As you were! About turn! Oh dear, oh dear!
But I'd better put this into French. Can't have you leaving this column saying you haven't learnt anything neat and zingy to zap into your French conversation classes or to impress your French neighbours or - should this ever come your way, you never know what's round the corner - drilling your squad of French square-bashers:
Revenez! Demi-tour! Zut alors!
But translating 'Oh dear, oh dear' is far from easy. There's so much to choose from. Mercredi! Purée! Punaise! (these are euphemistic substitutes for stronger expressions, like 'shoot' and 'sugar' in English, which puzzle Johnny foreigner no end) Mince! Mon dieu! Sapristi! Nom d'une pipe! - and of these and many more I've chosen Zut alors! because it was the invariable expression of my old friend César the estate agent whenever anything went wrong. (And if he was still alive he'd be zut-alorsing as though it was his personal property, because just now the French real estate business is in a bad way.)
What's all this about, then? Well, I'll tell you. We've had to change our attitude. Complete about turn. We've been here so long - 17 years in my case - that when we hear other expats banging on about their pet ways to get themselves back to Blighty we suspect chronic cases of apron-string trouble, stifle yawns and find someone more interesting to talk to . . .
. . . but almost every month this year we've had to trek back to the UK for one reason or another. Scratch expats of our generation and you find very elderly parents needing support and succour. Scratch deeper and you find split-new grandchildren that absolutely have to be oohed and aahed over. Scratch deeper than that and you find dark thoughts about maybe coming home one day lurking round the corner, before they bathchair you off to the maison de retraite to end your days toothlessly mumbling zut alors! to your zimmer.
Having to go to Cornwall to ooh and aah and aahgue about whose eyebrows the new grandchild has inherited, we decided to drive up from home in the Languedoc to Brittany and catch the night ferry across to Plymouth. We had an afternoon in hand, not really long enough to see much of Brittany, a province Josephine knew slightly better than I, who'd never been there before. To concentrate matters we took in the QUIs, starting with Quiberon and carrying on the good work in Quimper.
Quiberon turned out to be a small town on the end of a long spit, something like Portland at the end of Chesil Beach. I'd known of it, at least of Quiberon Bay, since I was about 12, when the history exams we had to prepare for had questions like Write Short Notes On Any Two Successes In The Year of Victories, a sly question which sank you with all hands if you didn't know when the Year of Victories was. We drove the 15 kilometre length of the spit and parked almost at its tip, the Pointe du Conguel, where there were wide views over Quiberon Bay and its islets and shoals. A stiff south-westerly breeze was blowing, sending white horses galloping over the water and streaming the hair of some local schoolkids orienteering, not an obese child among them nor one preferring walking to running energetically. During the Seven Years' War, in 1759, the same wind trapped the Comte de Conflans' 21 men-of-war in Quiberon Bay, allowing Admiral Sir Edward Hawke's ships to shatter the French fleet. Only the onset of the November dusk prevented total annihilation of the French. It was the Trafalgar of the 18th century, and standing on the sea-wall, back to the wind, eating my baguette sandwich, I could close my eyes and, ever a prisoner of a too-lively imagination, could see it all happening.
(The other 1759 victories - zut alors! once a teacher, always a teacher - were the Battles of Lagos and Minden and the capture of Quebec. That made the score - if you include Quiberon Bay - Great Britain 4, France 0. Great score, stirring times. The contemporary author and politician Horace Walpole wrote of them 'One is forced to ask every morning what victory there is, for fear of missing one.')
We moved on to Quimper, which again I'd known about since I was 12 because at that time a schoolfriend had gone on holiday to nearby Concarneau and had brought back a small dish, decorated mostly in blue and yellow featuring an old-fashioned peasant carrying a rake, from a place he pronounced 'kwimpa'. Hoots of laughter from our French teacher: had he gone all that way and hadn't learnt that the name of the town was pronounced 'kam-pair'?
We found several shops in Quimper selling the famous blue, white and yellow ceramic ware in a wide variety of the useful and ornamental. The various factories making it since 1420 have known mergers and ups and downs, and if a Dutchman called Paul Janssens hadn't bought up and breathed new life into an ailing concern in 1984 we wouldn't have been able to buy a Quimper-ware porringer and dish for the newborn infant across the Channel.
If ever you're booked on to the Roscoff-Plymouth ferry and find yourself in the attractive little port of Roscoff with time on your hands, do try the moules marinières at the Auberge du Quai. You'll seldom find better elsewhere. Ours came in a large bowl divided into two sections by a ridge across the middle, one section for the mussels and the other for the shells. They served them simply with a spoon, for the broth at the bottom of the bowl, so it was as well that Josephine, always adept in such matters, had taught me several years ago how best to cope with moules: hoick your first mussel out in any way you can, probably with your fingers, and then use the empty twin-shell as a pair of pincers to deal with all the rest. She herself had learnt this trick from an impeccable source, the communist maire of Plouganou, while organising schools exchange visits to Brittany back in the 20th century.
And that's the Campbell's Diary guide to Brittany. Not overdoing it, is it? And while we've declared a truce in steering clear of France-UK travellers' tales, I'm going to recommend the best coffee and croissants in all France, an ambitious notion if ever there was one. We drove back via Calais and Abbeville and thence on to Rouen, thus skirting Paris and its snarl-ups well to the west. We sailed through Rouen on wings of diesel, picked up the A13 towards Paris and turned south a few kilometres further on, towards Louviers and Evreux. Many Brits appear to take this route, but I wonder how many heading south take the first exit signposted Evreux, find themselves in a ribbon-development sort of place called Gravigny, drive on for about 2 kilometres and stop outside an unpretentious bar-café, brasserie and tabac on the right called La Bièraubeurre? Mme Dominique Beaumesnil presides behind the bar. Her grand crème and croissants will set you up for a long, long time, fortifying you for the desperate southwards crawl to Chartres and beyond, until you pick up the autoroute again north of Orleans. That's my opinion, anyway. I expect you know better. Zut alors!