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Published: Friday August 29, 2014 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Friday August 29, 2014 MYT 6:06:19 PM

Making the most of summer with the family

Easy days: Summer holiday is for soaking in the sunshine and catching up with cousins.

Easy days: Summer holiday is for soaking in the sunshine and catching up with cousins.

Summer holidays in France are for enjoying the outdoors and spending time with loved ones.

When you live in a country which has such a long winter season, the arrival of summer is greeted with giddy anticipation and familiar rituals. 

Meat counters at the butcher’s are dressed with barbecue fare. Ice cream trolleys decorate the pavements, tempting children on their way home from their last few days of school. Fruit and vegetable stands at the market overflow with luscious strawberries and cherries, an eye-popping assortment of tomatoes, peaches and nectarines and fragrant melons just ripe for lunch. Restaurants and cafés highlight their outdoor terraces. Sandal shopping is on everyone’s list of things to do, especially mine.

The streets in Paris empty out as soon as school closes for the summer. Children head off to summer camps, to their grandparents’ at the seaside or in the country, or to camping grounds with one parent while the working parent joins them on the weekends before their own holidays start.

Restaurants in the city put up signs of their annual summer closure. And then the final grand exodus for those month-long holidays begin, which causes 1,000km-long traffic jams on France’s highways. The city goes into shut-down mode.

When I was a little girl, we never went away for a week-long, what more a month-long, holiday. My father didn’t have the luxury of taking that kind of time off work, and hotel accommodation for a family of seven was not something we could easily afford.

Instead, on weekends – more precisely on Sundays because parents worked six full days a week in those days – we somehow all fit into the car and go in search of the perfect beach or waterfall. In those days, we had plenty of unspoilt choices in our home state of Penang and neighbouring Kedah.

My mother would have prepared the perfect Malaysian picnic – fried bee hoon with fat scrumptious prawns, curry puffs, sometimes even fried chicken wings, and orange cordial. We swam in our shorts and t-shirts, and never worried about sunscreens or hats. We didn’t get bored or worry about having to charge our smartphones. We stayed till sundown and we were happy.

Other days during our holidays, we just played hopscotch in our neighbours’ garden and only came home when mum hollered that it was time for dinner. Sometimes my brothers let me go kite-flying with them, although holding the kite was as far as I was allowed to do.

It was never too hot, and there was always a tree to climb. We lived in a kampung, in a house with a garden where our windows were open all day and night, and it was safe to cycle to the shops or to our friends’ houses.

Sweet melons is one of the pleasures of summer in France.
Sweet melons is one of the pleasures of summer in France.

Today, we live in an apartment in a city with close to 2.3 million people. We have brief encounters in the hallway with our neighbours from our apartment building, exchanging nothing more than a very polite bonjour madame, or bonjour monsieur. Discretion is key to Parisian apartment living.

Paris with its compelling beauty and grandiosity is easy to fall in love with. But the almost filthy Metro which serves more than five million passengers daily and the visible homeless remind us of a darker side to this city’s living. 

About 27 million visitors a year generate a lot of bustle, and an occasional escape from the bustling city is necessary for one’s sanity. Some people spend a week or two in a camping ground, or exchange houses with other like-minded families within or outside of France. Some, like us, have parents with homes in the countryside.

We also spend a week hiking in the mountains and stay in a modest hotel. My two demoiselles started hiking in their diapers, and now they can do six-hour walks. Of course, a little motivation helps and this can be in the form of a song, a game, or saucisson (a little like a salami) treat.

During these hikes, we have come across grazing sheep and cows (and a raging bull one year), dogs defending their farms, lone shepherds herding their cattle, wild horses. If we are high and lucky enough, we get to snack on wild blueberries on the way.

Dinner is a four-course meal at the hotel, where a room can come with a view. The food is always hearty and good, just what you need after a long hike in the mountains, and special to the region. Our day’s picnic, though, is much simpler, and nothing like my mum’s. In our backpacks, we have tomatoes, bread, saucisson, paté, or a can of sardines and some fruit. It’s French-style picnic.

I am sitting outdoors with my husband and his brother, who together with their father, have been recounting their own childhood holidays. They, too, spent long hours outdoors, trekking the French Alps. They recall funny – funny now, not so then – moments of wrong turns in the trails, their only water bottle emptying out upon tumbling out of the car trunk.

Horse-riding is a holiday activity that my children pursue with passion. They started riding only because horses were the only animals they were not afraid of. Along the way, I’ve since discovered that so many life skills can be learned in the equine world. 

Horseback riding is a physically and mentally demanding sport, but along with horse care it teaches communication and responsibility, empathy and compassion, leadership and teamwork. I know one day I can get them to clean their room with as much enthusiasm as they clean out stables.

Seeing family is very much a part of the French holidays. It’s precious time for grandparents, siblings, aunts, uncles and cousin alike. For us, a big family lunch in the month of August is part of the tradition. A grandmother was named after a saint, and every grandchild after her took her name as a second name. 

For as long as anyone can remember, every year the extended family gets together to celebrate the feast day of this saint. Since my mother-in-law’s passing, my husband and I have taken over organising and co-hosting this lunch. It’s the proverbial leisurely lunch, under the shade of a sweet-scented magnolia tree.

An aperitif, together with petit fours, is served when the guests arrive. We sit down for lunch about an hour later, already jovial. There will be servings of cantaloupe melon, homemade gnocchi-like little dumplings in a mushroom, olives and tomato sauce, roast lamb and green beans, a selection of cheeses and chocolate marquise. Everyone has contributed to this meal, which we all enjoyed with the best wines.

At lunch, there will be convivial debates about the wine or the cheese selection. Like Malaysians, the French love to eat and to talk about food at the same time. We will go for a late afternoon walk to digest the meal before I add my Malaysian touch to the day. There will be a dinner buffet served, which includes of course several Malaysian and Nyonya dishes. The curry puffs are always a big hit.

So, the summer holiday here for us is really about being outdoors, and being with family. It’s not so different from my own childhood. As I reminisce about those carefree days by the waterfalls and my mum’s fried bee hoon, I know my own children will one day remember that the simple pleasures in life are sometimes the most treasured. If it involves nature and life skills in some way, so much the better.

Tags / Keywords: Parentpost; Parenting; Family

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