Posted in Events, Writing

Maybe, Maybe Not – My June Column for the Tetbury Advertiser

cover of the June 2017 Tetbury AdvertiserLittle did I know when I ended last month’s column with a throwaway remark about being more tolerant of May (the PM) because I love May (the month) that the next day the former would call my bluff by announcing a snap general election in June.

Always reluctant to engage in politics and still suffering from over-exposure during the local elections, I was tempted to go into immediate estivation – a word I have the chance to use about as infrequently as general elections come around.

Plus Ça Change…

Shortly afterwards, our household was due to receive a French exchange student for a week. Her stay coincided with the day of the French general election. By chance, my daughter’s return visit will include our own polling day.

Our student went home yesterday, and after a very happy and enriching week for us all, I’m now convinced that we’d all gain a much better understanding and tolerance of other nations and religions if we just ignored the politicians and instead embarked on a massive exchange programme. Walking a mile in other nationalities’ shoes would do us all good. Oh, sorry, I mean a kilometre.

We’d never had an exchange student before, but the school prepared us gently and well with reassuring and down-to-earth tips, along the lines of “Don’t worry if they get homesick, it’s not fatal”. Once we’d got the house clean and tidy ready for her arrival, the week turned out to be far less stressful than I had expected.

Our young guest was a gentle, polite and appreciative girl who tried so hard to speak English that her language skills noticeably improved within the week.

Vive la différence!

We spoke openly about the differences that mattered. For example, we like cats, she prefers horses. We have milk in our tea, she doesn’t. The appropriate treatment of chips, we found it harder to agree on: on our day-trip to Weston-super-Mare for a quintessentially English experience, she insisted on mayonnaise rather than vinegar. But I forgave her when she willingly accepted a stick of seaside rock as a souvenir.

Even our cat Dorothy, normally haughty with visitors, made an effort to bond with our French student, spending most of the week asleep on the guest bed.

Sans Souci

Only once did politics disrupt our week, when she asked to see the results of the French election as they were announced on television. The look of joyous relief that spread across her face when Macron was declared winner said all we needed to know.

(If you want to read those fateful words I wrote In Praise of May (No, Not That One), you’ll find it here.)

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Posted in Writing

Channelling Calm for the Dover to Dunkerque Ferry

(My contribution to the March edition of the Tetbury Advertiser, written in the middle of February as we were about to embark on a week-long trip to France, Belgium and the Netherlands)

As I write this month’s column, I’m just 22 miles away from becoming the Tetbury Advertiser‘s foreign correspondent: I’m poised to cross the English Channel. In a Force 10 gale.

This morning, the idea of spending a week in February touring Northern France in our camper van has lost its charm. When we booked our passage in the dark days of December, far-off February seemed comfortingly spring-like. We knew we’d have to pack warm clothes to guard against the colder climate of a continental landmass but did not foresee such storms.

Photo of the HMS Belfast moored by Tower Bridge, London
The Royal Naval vessel on which my father served: HMS Belfast, now moored in the Thames as part of the Industrial War Museum (Photo: Creative Commons by Alvesgaspar via Wikimedia)

Naval Advice

My parents phoned before we were due to set off yesterday, just after the lunchtime shipping forecast.My mother did not exactly suggest we cancel our trip, but I’m sure that’s what she was hoping to hear. My father, a former Royal Navy meteorologist, sounded positively excited on our behalf. The prospect of our trip brought back fond memories of his days serving on the HMS Belfast during the Korean War. He offered us the benefit of his advice.

“Just close your eyes and think of the sea as rocking you to sleep.”

That might have worked when he was in his navy issue hammock, but unfortunately our chosen ferry service, DFDS, doesn’t provide hammocks.

“Tinned peaches are the best thing to settle your stomach when you’re seasick. Make sure you pack tinned peaches.”

We have none in the larder, so I slip tinned pears and pineapple rings into my bag instead.

“We are allowed to postpone the trip to the Sunday when the forecast looks better,” I tell him.

“Oh, the swell will continue for days after the storm,” he assures me brightly. “That’s how it was every time we set off towards Korea, as soon as we were away from the shelter of the land.”

Outlook: (Fun)Fair

My daughter on board the Channel Ferry, late afternoon
After boarding the ferry late afternoon, Laura demonstrates how many cuddly toys she can fit into one small “Wanted On Voyage” bag

My daughter asks what our crossing will be like. I try to frame the prospect as a positive adventure.

