THERE were two things that worried me about going to the South of France for our summer holiday: the flight and the French.

When it comes to aeroplanes, I'm a born coward. When it comes to the French, they speak a different language, eat funny food, and aren't very happy about the Olympics.

First, I had to overcome my fear of flying, which isn't easy because whenever I get on a plane, I'm convinced I'm about to die.

It's hard, but when you have kids, you can't let on that you're scared. So there I was, waiting for takeoff - inwardly terrified but trying to look calm - as I sat between my wife and my eight-year-old.

Max happened to be looking at the laminated sheet provided for passengers to explain the emergency procedures.

"Look, Mum, you get party hats on this plane," he said, pointing at the illustration showing oxygen masks coming down from the ceiling in the event of decompression problems.

It was a surreal thought: hurtling to certain death from 40,000 feet and being provided with party hats to celebrate death being only seconds away. I wondered if they'd give us jelly and ice cream too.

"They're oxygen masks," I explained, solemnly, trying not to think about it.

"Cool," he replied. "Hope I get one."

Thankfully, the plane took off and landed without the need for party hats, much to my relief, and Max's disappointment.

The flight safely behind me, all I had to worry about was the French. It was all right for my wife and kids because apart from Max, who's still at primary school, they've all been taught French.

But for some reason, we did O-level Spanish at our school. I'm not exactly fluent but I'm not far off: "Me llamo Pedro. Donde es el boligrafo?" "My name is Peter. Where is the ball-point pen?"

Had we been in Spain, I'd naturally have been happy to converse with the locals. We'd never have gone without writing implements. But because we were in France, I left it all to my wife, who managed admirably.

She gave me up as a lost cause but she did her best to encourage the kids to practise their French at every opportunity. She even got Max to try the language and he ended up being the most enthusiastic.

He'd fallen in love with crepes covered in lemon (without sugar) and he'd go to his favourite cafe every day, walk confidently up to the counter, and say: "Crepe au citron sans sucre s'il vous plait."

Mind you, he wasn't quite so good with the written language. In all innocence, he sent a postcard to Grandma and Grandad which read: "Having a great time. Mum has tort me how to order a crap in French."

On the last day of the holiday, to distract myself from thoughts of the flight home, I was busy playing football on the beach with the kids.

It was a hard-fought affair but - as expected - I emerged as the winner. A bit carried away with the victory, I was jumping up and down, declaring myself the champion.

"Le champignon. Le champignon," I shouted, deciding it was time to show willing on the language front.

A group of young Frenchmen, who'd been watching the match, suddenly started falling around laughing.

"What's up with them?" I asked my wife.

"What do you expect?" she replied. "You're standing in the middle of the beach, in your trunks, proudly telling everyone you're a mushroom."

Well, how was I supposed to know?


RETIRED vicar Peter Holland, of the Butterknowle 50-Plus Club, remembered the time he was working at Seaham and a few miners in his congregation agreed to build a nativity display.

"They made it down the pit workshops," recalled Peter. "Full-size crib, the lot."

He'd always been jealous of the nativity display outside the Catholic church over the road when he'd worked at Tudhoe, and this was a dream come true.

The only trouble was that the new display lacked a Mary and Joseph so the vicar, a resourceful man, phoned Binns in Sunderland to ask if they had any spare mannequins. They could only spare one female dummy so Peter phoned Joplings down the road and asked the same question. They too could only let him have a single female but beggars can't be choosers so the vicar drove to Sunderland.

It's not every day you see a man of the cloth walking down the street with a naked woman under each arm.

"It wasn't easy when I stopped at the traffic lights on the way home either," he said.

One of the mannequins was duly dressed up as Mary but Joseph was a problem.

In the end, it was decided 'he' should stand with his back to the congregation so no-one would notice his feminine attributes.

It seemed the perfect solution until the family service was in full swing. A little boy ran behind the altar and shouted at the top of his voice: "Mam, Mam, Joseph's a poof."


DOROTHY Smith rang in to say she'd overheard a harassed mum say to a little boy in Newton Aycliffe: "If you don't pack it in, Santa Claus won't come."

It was September 13.

Published: 22/09/2005