Posted in Travel

The Collective Noun for Camping Cars

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.

Posted in Travel

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Sat Nav

Sat nav in use
"We're on the road to nowhere...." Image by Handolio via Flickr

Years ago, I knew a man whose favourite part of the family holiday was to pore over foreign maps for weeks in advance, planning the journey in detail.  Which route would be the most scenic, which the fastest, which the most cost-efficient in fuel consumption and toll road fees? Once en route, he was confident and comfortable, looking forward to a relaxing journey with no chance of getting lost. (Like most men, his greatest fear was having to stop and ask for directions.)  He was truly ahead of his time: a human satnav if ever there was one.

We, on the other hand, set off in our camper van for our month-long French odyssey with embarrassingly little forethought. Having never driven further south in France than Paris before, my grasp of the French road network is even thinner than my knowledge of French geography.

But what the heck, we’ve got the good old Rough Guide to France in the van. That series has always served us well, our vade mecum at home and abroad.  (Yes, we even have the Rough Guide to England.) The sticky flecks of retsina and moussaka are the only thing holding our Rough Guide to the Greek Islands together. And there are French road maps under the seat to fill in any missing topographical detail.

Indeed there are maps aplenty.  Two copies of The AA Road Map of France, one bought on the cross-channel ferry during our last trip to France, identical to the one already stowed under the seat that we’d forgotten we had. Both maps are dated 2003 – the same vintage as our daughter. It flits across my mind that things might have changed since then.

This time, on boarding the ferry, I remember this foolish purchase and resolve to do better.  I go to grab The Rough Guide to France from the van’s book cupboard to swot up. All the Rough Guides from our past travels are all lined up there: Netherlands, Belgium, Spain and Greece.  Except France. Of course.

But not to worry: my brother’s helpfully lent us two guide books that stood him in good stead for his annual jaunts to Nice with his girlfriend from university. In the early 1980s. Tentatively I start to flick through them. Printed entirely in black and white, their few photos look as if they were taken around the time of  Jacques Tati‘s classic 1953 French film, Les Vacances de M Hulot (Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday).

So it looks as if we’ll have to fall back on the sat nav.

The sat nav and I are not good friends. It doesn’t help that since buying it several years ago, my husband, never knowingly one to read instructions, has yet to update its software.  Travelling in Britain, it frequently fails to recognise new roads or junctions. If you allow it to speak, you can hear panic in its voice whenever its little screen map depicts us driving across blank territory. As we happily travel along a new motorway, it shrieks at us to  “GET BACK ON THE ROAD!” or “DO A U-TURN AS SOON AS POSSIBLE!”  My hopes of successful navigation in France are therefore not high.

It also doesn’t have features that fit it for a vehicle larger than a car – such as our camper van. I’m sure there must be satnavs for lorries and buses or they’d be forever getting wedged beneath low bridges. It offers several navigation options such as avoiding toll roads, motorways and unpaved surfaces (always a good idea), but there’s nothing to keep us clear of height or width restrictions.  Once in North Wales, we nearly became lodged without warning in a progressively narrowing lane. I had visions of being stuck like Winnie the Pooh in Rabbit’s hole after eating too much honey, unable to go forward or back. Except for us, laying off the honey for a few days would not have helped.

Early in our French trip, an unanticipated low bridge pares like a slice of cheese the plank of wood that’s wedging our inflatable canoe on the roof (yes, I did say inflatable – but that’s another story).

I do not want to become dependent on this inflexible guide and so I peruse my brother’s books once more. One cuts five routes through France navigating almost entirely by the stars – that is, Michelin stars. This method is way beyond my vankeeping budget.  The other seems to base its routes on religious sights. It’s like a pilgrim’s guide book that’s got into the wrong cover.  This approach doesnt’ suit our family’s atheistic tendencies.  It’s also at odds with our concept of France as a state with no religion. Our only remaining alternative is raw instinct.

Now, instinct should not be dismissed lightly.  My father’s love of Sancerre wine dictates a delightful detour to that part of the Loire Valley. We are so charmed by this tiny, unspoiled hilltop town that we stay an extra night on our journey south and factor it in to our return trip too. It was also at Sancerre that we made some wonderful new friends from about the only other British “camping car”, as the French call them, to be seen throughout our journey. Senlis, too, we found on a whim, tracking it down because we thought it sounded a nice name: we stayed three days and plan to return.

