Baths, Bowls and Bogs

You can have too much choice in life. We are in the throes of browsing for bathroom parts. In the showroom there is a plethora of porcelain, sparkling white and clamouring to be purchased. Whereas in the seventies the choice would have been all about colour-Pampas? Whisper Peach? Avocado? These days it is the shape you must consider. Take basins. There is a trend for bowl-shaped basins perched on top of dinky cupboards-sometimes ‘his ‘n hers’. It prompts a vision of the morning ablutions, a harassed couple; he is shaving, flicking flecks of foam with abandon as she applies her lipstick-a recipe for a squabble. No. We are opting for an old favourite here-plain, rounded basin on a white pedestal. It is also the cheapest. This is no accident.

Toilets, then. As a very young child in rural Wiltshire I’d make my way out of the house and up the garden towards the run that accommodated the hen house where there was a rustic, timber shed with a rickety door. Inside was a bench in which two holes had been made, one larger and one child-sized. It allowed a child and an adult to sit in companionable contemplation whilst performing their bodily functions. A thick wad of cut newspaper hung suspended on a string from a nail in the wall. This, together with a tin bath in front of the fire in the kitchen is what constituted our bathroom facilities. At night there was an ornate chamber pot tucked discreetly under my bed to avoid hazardous, dark forays down the garden. I wonder what the constructor of the garden privy would think if they were to wander around a bathroom showroom today.

Now most of us in the developed world at least, are lucky enough not to have to walk outside to an old shed with a wooden seat to do the necessary. Not so in many countries where an outside privy would be considered and un-dreamt of luxury; the only option being an open field. Years of camping holidays taught me that there are worse things than having to nip behind a bush  to relieve oneself although most camp sites now have glorious, tiled, heated blocks-often with piped [no pun meant] music to boot. One flower-adorned, Swiss chalet style building in Germany’s Black Forest sports a dog shower that would put most people’s bathrooms to shame and the children’s bathing option is a masterpiece of tiled, underwater cavern complete with mermaids and sea creatures.

Back in the showroom we ponder wall-mounted, square-ish, close-coupled or bog [no pun] standard? We select the standard. It is the cheapest. This is no accident. On to the taps, where an array of designs awaits, including the standard. Toilet seats? It’s tricky. The seat shape must match the toilet shape. The French avoid this problem by having no seats. You can’t complain, since many of their toilets are still the ‘squatty’ kind-that is- square porcelain trays with central holes and places for your feet. I think I’ll be a man next time…




Not Keeping Up

In July 2013 I wrote a post titled ’To Keep up or not to Keep up’ about the tricky business of making yourself presentable and the relationship between age and length of time taken on this activity.

So how is this developing now that two years have elapsed? I must confess, reader that interesting developments are taking place which indicate to me that ageing is truly underway. Why do I think this? Is it because the length of time has elongated further? Is it because failing eyesight disguises many of the defects I previously sought to conceal? No. It is chiefly because I am ceasing to be bothered.

                Allow me to explain. If you consider appearance versus comfort to be on some kind of sliding scale, then as you become older you are more interested in comfort than appearance. This is where ‘couldn’t care less’ begins to kick in, for example:

  • Footwear. Never having been a fan of ‘stiletto’ type heels the search for acceptable occasion shoes continues to be a problem. In everyday life I resort to any kind of flat shoe that will accommodate the soft gel pads I am obliged to wear in order not to be crippled by mere walking.
  • De-hairing. I am both increasingly short-sighted and clumsy. Leg shaving in the shower is a haphazard and often gory affair, the results of which are less alluring than the au natural, hirsute look.
  • Clothing. The sliding scale is graphically illustrated here. Close-fitting, skimpy and diaphanous, once slung on with casual abandon gave way to wider straps, loose and opaque then sleeves and roomy. Bikini became swimsuit became avoid-the-water.
  • Make-up. I have never been prone to leaping out of bed in the mornings and setting to with a bag full of cosmetics, preferring the ‘scrub-up-ok’ approach of saving make up for outings of the evening kind. Once we are underway in our camper van on an extended trip I rarely glance into a mirror. I can heartily recommend going for weeks without looking at yourself-it is totally refreshing and relaxing.
  • Hair. Aha! Hair is possibly the one area where I’ve continued to hang on to any shred of concern over appearance. I still cling to the illusion that I have colour in my locks, to the point where I actually have no clue as to how grey I’ve become. I’ve made the concession to become blonde-ish. The overall effect is of ‘mouse’. When I turned 60 I posed the idea of succumbing to grey to Husband, who rubbished the idea [although he sports his own grey topping-an example of distinguished for men versus frumpy for women].

