Fifty Shades of Blue: Thalassotherapy Heaven

The Med and its marvellous colours

Today’s blog gets passionate about sludge.

Not just any old sludge. This kind comes in pots, hot, steaming and smelling remarkably like pongy seaweed, the sort that’s been lying about on a rock covered in sand flies and half-eaten by crabs. That’s because it is pongy seaweed, or used to be, before being put into a gigantic blender and turned into something that looks like potter’s clay.

It was the Spring Equinox and we were down on the Med, having fled to its balmy shores to escape the relentless onslaught of the mainstream media. The late great Douglas Adams had summed it up perfectly in 1980: ‘it is a well-known fact that those people who must want to rule people are, ipso facto, those least suited to do it.’ What more was there to add? We needed a therapeutic escape, something that tuned out our brains and tuned in our bodies. Sludge, in short.

Fade to fifty shades of blue and the plaintive songs of whales…

Sun rising on the wine-dark (sort of) sea

The sun rises on Day One at the Hôtel Les Flamants Roses, the beautiful Pink Flamingo Hotel on the water’s edge in Canet-en-Roussilon. The Maître de Maison and I have signed up at their thalassotherapie centre, (sea water therapy centre) for a ‘remise en forme’: five half-day sessions of ‘get back into shape’. Thanks to the magical properties of seawater and its products, the stiff and creaky hinges that attach my lower limbs to my torso will, five days hence, be whizzing back and forth like pistons on the Flying Scotsman (original version), the crunchy, gristly bits in my neck locking me into permanent ‘face forward’ position will have magically dissolved, allowing reversing of the car sans demolition of the garden wall, and the flaking, dingy envelope covering my body will be buffed to the pearly perfection of Venus rising in her cockleshell. The MDM’s knees will have lost their squeak, his bionic shoulder will be re-tuned to High C, and if he owned a Mercedes coupé he’d be able to vault into the driver’s seat without opening the door.

We know all this because we’ve been here before, in 2016. We now know, as ‘veterans’, the correct protocol. When removing swimsuits for a massage, for instance, the scrap of material lying on the end of the table is to be placed in fig-leaf position rather than on the head as a hairnet. The highly professional staff here have obviously been trained, like the Queen, to keep a straight face in all situations, but as the MDM observed the first time we came ‘Ah, vous devez en avoir vu des vertes et des pas mûres’–literal translation: ‘you must have seen some  green and unripe ones’, Yorkshire translation: ‘ee lass, tha’ must have seen a thing or two in this job’.

Arriving at the centre with swimsuits and flipflops, we are given fluffy towels, robes and our individually tailored programs and invited to lounge on sunbeds drinking herbal tea while waiting to be called for our first treatment.

The atrium and its mosaics

The spacious atrium opening up to the second floor looks a bit like the Alhambra, with pillars and decorative tiles and mosaics reflecting the colours of the Med and its sandy beaches. To either side are corridors and cubicles with closed doors from which splashes and gurgles can be heard. As you recline and sip, you can watch the aqua gym class taking place in the indoor pool with its jacuzzis and water jets. Beyond, visible through the vast windows at the end, is the sea. ‘Thalassa, thalassa!’ as the Ancient Greeks may have intoned (thalassa being the correct Greek word to use when addressing the sea, I am reliably informed) as they scanned the horizon hoping to catch a glimpse of Odysseus and his many-oared galley. The Med’s associations with the classical myths and legends that have nourished western civilization lends a mystic quality to this inland sea with its swiftly changing moods and endless palette of colours. From thunderous steel grey with angry whitecaps to scarcely a ripple,  a glassy expanse extending to a mirage-like horizon in blue, pink and mauve.

Douglas, Thomas Stearns and Big H. The perils of too much reading.

