Souillac

270 – Life as a Holiday Rep

When I was 12 I went to Benidorm with my father on a package holiday. I remember the rep meeting us at the airport along with 50 other red-faced Brits, most of whom had already got burnt walking across the tarmac from the plane to the terminal building.

Once outside he started doing a roll-call from a list of names stapled to a Thomson Holidays emblemed clipboard. He was wearing a vomit yellow polo shirt plus matching baseball hat and seemed to be having trouble pronouncing the names, even the simple ones like Smith and Lewis. When he came to our name, Ogley, he pronounced it ‘Ugly’ and everybody laughed, including me and my dad, who corrected him telling him it was actually OGLEY.

‘As in…’ he started, but couldn’t finish the sentence because as we’d realised many times before OGLEY doesn’t rhyme with anything, except Flogley or Bogley, which aren’t real words. The rep ticked our names and moved on to some other names he couldn’t pronounce like Cleugh, Coughlan and Cluister, finally allowing us to get on the furnace-hot coach to the hotel about ten hours later.

Things didn’t improve. Just after the WELCOME TO THE COSTA BLANCA sign a few kilometres from the airport, somebody a few seats behind me was violently sick. I remember smelling the fetid stench of half digested airplane food mixed with cheap sparkling wine and asked my dad how far it was to the hotel. He said a couple of hours and I wondered if I’d make it before I ejected my own personal offering of airline beef lasagne over the folk in front of me.

Luckily, my stomach held up and I was delighted to pull up outside our hotel. The Hotel Regenta, a 25 storey concrete rectangle pockmarked with a hundred tiny concrete balconies, which made the whole building look like a giant advent calendar. But instead of scenes of the Nativity behind every patio window, it was crammed full of lobster red humans plastered in After Sun lying on their beds either dying of heat exhaustion, sunburn or alcohol poisoning. Or all three.

Once inside the hotel foyer that smelt of chips, the rep started waffling on about the week’s entertainment program. This consisted of fancy dress competitions, barbeques and dust-to-dawn drinking with musical accompaniment supplied exclusively, or so it seemed, by Black Lace. Everybody appeared incredibly content until the happy-go-lucky, soon to become the not-so-happy-go-lucky rep, came to his final announcement.

‘Due to unforeseen circumstances, the pool is out of action until further notice.’

The rep tried to hold his smile for as long as he could, perhaps hoping that everybody might be content swimming in the sea. Until someone threw a brick into his face. A metaphorical brick of course – this wasn’t the Middle Ages – but the level of abuse aimed at the poor soul was equivalent to a lorry load of breeze blocks tumbling down on his head from a great height.

He tried to appease them as best he could, telling them they were working on the problem. But the insults and threats kept coming and no amount of half hearted gestures and promises were going to get the rep out of this one. Or for that matter, remove the stagnant mass of raw sewage that was filling the pool.

It was at this point that I vowed never to work as a holiday rep. Never would I put myself in a position where I could be subjected to such foul mouthed abuse from members of the public. Never as long as I lived.

Thirty years later, I became a holiday rep on the Dordogne.

Luckily most of my customers arrive by train or in Volvos wearing Berghaus gaiters and Karrimor waterproofs bought in the 1970s. If I had to tell them the pool was closed, they wouldn’t be that bothered. ‘We’re here to walk, not lounge round the pool, if we wanted to do that we’d go to Benidorm.’

This is the rep job you get when you’re 42. The Berghaus Rep as I’ve coined it. The rep job where you spend half an hour each evening with customers discussing route notes over a glass of Monbazillac. Route notes that were written thirty years ago by a rep who used the Bayeux tapestry as a map and who hand wrote the notes out on parchment. But of course you don’t say that. No point in alerting them before they set off. Simply wait for the inevitable phone call.

‘Oi, rep! Where the fuck am I? It says here there’s a vineyard on my left, but all I can see is a supermarket.’

Gone is the polite chatter from a few nights ago, replaced by harsh words and bile, as I try to explain that the vineyard may have been there in the Middle Ages, only now it’s a branch of Lidl. ‘It’s called progress dummy!’ I shout. Then turn my phone off and go out for a few days.

