The Dordogne with a Difference.

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© Linda McLean 

(Reprinted with permission)

 

It is cold in Scotland in winter. There is no doubt about that. It is even colder for people who lack the ability to keep themselves warm through exercise, or walking. That is, those in wheelchairs. It is therefore part of the winter's exercise, that the winter nights are spent dreaming of somewhere warm...

Some years ago, I was friendly with a civil servant and his friend, and both were confined to wheelchairs -Phil and Roddy. They both wanted to go to the Dordogne, but for various reasons, needed someone to escort and assist them. Phil could drive, as could Roddy, but at the time I could not. However, one mad winter's night, we decided we would all go camping in the Dordogne. I had been several times before to a very friendly campsite, and I was sure that the owner would keep a place very near the toilets for the use of the disabled.

In the spring it had been duly booked and confirmed, and we readied all our stuff. We were towing a trailer tent and were sailing from Portsmouth to Le Havre, because one of the guys had friends there, and it meant we could stay the night for nothing. The car goes on the ferry for nothing if you are a member of the Disabled Drivers Club. So, that meant a cheap start to the adventure.

We arrived at Le Havre, and enjoyed our visit there tremendously. We were made very welcome, and had enormous fun blowing up the inflatable lilos, which were to be beds for the guys.

We left early next morning for our long trip south. It was almost eight o'clock in the evening when we approached the camp site, and I was getting very worried. I had to put a trailer tent up myself. I didn't know if there was going to be enough light left...and then, as the campsite came into view, I saw that the spot that I had specifically requested to be reserved for our use, had been taken. There was a pink caravan on it.

 I did not believe it. "Victor Meldrew" (a very irate TV character who loses his temper at anything) rose up within me, and I would have fought with anybody or nobody.

As we drove into the campsite, my rehearsed French was improving in leaps and bounds. I do not like fighting in a foreign language - it is much more difficult- so I decided to be very coldly angry -to articulate slowly and well. As we approached the site owner, I had probably reached about minus 20 degrees Centigrade mentally.

Before I got a chance to say a word, he welcomed me with open arms, kissed me on both cheeks, told me he had been waiting for us.....Slightly stunned, I responded, "What about the pink caravan?"

He literally hooted with laughter. Oh, yes...  The pink caravan - "la petite caravan rose". It had been put there to mark our spot, so nobody would take it. Feeling suitable chastened, I thanked him profusely, and said that I must get the tent up before nightfall.

"Do not worry - it is already done!" he responded. With a whistle he summoned his four sons, and the tent went up in the wink of an eye.

And so we were installed. The campsite worked well, even although it was on a steep hill. The part that we were using beside the toilet block was level and well maintained. There was a barn atop the hill, which was as a gathering place each evening. In the barn you met your neighbours drank wine and there were lots of games for the kids, who learned amazingly to play each others games even with no knowledge of their opponent's language. It was a warm and friendly place. The guys were the only ones allowed to take the car up there. 

The days were warm and the nights full of fun.

There was a little van came to the site every day to deliver fresh bread, and we quickly got into the habit of croissants and hot chocolate in the morning. Occasionally we had to go into town to restock our fridge, but apart from that, life was simple. Sunbathing down by the lake most days with friends we had made on the campsite. I would read part of a book during this time, and then condense what I had read and give a brief synopsis over tea, as there was no television. It was interesting how well this was received in this format. I always waited to see if they would ask, and they always said "Well, what happened today to Becky then?" or some other character in the book, and so I would launch into my narrative. This was so successful that there was quite a fight over the second book I had to read.

It was always fun watching new British arrive, because there was so much to tell them. "Market day is on a Wednesday" I informed a new couple, "but you have to be careful, because the town goes one way on a Wednesday."

They looked at me in disbelief.

"It can't go one way for one day only!"

"Oh, yes it does!" I assured them.

They chose not to believe me, and I watched these poor souls trying to drive the wrong way through the streets, being attacked with the odd bread stick by every Frenchman in sight.(I now knew why it was called a "baton".)

The owner had known me over the years, and if there was a problem with English, the person was sent to me. So it happened that Jennifer appeared one Saturday morning at the tent with her Mum. "She has terrible earache," her Mum explained. "We have got the address of the local doctor from the site owner, but none of us speak French. Would you come with us?"

From just one look at the child, I could see this was a hospital job, and the G.P. would not be able to do anything apart from refer on. There goes my Saturday! I thought.

So, we all went to the doctor, who did as I had predicted, thought it was an abscess, and sent us to hospital in Perigeuex. We set off, Mum and dad in the front and Jennifer crying beside me in the back...

Then, suddenly, there was an almost audible pop, and Jennifer looked startled. "Something happened."  She informed me.

"Let's see, then." I asked. Sure enough the abscess had burst, and the pain had gone. Jennifer was now quite happy.

"We had better continue anyway, seeing as how we have been referred," said the parents, and I agreed. The thought of a long wait in Accident and Emergency did not cheer me. However, the French do things differently. Instead of waiting in a general queue, once a G.P. has phoned the hospital, a Consultant comes out. You go straight to the Ear, Nose and Throat department and are seen instantly. There is no wait in Casualty. The room was clean, shining, and pristine. We would happily have eaten from the floor. What a difference from our hospitals at home.


THE EXPEDITION

 

Then both Phil and Roddy thought it would be interesting to see the "wet" caves in the region. I duly read up about them, found that they were very cold, and that the boat trip lasted an hour. There was no mention of the depth. So we arrived, with lots of extra clothing, unloaded, and got the guys out. I was regarded with some disbelief when I tried to book them on the tour.

"It is very difficult!" I was warned.  "There are a lot of steps"

"How many?" I wanted to know

"We've never counted. Hundreds."

AH. What did they want to do? I wondered.

"Give it a bash!" was the answer. (As if I didn't know!)

Going down was not a problem. We could leave the chairs at the top, and Phil was able to swing his legs clear of any approaching step. So, with one arm round my neck, and the other on the railing we ran down the stairs - and I saw what they meant by difficult. This was going to be tough going the other way! Getting into the boat was also tricky, but manageable. The commentary was only in French, so I spent the next hour interpreting.

I headed back up for Roddy, but someone had watched my performance, and decided that they could do likewise with him. So that was easy.

 

 

However, it was one of the hardest things I have ever done getting back up. If you know the Scott Monument in Edinburgh, or the Eiffel Tower in France it felt like an upside down version of that. Using the same method as I had going down, I could have sworn when I was only halfway up that this was further than we had come on the descent. I struggled on; very glad that the same person that saw Roddy down was taking responsibility for getting him back up. He had been bright enough to enlist help, though and had formed a fireman's chair.

After all this, some refreshment was called for and we all went into a local hostelry. The guys wanted beer, and I wanted a white wine with blackcurrant -a Kir.

I duly went up to the bar and ordered "Deux bieres et un Kir, s'il vous plait" I was given two beers and a spoon!( Cuilliere)

 

THE AMERICAN

The campsite we were staying on was very like the Highlands of Scotland very quiet and sedate, with lovely scenery. When, on a particular morning, an American came roaring up in a sports car and informed the owner that he had:

"I've just flown into Bordeaux, and hired myself a car, a tent and a woman!"  the news went round like wildfire. Of course, with our position next to the toilet block, she had to bounce her way past our tent frequently, and I could watch the guys' eyes glaze over and the jaws drop of my friends. Whatever activity was being pursued was abandoned for that short while - until she re-emerged and bounced back again. For some reason this whole event was marked by a deep sigh from the guys when it was finished - but there was always next time. This was the strangest thing I have ever encountered on a campsite. They did not seek to socialise with anybody, nor did anybody approach them. They were left in splendid isolation, which is perhaps, what they wanted!

 

HOMEWORK

Another incident that happened is worth recording. One day, as we were seated by the tent, some British people came and started talking to us. They were very kind, and we started the general sort of chinwag that happens on holiday. Eventually, they asked the question of the men: "Do you, er, um, manage to do any work at home?"

Roddy proudly replied, quick as a flash: "Oh, yes. I open the matchboxes and Phil fills them!"

They had responded with: "Ah! Very good!" before they had time to think. The conversation only went in fits and starts after that. They scuttled off embarrassed.

I am still unsure about this incident. While I understand the frustrations of someone like Roddy. Having developed polio as an infant, he had fought to be treated as normal all his life. He achieved staying in elementary schooling when it was almost unheard of, because neither he nor his mother would take no for an answer. He had to fight even harder. for secondary education - but he was bright and popular with  his peers.

He then spent his university years being carried up and down stairs to the Study. This obviously meant that he had to wait until one of the students  was ready to go, and similarly on the way back down. Simple things, like when he would be home, could never be stated with confidence.

 On his graduation, he felt that everything had been worthwhile, as he was invited to  join a law firm. As he increased in experience, it was now within his grasp to become a Partner. To his utter incredulity, however, he found that he could not be a Partner because "it would not look good".

From that day onwards, he always insisted that it was the able-bodied who had the problem.......

