Posted in Family, Travel, Writing

“Murder, I Wrote” – Or What Not To Discover On Your Holiday

Following this summer, I have a new standard for measuring the quality of a holiday: it should not involve:

  1. the emergency services
  2. any mention of us in the local paper
  3. a dead body

By day two of our summer holiday this year, we’d already failed on all three counts, through no fault of our own.

Mindful of the feelings of the relatives of number 3 on the list, I won’t go into details, for fear of making the incident identifiable. Sufficient to say the experience was enough to make me empathise with the famous author/detective Jessica Fletcher, as played by Angela Lansbury in the ever-popular television series, “Murder She Wrote”. Like Agatha Christie’s Miss Marple, Jessica Fletcher never seems to be able to take a holiday without stumbling over a corpse.

We’d stopped for the night in our camper van in a delightful, safe place that we’ve stayed many times, in a scenic corner of a pleasant town, popular with dog-walkers, cyclists, skateboarders and motor-homes. Returning from an enjoyable family cycle ride, we noticed a cluster of anxious-looking dog-walkers around a vehicle parked within sight of ours. My husband went to find out what the fuss was about, only to return, pallid, moments later, telling us the vehicle contained a dead body. Being a trained first-aider, he’d instinctively reached out to check the body for vital signs. It was cold. A dog-walker dialled 999. The emergency services, quick to arrive, diagnosed natural causes.

On the pretext that It was starting to get dark, we drew the curtains in our van, to shield our young daughter and ourselves from the distressing sight of the emergency services removing the body. For our daughter’s sake, we went out of our way to carry on with the evening as planned, putting on a calm, non-alarmist front. We played cards till bedtime, interrupted only by a knock on the door from a pleasant Polish policewoman who came to take a statement from my husband as a witness to the discovery. We made small-talk with her and she rewarded us with great advice about the best nearby beach to visit.

When she’d gone, we retired to bed and slept well until awoken by a knock on the door around 9.30am. It was another policeman.

“If I were you, I’d move on now, sir, because the local press have got wind of the incident and they’ll be coming round asking you questions.”

We took his advice and made ready to depart. Only on opening the curtains did we discover that, overnight, the area had been deserted by every vehicle but ours. We were now alone and conspicuous within a large empty parking lot, cordoned off by police tape signalling a crime scene.

A courteous bobby moved the cordon aside for us to drive out, and for the rest of the day we tried to put the incident behind us.

That is, until we were in a supermarket that afternoon, where I spotted a front-page article about the event. We were mentioned in despatches:

A camper van was parked within the cordoned off area, but police confirmed it was not involved with the incident.

I think Jessica Fletcher may have put in a word on our behalf.

You might enjoy these other posts about this summer’s adventures in our camper van – and there’ll be more to follow soon.

Beachcombing in Ullapool: A Story Behind Every Stone

The Unusual Souvenirs of Camper Van Travel

Posted in Family, Travel

Nous Sommes En Panne: The Tale of our Luxembourg Camper Van Crisis

English: Looking east across Echternach.
There are worse places to break down than Echternach. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In the middle of a little village on the German/Luxembourg border, our camper van’s exhaust pipe drops off (that’s our motorhome’s muffler to you, my American friends) and I gain another chance to prove to my daughter the value of speaking a foreign language.

It’s a blue-skied, sunny public holiday – Easter Monday – so I’m particular conscious that we’re disturbing the peace in this beautiful setting.

The locals are very forgiving. We chug noisily up a hilly street, emitting a sound so deafening that my husband and I have to shout to each other to converse. A large group of jovial chaps basking in the sunshine in their front garden raise their glasses to us, with a loud cheer. We smile and wave, heartened by their kindly reaction.

On reaching our planned destination for the night, the border town of Echternach – yet another Luxemburgish town separated from Germany by only a river – we call the English-speaking helpline of the European recovery service to which we belong. Soon, a tow truck from the town’s garage comes to our rescue, and a brace of mechanics disembarks.

