Me and Michel Chapter Fifteen

‘Neither should a ship rely on one small anchor, nor should life rest on a single hope.’

The very lovely people at reception give me a map. With 756 chalets on site, I’m sure I would struggle to find my new home without it.

The setting is quite beautiful. After the flatlands of my ride so far, much of La Jenny is set on gently rolling slopes, albeit with more sand dunes that lie beneath. Tarmac lanes wind through pines with brightly painted chalets in reds and blues and yellows, shy amongst the trees, like exotic birds. Their pitched roofs and white soffit boards with wooden decks and railings, vary from the really quite grand to the charmingly ‘hygge’, that much overused Danish word meaning comfortable or cosy. I am so completely entranced that as I ride towards my own corner of the site, I can’t help but smile all the way.

It’s four o’clock in the afternoon by the time I reach my own humble abode, amongst the plainest on offer, but also the cheapest at fifty euros a night. That is precisely what I would pay for my tent, a half carafe of very ordinary white wine, and a lukewarm pizza. I am already high just by being here, but when I unlock the door and go inside my chalet, I am dizzy with delight. A bed, a kitchen, and an overhead shower that I can’t resist turning on to unleash a generous cascade of water that is hot within seconds. I am tempted to become a warm wet naturist this very moment. Like Odysseus’ crew, languishing with the soporific effects of the Lotus, if anyone were here to remind me of home and of my duty to return to my loved ones, I would resist with all my might and reach instead for another libation of leaves.

Instead, I stake my claim to my own little slice of heaven by piling tent and sleeping bag and air mattress in an unceremonious heap, stopping only to touch the cotton sheets on the bed, just to be sure they’re real. On the table, I put maps and penknife, phone and sunglasses, and then open the cupboards beneath the hob – a hob, mind! – to find pots and pans, plates and cutlery. I put the few items of food I have with me on a shelf, cornflakes as a treat and cans of tuna, labels facing out, spaghetti, a packet of biscuits and a baguette. I put the sweaty cheese and a small jar of mayonnaise, together with a bottle of rosé I picked up at a supermarket on the way, in the fridge. I linger for a moment to savour the sound of the machine already on and humming with cool air. This trip is about finding my way home, and here I am, magically transported to a place that within minutes feels like home.

Half an hour later, my sunburned skin glowing pink after the shower, it dawns on me that I have to decide what to wear, and for a moment, I’m stumped. What exactly constitutes appropriate dress in a naturist resort? Especially given the pool and the onsite supermarket are a bike ride away from my chalet. I opt for a short-sleeved shirt and a sarong of sorts. In my travels over the years, I’ve taken to having with me an all-purpose piece of material that can act as a blanket, a towel, a tablecloth for picnics, and a sarong, assuming I can remember how to tie it securely. I once worked in Malaysia where I learned that the secret is to tuck one side into the other and then roll the top down to keep the cloth tight around the waist. Self-conscious, I check myself in the skinny full-length mirror and summon up some courage. I’m not used to skirts. I hope my modesty will survive the bike ride. Time to venture forth and shop for fresh vegetables and butter and milk and coffee, and a treat, a steak maybe, as slap up supper for my first evening in paradise.


The chill cabinet in the supermarket is brightly lit and the cold air is refreshing, so I linger in choosing what I want. Other happy campers come and go, some clothed, some not, so I keep my eyes firmly on the frozen foods to avoid any embarrassment. On the ride down, I saw only a few people strolling or on bikes, and again, each seemed to be comfortable with their own way of being here, habillé ou déshabillé, or some combination of the two; a hat, but no top, a shirt, but no shorts. The French phrase, ‘chacun à son goût’, or as we might say, ‘to each his own,’ is the prevailing ethos, and I’m relieved that I too can choose. Only in the pool area is nudity de rigour, so if I am to swim, I need to get over my very British self-consciousness plus vite.

With the shopping done, and nothing in my panniers that will spoil in the next twenty minutes or so, I opt to swim before the pool closes for the evening, and before I can think about the idea too deeply. I leave my fake Birkenstocks in the shoe racks outside the gate, alongside many other pairs, and then rather ridiculously, I peel away the sarong but keep my shirt on for the walk towards the nearest sun loungers that I’m glad to see are mostly deserted. The lifeguards – young men and women, all naked – are busy cleaning up and locking down. There are a couple of die-hards doing lengths of the huge pool in masks with overhead snorkels and flippers, and one or two families still trying to dry their children and gather their many things before heading back to their own chalets for the evening repas. None are paying even the slightest attention to me. Why I ever thought anyone might is beyond me. Only then do I tak e my shirt off. I feel a brief moment of panic at being naked in public, before gingerly taking the steps into the cool water and immerse myself in the experience of being weightless.

I do a few lengths, nothing too energetic, and with everything closing up around me I go back to the sun lounger, dry myself on the sarong and wrap it around my waist. I feel refreshed and a bit silly for having built this up into anything other than the absolute pleasure of not having wet swimming trunks clinging to your skin like cold seaweed. And therein I realised lies the true allure of naturism. Speedos are simply out of the question once you reach a certain age – I’d say twelve years old is quite far enough – and wet swimming trunks have always been, are now, and will always be, an abomination. I am a convert.


Six o’clock in the evening, and so five o’clock back in the UK. I want to share my delight in being here so I decide to call my sister. I send a text to ask if it’s a good time and to tell her where I am. I suggest we can do a video call, knowing how she’ll react. ‘No!’ she writes back. But when I assure her I’m fully dressed and at home in my little abode, curiosity gets the better of her.

I show her around with the phone in my hand, pointing out the neat shelves and appliances, and I even take her into the tiny bathroom to see the shower. She’s pleased for me but can’t quite understand my excitement.

