I remember learning about the Mistral in Geography, over a million years ago when I was at school. At the time, it honestly never crossed my mind that anything I learnt there had any relevance to my life, devoid as it was of subject choices such as How to date Donny Osmond and The Politics of the School Bus.
But now I wish I’d paid more attention. Because, although Georgie didn’t get blown off the road or rolled onto her side (she does weigh 7.5 tons, remember), and although Nibbles didn’t get blown clear into Switzerland, we did suffer an awful lot of damage.
Here’s how it went.
After leaving Mini Hollywood we headed off towards our next destinations – Barcelona and Figueres, because I wanted to do some arty stuff and see lots of Gaudi and Dali.
About halfway there we found an Aire on the spectacular Delta de l’Ebre, near Amposta. This sweet little nature reserve contained a spit of sandy beach cradling a lagoon, and a series of wild fowl breeding lakes surrounded by reclaimed land that was used for growing rice. The reed beds, paddy fields, duck population and river estuary had produced a unique and sustainable way of life that had flourished for centuries.
But now it was mostly home to thousands of flamingos. Oh yes.
I loved it because I’ve only ever seen them in zoos, and a flamingo in flight is a glorious thing. For starters, they have the most vibrant salmon pink armpits, and you see stripes of white, black and rich pink as they soar above you. Plus, they make an almost perfect X shape. Don’t know why that’s cool; it just is. And lastly, they can’t always be bothered to straighten their long necks, so they flap along looking like they’ve swallowed a bent coat hanger. Great big pink comedy birds. Brilliant.
We saw Marsh Harriers, Kingfishers, Purple Herons and loads more that we couldn’t identify because they were chased away by the Marsh Harriers. The view out of our front window was of a small pond called El Clot. I’m not making this up.
But, in the middle of this idyll, we got the news that our lovely brother-in-law, Nigel, had been rushed to hospital, and it was serious. Very serious. Within a few days it became clear that there was little-to-no hope for a positive outcome, so we packed up and started driving home as fast as we could. Heart-breaking.
We rushed around Barcelona, shot off up into France and ended up at another Aire, this time not so picturesque. It was located in the car park of a run-down looking café, and run by a smiley and smelly old drunk gentleman who lived in a caravan in the corner. He only let us have ten minutes worth of water and then invited himself to coffee with us when we went to breakfast in the caff.
The next day we made an early start for Toulouse. The wind had been picking up and the land was very flat. However, the forecast said that it would become tornado-strength if we stayed where we were, whilst Toulouse was predicted to be calmer. And I’d forgotten everything I ever learnt about the Mistral.
So that’s where it all fell apart – quite literally.
We’d hardly gone 10 miles when, simultaneously, Steve heard a banging noise, and I – driving behind in Nibbles – saw something swinging out from Georgie’s left side. It appeared that the awning that tops the slide-out had become loose, so we pulled in as quickly as possible…
…and jumped out into 100kph winds…
…to find the awning had broken free of it’s fixings at the front and was flailing around like an octopus in a horror film.
It slammed up onto the roof and back out into the traffic as we tried to grab it, and we saw that it had started to rip apart. The fixings were broken and scattered across the road: we had no choice but to try and tear it off in one piece, and stow it in the van. (I spent the rest of the journey tripping over the damn thing, as it was bungeed to the table leg to stop it rolling around when we drove.)
The slam on the roof had dislodged the grill from the air-conditioner, but that was a problem for later. Right now, the difficulty was staying on the road and in one piece. We put everything heavy we could find into Nibbles’ boot to give me more stability, but nothing could stop the wind opening the front outside locker on the RV every half a mile or so. That journey took a long time. A really, really long time.
But we got to Toulouse in one piece and the wind lessened enough for the rain to start tipping down and pouring through the broken air-conditioning unit. That slam on the roof had smashed the plastic cover to pieces. It was not safe for anyone to go up there (even if we aren’t both really bad with heights, which, obviously, we are), so we put out a bucket and went to bed.
For the following days we just drove up towards Calais. The Eurotunnel is a brilliant way to travel quickly and is cheaper than the ferries. The queues were quite small, so I ended up shunted onto an earlier one in Nibbles, then had to hang around and wait for Steve to show up in Georgie. Bit panicky: thought I’d missed him. Plus, this driving on the left-hand side of the road felt a bit weird.
Sadly, by then, our brother-in-law had passed away, painlessly at least. So we went back to the site we’d stayed at previously, in Sevenoaks, and went to visit Steve’s sister to see if we could help.
We still had the problem of the broken awning and there happened to be a Caravan and Camping Show that weekend, which seemed like a good place to go for help and advice about getting a new one. But it turns out you can’t, really. Have to get them sent in from the States.
But we did get some brilliant stick-on solar panels (see the Reith Xmas lecture) and a jar of lemon curd, so that wasn’t wasted. And Steve realised that we had enough material left in the original to re-attach it if we were careful. And bought the right glue. Or tape. Or both.
In the caravan next door were Andy and Jo and their little daughter Khalisi (I know, right?). And if there’s one thing that we can rely in in this life, it’s that as soon as Steve starts messing around with tools, blokes start gathering. Blokes on campsites with little else to do. Blokes who no longer have a garage or a garden shed. Blokes who like being useful. It’s just moths to a flame, honey. And so Andy was great in helping us to fix the awnings.
