Tuesday, 24 December 2013

8 – Rolling Further.

So with Madrid done, it was time for the coast.
We headed south-east toward Valencia on the Mediterranean coast, the van was moving well again, and so I put aside my thoughts of mechanical failure that first appeared in the Madrid traffic and rolled on.
The coast was really (I see now) what we had come for, and the seabreezes, when we finally came within their sphere of influence, were worth every kilometre we had driven to experience them.
Valencia is famous for its oranges, and indeed the site of those beautiful dark green swathes on the red Earth of the coast made everyone feel better.
We had been in the van, and each others close proximity now for two weeks, and even if you are travelling with St Francis of Assisi and the Dalai Llama, arguments and bickering will still occur.
St Francis would always be wanting to stop at every church and have a pray, while you would no doubt get annoyed with the Llama for never getting annoyed about anything.
So the coast was a great change for us.
We hit Valencia and after a few nights there we headed back up the coast toward Barcelona.
And here, in Barcelona, we hit a campground that was run by Fascisti left over from General Franco’s regime.
It says something about this narrative that famous sights don’t figure prominently, that is largely due to my lack of interest in them.
In the end I am writing down what I remember, and if it is still in my mind twenty years later, then I figure it’s worth reporting.
The first thing I remember about Barcelona was that it was the first place I had a long, complex, to me anyway, conversation in Spanish.
We were in the van driving around with our less than adequate guide book, trying to find the campground.
Eventually, we came across two young Spanish mothers out for a stroll, each pushing a pram with baby on board.
I pulled up next to them and leaned out the driver’s window.
“Buenos Dias”, I said, in my flawed Castillian accent, “Hay una camping por aqui?” (Is there a campground nearby?).
One of the young women replied, “Yes”, and she pointed to a chainlink fence next to the road, “that is the campground, inside that fence, but to enter it in your van, you have to go back up the road to the lights, turn right, and it is about one kilometre down on your left.”
I was very pleased as I understood her response pretty well.
I sought some clarification, and then we thanked the young women and did a u-turn and went on our way.
It was very satisfying to be able to make some small steps in a foreign language.
And I might add, I was already learning that learning a foreign language has many tricky bits, but in any language, grammar is the toughest.
Vocabulary is relatively easy, this word means ‘car’, this word means ‘campground’ etc, but when those words come clothed in and around with verb and adjective structure, it can hide the noun completely and you are left all at sea.
German for instance is like this, many say that it is the easiest language to learn as it is logical, but this is a fallacy, German has its hard bits, I can tell you, commonly, by its use of compound words.
The noun in German is placed in the middle of the word, then a whole series of ‘un-
, ‘ab-‘, ‘noch-‘, ‘ge-‘ and other bits are welded onto the front and back of the word till the learner doesn’t know where they’re at.
Plus Spanish and French have the famous gender prelates, and so in French, a chair is male and a table is female, figure that out.
And, just before this turns into some ‘English is the best language’ rant, from what I understand, one of the hardest things about English is that so many words mean different things, throwing the learner off even at the vocabulary level.
‘Set’, for instance, can be ‘the glue has set’, a ‘set of blocks’, ‘the sun had set’ and ‘I am going to set up my computer’.
So all of the languages of Europe have their issues, but the point is there is something very satisfying about making progress in any skill.
So we made our way back to the lights, turned left and pulled up at the campground.
We paid, went in and set up, then decided to have swim in the campground pool.
And here Craig and I discovered where the Nazis that had escaped Germany at the end of World War two had got to.
The pool attendants, in their white terry-towelling clothing, seemed to have a beef against the world and everyone in it.
For a start, I walked up to the pool wearing my shorts and t-shirt, and jumped in.
Then before I had finished shaking my head dog-like to get the water out of my eyes, one of the attendants blew a whistle and said to me, “You can’t wear clothing in the pool”, then he gestured to my t-shirt.
I looked at him a little askance, wearing a t-shirt in the pool is a common way to avoid sunburn.
At first I thought he was kidding around, it seemed so ridiculous, but he kept gesturing and so I paddled over to the side, got out and put my t-shirt on the grass next to the pool.
To be fair to him though, I had been planning to use the chlorinated pool to give my travel stained t-shirt its first wash since I’d left England, and considering the state of the thing, the life guard’s actions were probably justified.
So shirtless, I went back to the pool and dived in.
The whistle went again and the life guard pointed at me again, and said, “No diving from the side of the pool.”
WTF? I said under my breath, then the life guard came over closer to me and admonished me further, he repeated his injunction and made it clear that if you wanted to dive, you had to do it off the diving board.
So Craig and I nodded and then began to swim a few lengths.
Astoundingly, the whistle went again and I looked up to see the life guard once more pointing at us, and this time he was indicating that if we wanted to swim lengths we had to go over to the other side of the pool and do it.
Turns out we were swimming in the shallower side and this was supposed to be only for parents and young children.
Anyway, we continued our swimming and then, mischievously, began to push the envelope in every direction to see exactly just what was and wasn’t allowed.
Turns out pretty much anything except floating on your back quietly is against the rules, and even then you have to do it in the right area of the pool.
Crag went to the diving board and jumped in.
Diving only from the diving board please.
I splashed Craig with a sweeping motion of my hand.
No excess splashing please.
And so it went.
Eventually we had had enough, we’d heard that whistle more than a particularly transgressive soccer player during a tight match and so now it was time to get out.

So we dried off and went into Barcelona to look around, I saw the main square of town which was interesting to me because of a story told to me by my flat mate in Vancouver, Bob.
He had gone Spain for his vacation and had been in Barcelona for John Baptiste day.
John the Baptist is the patron saint of Barcelona, and so his birthday is widely celebrated.
The focus of this celebration is the main square and this square is packed with locals who take champagne and fireworks.
Said Bob, “midnight came around everyone was fully loaded with champagne and already things were getting out of hand. Then they all began letting off their fireworks. You’ve no idea how bloody dangerous it is being jammed into an outdoor area, shoulder-to-shoulder, when a sky rocket suddenly goes off next to your ear. I was lucky to get out of there with all my limbs.”
So we went down to the main square and looked around.
It was all too easy to picture the carnage of that night.
Apart from the fireworks damaging you when they go up, they’ve also got to come down sometime, so there is a double jeopardy on this night.

