Monday 29th September 2014 week 171 France
Doh! those wacky French.
Over the weekend we left Frejus and headed west, 117 miles to the historic town of Arles. I've been banned, by the editor, from making any further comments about the cost of road tolls in France, or as she eloquently put it: moaning about them. She's adamant that no one gives a hoot and I'm in danger of making myself look a tight-wad! Frankly, that boat sailed some time ago, but okay point made.
A quick plug for La Bastiane, the camp-site we've just left. Its just outside Frejus, whose only claim to fame is that Belinda Carlisle lives here. The camp site is a plush five star resort complete with out-door heated pool, free 24/7 wi-fi and was almost a quarter full with Dutch who, in my book, are a jolly decent bunch. Very friendly and quite chatty. It helped that they are all octogenarians so we knew, come nine o’clock, there was going to be no shenanigans. No tossing of van keys into a bowl after a wild evening of boozing and taking pot luck. No, they all returned to their own vans and observed the camp site rule of keeping it down after ten. My only gripe and one hardly worth mentioning (Then don't Ed), shush! is that the toilet/shower blocks are unisex. This is fairly typical in France. Touring French camp-sites you'll frequently find just 15mm of Formica, separates you from a person of the opposite sex, while answering the call of nature. Being British, this is not normal. I like my privacy. On top of this the men's urinals face the toilet cubicals so as you're doing pee-pee strange women, albeit Dutch ones, can walk in behind you. This means everything has to be tucked away and zipped up nicely before you turn around. It's all rather unsettling, but apart from that I'd recommend the site.
Arles town center
Which is more than I can say for the one you find us in today. It's well landscaped. Ample sized pitches bordered by flowering privacy hedges and has a modern shower block, unisex again, so it has the basics right but is just let down by the detail.
I'd checked they had wifi. They did, but chargeable. No problem. When I arrived it turned out to be free. Which would have been excellent had it worked. Query its absence and you were told, with a Gallic shrug of the shoulders, 'it is zee phone company monsieur', so I've had to cycle to MacDonalds.
The site has only one water standpipe which is tucked away in the far corner. This has been fitted with a tap from hell. Water doesn’t so much as issue from it as dribble out nervously (If the wind is blowing, it soaks you and none goes in the container! Grrr. Ed). No doubt to encourage water conservation. The optimistic sign above reads: Use water sensibly!. Under it, before I leave, I'm going to write: We would if I could get the frekin stuff out!. Each time I hike across to it I mentally write a review of the site and each time it gets progressively worse. By the time we leave it's going to be a tirade of trash talk, I know it. Then, having gone to the bother of of providing a modern and quite stylish sanitation block, they don't bother supplying it with toilet paper, towels, soap or even toilet seats for that matter. Not such a big deal you might think, but see if you're just as philosophical when you discover you've forgotten to bring said loo paper. I'm sorry to report that this too is not that unusual in France. Hand washing facilities is a basic hygiene necessity. I daren't touch the door handle.
And then bugger me sideways if that wasn't enough, I've been attacked by French mosquitoes which seem to have it in for me. And then this morning had to turn on the heating of all things. The heating!
I'd quite forgotten how to do it..... No seriously I had.
Tuesday 30th September 2014 week 171 France.
Frankly some people shouldn't be allowed out of the country. I'm serious. I've said this before: a suitability test should be part of applying for a passport to see if the applicant would make a decent ambassador for Britain. Because, and make no mistake, how we conduct ourselves abroad reflects on us all as a nation. Johnny foreigner will use any Brit he meets as a yardstick to measure us all by. For example: meet say....., a rude Frenchmen and you could end up thinking they're all rude, which of course they're not. Right, okay, granted, not the best example in the world but you catch my drift.
Arles Roam Arena spectacular
I got chatting to our neighbours yesterday, a retired English couple from Tp'north. Initially I found it difficult listening to him, not because of his accent but because he was stripped to the waist and was sporting a dense mat of grey chest hair which I found slightly hypnotic. I'd never seen anyone with quite so much chest hair. Seriously, he looked like one of those old fashioned brown leatherette sofas you sometimes see at council tips with all the stuffing sticking out of them. It was particularly unfortunate for him as he hadn’t a hair on his head.
That’s one of life’s great mysteries about ageing, for us blokes. You find hair refuses to grow where you want it to and yet grows with wild abandon, like weeds on a railway siding, in the places you really wish it wouldn't, like your ears or nose. It's all very frustrating.
He informed me he was only staying a day because of the slowness of the water tap. Well I certainly felt some sympathy for him there.
“Where is it you're heading? He enquired.
“Spain and then across to Portugal.
“Don't talk to me about Spain” he said, in such a way I knew there was a story to be had. “Why what’s up?” I asked.