In preparation, I’ve found a relevant double-page spread in our French pocket phrase book. It includes a diagram of a car, its important parts labelled in French. Actually, even in English translation it’s foreign territory to me. I don’t know my chassis from my carburettor. I’ve rehearsed in my head the conversation we will need to have, beginning “Nous sommes en panne”, which is rather stating the obvious.

At the Mercy of Mechanics

English: Arms of Echternach
Arms of Echternach – more sinister than its people (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The stout grey-haired man, clearly the senior of our dynamic duo, crawls underneath the van to inspect the damage that the rescue service described to him. After a few moments of shifting around on the car park’s gravel floor (ouch!), he emerges happy. Dusting himself down, he rattles off his diagnosis in Letzerburgesch to his blond companion. I have absolutely no idea what he’s said. We – and our bank account – are at his mercy.

The blond chap nods and turns to us to negotiate. To our intense relief, he speaks to us in flawless, fluent American English.

“Don’t worry, we will make it safe for you to get home,” he says cheerfully.

“We’ve felt bad making such a noise going through your little villages on a public holiday,” I confess.

He shrugs and smiles.

“People need to worry less about things like that.”

It turns out they can solve our problem quickly and easily. They assure us that the van is safe to drive and that their garage is not far away. We are to follow them and not to worry.

Lured into their Lair

The garage is indeed just a few streets distant, tucked unobtrusively between a row of houses. If it didn’t have a sign on the outside announcing its purpose, we’d have thought it was just another residential building. Its large workshop is as cunningly concealed as  a Bond villain’s lair inside a volcano.

Entering, we discover the place is so immaculate that you could eat your breakfast croissant off the floor. The distinctive smell of engine oil, characteristic of most garages, is strangely absent. How do they do it? I look round expecting to find a jumbo-sized Airwick, to no avail.

My husband is more concerned about the practicalities of the place than the aesthetics.

“Are you a Peugeot dealer?” he is asking. “Do you have a replacement part in stock?”

“We used to be, but not any more. Now we just do repairs.”

I immediately feel sorry for these pleasant people. What a shame to lose their dealership status. I hope they’re still able to make a decent living – and that our bill will not be inflated to compensate for lost business.

We’re invited to retreat to the immaculate waiting area, where we sit on smart leather seats beside a vast pile of upmarket glossy magazines. Opposite us, in a spacious and shining glass booth, a smartly dressed lady busily works on the accounts.

All of this scenario is the polar opposite of the garage we use at home, where the stench of oil saturates the air, and the waiting area is as cramped as it’s possible to be without qualifying for the Guinness Book of Records. Its flawless service and honest staff are what keep us loyal.

Back in Luxembourg, the pink-cheeked blond mechanic, clean as a newly-bathed baby, settles down contentedly on the other side of a counter that overlooks both the workshop and the waiting area. He has the leisure, it seems, for a chat about our travels. My husband remarks that the Mosel Valley, where we’ve just come from, was largely a camper van car park. (He’s exaggerating, as usual, but not by much.) Our spotless friend smiles.

“That’s how they make 90% of their money, from tourism,” he opines, with no trace of a grudge. “Only 10% from wine.”

As he speaks, my eye is caught by flashing lights in the service area underneath our van. Someone is wielding a welding iron.

Keeping Good Company

Soldiers of the US 125th Infantry crossing fro...
Echternach in 1918 – about the time the Rolls-Royce was being built .Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It is then that I spot the only other vehicle in the garage: a vast, ancient black Rolls Royce, bonnet (hood) raised and engine stripped back as if modelling for the diagram in my phrase book. It is stunningly beautiful. My jaw drops.

The blond one follows my gaze and smiles proudly.

“We are rebuilding it, piece by piece, for a customer,” he explains. “There are only eight of that model left in the world. It is worth 500,000 Euros.”

That’s approximately 50 times the value of our camper van.

“Does it belong to a museum?” I venture.

He shakes his head.

“Private owner.”

