How my first travel experience failed to put me off completely


For someone who considers himself pretty well travelled, I have to admit to my shame that this was my first time in Paris. Whilst this is entirely my fault, I do have one compelling extenuating circumstance: I took a holiday which deliberately avoided the city way back in 1990. How so? Read on.

Having completed my BA course at Cambridge (I was a choral exhibitioner at Gonville and Caius reading Music) I set off for a three-year Oxford Certificate in Theology course at Ripon College, Cuddesdon in preparation for the ministry. Four terms in, I was called to the Principal's study. Would I like to take part in the student exchange programme with the Church Divinity School of the Pacific in Berkeley, California? This came as a great surprise. I'd heard of the programme but had never considered myself a candidate. It turned out I wasn't first choice but the man who'd had first refusal had exercised that right. The United States was not a country I'd ever been attracted to. In fact, until then, I'd only been out of the country once: a day trip to Boulogne with my primary school. I had no passport and I'd never flown. I asked for some time to come to a decision but knew already that I had to say 'yes'. Not quite the hand of destiny; more my inclination to respect the authority and judgement of those set over me. So 'yes' it was.

That was just the start of the fun. My course at Cuddesdon was three years with a full three years' content. I had five terms' work to do and only two terms in which to do it. So I was launched into an accelerated timetable. Subjects came at me thick and fast: Sociology, Ethics, Preaching, and I fielded them as best I could. To be honest, passing Sociology simply entailed burying any commonsense and reproducing what the soft-left trendies wanted in the answers; Ethics, a matter entirely of common sense. Anyone who has a reasonably informed conscience can work out right from wrong and most dilemmas are resolved without too much fuss. Preaching (at that stage) was mostly technique of sentence construction, management of material, and voice production. Still, together with my other work, New Testament studies, Church History, Systematic Theology and the like, it all mounted up and it took its toll. I was crammed like sardines in a tin and my nerves barely survived the experience. There was more. In the year before the anticipated ordination, prospective deacons have to sort out a 'title' parish where they will begin their ministry under the supervision of an experienced parish priest. I had to do this (and all my extra studies) before I left for the States.

Time was short, so I put my faith in the 'system' and asked the Diocese of Southwark, my sponsors, to come up with suggestions. They hit upon St George, Perry Hill between Catford and Sydenham in south-east London. It wasn't an area I knew (I was from south-west London) but I arranged to meet the Vicar, Canon Alan Gibson. A large man with an ego to match opened the door to me and within a couple of hours we had decided that we could get along well enough to work together for a three-year stint. (It turned out to be nine months only, but that's another story). So began the start of a curious friendship.

Title sorted, I returned to college. A couple of months passed and I received a letter from Alan. He, his wife (Bizz) and her son (James) went camping   in France every year for three weeks. Would I like to go with them? The unspoken answer was 'not really' but my tendency to go along with things led me to accept. What an experience that was. How I survived, goodness knows. Alan was not, let us say, a practical man. He could run a parish and was affable and generous enough. But he was insecure. He covered for this by bluster and what might be called bullying. He didn't like confrontation but got himself into arguments all the same. Bizz was not houseproud in the least. My first encounter with her was over lunch on my follow-up visit to Perry Hill to sort out the details of our holiday together. Eager to make a good impression I offered to wash the dishes after the meal. They would hear none of it but I insisted. So out came the dishes. I washed, Alan dried, Bizz put away. I knew my mother scoured the bowl at the end of the session, so I proceeded to do the same. I had thought it odd when I started the job that they had a black bowl in the sink. I'd never seen one that colour before.   Each to his own, I mused. Imagine my embarrassment when with the first rub of Vim off came the black (it was half an inch of solid grease) to reveal a gleaming orange below. Once I had started I could't stop halfway, so I rubbed and scrubbed till the bowl shone. Awkwardness all round, I can tell you, but it was a lesson that could easily have saved my life (or my stomach at least) during our sojourn in France.

