I Know What You Did This Summer

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Holiday Selfie!

Without a doubt, summer is when having a house in France is less folly and more jolly. The prospect of weeks with no school, constant sunshine, a pool to splash about in, ice cream and crazy golf means we pile into our knackered and dirty estate car like kids going on a school trip! And this is despite a 14 hour drive ahead of us. And once we’re through the Euro tunnel, we get Virgin Radio blaring (as Peter insists on Radio 4 when anywhere within reception – he did once manage to even get crackly, faint reception for Gardners Question Time somewhere around Calais, but once we hit the motorway, the boys and I take over). And after twelve hours of listening to Olly Murs, Icona Pop and Robbie Williams, we get to our house tired, excited and sick of the sight of each. It is, by now, sometime in the evening so we do what everyone does when they go on holiday to France – we head out for Pizza.

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Our usual table!

We have been eating Pizza at Restotop – a shabby on the outside, top pizzas on the inside – local restaurant since Sebastian was so little they used to bring him a booster seat just to reach the table. Serge the owner (another Serge – it’s confusing I know) greets us like long lost relatives on arrival, probably as, since buying our house we’ve racked up around 100 visits to Restotop bringing large groups of friends with us each time so in essence have possibly doubled his profits.

And a quick flick back through my photo stream shows dozens of photos of the White Family eating pizza and drinking diet coke or Pression or Rose (delete as appropriate) outside Restotop. And the children have gone from throwing tantrums in there (Seb aged three), to smashing glasses (Seb aged three and a half), to learning french for mint ice cream (Seb aged 5) to sauntering over to Serge at the end of our meal and asking, in French, for the bill (Arthur aged 10). They’ve also boldly expanded their pizza ordering from margarita with olives to Calzone with mushrooms and a runny egg. And there is something very reassuring about arriving at a restaurant when you are tired and emotional and having someone say ‘Bon soir’ and kissing you. And so the tradition sticks – first night equals Restotop night.

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And then we do it all again on the last night too. The Restotop bookends we call them. And its not a holiday if we haven’t done this. Even though its not french, its not quaint and its not very pretty. The pizzas are delicious and the kids love it and secretly we do too. In fact, the only sad bit about our final visit to Restotop is it means the holiday is over…..

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Sad Face Selfie!

How many bedrooms DO you have?

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See it IS like a boutique hotel!

Now that the house was almost fully functioning (don’t get me wrong – there is A LOT still to do/finish and even when we do there are barns and woods and by then the house will need redecorating – the kitchen already looks like it could do with a lick of paint!) we had more guests putting in requests to come and stay.

I remember reading an article written by Daisy Waugh years ago about why they finally sold their house in France. It was because she got fed up with people using it like a hotel and having to spend all her holidays cooking and cleaning for other people. And I also remember thinking – well that will NEVER happen to me cos my friends are not annoying posh people like hers and I love them all. And I do. And in fact it feels really quiet chez White when there is just us there. And as the house got more furbished – it became much easier to have larger groups of people all at the same time. And in Easter 2013 we hosted our biggest house party to date.

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A house big enough for 3 families! (just)

Many years earlier (too many to start counting but put it this way ER was the ‘hot new TV show’ at the time) I had shared a home in South West London with a group of total strangers I found via a thing called Loot. It was a listings newspaper that came out every week and people would place adverts in it for flat/house shares. These were the days before the internet when you actually called people up using a landline to arrange appointments to view. And so I went along, 21 years old and just out of Uni to look at a house on a street called Cavendish Rd in Balham. I ran into two people called Darren and Isobel on the way in who had just graduated from Cambridge and were looking for a place to move to in London. And that was that. We decided we sort of liked the look of each other and we sort of liked the house so we took it and moved in together. We found two others and our five bed house was full and the ‘Cavendish Rd’ gang were born. The later additions via moves, different shares etc included Dan, a fellow Cambridge Grad and Petra my now best friend and at the time, colleague of Darren. And those three years learning to be a grown up were some of the most fun of my life. Like Uni days but with a bit of disposable income. We lived mostly on a diet of Chardonnay and Covent Garden Soup Company soup. And we got promotions, changed career directions, fell in love (not with each other – phew) and because we had each other, it was OK that our boiler broke every winter. Or that the furniture in our big, ugly, rented house looked like people may have died on it years earlier. So, when, in 1996 I was offered a job in Australia, the decision to leave Cavendish Rd was made with a very heavy heart.

