Category Archives: Home improvements

Another day, another car park

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There are patterns in any life that have a predictability to them, a sense of normal consequence, an inevitability. Take, for example, the look on people’s faces when I tell them that, for a significant part of my time, I travel around Europe in a large, American, RV. I have always interpreted it as a mixture of surprise and excitement, with a genuine delight for me that is sometimes tinged with happy envy.

But I’ve been living this life for a while now, and I wonder if I am mistaken: perhaps that look actually means, ‘Shit, you’ve no idea what you’ve let yourself in for, have you, girly? Rather you than me’.

They might not be wrong – allow me to elaborate on some misconceptions I once foolishly had.

We can go anywhere we want.

Er, no. Not in our particular van, Georgie.

Can’t go down narrow roads, under low bridges, or over 6 ton limit ones. Can’t go into large towns with complicated one-way systems, or through tiny villages with chicanes at either end.

Can’t do really sharp corners in less than a 15-point turn, or go up very steep hills at any speed greater than 8 miles an hour. When we do, we worry all the time that Georgie’s not going to make it, and that we’ll have to attempt that 15-point turn, on a mountain road, with a sheer drop to one side.

Can’t park on sharp inclines because our levellers can only redress this a certain amount, and if it’s too far out of whack, we can’t open the slide-out without the risk of Georgie tipping over onto her side. Plus, the bath won’t drain, and the water pump keeps freaking out because all the water in the tank has gone to the other side. And how does a water pump freak out? Well, it sort of screams.

Also, can’t park on grass if it’s likely to rain because… this.

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We can just camp where we like.

Again, no, not if we want any services. Like a laundry or wifi.

I recently watched a film starring Helen Mirren and Donald Sutherland: they played an elderly couple who just took off in their old camper van. One morning, Donald’s character (who was ill) wet the bed, and Helen promptly stripped the bed to wash the sheets. Then they drove off along the highway, and I spent the rest of the film wondering where the hell she’d hung that sheet to dry. Seriously, where? It never appeared again and, can I just say, her sink was the size of a walnut.

As for wifi…

Before we left England we were under there impression that McDonalds always had wifi. To which, yes they do, but its speed is slow to impossible, and it is also restricted, so that I can never get to this blog, for example. So when we are a bit off-grid, most of our time is spent wifi hunting, which, in many ways, is the safari of the 21st century.

We went to Menton, a perfectly gorgeous little town in the south of France, just near the border into Italy. An artist friend of ours has been going there for years and his descriptions of it are utterly enchanting. I pictured myself wandering along the sun-speckled promenade, before stopping at a delightful little bistro and being served croissants and coffee by a super-slim, dark-eyed, waitress.

But in reality? Yes, it was very pretty, and yes, we raced down the promenade, but mostly we needed to go online in order to pay our bills and check our bank balance.

After much dithering about we found a cafe that advertised wifi – but, frankly, that was just boasting. In two hours I only managed to upload three pictures onto my already-written-in-Word blog, and I was close to kidney failure from all the coffee. The super-slim waitress had become super-surly, and my legs had fallen asleep.

We can leave behind all the responsibilities of a house.

If you want to know about ‘responsibilities’, just try taking a week’s worth of wee with you, everywhere you go. After Menton, we tried to find an Aire that had the right facilities, because our waste was nearly at critical mass, and we were running off to the public bogs every chance we could in order not to cause overflow. Our water had run out, too, so we were making do with a bucket and cup to hand-flush the loo at night, and a couple of bottles of bought water for drinking.

And then Clumsy Week happened. You all know about Clumsy Week, right? Those days when everything you touch breaks, snaps, fuses, or is smashed? Just imagine when that happens in a van, with limited tools, or space to store spares.

Imagine, also, that you are probably some distance from the shop or the repair person that is needed to solve the problem (if you even have a clue as to what shop that is, of course, because you are somewhere foreign and remote, and DIY is not universal). Trying to explain to the only person you can find with even a smattering of English, in the unpronounceable village miles from nowhere that you’ve fetched up in, that you just need to buy a small rubbery thingy, with a hole in it, about so big, or possibly a sort-of gromity whatsit, is nowhere near as easy as it sounds.

On Clumsy Week I basically broke everything, including our door handle, roller blinds, glassware and taps just by looking at them, I swear. Our normally functioning leisure batteries decided to go on strike, and however many times Steve re-did the wiring, nothing happened. When he climbed onto the roof to check the solar panels, the ladder broke away from the back of the van.

