Mother-In-Law Knows Best

17 April 2015

The talk turned to travel and the places we’d been and the times that we’d had.

"What I’d like to do," said my mother-in-law, "is to go somewhere that I haven’t been with Rod."

Rod was her late husband. As a couple they’d travelled widely, but she now found herself facing the situation that confronts many older singles. She still wanted to travel, did not want to do so alone and lacked friends who shared her wanderlust.

"You could come with us," offered my wife. "We're planning a road trip in France."

"Road trip?" she asked. "I’m too old to hitch hike."

"In a car," we explained. "We’ll rent a car and drive."

And so began Travels With My Mother-In-Law.

 Mike O'Connor with his wife Donna and mother-in-law Bev on Pont d’Amour, Lake Annecy (All images by Mike O'Connor)

Mature age travellers, I was to discover, have different priorities to those of less advanced years. Travel insurance is one and we arranged it early when I realised the importance it occupied in my MIL’s mindset.

Breakfast was another. She was happy for me to work out the itinerary and book the hotels, but wanted breakfast included in the tariff.

My wife and I enjoy foraging for our breakfast when we travel. MIL wanted no such uncertainty. She wanted to know where her brekkie would be served and she wanted it available when she descended from her room.

We went along with this and discovered the high side was that it saved time and the occasional argument that occurred when, after lingering outside a dozen cafes, my wife and I still failed to agree on where to eat.

We flew to Lyon, collected the car and headed into town, soon encountering our first French roundabout. I’d driven in Europe before and knew that at roundabouts every right-hand-drive fibre in your being tells you to go clockwise.

We went into the roundabout and I accelerated into an anti-clockwise turn. This triggered a blood-chilling screech from my wife and a gasp from the back seat where MIL sat clutching at her seatbelt.

"Wrong way!" yelled my wife.

"Right way!" I shouted as we shot out the other side of the roundabout, the engine screaming as my left hand reached for the gearshift, which was on my right-hand side.

"How will we find the hotel?" asked MIL.

"We bought a satellite navigation device with us from home." said my wife, taking it out of its box.

She turned it on and the screen glowed white. It stayed that way for the next three weeks, refusing to divulge the location of a single boulevard.

While my wife shouted abuse at the sat-nav, MIL kept her gaze fixed on the countryside.

 Roundabouts in France can be unforgettable for all the wrong reasons (image: Getty)

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We took MIL to an acclaimed restaurant in Lyon, which served traditional Lyonnais food. My wife and I displayed our culinary sophistication and command of the language by ordering what turned out to be a stewed calf’s head and a plate of boiled rope.

MIL, who does not understand a word of French, ordered what she thought looked "nice".

"My chicken’s lovely. How’s yours?" she asked. "Great," we chorused as I gagged on my calf’s head and my wife hacked away at her plate of rope.

We drove on to Annecy, which is a picture-perfect town on a deep blue lake near the Swiss border. Along the way we encountered our first autoroute toll booth. When you have a string of cars behind you and no idea how much money to insert, then obviously the only course of action is to panic.

"Euros!" I yelled at my wife. "I can’t find any!" she yelled back, head in her handbag. "Wait," I cried. "Credit card! It’s a credit card booth."

"Baaarrp!" went the car behind. "Merde!" I moaned as I slid the card into the slot and a second later the boom gate was raised.

"I thought that went well," said MIL as my wife scooped the contents of her handbag off the floor where she’d tipped them.

In Annecy the lake beckoned, so we rented a powerboat and took off to explore it, but not before MIL offered a suggestion. "We should get some wine," she said. "It’s such a nice day."

This turned out to be a wonderful idea and proof that older travellers could make a positive contribution to arrangements.

 Mike O'Connor with his MIL on Lake Annecy (image: Mike O'Connor)

We went on to Orange and then Aix en Provence and then Nice, MIL sitting contentedly in the back seat while in the front, my wife wrestled with maps and occasionally with me when I disagreed with her directions.

"What have you noticed about this trip that’s different?" I said to her one night in Orange.

"We’re drinking less and sleeping more," she said. "Exactly," I replied.

When we travelled as a couple we’d have dinner and then invariably find a bar and have a couple of 'roadies' that often became more than a couple and a very late night. After a few days on this trip, our routine was settled. We’d have a bottle of rose with lunch, a drink before dinner and a bottle of red with our meal.

Then we’d escort MIL back to the hotel.

By then, the thought of turning around and heading back out for the 'roadies' failed to excite, so we fell into bed, waking up considerably fresher than has been our experience.

 Promenade des Anglais, Nice (image: Mike O'Connor)

Along the road from St Tropez to Nice, which largely hugs the coast and offers wonderful vistas of the mountains and the Mediterranean, I glanced in the rear-view mirror.

MIL was taking in the view, the sparkling blue of the sea, the line of white-hulled yachts tacking close inshore and the pink and white villas of the fabulously rich.

"It’s lovely isn’t it," she said. "I’ve never travelled like this before."

When we’re older, we hope our kids will think to invite us to travel with them, if only just once.

Mike O'Connor

Mike O’Connor is a Brisbane-based travel writer and columnist. He’s travelled widely, mingled with famous people who don’t remember meeting him and loves a free lunch.