Days 10 and 11, Jan 13thAnd 14th , “Morella, I’ve just met a town called Morella…”


Man… I have got the whole ordering breakfast in Spanish thing locked down to an art form 🙂

The secret: (apart, obviously from mastering the local lingo) – never show fear.

Showing anxiety to café owners in non-touristy areas of the country, engenders a reciprocal level of fear.  If you can’t speak to them then they can’t speak to you either.  So, even if you stumble and mispronounce – don’t pause and always, always, smile.

Never fails.  

For instance, on Sunday morning we got a coffee, a tea and a ‘pincho de tortilla patata’ for €4.30 all on the basis of my rough command of the language and a cheery smile.  The fact that this purchased a visit to a ceramic loo was just a welcome bonus.

The rest of the morning was kind of lazy, little happened.  We had slow wanderings around the lovely fortified town on the hill, which is very pretty: ancient gardens, cobbled streets, higgledy houses.

In this sleepy January week the town was quiet, plenty of space per person.  There are HUNDREDS of hotels, each with hundreds of rooms, towers of them stretching back from the sea front as far as the eye can see and all the way along to the next resort.  I couldn’t help but imagine what this place must be like in the summer months.  Poor locals.

But, out of season the town of Peniscola is charming; warm in its welcome and climate. However, despite the distinct lack of ice and sub-zero temperatures, we don’t really settle well in areas with manicured lawns and seafront paddling pools. The mountains are more our thing.  So, we packed up our bits and pieces.

Then we drove two hours inland to Morella and… golly.

We’d been recommended to visit the city, a visitor at home had circled it emphatically on our map book.  Neither of us could remember why they were so enthusiastic. 

As we approached, I wondered if I was looking at some kind of sci-fi film set. The city loomed like the mountain top from Close Encounters of a Third Kind.  

Added to its cultural charms are the two parking areas for visiting campers.  The first, a mile outside the city walls sits on the opposite side of the narrow valley and offers (very clean) grey/black and drinking water stations, olive trees and wild rosemary bushes in bloom with their tiny lavender coloured flowers sprinkled up their stems.  

Set away from the road, we and six other vans rested in little nooks around the site, watching the night-lights come on in the mystery that was Morella.  We had lunch/supper, drank warm Spanish red wine and walking the dog last thing, saw an entire galaxy of stars unfold for us in the blackest heavens up above.

Monday, the plan had been to potter round the town, spend another night and then tomorrow move on.  Which just goes to show why clear communication is essential and that, even after 24 years together, you should always clarify…

The fort and castle at Morella are stunning and for €3.50 per person, without doubt the best value tourist attraction we’ve ever visited.  For this paltry sum you get two churches and six storeys of castle ranging from Roman times, to 12th, 13thand 14thcenturies, plus new bits being renovated with EU funding.  The town doesn’t have a supermarket as such.  We needed to fine the Paneceria to get bread, the Carneteria for eggs and ham and a small grocery store for apples.  All gorgeous.

So, after lunch back at the van, I interpreted M’s looking around as him being restless as asked:

“Do you want to move on then?”  

M responded by assuming that I was restless and said:

“Yes, let’s do that”

Which is such a pity, because we had both been looking forward to another night in the olive grove.  And now, after a gruelling 3-hour drive, albeit through some spectacular scenery we’re sitting in Teruel, which must have lovely bits, but we haven’t found them yet.

Oh well, Lovely Morella – maybe another time?!

Day 9, 12th Jan – “Smaller than a Prison Cell”

Today was the day I had allotted for sending out my Dragon book to the next set of Literary Agencies.  It’s a laborious process.  There are lists of the agents and it’s a case of ploughing through them, discerning which lists are open or appropriate and then tailoring your submission individually for each agency.  5 submissions usually takes around 2 hours.  I now understand why an established author once told me:  “Send out 5 a week, don’t do more, it’s too soul destroying.”

Having sent out my missives of hope, I came back to the van and we got ready to pack up and move on.  As we pottered, M and I chattered about how you need to get on if you’re in a camper van. 

Apparently, Todd Fisher (brother of Carrie Fisher and son of Debbie Reynolds) had a camper and he used it as the acid test for any romantic relationship.  If a prospective girlfriend (a) didn’t want to travel in the camper and (b) they couldn’t get on when together in one, then that was the end of that interlude.

Which was why, this morning, I was surprised to hear M announce:

“Well, this is smaller than a UK prison cell”

I burst out laughing.  Then I stopped abruptly and looked at him to check his facial expression.  Was that a good thing, the space, I mean?