We returned from town on the bus and we got off on the main road, not far from where we had had our conversation with the two young women that morning.
Thus, we were driving distance from the entrance to the park.
I should add, this was the mother of all campgrounds, certainly in terms of size, I would estimate that it was a square kilometre, and so where Craig and I now stood was something like a two kilometre walk around two sides of the park to get to the entrance.
I looked at Craig, then at the walk ahead of us, and said, “Sod that, let’s climb over the fence, and save some walking,.”
Craig demurred, he was always more sensible than I, and said, “Do you think we should, won’t that be against the rules?”
To which I replied, “almost certainly, considering the pool this morning, but I’m doing it anyway.”
So I walked through the scrubby bushes up to the fence.
I was standing there examining it, planning my assault, when a rattling, scraping sound caught my ear.
I turned my head, and there, twenty metres away,  but closing the distance rapidly was a Rottweiler guard dog bearing down on me with its mouth agape with menace.
The scraping sound was coming from the dog’s lead which was attached to a metal pipe laid lengthwise down the fence, the dog moving up and down to stop people like me doing exactly what I was planning.
I gave a falsetto yelp and leapt backwards and then sprinted the few metres it took to take me out f the dog’s bite zone and stood panting in fear next to Craig.
“I think we had better walk around to the entrance”, I said, in another understatement of cosmic magnitude.
So we set off and now that we knew to look, saw that there was a dog tied to the ground pipe apparatus every hundred metres guarding the entire perimeter of the campground.
So I didn’t climb in, but did wonder why on Earth the campground needed such ferocious security.
In the end, it was no doubt just a throwback to the third Reich, where the staff of the campground had learned their trade.
We spent a few more days in the internment camp, and then it was time to return to France.
So we packed up and headed up the coast toward the French border.
And it was on this leg of the journey, that the gear changing stickiness that I had noted in Madrid hit home for real.
We were moving along the highway of the Spanish coast this morning, and already it was hot, very hot.
Then the highway veered inland to avoid some coastal hills, and here, cut off from the cooling seabreezes, our clutch melted.
I was driving and I changed up from first to second, then into third, then finally into fourth, however our speed didn’t increase, the needle stayed stuck on forty kilometres an hour.
I stamped on the accelerator and this had no effect, so I tried changing down again in case it was a power issue, but our speed did not increase.
The queue of cars behind us began to build up, and eventually when there were nearly fifty vehicles, full of irascible Spanish and French drivers behind us honking their horns and telling us in no uncertain terms to get off the road, I pulled over.
I explained to the gang, what was happening, then got out and had a look under the vehicle.
I couldn’t see anything obvious ( I had thought we may have picked up a bit of metal or something that was interfering with the gear shaft), but nothing was visible.
However, stopping the engine had compounded our problem because when I restarted and tried to get the van going, I discovered that now we didn’t even have first gear.
Whatever had happened had happened because of the heat, and stopping had allowed whatever had melted to set solid, jamming the clutch and gear cogs into immobility.
So we stood on the side of a highway in Spain and contemplated our options.
Thankfully Peter and Sylvana had been given some invaluable advice back in London and had joined an organisation called National Breakdown.
This was a Europe wide towing service, wherever you broke down across the continent, National Breakdown would organise a tow to the nearest repair point.
However, good as this service was, you still had to phone them, and this was the days before mobile phones were widespread.
So we had another conference and it was decided that since I had the best Spanish I would walk/hitch along the highway to a phone booth, and organise a tow truck.
So I set out and I have to say, quite enjoyed my walk.
I was away from the crowded interior of the van for the first time since we had left London and it was refreshingly liberating.
But then the heat began to take over and I realised I couldn’t keep this up forever.
So it was fortuitous that the universe sent help.
I walked along and came to a paddock where a farmer was ploughing the field with a tractor.
I went up the fence around his field and when he came around again, waved vigorously and caught the farmer’s eye.
He noticed me, pulled his plough out of the ground and drove over to where I stood.
He was a quite amazing looking man.
He was Spanish, as I was to learn from our conversation, but he had blonde hair.
I guessed he had a northern European parent, or grandparent, either way, he jumped down off his tractor and asked me what I wanted, I said in the best Spanish I could that our car had broken down and did he know where I could find a phone to call a tow truck?
He nodded and then launched into a series of direction, I couldn’t follow it precisely, but gleaned the gist.
So I thanked him and then continued on down the highway in the direction he had pointed.
He had told me there was a petrol station about three k down the road, and I could call from there.
I didn’t particularly fancy three more ks, but when you know your destination, it does make it easier.
However, as it happens, I didn’t have to walk all the way, I was meandering along when a change in the traffic noise caught my ear.
The noise of the passing cars was replaced by the deeper rumble of a diesel engine and I turned around to see my farmer friend in his tractor.
He pulled up next to me and waved to get on board.
“Terrific”, I thought, “this’ll speed things up”.
So with me perched on the wheelguard we drove along the shoulder of the highway until we reached the petrol station.
I jumped down and thanked my Spanish farmer friend volubly.
He nodded and said ‘no problem’ or words to that effect, then parked his tractor and went into the petrol station restaurant and bought himself a coffee.
What a marvellous gesture of help.
So I went inside and went up to the counter, a young woman came to serve me and I told her my story of auto failure and then she took over.
“Grua?”, she said questioningly.
I dived into my Spanish-English dictionary and looked it up, ‘Grua’-‘Tow truck’.
“SI, si”, I said with my head nodding.
She picked up a phone next to her mounted on the wall, and made a call.
She spoke briefly with someone at the other end.
She hung up and then turned back to me, nodded and said something, which largely passed over my head, but I caught the word ‘grua’ in it, she was indicating the tow truck was on its way.
I then asked her how long it would take, and she said ‘ahora, ahora’, (Now, immediately).
Talk about helpful service.
I began to feel I could start to forgive these Spaniards for the Spanish Armada.
So I made my way back outside the coffee shop are and then a thought struck me, was the truck coming here? Or was I in for another walk?
But then that was quickly solved because I realised I hadn’t told her where we were broken down, and then the truck itself showed up.
It pulled onto the forecourt of the petrol station and the driver looked around saw me, gestured at the towing apparatus on the back of the truck and looked questioningly at me.
I nodded, jumped up and got in the cab with him.
We roared off down the highway till we came to the van, then he winched the vehicle on board, we all got in and headed down to the nearby town of San Carlos De la Rapita.
We sent the tow truck driver on the way with a National breakdown payment number, then entered the mechinic’s workshop he had towed us to.
Needless to say, because our van was German, the parts needed had to come from somewhere else, Barcelona probably, or maybe even Germany.
Either way, we were in for a few days stay.
However, this was a godsend in its way, and further reinforcement of the Buddhist ideal that ‘nothing is good or bad, it just is’.
Carlos, as we locals came to call it, was a resort town on the Mediterranean, and so we found a hotel and stayed on the coast for, in retrospect, exactly what we had come to Spain for.
The first morning was spent with me in conversation with the owner of the garage while they tried to explain what was wrong.
Despite my progress in Spanish, this was well over my head, but with perseverance we communicated in the end.
Turns out that somewhere in the past some nameless cowboy had replaced the clutch plate with a plastic one.
No doubt parts were short, and this had worked fine in the northern latitudes where it was cool, but once we began traversing the stinging hot Spanish plain the plate had begun to deform in the heat, and that final morning on the highway it had folded up completely.
So with much nodding the owner, the mechanic and I talked and they got through to me that they could fix it but we would have to wait for a few parts.
I nodded and went back to the hotel to report.
That done we settled in and enjoyed a bit of real Spain.
We slept in, went to the coffee shop and had breakfast.
We lounged on the beach and by the hotel’s bathtub-sized pool, at night we had dinner in the seafood restaurants of the town, and generally got some real vacation time.
Eventually our parts arrived and the owner sent a message to the hotel and we went down to the mechanic’s workshop.
The owner told us the van was fixed, then pointed at me and told me to get in.
We set on for a test drive, and scurried about the cobblestoned streets of the town with the owner at the wheel, changing gears repeatedly and constantly talking to me, clearly indicating that the clutch was fixed.
We drove back to the workshop and got out.
We paid up, handed over a six pack of beer as a tip and then went on our way.
Sometimes it takes a melted clutch plate to make you stop on life’s highway and smell the flowers.

