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.
As regular readers may know, my family’s favourite mode of holiday transport is the camper van. For me, one of the many joys of camper van travel is that no matter where you go, your vehicle gradually turns into a mobile museum of everywhere you’ve ever been. I don’t mean we fill our van with souvenirs acquired in gift shops. I’m thinking more of everyday domestic items acquired from local shops in whichever country we’re passing through.
The Esperanto Kitchen
Take the kitchenette. The kitchen roll is French, printed with puzzling slogans about champignons, whereas the tea towel depicts the Outer Hebrides. Snacks are offered up on a French tray printed with macarons. A wooden Provençal tomato punnet is now filled with wrapped Welsh sweets. Having used the last of the Belgian soups that broadened our knowledge of Flemish words for vegetables, we’ve just restocked the soup shelf with tartan tins of “Granny’s Scotch Broth” in the North West Highlands of Scotland. Currently in the biscuit tin are handmade lavender shortbread, purchased at the Achiltibuie Piping School Café, which was quieter than expected because the Pipers were on a summer tour of France. Admittedly some of our supplies have more prosaic origins, i.e. Tesco, but at least they came from the Inverness branch.
Reading on the Road
As I like to read books about the places we’re visiting, our on-board library bears price labels from distant bookstores. (If you’re ever in Inverness, seek out Leakey’s.) We also buy novels from shops raising money for charities that we’ve never heard of. Blythe Community Care was everywhere we went this summer.
This cosmopolitan mix may be taken simply to indicate a lack of advance planning – I admit that we did once set off on a month’s tour of France without a map or guidebook for that country – but for me the eclectic atmosphere is part of the fun.
Tropic of Tetbury
Preparing to head home after this summer’s adventures, it occurred to me that one man’s exotic is another man’s local. As we import our latest Scottish bounty to Gloucestershire, others will be heading away with treasures acquired in Tetbury. They’ll be dropping Hobbs House crumbs into the pages of the books acquired in the Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, and remembering to tell their friends about cafés named just as eccentrically as our Highland find. Can there really be a Two Toads anywhere else?
And probably, just like me, as they walk back in through their own front door, they’ll be congratulating themselves that no matter how much they’ve enjoyed their holiday, there really is no place like home.
(This post was originally published in the Tetbury Advertiser, September 2013 edition.)
More tales of our Scottish summer holiday will follow shortly.
We’re in Ullapool, on the north west coast of Scotland, and my husband, our ten-year-old daughter Laura and I are beachcombing along the pebbly shores of Loch Broom. It’s a sea loch, which means it opens out into the sea rather than being enclosed by land and its water is salty. Who knows what treasures we might find here, washed up on these ancient shores?
My husband always casts a scientific slant on these expeditions. His natural reaction is to classify the rocks with their correct technical names.
“Ah, that’s an aggregate, ” he declares, dismissing a glorious hotch-potch of a rock with a single harsh word.
A couple of days earlier, on Nairn beach, I’d been pleased to find a heart-shaped piece of sea glass, particularly because I’m working on a story of lost love called “Sea Glass”. Its pale, opalescent surface, gently scoured by the sea, hints at secrets locked within.
“It’s only a basilisc pebble,” is Gordon’s reaction to my find.
I decide not to tell him how much I paid for a pair of delicate green sea glass earrings in Strathpeffer en route to Ullapool.
Although not all our beachcombing finds are so classically pretty, all are beautiful. Today I’m intrigued by a house brick, its once sharp corners softly rounded by the sea. Where is the rest of the house? I wonder. Has it fallen into the sea? How far has this brick travelled?
My daughter has tuned in to my thoughts.
“I can’t stop looking at all the pebbles,” she declares. “There are so many of them, and behind every stone there is a story.”
And every stone is different, ground to a unique shape and size by relentless, indiscriminate tides. The sea is an unbenevolent creator.