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young and foolish

But, it was a promotion and it was AUSTRALIA! I had to go right? But as the Cavendish Rd crowd waved me through to departures at London’s Heathrow I sobbed into my passport and wondered if I’d made a terrible mistake.

But everyone’s lives moved on – the house share broke down and people graduated into smaller flats with working bathrooms. We all became proper grown ups. Darren even got married and before long everyone else did too. And then we had kids. Two each. And so that we didn’t lose touch with one another we arranged (and still do) every year to go away for a weekend somewhere with all our kids and we refer to it as the Cavendish Rd Weekend Away. Twenty adults and twenty kids.

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OMG we had kids!!!

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Darren leading the 20 strong Cavendish Rd gang today!

And somewhere in the midst of all of this, someone suggested that a Cav Rd sub group could come over to France for Easter. And so that’s what they did. There was a bit of overlap which meant Darren, Dan and I plus our partners and kids could sit in my kitchen in SW France and wonder if we could ever have imagined all those years ago that one day, twenty or so years hence, we’d still be friends. And our wives, husbands et al would be friends. And our kids would be friends. And we’d be friends with each other’s kids as they grow older and develop personalities of their own. And Dan’s daughter Suki taught Seb how to play backgammon. Then Seb taught Suki how to shout ‘poo poo head’ really loudly at your parents.

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And Dan taught Peter and I how to play bridge and got really cross when we beat him and his wife Louisa (beginners luck)

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And on Easter Sunday we had a feast that didn’t involve any Covent Garden Soup Company Soup at all. See. We HAVE become grown ups!

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recap recap – where ARE we up to?

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Book em danno

So blog lovers, its time for a recap. We are now three Christmases into our French Home project and each year the tree gets bigger. This year we have plans for a Poseidon Adventure style tree that we’ll tip upside down at midnight and climb up the middle like Shelley Winters and Gene Hackman (younger blog readers – ask your parents!)

But what’s really going on with the house? How do we feel about it now? Now that the days of peeing in a bucket and not showering for days are over has it been worth it?

Truthfully the jury is still out. Sometimes when we’re in France and we’re cycling around in the sunshine it seems totally worth it. And just the idea that we actually OWN a lovely big house in France is so bonkers it makes me happy. But there are lots of days when I would like a)the money we’ve sunk into this project and b)the opportunity to visit other places. When friends regale us with tales of luxury resorts where they stick their kids in clubs where they learn to water ski or do macrame workshops I wonder if that’s what I should be doing. And it also means that I never truly relax. Like never. I work five days a week, I do housework at home in England in a house we’re renovating and as I live with three men/boys it is never clean. I barely keep on top of the kids increasingly busy lives and then when I go on holiday I’m cooking and cleaning there. We have no nannies to help with childcare (Peter and I do it all ourselves around our jobs), I have no parents nearby to babysit or do emergency pick ups and then I go on holiday where aside from the Landauers coming in to clean (and its about time to note that this is the beginning of our eventual breakdown in relations with the Landauers… more on this in a further blog) I’m then running a household of guests and families in France. In short – I’m exhausted. Brutally. Every fibre of my being is spent and emotionally it has started to take a toll.

But is this the fault of the house in France? Would a two week sunshine break alleviate all the above? If we lived in a wipe clean tiny new house in London would I still find week old pants under a bed and have to pick them up and move them to an overbulging wash basket? And if we had a nanny to give my children nutritious meals that involved some sort of green vegetable would Sebastian still refer to everyone he meets as ‘poo poo head’?