He turned to face me with his customary grin, before adding “Well, it is…”

OK, well he wasn’t about to march out in a huff then, nine days into a ten week trip. But he’s right, the space does have some similarities with a penitentiary allotment: –

  1. It’s small, rectangular and you have to sleep as well as live in the confines of it’s walls
  2. It has a loo, which isn’t in a separate room, and if you’re sharing that’s a compromise on modesty
  3. You have to negotiate about how that space is managed and used; there’s two of us, after all

The differences are, however, important:

  1. We chose to be in here.  We lock the doors and open them at will, although Stan, if he could be interviewed on the subject might feel more of a prisoner than we do
  2. I can send M out if I need the loo.  
  3. Prison bathrooms have a flush, our loo collects whatever goes into it (of which, more anon)
  4. We are 60% window, we choose our destinations and our mobile conservatory offers us a unique view of the world that we cherish

M and I share roles and tasks, but there’s a job demarcation for which I’m truly grateful. We share cooking and washing up; generally, whoever cooks, then the other washes up.  I’m better at sweeping and keeping internal spaces sorted, M takes care of the engine and bodywork.  

He also takes care of the… “you know what”…

I’m not squeamish.  Honestly, I’m not… but…

There’s something about the idea of emptying the “Poo Box” that makes me shudder. To my shame, I’ve never done it and I have to admit that I never want to.

So, today was the day when the deed needed to be done.  Spanish motorways are less abundant with their equivalent of the French Aires.  We have to look harder for spots that advertise places to get rid of ‘Black Waste’. Eventually, we spy one, just off the motorway behind a petrol station and service area.  

There’s a French camper in front of us, with a gentleman in his seventies filling up drinking water, one laborious watering can at a time for his huge camper tanks.  We wait for him to move on, not wanting to empty our black waste out where and while he’s taking on fresh drinking water.  As he takes one can load at a time back to his van and returns for the next we have plenty of opportunity to take in the state of the facilities.

It really isn’t lovely.  There’s an area designated for fresh water, another for grey water (from washing/showering/cooking) and a grate for black water.  Other visitors have just dumped black water (and associated solids) wherever, in all three spaces.  Yuk.

I duck out and take Stan over to a patch of wasteland to stretch his legs and have a wee, leaving M to deal with the ‘other stuff’.

He’s washing his hands and everything else with bleach as I return.  Oh dear.  That can’t have been good.  

So, I’d like to say in public to my cell mate, that I don’t just treasure him for his sense of humor or the way he wakes up cheerful almost every morning.  I also appreciate my travelling companion because it is he, not me, that deals with the sh*te, so that I don’t have to.

Thanks Angel.

Day 8, 11th Jan – “Oh, you’re from Brexit…”

A golden hue back-lit the castle above the lake, and as sunshine started to warm our day, the frost melted off the inside of the windscreen.  A pair of Spanish sparrows bounced in the bush beside the camper window, with collared doves coo-ing from the tree next to that.  

Slowly, slowly, the sun’s warmth softened the night air’s icy bite.  We pottered around, preparing to move on again.  Back to the coast where there’s a little more warmth in the January skies.  Onto pastures new, toward Valencia and then Granada over the next few weeks.

M has our next longer push planned for Peniscola, some 80 miles or so from here. But I can’t face another long drive again just yet, so instead we find Torredembarra which has a launderette outside the main supermarket.   We shop whilst the washing whirs.  

The supermarket staff look tired, there’s three of them dealing with a number of irritable looking OAPs.  The lady serving on ‘my’ till simultaneously scans shopping items, gently answers the queries of an old duck who’s very confused about something on her receipt and keeps coming back for more questions, and deals with a more imperious couple who have an issue with their bill.  

My patchy Spanish picks up the THREE EURO discrepancy.  I’m partly able to capture this because the gentleman repeats the phrase a number of times.  Our cashier gestures to the growing line of waiting customers behind us and continues serving the bloke in front of me.  She’s undaunted by the gentleman’s wife who makes unwavering eye contact with the back of this worker’s head.  If I can feel her glare boring into this determined employee, she cannot be impervious to it, but she resolutely scans through the items and chats to her customers.  I hope she’s getting a reasonable wage for this amount of trouble at 9am in the morning.

Then we wander onto Altofulla which has a tiny boating club and posh club house at the end of the beach.  There’s a flat dolomite parking area and no-one seems to mind us being there.  We take Stan and head away from the conurbation towards another castle along the beach.  It seems you’re not a bonafide village in these parts unless you’ve got your own set of turrets, they’re at each place we pass or spy in the distance.  Coming back to the van we encounter our latest European who wants to talk about Brexit. The conversation normally goes:

“Where are you from?”  