The day of departure arrived. Off we went in Alan's little car, tent on the roofrack and our black-bagged belongings in the boot. (Actually black bags rather than cases isn't a bad idea when space is tight). Alarm bells rang straight away. In the back, James and I had charge of the camping kettle. This was to be our constant, if incomplete, companion. At some point between the last foray into France and the start of our sortie, the kettle had become parted from its screw-on cap. To Alan, this was not a problem - we'd get a cap in France, they must have them after all. For James and me, it was an ever-present problem, though. You couldn't trust the water in France in those days (perhaps you still can't) and bottled water was almost unheard of (or being Perrier was far too expensive to use for boiling water for tea or washing) so we had to take a full kettle with us from the very start. In the back of a car an uncapped kettle (initially) full of water can be a challenge. We had to sway with the movement of the car so as not to spill too much. It was fun at first but the novelty soon wore off.   By Folkestone, James and I could pass for incontinents and the kettle was little more than half full. To avoid further spillage on the hovercraft crossing, the kettle had to come with us; left in the car it might have succumbed to the pitch and swell and lost its remaining contents altogether.

The belief that eau potable was only available for free at petrol stations meant we had to make frequent stops for small amounts of fuel,   no more than 50 francs-worth at a time, hardly more than a dribble and a half.   While Alan oversaw the 'filling' of the tank I was despatched to the man in charge of the garage to fill the inevitably half-empty kettle and to ask, in the best French I could muster, for a new screw-top cap.   (Note: the other three spoke excellent French but some sadistic streak led them always to make me their spokesman.   They were willing to correct my French even as I spoke it but never to volunteer the right word until I had dredged up the wrong one!).   I always succeeded in getting the water   but screw-tops for camping kettles were in short supply, it seemed.   On one occasion, I could have bought a new camping kettle but Alan judged this would be   a waste of money as   we had a kettle already, only the cap was needed.   We never did find that elusive spare part and so much slopping in the rear was guaranteed.

The holiday, it turned out, was to be a week's travelling through France, a week in one place on the Spanish side of the Pyrenees, and a final week rushing to the Swiss border (to meet another of Bizz's sons who had business that way) before catching the craft back to England.   Thousands of miles (and tens of petrol stops) in just 21 days!  

To achieve this Grand Tour, we had to be on the move whenever we were in France.   And to keep on the move we had to avoid Paris at all costs.   To Alan, Paris was a constant jam of traffic: once in you never came out the other side.   In fact, towns of any size were just as threatening to our progress in Alan's eyes.   N-roads were shunned and even D-roads only used if unavoidable.   We worked our way south-west through hamlets via the narrowest of tracks, emerging sometimes into farmyards, sending chickens flying from our path.   Only at the last minute before arrival at yet another campsite (only once in France did we stay for more than one night and that was at the weekend when we hadn't enough fuel to get to our next stop, most petrol stations in France being shut on a Sunday in those days) did we lurch into the dreaded traffic on some numbered road, always timing our arrival to miss the rounds of the lady who collected the pitch fees and leaving early in the morning before breakfast to avoid her once more the next day.  Breakast was therefore taken on a dew-sodden bank with the car propped up at an odd angle halfway off the carriageway.   It consisted of anything saved from last-night's dinner or purchased from a local bakery.   Nothing leisurely, about it, just the inevitable consequence of our cut-and-run caper.

Before long, we were back on the road, searching out a convenient petrol station where we could buy another 50 francs of essence and cadge another kettle of water.  This pantomime continued all the way to the Spanish border, spluttering into garages just before the last of the 50 francs'-worth evaporated.  Alas, the last petrol station in France and the first petrol station in Spain were spaced at an inconvenient 51-francs' distance.  The gas gave out just as we tipped the Pyrenees, thank goodness, and we free-wheeled down into Spain for the final and seemingly almost unending stretch to the saving garage.  I was certain that Alan had learned his lesson now and we'd be spared the nail-biting down-to-the-wire lottery with fuel.  My hopes were soon shattered.  I was packed off into the office to plead for water in my non-existent Spanish.  (I had long given up any hope of finding a screw-top cap, mind).  Alan was just paying for the petrol as I returned.  To my horror, he was parting with just 500 pesetas - rather less that the not-exactly generous 50 francs we'd never quite got used to!  Whether Alan had been abandoned in a desert in a previous life, I've no idea, but he was always very much more afraid of running out of water than being without petroleum.  Hardly a convenient state of mind for a touring holiday.