But instinct will only go so far. Once we’ve chosen a destination, we must depend on the satnav to get us there. At first we condemn it out of hand when it veers us our instinctive route. Leaving the medieval castle above Montelimar, it tries to take us towards the mountains: how can that be right when we’re heading for a town beside the Rhone? Later inspection of the 2003 map reveals that it knew a secret shortcut. We have the decency to apologise.

Thereafter we decide to give the sat nav its head, knowing that if we can just learn to trust it, it will all turn out fine – if only we can train it to recognise our size. And if we can somehow pull that trick off, Rick says at the end of Casablanca, I think this could be the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Posted in Travel

Many A Slip Between Piscine and Dip

A man and woman at a swimming hole, in this ca...
Image via Wikipedia

Listening to BBC Radio 4’s News Quiz (always my preferred source of news), I make a mental note of Jeremy Hardy’s comment that in French swimming pools, men are not allowed to wear loose-fitting swimming trunks.  I advise my husband well in advance of our first venture into a piscine  that his usual Bermuda shorts will not do.

He looks sceptical and stuffs them defiantly into his swimming bag.  A little later, we park by the small municipal pool in Montdidier, a sleepy town on the way from Montreuil to Paris.  It’s a hot, sunny day, and we’re all looking forward to a dip.

Manning the admissions booth are not the usual athletic student types that find weekend work in British sports centres, but a brace of elderly ladies in black dresses.  They would both look at home knitting in front of the guillotine.   Gordon offers up to them his red swimming shorts.

Mesdames, je peut?”

They laugh and shake their heads in unison.

Slip de bain!  Slip de bain!” they cry together.

Gordon looks crestfallen.  He hates it when I’m right.

Est-ce qu’on peut les acheter ici?” I enquire.

“Can he buy some?” I translate for Gordon’s sake.

They shake their heads.

Non, madame, mais on peut les emporter.”

“They’ve got some you can borrow,” I tell him.

They open a cupboard and wheel out a large plastic crate, clearly prepared for such eventualities.

Les voila!”

In the cart is a large selection of men’s swimming costumes, all of the diminutive kind that conform to the picture on the wall.  The old ladies rummage around and pull out a red pair that would just about fit a three year old.

Mais non!” they shriek, falling about laughing.

Another rummage and they triumphantly hold aloft a vast blue pair that would go twice round Gordon.

Ah, non!” they giggle, exchanging conspiratorial glances.

Finally, just before their mirth can rob them of the strength to help us, they fish out a discreet black costume that looks exactly right.  Gordon looks mightily relieved.

Merci beaucoup, mesdames!” he says gratefully and scurries off to the safety of the vestiare des hommes.

During the course of our French holiday, we swim every two or three days, either in municipal pools – always outdoors, once we’re south of Paris – or in rivers.  At every pool, we seek out an explanation of exactly why a British men’s swimsuit is not allowed.

C’est plus hygienique?” is the best suggestion that the helpful lady in Senlis can come up with.  But we’re none of us exactly sure why.

But interdit it certainly is, and Gordon has to invest in a suitable maillot.

When I was 11, I had no idea how glad I’d be one day that a chapter of my school French book was entirely dedicated to the swimming pool.  Though I still have to find an outlet for the knowledge I acquired about Nikki le singe making an omelette, my schoolgirl French continues to rise miraculously to the top of my mind on this holiday.

I mourn the fact that learning a foreign language is no longer compulsory in English schools.  It may not always have been well taught, and it may sometimes have been predictable.  (My friend Gary sailed through his French O level purely by dint of memorising, letter by letter, an essay on a day at “La Plage”, confident that it would be one of the essay questions.  It did and he passed.)  But at least I know enough to avert an international swimming pool fashion crisis.

Posted in Family, Travel

I is for Italy

License Plate

In her quest to find some English-speaking playmates on our French holiday, Laura has turned us all into licence plate spotters. Learning the country abbreviations on foreign cars is certainly improving her knowledge of European geography and languages.  While recognising a car labelled I is Italian is pretty  intuitive, identifying a German car from a D or a Swiss from CH  is rather more of a challenge.

Until now, whenever we’ve been abroad on holiday, she’s bonded happily with children of any nationality, whatever language they spoke.  Aged 3, she spent a happy afternoon playing with a French-speaking Swiss girl on a boat in a Greek harbour.  The same year, she received her first kiss was from an adoring Greek boy in Athens, transfixed by her blonde hair and blue eyes.  She had a memorable afternoon in a Greek playground with a huge von-Trapp like German-speaking family, ranging in age from about 12 to 2.  In their contest to see who could stay the longest on the roundabout, Laura represented the UK admirably – she was joint winner with the 12 year old.