(Notice I said ‘awnings’, plural. Because of course, our other awning had a broken piece too – that had nearly taken out our friend Phil’s shoulder when it snapped in Seville. But now we had an address and so the postman kept turning up with replacement grommets of metal, and new, unbroken and un-leaky bathroom sink taps, and the wrong strength bed struts – of which more, later.)
I glued and taped the old awning over the rubber ‘piping’, while the guys filled holes, re-drilled them and reconnected the holdings for the awning. Steve had found a place in Seal that sold us new metal rods that they’d drilled holes into at a charge of £28. If you added in the cost of the tape, glue, and the pop-riveter, then the whole lot came to under £60, which is fantastic when compared to the £800 it would have cost us to get a replacement. My husband is bloody great that way.
Then Andy and Jo had to up sticks and move to another pitch on site, so it was left to me to help Steve put the awning back in place. That meant spending a whole day on the roof, half of it hanging over the side supporting the weight of a very heavy pole and awning. I am so effing proud of myself – I even did the pop-riveting (new skill)! Then we had to re-tension the other awning, and I’m making this sound much easier than it was.
By now we’d said goodbye to our lovely Nigel at one of the most moving funerals I have ever been to (I’m not going to talk about it), caught up with the grandkids, and moved on to a site near Henley on Thames. It was a beautiful site, right by the river, and we were a given a fully serviced pitch. This meant that we had electricity and a constant water supply, PLUS we didn’t have to move the van to empty our tanks – we could just drop a hose down the hole and let it drain out, as and when. Luxury.
We met a lovely couple called Les and Christine, who told us stories about meeting their dads, for pretty much the first time, after the war.
Les hadn’t seen his for seven years, and was not best pleased when this stranger appeared and ousted him from his place in the double bed with his mum. On a crowded bus he loudly demanded to know, ‘Mum, is that soldier gonna be sleeping in your bed again tonight?’ To which his mother, much to the disbelief of all the other passengers, hissed, ‘He is not a soldier: he is an Airman, and he is your father’.
Christine said she hadn’t seen her father since she was a toddler, with a gap between her two front teeth. One day, she saw a guy with a limp and a stick walking past her on her way to school, but she didn’t like the look of him so she gave him a wide bearth. As the family had recently been re-housed, the man took one look at the young girl, recognised here tooth-gap and called after her, ‘Oi, Christine – where does your mammy live?’ Terrified, she yelled, ‘Down there,’ and scarpered. Later, she said, ‘Mammy was nowhere to be seen and the bedroom door was locked.’
I spent another day on the roof, this time with Steve, sticking down our swanky solar panels. So when my sister’s husband came to visit, there was Steve with his tool box out again. Adam (being a bloke) had a lovely day helping him sort out all the wiring. Thanks, mate.
However, not all our DIY has been quite so successful. For instance, before we left the UK, we bought a newish mattress on Ebay. It was slightly longer, and certainly heavier, than the old one so the gas-filled bed struts that raised the bed base had slowly given up the ghost. Steve ordered new ones but the fixings were different.
So, bought wood. Cut and glued. Drilled holes. Bought bolts. Eventually fitted new struts. Then found out that Steve appeared to have had a brain-fart and bought struts that would lift Georgie, let alone our bed. After several hours spent sweating away in a confined space (and not in a good way), we realised we didn’t have the combined weight or strength to push the bed base down. An elephant sitting on our bed might‘ve just about managed it, but it would’ve needed to be a real porker.
So, we started again. Undid the lot. Ordered the correct ones. Searched for the pieces that belonged to the first struts. Panicked because Steve thought he’d thrown them away.
I left Steve to fit the new ones.
There then ensued a lot of huffing and puffing and swearing, so I went to investigate. Steve had decided to save time fitting the new parts by holding up the entire weight of the bead and base …. on his head. He was starting to complain about his back hurting, so I asked him why he hadn’t removed the heavy mattress first. He said, and I quote, ‘You don’t really understand men, do you?’
And on to Stafford. Where there was Kevin – the only chap in the UK who could sort out the condensation in our windows. Not a big problem, except in the driver and passenger door windows, where this would stop us getting the MOT. We parked on his driveway, and spent four hours learning how to get the damn things out (saving ourselves £150 per window, but hastening our divorce). And it only took two and a half hours to learn how to put them back in.
Which brings us to today. Penkridge. And the last bits and bobs are getting done before the MOT tomorrow. Steve is just off to Halfords, I don’t even care what for.
And, oh joy, all that time at Henley has caused a toilet blockage. Because the water was constantly draining, the tissue just sat there and dried out. Now we have a tissue mountain. Fuck, fucketty fuck.
So before we move off to Bath on Thursday, we will need to fill up the waste tank with water so that it can slosh around for the whole drive down, loosening … things, and leaving the most God-awful smell. Words can’t describe.
And that’s when the family are coming to visit.
When people ask me ‘Are you having wonderful adventures?’ (which they do, by the way, a lot), I say, ‘Yes’. Despite the certain knowledge that what they mean by ‘adventure’ and what I am discovering it means, are poles apart.
Have I ticked any of the great wonders of the world off my bucket list? No. Have I been to truly awesome and unexplored places? No. But can I pop-rivet, conquer my fear of heights, take out an RV window, and take dodgy toilets in my stride? Hell, yes. Life skills, baby, life skills (just not necessarily aspirational ones).