Ergo, we had no lights, and the fridge and freezer had to be turned off. I located a box of candles I’d intended to use for mood-lighting rather than emergencies, but they’d been stored too near a heating duct, and they’d all melted together to form one, long, wobbly candle, with several night-lights and a glass holder sticking out the side.

We couldn’t turn on the heating because the fan wouldn’t work without electricity, and our generator is too noisy for built-up areas. Plus, and God knows why, our steps suddenly decided not to retract, so we couldn’t move anywhere anyway.

We will see places we never knew existed.

Well now, this one is true, as long as we’re talking car parks. Georgie’s too big for supermarkets, but Chinese Shops don’t seem to mind us. Motorway Truck Stops are usually free when abroad, and a much better place to stay now that we’ve learned to park as far from the refrigerated trucks as possible (they literally chunder all night long).

But we were still having the same trouble with Georgie breaking down all the time that had been plaguing us since taking on fuel in Albania. Some of our desperation for wifi was so that Steve could find out what was wrong. Research suggested we needed to source the right fuel filter. This entailed locating mechanics who worked on diesel trucks, and hoping that our Chevy engine wouldn’t confuse them too much.

So the Renault truck garage forecourt at Beaune was home for a little while (no picture, it’s too depressing), as was the Scania truck version at Montelimar (where we were locked in at night). My daily view was now of burly, grease-stained, middle-aged men, with sloppy trousers and butt-cracks (FYI the Czechs call these coin boxes – isn’t that brilliant?) using noisy tools and glaring at me a lot. Ah, the romance.

It will be wonderful to drive along without a care in the world.

Until the sodding Mistral gets you. Again.

The Mo Farrah of the wind world, it rips up through France looking for old RV’s to scare the bejesus out of. Apart from the alarming rocking from side to side along roads that favour ditches over hedges, there is the awning that flaps itself into unrolling and tearing, and the outside lockers that burst open, ready to spill all your shit under other trucks tyres. If I weren’t driving behind in Nibbles, I dread to think how much damage would be done, and how much stuff left littered across Provence.

It will be an adventure.

Well, this just makes me snort tea out of my nose.

So why do I do it?

Why do I travel around knowing that Another day, another car park is a pretty adequate description of my life?

Because even though most Aires and Sostas do turn out to be the corner of a car park, this is often better than it actually sounds. Okay, it’s not the romantic view down a vine-covered Italian slope that I once envisaged, but it can often be quite near a beach or other local landmark.

The following were all in the space of a week or so. This one, at Coucy-le-Chateau-Auffrique, had a nice ruin on a hill to gaze at (ooh look, there’s Nibbles, my Smart car)…

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…and this one overlooked a river.

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Here we had an interesting view of some troglodyte houses…

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…and this was in the car park of a vineyard and wine warehouse. With free wine tasting. Nom nom.

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And where else but in a car park would we have met Bid and Ger, the Irish couple just starting out on their year’s journey, and who write the Facebook blog, Pilatesinavan? Super nice.

Or see the trucker obsessed with Joan of Arc?

Or have the wonderful opportunity to understand, to really understand that it is not where you are, or even where you are going that matters: it is how you travel.

And – if you are lucky enough – who you are travelling with (like a man who’ll wear this hat because his granddaughter wanted him to). IMG_8745

NEXT TIME: The story of the postman and the stumbling block. Thanks for reading, and ciao xxxx

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Bohemian Rhapsody

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CHVALSINY

(Pronunciation: make the sound of someone clearing a hefty wedge of phlegm from your throat, whilst simultaneously being punched in the gut. Followed by val-sheeny.)

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We are at a lovely campsite just on the edge of the village. It has been run for the last 20 years by a Dutch couple, Jan and Arns (spelling? not a clue here). Naturally, it’s full of Dutch people, which is fine as many of them speak passable English and are generally very laid back.

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The village is typically southern Czech – a couple of pubs that serve good beer and cheap homemade food, a couple of shops (one of which is always a Coop), a massive and pretty church, and a couple of technicolour schools. They like the colour orange here (as an exterior paint colour), closely followed by yellow or lime green, and the schools are particularly colourful.

So are most new houses and flats – often painted in colour-blocked designs of orange (of course), yellow, pale pink, raspberry pink, lime, mauve, and terracotta. You really can’t miss them and they are not very nice, but I’ll give them an A+ for effort.

At the campsite we are surrounded by forested hills and open meadows, so we went for a walk in the woods. We saw a fox-sized, fox-coloured animal dart across the meadow, and disappear fox like, into the woods. Steve said, ‘I wonder what that was?‘ I mean, seriously?