So we moved up along the coast and re-entered France.
We were going roughly to Italy, Sylvana had relatives there, and to get there we had to return along the Meditteranean coast of France.
The next major town was Cannes, but we took a detour that many do and stopped in at the small fishing village of Saint-Tropez.
St Tropez is famous of course as the winter hang of the mega-rich, Bridget Bardot lives there apparently, or did, and this description, mega-rich, was accurate to the extreme.
I’ll never forget pulling up in our dusty, travel-battered kombi and emerging like five people who had come to fix the drains.
All around us the beautiful people flowed.
The shops contained goods, clothing most prominently, that you needed a second mortgage even to try on.
I remember a stunningly beautiful French woman in designer clothing, with designer makeup, sporting designer hair and leading a designer dog on a designer lead.
She walked along till she noticed us, then made a wide detour around us so that none of the poverty of our clothing would brush against hers.
And it was crowded, boy was it crowded.
St Tropez has a resident population of 5,000, but each year attracts 5 million tourists.
This makes it a difficult place to live if you’re a local, additionally due to the morphology of the coast, the only entrance and exits are a single two lane road.
So traffic jams are not just common, but incessant.
And to give you some idea of the scale of the crowding consider these nerdly figures.
Cape Cod in Massachusetts, US, has a population of 250,000, and attracts six million tourists a year.
Byron Bay in Australia, has a population of 10,000, and attracts 2 million tourists a year.
So those comparisons show that there is nothing like St Tropez for tourist crowding, with approximately 1,000 tourists for each resident jampacking the place annually.
That being the case, we didn’t stay long.
Peter bought a pair of shorts, not so much because he was out of leg wear, but to say he had bought something in St Tropez.
We didn’t eat there, but simply gawked for a moment and then got back in the van and got the hell out.
I had been hoping to see Bridget Bardot, preferably topless, but even if she had appeared on the footpath in front of me I wouldn’t have seen a square centimetre of her skin as the paparazzi would have got their first and blocked the view.
They inhabit that town like swarms of killer bees, and it is a reasonable rule of travel planning to be anywhere the paparazzi are not.
So we moved on.
We stopped at Cannes and had a swim and had our first encounter with the French police.
However it wasn’t overly ploblematic as they simply asked us to move our van from the red zone in which we had parked it.
We did so and they with nodding and a merky bucket watched as we went on our way.
I mention this because these Cannes police were the epitomy of politeness compared with one I was about to meet just up the coast in Monte Carlo.
Like St Tropez, Monte Carlo is a famous proving ground of the hyper-rich and the police there are more of a Praetorian guard than any other.
Just quickly some more stats.
Monte Carlo has a population of 15,000 and they inhabit an area of 0.61 k2, an area  smaller than our campground in Barcelona.
However, this town, city, country, protectorate, or whatever, is stunningly beautiful, and there is more money per capita in this small little pocket of France than anywhere on Earth with the possible exception of Brunei.
I mention this because I think the police there have been given orders to give anyone poor a hard time.
And so it was that while there I nearly got arrested, then deported, for sitting on a wall.
Craig and I had gone out to sightsee and we had climbed the stony paths up into the hills to look out over the town and to the shores of the beautiful, blue Mediterranean.
We got to a lookout point and found our view obscured (slightly) by a chest high wall.
Now the sign on the wall said, quite clearly, “No Sitting on Wall”, in five languages, but that was just a red rag to my bull.
And in similar vein to my attempt on the north wall of the campground in Barcelona, I went over, hoisted myself up, and sat on the wall.
Lovely, the view was so much better, without the wall obscuring the lower half of the view I looked down through my dangling legs at the houses below and the ocean further afield.
I was just congratulating myself on my cleverness when a French voice barked behind me, I turned my head saw two policemen in the light blue shirts of the Monte Carlo police.
They spoke again and gestured, clearly, for me to get of the wall.
 I did so, then they spoke to me in French, I gestured that I didn’t understand, and they switched to English.
Faultlessly, one of them said, “Can’t you read? The sign says ‘no sitting on the wall’”.
I really had no answer for that, and was about to make a smartarse comment when the cop took over and began handling the smartarse part of the conversation quite nicely.
“You know what I hate about you English” he began.
I was about to say ‘I’m Australian’, but quickly realised that was unlikely to help.
So remained silent, and he continued, “You come over here in your filthy clothes, you sleep on the beach, you get drunk and vomit all over the place and you get into fights with the other tourists and cause a lot of trouble for me and the other police.”
This was obviously a practised rant, and most of my life I have had pretty good relationships with the coppers, starting with the much loved Sergeant Crick in my home town, but this was as close as I have ever come to obstructing a policemen in the course of his duties, to wit, punching the arrogant arsehole in the face.
I was starting to lose my temper, I can tell you, I didn’t like being called English (no Australian does), and the reason I was filthy was because every damn spare cent I had went on paying astronomical Europe summer prices, Monte Carlo being the pinnacle of those.
And I was just going to launch into my little fiscal discourse when he said, “Give me your passport, I am going to check you out.”
What may have happened next we’ll never know, because thankfully at that point Craig brought his level head to the issue.
“Just give him your passport, we don’t want any trouble with these guys.”
He may have gone on to say, “And I’m not going to wait around to bail you out of the clink”, but I could tell he was thinking it.
However, I saw sense, got my passport out of my chest bag, and handed it over.
The copper took it with disdainful fingers, if he had had some surgical rubber gloves he would have put them on I’m sure, then he went over to an area of the viewing deck away from us and spoke into his radio.
He was there for a few minutes, then he came back and grudgingly returned my passport.
Then with a final admonition to ‘follow all the rules’ while we were in Monte Carlo, he waved us away.
He was only doing his job, but I was still fuming that evening at the perceived injustice of the world.
Of course, looking back I should think myself lucky, because what this policeman was really watching out for was English football supporters, who famously make infinite amounts of trouble for the hard working police of Europe, and in the end it was probably only hen he saw my passport and realised I was Australian and not English, that he didn’t arrest me on the spot.
That night we went down to the famous casino of Monte Carlo.
Sorry, let me put that more accurately, we went down and stood outside the famous casino and looked at the pretty lights and the pretty people walking in.
I have never seen so many glittering people, and so many glittering, shimmering performance vehicles parked in one spot before.
A Mercedes would have been decidedly low rent here.
Lamborghinis sat next to Ferraris, Ferraris jostled with Zondas, those Zondas made way for Bugattis, Bugattis were parked next to Beamers and Roll-Royces stood aloofly nearby.
I would estimate that the street outside the casino had ten million dollars worth of cars in it.
How much was being flung around inside doesn’t bear thinking about.
Even the taxicabs in Monaco are BMW minimum.
Come to think of it, it was somewhat surprising that there wasn’t a  roadblock outside of town monitoring the vehicles trying to get in and telling us point blank that our battered Kombi was not welcome.
So having seen the sights of the Principality of Monte Carlo, and paid the prices therein, we moved on.
But before I do, I would just point out, that what you have read so far has kind of glossed over the mental strain of what we had put ourselves through.
We were all ‘over’ this constant road life in the van.
If we’d had a particular destination it may have been different, as we would have been able to sustain ourselves with the completion of each kilometre toward said goal, but we didn’t, we were just travelling around and it was wearing thin for all of us.
I was the worst behaved I might add, impatient, tight with money, unwilling to compromise, but there was no denying we all, already, needed a break from our holiday.
And hasn’t that line been written thousands of time throughout human history?
So when we were in Avignon in the south of France, Craig and I went to the shops to get some supplies and I told him I was over this, and he agreed, he to had had enough as well, and so we decided to leave the van and head for Greece.
I had always wanted to go there ever since reading Gerald Durrell’s enchanting books of his life on Corfu when he was young, and Craig’s sister had married a Greek man and they now lived together in Kalamatta in southern Greece, so we would leave the van, and go there.
So on our return from the shops, we told the others of our plan, and they agreed, with some relief, that it was good idea, I know they were happy to see the back of me at the very least, and we got out the maps and made a plan.
Next stop, Milan.
Sylvana’s relatives lived not far from there and Craig and I could get a train south from the central concourse at Milan station.
So we moved on across the southern coastal fringe of France and entered Italy.