The arrival at a Spanish campsite for a whole week's stay was heaven: no more late nights trying to get the tent up in the dark and early calls to pack the whole thing away before first light.  Pitch fees were duly paid, the tent erected and we set to work on something for dinner.  It was not that Bizz was a bad cook.  Far from it.  She did, however, seem disempowered by her unfamiliar surroundings.  We had only two single-ring gas burners.  One was reserved for the boiling of our precious water, the other was available for cooking.  Food items would be cooked one by one, so managing a complete meal for four was a lengthy and involved process.  Daringly, I suggested I might try my hand at cooking.  Until then, my culinary experice had been severly limited.  I had, however, enjoyed very much any cooking I had done.  (Six of us had shared a house on Oxford and had taken turns to prepare the evening meal - time and space prevent any account of the triumphs and disasters we concocted between us).  My offer was accepted with alacrity.  It was clear we had all been frustrated by the previous slow and irregular service.  The slight difficulty was that the camp shop was the only shopping opportunity for miles around and because we were now quite a long way from a petrol station (with only the balance of the measly 500 pesetas in the tank) there was no chance of an exploratory venture into the unknown villages to search out supplies.  Camp shop it was, then.

Quite what a fully-stocked camp shop would be like, I don't know.  This one had plenty to buy, so long as you liked frozen hake and exotic vegetables.  (Actually the vegetables only seemed exotic at the time: red and green peppers, red onions, courgettes and the like.  Nowadays, we recognise them as the ingredients, with tomatoes, of a decent ratatouille; then, they were a challenge for the meat and two veg cook).  That night we feasted as we hadn't before.  The fish was defrosted on a metal plate over the saucepan of boiling water (which we used for tea).  Then, using a little butter, the fish was fried with the roughly cut vegetables.  The resulting dish looked and smelled wonderful.  Thre taste was no less good.  For three nights running we ate the same meal and each was as good as the last.

Water at the camp site was in short supply.  Every morning, it seemed, we were greeted by signs in the toilet block announcing 'no agua'.  It's a well-known fact that one never gets dirty when camping, so washing wasn't a great issue.  Washing-up, though, was.  Our precious water supply (all one kettle's-worth) was nearly at an end.  Our main drinking medium was now Spanish wine.  Bizz decided, based on previous experience no doubt, that washing-up the dinner plates was a waste of water.  Instead, she reasoned, the cutlery could be licked clean and the plates could be cleaned with a quick wipe of a paper towel.  I can't say I was convinced.  From that night, I was careful to segregate my irons and plate from theirs and when no-one was looking used the Spanish wine in place of water and washing-up liquid.  As I was the only one not to go down with tummy-trouble, the experiment was a success.  It did occur to me that the car might run perfectly well run on Spanish wine (500 pesetas of the local stuff would go quite a long way) but I never put that theory to the test!

On the Sunday of our stay, Alan and Bizz suggested we go out for lunch.  I guess we all had a yearning for something more than hake and vegetables.  We consulted the camp manager.  It turned out there were no restaurants anywhere in this remote area.  There was, however, a woman who ran a tiny 'corner store' three or four villages into the mountains.   Always short of money, she was known to provide the occasional meal for passing tourists who had been disappointed of a dinner elsewhere.  The man kindly phoned for us.  Yes, we could eat there but we had to arrive within the hour.  The convoluted directions ended with the instruction, 'knock at the door next to the Coca Cola sign'.  It sounded like a recipe for disaster.  Alan's familiairty with driving along remote tracks proved a winner on this occasion.  Forty minutes it took us and all without a wrong turn.  There was the sign, there was the door and there was the matron, clearly taken by surprise that we had arrived so promptly.

We were ushered into her small but well-decked dining room just as her (large) family was fleeing before our advance, plates in hand.  We had ejected them from their Sunday lunch.  If Alan felt any awkwardness he didn't show it - to him this a purely financial arrangement.  The table was relaid and a magnificent feast was set before us.  At the end of the meal, liquers were brought out and we were encouraged to have all we wanted.  Eventually, we were ready to leave.  Alan asked for the bill.  When it came, it was a mere pittance: just enough to cover the cost with a little extra on top.  It was absurdly cheap and we all knew it.  Surely, we would add a tidy sum to acknowledge the inconvenience to the family, the short notice of our demands, the coutesy and bounteous hospitality we had enjoyed.  I think you've guseed the answer.  If money was short for camp site dues, it certainly didn't stretch to paying a fair price for an excellent lunch!