From my experience, these things tend to resolve themselves. They eventually find out where they are and by trial and error end up at the hotel. Sometimes the wrong hotel. But a hotel all the same.

What I’ve learned from this job is that people are going to complain no matter what I do. But that’s OK by me. That’s their problem not mine. If people want to go on holiday looking for trouble, looking for things to poke at, looking for a fight. Then there’s nothing I can do about it. I can only do my best. Which is what I do. And if I’ve done my best and it’s not enough, then the best thing I can do is lie down somewhere warm and go to sleep. See you in Italy. Ciao.

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(For more Philip Ugly adventures, why not read A Man in France, available at Blogley Books.)

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269 – Mangez, Buvez, Bougez

 

pizza_service_order_pizza_pizzaSo what’s happening? I haven’t written an entry for a while because in truth I haven’t been arsed. I did start writing one a few weeks ago about surviving the last three years on very little money. But it ended up being so self-righteous, clichéd and boring that I canned it. Smug, sanctimonious snippets like “I always have money, because I don’t buy anything” littered the page like the discarded scribblings of a Guardian journalist.

I have been writing though. Some stories based on the guests and hoteliers I’ve been working with this summer. Other people far more interesting than myself, especially the hotel managers who order their guests to go to bed at 10.30 sharp, forbid them from having aperitifs before mealtimes, lock them out of their hotels, scold them for arriving early, turn the air-conditioning off in 40 degree heat, refuse vegetarians coffee and dessert because they didn’t eat their fish and then charge them extra for bread. Hotel owners who make Basil Fawlty look inept at being rude.

And then there’s the guests.

“It’s too hot, too cold, too humid, too wet, too windy, the food’s too rich, too frothy, too meaty, can I have some chips, the bath’s too small (it’s not a bath, it’s a shower), why do we have to walk to the restaurant, where’s my luggage, why didn’t you answer my call, nobody speaks English (it’s France), the canoes are the wrong shape, the hills are too steep, the bicycles aren’t like the ones in England (they’re English), we paid a lot of money for this holiday (yeh, well you should have read the brochure first!), can we have a cup of tea (No! Fuck off back home).” And on and on.

I could write an entire series entitled Excess Baggage – a post-Brexit analysis of how Brits go out of their way to find something to complain about. Or failing that taking their angst out on each other in enormous rows.

Take the couple I saw fighting in their gigantic cinema-sized campervan a few weeks ago. A real set-to that was, thrashing about in their portable cottage, fists flying, noses bleeding, cupboards splintering. True, the thermometer was pushing nearly 40 degrees that day, and the empty 24-pack of high strength lager probably didn’t help, but for the group of campers looking on, it was great entertainment.

‘Nothing like a holiday to let off a bit of steam, eh?’ I said to the guy next to me who’d started taking bets on the winner.

And if there isn’t the excess mental baggage, there’s the excess actual baggage. The mass of suitcases, holdalls, rucksacks, vanity cases, trunks, handbags, wheelie bins, kitchen sinks folk insist on bringing. All for a week’s canoeing, walking or cycling. Trips up Everest require less stuff. The Moon Landings I bet needed less physical matter than the average holidaymaker these days.

I don’t understand it: it’s boiling hot, the night temperature rarely falls below 20 degrees, surely shorts and T-shirt is all you need. Why are you bringing dresses, suits, shoe boxes, jumpers, coats, walking boots, scarves, hats, jewellery cases? One guy even brought a kilt! And wore it. To a restaurant. In France. In summer. Can you believe that?

Luckily, there are exceptions. Some people do bring one bag each. A rarity I admit, and normally the same people who congratulate me on how much they’ve enjoyed their activity holiday. It’s a relief I can tell you.

Most people think an activity holiday is walking to the bar and back. Where in actual fact it consists of engaging the quadriceps muscles of both legs and placing them one in front of the other whereby the torso moves forward at a rate of knots comparable to the speed of the legs. I’m being mean, but I can’t emphasise how much some people fail to grasp this simple premise.