Can I really ‘blame’ my french house for all of the above? Who knows? So perhaps this is a good opportunity to really focus on the stuff that is great about having a house in France – especially as it is now fully habitable and we have in a sense realised ‘our dream’. The sense of achievement in that is second to none. Just the idea that you could go from this

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To this….

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Is such a major achievement I am metaphorically patting myself and Peter on the back on a daily basis. And I think, importantly as you grow older and your marriage becomes more mundane (sorry Pete but you know, I mean this with affection!) you need something that binds the two of you. For some that’s playing tennis together, for us, it’s talking about our French house. Planning our next bit of the project, sitting opposite each other at the dining table on our respective lap tops, me googling designer furniture sites, him sourcing broken tractor parts on eBay! And I am convinced that this sense of joint achievement and the fact that when we are in France we are able to experience a sense of actually living in a foreign country as opposed to ‘just visiting’ is a truly worthwhile experience. Sitting in our kitchen playing scrabble as a massive fire burns is a very gratifying feeling.
You just don’t get that if you’ve just done two weeks in Santorini do you?

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Full House!!

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And then the Levetons arrived. And the house in France was as full as it had ever been during our ownership. We had six Candys, four Whites and now four Levetons. And everyone introduced themselves and although Candys and Levetons have met over the years they don’t know each other very well at all. And we all did lots of grand emotive ‘marvelous to see’ you sort of air kissing. And then Benny and Seb probably starting fighting as this is what they both love to do.

Best friend Petra has been best friend Petra (as opposed to Petra who works with friend Darren which is how she first entered my life) for twenty years or so. We met when we shared a house together back in the early 90s when she was a young accountant, I was an editorial assistant and we shared a diet of covent garden soup company soups and Jacobs Creek Chardonnay. Apart from our love of dry white wine we had little in common. It still baffles our other mutual friends that we were and are still so close. Petra is sensible. I am not. She has a big serious job these days doing something big and serious in a big bank. I edit a magazine about shoes and lipsticks. If we were in a Bronte novel, she would be that good and sensible older sister who wears her hair in a bun and marries well while I would have ringlets and be running off with some penniless, handsome soldier to Brighton! But best friends we are. And her daughter Cara is my god daughter and I aim to be a terrible influence on her and steer her into some highly inappropriate career in the media. In turn Petra is godmother to my eldest son Arthur and I expect her to return the favour and convince him to go into banking, earning loads of money so he can keep us all when we are old.

The Levetons were repeat guests and Cara was rightly a little miffed that ‘her’ room where she stayed last Easter had been given over to Mabel and Henry for the duration of their stay and she and brother Benny were squeezed into the guest room with their Mum and Dad. At least for the nights of overlapping guests. But to lighten the initial faux bonhomie I decided to take everyone to the La Maison Des Chameaux. Where better to bond than in a muddy field covered in Llama poo?

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We can at La Maison Blanche provide wellies now for every size child as we’ve been collecting them over the years, so while the girls had style issues (tho Gracie, who has forged a pretty great fash-identity already by dressing in boys clothes 80% of the time was thrilled with her black pirate ones) we made like we were off to a festival.

And Sarah and Paul welcomed friends of La Maison Blanche to La Maison Des Chameaux with bras ouvert. Opening up, letting the kids feed the animals and showing them some basic goat and sheep training which for 8 kids who have been born and raised in central London is like seeing rhinos mating in the wild. And although my friends who between them edit a fashion magazine and do something important in banking are more used to lives that involve expensive restaurants and private hire cars (NB Petra stopped drinking Jacobs Creek a LONG time ago) in vertiginously high heels, they both threw themselves into a day of mud and camels.

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And they have both dined out on tales of their friends’ friends who have camels and live in SW France. And the children tell their friends at central London day schools of the time they fed real, live, llamas and their friends probably have to google ‘live animal’ just to verify their existence.