“We’re from England…”

“Oh, you’re from Brexit…”

And then there are questions about whether it will happen or statements about how sad it is.  Today the fellow dog-owner starts such a line of questioning, and then sees our anxious faces.  She stops mid sentence and then simply declares:

 “But you are here now, in Europe for your vacation, so who cares?!”  

We do care, but we’re glad that she dismisses the subject.  We can no more influence it in England than we can from a winter’s beach in sunny Spain.

So, it seems that Brexit is becoming the Brits’ new identity.  The Europeans laugh at us; they are confused.  Some are sad, others incredulous.  M and I are improving our command of the local language so that perhaps, we can ask questions of their lives and steer conversation elsewhere.

Supper was in a tiny tavern, eight tables and not a jot of English spoken, so tonight no-one asked about Britain’s political status… we munched delicious food, M had the very good local beer and I a glass of local vino.  If we didn’t look Spanish, at least we didn’t look “Brexit” for the evening…

Days 5 & 6 – 7thand 8thJan – Montpelier to Carcassonne to Barcelona

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If you’ll forgive me, I’ll gloss over Day 5.  It started in glorious sunshine, that turned grey, got colder and then really cold. 

We parked up near the Citadel and Ramparts at Carcassonne: amazing medieval walled city with a number of restaurant/bars but only one that let us bring Stan in with us out of the chill.  The bartender was possibly the least cheery barman I’ve encountered, outside Paris.  

I’m not anti-Parisienne, not at all.  But my experience of waiting staff in France’s capital have never been tremendously positive.  When we visited the French Alps last summer, our lovely Gite owner, Vivienne, explained that her last guests had been difficult – they were ‘Parisienne”.  The French have a thing about inhabitants of Paris too, it’s not just me…

That said, the three of us were warm and safe inside the bar, peering out into the low-slung cloud instead of being shrouded in dampening mist.  Then, vin-chaud and pomme-frittes all done, we wandered back down and along the river to the camper.  

Last night I had promised V and M that I would send off ‘The Dragon’ to the first set of literary agents as a start to my creative writing career.  Which saw us in MacDonald’s: the price of Wi-Fi being the world’s nastiest Caesar salad, three diet cokes and an immensely dull burger.

Day 6 – M has me in Sitges…

This morning, I was determined that we wouldn’t stagger onto another Auto-Toll route and watch interesting things pass us by in the distance.  We had a choice of routes, the first, definitely mountainous, would levitate us, over the summit of the Catalonian Pyrenees and then… well, then we would decide.

A stream has taken thousands of years to slice a riverbed through the dense granite of the Pyrenees.  If you take the D118 from Carcassonne, and travel further upstream, via Axat, you enter a mystical valley.  The road has been chiseled, foot-by-foot through the cliff sides.  The carved overhanging arches were just tall enough to allow the van to pass underneath.  This prehistoric track wends and winds, reducing our speed to a little over walking pace as it rises over semi frozen streams, Where ice clings to the meager grass verges.  

Mile after mile, as frozen in time as in winter, we twist around on ourselves, climbing to the open plains of Formiuares and Les Angles.  

Bereft of snow, these artifices of skiing and retail activity took on the hue of great grey-straw plateaus.  I sat, enveloped in the warmth of the camper looking out at the semi-frigid landscape. Two determined, skiers wobbled down the one compacted slope on the Andora slopes.  but then the visage passed us by and we were heading back down towards Spain, through pine forests and icy streams.

Gironella, on the C16 was where we stopped for supper.  We used our safe-spot-finder app “Park4Night”, which sourced a potential stop for the night, down by the river, probably secure, possibly quiet, but a bit exposed.  Having spent 28 minutes exploring the small town, Gironella was about ‘done’.  

We’ve spent six solid days driving.  Each day we’ll reach a safe haven, stop, have a break, conscious that tomorrow we must push on.  We’ve seen a lot, but it’s not been restful.  Gironelle put us 3 hours from Girona, 2 hours from Barcelona.  Reaching either tomorrow would, effectively mean another day of watching the world go by, passively in through the camper windows.  I love our van, but the last 6 days have equated to over 48 hours of sitting.  Enough.

“Or…” I ventured  “We could just drive down to Barcelona tonight and wake up somewhere warmer tomorrow morning…?”

M is tired, he doesn’t want to spend another 2 hours driving tonight.  Also, he doesn’t want to spend a seventh day in the cab either.  He passes me his empty supper bowl, we discuss the best route and within 5 minutes we’re on our way.