 When we complain about Equal Opportunities today, I remember how much this chap gave, how hard he tried, and how unresponsive we were as a Society.

48 HOURS

 

There was only one problem, from my point of view.  As week after week went by, I was more and more uncomfortable sleeping at night - I felt as if I were falling out the bed. This was pooh-poohed by both the guys, who decided between them that I was going slightly soft in the head.

 So that was all right then.

Eventually, after three weeks, it was time to make the homeward journey. The reason why I had felt I was falling out of bed became abundantly clear - we had a flat tyre on the trailer tent. Moreover and inadvertently, we had chosen to travel on a holiday weekend. We did not have a spare wheel for the trailer. (A point I had also raised earlier, to no avail)

"Let's just use foam," suggested Phil.

I became slightly apoplectic. "Foam will never last till we get back to Scotland!" I insisted.

"Well, we haven't much choice - everything is shut!"

"Will you please just take a detour through the town - there must be something open?" I appealed

"Absolutely not. Our ferry leaves at 7a.m. tomorrow. It is now 4p.m. By the time I have driven half way up France, and we have stopped for dinner and a bit of a relaxation, we will need the overnight time to get to the ferry early"

(Getting to the ferry early was important, so that the car could be placed as near the lift as possible.)

Unhappy, but resigned, I got into the car.

 

We had reached the Loire valley, and had a wonderful meal. The evening was mild, and there was singing and dancing taking place on the riverbank. We drank in the relaxing, happy scenes thirstily, after a long day in the car. It was so beautiful, with the lights playing on the water, and the reflection of the colours of the dancers, and the music was lovely. Reluctantly, we all loaded up again and set off for our final stage. It was at this point that I wished everything would stop forever. Them suddenly, just after we set off again:

Pssssssssssssst!

11p.m., The tyre gave out, it was now and this was difficult. How did you call the AA in France? Nobody except me spoke French, so the boys both looked to me to get them out of this spot. I felt like Queen Victoria, only I was seriously "not amused". I managed to explain our predicament to some local youngsters, who assisted me in making the phone call. I was by this time so irate, that it was not possible for me to sit beside the guys in the car.  I sat on a wall beside the river, swinging my legs, and trying to regain control of my temper. I remembered an old adage, oft quoted by a friend: " There's no point in losing your temper, you've just got to find it again!"
In due course, a very helpful man arrived, who explained what I already knew - we needed a new tyre, definitely. The next town was thirty miles away. There would not be a shop open until the morning, but he gave very simple and clear directions of how to find it.

"Drive slowly" he commanded. If you drive slowly, it might be possible..."

However, a few kilometres later, the tyre went flat again.

"That's it!" announced Phil, now furious. "We are not staying here. Just take the whole wheel off the trailer, and we will drive to the shop and be there when he opens."

"It is the middle of the night and pitch dark. Are you sure you want me to attempt to get the offside wheel off just now? I asked. "I won't be easily seen by other drivers. "We have missed our ferry anyway."

"Yes - take it off!" was the command.

So I leapt to it.

2a.m.

We drove off into the night leaving our stricken trailer tent abandoned.

A very sticky and sweaty night spent with everyone sleeping in the car. We all woke up in various stages of grumpiness, and awaited the tyre shop opening and waited.....and waited.....and waited.

9a.m., the adjoining record store opened. We asked when the tyre facility was opening, but he was unsure. The tyre place usually opened first, he said.. If he was not open now, he doubted that he would.

So, we headed into town, to Tourist Information. Tourist Information insisted that I did not need a tyre repair shop: I needed a caravan shop! I denied this vigorously, but they would not call anyone who had anything to do with tyres. It didn't much matter at the end of the day - everything was shut for the holiday weekend.

Apparently, my face spoke volumes as I approached the car. As things had proceeded from bad to worse, I was treated with more caution. The guys very meekly asked:  "Where to?"

"Take me to the Police!" I instructed. We drove there in silence.

I had really no idea now what I needed to ask for in French, and I was so upset, that it was difficult to sort out my thoughts. On arrival at the police station there was an older man at the window who was obviously very excited and agitated about something, and giving the officer a great deal of grief, which gave me time to study the various posters on the walls, and get my brain back into French again. Suddenly, I saw it - "service d'urgence" - emergency service.

When the older man had gone, I approached the gendarme, and as clearly as I could, while holding onto my anger very tightly, asked:
"There- must-be- an- emergency service- for -tyres- in -this- country- even- on- a public-holiday!"

"But, of course!" was the defensive reply. "Just a hundred metres down the road."

I left triumphant, that now at long last, the end was in sight. (I believed)

At the garage we were asked: "Did we want a new tyre or a new wheel?"