Mangez, Buvez, Bougez* always comes to mind when I’m taking calls during my breakfast from people stranded in the ‘Perigord Desert’ after 4 kilometres of walking and need picking up. (*Eat, drink, move. A slogan used by the French government to encourage people to exercise more and not fill up on sugary drinks and pizza.)

Talking of pizza, we’re off to Italy for six weeks at the end of September to look after a campsite somewhere near Pescara. I’m dead excited as well. As except for a day in Venice years and years ago (possibly the most tedious day I’ve ever had, following 100,000 other folk all armed with two thousand pound Nikon cameras round a ruined city taking pictures of monuments and statues covered in pigeons, was not my idea of fun), I’ve never been to Italy.

We’re off to a mountain village in the Majella National Park where they apparently still have bears and wolves. There are a couple of restaurants in the village, a butcher and a shop. I’m already learning Italian, so I think it’s going to be a month and a half of Mangez, Buvez, Bougez. Roll on October.

(Like this? Check out my short story collection The Sunbed of Malcolm Todd available @ Blogley Books here)

 

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268 – Climb From Le Roc

For a professional cyclist, the climb from Le Roc would be like a fully grown adult clambering over an assault course designed for a toddler. A mere bump in the road that might heighten the heart rate a couple of beats, but nothing more.

On this year’s Tour de France, stage eight went up the Col de Saint Antonin Noble Val near to where I lived last winter. A series of tight hairpins curving their way up the rugged slopes of the Aveyron Gorge, an ascent I cycled up many times with the crazy guys from the Caussade Cyclo Club (see Blogley Posts 253 255).

I was planning to watch this stage in person as the small town of Saint Antonin Noble Val is only 100km away from Souillac where I now live. Unfortunately, that tedious commitment known as work got in the way and I was unable to make it. However, with wall-to-wall coverage on French TV, I was looking forward to seeing how the professionals fared on the St. Antonin climb, hoping they’d find it as gruelling as I did.

What was I thinking! When they finally got to it, the commentator on TV hardly mentioned it as I watched the riders glide up the slope like their wheels had got stuck to pieces of chewing gum some teenager had thrown onto a large conveyor belt that just happened to be going the same way.

By the time I’d got comfy on my holiday rep plastic issue sofa, eating my Official Tour de France ice cream – A Walls Cornetto (true) – the riders had ascended the unmentionable hill and were on their way to Montricoux and the finish line at Montauban.

Mildly disappointed but not too dispirited by this blatant lack of respect from the pros for my cycling efforts, I donned my cycling vest and shorts and headed out for Le Roc to prove I was still the best.

The village of Le Roc, 7 km outside Souillac, is named (I’m guessing) after the 200 foot high slab of limestone that rises out from somewhere behind the church. Whoever first settled here didn’t have to look too far for inspiration in choosing a name.

‘If we don’t think of anything by teatime,’ I imagine the chief saying to his laymen, ‘we’ll just have to call it The Rock. I’m not spending precious time and money hanging around drinking wine while thinking of trendy, pretentious names like that Saint Antonin Noble Val down the road, when there’s more important things to be done like building a road around this massive rock and up the valley so we can get out of here when the valley floods.’

Good advice indeed, as this is the road I cycle up to relieve the anxiety of dealing with wealthy middle class families from Southern England on activity holidays. Even if the word ‘activity’ is used erroneously in my view, especially when I hear complaints that the 1.8 km walk up to the hotel is simply ‘out of order’ or ‘an outrageous thing to be expected to do…’

‘On what,’ I murmur to myself. ‘An outrageous thing to be expected to do on an, ermm, err, ACTIVITY HOLIDAY!’

I say nothing obviously, I’m still too private school, but underneath my soft flabby exterior I’m cooking them alive on a grill the size of a swimming pool with a couple of aubergines stuffed in both ends to keep them quiet.

But anyhow, The Climb from Le Roc, as I’ve coined it, keeps me sane. A sliver of time in the day when I’m not a holiday rep in the Dordogne lugging heavy suitcases around for the Waitrose generation. Instead I’m on a madcap breakaway up Alpe D’huez on my way to claiming my first Maillot Jaune. Jacques Anquetil on the 1967 tour doped up to my eye balls on amphetamine wondering where all my opponents have gone and how high I can go on this vintage Peugeot PK10 racer.