Fast forward 3 hours, we’ve finished our Diablo pizza at the local Italian Restaurant, in Sitges, near Barcelona and are back in the heated van.  Stan has been running up and down the seafront enough for him to wait for the van door to open so he can climb inside.  M is listening to the radio and I’m proof-reading my blog for errors.  Feel free to message me if I miss a couple.  The weather forecast for lunchtime on the 9thJan is 150C – our warmest yet.

Tomorrow, we agree – we won’t drive anywhere.

Day 4 – Jan 6th– Not Perpignan

Sleeping under a foil blanket is akin to lying beneath an enormous crisp packet.  Each time one of us stirred, I vaguely expected the aroma of salt and vinegar to assault my nostrils.  Sadly, the noise was more disruptive than the heat benefit of it’s being in place.  Neither of us got much rest.

In the early hours, whilst the sun still slept, we were both aware of car engines and muffled French voices nearby.  Instantly awake, always conscious of our potential vulnerability we listened, waiting.  Nothing happened… 

When I later stuck my head outside, I found us surrounded by boat trailers, our pit stop clearly a popular fishing venue.  

Walking Stan along the riverbanks, not even the birds were willing to sit up and sing against the dense, early-day fog.  All was still and eerily quiet.  Peering between skeletal tree branches, I saw one of the craft on the water, slowly working its way along the shores of the River Saone.  Despite the mist, I just caught the action of fishing poles casting for recalcitrant prey.  Stan meanwhile, snuffled his way through the undergrowth, found no less than three plastic bottles and carried each, as a trophy, back to the van.

Eventually we came to, got going and wound our way back toward the A6, destined for Lyon and beyond that, the A7 further South.  Determined were we, determined to find solace from the enveloping grey and gloom. An hour and a half, 75 miles and the outside temperature gauge started to drift upwards from its 1.40C overnight low.  It nudged to five degrees, then up to seven.  The dial stuck at 9.8 for what seemed an age and then just as the sun triumphantly blasted a hole through the canopy of cloud, we hurrahed, as the thermometer reached double figures!  

Hunched, cold-anxious shoulders dropped and relaxed.  We fumbled for sun glasses as the light bounced through the mud spattered windscreen, onto tired retinas.  

And we smiled.  

Now the conversation was “Why Perpignan today?”  If the weather is clear we don’t need to hurtle our way across the country, we could stop awhile and explore the names writ so black and large on the roadside as we trundle by.  

Tonight we’re in a seaside spot just east of Montpelier.  It’s the sleepy off-season, so our beach-side residence for the evening is quiet and calm. Tomorrow we head for Carcasson and hopefully more sunshine. Temperature at 9pm: 1.40C – urgh – break out the crisp packets once again…

Day 3, Jan 5th – Tin foil in tin cans


France is doing a solid job of winter. It’s going for the ‘damp, grey, never-gonna-see-the-sun-again’ look with absolute commitment. Not one hint of letting the sunshine break through the cloud. The van is sodding freezing.

M asked if I still had my emergency, foil, survival blankets.  I looked askance.

“Yes…?”

“Well get them out then, Chubs” 

“Hmmm…”

I have lovingly carried my emergency survival blankets around for the past three years or so. They have been all the way to the Himalayas, up and down mountains in the Scottish Winter and done various other intrepid trips.  I was reluctant to hand them over.

When I came back from Annapurna, relating tales of being freezing cold, M questioned me:

“Didn’t you have your foil blankets with you?” 

“Yes. Of course”

“Well, why didn’t you use them to keep you warm, if you were cold?”

“Duh! Because they were for emergencies…”

Last night, as far as M was concerned, if not an emergency, this was the time to use a heat-saving device if you’ve got one.  Considering that the daytime temperature hadn’t got much above 50C, the evening chill was not to be ignored.  

One of the benefits of buying a minibus is that the interior comes with windows and walls ready lined with whatever insulation the manufacturers deem is appropriate.  It’s like driving around in a mobile conservatory. Which is great in the summer months.

The downside of buying a minibus is that you’re buying a tin can with little or no insulation, lined with thin panes of single glazing.  We’ve done lots to improve heat retention: added insulation, double glazed the windows, put up blinds and curtains etc. But neither these measures, nor our portable gaz stove were making sufficient difference.  It was time for more drastic measures.  It was time for the emergency survival blankets.

So one of the sheets of foil was adapted to provide a heat screen around the sleeping area.  The other on our bed trapped lots of heat.  

