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.
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)…
…and this one overlooked a river.
Here we had an interesting view of some troglodyte houses…
…and this was in the car park of a vineyard and wine warehouse. With free wine tasting. Nom nom.
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).
NEXT TIME: The story of the postman and the stumbling block. Thanks for reading, and ciao xxxx