We both heard the hammering of a Woodpecker, then the sound of chirping coming from a tree nearby. A Woodpecker’s nest, with hungry babies. We skirted away quickly, so as not to freak out the mum into deserting the nest. I was also delighted to see mounds of purple Lupins growing wild beneath the Pines, Silver Birches and Lime trees.

 

We passed the obligatory shrine, and then stumbled upon a couple of old railway carriages on the edge of the woods – and they hummed, loudly. One was being used as a massive bee-hive, the other as a shed by a lovely fellow called Jiri.

(pronunciation: Yeer-Zhee, and Czech for George).

My dad used to keep bees, so I know to walk slowly and keep the buggers out of your hair, because otherwise they will get stuck there and panic. Jiri invited us into his shed to see how he strained the honey and offered us some if we brought him a jam jar.

We walked back through the meadows, which were spectacular (like the ones you see in films that can’t possibly be real, only better). So many drifts of wildflowers in so many varieties. Butterflies, birds, weird and wonderful little striped bug things, and others that had bright orange arses and a tendency to hover around you like tiny drones. It was magical.

Steve took a jam jar up to the woods and then rolled back down the hill over two hours later. Jiri had produced, first, a beer, and then his home-brewed Rowanberry liqueur. 52% proof. Not a typo – genuinely, 52%! They had quite a few shots, enabling Steve to happily sit there with bees all over him, while a fully-outfitted Jiri went into the main carriage and pulled out racks of bee-cloaked honeycomb to show him the Queens in action. This is the pair of them after a few bevys.

Cesky Krumlov

(pronunciation: pretty much how it looks, except the C is a ch and the Krum is a kroom)

10km down the road from us is the medieval town and Unesco World Heritage Sight of Cesky Krumlov. Arns leads a guided walk there every Monday evening, so we went along to get the lowdown from a local. It started with us all congregating in a pub and having a beer, which is a very good start in my books. And it certainly is a lovely little place.

It nestles in the lee of a vast castle, built around 1250 by the powerful Rosenberg family who owned…everywhere, according to Arns, for about three centuries. The main gates are still guarded by two bears that prowl around a pit that extends under the bridge into the castle. A remnant of earlier times. But it is the gloriously decorated castle tower that dominates the landscape.

The Old Town itself is circled by a loop of the River Vltava. This means that on a sunny day you can sit in almost any pub, with a beer and a schnitzel in front of you, watching boat-loads of people scream their way over the weirs and then fall in the water – right in front of you. Good times.

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The Old Town is incredibly pretty, with many of the buildings being decorated either with paint, or with repeating tile patterns scraped into the stonework.

It was also the home of Egon Schiele’s mum, so there’s a nice museum with some of his work. For my birthday, we climbed up the castle tower for a view over the town.

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Sadly, ever since his stroke, Steve has had problems with balance and vertigo. And when we got to the top, he had a bit of a wobbly moment (well, a really huge one, actually), so we went back down.

But it was my birthday, so we went back up again. Aren’t I a cow?

THE WATER PUMP

(pronunciation: heap of shit)

Yesterday, we drove to the nearest caravan and camping shop to buy a new water pump, as the old one didn’t like its leak being ‘fixed’ by Steve, and decided to die instead.

Yesterday, we drove to the only caravan and camping shop in the Czech Republic.

And it was 150km away.

But Steve has installed the new one – and it makes a noise like an Apollo rocket lifting off, and the loo now flushes with a certain reluctance.

Grown-up problems. Sigh.

HELPX

Next week we are moving on to a place near Nepomuk (don’t ask, just Google it) to do some volunteering. Steve’s sister, Roxy, introduced us to Helpx, which is where people who need help with projects give you board and lodging in exchange for your muscle power. In this neck of the woods, that is mostly on organic farmsteads or other eco communities.

But we are going to meet Barry (yes, I know), who is setting up an Arts and Music Centre with the aim of using them to bridge cultural boundaries and language barriers. Steve is going to be installing a basic kitchen and I will be doing some decorating.

After that, we will be spending a couple of weeks helping groups in a ‘language immersion’ program improve their English.

Just by speaking to them.

Which I can SO do.

Talk about playing to ones strengths.

 

 

Georgie gets mugged by the Mistral

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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.

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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.

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Filling in the gap with a patchwork of foam board.

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).