Key tip – never breathe into your blankets/sleeping bag.  An average adult will breathe out a pint of moisture overnight, which will make your bedding very soggy.  

And it worked 😀  

In addition, the golden foil adds a romantic hue to the LED lights around the van, giving the space an atmospheric appearance that’s somewhere between the Bat Cave and scenes from Moonraker.   Also, perhaps you knew but I did not, that those survival blankets are see-through, not like hanging opaque tin-foil at all.  So, the light behind them is muted and also rather lovely.

Which didn’t help with the weather.  

It was too damp for sightseeing, so we drove.  At our fastest we were averaging 50 mph.  In a full day, including stops we managed to gain a total of 230 miles and are now just North of Lyon.  Tomorrow we WILL make Perpignan.  The weather forecast says its lovely down there.  

And then our tin can won’t need tin foil and we’ll break out he sunnies and the sunscreen…

Route today: Troyes, on the E15 (forever) down past Dijon and onto the A6. Pit stop at a TINY village called Vinzelles which is surrounded by the Burgundy Vineyards, one of which produces M’s favourite: Pouilly Fusee. Then another hour down towards VilleFranche near Lyon. We’re camped up by the River Saone. C’est tres jolie, mais tres frois….

Light and ‘Aire’y

Jan 4th– Day 2 – Bruges to Troyes

It’s my turn to do the first dog walk of the morning.

Stan and I set off along the canal.  It would appear that ALL dog owners in Bruges use dog leads, at ALL times, when exercising their moderately behaved and docile hounds.  So, the prospect of my 3-year-old Labrador bouncing across the cycle lane is apparently unwelcome.  Mostly, the bi-wheeled locals divert with restrained forbearance.  One ‘gentleman’ offers me the benefit of his wisdom as he speedily disappears into the gloom indulging me with incomprehensible Flemish insults.

We walk on. As Stan enthusiastically sniffs and relieves his internal organs, I notice the offices that sit alongside ancient monuments.  At 8am, glass-walled enclosures are lit by warm yellow lamps, densely populated with engaged-looking individuals, already focused on the tasks of the day.  Beside these loom turreted towers that have clearly been in place for centuries.   Such is Bruges’ magic that these structures appear to heave been lovingly completed just before Christmas, I mean this Christmas.  They are immaculate.  I stand with my back to one such spired tower, gazing across the undisturbed waters of the spotless canal towards the Bruges Business Centre, it’s warm light casting gentle reflections on the rain spattered pavements.  Across my line of sight, other cyclists glide seemingly effortlessly toward their industrious days – panniers and backpacks full of importances.  I am in an alien land, awed at the sense of order, so sad that we are striving to reject our European partnership.

Stan and I wander back toward ‘home’.  We find the Van and M fired up, ready to rumble, route mapped on Google and impatient for the off.  Scrambling inside, Stan retreats to the calm of his bed, grunting with pleasure as he flumps into his covers.  I tidy away the bits that would have hurtled across surfaces at any sharp corner. We’re away.

The plan is to stop for the night at Reims.  There are 32 things to see and 7 potential places to stop.  But just before we reach our destination, we halt at one of the road-side Aires and reconsider.

The Europeans do ‘Aires’ – think spotless, free, service stations, offering washing up points, some with showers, all with loos, on tap fresh water, black-water drop off. These are used by vehicles of all sizes, from juggernauts to motorbikes.  Open 24 hours a day and maintained, it appears, at the state’s expense, there is never more than 20km between Aire, whatever the motorway, A-road or town.  This means that travellers need never be overcome with tiredness; these pit stops are designed for sleep-overs.  It is one more of those long-term, thought-through solutions that make traversing Europe accessible and relatively painless.  As each 100 miles passes behind us, M and I realize that the ‘road trip’ we had built into such an obstacle has been done many times before us, with much ease.

We rumble past Reims at our glorious maximum speed of 65mpg.  One of the unfixed issues of our van is its speed limiter. The CPU on the engine has been reset set to normal but there is an additional limiter on the gearbox.  This has confounded the four mechanics we have tasked with its removal.  On the up-side our miles-per-gallon performance is (relatively) great.  On the downside, a two-day journey for a car will take us at least three overnight stops.  We often debate whether conditions are ok for us to overtake a slow vehicle in the right-hand lane – we cannot go faster, so unless we’re going downhill with the wind behind us, we learn to be patient and appreciate the subtle differences between various back ends of HGV vehicles before us.

Troyes is a medieval delight.  Sacked by the Normans in 887, its old churches, unbalanced Tudor-style buildings, separated by narrow, higgledy lanes are charming.  We wander, taking in the sights, gazing into churches, shops, before the cold pushes back toward the van.  As the sun sets, the daytime ‘high’ of 70C plummets.