Luckily, my only drug is thick treacly coffee I take beforehand, plus the acidic bile in my stomach caused by 1001 complaints I receive daily from folk moaning about the weather, the walking or the food. But once I get back home to Souillac, I’m feeling myself again and get on with the job in hand of telling people that it is actually possible to walk 1.8km, even up a hill.

‘It’s what legs are for,’ I tell them. ‘Being the bipeds, hunter-gatherers, walkers we are.’

There’s normally some anger or confusion at this point, but they eventually come round to the conclusion that I’m right. ‘I’m the rep,’ I remind them. ‘I’m always right, just do as I say and we’ll get along fine,’ I finish pulling out a bag of giant aubergines just to let them know I’m serious.

(Climb From Le Roc – in detail)

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PS. The Blog will return in September…

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267 – Souillac to Groléjac: En Canoë

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My last post concerned a paddle down the Dordogne from Meyonne to Souillac. This one concerns a slow meander down the same river from Souillac to Groléjac (see map above).

I say meander because somebody upstream has turned the river off. I mean this quite literally as there is a great big dam up at Argentat with some EDF engineer sitting behind a huge control panel munching on egg filled baguettes wondering how low he can make the river go without it officially becoming a stream.

There couldn’t have been enough water in the river during June, now in July with temperatures soaring into the mid-thirties, there’s hardly enough water to flush a toilet with, and the canoers I’m supposed to be instructing are getting pissed off.

We had clients from Oregon last week complaining that they’d booked a canoe holiday, not a paddle-along-a-long-lake holiday. I told them to try and enjoy it and forget about all those worries back home. ‘Pretend you’re a twig on the back of a mighty river,’ I said, half-quoting Planes, Trains and Automobiles. ‘Go with the flow.’

‘But that’s the problem,’ he declared, ‘there is no flow!’ Clearly missing the point of the line from the film, and most probably the point of the holiday itself.

‘It’s just a puddle,’ Mr. Juicer from Oregon continued (He wasn’t called Mr. Juicer at all, he was called Paul Mango, but I’ve adopted this childish habit of giving my clients pseudonyms to make the job more interesting). ‘We were promised canoeing on the mighty Dordogne. It says it in the brochure for Pete’s sake!’

‘It doesn’t say anything of the kind,’ I reminded him. ‘It actually says,’ and I started quoting from the brochure I’d delightfully digested one evening on the toilet before I came here, ‘Enjoy a gentle paddle down one of France’s most famous and longest rivers.’

I looked smug and advised him that there were plenty of other holiday destinations more suited to adventure if that’s what he craved. ‘Like The Congo, for example.’

‘Why would I want to go there?’ he asked.

‘Exactly,’ I replied. ‘Hence the reason people come to the Dordogne to laze around on a canoe all day, eating large lunches at the numerous riverside restaurants without the fear of being eaten alive by crocs or shot by South African mercenaries mistaking you for Islamic State fighters.’

That seemed to shut him up and off he went silently floating down the mirror-like Dordogne thinking of lobster lunches and relaxing more. Good.

Fact is, the river is too slow at the moment, I agree on that. It’s like being promised the thrill of bombing round a race track in a Ferrari, turning up and being given the keys to a Fiat Panda. Disappointing to say the least, so I understand the customers’ frustrations even if there is absolutely nothing I can do about it. Except kill the EDF engineer up at Argentat, steal his egg sandwich, and turn up the river to full.

On the other hand, there’s very little chance of capsizing, which means you can simply relax, crack a beer and float gently backwards. As the video below demonstrates. And if you don’t like the look of it, go to The Congo. Or stay at home.

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266 – Meyronne to Souillac: En Canoë

A few evenings ago, after a tedious day lugging bags and bikes around for two-grand-a-week holidaymakers, me and Elizabeth decided to go canoeing.

We’d been meaning to go for weeks, but had been foiled by the seven foot high waves hurtling down the river ever since the collapse of the dam 50 km up the river at Argentat. Granted that may have been part of a dream caused by excessive cheese consumption, but the incessant rainfall during June did make the river too dangerous for safe canoeing, especially after the last incident involving a large tree and some bad navigation. (See Blogley 260 – “How not to capsize a canoe on the Dordogne”.)