I was musing on such associations when we arrived for our first visit in 2016, feeling a bit nervous about that wine-dark stuff just a few metres away. Images of whirlpools and one-eyed giants kept popping up, accompanied by the opening bars of Jaws. Apparently 47 species of shark live in the Med (I checked) but fortunately, given their size, there didn’t seem much chance that one might insert itself into the pipes connecting the centre to the sea and shoot up in the middle of the aquagymers with a toothy grin. But what about poisonous jelly fish? Now they are quite slithery, n’est ce pas, and could easily wobble through a small vent…This time round, though, I am calm and confident, knowing what delights lie in store as I follow the uniformed assistant for my first treatment. In a dimly lit cubicle stands a bathtub the size of the Queen Mary. The smiling young lady helps me negotiate the gangplank, settles me into the warm water, squirts in copious amounts of liquid sludge, presses the button on the Starship Enterprise console, and tells me to lie back and relax. The lights go out, leaving me in the dark. There is a terrific rushing noise and suddenly the water stars to churn like the famous whirlpool of Charybdis. I am in the bain des multijets, which begins to glow with mesmeric colours, green, blue, and red, bubble, bubble, toil and trouble, ouch, the toe of frog has found that sore bit just below my left shoulder blade, ah, that’s better, heaven, I’m in heaven…there’s a beeping sound and I open my eyes. The gurgling has stopped. My body is warm and rosy and relaxed and my bones have been reduced to jelly. Have I been asleep?

I don’t have much time to reflect on the question before I’m up out of the bath and off to another cubicle where I’m told to take off my wet swimsuit and put on the Chippendale micro-thong. The door opens and another smiling person appears, carrying a pot of smelly brown substance and a large spatula. I am about to embark on an intensive Sludge session, otherwise known as Meet Your Inner Mummy. The Sludge Whisperer slathers me efficiently from scalp to toenail before wrapping me tightly in clingfilm, re-wrapping the cling film in a hot foil shroud and leaving end-product to bake like a plantain a clay oven. For someone a tad claustrophobic, this can be unsettling. The only way I got through the first session in 2016 without screaming to be let out was to channel The Hulk, visualizing myself giving a superhuman muscle flex and bursting through the bindings in the event of everyone else in the centre being suddenly struck down with a mysterious, paralysing virus.

Buffed to a pearly hue. Courtesy of Sandro Botticelli and Wikimedia Commons.

Finally I am unwrapped, hosed off, and left to inspect the finished product. I peer at my skin. Is it…can it be…the light is dim, I don’t have my glasses on, but surely…ô miracle!  From Ancient Lizard  to Diaphanous Dragonfly with one wave of the spatula!

But it’s not just your skin and muscles that are getting pampered. The approach here is multi-sensorial. As the heavenly hands of the masseuse banish the last drop of tension from your body, your nose is twitching with pleasure at the perfumed cloud of orange blossom released by the warm oil. Stretched out on the Hydrojet water bed, enjoying the thrills and drills of the Thousand Whirling Water Spouts which have swept in from the Pacific and are currently trying to burst through the mattress, revving up and down the spine (don’t stop!), digging in behind the knee (bliss!) pummeling the back of the head (just there!), seeking out every lingering ache and pain, you gradually fall into a trance as you gaze up at the ceiling.  This is no magnolia paint job; its chromotherapeutic display of waving palms and lotus blossoms, fading in and out of soft pinks and purples, transports you to tropical isles, borne on the wings of distant music, the Arcadian pipes of a naughty Pan or the plangent cries of whales calling to their young through the blue unfathomable depths. Or perhaps it is the mermaids singing?

the purple silhouette of the Albères, foothills of the Pyrenees.

By the end of the week our bodies don’t know what’s happened to them. The flabby bits have been pummeled into submission with powerful water jets, the bones have been baked in sludge, every muscle from cranium to toes has been massaged to ecstasy with fig oil and we glow as we walk into a room. On one perfect morning we were forced to cast off our Lotus-eating torpor and plunge into the outdoor pool for an Aquagym class. There, in the March sunshine, we leaped up and down singing Can’t take my Eyes off of You while admiring the purple silhouette of the Pyrenean foothills slipping down to the water’s edge and the glittering sea beyond.

Was that a mermaid in the distance, riding seaward on the waves, combing the white hair of the waves blown back…?

Wishing you all a very happy Easter weekend!

PS At the end of Biarritz-Villa Julia, Jill is busy organizing a ladies’ pamper day at the thalassotherapy centre of the Hôtel du Palais in Biarritz. If the French Summer Novels had been set on the Med, they’d have been booking in to the Hôtel les Flamants Roses, and Jill would have been the one singing off key with Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons in the outdoor pool…I’d like to say a huge thank you to all of you who bought copies of this last book in the series, and the four reviewers who put a spring in my step and a flip in my aqua-leap with your warm and wonderful 5-star words 😉

 