And in the evening we invited Sarah and Paul from the Maison Des Chameaux to dinner and they brought their boys and Troy, an American 20something student who was living with them for six months to get some vet training. And Peter was able to bore/regale Troy with the story of how he was cut from the film Titanic. And Petra, Lorraine, Sarah and I were able to drink lots of rosé and dance in the kitchen. And the kids all watched a film or played table football until they were so tired they begged us to let them go to bed! And they were probably a bit bored of their rosé weary mothers saying what a “lurrvley time all of us togethuuur were haaaving”

Which left just Richard and Shona to arrive…. And for THAT We definitely needed a bigger cubivin!

mid century moderniser and friends with a chateau

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Old stuff but not THAT old

I love mid -century modern furniture. Although, to be honest, I didn’t even know what that was until a few years ago. You may not know what it is. In short, if you are my age (27 -haha!) its the stuff your parents probably had in their starter homes and threw out when you were about six or seven in favour of ‘nice new stuff’ My parents used to have an amazing massive glass lamp stand with a huge bright orange linen shade which I remember thinking looked a bit odd at the time. They also had a scratchy brown wool sofa with wooden feet that again I hated on the grounds that a)it was brown and b) it was scratchy but looking back it was all deeply cool. So much so, I have essentially recreated the look to go in my kids sitting room in france only the sofa isn’t scratchy or brown. (see above)

The best place to buy mid century modern furniture is of course ebay using searches like G Plan, Eames, danish, or retro. Sadly people these days are very aware that people like me want this old stuff so they charge a premium but if you use plenty of different search terms and DON’T search for mid century modern (cos really only those in the know would use this term – Gladys throwing out her old sideboard in Penge would never refer to it as such!) you can still get some bargains – thanks Gladys!

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We have a sideboard just like this in London

Or, even better, you do what we did and you find a sofa lying on the road… this is the story of the yellow G Plan sofa in the picture at the top….

A couple of years ago, I was on my way to our local station to go to work. And on the way there I passed a tired, broken, ripped up old sofa. It was G Plan style and just the sort of thing I love. But the cushions were dirty and torn and it looked terribly sad. And it had been dumped on the street unloved and unwanted. So I did what any sane person would do – I phoned my husband and told him to come down the road and get it. Carry it home on his back and find it a home. He told me to bugger off. He had a point. So I went off up West to work and forgot about the sofa.

A few months later as the tennants were being thrown out of the house we would later buy -which I forgot to mention in earlier blog post is actually six doors down from where we were living – and as part of their clearout they had dumped a sofa on our street outside the house. MY SOFA! It had manage to move closer to where i lived all by itself. Like the Littlest Hobo. Or those cats that cross continents to be reunited with previous owners who moved away without taking them.

So Peter had to go and get it now. The furniture gods had spoken. And so we brought it home and then drove it down to France. And in the meantime we bought an upholstery gun and some staples and a retro fabric from John Lewis who do a great range in 1950/60/70s fabrics called Atomic.

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John Lewis fabrics with a retro feel

And I got my sewing machine out and made some new cushion covers for it – with zips no less! And ta da suddenly it looked how it does above. And it had only cost us the price of the fabric. And I love it. Though not entirely snuggly (see above comments about scratchy sofa – the seventies were NOT a time of comfort) it does provide the perfect place for me to sit and read French Grazia in the winter.

But where else can you find such gems IN France? Well, as it turns out this is around the time we met some lovely English people called Stephen and Philippa. They live in an amazing chateau in a village called Aignan – and from there they sell brocante. And they have lots of mid century modern stuff there (as well as properly old stuff too) so I bought my crazy orange lamp and a black leather chair (see below – covered in teddies).

