On my first holiday to France, I was so small that I had to be bathed in the washing-up bowl. In the photos, a speckly, eczema-ridden baby peeks over the plastic rim of the bowl, looking bemused. Mum’s dungarees and the battered grey tent in the background easily date the photo to the early 90s.
After my dad died last summer, I decided to move to France. I wasn’t sure if I was running away from grief, or running away from boredom after the stale, long months of lockdown. Or perhaps I wasn’t running away at all, but running towards an adventure that Dad had always dreamed of having, in a country that he had held so dear.
Dad adored France. The idea of moving to France was broached time and time again over family dinners. He would cite success stories of families that had moved to France with their young children (my maternal uncle, family friends down the road, someone that he’d read about in the paper). The families in question returned with stories of blue shuttered gîtes and the perfume of Provençal lavender fields, and sponge-like offspring who cussed in fluent French.
During these conversations, Mum would cling to her chair as if it were about to set sail across the Channel unbidden, and list all the reasons that we couldn’t possibly move.
So we had to make do with our annual holidays instead. Armed with heavy boxes of cassette tapes of Stephen Fry narrating Harry Potter, we’d board the ferry and head for Eurocampsites in Brittany, the Vendée, the Lot or Île de Ré.
I vividly remember a camping trip in Brittany, aged nine, when the rain beat down relentlessly on our canvas roof for 14 consecutive days. We played endless games of Happy Families until we were sick of the sight of grand-mère and grand-père from la famille Boulanger. Still, Dad’s enthusiasm for France didn’t wane.
Last May, Dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer. We lost him a month later. After a summer of indescribable pain, I quit my job and moved to Lyon. The last time I’d visited had been with Dad. When I’d started university, we’d begun to go on weekend trips, just the two of us: the perfect way to spend quality time together once I’d left home. Lyon had been the most recent. I’d made a photo collage of our trip and he’d hung it beside his chair in the kitchen. Smiling photos of the two of us dining at Lyonnais bouchons; Dad looking smart in his panama hat.
When I finished primary school, the novelty of playing Happy Families in a soggy tent wore off. I dreamed of going to Longleat, Centre Parcs, or to Disneyland Florida, like “normal” families. But still we went to France each year, determinedly camping, whatever the weather.
Dad retired and started French classes. His speaking left much to be desired, but he became a prolific reader of French literature, and he’d bore me with lengthy commentaries on Madame Bovary. When the time came to choose my GCSEs, I tried my hand at a weak teenage rebellion and told him that I was giving up French.
The fury that met this pronouncement was stronger than when he had discovered a stash of Bacardi Breezers in my room.
“If you give up French, I’m stopping your allowance,” he told me flatly. While bribery and blackmail might not be orthodox methods recommended in parenting manuals, to a teenager who was dependent on her pocket money to buy cheap alcopops and Charlie Red body spray, it had the desired effect. I took GCSE French and muddled through well enough to translate Dad’s demands for jus de pomme de terre to confused-looking waiters in Breton cafés.
“He wants apple juice, not potato juice,” I’d explain. Such a staggering level of competence now made me invaluable for Dad’s trips to France.
My teenage rebellion went from limp fish to non-existent and I continued French to A-level, and then at university. I began to understand why Dad loved French culture so much. I took delight in cycling to the campsite shop to pick up a fresh baguette and a jar of Bonne Maman for petit déj. The sight of stormy coloured Breton houses with slate roofs and neat cornrow fields of artichokes filled me with joy.
And then Dad and I started escaping to France without the rest of the family. We spent jam-packed days filled with impressionist galleries, long walks along the banks of the Seine and sustenance in the form of café gourmand from backstreet bistros. He’d tell me about his first trip to France, at the age of 15 in the post-war years. He and his friends had cycled around the country for six weeks, sleeping in bombed-out cemeteries and washing in the Loire.
In Lyon, I cycle everywhere, although nothing is going to entice me to swim in the Rhône. At weekends I often camp, but in national parks and mountain ranges rather than bombed-out cemeteries (fortunately in short supply these days). I write about French life in cafés with checked tablecloths. I stroll through the Beaujolais vineyards as the trees turn flame-hued with the progression of autumn. Nothing, not even running away to France, can lessen my grief, but in a funny way it has made me feel close to Dad.
In fact, with each day of exploration, I’m more certain that my father would have loved this life, and try to imagine what he would have felt about my move. Probably a hefty dose of envy, that I’m getting to do what he never had the opportunity to – but pride, too. Finally he has a daughter who can swear fluently in French.
A return train journey from London to Lyon takes less than five hours (return Eurostar tickets from London to Paris start from £39pp. In Paris, transfer to the TGV. Tickets between Lyon and Paris start at £13.98). Fourvière Hotel (00 33 4 74 700 700; fourviere-hotel.com) offers double rooms from £124 per night
For full details of entry requirements and Covid rules for your favourite destinations, including France, see telegraph.co.uk/tt-travelrules. Refer to gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice for further travel information