Homeward bound, and the head-board from hell

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I KNOW WHAT YOU ALL THINK

You think I’m swanning around having a lovely time. I know this because this is the exact phrase my friend Fabienne just used, and she didn’t want me to disabuse her with facts. And it’s true that, for a fair whack of the time, I am swanning around as much as is humanly possible.

Take Almerimar, for instance. This location is idyllic. The Aire is located on the road up to the lighthouse, with the beach on one side, the marina on the other, and all the cafes and shops bringing up the rear. Don’t believe it’s that nice? Here’s the view out of our windscreen.

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Told ya.

And – on a sunny day – I can wander up to the charity shop, or the supermarket, or the Chinese shop, and I pass dogs being promenaded and families chattering and small boys fishing for….. something, the way that small boys do.

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I watch Razorbills dive for fish, and Cormorants perch on anchor ropes, and it’s all blissful and lovely.

But that’s on a sunny day.

Because, even though it’s Spain, it’s still February.

And it’s mostly bloody windy. We tried flying a kite on the beach, but just ended up dragging gravel from one side of it to the other. The force of the gale was so strong that Steve opened the door and it slammed into the van, knocking a ceramic tile halfway across the floor, breaking the hold-the-door-open-thingy, and wedging the rubber ‘stop’ into the side of the van.

Our little pot of plastic stuff that needs fixing is growing apace. So, not so much swanning on days like that. Hey ho.

HIPPIES

If you travel to this part of Spain, then Hippie-watching is a thing. They all live in Orgiva, in a settlement in the Sierra Nevada mountains that was set up some twenty-odd years ago. They live in tents, and yurts, and huts, and vans, and anything really. Until recently, the kids were all home-educated, but now they have to attend the local school. But some things die hard, and whilst we were there a chap in a rainbow tie-dye T-shirt called all the little ones out for ‘parachute games’. Oh yes.

It felt a bit odd going there just to ‘look’. Like that scene in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World where they all go out to the reservation to watch the ‘savages’. But no-one seemed available to talk to us, so we couldn’t pretend we were genuinely interested in adopting their life-style. We headed further into the mountains, instead.

THE ALPAJURRAS

Climbing higher and higher, we passed though two pretty little white-washed villages (Pampaneira and Bubion) and up to the third (Capileira). We stopped here, intending to walk around, then get a coffee and some lunch. Well, the walk around was quite short as it was bloomin’ steep and Steve’s angina was playing up. That is my story and I’m sticking to it.

We found a great little cafe with views over the entire valley. The sun was beating down, but the snow on the mountain tops was close and clear. We drank wine and ate weird mushroom tapas. I closed my eyes and found my bliss. A single lady on the next table struck up a conversation. She turned out to be from New York, but was currently working as a photography teacher in Qatar. She’d come to Capileira for a Flamenco course and a few day’s break. She was nice. We had a lovely chat. Then she pootled off to the loo and never came back. After a while, Steve went to pay the bill.

Now, a nice thing I’ve noticed about the Spanish, is that they won’t halt a good conversation just because a queue is forming that reaches halfway to India. And when I’d waited a reasonable amount of time, I went looking for him. He was in the bar, and so was the New Yorker and another couple (she from Britain and he from Australia), all chatting away to the cafe owner. The couple had come for the same Flamenco course – which is pretty famous, apparently – and they’d all got talking.

But when I arrived, the bar owner – who’d clearly been something of a sex-goddess in her day – was saying to the couple, ‘Oh yes, I know him – he was once my lover’.

Wait, what?

British lady – ‘Did you know his last girlfriend? Only she’s my best friend.’

Cafe-Goddess – ‘Oh yes, I know her too. But he and I – it could not work – always flying from here to Bali and back again.’

Seriously?

And now the Australian joins in. He’s from Fremantle. My niece lives in Fremantle. He thinks he’s heard of her. (She’s fighting some fairly pivotal ecological issues and is regularly arrested whilst protesting up trees).

Steve’s mum comes from Geraldton and his sister lived there for a while. British lady thinks she knows her too. ‘Roxy, right?’ ‘Er, yes.’At this point I’m wondering if there’s anybody that British lady doesn’t know.

Cafe-Goddess is going into details about the affair to New Yorker. We are still waiting to pay the bill. Isn’t this great?

MEETING MORE PEOPLE

It has come to our attention that there are certain rituals attached to the life of a motorhome dweller. Our current location has the waste dump point right in the middle of the tarmac. Each morning, a steady stream of chaps bring grey plastic containers to empty into it. It’s like watching wildebeest gathering at a watering hole. Same look of concentration. Same measured gait.