“There’s a lot of money in Luxembourg,” I murmur.

“I am from the Netherlands,” he replies, hinting that he was lured here by the money.

Immediately and unselfconsciously, he demonstrates his countrymen’s famous facility for languages by addressing the welder, now standing in the doorway, in rapid Letzerburgesch.

“All done!” he translates for us, looking pleased. “We have welded a sleeve around the muffler. Not only will it get you safely home, it will last a long time. No need to replace it when you get there.”

My husband produces his wallet, looking nervous.

“How much?”

The blond one consults his colleague in Letzerburgesch.

“Do you need a receipt?” he breaks off to ask us in English.

“No.”

“In that case, 40 Euros.”

My husband goes to pull out a credit card but I detect a flinch on the part of our blue-eyed friend.

“For cash?” I offer, suppressing a knowing grin.

“Yes, please!”

Aha, so there is a common factor with our scruffy English garages after all.

We drive on our way, oh so quietly, thanking fate for bringing us to a Luxemburger garage where our modest needs may be subsidised by a local millionaire.

English: Orangery in Echternach, Luxembourg
Affluence in Echternach (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For other reasons why we learned to love Luxembourg, read these recent posts: 

Luxembourg’s Crowning Glory: Its Own Language

Spotless in Luxembourg

Posted in Travel

A Holiday From Books

Laura in her sleeping bag
Laura defies France’s arctic temperature in her new winter-weight sleeping bag

(Overture to a travelogue about our camper van tour of  Luxembourg)

Much as I love my book-centric life, there comes a time when you have to slip in a bookmark and walk away.

The night before I am due to go to Luxembourg for a fortnight, I’m up till 1 a.m. putting the finishing touches to an article about self-publishing. I’ve promised to email it to someone before I leave, and only when I’ve hit the send button do I allow myself to start packing for our trip.

Fortunately, there’s not much to pack, because we holiday in our camper van. This allows little space for luggage and imposes constraints stricter than a budget airline’s. Each of us – that is, my husband, my daughter and me – may bring just one “wanted on voyage” bag, containing whatever we need to amuse ourselves while we’re away. My husband’s contains his newspaper and his Open University books. My daughter’s is stuffed to bursting point with cuddly toys, her Nintendo DS, MP3 player, and story books. Mine is all notebooks, paperbacks, Kindle, ipod and a tangle of recharging cables to fit the van’s cigarette lighter.

After crossing the English Channel from Dover to Calais, we spend the first night in snowy St Omer in northern France, snuggled deep into our winter-weight sleeping bags. After my previous late night vigil, I should be sleeping like a kitten. Instead, I fall straight into the clutches of a nightmare.

My Bookish Nightmare

Escher's drawing of a never-ending staircase
Escher’s never-ending staircase (courtesy of Wikipedia)

In this nightmare, I’m rushing through endless rooms full of bookshelves. I’m searching for something, but I’m not sure what. Then I reach some stairs and start climbing, climbing, to ever-higher shelves. Finally a rickety metal ladder leads to a high platform protected only by a low, flimsy railing. (I should add here that I’m terrified of heights.) Only when I reach the top of the ladder does the danger of the situation strike me, and I start to retreat, unable to bring myself to set foot on such an insubstantial landing. As I step back, the whole of the bookcase on the platform topples towards me, threatening to rain down its contents onto my head.

Fortunately, all of this is happening in slow motion, giving me time to grab the sides of the ladder, but I’ve already lost my footing and my legs are dangling in mid-air. Realising I have, unexpectedly, the upper-body strength of Wonderwoman, I try to push the ladder away to  restore the bookshelf to its rightful place. Meanwhile I’m shouting to my husband for help, and suddenly he’s at my side asking me why I’m crying.

I wake up.

“Whatever’s the matter, darling?” he’s saying.

With an effort, I catch my breath.

“I – I – I – I think I need a holiday!” I sob.

Now there’s good timing!

Coming soon – some entertaining observations about our travels through France, Belgium and Luxembourg!