Irish Nest!

As I promised in my last blog, you find my nest temporarily elevated to the magnificent setting of 'Ashford Castle' on the shores of Lough Corrib in the West of Ireland.  Why you may well ask, do I find myself in the sumptuous grandeur of one of the most famous hotels in the world? The corridors here are arrayed in pictures of the Hollywood glitterati, from Fred Astaire and Bob Hope, to, in more recent years, John Travolta and Brad Pitt, all of whom have been guests in this wonderful place. Well, the simple answer is one man and a dream to return to his homeland.

As a child growing up in the West of Ireland in the 1920s', dad's father had been acquainted with the owners of the castle and as a boy he had played amidst its acres of land and occasionally enjoyed games of table tennis in the big house. He dreamt one day of returning to the nearby village of his birth, where his childhood had been close to idyllic; swimming in the crystal clear waters of Lough Mask, fishing for trout and cycling for miles with his twin brother, on adventures straight out of 'Swallows and Amazons'.

He wanted to return, but not alone; he wanted to bring the whole family with him! And so it was that dad chose not to spend money on himself, but to treat his close family to a weekend with him in 'Ashford Castle'. Very soon, word spread to the extended family and all keen to return to their roots, the clan gathered in this magical place, from England, Ireland and as far away as Switzerland, all ready to share in our father's dream!

What a dream it turned out to be. We visited the old house where he grew up and in the local library, the librarian, who just happened to be involved in writing the history of the town, was fascinated to indulge dad in his countless reminiscences


Later that evening, under the sparkling light of huge chandeliers, we dined in splendour, dad surrounded by his whole family, now a guest in the castle where he once played as a boy. Retiring to the comfort of the lounge after dinner, a grand piano provided the music and, after a quiet word with the singer, we all watched with a tear in our eyes, as she sang the words of his favourite song 'Danny Boy' especially for him!  The night drawing to a close, dad took to the piano himself and, lost in the music of his youth, played 'Danny Boy' until it was time for bed!

We finished our weekend with a boat trip around the 365 islands on 'Lough Corrib'. The weather was kind to us and, as the boat pulled out from the jetty, the lilt of Irish music filled the air. Below deck, my daughter ordered 'Guinness' for everyone and we all shared a taste of the black stuff, as we made a toast to dad's dream and to a perfect day.

Tuesday, 2 October 2012

There Are Still Good Times To Be Had In 'The Empty Nest'!

Looking back over the last posts, I hope you have been able to keep pace with the ups and downs of my thought patterns, as I attempt to make sense of our lives since returning from France. In the previous blog, I advocate the 'empty nest' stage as the perfect time to find oneself a new direction in life. Indeed our three years in France achieved this perfectly.  What I didn't realise was that, as I found the answer to one life changing event, another was waiting in the wings!   

Losing my mum while living in France changed the dynamics of life once again.  Returning to France after her death, not only did I struggle to cope with losing the person who had been my best friend and support, but I soon became very aware that my eighty-three year old father was now 'home-alone' back in Ireland. When the 'empty nest' stage was almost solved, the problem of an elderly parent was the next challenge to be faced. As you will have gathered, we explored the possibility of moving dad to France, which proved to be rather like taking a fish out of water; eventually we gave in and moved our nest back to Ireland. The intention to return to France is always uppermost in our thinking, but with my husband's mother now widowed, we find ourselves with two elderly parents to consider.   

I am sure there are many of you out there who find yourselves confronted with both these scenarios.  It is a time in one's life when you need space to rediscover yourself, indeed to rediscover the person you have been married to for all these years! This becomes increasingly difficult, however, as life throws yet another spanner in the works, metaphorically speaking! 

Looking on the bright side of things, however, during this time of forced incarceration in the place of my birth, I have started my journey as a writer and, when I am not busy editing my book or searching for a literary agent, I find myself sharing a close relationship with my dad, as he increasingly demonstrates to me how to grow old disgracefully! In my next blog post, I must share with you the wonderful time we enjoyed, as we took him back to the place of his birth on the shores of Lough Mask in the West of Ireland, where we spent a magical night in Ashford Castle.  Yes, despite the hard, emotional ups and downs of every stage of life, there are indeed, always good times to be had!