It remains to be seen how ‘couldn’t-care-less’ progresses. What next? Forget hair-brushing? Give up on the need for a daily shower? Stick to nightwear? [I must qualify this by mentioning that I don’t own any nightwear at present]. Stay in bed? Ah yes-of course-death…

A Bucket Seat Full of Cinematic Musing

It is film award season. Oscars, Golden Globes, ceremonies, red carpets, gowns, overblown, tearful speeches, lovies, tabloid bitching. What fun!

Most the world has adopted the term ‘movie’ these days and although I have stepped cautiously into the use of the word, ‘film’ [if I’m honest] is still my word of choice. I say this because ‘movie’ is what I regard as an Americanism.

I have apologise to American readers here, right at the start of this post, since it will seem as if I am anti-American, which I am not; it is simply that growing up, the terms I was used to hearing were ‘film’, ‘flicks’, ‘the pictures’ and sometimes-‘flea-pit’.

My earliest experiences of going to ‘the pictures’ were treats, to be enjoyed during holidays-or as an escape from relentless rain on one of our family camping jaunts [described in a previous post]. Although there were earlier visits to the cinema, the first film I can recall is seeing ‘Swiss Family Robinson’, the 1960 Disney version, in ‘glorious technicolor’. It was a captivating adventure romp involving shipwreck, pirates, an island, treehouses, wild animals and a dramatic rescue.

As an adolescent, trips to the cinema were at first thrilling first outings alone with friends, then more adventurous attempts to flout censorship laws by getting in to see films we were too young for. It was more about the preparation than the activity, a lengthy Saturday afternoon with cosmetics and wardrobe choices-memorably to get into ‘Cathy Come Home’, a ‘gritty realism’ film about homelessness but containing a birth scene, which I am ashamed to say was the main reason for our attendance.

Soon after this, cinema-going took a new turn with the film itself becoming immaterial, the principal motive being getting ‘a boy’ to take you. This objective, I seem to think was rarely an unbridled success, since some assignations resulted in ‘no-shows’ and those boys who did turn up would have arranged to meet inside the cinema in a bid to escape paying for two tickets.

The cinemas were vast auditoria with prickly upholstery, intermissions, ‘B’ films and Pathé News.

Later I became a fan of thrillers, with Bond a clear favourite, although Sean Connery was, for me the only conceivable choice for the lead and all successors paled in comparison. I also loved the ‘Doctor’ films, mild comedies with gorgeous Dirke Bogarde starring [no one knew he was anything but heterosexual then].

What did most of these films have in common? They were either British made, or were dominated by British actors.

These days I rarely visit the cinema, since Husband seems to dislike film-going. I tried ‘Sky Movies’ but not being a fan of rom-coms, cartoons and action-hero movies I found nothing I could watch! I have, however discovered the joys of ‘Blinkbox’-a streaming system that allows me to catch up on the flicks I’ve missed. Now all I have to do is think what they are.

Scotland is another Country

My early holidays as a young child were camping trips taken with my parents and my two brothers to locations around the British Isles, staying at farms-there was no such facility as a camp site-and pitching tents in a corner of a field.

We travelled, all five squeezed into one of the various small vehicles my father procured-starting with a little, old black Ford. Packing was an art form in which only my father amongst us was skilled [apparently]. The tents [ex-army acquisitions] went on to a roof rack together with our ex-army kapok sleeping bags [camouflage design] which had been cut down to child size by my mother on her treadle sewing machine. Then there was a ‘Bluet’ cooking stove in a tin box plus all our enamel plates, cups and dishes. Any leftover space housed our clothing-shorts and T shirts plus one jumper-oh and pyjamas of course.

We would have to get up in the dark, small hours to undertake the journey, since motorways had not been conceived and stop in lay-bys where my father would get out and set up the Bluet to make tea. My mother struggled with the stove, pumping to get the spirit fuel going and famously throwing it over a fence when the flame shot forth terrifyingly. Much later, having reached the destination he had selected [Wales, Devon, The Peak District, The Lake District] we would stop at a likely farm and request a space for our very basic tents-an arctic ‘bell’ tent and a home-made construction from poles and sackcloth he’d cobbled together to be our ‘toilet’ tent. He would dig a neat, square hole and erect a seat made from 4 struts and a timber frame-to sit on and carefully backfill and replace the turf after use.

Once we travelled to Scotland, an intrepid adventure for the time. My memories are dominated by the mist and drizzle that masked every view, the night we slept in a milking parlour due to the inclement weather [I could feel the drainage channels through the thick kapok of my sleeping bag] and the eyrie, plaintive bagpipe melody drifting through the fog over Culloden Field, where a brutal and bloody battle was fought.

We camped in the Highlands with a view of Ben Nevis. My father fulfilled his burning desire to bathe in a mountain stream by moonlight, an event which, for some inexplicable reason we were all taken along to witness but had no appetite to share; the Scottish weather not lending itself to this kind of romance.

We know the outcome of Scotland’s attempt to sever the umbilical. Scotland seemed foreign enough to me then, without the need for independence and still does, in the same way that the USA feels foreign. There is more to unfamiliarity, to foreigness, than a different language.

Smaller is more beautiful…

                In a somewhat treacherous and hypocritical move, we have executed a kind of ‘upgrade’ of our travel vehicle and are now using a slightly larger camper van. I say this because I’m aware that I posted on the pecking order and the relative sizes of travel vehicles at around this time last year. We were always the smallest unit in the village, the runt of the litter, dwarfed by the gargantuan motor-homes that surrounded us. The ironic outcome of this change is that we are still the smallest camper van wherever we go, owing I presume to the fact that everyone else has acquired a larger one also.

                Husband mourns the tiny van and was reluctant to exchange it for the current home-on-wheels. I accept it is trickier to manoeuvre and cannot be used as an extra car at home, but the advantages are undeniable. It has a large, comfortable bed constructed from the two plush sofas lining the walls, a walk-in shower and toilet cubicle, a cooker complete with oven, swish windows complete with blinds and pull up insect screens, skylights and a wondrous amount of storage. All this luxury is quite enough two people. It makes me a little curious to know why other couples would need such enormous wheeled dwellings. And how much must it cost in fuel? And where on Earth do they keep it, assuming they have a bricks-and-mortar house elsewhere?

                How bizarre it is that in the present day, when technological advances seem concentrated on producing ever smaller devices- tiny ‘watch’ style internet consoles, Google’s strange glasses with internet screen [won’t everyone be bumping into each other?] etc, other items become larger and larger. TV screens, lattes, beds, cruise ships, aeroplanes, McDonalds’ meals and people are growing bigger by the day.

                Wouldn’t make more sense for the collected, obvious genius behind such marvellous and desirable, tiny objects such as slimmer tablets and phones to direct their talents into technology that reduces our need for so much power to use them?

                The French have constructed a cunning new law for owners of motor-homes so massive that little cars needed to be towed behind them. A HGV licence is necessary for the additional vehicle to be hauled along behind the mother ship. The lack of these small cars rolling along behind is starkly noticeable, although how the inmates are coping with their daily needs is not altogether clear. For us, little in this respect has changed. We shop in between one destination and another, we park up, we free our bikes from the back and use them to collect what we need. We also get to cycle around the lanes in the Provencal sunshine looking at the rural landscape and stopping at an occasional hostelry for a glass of vin [me] or a beer or two [Husband].

                We have learned not to dash around ticking off sights in an ‘if it’s Wednesday it must be Rome’ way, getting to know a small area; the beautiful, medieval villages, the vineyards and the orchards-currently clouded with pink blossom. Small [even if a modicum bigger] really is better.

Going Dutch

                We have arrived to the environs of Amsterdam. The last time we visited this compact but beautiful capital city was a number of years ago, despite having travelled in the Netherlands to some extent. Our last Amsterdam visited included a comfortable hotel stay near the centre. This time we have made the bold step of driving here in the campervan, despite the autumnal weather.

                Amsterdam boasts remarkable architecture and a network of canals, as many North European cities do, and like all of the Netherlands [which benefits from a flat terrain] has developed a magnificent system of bike paths. As I’ve mentioned before, the bicycle rules here, taking precedence over both motor vehicles and pedestrians, which is lucky since we have not only brought our bikes with us, but yours truly continues to be lame from foolish activities such as jogging.  Nevertheless we are here to watch a plucky family member undertake the Amsterdam marathon and provide whatever support we can, from clapping and whooping as he dashes past in a blur, to hearty congratulations and beer on completion.