Then, before the mass sitting-on-chairs begins, there is cleaning to do. I saw a lady sweeping her roof! I honestly had no idea that this might be expected of me.

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There was a nice Dutch couple in the van next to us, and he busily cleaned his van until it sparkled. I joked that he was putting me to shame and he said that, no, it was man’s work. Which is good. So I told Steve. Two days later, Steve got his new (and unused) hose-broom out and started clearing all the sand off Georgie’s windscreen. Dutch guy and all his sitting-in-chairs mates broke into spontaneous applause. Ha.

We met a nice couple called Peter and Joy in one of the local cafes. She’d recently had an accident and sliced her wrist, so they were full of praise for the local hospital where they’d basically saved her life. The best thing about it, though, was that the Chapel of Rest had a Tapas Bar in it, so you could go and have a pint and some prawns whilst paying your respects!

Then we meet the wonderful Peter and Beryl. They’ve been full-timing for years and currently occupy an American RV that is even bigger than ours and has two slide-outs. They are also a mine of invaluable information. And they have a parrot. Need I say more.

Well, yes. Peter is a damn fine cook, counts topping up your drinks as an Olympic speed sport, and is an avuncular host. Beryl is an absolute charmer, and I can see why Peter fell for her – legs up to my chin, kind and thoughtful, with a very slight – and sweet – speech impediment. She’s been teaching the parrot to count but has been unable to get him to say the number 3. ‘He goes 1,2…. 4, 5,’ she says, ‘he can’t seem to say the number free.’ Aw, bless, neither can you Beryl, and it is enchanting, there’s no other word.

ENOUGH OF THAT, BECAUSE, NOW….. THE HEAD-BOARD (dun, dun, duuuuuh !!!!!)

Well.

We have something called an east-west bed, which means it goes sideways across the van instead of head on. This allows for much more room to get around the bed and a far, far superior wardrobe space.

But…..

…..the head of our bed is beneath a window, which doubles as our escape hatch should the van roll. So we sit up in bed, watching Project Runway (don’t judge us), and lean on half a side pelmet, some crumpled blind, and a large metal handle each. Not comfortable and, in colder weather, bloody draughty.

What to do? Remove the pelmets and blinds and insert a head-board, of course. It will fit the space, block out the noise, light, and draughts and still be easily removable in an emergency. So I tell Steve to keep an eye out for some foam. He has other jobs to do – fixing leaks and creating a kitchen cubby-hole (because I can’t be doing with wasted space) – and he discovers some thick, insulating foam in a hardware store. I promptly dismantle all the existing window coverings.

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We buy two 1×2 metre sheets, an inch thick, figuring that one on its own won’t be stiff enough to stay upright, but that if we put two together….you see my thinking here? Then I pin some temporary fabric around them (OK, a sheet), prop them up behind the pillows and we go to bed.

Most of the night, the foam falls on my head.

The next day Pete says, ‘What you need is a sheet of hardboard that you could stick some foam-backed leatherette on. Put a shelf there,’ he says, pointing at the pillow end of my bed, ‘and sit it on top.’

So I give it a good think, and although I can’t quite bring myself to embrace the leatherette, I reckon he’s got some good ideas that I can work around. We beggar off back to the hardware store and buy a sheet of hardboard and some other bits and bobs.

The board is cut to fit the space. It is not, however, cut to fit inside a Smart car.

We take the roof down, bend the passenger seat forward and cram it in. I ride all the way home, bent double, with a frozen hand sticking out the top of the van holding on to the board because of the hurricane force winds that have suddenly shot up again.

And then comes the bit where I am really glad that we bought a new kitchen knife, and that I packed both my glue and staple guns, and a sewing machine.

Long story short, it only took me three days, mostly because the window turned out to be slightly crooked. And – as I was cutting out a piece to fit exactly inside it, and another to fit outside it (stopping all the draughts and light) – this was a bit of a mission. I glued these onto the board, then glued the other piece of foam onto the other side to act as a soft surface to lean on.

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Put up the shelf for it to rest on. Covered it in fabric. Made pull-it-to-escape-handles. Loads of velcro on the back and on the wall. And it works a treat. Beryl reckons it looks like it’s always been there.

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HOMEWARD BOUND

And, having done all that, it is now time for us to start wending our way back to the UK in order to M.O.T. both the vehicles. So we are trogging on towards Barcelona, intending to cut across the Pyrenees at the business end, whip up through France to Dieppe, and then trolley back over the channel for the end of March. See you then, peeps. Much love.