And just because it has always amused me, let me tell you something my brother told me once that sums Europe up pretty well.
He heard this from German friend he worked with.
Heaven in Europe is when the Swiss are the organizers, the Germans are the engineers, the French are the cooks, the Italians are the entertainers and the English are the police.
That’s heaven, right?
Hell in Europe is when the Germans are the police, the English are the cooks, the French are the Engineers, the Italians are the organisers and the Swiss are the entertainers.
All tied in with the stereotypical views of these various races.
However, I want to say that I actually found Italy far from disorganised, and quite nice to drive around in.
This was mainly because we didn’t go to any of the heavy tourist areas, the Leaning Tower, the Vatican and so forth.
All Craig and I did in Italy was get driven to Milan on the famous Autostrada (Expressway) and a smooth ride it was too.
However, my cheapskatedness nearly denied us that in the end.
All the autostrada have tolls and due to difficulty of doing the exchange rates from Francs to Lira, even with Renee’s nifty little machine, we couldn’t work out what the tolls were with any certainty.
The last thing we wanted was to come to a toll gate and be advised we owed a Monte Carlo-level of money for using the road.
So we took a B-road toward Milan.
This was a lovely drive, but we were in the foothills of the Alps here just north of Genoa, and every ten metres we went toward Milan was accompanied by a hundred metres of snaking turns.
Then we would encounter a speed limited village.
Out speed would drop from sixty to fifty and we would nudge our way through the tiny mountain settlement back to the open road.
After an hour of this, we reconferenced and decided that lovely as it was, if we kept this up we would spend infinitely more on petrol than tolls, so it was time to open her up on the autostrada.
So we did so, we lurched down out of the hills and took the on ramp for the Milan Expressway.
We came to the toll booth and the little sign popped up showing we owed 3,000 lira for our trip.
The Italian lira is defunct now, replaced by the Euro, but from my research I have been able to glean that this meant we owed three Australian dollars for the toll.
Even we could afford that.
So we paid up, floored the pedal and set off for Milan.

Milan is a wonderful place, and is often considered the true capital of Italy, but we didn’t see much of it, with our plan set, and the blue waters of Greece beckoning we just wanted out of the van, out of the country and out into the world of Greece.
We stayed our last night in the van nearby in Bergamo, then the next day the others dropped us onto the staggeringly beautiful forecourt of Mila station and we said our good byes.
They headed off and we went inside.
Italians are justly famous for their style and flair, so it the look the guy selling tickets gave me probably shouldn’t have surprised me.
I was wearing shorts and t-shirt that hadn’t been washed in three weeks, I was unshaven, and my backpack looked like it had recently been pulled from some swamp and should have been studied by archaeologists, rather than being in actual use.
I walked up to the counter and asked him, actually now that I think about it, showed him where I wanted to go.
Craig had a little Italian, but that was not really up to the conversational exchange and so we took out our guide books and drew with a finger our proposed route.
From Milan, we wished to go  down the spine of Italy to Brindisi, then take the ferry across to Greece.
He nodded, and then said something in Italian, I looked at Craig, but he hadn’t been able to understand, and so we looked back at the ticket guy and shrugged.
The ticket guy looked me up and down again, and gave a world weary sigh, then he pulled out a piece of paper and wrote down the fare, L66,000, or A$33 each.
Lovely, we nodded our heads, held up two fingers and he wrote out two tickets.
We then went through the mill of trying to read the timetable on the wall.
We were lucky here because our train terminated in Brindisi, thus the word Brindisi was prominently displayed.
If , for instance, you are going to a small town on a main line, you will commonly find that it is not even referred to.
So we found our train, got our platform number and went over there.
Our train was waiting and we got on board.
We found the most empty compartment (there were no seat assignments), stowed our luggage and then waited for the train to leave.
Eventually it did and we had the novel experience of seeing a bit of Europe without driving.
As the train left the suburbs of Milan we were able to see the Italian countryside in all its summer glory.
It was joyously relaxing.
But then dusk came down and with the view no longer available we tried to get some sleep.
I say tried, because as usual we had the cheapest seats, and without seat assignments, people just got on and sat wherever they could wedge themselves in.
About an hour after dusk fell I had an interesting little language moment.
A woman got on and looked into our compartment and said “Et tu occupado?”, meaning, “are you full up?”
We eventually answered “No”, so she came in and took the last available seat next to me.
I mention that because the first part of her utterance was in Latin, the ‘ et tu’ bit.
You may recall this being used by Shakespeare in Julius Caesar, as in ‘Et tu brute?’, referring to the moment when Brutus dug in the knife.
It makes sense that Italian of all languages would be the one to have Latin bits used in the modern day, but even so I found it minorly interesting.
What was less interesting, positively annoying in fact, was the woman’s presence next to me.
I had previously been able to slump over a bit and been relatively comfortable, but with her here now, I now had to sit upright all the way to Brindisi (she was going to the end of the trip as well).
And so the night passed.
It took twelve hours or thereabouts, but eventually we pitched up at the ferry port of Brindisi and bought our last Italian transport tickets.
We boarded the ferry and soon we were making our way across the Adriatic.
The Adriatic is a small part of the Med, between Greece and Italy, similar to the Tasman being part of the Pacific.
This was my first experience of the Mediterranean, and it is such a different world to the seas that surround Australia.
It is so calm it is hard to believe some times.
It is nicknamed ‘the pond’, and you can see why.
It is more like walking across your living room through blue shag carpet than being at sea.
It redefines flat.
The only disturbance was the wake of the ship’s propeller.
However, it was just what the doctor ordered after our month or so of crowded roads and tourist soaked hot spots.
The journey takes nine hours and we caught up on some of the sleep we had missed during our crowded train ride of the night before.
Finally the coast of Corfu began to line the western horizon and then we docked at Kerkyra, the capital of Corfu.

Gerald Durrell and his family are long gone of course, they lived here in the nineteen thirties, and the ravages of tourism, Craig and I included, have taken over, but even so, there is still enough of the natural charm to be going on with.
Craig had been here before, and there was the same guy he had stayed with standing on the dock looking for customers, Craig pointed him out and said his stay with this guy had been Ok, so we didn’t quibble, paid up and got in his minibus.
He drove us across the island to his hotel and we checked in.
Backpack down, we then went straight to the beach and took a dip.
While I was standing there chest deep in the still, everclear water, thinking I have finally made it to the site of one of my favourite books when I became aware that I was not alone.
An attractive English woman came up and said, “Hey there, Where are you from?”, I answered, “Australia, but currently I’m teaching in London.”
I was about to ask her the same question when I saw through the glass-like water that she was stark naked.
I knew I was going to like it here.

Thursday, 19 December 2013

7 - Rolling Hell.