                The campsite here in Amstelveen, a satellite of Amsterdam, is clean, modern and comfortable, with heated wash blocks, hard standing for motorhomes, affable, friendly staff and plenty of useful information. But Amstelveen is an odd, characterless area. We stumbled out to try and find the ‘centre’, hoping for a bank and perhaps a hostelry where we might enjoy an early evening drink. There are miles of new, pristine housing estates, neatly laid out and incorporating cycle ways, patches of grass with goal nets, basketball courts, picnic benches. There is no litter or dog excrement. There are also no newsagents, grocery stores, coffee bars, bistros, launderettes, betting shops, Chinese takeaways or bars. Eventually, among the vast warehouse factories and car outlets we discovered a supermarket and inside, a cash dispenser.

                There is an intrepid element to van camping at this time of year. A couple of years ago we ventured to Bruges, in Belgium just a couple of weeks before Christmas, to a site accessible to the centre, though a bus ride away. The weather was damp and chilly. One of the few fellow campers blew up the electricity supply, rendering our electric heater useless and necessitating using the gas rings for heating. Visiting the centre of the medieval city was nice, but cold, and in order to stay warm we had to keep nipping into bars and cafes even more than we would normally. Bruges was bedecked with lights, decorations, a Christmas market and an ice rink, but was freezing. We returned home with head colds.

                Here there is a vestige of watery, late autumn sunshine mixed in with the clouds. We are an easy cycle from Amsterdam’s centre and have the benefit of reliable, cosy heating. How was the marathon? I’ll let you know…



Site Behaviour

                ‘Flight Behaviour’ is a recent novel by the established American writer, Barbara Kingsolver. It is a noble attempt to use fiction to bring climate change issues into popular consciousness, although somehow it fails to grip the imagination. Barbara must have worked hard on her research, insinuating much scientific jargon and information into the story, but it is this very insertion of earnest scientific knowledge that reduces the impact of the story, rendering it clunky and uneven. The story concerns the plight of thousands of Monarch butterflies deflected from their normal migratory course from Mexico to the Appalachian Mountains, an event that is celebrated by the local community who are unaware of the catastrophe it portends.

                As I finished the book I reflected on the migration that we now make as summer comes to an end, in search of a warmer climate, along with hundreds of other Northern Europeans fleeing Autumn’s first chilly blasts. There are Germans, Netherlanders, Danish, Czechs, Belgians and more. They are here with us along the Mediterranean coasts of France, Spain or Portugal, filling up the camp sites and exhibiting what I now like to think of as ‘Site Behaviour’.

                After many years of staying on campsites, first with tent and now with a camper van, I’ve had plenty of time to study site behaviour and etiquette. Take shower blocks, for instance. It is customary to greet anyone you encounter within the shower facility, using the language of the host country. A mumbled, hasty ‘Bonjour’ is enough [since we are in France] and eye contact, if any, should be brief. You should not launch into lengthy discussions about the weather or travel plans, or which part of the UK you are from whilst your companion is applying deodorant or cleaning their teeth. This being France, shower blocks are not divided into genders so you must expect to have to sidle past a urinal or a man at a basin trimming nasal hair on your way into a cubicle.

                You may have to carry toilet tissue to the block with you, in which case no one will be in any doubt as to your intention. A way around this for those sensitive to anyone knowing their purpose is to stuff a wodge of tissue into your pocket. Years of less-than-luxurious travel have taught me never to go anywhere without a tissue in my pocket.

                Many [particularly women] make their morning/evening trip to the ablutions wearing such attire as they might habitually sport at home; in other words they wear a dressing gown, slippers and often-curlers. In Yorkshire, UK recently there was an inexplicable plethora of Onesies on show. Myself, I do not own either dressing gown or slippers, and have never mastered the art of curlers, so a version of day wear [shorts and T-shirt] suffices.

                A site is a transient village, inhabitants changing daily, their temporary homes, paraphernalia or pets a subject of interest for those already established. What might they be preparing on their elaborate barbecue? Why do we see the husband and never the wife? For some, the activity involved in setting up, building the awning, hammering in pegs, putting up a washing line, adjusting the awning, oiling the bikes, putting up a wind break, taking it down-these are the end itself, the reason for the trip. These scenes are the soap opera that is a camp site. Long may they continue!