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!

Posted in Travel

Reliving History in Northern France

La Coupole
La Coupole, the war museum near St Omer, France (Image by Charles D P Miller via Flickr)

Pottering southwards from Dunkerque on our French odyssey this summer, we take the opportunity to revisit a memorable tourist attraction near St Omer.

La Couple is a remarkable structure: a domed, semi-underground cavern that would serve well as a film set for the lair for a James Bond villain.  But it was the real life setting of a far greater horror.  It’s a Nazi military bunker, built to house and launch the revolutionary V2 bombs on London.

The museum has a particular significance for me.  The London suburb in which I spent my childhood was a target for V2 bombs. I remember my grandma telling me that the most frightening thing about them was when they went silent: that meant they were about to hit the ground.

My eight year old daughter Laura has just finished a school topic about World War II.  She and her classmates enjoyed it so much that they did not want the term to end.  We’re hoping the museum will complement her topic nicely, but I quickly realise that  its displays are more horrific than I had remembered.

Fortunately some of the significance goes over Laura’s head.  She laughs at the spectacle of a slide show projected on a pocked and pitted rough brick wall, thinking it makes a funny cinema screen.  It’s actually a reconstruction of a squad’s wall against which many French citizens met their death.  She looks askance at a coarse stripey suit in a glass case: it offends her developing sense of fashion.  I don’t want to explain that someone may have died in this suit: it’s the uniform of a concentration camp prisoner.

Watching films of French refugees heading south on foot, pushing sparse possessions in handcarts and wheelbarrows, I wonder what  it would have been like if we’d been part of that procession.  What would Laura have wanted to take with her? She’s not good at travelling light. Seven cuddly toys have somehow stowed away in the camper van this holiday, although I’d told her to bring only two.

Then I remember an assignment she did at school.  Her class had to plan what they’d have taken in their suitcases,had they been evacuees.  No doubt many of them will have included modern luxuries such as ipods and XBoxes.  Not so Laura.  She thoughtfully showed her favourite cuddly toy (so she’d have something to comfort her at night), a notebook and pen (in case she got bored), and her diabetes test kit.  She drew a neat and accurate illustration of the lancets, test strips and a blood glucose monitor that we use many times a day to manage her Type 1 diabetes.

I realise with a start that to be among those French refugees would almost certainly have sentenced Laura to death, not from Nazi atrocities, but from her diabetes. Her complex medical needs, such as refrigeration for her insulin, and supplies for her high-tech insulin pump, could never have been met on such a journey.

Suddenly Gordon and I find ourselves making excuses to leave the museum before  she is ready to go.  As we march across the car park back to the safety of our camper van, I hug my daughter a little tighter, patting the test kit in my handbag for reassurance.  La Coupole is indeed an extraordinary monument, but as it recedes into the shadows behind us, I do not for a moment glance back.