Biarritz-Villa Julia, the French Summer novels finale

Biarritz-Villa Julia cover Annette Wood

‘I laughed and cried and held my breath…’ To my astonishment, this  review of Biarritz Passion appeared in April 2014 on Goodreads (the world’s biggest online book community) just after the book’s publication. It was written by someone called Sue, and reading it was like one of those moments when the George Clooney lookalike at the party says ‘Hey, you’re looking nice tonight!’ and you turn round to see who he’s talking to. To say I was thrilled would be an understatement. Who was this unknown Sue, commenting on my very first novel? I gleaned a bit more information about her from her profile page (over 1000 books read, ‘Just a Grandma with a Kindle, dangerous when interrupted!!! ’) but not enough to send her a mega-box of Swiss chocolates and an invitation to spend her next holiday in the south of France. Not that I would have dared to do so, for on my steep learning curve as a brand-new, independent, fiction author, I had found out via Internet forums that author etiquette required stoic silence in reaction to reviews, particularly bad ones.*

Beautiful Biarritz

No matter how strong the urge to argue with the impudent coxcomb who had called your book a load of horse-manure, the advice was: DON’T DO IT. Similarly, falling on your knees and sobbing your thanks to those cultivated, enlightened literati who recognised your budding genius was also not allowed. Instead of good manners (don’t forget to say ‘please’ and ‘thank you’), this kind of behaviour could be interpreted as a buttering-up technique in the hopes of getting another five stars for the next masterpiece.

Sue, therefore, remained unthanked, but her words had struck a significant chord. They summed up in a nutshell what I hoped to do with my writing–make readers laugh, cry and hold their breath. Sue, if you should happen to read this blog on Goodreads, that’s how much your words meant to me, and I thank you most sincerely now.

Five years later, and here I am at the end of the journey, or at least the French Summer Novel journey, with the publication on February 7th of the last book in the series, Biarritz-Villa Julia, resplendent in a beautiful cover designed by Annette Wood. For bargain hunters, or simply those whose hearts have melted after reading the above, it’s available for pre-order now, in the US, and the UK here,  at the launch price of 0.99 cents/0.99 pence. An exerpt can be found at the end of this blog for anyone with the strength to continue reading 😉

A long journey with 100 notebooks

It’s been a long journey and a hard journey and a very exciting journey. When I started writing Biarritz Passion I didn’t actually know it was going to be the first book in a series, I was just so pleased to have the opportunity of doing something I’d always dreamed of–publishing a novel, thanks to Amazon’s revolutionary self-publishing programme, Kindle Direct Publishing. There are drawbacks to going it alone, however, as I soon found out. Writing the book is only the first step. Next comes formatting and uploading it, and, quelle horreur, trying to promote it. Fortunately, family and friends cheered me on, and soon another amazing thing happened. People I’d never met began to join in. Unknown readers, like Sue, wrote reviews. Established fellow authors gave encouragement. Book bloggers extended invitations: Bernard Arini, Jacqui Brown, Caroline Barker and Tina Williams, Chris Graham, Denise Baer and Barbara Webb all gave me a chance, and to all of you, grateful thanks. It was enough to make me believe in fairies, unicorns and the human race.

O Wall, full often hast thou heard my moans

Book 2 in the series came out in 2015, but as the writing of Book 3 got under way, I was confronted with another headache–the trials and tribulations of writing a series, especially an unplanned one. Papers piled up on the desk, the wall of the study became covered in arcane diagrams, arrows and post-its, even the bed got commandeered. The handful of characters in Biarritz Passion had grown to over 80. Keeping them all straight (who wore what perfume/drove what car/drank which scotch) was a nightmare. As I wrote in my October blog, I take my hat off to series writers, you are amazing, and I will be leaving your ranks as soon as I can extricate myself.

Even the bed got commandeered

Not only were there the factual details to get right, there was the logistical problem of how to conduct a string quartet which had somehow grown into a full orchestra with bells, canons and the Huddersfield Choral Society singing in the background. Was this final performance going to be musical mayhem, a debacle of discords, a tonal turkey? Would I have to crawl under my desk and never come out again?

And behold, dear readers, at that moment there was a tinkle of harp strings, a sprinkle of fairy dust and down from cyberspace came a fairy godmother in a sunbeam. ‘My name is Paula,’ she said, ‘can I help you?’

a sunbeam called Paula

A couple of years previously I’d chatted with a fellow bookworm on an Internet readers’ forum (maybe Jacqui Brown’s Francophile book blog?) After I joined Facebook, the bookworm  became a ‘friend’. In spring of 2018, when Biarritz-Villa Julia was two years late, she sent me a private message: where was the last book in the series, due out in 2016? She’d been looking all over for it…

Biarritz-Villa Julia is dedicated to Paula, bookworm, Facebook friend, and now real-life friend (we finally met in September), with heartfelt thanks. She read every chapter hot off the computer, sending back comments and corrections by return. She kept me in stitches with her hilarious e-mails and galvanised me into producing ‘the next bit, please’. As she licked both prose and author into shape, I reached out to two other people. Long-time dear friend, Miette, had read the manuscripts for the previous books, correcting my worst linguistic blunders (and not just the French ones). My brother, Michael, an unexpected beta reader, nobly put aside James Lee Burke, Michael Connelly and Peter May and stepped (vaulted?) out of his comfort zone, reading all of the French Summer Novels before applying a critical eye to this one. The feedback from both was invaluable (although next time, Michael, please don’t organise your comments on an Excel spreadsheet, you know I’m no good at columns).

The rocky road to love and life

So now it’s time for me to bid adieu to Villa Julia and the gang. And I’ll confess… I’m going to miss you (gulp). I’m hoping that your final adventures on the rocky road to love and the even rockier road to life are going to make readers laugh, cry and hold their breath, (and, who knows, maybe even write a review…😉)

Have a great weekend!

(*I have since learnt that you can ‘thank’ reviewers on Goodreads by ticking a box which says the review was ‘helpful’, and you can also send them private messages. Amazon is a different story.)

Read on for an exerpt from the new book…hoping to make you laugh (and maybe cry?), Chapter 11 features Gérard and Anouk, parents of Claudie, (who first appeared in Biarritz Passion) the romantic lead in this last book. They’ve travelled from Paris to take part in the big party at Villa Julia to celebrate the sixtieth birthdays of Anouk and her twin, Julie (mother of Edward). Here they are on the morning after their arrival.

11 GERARD AND ANOUK MAKE THE BED

‘Why can’t we get Madame Martin to change the bloody sheets? I’ve never got the hang of these damned quilt covers, don’t even know why we need a quilt anyway, it’s far too hot.’

‘Just concentrate, chéri, nearly there.’

Gérard had started the day most unusually by bringing his wife coffee in bed. Then he had promptly spilled it all over the clean bed linen.

Anouk, who had been luxuriating in her unexpected lie-in, had sprung to her feet, repressing a desire to strangle her husband as she rushed into the bathroom for towels to staunch the flood while he stood flapping his hands and swearing.

The previous evening they’d enjoyed a refreshing swim before falling on the wonderful meal prepared by Pete and Claudie. It had been late by the time they’d all straggled to bed, reluctant to leave the night garden, its pools of light, its mysterious rustles, its pine-scented fragrance. Figaro, prowling and sniffing under every bush, lifted his head to check on them from time to time, his yellow eyes like miniature headlights amid the shrubbery. As they were finally making their way upstairs, Adam, ever the English gentleman, had caught hold of Gérard’s arm.

‘What say we give our two wonderful ladies breakfast in bed tomorrow, eh Gerry? Let them have a lie-in after the long journey?’

Gérard’s face had been a picture. Anouk and Julie had burst out laughing. Gérard was definitely not a ‘let-me-bring-you-breakfast-in-bed-mon-amour’ kind of person. He had huffed, but he’d put a brave front on it, patting Adam on the arm and muttering ‘good idea’. At eight o’clock this morning Anouk had experienced the once in a lifetime surprise of seeing her husband march into the bedroom bearing a tray of croissants and a pot of coffee. Which he’d then proceeded to pour over the bed.

She could have cried. The coffee had smelled heavenly, the croissants were warm from the oven. She had instantly resolved on a revenge trip. Her husband was going to get his own once in a lifetime experience. He was going to help her change the sheets.

She clamped her lips together and tried to keep a straight face watching him fume as he wrestled with the quilt cover which had miraculously doubled in size. Damn. She should have got Antony to hide behind the armoire and film the sequence to put on YouTube.

‘In any case, Madame Martin has quite enough to do today, chéri. Plus she’s too old to be dealing with sheet-changing.’

This was a downright lie. Madame Martin, whose age was a thing of mystery, was as nimble as a cat. But the spectacle of Gérard’s face getting redder and redder and the sound of his breathing getting huffier and puffier as he fought to wedge the top corner of the quilt into the top corner of the cover was just too delicious.

‘Good, that’s it, now the bottom corner, see it’s not as difficult as you thought, is it? You’ll be able to help me at home.’

