The church tower in Lake Issarlès, high in the Ardèche mountains of southern France, rings at the top of every hour, four minutes early. It is at odds with its sleepy community, which tends to stir late.
Lakes are a boon in continental summers, especially when the sea is far away. Crowds come from the sweltering valleys to cool down here; to relax and to swim.
As I arrived on Thursday, the sunbathers were legion and hoards of kids played along the lakeshore, building sandcastles and throwing balls.
Sipping a coffee non-sucré, I casually study French parenting. It is somewhat different, and I attempt to discern why.
Perhaps it is this. Dads are more present, and they’re more the focus of their children’s quest for attention. ‘Papa!’ I hear the kids call out, as they throw out an idea, or an experience, or an opinion, or a plea towards Dad’s ears. I have never heard an equivalent for ‘the Irish Mammy’ here. It’s not that French mothers aren’t pivotal; it’s just the they’re not fetishised.
Further, French parents, I decide, hold their children by the hand more – way more – than at home. I doubt this is about safety. More likely, it is a simple pleasure, which manifestly pleases all.
One bad weather forecast can convert Lake Issarlès into a ghost town. And this happened the day of my arrival. The people of the valley (Lyon, principally) are fickle, and they easily create other plans. Within 24 hours, the bars and kitchens around the Lake are left swinging wide open.
My growly hotelier is dressed in pantaloons which I take for pyjamas. Though he appeared adversarial at first, we warmed to each other. We spoke about the season (wobbly) and about the spiralling energy prices in France (+10% in the month of August alone) which have the hospitality industry on edge. He can only pass price increases on slowly. The loss, therefore, is never fully made-up.
What sweet relief it is to come into one’s own en-suite hotel room, having camped in the wild long grass, during a storm, followed by a gorge crisis with a recalcitrant donkey, in 32 degree heat.
Indeed, I have two residences at this lake. The other is a campsite which offers donkey lodgings in the shape of an expansive grassy paddock. I intend to use the tent only to store my saddle bags, but decide to offer no explanation to the owner, whose favourite expression is “cash only”. The great benefit of dealing with the mercenary is that they don’t give a damn for explanations, as long as you slap those dollars down.
Being on a day of rest, the next morning I took a walk around the lakeshore at daybreak, sharing the experience with a single dog owner. The tourists were gone, and the shouting children silenced. Only their sandcastles remained; a memory of play and pleasure, gifted by waters without tides.
Those billowing pantaloons were actually chef’s attire. It turns out this hotel is more or less run by one man. After a lovely dinner at my hotel restaurant, I sat deliberating dessert. The creme brûlée with a hint of vervain looked wonderful, mostly because of the subtle green hue within the scorched custard cream.
Happy with my selection and waiting for the waiter, I happened to move my t-shirt sleeve, and caught sight of a pimple.
Strange place for a pimple, under the arm.
I had a closer look, and became curious. So curious that I took a picture, all the better to magnify and inspect.
It’s a damned living tick, attached to my living underarm! A disease-bearing, ugly little tick! I could count four legs. The other four have already… entered the building.
I went directly to the waiter, who called on his Dad – my growly hotelier in the kitchen.
Dad came out and inspected my arm, and calmly confirmed that it was a tick. He explained that he was a hunter and was used to them, especially in his dogs.
In under a minute, I was staring at his tick kit: a pair of hooked tweezers, antiseptic and wipes. The operation began, and consisted of precise placement, then gentle rotational movement of the tweezers. After three turns, out came the arachnid, eight legs squirming.
He looked it over.
You should be ok, he said. It’s small. It hasn’t begun feeding on your blood yet…
My saviour hotelier didn’t quite understand why I was so grateful for his timely intervention. He seemed disinterested in my expressions of thanks. He would have done it for anyone, including his dog.
I returned to the crème brûlée at my table, and spent the rest of this slow evening googling Lyme disease rashes, and how they might accurately be discerned.