In my column for the September issue of the Tetbury Advertiser, I’m reflecting on the restorative powers of the summer holiday – mine was just drawing to an end when I wrote the copy
On holiday in our camper van this summer, we had the usual struggle to recharge all the family’s electronic gadgets from a single cigarette lighter socket. Not that we’re hooked on our gadgets – in fact, we were trying to have an internet-free break. (Not difficult in Scotland, because the mountains block the signals.) But we still wanted to use our phones to take photographs and to text home, and I wanted to keep my Fitbit topped up. Continue reading “The Power of the Summer Holiday”→
Over a decade after buying our first camper van, I like to think we’ve mastered the art of travelling light. We’ve acquired all sorts of tips and tricks that I’m compiling into a little book, along with some anecdotes about our adventures, to be called Travels With My Camper Van. (I’m a bit of a one for obvious book titles, me.)
One of my top tips is not to pack bags at all. You can load some stuff straight into the cupboards before you set off – food, toiletries, books, games. Clothes can be easily transferred on their hangers from your wardrobe at home to the van’s slim wardrobe. Non-hanging items, such as pyjamas and underwear, are best stashed into cheap Ikea laundry baskets – one per person, plus a spare. During our travels, we gradually transfer clothes, as we use them, from the clean baskets to the laundry one – and that gets unpacked straight into the utility room on our return home.
Or so the theory goes. We have had a few hiccups along the way. For example, we once carefully packed a weekend basket for the three of us and didn’t realise till we reached our destination, Ross-on-Wye, that we’d left the basked tidily on the bed at home. Fortunately Ross-on-Wye is well equipped with cheap clothes shops and charity shops, so we bought what we needed to remain clothed and hygienic until we returned home. (We always manage to boost the local economy wherever we go.)
Earlier this week, as it’s the half-term holiday (which means a week off school in this country), we were packing for three days and four nights away to walk the next stage of the Offa’s Dyke Path. That’s an ancient and historic footpath that traverses Wales. We’ve done about half of it so far. Laura had turned 11 a few days before, and in her enthusiasm to embark on this trip had packed her own basket before I had to ask her. This ability, like her new-found enthusiasm for making a cup of tea, is a welcome bonus of growing up.
Only when I took out her basket on the first day of the holiday did I realise my confidence in her efficiency had been misplaced. She had packed precisely one pair of leggings, one t-shirt and a party dress. She was clearly expecting this walking holiday to be more fun than we were. Her constant companion, Heather the rabbit, who serves as ventriloquist’s dummy rather than cuddly toy these days, had packed her roller skates.
Still, I could hardly take either of them to task for bad packing: I had only one walking boot. Fortunately I wear the same size shoes as my husband, and he never travels with fewer than three pairs.
As he’d be the first to remind me, travelling light is all very well, but it’s possible to go too far.
Still, a good time was had by all – and the fact that we’d packed so little made the task of unpacking afterwards even less irksome. Like mother, like daughter – ever the optimists.
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.
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
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 policemen, in 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.
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.
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
Following this summer, I have a new standard for measuring the quality of a holiday: it should not involve:
the emergency services
any mention of us in the local paper
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.
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
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
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.
“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.
The blond one consults his colleague in Letzerburgesch.
“Do you need a receipt?” he breaks off to ask us in English.
“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.
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.
For other reasons why we learned to love Luxembourg, read these recent posts: