Snippets from Four Countries-

I last visited Strasbourg as a teenager. But Husband had never been and one advantage of becoming ancient is that you can revisit old haunts and not remember a thing about them.

       It is a gloriously hot, blue-skied day. We are able to cycle from the site into the city, which is thronged with shouting school parties but still gorgeous with its covered bridges, medieval architecture and sparkling waterways. We stop to rest our feet [a feature of sightseeing these days] at a table outside a bar in a pretty square and remember why we like to travel this way.

        Next day we are off through Germany, taking in the edge of the Black Forest, which is all cuckoo clocks and cow bells, and catching some squally rain as we climb higher, the temperature having plummeted as we arrive at Salem, near the Bodensee, our stop for the night. Just outside the village on a hillside, the site has a small bar with the type of German beer that Husband likes. The night turns icy enough for our little heater and extra blanket to be barely adequate.

The following afternoon we cycle to the Bodensee, a magnet for German tourists though precious few foreigners. Few places are open but look set to begin the season in earnest for Easter weekend. We lose the next day’s travel due to over-excited consumption of beer, but set out for the German/Austrian border on the next morning, settling for Wertach as an overnight stop. It is a pleasant, Alpine farming town. I am startled by the cigarette machine in the washing up area.

As we are leaving an older German fellow tells me ‘We CAN NOT understand the Brexit’ and I can only reply that ‘No, neither can we’.

On to Austria, a slow crawl across the Fern Pass on an ill-chosen, holiday Saturday. But the scenery compensates for the traffic jam-snowy peaks glistening in the sun, ski runs zig-zagging down under gondolas and ski-lifts. Our chosen destination-Feriensparadies on the Natter See- is elusive, confusing Mrs Garmin, our austere SATNAV lady, who sends us off up winding mountain tracks filled with pole-wielding hikers in an unlikely quest for the site. At last we arrive to Feriensparadies, which justifies its coy location by being spectacular; a sun soaked hollow in the snow peaks with pitches facing the cherry blossom fringed lake. The staff are charming, the views are breath-taking, a free shuttle bus can take us to Innsbruck, where we can ride the funicular and gawp at the splendid medieval buildings and the services are nothing short of luxurious. All power to the Austrians!

Regrettably, after 2 nights it is time to crack on-and so on to Venice, which I don’t need to describe since a great deal has been written elsewhere about this extraordinary, watery city. It is another re-visit for me and new to Husband. As we meander the alleyways and over the bridges with our cornettos I ask him if it lives up to the hype. ‘90%’ he says, not revealing the 10% in which it fails…

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The Only Brits in the Kommune

Behind Husband, as he waited for a barman to appear and furnish him with a beer, a giant of a German loomed. This was on North Germany’s coast-a strange but likeable portion of seaside, stripy, canopied, wicker seats for couples dotting the grassy foreshore and a jolly collection of recycled, metal containers standing in as ice cream booths and beach bars. The portly German sported a bristling moustache and wore a checked shirt stretched around his girth, baggy shorts, bulbous, reddened calves and feet splayed in plastic flip flops. He clapped an arm around Husband’s shoulders, leaning over him as if to swallow him up.

‘VOT’, he bellowed, ‘Are you doing HERE?’

It was a good question. We were, as we have been for the last few weeks, the ‘only Brits in the village’. We were in transit to Denmark at the time, wanting only a night’s stopover before the crossing. Having travelled for miles in the quiet countryside it was a shock to find the sites full to bursting with holidaying Germans, their receptions closed by six pm. We’d been lucky to get a place.

As we’ve continued north through Denmark and into Norway we’ve been almost the only British visitors, except for once or twice spotting British plates amongst the traffic and once meeting a British couple on a desolate piece of waste-ground by a lake, [posing as a site] in an anonymous Swedish town as we travelled south again.

At the top of Geirangar Fjord, as we prepared to descend via the series of hairpin bends that is the road down, a miniature cruise ship, plastic-white against the green water dominates the view. That is where the British tourists are-enjoying Norway ‘best seen from the water’ as Brother [the cruise addict] informs me by email.

In Scandinavia, road tourists are dominated by Scandinavians themselves, followed by a heavy German presence, a fair number of Dutch [as usual], some Swiss, a few Polish and Czechs, the occasional Finn. We’ve seen a Russian, a couple of Austrians and French, one or two Lithuanians. But only one other British couple to speak to, briefly as we perused a piece of wasteland masquerading as a town site. We moved on to lovelier surroundings [not because of the British couple!].

As something of a novelty, many are keen to chat to us, perhaps to demonstrate their [undeniable] prowess in English or they are eager to tell us where they’ve been in the UK. A Danish couple stop in their attempt to attach an awning to their new, dinky, teardrop caravan to eulogise on its attributes and to share their touring adventures. A German couple tell us of their visits to England-Cornwall, Bath, Salisbury, Wales-everyone has been very helpful to them. I am startled by this revelatory snippet-the same as an American told me en route from Harwich to the Netherlands. Kind and helpful? We Brits? We of the stiff-upper-lips and standoffishness? Who would have thought it?

