Musings from the van
I’m not going to do a full-on review of our recent holiday in France. All you need to know is that it was pretty damn cool, although 10 days with 2 kids under 4 in a camper van is….well, let’s just say it can be somewhat challenging. These are the things I have learnt from our French trip:
1) Camper van/camping cookbooks are a fabulous idea. I love the notion of knocking up a delicious steak and sorrel salad, using foraged ingredients (not the steak – farmers tend to get a bit annoyed if you bugger off with their cows) and a few simple ingredients I keep in the van, like paprika, balsamic dressing, crystallised rock salt and sumac. Except, obviously, I don’t keep those things in my van. I don’t keep some of those things in my kitchen, where there’s approximately 50 times the cupboard space. Cooking on two rings in a space not big enough to swing a cat also tends to restrict the culinary process somewhat, and as I wouldn’t know sorrel from a dock leaf, my foraging skills are pretty much limited to picking blackberries. So, while still a fabulous idea, camper van/camping cookbooks are wildly impractical, unless said cookbook recommends you make a chicken curry with pre-chopped stuff from the supermarket and a jar of Uncle Ben’s sauce. That’s what I did. The Uncle Ben’s sauce said it contained natural ingredients. That was good enough for me.
2) Sleeping bags are annoyingly difficult to wash, particularly if you have children who are still in nappies at night. My husband claims sleeping bags are ‘self-cleaning.’ Um, not if you wee in them. Or, in fact, at all. I had to wash the kids’ bags, and they turned out fine despite the ridiculously complicated washing instructions on the labels, but my husband is very possessive of his ‘kit’ and I’m a bit scared to do the adult bags. They’re really going to niff in a few years time…
3) If you don’t empty the water tank of your camper van regularly, a smell of death will gradually permeate the entire van whenever you drive anywhere. At first I thought a cat must have somehow got trapped and be decomposing somewhere in the engine. Then I had the awful though: what if it’s a human? What if there’s been a murder and the corpse’s remains were (for some completely bizarre reason) stashed under our van? I’ve definitely watched too many episodes of Silent Witness. It’s warped my brain. (Even though the story lines are ridiculous. Don’t even get me started on the one the other day about Asian guys grooming white teenagers for sex. The plot had more holes in it than a leaky sieve. AND it gave me really bad nightmares).
4) There is, indisputably, a hint of distrust that remains from a thousand-odd years of wars between our two great nations, France and Britain. It’s also possible that, as apparently 70% of French people take their holidays in France, they get a bit sick of Brits in camper vans clogging up the place. Anyway, these days, we don’t try and stick each other with swords, we fight a war with words instead. So the French whisper that we wear socks in bed and our meat tastes like leather, and we counter-claim that the French are rude. They certainly can be. One outstanding example from this trip was when my three-year old announced, as we were driving along, that he needed a poo. And he couldn’t hold it for long. This was a problem, as we were driving along some minor back road, and he got upset at the idea of doing his business in a ditch. It wasn’t a prospect that I, resident bum wiper and clearer-upper of things, relished either. So we pulled in at a campsite. I asked the guy on reception if I could take my son to the toilet, he said of course. As we left, the owner came running out, waving her arms like a rabid centipede. ‘This is not a public toilet,’ she shouted furiously. ‘What you have done, it is not correct! Pah!’ And she made a rude gesture at us.
Later in the week, I went for a horse ride on the beach. I was happily cantering along (actually, galloping – turns out ‘petit gallop’ actually means ‘canter,’ not ‘little gallop,’ and my incorrect translation may not have sat well with the leader), thinking things were going pretty well, when the leader turned round. ‘How much riding have you done?’ she snapped. ‘I only take experienced riders.’ Five minutes later, one of her experienced riders fell off and she had to call the emergency services.
But to counter those experiences, we also met some delightful, helpful people. The staff at a restaurant called Le Jardin Delice in St Cast De Guildo, Brittany were particularly lovely. It was a smart restaurant, and we turned up starving, in shorts and T-shirts, but far from turning their noses up, they brought little bowls of crisps for our hungry children to snack on until their food arrived. That almost certainly averted a couple of tantrums. So maybe there’s no real difference between ‘us’ and ‘them,’ the French and the English. Maybe people are just people.
5) After 10 days of camping, camper vans get pretty smelly. It’s an indefinable pong – a hint of spilt milk here, a whiff of malodorous trainer there. Cooking in the 5 by 15 foot space that you then sleep in also contributes quite significantly to this smell, particularly if fish is on the menu. As most of the cushions etc are part of the van, and I can’t take them out to bung into the washing machine, I’m going to have to do what the advert says and ‘wash it with Febreze.’ I can but hope that the smell of fake lavender will mask the aroma of hake in a beurre blanc sauce that currently haunts the interior. It’ll be a battle of the two pongs. Hopefully, it’ll have faded away by the time we take the van out again. It won’t be until next year after all – I should just about have recovered by then!
(If you’re interested, we travelled courtesy of Eurocamp Independent, staying at Chateau De Galinee in St Cast, Brittany and Le Chateau De Marais near Blois in the Loire region. Both fab places to stay, with loads of facilities for kids and a great bar for the grown-ups!)
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