Is it a campervan? Is it a motorhome? Mais non! Take it across the Channel to France and it turns into un camping car. One of our reasons for choosing to holiday in France this year was that country’s enlightened approach to these Wendy houses on wheels.
Travelling in continental Europe, un camping car offers much greater possibilities than in Britain. In this borderless European age, you can drive as long as you like, crossing country after country without interruption. Every time we land in Calais, I feel the urge to put my foot down and head east, not stopping till we find ourselves in Istanbul, our springboard into Asia. Not that I really want to go to Asia, but it’s nice to know that it would be so easy to get there if I change my mind.
Not surprisingly, on continental Europe there is a much higher ownership of camping cars and plenty of them about. Early on in the trip, I wonder whether there is a collective noun for camping cars.
Undoubtedly more for their own benefit than for foreign tourists, the French provide free motorhome facilities everywhere we go. Not only is there ample free parking, with overnight stays permitted for at least 48 hours, but also that holy trinity so important to the camping car driver: fresh water to fill your tank, one drain in which to discreetly empty your toilet and another to void your washing up water. Most towns also have a car park with extra large spaces thoughtfully reserved for camping cars.
In a month’s tour of France, we only twice stay in fee-paying campsites, and then only for the social benefits: we hope to find small children for our daughter to befriend. At the first of these, Laura spends a very happy evening playing with a French brother and sister, Milly and Maurice. A couple of weeks later, visiting the Vulcania theme park in the Auvergne, she names her new cuddly toy mastodon Maurice in the boy’s honour.
Unexpectedly, her most sociable evening occurs at a free camping car area at Avignon’s park-and-ride facility. It is teeming with Italians, three of whom, aged 9-11, spend several hours colouring on the floor of our van while Laura cavorts outside with her new French friend, Sybillia. We are the only family, it seems, to have had the foresight to bring children’s toys with us. Laura’s scooter, ball, skipping rope, bubbles and mini-golf set ensure she is a popular playmate wherever we stop. When we kick out the Italian mob at bedtime, they present us with their autographs and persuade me to let them take some pens and paper home to continue drawing.
Free car parks (and, more importantly for camping car drivers, free car parks without height restrictions) abound in France. reminding us daily of its size. Such a vast country can afford to be generous with parking spaces and we are spoiled for choice.
But even with so much space to choose from, camping cars still tend to flock. On several nights, we park in vast empty car parks only to find that by breakfast time several other camping cars have parked right next to us by breakfast time.
We also obey the swarming instinct ourselves on occasions, when we are not confident that overnight stopping is permitted. There’s safety in numbers, especially if most of them are French. They know the rules. We come close to suggesting that we range our vans in a circle, like wagons in the Wild West.
But the superlative swarmers are the Italians. Not only here in France, but in Scotland, too, we frequently spot Italian convoys, presumably taking the whole extended family on holiday. It must be exhausting,
In England, because our van is relatively old, I always worry that we’ll be mistaken for travellers and treated with suspicion or disdain. Given the ease with which we’re able to park around France, and the glorious climate we enjoy this summer, I wonder why all travellers living in England don’t rustle up the ferry fare and get themselves down here. I can’t see any reason not to. Surely there’s a good French market for clothes pegs?
A little north of Paris, we discover that some have already done so. On a a trek to the local hypermarket, we spot a vast array of caravans and camping cars ranged across a tatty field beside an industrial estate. We’re camped in a much more scenic spot a mile or two away, with the blessing of the local tourist office, by an ancient city wall shaded by cooling poplars.
“Why on earth are those tourists camping there?” I wonder aloud, before spotting the tell-tale lines of washing, the shabby children’s toys and randomly parked rusting pick-up trucks. These are no tourists.
All is quiet at the hypermarket, where the customers are in single figures. Yet there are almost as many security guards. Large rocks edge the grass verges around the car park, preventing the ingress of unwanted caravans. The adjustable height barrier at the entrance is raised to admit us, but will no doubt be dropped at the sight of a gypsy convoy.
So I decide that there must be two collective nouns for a group of camping cars. The flock refers to harmless tourists like ourselves, forging transnational friendships and haemorrhaging money into the local economy wherever we go. The swarm is exactly the opposite: travellers keeping themselves to themselves but taking what they can get wherever they can get it. We are so close and yet so far apart.