Je vous parle d’un temps
Que les moins de vingt ans
Ne peuvent pas connaître …..
C’est là qu’on s’est connu
Moi qui criait famine
Et toi qui posais nue…..
Charles Aznavour – La Bohème
Those of you who may have stumbled across part 1 of my epic tale will recall that I had been dispatched by Her Majesty’s Diplomatic Service on a mission of vital national importance. My cover was that I was just a humble courier on a campsite near the coast north of Perpignan in France. This was a role I played magnificently and the truth has never been revealed during the 40 intervening years.
This mission lasted for two summers which were quite different. Although I had thrown out a general invitation to friends to visit, in those pre-email / internet / phone days, during the first summer only one mate turned up. After a week he got bored and left. I can’t say he was wrong: the dolce vita was probably happening elsewhere in southern France.
I, however, was starting to enjoy myself. Looking after the customers was generally quite straightforward and I had become an honorary member of the small team which ran the day-to-day life of the campsite. Chief amongst these were two brothers from Alsace who acted as year round caretakers and it was they who taught me how to repair caravans…and a couple of other life lessons as well.
In my early days I had wondered why they chose to drive round the campsite in their battered Renault 5 with trailer emptying the bins at around 17.00 after a full day of work. Definitely too hot at lunchtime, but wouldn’t early morning be the obvious time for a spot of bin emptying?
When I finally joined them standing on the back of the tow bar on their early evening round, their genius became clear. After 200 metres the first cry went up from French campsite regulars who came every year and were now relaxing in the shade outside their caravan:
“Salut Gilbert! Vous prenez un petit apéritif avec nous?”
And that’s how it was every day. A few bins were emptied and then we decamped to a shaded area next to a caravan where we were offered pastis and olives. After 10 minutes we bade our farewells and made our way to the next alley where the procedure was repeated. A natural limit to our drinking was maintained by Gilbert knowing that he had a wife and dinner waiting for him, but for an impoverished student, half a dozen daily pre-dinner drinks were a welcome bonus.
Without chums from Blighty, I had to find alternative drinking companions and so I became friendly with two lads from Lille. Their names were Jean-Marc and Jean-Luc according to the silver identity bracelets which all young French men have to wear. They were carpenters by trade and pleasantly down to earth. JM and JL were camping on a limited budget and at the end of their first week the campsite was hit by a biblical rainstorm which turned their pitch into a quagmire.
I offered to help them out with a spare caravan in exchange for free beers at the bar during their last week. Given that the French generally do not understand the concept of social drinking (“Would you like a drink?” “No thanks, I’m not thirsty.”) they probably thought they were getting the best deal of the summer. After a few days however, they discovered that Brits were experts in both social and anti-social drinking. In the end we negotiated a daily beer cap so that they were left with a bit of spending money for their final days.
All in a day’s work
Departures and arrivals were almost always on a Saturday, so on this particular July day I had as usual done a full 13 hours of cleaning, portaloo emptying and welcoming. I had also managed to come down with a stinking summer cold. By 9 p.m. one family had still not arrived, but I assumed they had stopped off elsewhere en route. I therefore decided to dose myself up with whisky and paracetemol and head to bed. At 11 the missing family with two young children turned up and I was turfed out of bed by the campsite night watchman. The wife had been driving for hours and looked close to a complete breakdown. Her husband was slumped on the front seat next to her, doubled up with pain and groaning rather dramatically.
Once again, using knowledge gleaned from my BA French & Economics degree, I swiftly diagnosed advanced appendicitis as well as severe moronic behaviour. Why did they think that ploughing on to a fairly remote campsite was their best option rather than heading for the nearest hospital?
In order to decide what to do next I needed to put myself through what I now know to be a risk assessment.
Q1. Can you drive?
Yes. I have driven at least twice since passing my test 3 years ago.
Q2. Have you ever driven abroad?
Q3. Have you taken any drugs or alcohol recently which might impair your judgement or driving ability?
Q4. Do you know where the nearest hospital is or even where Perpignan is if you are driving?
Well, let me think. No.
Q5. Do you have satnav?
What is satnav? This is 1980.
Q6. OK, do you have a map then?
Having completed my thorough checklist I made the decision to commandeer the family car. Wife and children were deposited in a caravan and I set off with groaning man in the approximate direction of Perpignan.
After asking for directions from various drunken / shady characters wandering around town in the early morning, we finally made it to the Centre Hospitalier de Perpignan.
Adrenaline and the brain of a 21 year old probably don’t make the most rational decisions, but given the racket he was making and the fact that they operated on him rather quickly, that may be the closest I have ever come to saving someone’s life.
I collected him late the next day and he returned to the campsite clutching his appendix in a little glass vial. A proper souvenir de vacances. Turned out he was a butcher, and as a reward for my late night rescue mission I was thanked with two steaks. I now knew the price of a human life: 500g of sirloin.
It would be untrue to say there was never a dull moment during my summer sojourns, but thinking back there did seem to be a lot happening for a small provincial campsite.
One recurring theme was missing door entrance steps. Nowadays all mobile homes have large areas of decking attached with grandiose staircases. Back then you had either a one or two step elevated section plonked before your door and for some reason these were always in short supply. This meant that steps were always being pinched during the hours of darkness. Consequently, most mornings above the sound of the marsh birds in the campsite reeds, you could hear cries and thuds as unwary tourists, still half-asleep, fell out of their caravans on to the sandy ground.
Around two weeks after my heroic hospital dash, I was woken at two in the morning by someone banging furiously on my caravan door.
Opening up I was faced with a very angry German customer. “Wir haben Ameisen!” Big deal, you’ve got some ants. What do you expect on a campsite? He however insisted that there was a problem that needed sorting immediately. He was not wrong. He did have ants. Lots and lots of ants. In fact so many ants that the weight of them had pulled down the ceiling in the childrens’ bedroom. The children, with some justification, were rather hysterical and his wife had yet to see the amusing side of this incident.
I swiftly arranged a caravan swap and left them to it. The two small girls had stopped crying by then, but were still staring rather nervously at the ceiling of their new bedroom as I bade them all “good night”. I thought it prudent to leave out “…and don’t let the bed-bugs bite”…..
In Part 3 I will bring you the tales about the tribe of sponging friends that I promised at the end of Part 1 that I would tell you about in Part 2.
© text & images Jacques Hughes 2021
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file