We tuck into the slow-cooked chicken dish (powered by solar panels), open up the wine we’ve been saving and I pick up my laptop, ready to write.  We’ve learnt so much already.  What, I wonder will the rest of our odyssey have to teach us. We’re booked (according to our ticket) to return on 9thMarch unless we bail and come home earlier. I’m glad I checked the print, I thought we were going back on the 10th– wishful thinking maybe?

South tomorrow.  From Troyes you can go left (East to Perpignan) or right (West to Pau and Lourdes). We have toyed with a central crossing over the Pyrenees but it’s been snowing there since November and current temperatures climax at around minus 50C.

Vicky’s parting comment yesterday morning when we dropped her at her London-bound station was “Listen to your husband, don’t push against his instincts” – Solemn wisdom indeed from one’s daughter…!

Stan and The Van around Europe

Jan 3rd2019 – Day 1 – OMG we actually, really, honestly, DID IT!

 

Whoosh!

…and we were unloading from the Eurotunnel into Calais.

None of the preparations for this journey have been entirely straightforward.  Our departure was delayed from M having flu; the van has had various issues, none of which we fully resolved.  My fear was that man and machine would be making similar wheezing sounds as we coughed our way onto the drizzly, grey roads of France. But, no.  The January skies are grey and drizzly but M and the Machine zimm along quite merrily.

Whilst we’re heading South for sunshine, Calais puts us just 90 miles from Bruges which we’ve never visited.  So, we head North and East, instead of down towards warmth.

Our first stop at Dunkirque leaves us silenced.  The grey monuments of warfare litter the countryside: pillboxes and battery stations emerge as if growing out of the winter farmland, visible scars on humanity’s memories.  The long, wide beaches of Dunkirk are flat, calm in low tide, failing to reflect the mottled atmosphere above them.  It is an horrific thought to imagine the thousands that perished here,   We take deep breaths.

Stan, meanwhile, has been running up and down the beach, chasing seagulls and a tennis ball.  He’s oblivious to the memories and driven largely by his stomach.   Time to move on.

Bruges is beautiful.  It’s not just the ancient and lovingly maintained medieval buildings.  Nor is it the wide, clear and clean canals with iron and stone bridges, criss-crossing their breadths.  Towers and turrets add to the ambience of uncontrived loveliness. What is most attractive about this ancient town is the sense of order, calm, inclusion and management.  It feels safe.  It feels right.  We wander around the twinkled old town, delighting at intricate, architraved doorways.  Cobbled streets clatter with well-fed horses pulling tourist carriages.  And we relax.

The impossible has happened.  We’ve talked (I’ve dreamed) for our 20 years of camper ownership that one day, one fine day, we might make it to Europe.  Previous reasons for not being here have included: not enough savings, not enough time, the van not being strong enough, family commitments, too much work, too much of too much.  All of which have added up to: – no road trip.

Last spring, I said: “So if the van won’t make it to Europe, lets sell it and make our own”

I have a patient husband.  He’s used to my pronouncements.  He will, wherever possible, seek to enable my dreams.  But the sideways glance, raised eyebrows and deep stare at the floor suggested that I was asking a little too much.

None-the-less, he made sure that the old van went, the new minibus was procured, along with all the accouterments required to fashion a home on wheels.  He built the container for my fantasies; I sewed its soft furnishings.  And here we are.  Eight hours into Europe, the dream has begun.

We snuggled down next to one of Bruges’ canals, the night is quiet but my brain is afire; it combusts with possibilities.  The unbelievable has happened; we’re here, actually, really, honestly here.

Me, M, Stan and the Van, in Europe, with ten weeks’ leave and twelve weeks till Brexit.

 

Wish us luck…

Padders

They are plucky little buggers, my padders, my feet, but they are not pretty. 

Being somewhat short and overwide, they end abruptly with a set of stubby toes. The heels are shallow so that socks and the backs of high-heeled shoes slide off.  Pregnancy saw that proud insteps collapsed into humbler shapes over time.  The tops of each foot are not only criss-crossed with knarly veins but also sprout vertical hairs.  Thankfully these are blonde so it’s only when light catches that an unsuspecting observer gets a sudden shock of follicle horror. The toes are perhaps the worst; oblong in shape with tiny toenails, set at odd angles, and each little toe on the outside shares the family curse of a knotty claw-like substitute for a nail.

“Oh, Come on…!” I hear you protest, “No  one has feet like that… they sound like trolls feet…” Whereupon I raise one sardonic eyebrow in your direction and leave you to your own conclusions.