“I was nabbed, by police, fur towing car wit A-Frame. (An A-frame is a device fitted to the front of a car which allows you to tow it. Ed ). I told 'em. Spelt it out. Luk 'er, it's perfectly legal in UK, but would thee listen?”.
“And after all money we've spent in Spain as well. You'd think we'd be better tret!” his wife interjected. Clearly she thought this had earned them special privileges.
“No sod 'em mate. If'n that's how they gunna tret us we're done wit Spain”. I was tempted to point out that I doubted the law was aimed at them in particular, so taking it quite so personally was well, childish really. I didn’t.
They then moved on to a holiday they had in California.
“Have yer been?”, he asked.
“California, no never.” I replied.
“Don't” she chimed in, “fulla black people. It were three week, before we spoke to a white person”
Oh dear!. I never know what to say to bigots. What can you say to a total stranger who seems only to happy to share their bigotry and prejudices with you? I feel sorry for them to be honest. To have lived, as long as they have, and have learnt so little from the experience.
No one is born a bigot, that has to be learnt. However, regrettably, people are born with the right to a bloody passport.
The editor would like to point out that this couple are not typical of northerns who are decent fair minded bunch.
Wednesday 1st October 2014 week 171 France
Oh the joy of it all.
The good thing about this site, well hang on, there's two actually. The first is the supermarket around the corner which sells diesel at 97p a litre!, (Normally around £1.13. Ed). On seeing it I swung in and studiously filled the tank. Spoon feeding it in. Stopping only when I was up to the filler neck. I was tempted to top up the ash tray, the glove box and, at this price, drink some but thought better of it.
The second 'good thing' is the camp site sits on the outskirts of Arles. The town centre is just a three mile cycle ride.
Arles has three major claims to fame. Firstly: Vincent van Gogh painted some of his most famous paintings here, two hundred of them in fact. In honour of this great artist I've tweaked a couple of my photos of Arles in a kind of Van Goghesque way.
Arles two days ago
There's a tourist trail which you can follow around the old town. It highlights where he actually sat and painted some of his famous paintings. Unfortunately on the tour there's no mention of the site where he lobbed off his ear, only the hospital where he tried to have it sewn back on. Apparently, later, keeping his other, still attached, good ear to the ground Vincent learnt the townsfolk had gotten together and unanimously decided to pack him off to a nut farm. Little did they know that years later, because of him, the fortunes of Arles town and their future generations would be secured. Anyhow, Vincent legged it never to return.
The second claim to fame, which is barely mentioned anywhere, is that Jeanne Calmant lived here her entire life. She was born here and never left. It's unlikely you'd have heard of her. She died in 1998 having been born in 1875. Imagine, for a moment, just what this lady witnessed in her lifetime. Cars, two world wars, the aeroplane, space exploration, computers, electricity and diesel at 97p a litre. At the time of her death she was the oldest recorded human being ever! She was once asked: what changes had she seen in Arles in her life time? She thought for a moment before answering: 'None'. Having walked around the town I can see exactly what she means. The French seem very reluctant to pull anything down and start again. All over France you constantly come across empty properties in various states of decomposition. In small towns you're hard pressed to find a new building.
Arles has one final claim to fame worth mentioning. Bang in the centre of the old town is a quite extraordinary Roman theatre and Arena, both in remarkable condition and still in use today. (Yesterdays photo Ed)
Oddly, this wonderfully rich historic town is twined with the sleepy, some might unkindly say comatosed, town of Wisbeach in Lincolnshire England. Now I've been to Wisbeach. It's on the edge of the Fens and while it's a pleasant enough town its singularly unimpressive. Its only claim to fame is that it holds a very large car boot each weekend at the banger racing track. Where, occasionally, you can pick up a rather tatty print of The Sunflowers, a very famous painting by Vincent van Gogh.
Okay that’s it. We’re off tomorrow, 170 miles east into Spain.
Thursday 2nd October 2014 week 171 Spain
It's an eye opener.
We were pleased to leave the Arles camping site and it's one reluctant tap, aggressive mosquitoes, unisex toilets and it's iffy whiffy. 'Whiffy' is how the French pronounce 'wifi', which is apt since it often stinks. We made for camping Les Pedres, just over the Spanish border hear the village of Capmany.
The journey was tedious, as are all motorway journeys and being in France didn't make it a whole lot better. It was made duller by the weather. Grey rain laden clouds scuttled across the sky as if they had somewhere to go, occasionally dumping their contents on us. As we crossed the mighty Pirineos Orientales mountains, and dropped down the other side into Spain, the sky cleared and the sun shone as if to welcome us.