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Chair from Brocante Lassalle

And as small world would have it, Stephen lived in Greenwich before moving to France and Philippa is a fashion editor so it was more than furniture kismet that we were introduced to them and their chateau and their brocante. And now we often bump into them on Sunday’s at Vide Greniers and race each other for the mid century gems! And for New Year this year, they invited us over and we felt very grand telling people we were spending new year at a chateau. Which should you have some spare cash is currently for sale. Go on – its a bargain!Image

Kitchen on a budget

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OK so for all the interiors lovers reading this blog I thought I should start doing some ‘get the look’ posts. I am, after all, a journalist – so if I can’t do the research for you then its not much of a blog. You want links right? You want to be able to buy the stuff I’ve bought for my house and recreate it in your own home. Such an interiors addict am I that some of my children’s first words were ‘tear books’ and ‘mood boards’. So here in the first of a series is my GET THE LOOK page…. first up – kitchen

VÄRDE Base cabinet IKEA Free-standing; easy to place and move. Adjustable legs; stands steady on uneven surfaces too.

Ikea varde base unit

Kitchen units – IKEA VARDE and as I already explained – my particular Varde units were bought via ebay making them even cheaper than IKEA! As this is a freestanding kitchen, it seems that people quite often buy these as a temporary measure while having a kitchen fitted so there are lots of them on ebay in really good condition. And they come with worktops so you can just buy and throw into a room and you are done!

VÄRDE Wall shelf Width: 50 cm Depth: 21 cm Height: 140 cm

ikea varde wall shelf

VÄRDE Drawer unit IKEA Freestanding unit; easy to install and move. Adjustable legs; stands steady on uneven surfaces too.

varde drawer unit

 

 

We had planned to mix and match a bit more with our kitchen but having bought all this varde stuff I also had a tear in my famous tears book for some amazing wicker lampshades that came from IKEA. And so I decided to get those too. Full price. Imagine that?

LERAN Pendant lamp IKEA Handmade shade; each shade is unique. Gives both directed and diffused light, good for lighting up a dining table.

ikea leran pendant

And then we have amassed loads of great rustic looking things. We have loads of open shelving with our Lincoln crockery piled high which Peter buys up on ebay all the time. The best place to buy it is chinasearch or ebay. It originally came from BHS in the 1980s and sadly they no longer do it. But in later posts you’ll see my other great BHS finds. Im not saying I’d buy clothes there BUT the homeware is really great and the sales AMAZING. Check out bhs.co.uk

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BHS lincoln – rustic from the high street

And we have loads of French yellow confit pots. Some provided by Madame Landauer and some picked up for next to nothing at Vide Greniers. In the UK they are quite desirable and some places sell new ones for a fortune. ImageYou can find something really similar in terms of french rustic cook pots at Toast.

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French pots from Toast.co.uk

 

Or for more french style homewears try Plumo where I stumbled upon this lovely vase that looks just like one of our vide Grenier finds.

amphora vase from Plumo

And finally, I love giant clocks. And the best place I have found to track down giant clocks is Graham and Green. I have clocks from there in my London home and I splashed out and bought this one for my french kitchen.

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Wall clock from Graham and Green

So there you have it. Add in lots of blue and white plates which I am adding to all the time buying them up at vide greniers for 1 EURO or less and lots of empty vanilla yoghurt pots lined up on the fireplace. I could tell you where to buy the pokemon game pictured on the worktop here – but it is possibly the worst thing we’ve ever bought. Kids love it. Its interminable. Stick with the cook wear!

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Swimming in heels

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A quick post to talk about people who are ‘good at games’. I am not one of them. Ive always been more of a shopper than a netballer. Always last at cross country at school and for whom sports day was a thing of torture, i could never see the merits in running around in the cold and wet chasing a ball. But, finally, aged 40 i have reached a stage where I actually enjoy sport. I even go running occasionally. I have learnt to surf and I love my bike retrieved from a skip that Peter customised for me by spray painting it navy blue and adding a basket and a big silver bell. Very Amelie.

And one BIG reason to get a house in France is to do outdoorsy stuff. Or indoorsy stuff that doesn’t involve plugging anything in. And i spend a large part of my time there instigating sporting pursuits. Like playing table tennis or swimming in the pool.