The 18km section from Meyronne to Souillac we did on Friday evening is  fantastic for two reasons. One, it finishes where we live – handy. And secondly, paddling along the Dordogne next to 200 foot high cliffs is a feast for the eyes and the senses as good as anywhere I’ve ever been.

At one point near the hamlet of Meyraguet the cliffs plunge into the water like giant icebergs freshly calved from the Arctic Ice Sheet. Enormous slabs of limestone that in places look like they’ve been glued together with putty, create this fabulous gorge that cuts deep through the Perigord like an axe slicing open the bowels of an Englishman during The Hundred Years War.

High up in the rock wall, rounded grooves mark the level where the river once flowed in some ancient time. Buzzards and eagles now perch on these wide ledges and peer down at mankind making their way downstream. For millennia they’ve sat here watching the slow progression of human evolution flow forward from wooden boats to steamboats to plastic canoes.

It’s taken the river hundreds of millions of years to carve these gorges and set itself at its present level. This is where I was on Friday evening, paddling down the river with a cold beer wedged in-between my thighs thinking of nothing. Witnessing the peaceful and beautiful scenery unfurl around me like I was burrowing up the stem of a rose that’s about to blossom.

Until we hit the Toulouse-Paris motorway that crosses the river 5kms from Souillac at Pinsac, when I could feel my mind revert back to the 21st century. Not that it was too unpleasant either, the viaduct is a great feat of engineering, similar to the gigantic walls I’d just passed. One created by the brute force of nature, the other built by its delicate hand. The hand of humans. Both equally stunning in their own way.

As we neared Souillac I could smell my pot-au-feu I’d left nicely cooking in the oven before we left. It was half past nine and still 28 degrees but we were both looking forward to a big hot pot of beef stew and a flagon or two of deep red wine to celebrate the fact that this time, we’d made it down The Dordogne in one piece.

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Read more about my adventures in A Man in France. Available @ https://blogley.com/blogley-books/

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265 – King Boris, Bike Racks and Brexit

Someone asked me today as I was trying to fit a bike rack onto a van with an assortment of ancient French tools made for a tractor, if I’d now be going back to the UK.

I replied quite quickly, ‘I voted remain, so I’m staying here.’

That was the end of the conversation and I went on my way carting bikes around for the retired English middle class. It was probably just a genuine question. But I couldn’t help thinking as I spun my (French made and owned) Renault Trafic round the tight corners of the Perigord, that the question had more to it. Loaded with disdain that I was swanning round France, living and working without a care in the world. As though I should join the masses back home under a governing class who want to force a real life re-enactment of the Hundred Years War. Join Citizen Boris in his crusade to be King of England. Why not? He’s bent over backwards to be Prime Minister, destroyed his chum Dave in the process, and taken his country out of a cushy trade agreement and into an economic abyss.

The Queen looks dead already so Boris must have eyes on the crown. If only because it matches his hair colour. With the Royal Family being the longest comedy act in history, another clown would fit in perfectly. Not that Boris Johnson is stupid in the slightest. His buffoonery, as everybody knows, is merely an act to fool people into thinking he doesn’t know what he’s doing when he knows exactly what he’s doing.

I should know, I do it all the time. Today for example. Scrambling around in 35 degree heat trying to fit a bike rack onto a van while being egged on by four retirees who were taking it in turns to add their own bike rack fitting wisdom into the equation.

‘Don’t do it like that! Do it this way! That’s not the way! I thought you said you were a bike mechanic!’

‘I am a bike mechanic, ‘ I replied laughing, grease and sweat running down my face like a demented clown. ‘Doesn’t mean I know what I’m doing.’

We all laughed inanely and just when I thought I’d done enough to get a free lunch – “Hapless bike mechanic earns free lunch from wealthy baby boomers!” Ha Ha Ha – I got hit with the question: ‘So I assume you’ll be going back now?’