However, before I go into more teaching stories, there is the topic of my first summer holiday in Europe.
I got this so wrong, but then I don’t know how many times I am going to write this in my various writings, we would all do things differently if we had a time machine.
I had taught at Eastlea for three terms and then moved across the universe to Sarah Bonnell, but even with my short term of relaxed teaching at Sarah Bonnell, I was still suffering the after effects of Eastlea, and desperately needed some down time.
So what did I do?
I got in a Kombi van with four others and drove across Europe in the sweltering summer heat for two months and nearly did my head in fully.
But all that’s ahead.
It all started with a phone call from my friend Peter Lewis.
Peter was a geography teacher with whom I had gone into the trenches at Eastlea.
I picked up the phone and Peter, with that oh-so-Eastlea habit of not mucking around, said, “Hey Lock, do you want to go to Europe this summer in a van?”
I, like many of us, never think things through, and so said “yes”, we made a further few arrangements to meet and get it organised, and then rang off.
‘Great’, I thought to myself, ‘Europe in the summer, that’ll be relaxing’.
Boy, was I in for a shock.
We then began scanning the classifieds in the Southern Cross, a newspaper in London put out for visitors like us from the southern hemisphere.
We eventually tracked down a van which seemed suitable and then I went with Peter and his girlfriend, Sylvana across London to have a look at it.
It seemed OK, not that any of us had much mechanical nouse, and so we made arrangements to have it looked at by a mechanic, then left.
The nice young Dutch couple that were selling it needed it in the intervening period to move into their new house and so we agreed that once moved in they would call.
We then faced the issue of which mechanic to get to appraise the beast for us.
I had grown up on the TV show Minder and the snaky wiles of Terry’s boss, Athur Daley, the ultimate used car salesman, and so was trepidatious to say the least.
I can’t recall from this remove how we found this mechanic, but we did, and, when a few days later the call came from them, went across to the Dutch couple’s address, got the van and then did my first driving in London.
IT was manic.
My friend Sean from Canada once told me that “80% of people think they are above average drivers”.
And Ben Elton put it well when he wrote, “You never hear a guy come into the pub and say that he caused an accident on the way here because he’s not a very good driver and also he couldn’t get it up last night.”
And those two quotes are relevant because the driving that was going on was helter-skelter at the minimum, with seemingly everyone behind the wheel convinced they were the only driver on the road who knew how to do it.
I thought I was a good driver, and could handle anything having driven tractors and four-wheel drives on the farm, and had driven in Sydney.
But when I look back on it, I realise that I hadn’t driven a car for a long time.
While still in Sydney I had been a student at teacher’s college, and so couldn’t afford a car.
Then I had been in Asia where I had been driven, nearly mad, as well as around by the locals in their rattling death machines.
So this trip across London to the mechanic’s was my first drive in nearly 18 months, and it showed.
What’s more, of course this was my first time in a Kombi, and this one in particular, so the trip was fraught with many hazards to start with.
Then there was the traffic.
Oh, my god, does London have traffic.
Previous to this my worst experience of traffic was in LA.
LA has traffic jams at two in the morning, the morning peak hour is in reality the morning peak four hours.
And now I was finding that London was similar.
To put in into context, England and Scotland form an island the size of Victoria, Australia, but while the population of Victoria is a decidedly well-spread six million, sixty million people stand, and drive in 34 million cars, in England and Scotland.
And like all ancient cities, built for foot traffic and at most a coach and horses, the streets of London were in no way built for modern traffic.
Recently a friend told me that modern Londoners who own a car spend an average of seven days, 168 hours, a year looking for a parking space.
Ben Elton in his book, Gridlock, and Michael Palin, in his TV show, Carsick, have shown that Britain is overfull of cars, and I can assure you, that trip across London, if I didn’t believe there were too many cars in Britain, I certainly did after.
I navigated onto a main road and began traversing the southern edge of London.
I got into the middle lane and was doing about 80k, with the speed limit being 100.
I decided to just stick to this plan till I got near the mechanics workshop, when a truck driver pulled up on my left, the inner, slower lane, and screeched at me for going too slowly in the middle lane.
I was too shaken already by the nightmare traffic to do more than look at him, and then, thankfully, he gave me a two-fingered salute and then spurted off at a greater speed.
I continued my nerve-jangling way and eventually got to the suburb I required and thankfully left the main road, (The south circular for those with knowledge of London), and joined the local traffic.
And for about three milliseconds I was able to relax.
But then I encountered the problems of driving in the suburbs of London.
I had left a road where I had been yelled at for going to slow, and now I was in traffic where I wanted to yell at someone because it was not fast enough.
There were cars parked on both sides of the road and to say the local throughways were barely adequate to handle four cars wide was an understatement.
So nearly demolishing the wing mirrors of parked cars on my left, and the oncoming traffic nearly doing the same to my van, on my right, I inched my way through to the mechanic’s workshop.
To say I got out of the car with relief was another understatement, I felt like I had just completed some arduous polar trek and had planted my flag at the pole.
I went into the office and spoke to the coverall-wearing man behind the desk, “Hi, er, My name’s Lachlan, I spoke to Garry?” I paused, and the man nodded indicating he was Garry, so I went on, “We called about getting our van checked?”
He nodded again, then came out from behind the desk and led me out into the yard and we surveyed the van.
He didn’t start laughing, which I judged a good sign, and additionally didn’t add, “And you say this thing moved?”, which was mechanic’s short-hand for this is gonna cost you a heap of money.
He nodded again and asked me for the keys, then he got in, wiggled up and down a bit in the driver’s seat, then started the engine.
He then got out and came around to the back of the vehicle and stared for a moment at the exhaust.
Then he crouched down, pulled a rag from his pocket, and put his covered hand over the exhaust pipe.
After a few seconds the engine began to heave, and he took his hand off the exhaust.
Then he went back and turned off the engine and turned to me.
“Yeah, she’s fine, you could probably use new rear shocks though.”
I was a little taken aback, I thought the checking would be a bit more extensive than that, but then I wasn’t a mechanic, and so had to take him for his word.
“Oh, right”, I said, then asked a question that no Londoner can do without, “How much will that cost?”
“Aw, I could do it for ya’ for fifty quid.”
I said “great” and we went into the office and made the arrangements and then I left, thankfully carless, for the nearest tube station to go home.

