We realise early on in our ownership of a camper van that there is a special action that drivers of such vehicles use to greet each other. Whenever they approach each other on a road, they must slowly raise their right arm, not really in a wave, but more of a casual, off-duty salute.
It’s generally the duty of the driver to offer up the camper van salute. But if the driver is engaged in a particularly tricky manoeuvre, the front seat passenger assumes responsibility. And when both driver and passenger are in a particularly happy frame of mind, as at the start of a new trip, they may throw caution to the winds and both offer this distinctive cheery wave.
When we first latch on to this tradition, we hail our kindred spirits self-consciously, embarrassed if the approaching van driver does not reciprocate. But now we’re old hands at it, if you’ll pardon the pun, we’re expert. And we rank salutees after they’ve passed us. We’re pleased if we get a double response, dismissive if ignored. When abroad, we check out the country sticker after they’ve passed.
“Ah, les Francais,” we murmur sagely, or “Nederlander”, “Italiano”, as appropriate, if their nationality is the key to their response.
This harmless fun adds interest to a long journey. It soon becomes a habit so ingrained that we sometimes forget that we are not in our van. Pottering through Cotswold lanes in my little Ford Ka, I occasionally raise an arm in fellowship to an approaching motorhome towering above me. Even more foolishly, I’ve done it once or twice on my pushbike. In those circumstances, the camper van salute is about as likely to get noticed as a sailing dinghy hailing a cross-channel ferry (and we’ve all heard stories about ocean liners arriving at their destination with dinghies splattered across their bows like summer flies on a car windscreen). But even if the drivers do notice my gaffe, I don’t suppose they mind. We camperers are jolly, sociable types and we’re very forgiving. I’m just slightly on my guard in case I ever do it to Germans: I’d hate them to get the wrong idea.
On my husband’s recent solo jaunt around the Scottish Highlands, (“This van is my passport to the Munros!”), he befriended a German camper van driver. His new German friend, also travelling alone, confided in Gordon that he’d had an unpleasant experience the night before. He’d just stopped for the night in an empty, isolated car park, when a group of boy racers turned up out of the blue. They proceeded to drive menacingly around his camper van at high speed, shrieking and mocking. Eventually they got bored and drove off, leaving him shaken but unharmed.
“I do not know why they do this,” he told Gordon plaintively. “I worry that it is because of my German vehicle sticker. They see that big D on my bumper and they think of what my country did in the war.”
My husband rushes to reassure him.
“Oh no, it won’t be that, I’m sure. We’ve all forgotten about the war a long time ago.”
He wonders why the German is looking less than convinced.
So he’d mentioned the war, but this time I don’t think he got away with it.