Cue my rather curt response, Fuck off!, which ended all hopes of an afternoon munching lobster and sipping sweet Sancerre. We all then went back to being serious in true English fashion, talking about the weather and agreeing pickup times. I drove off and left them to get on with whatever retired baby boomers do on holiday. Which from listening to the majority of them since I’ve been doing this job is being amazed about how welcoming and pleasant the French are.

So there we go. We’re out, I’m in and Boris Johnson is King. Bonne soirée.

 

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264 – Souillac: A small town in France

The rain is beating down today like a baton hitting an English football supporter. Hard raps against my window as I look out over a waterlogged road. When it’s sunny here, it’s as good as anywhere. When it’s raining, it’s like North Wales. Grey skies that look like they’re going to fall on you like a tonne of slate. I should know, I grew up there. Oswestry to be precise. Technically English, but Welsh at some point in its Godforsaken past.

There’s a football match on Thursday night involving the two teams (and supporters later on I’m sure). I haven’t got any Welsh ancestry, but I can’t help hoping they’ll win. For the simple reason that England teams are rubbish considering the players and money they have. They pick the wrong players in the wrong positions and think they’re going to win by right because, like all the folk back home supporting the Leave campaign in the EU referendum, there’s still an Empire. We then lose and look for someone else to blame. Normally the Russians. Or the French. Or in the case of the recent violence, both.

I used to watch Forest vs. Leeds at the City Ground when I lived in Nottingham and could never decide who I wanted to win. I’m from Leeds and have supported them since I was a kid. On the other hand, I’ve always liked Forest because of Brian Clough and the great European Cup winning sides of ’79 and ’80. Plus I lived there for nine great years as a student and musician in the 90s.

Sitting in the City Ground waving my red or white flag depending on if I was in the Home or Away ends, I always wanted a draw, with perhaps Leeds nicking a last minute winner in injury time. As it happened Forest won every time, so I always left a little bit gutted, but not as much as if they’d lost to Chelsea or Man Utd – or Derby.

I started writing this post to advertise my latest short film on the little French town where I live and got sidetracked by football and the weather. Two of my favourite subjects, or so I’m told by the hoteliers who I work with here. As though they don’t exist in this part of France.

‘Weather? We don’t have that here. Just blank skies and breezeless days. And as for football. Pah! Nothing to do with us. Only Rugby here.’

Which is why Souillac hasn’t really entered into the spirit of the tournament. There’s a board outside the Grand Hotel next to the Plat du Jour board that reads Match du Jour. One reads France vs. Romania, the other Confit du Canard.  Today is Tuesday, the France game was last Friday, so maybe that’s all I’m going to get during these Euros. A five-day old football match and a plate of reheated duck.

Enjoy the film

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263 – The Curious Case of The Polish Vans

 

polish van

It all started two weeks ago looking out onto the D820 from my bedroom window. A dirty grey Luton van with Polish plates trundling into Souillac. The time was 1020. I know this because I noted it down. I was curious.

Over the following few days I saw more. Same type of van – Renault Master Luton with vinyl canvas body – different colour. Grey, Blue, or Black. Sometimes with a white cab, sometimes with a red cab. The sightings reminded me of Magnus Mills’ novel, The Scheme for Full Employment, which centres on a fleet of identical vans driving around for no apparent reason. I was noting them down for personal interest, maybe I’d write a book as well.

I guessed they weren’t going to Poland. I used to live there and get the coach from London Victoria to Warsaw and remembered how long it took. From the analysis of the times and dates I’d written down in my notebook, which wasn’t comprehensive as I don’t spend all day looking out of the window, it simply wasn’t feasible. Too many vans appearing and reappearing within the same 24 hour time period. Poland is 2000km away, even driving at 200km/h all the way without stopping once for food, water, fag or toilet wouldn’t do it. Nowhere near.

So where are they going? And what are they carrying? Some have refrigeration units on the cab, so perhaps vegetables or meat. But as some of the vans don’t have these, coupled with the fact that thick vinyl canvas doesn’t lend itself very well to temperature control when it’s 30 degrees outside, I’m thinking furniture.