Turning off the motorway and onto the N11 just eight miles before the camp-site we saw our first 'professional lady'. She was standing by the roadside wearing nothing more, Hazel assures me, than her underwear. A bra and thong. As we approached she turned and provocatively bent double exposing her derrière. I don't know if this was an advertising ploy, Hazel seems to think it was, I assumed she was picking something up. Then not 500 metres further on, as I turned onto the road to Capmany, another 'lady', wearing a yellow micro mini skirt, smiled and twerked me. -If you are over twenty five you might need that term explained. Twerking is basically a dance which involves the performer just wiggling her bottom rhythmically, and suggestively to music- I returned her smile. Hazel giggled and asked: “OMG did you see her?”. I wanted to say 'yes' but by this time I'd careered off the road and was now trundling across a field trying to dodge cork trees. (No he wasn't. Ed). True. Hazel knows it would take more than attractive female wiggling her panty clad arse at me to get me to take my mind off the serious business of piloting a 4 ton vehicle. Oh yes in-deedy!
Its a waiting game.
Jokes aside. (Sorry. There was a Joke there?. Ed). I've talked about this before but it's worth mentioning again: prostitution is legal here in Spain. They pay tax. Almost comically the law states if they ply their trade by the roadside they must wear hi-vis jackets. These two were wearing very little and were pretty blatant about it. There was no coyness about their approach. You want some? Well here it is! I'm not sure I'm that comfortable with them advertising their wares, quite so in your face. (Is that a double meaning? Ed)
I've always felt prostitution should be legalised. Sex workers are entitled to the same protection, under the law, we all enjoy. Legality will help create a safer environment for them to work in. I don’t see this as condoning their way of life, it's about basic human rights. Their welfare needs to come before the rights and wrongs of how they earn a living. As I've said before, I'm not here to pass moral judgement, there are plenty only too willing to do that without invitation, but I do know that until you've walk in another’s shoes you'll never know what motivates them to live the life they do.
Perhaps in a fairer world, a world of full employment, of financial equality and of equal opportunity for all no one would choose that way of life, but somehow I doubt even that would stop it.
Friday 3rd October 2014 week 171 Spain
I received an email this week seeking my advice. I thought I'd share it with you. It said, or rather asked,
Phil, you're an atheist, perhaps you can give me a bit of advice. I attended a dinner party a few nights ago and during it my atheist host sneezed. I promptly said “God bless you”. He glared at me and said, as if talking to a child: “Oh! I do so hope he does”. The other dinner guests burst out laughing. I felt somewhat embarrassed. Can you advise me: what would be the correct thing to say or do in such a circumstance?
Concerned of Basildon.
Sure I can, and thanks for your email. Being something of a gambling man I like to hedge my bets which is why I'm basically a humanist with atheist and agnostic tendencies, so perhaps just the right chap to ask such a vexing question.
Okay well first off: saying “God bless you” when someone sneezes is merely a polite social convention. It's one of life small pleasantries. In much the same way someone might say: “Gosh! be careful” after you've walked into a lamp-post or fallen into a manhole. It demonstrates both our humanity and our innate concern for others well-being, even people we don't know. It's quite charming really. Your host was rude not to acknowledge your concerns, as it's customary, and good social etiquette, in such circumstances, to thank the blesser.
Its art, obviously! can't you tell.
The phrase originated, it's thought, back in the 16th century in the days of bubonic plague. While a sneeze was not considered an early symptom of the bubonic plague, your liver dissolving and filling your doublet and hose was seen as much more of a tell tail sign, it may have indicated the early onset of some general malaise. It was considered therefore to be both wise and Christian to offer God's blessing to the sneezee or sneezer.
Another, much earlier, explanation for this custom has its origins buried within religion. Oddly, it was considered by right thinking men that during a sneeze the Devil himself, old Beelzebub, the Hoofed one, Satan, The horned one, The beast -Take your pick- could enter the body. Perhaps shoot up ones nostrils and as unlikely as that seems, both from a physical and spiritual standpoint, it was a widely held belief. Back then it became customary to give God's blessing at the moment of the sneeze as it was thought to ward off such an evil event from taking place.
However, when one delves into either explanation neither theory stands the acid test of scientific scrutiny. For a start the bubonic plague wiped out around 200 million people across Europe. Now I estimate the phrase “God bless you” was said well.... perhaps a million times and if that's the case, then clearly, as blessings go, it's efficaciousness was highly suspect. If one views the blessing in its religious context then judging from the number of cases of demonic possession and witch burnings in early medieval Europe saying 'God bless you' clearly fell on deaf ears.
So my advice would be: the next time your host sneezes, tell him to get it checked out..... it could be Ebola.
Have a sneeze free weekend.