Posted in Travel

En Panne in De Panne – The Tale of our Belgian Breakdown

Debbie and Laura about to buy Sancerre at source
“Have red shoes, will travel” – outside a wine shop in Sancerre in our 2011 French tour

A post about the night our camper van blew a tyre on a Belgian motorway, near the coastal resort of De Panne, Belgium

When travelling, I try to go native, as far as my natural English reserve will allow. The very least I do is to try to eat and drink what the locals are having. Bath buns in Bath, drinking Sancerre in Sancerre – what’s not to love about those destinations?

But in some cases I’d prefer to make an exception, as in our February 2014 trip in our small motorhome to France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

We’d just spent a lovely afternoon at Plopsaland (yes, it is a real place – see this earlier post), in the pleasant Belgian coastal town of De Panne. If you’re wondering why the name De Panne sounds familiar, it’s because of its similarity to the French phrase for being in the state of automotive breakdown: en panne.

Camper Van Crisis

We’re bowling away from De Panne in the direction of Antwerp when my husband, at the steering wheel, starts emitting anguished noises nearly as loud as the sounds emanating from our back axle.  When the rear right wheel starts to sound like a tank crossing cobblestones, Gordon pulls over onto the hard shoulder.

“We’ve got a flat tyre,” he surmises, stony-faced.

Cars and lorries are hurtling past us in the pitch black, terrifyingly close. It begins to rain.

My heart sinks. As Gordon scrabbles in his wallet for his rescue service membership card, I search for the paraphernalia that drivers are required to carry on the continent.

Don't drive through France without it (photo via Amazon)
Don’t drive through France without it (photo via Amazon)

I’m astonished and relieved to discover that we do have on board the reflective triangle which must be placed 50-100m behind any vehicle in case of breakdown, plus the requisite dayglo waistcoat, which Gordon dons before marching into oncoming traffic to set up the triangle.

While he does so, I unearth the spare set of bulbs, the headlight adapters and the breathalyser, in the absence of which we would face a police charge. I’m impressed. We’re not normally this organised (and yes, I do realise that strictly speaking the headlight adapters ought to be on the headlights, not in a cupboard).

A Tale of Previous Panic

The Young family does Fontainebleau
Innocents abroad – spot the tourists in Fontainebleau, summer 2011

Gordon is keen to avoid a recurrence of our previous near-arrest by French traffic police on an earlier trip.

They pulled us over in a small town on a sleepy summer Saturday afternoon, after we’d gone twice round a roundabout trying to find the local swimming pool to cool off. They asked to see our papers for the van. The papers were still in England.

While apologising profusely for their absence in my best schoolgirl French, I glanced over my shoulder to check that Laura, then aged 7, was not frightened at this turn of events. She flashed her sweetest smile at the policemen from where she sat surrounded by cuddly toys, and the gendarmes‘ hearts melted.

A swift discussion ensued between the policemenin which I detected that they were going to change their incident notes. They’d skip the bit about the missing papers and say they’d stopped us to check the child in the back was wearing a seatbelt. She was. We were off the hook – and they even told us how to get to the swimming pool.

Back in De Panne in de present, I’m relieved to realise that our overseas rescue membership must still be valid, as it’s less than a year since we called them out in Luxembourg, when we renewed our card.

International Rescue

The rescue vehicle with the sign "depannage" on the side
Our knight of the road

I keep to myself the knowledge that, in the UK at least, for safety reasons it’s deemed best practice to leave the distressed vehicle and sit on the hard shoulder until the rescue vehicle arrives. We might in theory be safer perched on a precipitous grassy bank in the dark and in the rain, but I feel more secure remaining in the van, with the lights on, rustling up a cup of tea and a meal on the gas stove.

We are not waiting long. A Belgian rescue mechanic arrives within the hour, cheerful, friendly and efficient. Ten minutes later, he’s replaced the burst tyre with the spare wheel. He advises us to drive slowly to the next aire (motorway services), conveniently just 700m ahead, to inflate the spare tyre to the legal standard. To make sure we arrive intact, he leads the way in his bright yellow van and helps us find the air hose, parking his van protectively alongside us, like a mother hen on wheels.

It’s only then that I notice on the side of his vehicle the declaration of the service that he offers: “Dépannage”. So, we have been dépanné in De Panne. That’s rather pleasing.

Cover of 1974 single, Shanghai'd in Shanghai by Nazareth
(Cover of 1974 single – image via Amazon.co.uk)

All the same, as he pulls away into the night, I make a mental note never to visit Shanghai.

Read more about another incident of depannage and other vehicle-related misadventures here

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Author:

Optimistic author, blogger, journalist, book reviewer and public speaker whose life revolves around books. Her first love is writing fiction, including the new Sophie Sayers Village Mystery novels (out 2017), short stories and essays inspired by her life in an English village. She also writes how-to books for authors and books about living with Type 1 diabetes. She is Author Advice Centre Editor and and UK Ambassador for the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) Advice Centre blog, an ambassador for the children's reading charity Readathon, and an official speaker for the diabetes research charity JDRF.

3 thoughts on “En Panne in De Panne – The Tale of our Belgian Breakdown

    1. Changing the wheel on a big camper van is much harder than on a car, John – my husband’s really good at DIY and would change a wheel on a car at the drop of a hat, but not on our ancient van! Especially in pitch dark, at night, in pouring rain, on a Belgian motorway. The rescue people never mind – and we have a very reasonably priced subscription for such occasions so there is not reason not to use it. As my grandmother used to say, “I don’t keep dogs and bark myself!” Here’s a link to the post about a similar incident in Luxembourg sunshine: https://authordebbieyoung.com/2013/05/12/nous-sommes-en-panne-the-tale-of-our-luxembourg-camper-van-crisis/ We’re not really aiming at getting a flat tyre in every European country…

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