‘You’d have to have spent the last weeks under canvas,’ I say, ‘and been on first name terms with some of the more impressive ants.’

I ask her how things are and it comes as a shock to see them at home, just where I left them. They’re sitting in the little conservatory, my mother in her wheelchair with a hospital table in front of her, and my sister beside her with a cup of tea in one hand and holding her phone in the other so I can see mum clearly. She isn’t aware of the phone and doesn’t look back at me but I think she responds to my voice when I talk to her. My sister tells me she’s smiling, but I’m not so sure.

My mother’s wheelchair is black and high-backed with a headrest high above her head and cushions either side to prop her up, because as she shrinks, the armrests are further and further away from her torso. I see myself, opposite them in the wicker chair where one or other of us sits when the three of us are together.

My mother seems so much smaller than the woman I left only weeks ago. Not diminished in any way, but concentrated, like a raisin or a nut. It is seven years since I brought her back from the care home where she’d been for two years to the suburban bungalow she once shared with her husband, my father. I have to remember she is almost a decade older than the day I took her to the care home, and there are bound to be changes when you’re her age and with the debilitating effects of Parkinson’s dementia leaving their mark. But all in all, she’s a survivor and it’s been a privilege to spend time with her, even as her carer, and even though she’s not always aware it is me, her son, or her daughter, who are looking after her, or that she is in her own home.

And though she hardly speaks these days and cannot hold a cup, or a fork or spoon in her old hands, her bird-eye alertness is undiminished even if her head is bowed by age, and when I go on to tell her I’ll be home soon, she tries to say something in return and it tugs on my heartstrings, even though I can’t make out the words. I forget to wonder at her craggy determination to go one when I’m there with her every day. But in being away, even if only for a short time, I have new eyes to see her walnut strength.

My sister took early retirement and we’ve been caring for our mother together for almost six years now. We are a unit, an odd couple plus one, and a family in an entirely different way to the way we were when my father was alive. Back in the day, his presence dominated and very nearly obscured my mother’s personality altogether. Now, despite the dementia, she is more apparent and tangible and her two children believe themselves fortunate to have had this ‘extra time’ with her, despite the challenges of caring, which are many. I wrote about our first year together in the bungalow in a book called, appropriately enough, Love and Care. This is where I am supposed to say, ‘available online and in all good bookshops’ and what’s exciting it, it’s true!

Mum – her given name is Pamela – will soon be ninety years old. She is not much troubled by the ‘big questions’ of life, as far as I can tell. She loves cake and she is partial to a gin and tonic in the evenings. She likes cheesy snacks with her aperitif and ice cream after supper. When she’s in the right mood, she giggles, a lot, and that makes my sister giggle and me too. When she’s not, she lets you know. We are family, and in so many other cultures, our situation would be the norm, but not in the UK and not in so many so-called advanced nations. The Greek tradition, to take but one example, has been to care for the elderly in the family and by the family wherever possible. That’s as far as I understand things, and I may be wrong because change comes quickly and washes away many good things in its wake. We’re told the Japanese, the Chinese, the Vietnamese, and Indian cultures tend to care for their elderly at home or in their own homes, more so that relying on institutions like care homes, as we do.

What can one say about the difference? We can necessity may well be the mother of invention, but we can also say those cultures that have a tradition of respecting and valuing old age are more likely to opt for home care. We can western societies orientate towards mobility of work, acquisition, materialism and capitalism, our elders are frequently left far behind. With some certainty, we can say that most older people, me for example, would prefer to be cared for in my own home, assuming I have on by then, through what is called social care.

And yet there is a crisis in social care, in the UK and around the world. Not enough money, and growing numbers of older people who need care, to put it at it’s simplest. Also, not enough carers or places in care homes. Which makes me wonder why governments tend not to encourage families to take care of their own, with financial support, practical advice, and physical help? We support and encourage parents to have children, financially and in practical ways, why not older people? And yes, not all families are ideal, some relatives are not capable or suitable, some might be abusive. Ditto for care homes, and if you can regulate and monitor one you can regulate and monitor the other. The plain fact is many older people will live and die alienated from their loved ones and from all they know, living their later years in a half light of dependency and loneliness. That’s not just a tragedy, it’s a travesty of what it means to be human.


When I sign off with more jokes about naturism on both sides, I suddenly feel the shock of the instant return to another reality, albeit a hugely familiar reality and one I desperately needed to escape. How odd our emotions can be, and how contradictory; I have just made a little home here, only to feel pangs of regret that I’m not home there. Home is, as they say, where the heart is, but this is no time to become maudlin. I have a bed and a fine meal to look forward to. I intend to make scrambled eggs with smoked salmon on the side. I’m ravenous and eating will not take long, nor will putting a dent in the rosé. Then bed. My bed, and my first real bed in weeks. Oh, joy!


My eyes are closing, but my imagination has wings. Because here at La Jenny, it dawns on me that I do believe I have seen the future, and the future is orange, or bright yellow, or sky blue, or barn red, or any colour I might choose.

The chalets here, from the humble to the grand, make up an outdoor showroom of what my own home might one day look like. With no evidence of concrete or steel, though these materials may be hidden in the foundations, it is as if the houses are the natural product of the forest, made gaily inviting with a lick of paint, a hammock and a barbeque on the deck. To see what was only an idle dream take on an actual shape and a form, with infinite variations on the principle of simplicity and utility, is thrilling. These fine buildings will be my blueprint from now on, and

if my own chalet is modest by comparison – my accommodation comprising only half the plain wood building – that is a budgetary necessity, and I hereby officially aspire to a place of my own in the future, brightly coloured and preferably nestled amongst fruit trees.

Is that too much to ask, I wonder?

I think about Epictetus: ‘Neither should a ship rely on one small anchor, nor should life rest on a single hope.’

Too late I’m afraid.