Travel or Holiday? What’s the Difference?

We are travelling across The Netherlands, meandering slowly northwards with the aim, having negotiated Germany and Denmark of an eventual stay with a Norwegian friend. The Dutch countryside, though flat as a table-top is scenic in a bucolic way and the villages chocolate box pretty with their thatched, angular, barn-style roofs and manicured gardens. [I suppose the analogy of the chocolate box must be becoming obsolete nowadays-as a child I was used to seeing the array of assorted chocolate boxes ranged along the top shelf of the village shop and all bore images of thatched cottages or streets of half-timbered houses. Heaven knows why…]

All this prettiness is, of course very uplifting. But to enjoy travel [or a holiday-whether the two are the same is a matter for debate] every sight need not be picture-book gorgeous, in fact quite the contrary-some of the ugliest views can provide the best travel experiences.

Take docks. We sailed overnight last night from Harwich in Essex [East coast UK] to Hoek von Holland [The ‘Hook’]. Harwich is a tiny port, occupied almost entirely by the two sailings of one ferry company. The enormous ship dwarfs the quay as lorries crawl up the ramp like swarming insects to be swallowed up by the gaping mouth of the vehicle decks. At last it was our turn to be swallowed, trundling across the metal gantry and shuffling into a narrow space between two caravans. We downed a couple of drinks, chatting to some touring Americans to one side and some touring Australians on the other before tumbling into bed in our cabin.

We woke to the view of Rotterdam, a forest of cranes and pylons all engaged in loading or unloading container ships. How many containers can there be in the world? One per head of the population? You could be forgiven for thinking so. The containers look like children’s bricks as they are plucked from the quayside in giant pincers and placed with meticulous accuracy on to the wide, flat deck of a ship, piled to an impossible height until it seems the vessel might topple sideways-and yet there is one on the horizon, disappearing somewhere with its unwieldy cargo.

We ground to a halt in the berth and descended to the depths to rejoin out vehicles and a long wait for our turn to disembark. Then we were away into the Netherlands and Northwards.

I attempt to make sense of the signs. ‘Slag boom’ says one, or ‘sluiz-droomen’, or broodjes slommen’. The Dutch language seems to consist of faintly abusive and insulting words although they are in fact all innocuous terms for everyday objects. We cross ‘dijks’ and wait for ‘brugs’ to open and allow boats to pass on the countless  waterways that make up the country-once passing underneath an aqueduct bearing sailing ships-an astonishing sight. We cross huge barrages like driving across the sea, where on either side cormorants are gathered, spreading their wings to dry before plunging after another fish, or tall grey herons poised motionless along the roadsides.

So to Germany then-ausfahrts, glottlestops and beer-swilling, thigh-slapping efficiency-ah, but only for one night!

Laugh and the World Laughs with You?

An old man goes to a church, and is making a confession:Man: “Father, I am 75 years old. I have been married for 50 years. All these years I had been faithful to my wife, but yesterday I was intimate with an 18 year old.” Father: “When was the last time you made a confession?” 

Man: “I never have, I am Jewish.” 

Father: “Then why are telling me all this?”
Man: “I’m telling everybody!”

Is this religious joke offensive? It might be deemed by either Catholics or Jews to be so, although I doubt it-because all of those of Catholic or Jewish faiths that I have ever known have had mature, balanced senses of humour. All of them would be able to enjoy, share or even initiate a joke about their own religion and I believe people of the Jewish faith, particularly are fond of Jewish jokes.

The world has experienced a dispiriting couple of weeks. The ghastly events in France, more grim action in Belgium and Germany.

In Saudi Arabia a perfectly peaceful man who wished to share his views has not only been imprisoned for them but is to publicly flogged every week for months. Again in Saudi Arabia unseasonal snow has led many to commit the sin of having fun by constructing snowmen. The building of snowmen is now forbidden. If you were to read this in a satirical magazine it would be funny, but it isn’t-it’s true.

In Nigeria such horrendous atrocities have been committed in the name of religion that it is difficult to believe humans can have wrought them.

To me, a sense of humour is one of the most basic qualities of humanity. One of the fundamentals that sets us aside from the animal kingdom and makes us recognisable to each other. Aside from crying in order to address its most pressing needs, a baby’s first communication is generally a smile, followed swiftly by laughter.

The ability to be self-deprecating, to not only participate and enjoy in a joke against yourself, your appearance, your age, your gender, your disability or your race but to tell one; this must be one of the most engaging aspects of any personality.

Whatever has happened to the world? Have vast swathes of people had sense of humour amputations? Or has some odd mutation taken place that has resulted in them being born without it?

Nevertheless there are still many brave, balanced, intelligent people prepared to satirise religions, and still some who will joke about their own faith-even Islam.

For myself, I am an atheist. If anyone wishes to joke about atheism I would be delighted. I take my atheism very seriously, but not as seriously as my dedication to humour and to humanity.