Twas long ago confirmed that I have unlovely padders.  In 1978, by Mrs Hurst. She, the proprietor of The Sheffield Modern Dance Company whose lessons I attended each Saturday morning (the dance studio being accessed through a converted garage, lined with School benches and pegs for the students to change and await their lessons). 

Mrs Hurst took a dim view of my feet. Despite gaining distinctions and Highly Commended grades in tap and ballet exams, she decided that I would never ‘Make it’.  She drew my mother and I aside after lessons one week, to explain why my feet were unsuitable for a lifetime career in dance. The problem, she explained, was my toes. The lady removed one of her own shoes to reveal a not-pretty but considerably longer proportioned fleet of toes.

“Julie’s toes don’t point properly.  See how mine point like this?” She extended those podiacal digits an unfeasible length. My mother and I couldn’t help but acknowledge the extent of her improbable pointing. 

“Well, Julie’s don’t do that. Show them dear.”  By which time we had a small crowd and I reluctantly allowed Mrs Hurst to securely embed my humiliation as she said:

“Now point yours and compare them to mine.”

There was no favourable comparison to make and the audible tittering just behind me confirmed the fact. I had I’ll-shaped toes. Images of my prima ballerina tutu on a floodlit stage instantly receded, replaced by a picture of tears by the dance bar and unending mockery for the shape of my feet.

Which, in my book was a completely unnecessary conversation. The alternative cosy chat could have been: “Really Mrs Sterling, your daughter has no more than a modicum of talent at dancing and you share the same level of ability in paying my fees. I suggest an aspirational change to long distance running; which should sufficiently remove you both as far as possible from my door.” It would have been no less disheartening and would have hastened the end of my dancing days almost no quicker.

Mrs Hurst’s message about my lack of sporting prowess was echoed by other voices, and by the age of eleven I knew for a certainty that I was “not the sporty type”. My feet then, went untested. Other than nightly Jane Fonda workouts on my bedroom floor, it was clear to all that I wasn’t meant for exercise.  Fifteen years later, on the way out of an unhappy, lonely, first marriage was when these prodigious wonders came into their own.

I was SO angry. 

I tried walking to dispel the rage, but it didn’t take even the skin off my fury. Occasionally, I broke into a trot, as long as there was no one to witness. I knew and everyone else would instantly recognise that I couldn’t run if they saw my angular loping.  If anyone appeared on the horizon, I drew back the throttle on my medication, slowing to a walk. Until I couldn’t anymore. The further I ran, the more I needed to keep on going. Eventually, careless of the audience or my ineptitude, I just ran.

My marvellous, wonderful, stoic little padders held me up. As if they’d spent one and a half decades waiting for me to get on with it. They ran over the South Downs; kept me upright as I furiously paced up and down the length of Eastbourne sea front. I pounded the ground anywhere I could get up to speed, working out my pent up exasperation and disappointment. My hardworking padders took me in every direction they were pointed.

Aged 26, like a newborn who discovers their appendages in the pram, I made friends with my feet. 

Which is when they really got to work. Wrapped in bouncy trainers I jogged my way to half marathon distances. Training with my fearless daughter we splashed, mud soaked together to fifteen miles.  Learning to climb, squished into bent-over climbing shoes, I would balance my weight on tiny slivers of rock, trusting my toes to keep me stable as I groped my hands across a rock face hunting for somewhere safe to place my hands. Encased in heavy walking boots, I not only hiked but discovered how limited were the boundaries set in place by others over what I could achieve. And each discovery broadened the horizons of what I would next require those padders to do. 

Invited to do the Yorkshire 3-peaks, 24 miles in a day and it was my knees that I fretted over, not my stumpy feet. By the end, grumbly arches muttered rebellion as I pushed to the finishing point, but we made it, those padders and me.  They didn’t much care for spiky crampons and rocking at violent angles to maintain a desperate stability on ice and snow, but they complied and carried me down slopes of white without mishap while my brain was screaming “Lunacy” In my ears. An expanding set of expectations took me to Nepal, to 200km of dusty track walking up hills and down vales. They picked me up each morning and together we saw the Himalayan peaks scraping the top of the sky where the air reaches up to the rest of the universe.

Mischievous, these feet of mine, they play tricks if perceiving neglect.  Dire the consequences of ignoring warnings; running with a tired frame. Twice my right big toe has spied the edge of a paving slab to snag on to, sending the rest of me hurtling forward and downwards to surgical interventions on my knees. After cycling sixty miles and then punishing the achievement with a jog, plantar tendons screamed in protest and insisted I be still awhile.  