A removal service? But they aren’t big enough. A one man van service, yes. But a whole fleet of small vans when you can just have one big one, no. How about wine? Pots and pans? Clothes? Electronics? Polish food supplies? Books?

In truth, the only thing I’ve come up with is fungus, for no other reason than Poles have a rich tradition in mushroom cultivation. Growing or collecting mushrooms – possibly truffles – somewhere south of here and then driving them up to sell in Paris.

I could be way off the mark, but without stopping and asking them, I’ve no way of knowing. There’s no logo or website on the side of the vans, or any inscription anywhere, not even a name. I’ve discounted the possibly of criminal involvement. For the simple reason that no criminal gang would risk driving a Polish registered van through rural France where even Mr and Mrs Essex Motorhome can get pulled over for having a faulty brake light.

Whatever they’re doing, it’s made life here quite interesting. Sometimes I hear Elizabeth cry from the kitchen ‘Polish Van!’

‘Write it down,’ I cry out from the bathroom stuck in the half French bath since Wednesday. ‘What’s the colour?’

It’s become a bit of a game, like train spotting, although more fun because I never know when or where they’re going to come from. Constructing a timetable from erratic, hit-and-miss sightings. Very similar to deciphering a SNCF rail timetable during a strike. “Your train should arrive today at 1030, but it won’t, it’ll arrive twelve hours later if you’re lucky. Or never. Thank you.”

There’s one now! (a Polish van not a train – that would be pushing it). Direction: Souillac, 1155, red cab, white awning. ‘Write it down! And can you help me out of the bath?’

They’re impossible to predict. I’ve never seen the same van in the same one hour time slot in the two weeks I’ve been watching them. My guess is that they move when the mushrooms are ready. ‘Go Go Go to Paris as quick as possible. Day or night.’ Like Tom Hanks in Castaway before he crashed and got marooned on a desert island for five years.

There is a definite way to solve this mystery though. Wait at the traffic lights in Souillac town centre one evening when they’re on red, climb in the back and hope I’ve got my maths right and don’t end up in Katowice 40 hours later stinking of rotting truffles. Or dead pigs.

I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t. More likely served up in a high class Parisian restaurant as part of an orchid leaf salad.

‘I asked for Perigord diamond truffles, not ass of Englishman. Take him away at once, mince him and feed him to the dogs!’

I could ask them. Flag them down and ask in my best Polish what on earth they are doing because it’s driving me nuts.

‘Mind your own business, Englishman. We’ll do our jobs, you keep practising your canoeing skills, we’ve seen you capsize, very funny. You think you’re the ones watching us? Think again, idyot! Ha ha ha!’

…to be continued.

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262 – Things I like about France No. 1: Routes Nationales

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From my window I have a clear view of the D820, the old Route Nationale (RN) that runs from Toulouse to Paris. For me these represent old France. France before iPhones, prepackaged sandwiches, shopping centres and Renault Meganes. The reason people went to France instead of Spain or Greece for their holidays. Pulling off at an ancient boulangerie in some obscure, unpronounceable town to demolish two or three pain au chocolat in one go, washed down with some heavy, undrinkable coffee.

In 1998, me and some guys drove down to Nice to play in a bar for a week, taking the old routes as part of the trip. It was great, stopping at broken down cafes and bars that seemed barely standing, ordering brie filled baguettes and demis that we topped up with our own supply of lager we’d bought from the supermarket.

It was great. We were young, we were going to play in a bar for a week with free food and booze, plus some cash at the end of it. OK, so the gigs were a bit of a disaster, mainly because the owner of the bar wanted three hours of catchy covers, not 70 minutes of prog rock, as we played. We spent most of the first night learning cover standards like Hotel California and Stand By Me, some of which we played two or three times a night. On the way back, we drove back on the expensive autoroutes because we were tired, arriving back in Nottingham with about 20 quid to spare.

Of course, a lot of the old routes are really busy now, especially around towns or where there’s no autoroute alternative. But there are stretches that are practically deserted, especially in the evenings. Even the D820 outside my window, which is a main route, has periods when I’m wondering where the next car will come from. In fact, towards midnight, you could probably have a picnic in the middle of it. If you felt like it.