TV-the opium of the masses…

                When you consider how long ago television was invented it is surprising how little about it has really changed, especially the world’s love affair with it. I imagine you could go into the most deprived, squalid hovel in the most impoverished shanty town on the planet, with ten people sharing one crowded room to sleep, cook, eat and bathe and there would be a TV rigged up somehow with scrumped electricity, the only prized item in the family. What will they be watching? Football, adverts for cars and reality TV shows; Botswana ‘X Factor’ or Delhi ‘Big Brother’.

                A month’s trip to traditional holiday destinations off season demonstrates how reliant so many are on television for their entertainment needs. No matter what nationality-Swedish, Dutch, German, British-one of the first items to be organised once they have positioned the motorhome within the emplacement is the aerial, or the satellite dish. Our own entertainment was partly addressed by watching the Austrian couple next door spending several hours attempting to place their satellite dish in a location that would offer them Austrian TV. Austrian TV? A version of ‘Masterchef’ with viener schnitzel, perhaps, or ‘Austria’s got Talent’ with lederhosen-clad dancers and an oompah band? Early next morning the Austrian couple voted with their wheels, presumably returning to their homeland in disgust and hopes of watching ‘I’m an Austrian Celebrity [?]-Get me out of Here’ in the comfort of their living room.

                I understand why this is. Much of the South of France is still closed, especially in the evenings. You can spend hours tramping the streets searching for a bar that has not yet pulled its tables off the pavement and closed its doors. We rely heavily on the PMU bars-open for gamblers; as long as the racing lasts. In the malls and the streets leading to the promenade the cafes and bistros sport faded scraps of paper scrawled with the same message: ‘Fermé. Ouvert Marche’. But none of them is. Elsewhere there are signs of opening-roofs being repaired and signs getting spruced up, though as yet no pressions getting pulled or vats of moules steaming.

                In our wondrous van there is a TV, a novelty for us and with an aerial that can access whatever local TV stations are broadcasting. In a rush of excited enthusiasm we sat down to watch French television, pretending that it would be helpful in improving our French conversation skills; but interest in the news channel’s grindingly tedious coverage of Nikolas Sarkozy’s inflammatory remarks comparing France with East Germany soon began to pall and we returned to our usual in-van activities of internet, novels, music, writing, cooking, eating and assessing the local wines-punctuated by forays into the neighbourhood to scour it for some evening life.

                Better. Better than slow death by TV. Maybe one day we will succumb…but not yet…

                 

               

In the fast lane there’s a shredded, nervous wreck trying to get out.

                A situation at home prompted us to cut short our meanderings on the Med and make a dash back to the ferry and from there onwards. This involved two days’ of nine hour drives. We are accustomed to driving long distances for trips nevertheless it was, to say the least, tiring. The method we employ for driving many kilometres is to take turns of two hours and then swap over.

                At the beginning of my stint at the wheel of the van I always consider myself to be strong, competent, emancipated woman, boldly handling the vehicle upon the highways of Europe amongst the macho, truck-driving fraternity and international travellers of all kinds. By the end of the two hours, however I am usually a freaked-out, whimpering, cowering wreck who finds it necessary to stop, climb out and beg for the alternative driver [Husband] to reverse into a space that could accommodate a double-decker bus.

                Certain conditions inspire terror in my driver persona. For one thing, whilst motorways and dual carriageways are relatively calm, safe conveyors of traffic they become angst provoking nightmares when swept by crosswinds that buffet the van and threaten to tear the wheel from my hands. I’m happy to overtake trucks and lorries, but find it nerve wracking to be sandwiched between giant lorries overtaking each other. Often, during overtaking moves, fellow drivers approach aggressively from behind, headlights blazing in bullying reproach as the van fails to get by fast enough for them, despite the feeble driver’s foot being flat down as far as it can go. Nowhere is this behaviour more prevalent than in Germany, where a glance in the rear view mirror reveals nothing until you are half way round a lorry-then a vehicle appears from out of nowhere virtually stuck to your rear bumper.

                But the situations that induce the most panic by far are large, busy, unfamiliar cities in which the route must be located as well as negotiating the [largely unsympathetic] teeming traffic.

                I happened to be on my ‘shift’ as we neared our selected, overnight stop South of Paris, coinciding with late afternoon rush hour. Lovely.

“Please!” I begged Husband, “Tell me which lane”.

                He ruminated, switching from atlas to satnav and back again-“Um…left…no…right…no…”

I felt myself grow hot and an urge to empty the bladder as we lurched to a stop at a red light, in front of a long, impatient column of cars. From somewhere there was the ominous whine of a siren, and growing louder. I stared around to try and locate the source, finally, and with foreboding seeing the flashing blue light approaching behind us, the lines of cars parting to allow its passage. I was at the light, with nowhere to go, a stalemate as the police car blazed and blared in an insistent decree behind us. The driver in the adjoining lane waved his arms and shouted for us to move. At last a car stopped in its path across us and allowed me to drive through the light. Another five minutes saw us safe into the hotel car park, where I felt like weeping with relief.

I stopped in front of a space and climbed out, wobbly legged. Husband, of course did the reversing into a space thing.

In terms of late life career options, I suppose lorry driver would be somewhere down near the bottom of the list?