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 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

Do Traffic Signs Drive You To Distraction?

Old-fashioned road sign from Highland Folk Museum, Newtonmore
Road signs from the early days of motoring had so much more charm

The 380-mile drive home in our camper van from Stirling, Scotland, does nothing  to diminish my aversion to electronic motorway message boards. These huge signs have popped up alongside many British motorways lately. They must be costing the Ministry of Transport a fortune, as well as causing chaos through necessary lane closures and traffic disruption.

You know the sort I mean: ominous big black boards displaying a grid of light bulbs, selectively  illuminated to spell out the message of the moment. They’re sinister, unattractive and dull, a far cry from the carefully designed road signs from the early days of motoring. Those had a real charm about them; it must have been a pleasure to observe them and obey. Their messages were much more considered too. They had to be, given the long hours required to construct a sturdy metal sign.

Old fashioned road sign frequently seen in the Scottish Highlands
For ships in the night

I suppose I should be grateful that modern technology makes it possible for today’s driver to receive up-to-the-minute motoring news. But I seldom see any useful messages on these boards. The first one we pass today is a case in point: “Please drive safely.” Oh, and there was I planning to slalom all the way to Gretna with my eyes closed!

And, Ministry of Transport, please note: it doesn’t calm any driver’s road rage to be told “Queues Ahead” when you’re already stuck in the middle of one.

But as the nation has invested in these message boards, I suppose we must make the best of them. To this end, I’d like to suggest some more  constructive uses:

  • To convey calming, philosophical thoughts at times of peak traffic, such as rush hour: “This too will pass” or   “There’s a cup of tea/glass of wine/cold beer at home with your name on it”
  • To lift the weary driver’s spirits and take their mind off the traffic: “You’re looking well today”; “You look so much younger than your years”; “That colour really suits you”
  • To divert restless young passengers with travel game ideas: “Let’s play I-Spy!”, “I went to the market and I bought…”, “Who will spot the first yellow car?”; “And now it’s time for a keeping quiet competition!”
  • To answer the children’s repetitive question: “No, we are NOT nearly there yet!”
  • For a more subtle approach, a series of messages on that theme: “We’re nearer than we were the last time you asked” or “Not much further now” or “For every time you ask, it will add five minutes to the journey”

Alternatively, the boards could try to replicate pleasing road signs from the golden age of motoring – or those from other countries that have made you smile. (Any suggestions, anyone?) To end on a more cheerful note, here’s one that we spotted last week in Applecross, in the north west of Scotland. Forewarned is forearmed, as they say.

Road sign seen in Applecross, Scotland, cautioning "Men In Kilts Walking"
You have been warned…

And if that rant wasn’t enough for you, here’s my post from last summer on the same theme:

Rage Against The Road Signs

Or on a lighter note, a mystery solved about French lay-bys:

A Layby By Any Other Name

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 Travel

A Lay-by By Any Other Name

From the MUTCD. These are the two signs under ...
Image via Wikipedia

Heading south from Fontainebleau on the N7, we settle into the mindset required to endure a long drive before we will allow ourselves to stop for the night.  We sit in companionable silence, which is welcome after the non-stop background music in Disneyland the day before.  Laura, exhausted by her 12-hour day there, dozes behind us.

We’ve chosen the non-motorway route for most of our French tour, not only to avoid the cost of the peage (toll road) that is the faster option to Provence.  We actively enjoy driving through the quiet towns and sleepy villages that punctuate long rural roads.  Passing through farmland and forest, we occasionally exchange observations about little oddities that we spot along the way. But when Laura awakes to demand a toilet stop, a longer discussion begins.

“Why are those two girls just sitting by the side of the road?” asks Gordon as we pull into one of the many convenient lay-bys.

I frown.

“Hitch-hikers, I expect.”

Knowing Gordon, he’ll want to pick them up.  He’s a soft touch for hitch-hikers, having used hitch-hiking as his main means of transport in his teens.  I realise that for two girls who are not much more than teenagers themselves, a family in a camper van will be preferable to a lorry.  Comfy seats, lots of space, a cute child to play with and probably the offer of tea and biscuits somewhere along the way.  We’ve rescued similar pairs of passengers from torrential rain when touring Scotland and I resign myself to a noisier journey from here on.

But to my surprise, the two girls barely glance in our direction.  Instead, they  gaze dully at the oncoming traffic.  I feel rejected.

“Probably on the game,” I remark, meaning to be funny, but in a sour grapes tone of voice.

Then a small French car pulls up in front of us, driven by a lone man.  Is their driver going to offer them a lift?  The car obscures my view of the girls.  As our van is English, Gordon has a clearer view of the kerb from the driver’s seat.

“No, I think he’s just gone for a pee,” he says, guessing my thoughts.

Laura is back in her seat by now and  as we pull out to continue our journey, Gordon glances in his wing mirror.

“There’s only one girl there now.”

We continue in silence, soon passing another of this road’s generous supply of lay-bys.  There’s also a girl on her own at this one, but in a small car this time, parked at right angles to the road.  She’s sitting in the driving seat, on the left of the car, so that no passing motorist can fail to notice she’s on her own.  I’m surprised at this: if I ever have to sit in a lay-by alone, for safety’s sake I do everything to I can to make it seem that I’m accompanied by a man.  Moving over to the passenger seat is meant to be the best safety precaution.  Potential muggers and rapists will then assume you’re just waiting for your husband to come back from answering a call of nature.  Don’t they have any personal safety public information films in this country, I wonder?

By the time we reach the next lay-by, we’re engaged in an earnest census of the population of lone females.  Here we spot not one but two white transit vans, each at right angles to the road, and each with a solitary girl in the driver’s seat. In one van, attached to the driver’s head restraint is one of those large inflatable bath pillows that you can get in the shape of a pair of red lips.  With a start, I realise this may be a form of code.

“So what do you think?” asks Gordon, as we pass it by.

I hesitate, considering, not wanting to believe what is uppermost in my mind.

“I think my earlier assessment was correct,” I reply slowly.  “They’re on the game.”

There’s a moment of synchronised jaw-dropping before I ask in a small voice: “I wonder what the French is for lay-by?”