“Think of it as crossing the Channel by rollercoaster,” I suggest.

I know she’s just reached the age where she loves rollercoasters.

“Will we go upside down?” she asks eagerly.

“I sincerely hope not!”

I’m thankful that the journey will be relatively short, until my husband recollects a memorable Channel crossing from his distant past.

“Once we had to wait outside the port for four hours because it was too rough to dock,” he remembers. “We just had to ride the storm out at sea.”

I try to banish images of the final scene of the movie The Perfect Storm.

So if my copy for this column turns up a little late, that’ll be because we’ve been shipwrecked and I’ve resorted to old technology to submit it. But not to worry, I’ve got an empty Cotswold Spring water bottle in the van that I can use to send my message. I’m just hoping it has a homing instinct.

Postscript: Our scheduled 10am departure on the Saturday morning was delayed till early evening. DFDS bumped us up to the 8am crossing instead – which left around 4pm. The reason for the delay? The ferries had been stuck out at sea for not four hours, but 10 hours, awaiting conditions sufficiently calm to let them dock. By 4pm, thankfully, all was calm. And my tinned pears and pineapple stayed in their tins. Phew.

More posts about our February trip coming soon! Here are the first two:

A Question of Priorities – about a strange encounter on the dockside as we waited to board

A Theme Park By Any Other Name – a theoretical tour of prime European theme parks, resulting in our visit to, er, Plopsaland

Posted in Travel

A Theme Park By Any Other Name Would Smell As Sweet

Parc Asterix logoThe second instalment of the travelogue of our half-term camper van trip to France, Belgium and the Netherlands.

With our usual degree of advance planning for our travels, we are already at Dover awaiting the Channel Ferry before we discover that the only place we had identified as a must-see on this trip will be closed for the duration of our stay. The Parc Asterix website , which I’m idly browsing on my smartphone, informs me that this attraction operates only from March to October. I’m anxious that my daughter Laura (10), an ardent Asterix fan, will be bitterly disappointed.

My husband is less than helpful.

“Isn’t this what happens in the National Lampoon movie, Vacation?” he reminds me. “The Griswold family base their entire trip to visit a particular theme park and turn up outside its gates after a long road trip to find it closed?”

I sincerely hope that the similarity between our holidays will end there, and am starting to wonder how I have the nerve to call myself a travel writer when inspiration strikes.

“Plopsaland!” I declare. “Let’s go to Plopsaland!”

Plopsaland logoThe Secret Theme Parks of Europe

Some time ago we realised that certain European countries like to keep their best attractions a secret, discouraging visits from pesky foreign tourists and preserving all the fun for their fellow countrymen. Choosing names that do not sound alluring in other languages is another great tactic for repelling non-national visitors.

Exhibit A: France’s conservatively named Grand Parc, which sounds like damning with faint praise. It strikes me as a bit of an understatement for a place that is meant to outshine Disneyland Paris.

Exhibit B: Efteling in the Netherlands. Not only does the name mean nothing to the non-Dutch speaker, (it sounds to me like some sort of fish), it’s listed in the Rough Guide under “D” for “De Efteling”rather than “E”, which explains why I couldn’t find it until after we’d been there.

Exhibit C: Belgium’s Plopsaland. We’ve seen copious signs on the Dunkerque-Bruges roautes, but the name sounds so unalluring to the English ear that we’ve always passed it by. Laughing. Well, when you have a small child on board, it’s hard to ignore any signs that offer the opportunity for toilet humour. Apparently there’s also a PlopsaCoo and a couple of PlopsaIndoors too.

The Call of Plopsaland

Last Easter, on our way back from Luxembourg, we managed to collect a Plopsaland leaflet to show Laura’s cousin Tim, who embraces lavatorial jokes ever more enthusiastically than she does. He was delighted. So this trip, to compensate for Asterix playing hard to get, we decide before we’ve even left Dover that we’re going to make a bee-line for Plopsaland, where, according to its website, we can look forward to such treats as the Gnome Plops Garden.

“Well, gnomes have to poo too,” observes my husband, who really ought to have grown out of toilet humour by now.

And bee-line proves to be an appropriate word, because it turns out that Plopsaland was founded by a honey manufacturer. Sweet.

As we board the Channel Ferry, I’m already looking foward to visiting the gift shop, because I’m sure Tim would love a souvenir t-shirt saying “I’ve been to Plopsaland”.

  • Catch up on the first instalment of this tour at my previous post: A Question of Priorities
  • Coming soon: a full report on the Belgian theme park, under my new suggested slogan – “Plopsaland – Much Nicer Than It Sounds”
Posted in Family, Travel

A Question of Priorities

The first in a series of posts about our half-term trip in our camper van to France, Belgium and the Netherlands

Debbie and Laura at TIm's house
Sometimes only Mummy will do. Me and Laura, when she was less than a year old.

On the first Saturday morning of the half term holiday, Dover-Dunkirk ferry departures are running seriously behind schedule, following a night of Force 10 gales in the English Channel.

Slowly our camper van edges through immigration control, where we learn that the ferry we’re due to catch has been marooned outside the harbour for 10 hours as the sea was too rough for it to dock. In those circumstances, I’m happy to wait the predicted eight hours before we can expect to board.

In the meantime, we have needs which must be attended to. As soon as our camper van reaches its allocated parking space to await departure, my ten-year-old daughter Laura and I nip across to the port’s Food Village to use the loo.

Disappointingly, the enticingly-named Food Village turns out to be exactly like the inside of any British motorway service station. The upside is that we can easily find the Ladies’. Our mission accomplished, I’m just waiting for Laura to finish washing her hands when a wide-eyed lady, aged about 30, dashes in crying “Where can I put my baby down?”

The little girl in her arms is about nine months old. Wearing a plum-coloured hand-knitted jumper and a pink hat shaped like a flower, she looks like an Anne Geddes photo. Someone’s Grandma loves them.

The lady’s eyes become even wider when she realises there’s no playpen or baby seat in which to secure her little flower while Mummy uses the facilities.

“Here, would you like me to take her for you?” I offer, thinking wistfully that it’s been a long time since I’ve held a baby that small.

Without a moment’s hesitation the lady thrusts her baby into my arms and dashes into a cubicle. After a moment, she starts talking loudly to me through the door, and I realise that she’s seeking reassurance that I’m still there. I answer immediately to make it clear that I haven’t fled with her baby and leapt on a ferry to parts unknown.

Baby Laura reading a grown-up book, aged less than 1
Laura, seeking wisdom from books at a very early age.

Her baby, meanwhile, is unperturbed, responding to the unfamiliar setting as if it’s a giant activity centre. She turns her little head towards the source of each new sound, open mouthed with wonder – roaring hand-driers, fizzing taps, sliding door bolts and slamming doors. She is too preoccupied to notice that I’m not her mum.

After a minute or two, the lady emerges from her cubicle at a more relaxed pace than that of her arrival. Then on catching sight of me with the baby, she goes rigid with horror.

“Oh my god, I’ve just realised what I did there!” she gasps. “I just gave my baby to a total stranger! I was that desperate!”

I smile indulgently.

“Don’t worry, we’ve all done things like that,” I tell her, nodding towards Laura to indicate that I’ve been there, done that, and that my baby lived to tell the tale.

Laura on the Dover-Dunkirk ferry
Laura on the Dover-Dunkirk ferry at last, pulling out a few stowaways from her bag

But I know very well how her heart must be pounding, as mine did one day when Laura was tiny, and I left her outside a shop in her buggy in the care of her father. When I came out, they were gone, and I fell into a wild panic. Logically I knew that nothing terrible could have happened – they hadn’t really been kidnapped by aliens and there was a rational explanation for the empty space where I’d expected to find them. Even so, I started running tearfully from shop to shop, stopping only when I found Laura safe and sound a few doors down. She was cooing happily in her buggy in a men’s clothes shop, overseen by the shop assistant, while her Daddy was calmly trying on a pair of trousers in the changing room. I was horrified. It was at that moment that I realised the full force of maternal instinct and the power it had to overwhelm reason.

In Dover’s Food Village, the flowery baby, perhaps suddenly realising the enormity of the situation, starts to cry. I’m relieved to return her to the familiarity of her mother’s arms and to lead my own child back to the haven of our camper van.

Coming next: how our lack of forward planning means we end up in Belgium instead of France. 

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