"New wheel" Phil decided. He would keep the old one as a spare.

As we had the old wheel with us, there were no problems about dimensions...

Then there was the problem about converting pounds per square inch into isobars. Fortunately, I had a book handy, and I spent some time double checking the figures: 3 isobars should do it.

10.30a.m., and we headed south again to get the trailer. I went to attack the problem with gusto, but found to my despair, that the new wheel, while the correct dimensions, had only three holes for bolts: our previous one had four. This new wheel would therefore not fit. Fortunately, we had kept the old wheel as a spare. But

we were now in serious difficulties. Nobody had any money left, and we were not even going to make the 5p.m. ferry unless we could get moving. Furthermore, the garages all shut for two hours starting at 12m.d. and we needed the new tyre on the old wheel.

"Right, guys!" I said. "It is time to go for the sympathy vote." I got them both out in their wheelchairs, and they sat and looked as pathetic as they could at the side of the road. It was not long before a couple stopped. Now I had  to explain the problem. We needed that tyre, but on that wheel, we needed it quickly, because we had to catch a ferry.... The couple that had stopped left in a cloud of dust with our various tyres, wheels etcetera, obviously on a mission.

11a.m.We were kicking our heels. I went for a short walk, for some space. I met a farmer, who indicated the trailer tent, and said: "I was up early this morning, and I saw your trailer, so I came back and said to my wife, someone has had a puncture." I had obviously been too angry for too long, because I remember distinctly thinking: "Gosh, there is a genius hiding in the backwoods of France" - such was my frame of mind.

I responded graciously that we had problems since the middle of last night. He then asked, literally: "Would you like to come and wash your hands in my garden?"

I was very puzzled, not having had many invitations like this. It was obviously not in the same category as "Would you like to come up and see my etchings?" My hands, I suddenly realised, were very dirty with tyres and wheels, so I agreed to go with him.

We entered his garden through an old wooden swing gate, and there in pride of place, surrounded by the most beautiful floral display, was an old hand pump. The water was lovely. He then asked if I had managed to have any breakfast. I had to confess that I had not. He produced three massive tomatoes - I had never seen anything like them - and instructed me to take them and share them with my friends.

12 Midday So, I returned, in a much better mood, to find the French couple had returned, the mission had been accomplished, and they helped me to sort the wheel. I was so grateful, and we had so little to give them by way of thanks.

We set of yet again, this time very aware that the clock was ticking, and we had nothing left for food or drink. We had to make the ferry.

 4.55p.m: We screeched into the dock at Le Havre with five minutes to spare - but not good news. This meant we were the last car to load, and so were furthest away from the lifts. How were we going to manage? However, with help it was done. We unloaded the wheelchairs, avoided all bonnets, bumpers, windscreens, while we lifted them towards the elevator. We got them open and ready and then we went back one by one  to carry the guys  over the same assault course.  Now, how were we going to co-ordinate getting off? This is the busiest time for the staff and the passengers. I suggested that we perhaps wait until the coast was clear of all other traffic, and then come down.  This seemed to meet with general, if casual, agreement.

We sailed, and arrived at Portsmouth at 11p.m. absolutely exhausted. It had been impossible to get any rest, as the boat was extremely busy and noisy. Our exit strategy worked well, and we were just psyching ourselves up for the next part of the trip when the Customs flagged us down.

1a.m. It is really difficult to explain now what I felt, apart from that I had somehow accidentally entered a comedy strip.  Customs Officers need to be taken seriously, however, and everything had to come to bits.  If I had had time I would simply have sat down and cried. I was very grateful that I had packed everything in the trailer tent, and the only thing in the boot was toiletries and wheelchairs.

I opened the boot, and the Customs Officer doing the inspection was immediately taken aback. He realised that the occupants could not exit the car.

"I'm sorry," he explained. "But I am being overseen" he indicated a camera.

"I will make this as painless as possible."  Once he had dismantled everything possible, prodded about in the petrol tank, asked an amazing range of questions, taken the cooker and trailer section apart, he let us go. He did help to put it all back again (door panels, etc.,), for which I was extremely grateful, because I know that strictly speaking, they are not obliged to replace anything they remove.

We tried to make up lost time, but both drivers were too tired to be safe, and eventually pulled in to the side of the road for a sleep.

4.30a.m. We took off again, keen to miss rush hours, but it was very slow going. Perhaps because of the levels of tiredness, neither driver was confident. We arrived home 48 hours after our departure, with not one of these hours spent in a bed, and wondering when we were going to get a holiday!

© Linda McLean

 

 

 

 

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