A week or so later Garry called back to say that the van was ready and I could come and pick it up.
So I got Craig, the handsome music teacher from Sarah Bonnell, he of the ten-love-notes-a-day fame, who was also coming on the trip and we trained across London to Garry’s workshop.
We walked in and Garry was once again behind the desk, he looked up and nodded, then said, “Come for your van, huh? OK, I’ll just print out your bill.”
He went to his computer and hit a few keys and then an invoice appeared from his printer.
He tore it off and then gave it to us, and there in the total column was ₤300.
I stared at it in consternation.
All of us going on the trip were teachers and so were relatively well off by English earning standards, but I had previously told those going on the trip that we would only be up for fifty quid for the shocks.
I looked searchingly at Garry, “I thought you said it would be fifty?”
He looked searchingly at me, “Oh, sorry, no, fifty for the labour, parts cost two fifty.”
“Oh”, I said, “well, um, I’ve, er, we, only brought fifty quid cash.”
“Oh”, he said in return.
I was uncertain how to go on, but thankfully Craig took over, “Can we go to a bank machine? Is there one nearby? I’ve got that much in my account, so I can cover it.”
I looked at Craig gratefully, thank god here was there.
I should say that this was in 1992, and EFTPOS wasn’t widespread at the time, it certainly didn’t exist in mechanic’s workshops in the suburbs where the Arthur-Daley-esque cry of “less VAT for cash” was heard incessantly.
VAT is the English version of GST in Australia, a common scam was to pay cash to avoid it.
Most repairs were therefore paid in cash so the mechanic didn’t have to declare the full, if any of the amount, on his tax.
So Garry gave us directions to the high street and Craig and I went down there, got the money out and then returned.
We paid up and Garry added graciously, “Sorry about the fright”, and then with Craig at the wheel we drove away in our van.
We parked it at Craig’s place in the suburbs and then went around to Peter and Sylvana’s place near Earl’s Court.
Yes, that’s where they lived, talk about Australian stereotypes.
It was a curious living place, but then not if you were a Londoner, for they lived in a bay window.
London is a very crowded place.
The roads, as stated, just sort of grew in an organic octopus-like way across time and space, and the houses were much the same.
Peter and Sylvana lived at the front of a three story house that over the years had been slowly compartmentalised into smaller and smaller living places.
I myself was living in a similar place in north London and my room was so small that I had to walk sideways to get past my bed.
Peter and Sylvana had lucked into the plum spot, at the front of the house.
They lived in one room about the size of a car, with guests sitting on the ledge of the bay window.
There was a tiny, sorry, microscopic, kitchenette, and their bed filled up the rest of the floor space.
The fifth of us, Renee, was also there and so, in its way it was good training for the months to come, with all five of us jammed into a space about the size of our van.
We had some curry and made our plans.
We set a leaving date, sorted out where we were with money, then went our separate ways to our various accommodations.
And so finally the day came, we were out of the claustrophobia of London and on our way south the ferry at Dover.
We bought our tickets and then drove on board.
We stood on the rails and watched the channel flow by, until the horn sounded and we all scurried below to our cars.
We drove off the ferry and suddenly, schizophrenically, we were in France.
Like most, we had some adjustment-nausea.
First we had driven on to the ferry on the left, not we had to leave the terminal on the right.
That done, we joined the south flowing traffic for Paris.
Many have described French drivers, but I think it was best put by Peter Wherret in his car show, Torque, said Wherret: “You only have to look at traffic on the Champs-Elysees to know that not only did the French invent motor racing, they’re still at it.”
We were the slowest vehicle on that motorway to Paris by a wide margin.
The other drivers flew by us as blurs, the speed limit was listed as 130kph, but this was seemingly only used by the other drivers as a speed to enter petrol stations.
However, it was big wide freeway and we were able to pootle along quite happily in the slow lane.
We entered Paris and using our guide book found a campground.
We then set up and it was time to explore a bit.
But here already I began to come up against my “know why your going, before you go there” philosophy.
I didn’t like sight seeing, still don’t, I seem to more prefer doing things than just looking at things.
Actually, as we are to see, if I had any real awareness, I would have driven or flown straight to Benidorm and got drunk every day till my money ran out, but that was all ahead as well.
So we took ourselves to the place all visitors go first, the Eiffel Tower.
Up we went, observed the view, and this was indeed fine.
Then we came down and went to the Louvre, and it was here that I was to first observe that most recurrent part of European summer holidays, queues.
The line stretched out of the entrance and around the block, possibly finally ending in the outer suburbs of Paris.
I wanted no part of that, so while Sylvana, Renee and Peter, joined the line, Craig and I went off on our own to see a different exhibition.
I might add, I have never had any interest in art, due to a horrendous, dragon of an arts-and-crafts teacher I had in primary school, Mrs Ashelford.
She did everything possible to destroy a young child’s love of that subject.
She played favourites, which no teacher should ever do, it’s bad enough when it happens by accident, it’s deplorable when it’s done on purpose and everyone in the class knows who the favourites are.
She criticised everything I did, which I think is likewise reprehensible for art, maths you have to criticise and show the student when they have the wrong answer, otherwise they won’t learn.
But art in primary school should be an expression of wonder at the amazing world that the child is exploring.
Mrs Ashelford would abuse you forcibly if she couldn’t recognise what you had drawn.
So I became scared to do anything.
I might add, when I was very young my brother showed me something I thought quite amazing, how to draw a landscape.
With a series of overlapping triangles he made mountains, then in the middle he put overlapping semi-circles to make hills, and a few sinuous wriggles in the nearground made streams creeping out of the hills.
Once coloured, green for the hills, blue streams and white and grey for the mountains, it looked genuinely like a landscape painting done by a real artist.
So with this technique, I was now able to do art and not be screamed at by Mrs Ashelford.
However, talk about when you’re on a good thing stick to it, I then did that every time I was asked to do art.
While it kept me out of trouble with the dragon, I then began to come adrift when the teacher would ask us to do something different, like a portrait.
In second class, me aged seven, a, thankfully, softer voiced teacher, said, “Lachlan, whenever we do drawing, you always do the same thing, mountains, hills and streams. Why not put something different in? Like a cow eating the grass or something?”
Well, I tried, I couldn’t of course tell this gentler teacher that my always-the-same-drawings were yet another defence mechanism to prevent the dreaded Mrs Ashelford screaming at me, but I put in a cow, and I’ll never forget this teacher’s expression when I showed it to her, I know she wanted to say, “I thought you were going to draw a cow? What the fuck is that!”
But to her credit, she recognised that I had tried, and the odd four-legged object cropping the grass by one of my streams, was an attempt at least.
In the end my attitude to Art was best demonstrated by two TV shows, Futurama and Absolutely Fabulous.
In Futurama, one of the characters, Dr Zoidberg, gets $300 Earth dollars as part of a global stimulus package, and decided to spend it on something classy, art.
He goes into a gallery in New New York, walks in, pulls out his money and says to the attendant, “One art, please”.
Jennifer Saunders in ‘Ab Fab’, plays the fabulously wealthy Edina.
She is advised by her accountant to get some artworks for her office and home, so she goes down to an exclusive art gallery in Bond St.
The concierge comes to attend her, and says, “Good morning, madam, may I be of assistance?”
To which Edina replies: “I want some art.”
The concierge, replies, in a decidedly bemused fashion, “I’m sorry?”
And Edina says, “I want art. I just want to buy some art.”
“Oh well, we have some stunning pieces on display at the moment, would you care to browse?”
Edina nods and walks up to a collection of coat hangers on strings.
She turns to the concierge and says, “Is this Art?”
He says, “Yes, this is a stunning thought piece by radical German edge artist Horsten Klanmp”.
And Edina says, “That’ll do.”
So she buys it and has it brought to her house and installed.
Then her friend Patsy comes over to visit, sees the installation and says, “Is this the art?”
Edina says, “Yes, what do you think of it?”
Patsy stares for a moment and says, “I’m not sure, how much did it cost?”
To which Patsy replies, “Oh, well it’s fabulous then.”
Anyway, back to Paris.
Craig and I left the other three and went across town to see the Monet exhibition.
At least I think it was Monet, it was whoever did the painting with the lilies floating on the water.
This was actually a good move, not because either of us had much interest in art, but because there was no one else there.
We walked the largely silent, and gloriously air-conditioned halls, perused the art in a bemused fashion, then returned to the campground.
The others had seen the Mona Lisa and thought it only “OK”, mainly because it is quite a small picture and the room is always, always crowded, so they looked for a little while over the bobbing heads, and then left.
Now that I think about it, there must be other art works in the Louvre, but only genuine art lovers would know what they were.
We continued our sightseeing, we saw the palace of Versailles, I remember that, we took out second mortgages to eat, I remember that for sure, then after three days, we decided we had seen enough of Paris and began to go south.
But before we leave the French capital I’ll just say the thing I remember most is Jim Morrison’s grave, which Craig and I went to see one afternoon in Pere Lachaise cemetery.
A lot of famous people are buried there, Chopin, for one, but no one knows where his grave is, the most “popular” grave, I can’t think of a better way to put it, is that of Jim.
The circumstances of Jim’s death are still clouded, with those that were with him at the time, still under suspicion from hard core fans, but in essence he died of a drug overdose, heroin combined with heavy drinking.
Anyway, his grave was a tremendously moving experience for me, and was worth the trip to Europe for that alone.
I do not wish to compare myself with Jim’s greatness in any way, but at a very low level I have always felt myself a very Jim Morrison-esque character.
Well read, intelligent, creative, but massively, massively, self-destructive.
On at least four nights of heavy drinking I can think of, I nearly died.
Twice in near car accidents, once when I unforgiveably drove drunk, I came out the next morning and saw that my passenger-side front whell was flat and shredded, with white dust on the wall, and realised that I’d driven into a gutter last night, and had no recollection of it.
Once I got in a car with someone as drunk as me, and we nearly went over a cliff.
Once from alcohol poisoning, in which I luckily vomited for twelve hours and survived (Keith Moon, the drummer of The Who, was not so lucky, choking on his vomit after passing out), and once when I nearly drowned, having gone surfing when nearly too drunk to stand.
So I have a great affinity with Jim, and I guess I am lucky in the end that I received competent mental health treatment and am alive today.
To see that small, square stone in the ground, with simply ‘James Morrison, 1943-1971’ and a small Greek inscription, the meaning of which is still unclear, but most think it says something like: ‘by my own daemon’, was, as I say, massively sad.
Anyway, time to hit the road, and head for Spain.
It is hard to piece things together form this remove, it was 20 years ago, but most of the middle of France is a blank to me.
The next concrete thing I remember in the timeline of the journey is Bordeaux in the south, but somewhere in the middle of France, before we reached the capital of claret country, we had our first mechanical trouble.
Peter was driving and we came around a corner, and I, in the passenger seat, noticed him swing wide, he looked down with concern at the wheel and he had just started to say “I think there’s something wrong with the steering”, when we heard the telltale thump-thump-thump, of a shredded tyre.
We pulled over on this small, and thankfully little trafficked, road in the middle of rural France and surveyed the problem.
We got out the spare tyre and went about putting it on, when something Garry, the mechanic back in London had said came back to me.
As I’ve written quite extensively, I am, and always have been a cheapskate, and when Garry had given us the bill for ₤300, I had said to him, “could we have bought the parts and done it ourselves?” (A hopelessly, wildly, lunatically optimistic opinion of my mechanical skills, I might add.)
He had shaken his head and replied, “Well, I don’t think so. What’s more when we went to put the shocks on, there was something wrong with the wheel nuts, and it took three of us an hour, and with the use of a makeshift extended spanner to get the damn things off, you would never have done that on your own.”
And as I looked at the vehicle on the side of the road, I was glad to my cheapskate heart that we had had the shocks done In London, because even with that pre-treatment, just getting the wheel nuts off took every bit of combined strength Peter, Craig and I had.
But then with the wheel off we rolled the spare around and discovered our next problem, it was too big.
If the three still inflated wheels were thirty centimetres in diameter, the spare was forty.
However, we were exceptionally lucky because the new larger tyre had the same sized hub, so the stems fitted the holes, and after a bit of monkeying around we got the enlarged tyre under the wheel arch and in place.
We tightened the nuts and then set off, slanted off centre like a ship with no rudder lurching drunkenly into the harbour mouth, and began looking desperately for a village large enough to have petrol station and a mechanic.
Fortunately we found one, and he came out of his workshop, wiping his blackened hands on an even blacker rag.
He surveyed the wheel and then nodded, Garry fashion, then addressed us in French.
This was a problem as none of us spoke it, I had passable tourist Spanish, Craig had a bit of Italian, but the best French any of us had was of the “pen of my aunt is in the garden” variety.
In retrospect, the first person we should have booked for our trip to Europe was a language teacher, but there you go.
Anyway, we all stood there for a moment, and then our French mechanic friend, I’m guessing used to this sort of thing in the summer, took over.
He got went over to the wheel we had changed, front passenger side, and made a cutting motion with his hand, then he lead us around to the matching tyre on the other side, and made the same motion.
Then he lead us to the rear of the vehicle, pointed at the rear wheels and made a thumbs up motion, then he went back to the front and help up two fingers.
I suddenly grasped what he meant, I took a closer look at the front tyres, compared them with those on the rear, and guessed his meaning.
I turned to my friends and said in English, “I think, I’ve figured it out, he’s saying that we need to replace both front tyres as they’re shot, but the rear ones are Ok.”
I then showed my friends the treads on the rear tyres and compared them with those on the front.
Once pointed out it was quite obvious, so we all nodded our heads in agreement and I spoke to our mechanic friend, I held up two fingers and pointed to the front tyres.
He nodded and with sign language we all agreed we needed two tyres, and then passed to the recurrent question of European travel, “How Much?”, I said to the mechanic.
He got my meaning, but unable to pass on the information, he went back inside and got out his tyre catalogue.
He brought it back out, thumbing through the pages, then found the page for Volkswagen, ran his finger down the list and pointed at a certain tyre, the price was in francs, but Renee had a personal organiser with an exchange rate app on it, and we saw the price in pounds, it seemed reasonable, so we agreed the price.
Our mechanic friend went back inside, got to new tyres, brought them out, did the job and then we were ready to roll again.
With much thanking in French, “merky buckets (Merci Beaucoup)”, we drove away from his little workshop and headed south again.