But now she is anxious about not being understood.  Sadly, she’s just reached the age at which children on longer absorb a foreign language by osmosis. From now on, if she wants to learn another tongue, she’ll have to work at it. I hope her early friendships with foreigners will persuade her that the hard graft is worthwhile.

In the meantime, learning each country’s name in its own language is a good starting point.

While perusing the car park in La Charite sur Loire, I’m reminded of another interesting difference in languages: the names of car models.  It’s hardly an original observation – we all know the urban myth of the new car launched under the brand name of Nova.  To its American designers, it sounded like a classic brand in the making, with intimations of novelty, newness and being bang on trend – until the Spanish market rejected it as meaning simply “it doesn’t go”.  Not a great strapline for a motor car.

The battered silver car now parked adjacent to our van looks as if it won’t go, but it’s actually branded a “Manager”.  This might sound prestigious to the French ear, but to me it just sounds daft – talk about damning with faint praise! I speculate as to whether it’s a mid-range car, the poshest model being the President or Chief Executive.  The luxury version would be the Commodity Trader or Banker, while lower down comes the Clerk (make that a Senior Clerk if it’s got air-con).  And at entry-level for the first-time car-buyer, there’s always the cheap and economical Tea Lady.

But who am I to criticise?  If I dared, I could have a sticker on the back of our camper van saying “My other car is a Ka.”  The Ford Ka.  That’s got to be the worst named car in the world.  Now there’s an argument for Esperanto if ever I heard one.

Posted in Family, Travel

Bubble Mum

Temporary tattoo free with bubble gumHow to occupy a child on a long journey: teach it to do something a little bit naughty.  It will be completely captivated for however long it takes. Example #1: blowing bubbles with bubble gum.

Laura often surprises me with a new ambition, and the latest is to learn to blow bubbles with bubble gum.  I suspect it is inspired by watching Sky television: in her favourite show, iCarly, resident bad girl Sam is an expert gum blower.

For most of Laura’s friends, bubble gum is a banned sweet and she’s never tried it before. But she has good strong teeth and I decide it won’t harm her to fulfil her goal at least once in her childhood.  I therefore invest two euros in a hypermarket grab bag of bubble gum and cunningly produce it just when we’re getting to the “Are we nearly there yet?” stage of a three hour drive during our French summer holiday. Laura is enchanted.

For the next half hour, I sit alongside her on the sofa of our camper van, training her in this not so gentle art. It must be at least 30 years since I last blew a bubble gum bubble. But sinking my teeth into the solid pink rectangle, I realise that it’s like riding a bike: once learned, it’s a skill you never forget.

I demonstrate how to soften it up, stretch it with your tongue and catch it with your top and bottom teeth before slowly, gently blowing into the middle. The resulting pink globe emerges to a look of disbelieving rapture on my daughter’s face. Can this really be Mummy doing this? It’s a special mother and daughter bonding moment.

I’m about to screw up the wrapper and put it in the bin when I discover a hidden bonus: inside each paper is a temporary stick-on tattoo.  I demonstrate this on my arm (precipitating odd looks in the patisserie later).  Appropriately my tattoo spells out the legend “Bubble Team”.  We investigate other wrappers, branding Laura with French slogans such as “completement mabulle” and “ce dechire“.  With the help of a pocket dictionary, we translate these tattoos loosely as “completely bonkers” and “it’s ripping”.  If this doesn’t gain me Cool Mummy points, I don’t know what will.

Still chewing, I return to my seat at the front of the van, leaving Laura to refine her bubble blowing technique unobserved.  By chance, my husband has put an Eagles album on to play. It’s a Proustian moment: the heady cocktail of gum and Hotel California  transports me back to my teenage years at an international school, where many of my friends were American.

For the next few kilometres, I’m gazing out of the window idly blowing bubbles. It’s not the Loire Valley that I’m seeing, but the smiling faces of those fine gum-blowing gals.  I think about the parties, the dances, the in-jokes we shared; the teachers, the lessons, our pride on graduation day.

And then I remember another small detail about the art of gum-blowing: never blow a bubble into an oncoming wind.  Sticky-faced, I furtively close my window, hoping that Laura wasn’t watching.