The old garages, auberges, cafes and hotels that once lined this route before the Paris-Toulouse motorway was built still thrive, although many now serve tourists rather than salesmen, drivers and travellers.

When people ask me, what do you like about France, Oggers? I say Route Nationales every time. They are surprised. They expect me to say food or wine or scenery or campsites or cakes. But no, the old RNs are always top of my list…

…Well, maybe that’s not quite true any more. I’ve recently discovered an almost childlike penchant for cakes. Especially Flan. A huge oozing mass of eggs, cream, milk and flour cut into slices. It’s like a thick blancmange or concentrated custard put in a pastry base. It’s really cheap and if you find a good patisserie you can really eat a lot. Which is probably why I’m starting cycling again, which is another thing I like about France.

..to be continued.

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Souillac

261 – The Joy of the French Half Bath

 

Being a holiday rep in the Dordogne has many advantages – nice climate, an endless supply of foie gras, lovely scenery, plus free comedy provided by irate English and Dutchmen parking their 40-foot motorhomes in cramped supermarket car parks. However, the best part so far has been bathing in a French half bath.

When we first moved here at the beginning of May, we were a little concerned about the apartment we’d been allocated. The bedrooms smelt of cod, the lounge had the character of a hospital waiting room, and the kitchen equipment amounted to no more than a few chipped plates, an assortment of blunt knives, and a deep fat fryer. All of which gave me the sudden vision of us spending the summer eating calamari and chips at a plastic table.

‘Feels like I’ve just walked into a day centre,’ I said to Elizabeth. ‘How on earth am I going to make salmon en croute using a milk pan and a whisk?’ The only other implements I’d seen.

‘We might have to do a spot of shopping,’ she agreed discovering a rusty fork in the sink before we moved off to inspect the bathroom.

‘Oh my God,’ I yelled once we’d found the light switch, expertly taped up with sellotape. ‘There’s no bath!’

This was devastating. I could live without pans, ham and cheese is fine, but not without a bath. ‘Sans bain,’ I shouted. ‘Or is it sans baignoire?’ I momentarily considered looking at the strange, almost deformed, bath like structure. (La baignoire being the actual tub, le bain being the actual concept, as in ‘I’m going to take a bath.) Either way it wasn’t good news.

‘You know how I feel about showers,’ I started complaining to Elizabeth. ‘I hate showers. You wouldn’t go to a cinema and expect to watch a film standing up, would you? Or have your hair cut? Why should I be expected to wash standing up. Or shave. I always shave in the bath.’

She’d heard this rant before. In each place we’d ever gone in fact that didn’t have a bath. ‘Showers are for morons,’ I’d continue. ‘Imbeciles. I mean who invented showers. A real idiot in my book…’

The fact is I like to bath. It relaxes my mind, my body, my soul. The hotter the better. The best temperature being equivalent to that of a 5-minute old cup of coffee. Cool enough to sip, but still hot enough to burn your mouth if you drink it too quickly. After fifteen minutes of deep immersion at this temperature I feel myself cooking. Poaching myself like an egg ready to be served up with a slice of smoked salmon and toasted brown bread.

I’m not exaggerating either. I get some insane thrill from boiling myself like a lobster and then spending the next hour drinking from a tap desperately trying to prevent massive organ failure due to chronic dehydration. It’s an addiction I’ve had since I can remember and it seems no sign of abating. So the thought of going the whole summer without one was distressing.

So one day last week, fed up with trying to read and shave in the shower, I decided to give the half bath a go. The results were incredible.

Not only was the water super hot (and free), but the bath itself was not just a sawnoff version of a normal bath as I’d originally thought. It had a seat, plus its increased height meant that when filled the occupant is fully immersed like a normal bath. They built skyscrapers in New York along the same lines. If you run out of space, build up. Ditto the French half bath.

I even found I could stretch out my legs by simply moving my backside down towards the front, placing my heels flat on the opposing wall and allowing my shoulders to sink into the warm water.

So if you’re ever in France and your apartment/hotel room is advertised as “with bathroom plus half bath”, don’t be put off. Fill it up, dip in and relax comme ça.

The french half bath

* Serving Suggestion Only

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