Do you know what ‘circulation difficile’ means?
I do.
We were heading south-west from Paris, toward Spain, and thus the next major town on our route was Bordeaux.
We perfectly disorganised our arrival in Bordeaux for the afternoon peak hour, and as we began to skirt the city’s western arm this phrase was written on the electronic sign.
It was novel for a couple of reasons, it was actually the first time I had seen one of these traffic indicator signs, most famously represented in the Steve Martin movie, LA Story, and secondly, it was my first acquaintance with this French phrase.
Renee punched it into her little personal organiser’s translation app, and the response came back, ‘movement difficult’.
Of course by the time she had done that, we could have all told her what it meant.
The traffic was moving like treacle, and I think the reason it was so annoying for us was that we had already driven six hours that day.
No one likes being in traffic, but there is something about heavy traffic at the end of your driving day that makes it worse.
These days I live in a coastal resort town on NSW’s north coast, and we have the same issue here.
Before they put in the new super-duper roundabout and change system on the highway out of town, tourists used to report taking six hours to get from Ballina to Byron Bay, since this is a distance of 44k, that’s a long time.
And if you have already driven from Sydney, ten hours or so, then six hours in traffic when you have already done ten at the wheel is enough to cause gunfire.
Additionally, we weren’t even going to Bordeaux, but all the roads in the area were laid down by the Romans nearly two thousand years ago, and so every road in the area lead, if not to Rome, certainly to Bordeaux, and so we were stuck with it.
We inched along on the commuter expressway in the evening sun.
We sweated in our shorts, Craig, who was driving, developed RSI of the ankle from changing gear from first to second and back a hundred times an hour.
But eventually we got around the rim and were able to launch off the road to the south-west and the Spanish border.
However, the extra time we had spent in the traffic had brought dusk upon us, and so we had to go through the already loathed process of finding a campground in a strange city, in a foreign country, where none of us spoke the language.
‘Ou eh le camping?’ (Where is a campground?) was an expression we were already becoming familiar with, as we said it leaning out of the driving window.
However we found one, set up camp, already becoming tedious, bought some of the cheapest claret we could find, had dinner and few drinks, then hit the ground for sleep.

The next morning we were up early and made it to the Spanish border.
We were entering the north-eastern corner of  Spain, known as ‘wet Spain’.
Most of us have a picture of Spain being a vast brown, sun-baked plain, consisting largely of dirt, and that is generally true, but up here, where the coast of Europe makes a sharp turn run out of France for Spain and the bay of Biscay, the land is lush and green, as of an Ireland in the south.
It was actually raining as we crossed the border and headed for the county capital San Sebastian.
San Sebastian is a beautiful place, or perhaps, better put, I is a standard large city on a beautiful coast.
As we entered we passed two middle-aged people on a biking tour of Europe (I guessed), they had all their possessions in four panniers each on the front and backs of their bikes.
Anyway, they were riding into town in the rain, they were covered in mud, dripping wet, and neither of them had a smile on their face.
I mention them because tempers were starting to fray in the van, but looking at them we realised we were well off.
However, I then perpetrated a bit of cowardice that would lead to some more shortened tempers.
I had navigated this day from our campground of the night before outside Bordeaux, through the Spanish border, to our current location, the outskirts of San Sebastian.
But at this point, I was feeling pretty tired, so I said, “I need a bit of rest, can someone else take over the navigating?”
One of the others said “yes”, and so I handed over the map and lay back on my seat and let my eyes close.
It was cowardice because we were all tired, we’d been on the road for a week or so now, and also I spoke the best Spanish, which of course our map was written in, so in retrospect I should have kept navigating into the campground.
Anyway, I was lying back and slowly dozing off, when I heard the others trying to find out where we were on the map.
We passed a sign which said ‘cambio de sentido’, and I heard Peter say, “cambio de sentido, let’s see if we can find that on the map.”
In my dozing state, the phrase rang a bell, the arguments went on among my companions, and so I came awake again and grabbed my Spanish-English dictionary.
I looked it up, and it meant, literally, ‘change of direction’, or in this context, ‘detour’.
With a sigh, realising that if we were looking for a road called ‘cambio de sentido’ on the map we were going to be lost for a long time, I woke fully and agreed to take over the navigating again.
I got my dictionary, looked at the street names and got us to a campground not far away.
And since we’re on the topic of mixing up street names ina foreign language, I’ll just tell you a story told to me by my German friend, Martin the language expert.
Martin was asked to teach an English automotive engineer German, as the engineer was being sent to work on placement at the car company’s main plant outside Stuttgart.
However, as Martin told me, this fellow was one of those who just find Languages a closed book.
Marin studied with him intensively for six weeks, but at the end of that period, said Martin, he was still struggling with the ‘ein bier, bitte’ level of German.
Anyway, he sent him on his way to do the best he could, and the Englishman caught his flight to Stuttgart and booked into a hotel.
He then went outside and read the name of the street his hotel was on, then took a cab into town and had dinner.
Dinner over, he came outside and flagged a cab to take him back to the hotel.
When the cabbie asked him where to, the Englishman said his street name, ‘Eingang Strasse’.
The cabbie looked at him askance, as ‘eingang strasse’ means ‘one way street’.
However the story became a testament to German efficiency and helpfulness.
With the passenger not knowing where his hotel was or even what it was called, he drove him around to the police station.
Inside the cabbie told the desk sergeant his passenger’s story, then the sergeant asked the Englishman how long approximately his cab ride to the restaurant had been, conferred with the cabbie on where he had picked him up, then looked at the map and conjectured approximately where his hotel was, then the sergeant rang the hotels in the area until he found the right one, and was able to send the engineer home safe.

