For some of you, the title of this piece has probably resurrected memories of certain quality films from the 1970’s. Here, however, I have used the word “confessions” mainly for alliterative purposes. Not that sexual shenanigans was absent during this period, but I am not sharing that with you lot. Those memories are for me to treasure in my dotage.
This is a tale from a time when there was no internet, no computers that were transportable and no mobile phones. This was a time we called the early 80’s.
Having completed my “academic” year at the Université de Tours, I managed to obtain summer employment with a British holiday company which had mobile homes in France and Italy. I was to be their courier at a campsite on the coast just north of Perpignan.
The role of the courier was to welcome holiday makers, show them to their mobile homes, help them out if they had problems and then clean the caravans when they left. That was it. No kids’ clubs, babysitting or information pack fripperies. This was a time when you mainly had to look after yourselves.
It was mid June when I left the Loire valley lugging all of my clothes, books, sundry crap I had accumulated over the year and of course, the obligatory guitar. After a lengthy train journey, I arrived in a sun-baked Perpignan sweating profusely in my winter coat. The bus station which allegedly was “just down there” was actually over a mile away and when I finally made it I looked like I had just stepped out of a car wash. But there was indeed a bus which was going my way. I was off to the seaside.
Looking at a map recently, that coastal area is now highly developed with Lidl, Aldi and various other supermarkets jockeying for position. In 1980, however, this was mainly scrub land where they had only recently wiped out the mosquitoes.
Never having been on a french campsite before, I wasn’t really sure what to expect. I probably had a vague image of Catherine Deneuve and Alain Delon sipping Ricard next to the pool while the tempting aroma of merguez grilling for lunch filled the air.
There may have indeed been a campsite somewhere in the south of France which fitted that description, but it was not the one I had been allocated. Mine was definitely old school: it did have a lot of shaded pitches and several blocs sanitaires, but nothing as fancy as a swimming pool. In season there was a small bar and a basic shop. It was about 15 minutes walk away from a completely undeveloped beach. Very old school indeed.
My bus driver had apparently never heard of the place despite having driven the route numerous times and had never seen the signs saying “Welcome to the Golden Sun Campsite”. So in traditionally helpful French style, he dropped me off about a mile away (in fact, 1.6km away, because he was French). After 200 yards the handle on my old-fashioned suitcase broke off, so I dumped all my belongings behind some bushes and trudged wearily down the road, cursing the French, the heat, my raging thirst. Everything.
With much more disposable income around, the world is very different now, but back in 1980 the holiday period was clearly delineated. Out of season there was nobody about, but as soon as holiday time arrived it all went crazy. Fortunately for me, the campsite owners were there pre-season and even though they hadn’t been expecting anyone, they took pity on the dehydrated “grand anglais”.The old patriarch bundled me into his 604 and we went to rescue my suitcase and guitar. More water, a few glasses of beer and then some red wine with the dinner they made for me and I was starting to feel human again. Perhaps campsite life wouldn’t be so bad after all?
Reality on the Côte Radieuse
Even by the standards of a time when you mostly had to figure things out for yourself, my employer had taken this to a whole new level. There were no instructions whatsoever about what I was supposed to do. In fact during the two summers I spent on the campsite, I had only one brief visit from the company: a bloke who had no obvious interest in campsites and was en route to his villa. This was fine by me: I could make up my own rules and these were highly flexible.
I had about 35 mobile homes – large static caravans – to look after. They had running water in the sink but no shower. They did have chemical toilets which I suggested to my clients were a) best kept for night-time / emergencies and b) were emptied by the customers before departure. Unsurprisingly, my toilet suggestions were mainly ignored. There are several memories from this period in my life permanently etched into my brain with Elsan Blue.
When I applied for the role, “courier” did sound quite a glamorous job title. There was definitely a hint of international spy, secret documents, late night rendez-vous with mysterious Russian ladies in sophisticated nightclubs. The reality: you have 35 caravans to clean every week and you are also responsible for doing all the repair jobs. As a 20 year old student, my experience in both these departments was rather limited.
We talk now about “health and safety gone mad”, but back then H&S was an extremely vague concept.
“Is the gas water heater safe now that it has been repaired?”
“Oh yes, of course sir. We have had our expert with a BA in French and Economics strip it down and replace the leaking membrane.”
Despite a limited tool kit I soon became rather good at sorting out electrics, repairing broken floors and generally cobbling things back together.
When the season finally started, the one missive I did receive every week was a list of who would be arriving and their nationality: it was an eclectic mix of English, Germans, Dutch and Belgians. Many were delightful, most were pleasant but inevitably there were some deluded tossers. “Sorry, but this is 1980 and you are on a 3 star campsite….”.
Some of the mobile homes were brand new, others were “well-loved” but perfectly acceptable and then there were the last few which should have been retired a few summers previously. At first I ensured my compatriots were given the best caravans. Rookie error. I quickly learned that if you want a quiet life, you put the Germans into the superior dwellings. Somewhat endearingly, if the Brits had a problem they would usually try to solve it themselves and then come and tell you what they had done / repaired.
So, I had arrived, I had sorted everything out, I had already acquired a healthy golden tan: the summer could begin…..
In Part 2 I will bring you tales about daily life, crazy campsite customers and a tribe of sponging friends.
© text & images Jacques Hughes 2020
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file