All too soon, the week was up.  The evening before we left, the gas catridges gave out.  The shop was still open, so down I went to buy more.  We were out of luck.  They had every gas cartridge but the ones we needed.  I took the bad news back to Alan.  He was having none of it.  If they didn't have any, they would have to get them for us - and right away.  (We couldn't go, of course, as we were, as ever, so short of petrol).  The man was reluctant but my earnest pleading (in newly-learned pigeon Spanish) convinced him.  The nearest town was some way away, so it was over an hour later and getting quite dark when the man returned triumphant with a three-pack of our precious cartidges.  Alan asked the price.  When told, he said they were too expensive (and quoted the UK price).  He'd take only one and buy another when he got back to France.  The man was stunned.  He'd left the shop, driven miles down the valley and located the correct supplies for these eccentric foreigners only to be rebuffed because he couldn't offer them at the UK price!  In his shoes, I'd have been tempted to one of two responses: 'Go without' or 'Then buy them in the UK'.  The man had more grace, I'm pleased to say, and swallowed his pride, accepted Alan's discounted offer, and went away with two unwanted gas cartridges and a greater knowledge of the oddities of foreigners.  Our hake and veg didn't have quite same taste that night.

Our return to France was uneventful.  We drove through Andorra, that minute statelet wedged between Spain and France.  We stopped for a while but found it a most unpleasant place.  Skiers might enjoy the piste but it's a tatty place littered with shops selling fags and booze at duty free prices to those who overindulge in both.  I need say no more.

Back in France the old rigmarole started again.  We lurched from petrol station to petrol station with our leaky kettle.  Deja-vu was never more intense.  There was, however, a change of plan when we got to Arles one Saturday evening.  The tank was even closer to empty than usual and Alan had discovered, to his horror, that all the garages within reach were closed until Monday.  (It wouldn't happen today, even in France).  We were marooned at our campsite and, horror of horrors, we'd have to pay for the privilege.  At last, it was an opportunity to break loose.  I took myself off to Mass at Arles in that wonderful ancient cathedral and then spent most of the day looking round the town at the stunning sights.  If only we had taken more main roads and not rushed everywhere, what a fine time might have been had by all.  We were soon to discover that Arles had another and more modern excitement.

Packed-up and paid, come Monday morning we set off for the long drive to the Swiss border.  The boot was full (unlike the petrol tank) and the roof-rack laden.  We turned a corner.  Crash!  The roof-rack had come apart and its remains and our possessions were scattered unceremoniously by the road.  We gathered them up and tried to reassemble the roof-rack.  It was having none of it, however.  Some bits had gone astray completely and try as we might a 90% repair job was the most we could manage.  Reloaded, the rack sat pretty well on top of the roof.  What it didn't do, though, was to stay on the roof by itself, only one bolt keeping the whole thing together.  The only solution was for James and me to keep our windows down all the while we were on the move with our arms hanging out gripping the roof-rack and keeping it in its place.  It was ludicrous but given all we'd been through thus far it seemed the only thing to do.  We had four days of this, much to the amusement of all we passed.  It gave me the biceps I have today.

So we travelled, this motley crew.  Up to the Swiss border and then, for the last two or three days, back to the Channel ports and the prospect of an end to my sentence.  Now, the French are our neighbours and, like many neighbours we have known, can be a mixed blessing.  The particular blessing our Gallic friends devised to visit upon us was to take a quite unreasonable exception to English lamb (or was it something to do with fishing rights?).  Whatever the cause, the result was the same.  The only cross-channel service running was the Hover-Lloyd service we were booked onto.  We had to make the deadine or be held on the continent until the dispute had ended.

Our valid ticket saw us waved through to the front of the queue.  The timetable was suffering disruption but we were guaranteed a crossing that day.  'Just stay in the queue,' we were told, 'and be ready to go when you're called forward.'  There could be nothing simpler.  We had reckoned without Bizz.  Without comment, she let herself out of the car.   Her rummaging through the contents of the boot aroused Alan's curiosity.  What on earth was she looking for?  'My costume', came her reply.  'There's a lovely beach over there and I want to go for a swim!'.  We could not believe our ears.  The 'lovely beach' was in fact where the hovercraft came in and out of bounds to the public.  Alan's forceful language eventually dissuaded his determined wife to shut the boot and give up any idea of playing Russian roulette with passing sea traffic.  It had taken a while, mind, and this extraordinary incident had blinded us to the fact that our line had been called forward.  Cars once behind were now in front and we were in grave danger of losing our place on the crossing to others.  Alan put his foot down, the car leapt forward and James and I only just managed to grasp the sliding roof-rack before it fell off completely.  We made it - but by a whisker!

I was later to discover that this comedy of errors was business as usual for the Gibson household.  How this mis-matched, disorganised but truly devoted couple got their relationship to work, I'm at a loss to say.  I know, though, that their kindness and generosity to me was unstinting and genuine.