Posted in Travel

The Camper Van Salute

Orange-White Volkswagen T2 Camper Van with ope...
Have camper van, will travel (Image via Wikipedia)

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.

It’s only an hour later, undressing back in our camper van, that Gordon realises he’s wearing a Dad’s Army t-shirt, bought for a snip in Stornoway at a Tesco’s post-Fathers’ Day sale.

So he’d mentioned the war, but this time I don’t think he got away with it.

Posted in Personal life, Travel

How to Pack for the Summer Holidays

Image by brandsvig via Flickr

Packing. The very thought of it takes the edge off the excitement of going on holiday, at least till we’re on our way.

It shouldn’t be such a difficult task. As we spend most holidays in our camper van, we don’t have to bother with suitcases. We pack our possessions straight into the van’s streamlined cupboards, and here they stay, out of sight, until we need them. Well, that’s the theory, anyway.

Years ago, when we were child-free, holidays meant sailing in Greece. Packing in those days meant shoehorning toy-sized toiletries and capsule wardrobes into a collapsible sausage-shaped bag, ready for decanting into ship’s lockers on arrival. A camera, notebook and pen (plus daily access to yesterday’s English newspaper for my husband) were our only desert-island luxuries. Leaving behind the clutter of everyday life at home and at work was exhilarating. Forget feng shui – there were barely any material items to arrange.

Then in time, we had a baby to pack too. Until babies are about three, there’s an inverse relationship between the size of the child and the volume of luggage it requires. Just as Laura’s own baggage was starting to reduce – no more bottles, bibs or buggies – she hit toddlerhood, when she didn’t want to be confined to a boat. She needed playparks full of children to become her new friends. Any nationality, language no object, provided the children were her size.

And so slickly we transferred, like Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, onto land. We traded in our boat for a camper van. Drier, less lurching, and less likely to strand us due to weather conditions, it was a welcome and natural evolution from amphibian to reptile. And while I was in charge of packing, it was still soothingly minimalist too.

But now that Laura packs her own bags for holidays, new challenges have arisen. Numerous cuddly toys and dolls anthropomorphise into inseparable friends who would simply pine away if left at home without her. By the end of last year’s summer holiday, Laura’s entourage took over the entire vehicle. So for our half-term trip to the Highlands, I decide to set a new rule: one bag of toys per person. A serious constraint for Gadget Man, but a less daunting challenge for me: most of my toys are books to read or write in. It is easy to smuggle extra rations onto the van’s built-in bookshelf.

I expect a rebellion before our departure. But no, Laura sits demurely on her booster seat with an old black barrel handbag of mine bulging at her side. On her lap is a single cuddly toy: Heather the Best-Dressed Rabbit. (Heather even has her own gas-mask case for this term’s World War II topic). I’ve suggested that instead of taking lots of toys Laura pack a bag of Heather’s clothes to ring the changes along the way. I am pleasantly startled to see she’s taken my advice.

Pointing the van north, we hit the road. The half-grown crops in the Cotswold fields undulate as we pass, as if waving goodbye. They will seem so soft and green on our return from serious Scottish mountains.

Four hours later, when we stop for the night at Morecambe Bay, the true contents of the little black bag are revealed. With a coy, self-satisfied smile, Laura unzips it and begins to pull out an endless stream of toys. It’s like watching a conjuror do the handkerchief trick. Three rag dolls, four horses, two dogs, a bird…. all these and more are soon strewn around the camper van, leaving my husband and I scrabbling, as ever, for a space big enough to sit in. One bag of toys it is, so I cannot complain. But what an astonishing mastery of the art of packing for one so young. I sigh and sit down next to Heather. When the summer holidays come round, I think I’ll put Laura in charge of loading the van.

(This post was originally written for the Tetbury Advertiser, July 2011)