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Or cycling to the bakery (6km) and back on one of our dozens of bikes – all retrieved from skips or bought at emmaus which is like a permanent giant car boot sale. Peter has even bought a tandem which we can cycle to the village on like Tim brook Taylor and bill oddie.

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There’s swingball which takes us all back to the 1970s and will possibly one day, take someone’s eye out.

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And of course there is skiing. Which I took up at the age of 39 and finally got the hang of aged 41.

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And there is even a rope swing park at a nearby village, Aignan, where we can scale great heights as a family and zip wire across lakes.

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So finally I have become sporty. Miss Tilly my old PE mistress would be stunned. Though getting into a communal shower with thirty other girls afterwards I would still have a real problem with.

Tidings of joy?

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And before you know it, it was Christmas again – this time with partial heating AND my parents. In less than two years we had managed to take a house with no water, heating, walls or heart and turn it into a family home. A warm, bustling, family home for the first time in twenty years. With noisy meals, heated games of table football and plenty of rowing about what time bedtime is. Regular, family stuff.

We had learnt by now via neighbours a little about the enormous french family who once lived in what we, the White family now refer to as La Maison Blanche (see what we did there?) It was once home to a family called Mouledous. The Mouledous had eighteen children and they all lived in our house in Gensac. Like the old woman who lived in a shoe. There are now dozens of Mouledous scattered around the local area. There’s Dr Mouledous in Maubourguet who we took Seb to once for scurvy or some such Victorian illness for which Seb is a magnet.

Then, there is the genteel and elegant Francoise who is no longer a Mouledous by name as she married. She is a retired paediatrician and lives in a beautiful old windmill on the edge of our village and invites us over for aperitifs and speaks such posh French we can understand every word (unlike Serge our other neighbour, with whom a conversation is probably the French equivalent of a chat with Gazza). Francoise’ daughter is married to an English Dr and they live in Ealing with their three ‘English by birth but French by manners’ children.

Finally, the best Mouledous of all is Frank Mouledous. Frank recently returned to his family home in Maubourguet with his Hawaain wife to open up rural France’s, one and only California surf shack, burger bar. Called The California Kitchen it’s the kids fave place to eat in France – go figure – but it’s not just the enourmous burgers which are made from scratch and delicious. Or the american style cheesecake which Mrs Frank makes from scratch and is delicious. Its not even the fact there is no loo at the California Kitchen so you have to run across the street to the Town Hall if you need a pee which the kids think is way cool. the big draw of the California Kitchen is the fact that Frank is a big bear of a man in a chef’s outfit who talks to the kids in a French/American accent. He might have stepped out of one of those dreadful shows they watch on the Disney channel where the Dads are always overweight and bufoony, and the Mum’s naggy and in charge. And Frank always offers up free desert for which my children would happily follow the child catcher, never mind a man who could be Selena Gomez’s onscreen Dad!

So this Christmas we would have a family Christmas the like of which our still a bit shabby house had not seen for about twenty years or more. A Christmas to make the Mouledous memory proud.

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Peter and the boys bought a huge tree that filled one ‘kings speech’ style corner of our salon. And because we now had a concrete floor in the salon, we moved all Christmas operations into it. The table we normally use in the garden with a white linen tablecloth to disguise the fact it’s an outdoor table. And mistletoe found in abundance in our woods.

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And my mum had brought onesies for the boys from Primark so they could feel cosy when they got up on Xmas morning to see if he’d been. Which of course he had.

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And we could begin to see how our holiday home could actually be a real home. With a sofa, (ikea natch) and lots of rooms that we could spread out into. We may not be a family of 18 but when all our new Mouledous friends pop round for a glass of wine and some cashews we hope they’ll be impressed. And perhaps explain where they all used to sleep! Because readers, next Xmas we’ve got our friends the Candys coming to stay and they are the closest thing to Mouledous we know as there are six of them! We may need a bigger goose!

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