Back in San Sebastian we found our campground, set up the tent and the interior of the van for sleeping, then went to get some Spanish money.
This is a complicated enough procedure when dealing with a human, but we tried to do it through a bank machine.
Thus, I put my English bank card in and then tapped in my pin.
That went fine, but then of course the menu commands came up in Spanish.
So I took out my dictionary again and began to frantically look up the commands on the menu and then pressing the requisite buttons.
A queue formed behind us.
After some frantic shuttle finance, read machine, read dictionary, press button, I got through to receiving my pesetas 
I tucked them into my money pouch and then Craig wanted to get some money.
So we went through the same process.
The people in the queue began to get restive, to put it mildly, and I began to hear the phrase, ‘English bastards’ far too often for my comfort.
However, we got through that, but then with Peter, Renee and Sylvana wanting money as well, we decided to take a break before we got lynched.
So we let the locals through and once the line had cleared, then went through the process for the other three.
I should add, Australians are unknown in Europe, and so anyone of pale northern skin speaking English and causing a delay, is invariably labelled English, usually with an expletive prefix.
 That done we spent a nice three days in San Sebastian, relaxing after the rigours of crossing France in two days, then once more lit out for the south.
Once we were not very far south of San Sebastian, the green disappeared and we were in Spain proper.
And man, it was hot.
Our van was dark coloured, and the drive down to Madrid had the same feel I have read of people having who have driven the Nullabor.
A flat, seemingly endless brown plain stretched out, seemingly eternally in front of us, while behind the same view rescinded with glacial pace.
We stopped for meals in roadside villages that leant new meaning to the term dusty.
I remember one lunch where I ate something that might as well have been advertised as ‘eggs with dust’, as that was all I could remember tasting.
However, eventually we made the outskirts of Madrid and joined the next set of city bound slow-moving traffic in the unbearable summer heat.
What’s more, our map of Madrid was less than adequate.
For some reason we had a decent map of San Sebastian and its environs, but our only guide to the streets of Madrid was one page of our guide book, the species of which Bill Bryson, acerbically, and accurately, said should be called ‘Let’s Go Get Another Guide Book’.
Also, if the heat of the central Spanish plain had been bad, at least we had been moving at 80k an hour, and gaining some breeze from it, but now in the traffic of central Madrid, we were down to a crawl, and all of us inside the van were suffering.
On top of that, Kombis are air-, rather than, water-cooled, and so our van was beginning to show signs of strain.
I was having trouble changing gears, and I was noticing a distinct loss of power.
However, I put it down to the heat and the traffic and tried not to think about it.
But we got there, using our inadequate guide book map and our near expiring van.
The campground was not the coolly, shaded, riverbank, idyll that I had begun longing for in the traffic, but instead of piece of urban ground, dry, windswept and dusty.
But anything was better than moving another centimetre in the vehicle.
So we debussed, set up our camp, a task that was already becoming onerous, and then went up to the kiosk and had a Cerveza (Beer, for the uninitiated).
I’ve had a lot of beer in my time, as you all know well know, but I can assure you that beer was one of the top ten.
So at the top of page twelve we come neatly to the end of the chapter, and since I can’t honestly remember what we did in Madrid, I have no recollection of seeing any sights, so instead I’ll tell you the story of the woman with the suitcase.
The Madrid Cityrail station that those in the campground used was across a fairly major suburban road, four lanes at least, and to get to it, you had to use an overhead walkway.
This walkway was about six or seven metres above the road, and the steps up and down were quite the workout.
The next morning when we went into town there was woman, an attractive youngish, middle-aged type standing at the bottom of the stairs with a large suitcase.
She obviously needed help, and as the five of us approached, Craig stopped and asked her if she wanted help carrying the case up the stairs and down the other side.
She appraised us for a moment or two, then said, “No, Thank You”, in Spanish.
We thought this a bit odd, so I added, “Are you sure, we are going to the station.”
But she demurred again, and with a repeated “No, thank you”, waved us on our way.
So off we went and went into Madrid and looked about.
When we came home that evening, she was gone, so we figured naturally enough that she had got some help with her case, and caught the train, though why our help was not required, we couldn’t begin to speculate on.
The next morning came and we headed for the station, and she was back, standing at the base of the stairs with her bag.
This morning I was with only Craig, and we once again asked her if she needed help, once again she said “no”.
So we went off once more, that evening she was gone.
But the next morning she was back, so with curiosity finally getting the better of me, I asked at the campground kiosk about her.
She was a prostitute.
Turns out prostitution is illegal, and heavily frowned upon in catholic Spain, so this woman had come up with an ingenious solution, she lurked at the base of the stairs with her bag, and then when a single male came along, and offered to help, she accepted and used this to get some custom.
As far as I could tell she didn’t want our help on either morning, because we weren’t rich.
I had been wearing the same shorts for a week now, and it showed, while Craig, had looked cleaner, but was still clearly a penniless backpacker.
And as I came through on my second pass of editing, I re-read that bit about the woman with the suitcase, and it reminded me of something else I saw in Madrid, that was even less wholesome.
At Martin’s direction, I had begun reading comic books in tandem with my language dictionaries, to learn, at least how to read the languages, and in Madrid I needed some fresh comic books.
So I found a bookstore in the heart of town and went in and asked about Garfield comics.
I was directed to the comic section I went browsing along the section looking for the characteristic ginger and black stripes of Garfield, when I saw a comic book with an oddly contorted human couple on the cover.
I took a closer look and realised it was a hard core pornographic comic.
It was such an appalling thing to be on display in a section, comic books, devoted mostly to children.
I opened it and looked inside, and simply couldn’t believe my eyes, inside women with breasts like nose cones of Polaris missiles and men with muscles like Schwarzenegger engaged in the most explicit acts.
I was frankly shaken.
So I put it down, found some much more wholesome comic books of Garfield, Tintin, and some Calvin and Hobbes, made my purchases and left.
But as I write I am once more driven to the remarkable lack of logic that goes with a country heavily dominated by religion.
The greatest woman in biblical history, Mary Magdalene, was a prostitute, yet in Spain prostitution is illegal, so much so that a practitioner had to lurk by a road overpass with a suitcase as an excuse, while just twenty blocks away, hard core pornography is sold in the comic book section of bookstores.
So I guess that’s all for Madrid, a city of a thousand years of culture, and all I remember are XXX comic books and the prostitute with a suitcase that was big enough to hide in if the cops came along.
Perhaps that’s where she got the idea in the first place.
Next time we move onto the southern Spanish coast around Barcelona, then back across the south of France and onward for the Brindisi ferry to Greece.