I have learned respect for their opinions. I know I am lost without them, so take more care in latter years, though doubtless not enough. But they are on my side. With stumpy-1 and stumpy-2 I am rewriting my identity and how I view the world. It may be that at 50 I have started this journey too late. Perhaps my feet would tell you of their impatience to be getting along. 

Mrs Hurst, my padders did indeed fail at superlative pointing, but I would like you to know this doesn’t matter now. Because what’s really important is that my padders have made remarkable achievements possible. 

And for that, I thank my friends, my padders, my feet.

The Janitor

My ovaries have been, are, and struggle to continue being, my hormone factory. And the factory has a janitor. Now, as the factory nears the end of its useful life and the janitor approaches his retirement, he is cleaning out the cupboards.

Each time he discovers an old batch of eggs at the back of some dusty corner, he clears them out, regardless of how long it has been since the last one was moved from my system. Through calloused hands, he sweeps from the shoulder, pushing away the remnants of my fertility. Another space is empty and the door behind him locked.

We have never been great friends, this janitor and I.

Unlike other women, intuitive and in-tune with their body’s managerial systems, my janitor is huffy, easily upset. The slightest emotional disturbance and he took to his back room with a party pack of lager, settled in his saggy armchair, refusing to emerge from the sports channel. Whereas other women had punctual if punctilious carers, mine turned up when it suited, swept down my monthly if he felt like it and then wandered off to do something more interesting.  If, say, the cup match final was on, he disappeared, never mind the disarray created by his negligence.

And he extracts his final revenge now. Revenge? For having a female form to work in. Not for him a low-slung set of testes, from whence he could pump endless testosterone and exult in the power of the male form. This janitor has resented his lifetime and exacted petty vengeance’s from the start. Like giving me my first period, on horseback in a riding lesson when I was eleven. Having me heave with seasickness in pregnancy, leaving me bereft or mad with hormonal rage when premenstrual. His life-long employment has been my torment. All for being female.

And now that he and I are almost done, his ire knows no bounds. Some cupboards contain not eggs, but vats. These brown, nondescript tubs are tightly lidded. The janitor approaches his latest discovery with eager anticipation. His eyes gleam as he prises up the lid and light falls on the liquid emotion contained inside; shiny, unstable, volatile.

“GNah!” He shouts in glee. Other janitors might replace the lid, gingerly moving on one edge at a time towards the lymphatic drainage system that would allow all that pent up energy to harmlessly dissipate away. Not my man, oh no. He grins that gap-toothed malevolent smile, wraps knarled arms around the drum and throws the container with shimmering contents high up into the air.

Up, up, up and CRASH, down, down. With his movements up, up, up, go my emotions, utterly out of control and when anger over some indiscernible trifle is spent, then down, down, down I crash, dissolving into sobs; lost at my inability to control this rollercoaster that my janitor deliberately revels in creating. He stands triumphant at the chaos from his actions and steps over the damp patches on the floor. The puddles of spilt emotion will leave indelible salty watermarks, not dissimilar to those of tears. My janitor, free of concern, shuffles on his rounds.

I have not been the helpless victim of my janitor these four decades. I have strategised, planned, regrouped and tried again. When he pumped my muscles full of retained water, I ate cucumber and kiwis; natural diuretics. When he thickened my waist, I took to exercise, running, walking; anything my besieged body would allow me to do. When he weighted down my arms and legs so that even raising my head from the pillow was an effort, I pushed onwards, seizing what tiny medical help was available. I continued, despite his best efforts.

I have been waiting…

This last phase, wether it takes months or years are the foregone conclusion of womanhood. It is much documented, feared. There are patches, creams, pills, devices, but all invigorate my janitor and prolong the inevitable. Age now offers a promise of comfort. Additional wrinkles are the price of retiring my lifelong foe. This will end.

I look down at my janitor, leaning on his broom and glaring in my direction. We both know the truth; his time is shortly up. Soon he will sleep, somewhere in the mothballed factory halls, within his sanctuary, lager cans stacked and the TV remote resting on the frayed chair arm. I cannot predict how long our war will continue, but it’s cessation is nigh.

He raises his fist, shaking it at me in anger and I look up to the wall. There hangs a dial resembling a clock face. Where the noon-day pointer would be the face is deep red. It is paler at three, pale pink by nine and white approaching the vertical once again. I hear him growl from below, making my stomach ache and tender breasts sore. But I smile as almost imperceptibly, the single hand on that clock moves another notch closer from red-pink to white…