For a moment, I see myself as a pebble, tiny among a universe of pebbles that extends in either direction as far as the eye can see – inland to the far end of Loch Broom, out to sea where the loch broadens to segue into the sea, flowing out around the Outer Hebrides before rushing towards more distant lands. Its next stop: Canada and the USA, to whose shores so many impoverished Highlanders fled in the wake of the unspeakably cruel Highland Clearances. For most of these reluctant emigrants, these pebbly shores of Loch Broom would have been the last they ever saw of their beloved Home Country.
As Laura slips three carefully chosen stones into her pocket as bounty, I touch my sea glass earrings with renewed appreciation. We’ll treasure the few stones that we can, each in our own way.
On our tour of Luxembourg, we become more cosmopolitan by the moment. We’re soon used to being in a country at ease with three languages in its daily life (French, German and Letzeburgesch). So it doesn’t seem too much of a leap to visit the part of the country known as “La Petite Suisse” – “The Little Switzerland”. One more country for our collection will not go amiss.
Vianden has taken its pseudo-Swiss connections very seriously, with copious Swiss-style chalets nestling alongside its riverbank. Heidi, come out, come out, wherever you are!
Soaring above this little riverside town, reaching even above the spectacular mountain-top castle, is a chairlift, echoing Swiss ski resorts. The effect is charming, if surreal.
On the evening of our arrival, which happens to be our eleventh wedding anniversary, we eat out at one of thse chalets, a Tyrolean-themed restaurant called Das Heisses Stein (The Hot Stone). Not surprisingly, it serves dishes associated with Switzerland such as cheese fondue and – something new to me – a hot stone cooking system. My husband and I (but not our vegetarian daughter) are each provided with an oiled, heated slab of granite and a raw steak. We are instructed to slice the steak and set it atop the stone to sizzle to our preferred degree of doneness.
Our very helpful waiter, attired in authentic Swiss lederhosen, turns out to be Portuguese, speaking exellent English. What brings him all the way from the Algarve to La Petite Suisse? I enquire. His sister was already working here, it turns out. We find further evidence when we visit the town’s two souvenir shops next day.
In the first of these shops, alongside the badges and mugs bearing “Souvenir of Vianden” slogans and images, are handbags made of cork, cigarette lighters bearing the Portuguese national flag, and, for balance, a selection of Spanish and Portuguese flags on plastic sticks.
The second souvenir shop is unexpectedly called The Finn Shop. Once we step inside, all becomes clear. Here we find Moomin-themed gifts and badges emblazoned “I love Finland”. Not the obvious souvenir of Vianden.
Surprisingly, there are very few souvenirs of Vianden itself. My daughter has to work hard to spend her holiday money on this trip, eventually settling for a plastic doll in national costume (phew!)
The multinational connections do not end there. In the Hotel Victor Hugo, named after the great French writer who spent some time in exile here, we are served by a young boy apparently of African descent, possibly with Belgian Congo connections.
You Say Orange, I Say Orange
Touring the castle next day, we come across a large room lined with photos of world leaders visiting Vianden, from my own Queen Elizabeth II to Russia’s Gorbachev, from the Japanese Emperor Hirohito to President Allende of Chile. A family tree fills one wall of the room, explaining the direct blood relationships of the local lords with the Dutch and French royal families – but not close enough, it seems, to prevent the eventual Dutch owners dismantling the castle in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and selling stones for scrap. Shame on you, House of Orange! It’s taken the Luxembourgeois most of the twentieth century to restore the place to its former glory.
Such a cocktail of nationalities is bewildering. I’d expected this country to be cosmopolitan, but this complexity is beyond all my expectations. And all offered with such good, tolerant grace by these proud people who “woelle bleiwe wat mir sin” (“we want to remain what we are”).
And then it occurs to me: if ever there was a venue tailor-made to host the Eurovision Song Contest, surely Vianden is it? Luxembourg, I’d give you douze points any day.
If you enjoyed this post, you might like some others about our Easter trip to northern Europe:
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: