We drove off on a windy Thursday. There was a clump in my chest which might possibly have been the after effect of a bad summer cold, or maybe it was just travel anxiety, or anticipation. We’ve done this before, packed a tent and a few other belongings into a car and headed down to Europe for a few weeks relaxation.
Of course tenting in Europe is anything but relaxing. It’s hard work, often infuriating and sometimes utterly shite, but it’s always rewarding. We set sails towards France staying in a bit scary German camping sites were the Gnomes seem to rule. On our way down we had no tailwind, instead we were forced to camp as soon as Puttgarden and on our second day we wondered if walking wouldn’t be a good idea. The roads were full of people trying to get somewhere but not getting anywhere at all.
So we had a slow start, but at last we found ourselves on a nice little camping in a rural French area somewhere near St Etienne. The lake was nice and warm, the people friendly and it was wonderful to see familiar faces. It always is on these travels.
Moving forward we soon found ourselves on familiar camping grounds in Frontignan, amongst Alf (the aliens) dad and a hoard of French teenagers who had little better to do than surf the almost functioning Wifi and ignore the families they were there with. At night we sang to the sounds of the waves without seeing the ocean and let it lull us to quiet sleep on a soft airbed that wakes you up as soon as the other person even thinks of moving. It’s almost like floating in the ocean.
And you spend your days bathing in the pool or the ocean because it’s too warm and you really don’t like the heat that much and need to cool down. And your mind becomes mush, trying to find a healthy breakfast instead of the empty baguettes and cheese, revelling in the moments were you just get to sit with your mind and a good book and do very little but exist. And when the mind has become just muddy enough you start to think again, you’re in another universe, one were the laws you are used to don’t quite apply. A man walks by, you look and note the tanned skin and the dark hair and then he vanishes behind the bushes. Then another one goes by and you wonder if they are twins. When the third one passes by you believe your mind is tricking you, because they all look exactly the same. But of course they don’t, it’s just a simple illusion made tricky because of the heat and the way the men with the bellies all look a like in their speedos.
Sometimes when I’m out wandering in Europe I feel like I’m in a reality TV show, like the Truman show and every person I meet, I meet again at some point. The characters look the same, with some minor changes, grey hair here, a moustache there, a tattoo, a nose ring… And then comes a strange one, like the man who always hummed a classic song as he was walking towards the toilets, Nirvana, Scorpions, Metallica, all depending on the mood. His long brown hair doesn’t remind you of Kurt Cobain although he’d want it to and he is never seen in the company of others but seems to enjoy himself splendidly none the less. And then there’s the old guy with the moustache, the one who looks like someone who would be driving a Rolls Royce in California and not a camping caravan in France. He too, however, seems to enjoy himself immensely.
When we left our familiar save haven of Les Tamaris, we ran into trouble.
The sunflower fields were endless, taunting me with their big beautiful heads and big eyelashes, like the French girls they bat them at you and then hang their heads and instead of looking aloof and unforthcoming you get the feeling they despise you. And maybe they do. I guess I’m simply aggravated by the fact that I didn’t catch a single photograph of the sunflower fields. I did however manage to get a few shots of Carcassonne from the road. We decided it was too hot to visit, especially since we were there a few years back and figured it wasn’t the right time for a closeup. Half an hour later we had a big crack in our windshield in front of the driver and a little girl crying of stomach aches (I blame the cows – she ate diary ice-cream the day before).
Speaking of travel anxiety! So we thwarted our plans, after speaking to people with knowledge of windshields, and drove to the coast but stopped before we had planned and randomly chose a camping to stay the night.
Life can be wonderful sometimes. In the midst of the heaviness that came with having to change the windshield and not knowing exactly how to handle that, we found this wonderful place, a place we incidentally had seen a picture of on the internet on a list of interesting places to visit. (I swear when we were surfing the site there was a bad picture of the camping there!) It was a camping called Panorama du Pyla and stands right beside Dune du Pilat.
And as we stood there on top of the sand dune overlooking the Atlantic ocean, listening to British kids run around being polite to each other and German kiteriders playing Edith Piaff (or was it Ella Fitzgerald? It fitted the place perfectly, whatever it was) on the radio of their Volkswagen caravan we sighed deeply, and said wow about a gazillion times before we managed to get to work. And the horrors of the day were all washed away on that single moment and it hits you that on that very day one year ago your father died and somehow it makes sense that this little miracle happened on this day and not on any other day…
But it is hard work. You need to put the tent up, find food and feed the kid, put the kid to bed, always two or three hours too late although French kids never seem to sleep at all. The kids are awake at all hours, running around, crying of course and I guess they somehow nap during daytime although I can’t imagine how because it’s always too warm to be in the tent during the day and they can’t all have air conditioned caravans to go to, can they?
And another week goes by as you slide down to the beach (and climb back up!), try to surf their imaginery wifi, watch the colourful kites flying just above your head, walk the dune and have your windshield changed by a man who looks very much like Zizou except he doesn’t seem likely to headbutt you anytime soon (forgive me Zidane, you’re still the best) and does everything in his power to make himself understood and you find yourself wishing you could tell people somehow about this wonderful company, named CarGlass in Villenave d-‘Ornon, that was so willing to help in any way they could. And you find yourself admiring J for his ability to be polite enough in French to get people to help out, apparently it involves the word “pardon” a lot. And when the windshield is in place you take a day trip to the bay on the other side and you get awestruck by the power of the Atlantic ocean. The ocean you grew up with, in slightly different settings.
And every day of that week you walk past the baby under the table who one day is gnawing on a washing brush and the next day on a shoe and you find yourself hoping that the kid isn’t named Fido but he seems happy with his current lot in life, in fact most people around you do and it makes life so much easier. And every day of that week you meet Sisyphus with the dark hair and the brown eyes, the man who takes his broom and swipes the sand from the stairs and every day he looks just as content with his task as he did the day before.
But slowly things start getting to you. The sand is everywhere, it gets in between your toes, in your wine, on your airbed, into your sleeping bag, in your bra, in your food and you tire of brushing the matts and telling the kid not to go into the inner tent without brushing off properly first. And then there are the toilets. If there’s one thing you start to miss on a trip like this, it isn’t your bed but your own private toilet. Having shared toilets with the French (Germans, Brits, the Dutch, Belgians and whatever other nationalities find themselves surrounding you) for two weeks you start to miss the solidarity of your own bathroom, shared with no one but close family and a few guests. At home you don’t have to ponder why there are foot prints on the toilet edges. How the French women do this is beyond me, but they do! They stand on the toilet edges and do their business and then they try not to miss but they are much worse than the men, especially when doing number 2! Let’s just say it isn’t pretty!
So getting away from the place is often a case of hallelujah, even when you’ve enjoyed it immensely. There is too much sand, too many ants, too many mosquitoes or too much wind, or the guy in the tent next to yours snores like he’s wearing a trumpet for a nose but never learned how to play. You realise only afterwards that this is as close to a complete stranger you’ve ever slept. And with only the two thin tent walls and maybe a bush between you. It’s not the ideal sleeping companion and you have few options, to stay or to go.
And you escape feeling rejuvenated, on to new adventures, slowly heading home to the antless house and the big, non-inflatable bed. And suddenly you find yourself in a different world entirely, one where sleeping beauty resides and Alice, Peter Pan, Captain Hook and Indiana Jones. The castles are big and the displayed items remind you of Notre Dame and you start to wonder if Walt Disney designed Fira the capital city of Santorini as well. You remember the feeling of walking the streets being similar, except here the royalty has Norwegian names and your kid is completely in love with Olaf the snowman, who looks a lot taller in “person”. After a bumpy ride with Star Tours you suddenly get the urge to go home. The day is full of magic, but so is the next one.
Because there are no queues on the way home. No getting stuck in traffic at all. It always rains in Germany, but the car swooshes from city to city, Paris, Brussels, Köln, Münster, Hamburg, Lübeck, Puttgarden, then a boat ride and suddenly Copenhagen and finally, finally you’ve arrive home where the temperature is mellow (mere 14 degrees celsius in the night) and the house seems like something you saw at Disneyland only a day before, except there is no one there but you and the family and you crawl into bed and sleep, a dreamless sleep, and wake up the next morning after only 3 hour sleep wondering why you aren’t rocking gently and why the air feels so stuffy and why you can’t hear any birds singing.
It’s hard work camping, but the adventure is so rewarding and the toils are so different from the ones you usually experience that it somehow becomes relaxing. You also get to choose the tempo you travel in and you can get ideas, like visiting Disneyland, halfway through. You can choose to go into Paris and then thwart your plans entirely when you realise that the prospect of taking an already tired five year old into the big city is just too daunting, so you swoosh by seeing the Eiffel tower only as a small miniature statue, you otherwise see in gas station and on nicely woven quilts of streetsalesmen. And you get no qualms about it. You’ve been to Paris before and there’s always next year.
It’s good to be home, but I’ll forever miss that Panorama view over Pyla and its beach. I’ll forever miss the Atlantic ocean and as soon as I settle into life again I’ll miss being on the road. I’ll even forget about the ants and the sand and the bad toilet experiences and I’ll only remember the magic, the adventures and the characters I met.