Gérard glared and wrenched the quilt out of her hand.

‘Very funny. Stand back while I give it a good shake.’

He sucked in his stomach and flexed his muscles. The quilt flew up and down a couple of times then settled across the bed. They both stared at it. On Anouk’s side it was perfectly aligned in its cover; on Gérard’s side a hunched, lumpy mess.

‘I think you’ve put your top corner in your bottom corner.’

Gérard flung up his hands.

‘Nonsense! You saw me put my top corner in my top corner. The thing must have twisted round, this is your side.’

Anouk folded her arms. She thought of the great philosopher, Michel Montaigne: ‘No retort is as biting as scornful silence.’

Her husband gave a strangled roar, drew a deep breath, then launched himself into the air and landed like a dead starfish, flat on top of the quilt, arms and legs flung out. He tried beating and kicking the corners into submission.

Merde!!!!’

He raised his head, breathless.

‘This is no job for a man, dealing with these…these female contraptions. We’re wired to judge the width of a car, you lot are wired to put quilts in covers. It’s simple biology.’

Anouk’s arms remained folded.

With a long-suffering sigh he got to his knees, stuck his head inside the cover and burrowed around furiously. Thirty seconds later he emerged, what was left of his hair standing up like a hoopoe’s crest.

There were now two indentations, like little ears, cosying up in the middle of the bed and a lot of empty cover dangling over the side.

Anouk gave a loud sigh.

‘Sometimes you can be so…medieval, chéri. Let’s start again. ‘Your lot’ will hold her side in place, while ‘Car Man’ sorts out his width problems on the other.’

She could have done the whole job on her own in a matter of seconds. But she wasn’t going to. The battle continued grimly until all four corners were finally in the right place.

‘Thank God for that. Now the damned coffee’s cold. What’s left of it.’

Gérard picked up the cafetière with a scowl.

Anouk righted the overturned cups and shook out the soggy croissants. She put the bundle of damp sheets in a heap in front of the door.

‘You can pop downstairs and put these in the machine, chéri, while you make a fresh pot. Is anyone else up yet?’

‘How the hell should I know? There was nobody in the kitchen except me and Adam, both of us wearing pinnies and preparing breakfast trays.’

‘That was a sweet idea of Adam’s, wasn’t it? I do hope Julie’s not having to change beds and mop up coffee on her nice lie-in.’

Satisfied that she’d made her point, she changed the subject.

‘So anyway, what do you make of Pete’s mother?’

Gérard gave a shrug.

‘Plenty to say for herself. Doesn’t mince her words.’

‘She is a bit ‘full on’, isn’t she? Not like her son. I do like that boy, he’s so polite and attentive as well as a natural charmer.’

‘Yes, well, I don’t know how he puts up with your daughter. God help the poor sod. She’s impossible to live with, look what happened with those others, that chap with the Porsche and the Rolex, he soon gave her her marching orders.’

Anouk’s nostrils flared.

‘It was our daughter who issued the marching orders, may I remind you. She wasn’t ready for marriage and motherhood, she hasn’t even finished her studies yet, and Stéphane was too demanding and self-absorbed. Personally I never took to him. A Porsche and a Rolex aren’t exactly character references.’

‘Too demanding! That’s a good one. She’s like the foutue queen of Sheba, our daughter, bossing people around, insisting she’s right about everything. She doesn’t deserve a nice guy like Pete.’

‘She’s not bossy. She’s feisty. She has strong opinions which she’s not afraid to express but she’s ready to listen to others. She’s independent. And funny.’

Gérard rolled his eyes heavenwards. He picked up the bundle of sheets and opened the door.

Anouk got back into bed.

‘And neither do you.’

‘Neither do I what?’

‘Deserve me. Don’t trip as you’re going downstairs.’

As the door banged, she sank back against the pillows. Her thoughts wandered to her beautiful new dress, hanging in the wardrobe. Creamy white linen. The colour of honeysuckle petals. It would look stunning against her tanned arms and dark hair. And so would Julie’s gorgeous number in indigo blue silk, the bleu de Lanvin. Sixty? Pah. Sixty was nothing these days. When they were young they’d worn flowers in their hair and followed in the footsteps of their role models, the two brilliant Simones, Simone de Beauvoir and Simone Veil. When they stood side by side on the day of their birthday, ready to greet their guests, they’d look like a million dollars.

And so would her daughter. Her feisty, funny, independent, loving, loveable daughter.

And merde to her antiquated father.