The kooky Citroen C15 embodies everything that people love and hate about the French. As with the 2CV car, this van is as French as garlic and snails and looks like it might tip over at any minute while negotiating bends. But for all its faults it has many plus points too. For starters it undercuts every other van on the market on price and its 1.9-litre diesel power plant should prove economical and long-lasting. Not my words Susan, the words of Parkers online, give or take.. Hello?
I pulled in at a convenient aire de repos, stand up toilets and sit down picnic tables. Eric was right behind, but we had to flag Steve down a couple of minutes later, he had been distracted by the sound system in his new car and had been listening for nearly an hour to the sensational sounds of Claude François on, would you believe? Magnetic tape. Cartridges not even cassettes, that machine must be worth a bomb.
“Le Lundi Au Soleil, Les magnolias, bloody good stuff actually Rodney,” unwittingly swigging neat vodka from a plastic water bottle he had presumably found in the back of the van, ”and did you know…?”
In fact I did know that one of his other oeuvres Comme d’Habitude was the prototype for the sententious My Way. I will always revere Sid Vicious’s version though. Have to admit.
Steve hopped out of his little box on tyres, casually looking round for legover, but he didn’t seem all that bothered by the lack of it, the revelation that stealing cars was perfectly legal in this country was all the stimulation he needed for the day.
We sat ourselves down at one of those hideously designed and scrupulously uncomfortable bench-tables; Eric produced Four Roses and three tumblers and we drank in silence for a while.
“Right”, said Eric at last,
“It’s New Years Day, neither of you two have made your resolutions and we have no idea of where we will be laying our drunken heads tonight.”
As for the resolutions, I suggested that this year we should abstain from drinking beer. Touch not a drop. They both looked at me as if I had proposed a suicide pact or something.
“What’s your problem with beer Rod? You of all people” They said as one.
“My problem with beer is that just after I wrote that stupid blog last year about Plato liking beer so much, and all that crap about Linux, BSD and Lidl, well, just after it was published, the French Government decided to put a huge, no whopping great tax on the damned stuff. Twenty-five percent! I know it’s all my fault but I say boycott beer, teach them a ruddy lesson.”
“Motion passed” said Eric. ” We shall deem and consider to cease and desist without let or hindrance the intentional libation of beer like substances, under the terms and conditions laid down by our friend Rodney, Is that clear Steve?”
Egged on by this little victory, I boldly suggested that in view of the unseasonally clement weather we should camp out for the night, we still had all that gear they bought in that dreadful store in Aubagne in the back of the Four.
Eric, the self-appointed legal beagle was vehement.
“There is proverb which says: Windy Avignon, pest-ridden when there is no wind, wind-pestered when there is. The Vaucluse is not a good place to pitch a tent.”
“Objoction overullied.” Steve and I in unison for once.
Sometimes a simple question can come as a shock, shake you up a bit and rattle you, even if it isn’t a complete life changer. Steve asked me if it really was New Year’s Day, then what had happened to New Year’s Eve, and Christmas too, while we were on the subject? Do you know? I was lost for words.
We were cruising towards Avignon, the city of Popes, a classified World Heritage site, a showcase of arts and culture and oh how they danced! Two and a half men in two stolen C15′s and a Renault 4. My only fear was another attack of Florence syndrome, too much beauty all in one go could seriously give me the whirligigs.
Silly me, the episcopal ensemble began with the lonely Industrial Zone; builders yards, Datsun dealers and Lafarge, then changed almost imperceptibly into the Commercial Zone. The usual collection of scorched earth and aluminium pet food superstores and fast food joints, both of whose offerings may or may not contain traces of meat, a Decathlon of course and Billy Bunter and his chums walking the walk. Then, for my part, listening as ever, to The Electric Prunes, we entered what the French simply call La Zone.
Dark and dirty blocks of flats with burnt out car carcasses and stripped down scooters draped boldly outside. Gloomystone edifices to make Edinburgh look exotic and gay! Dwelling places euphemistically referred to as habitations at a modest rent. It made me think of how Streslau must look today or Belgrade in the 1960′s. At every street corner were beggars, mendicants, paupers, whatever you call them, loiterers to be sure. Some with rough cut cardboard — I’m homeless, four kids and not a hope in hell of finding a job–signs hung from their necks. Others, swarthy pocky marky eastern European or Turkish types; a cheeky one I even saw banging on the side of Steve’s van up ahead, (The European C15 model does in fact have side panel windows). “Nanni bee chagge nistromdali!”
I clearly heard him say. Give me money bastard, if my memory serves me well.
Bearded women too in copious shrouds pushing heavily laden shopping trolleys, aye that’s the word, laden to death with all their worldly goods; kids, urchins of every hue, running about noisily in expensive looking trainers and dubious haircuts. The cynic in me would have said good for you, at least you have the freedom to live such a simple life, but it was just too depressing for words.
To my great relief I spotted a sign – Camping Auberge La Bagatelle- open all year, barrang! What a cracking little campingplatz it was too and how surprising it was to find that it really was open, I found no whiff of pestilence or chortling wind.
We upped our tents in less than a jiffy, they sort of jumped out of their bags and set themselves together like magic. After a few deftly thumped in pegs and a little tweaking of guy ropes we were, as they say, done. Oh how this fresh air and wholesome exercise had given me an appetite. The Auberge part was well and truly closed and battened down, so we zipped up tight, checked and double checked the vehicles and strolled off to refresh the town.
What is the French National dish? Gritty snails in delicious garlic butter perhaps or why not the poor little leggies of froggies ? The squeamish may demand chicken in the pot or beef à la bourguignonne? No, no! It’s plain meat and a spud bud like everyone else. French children notwithstanding their inability to string a coherent sentence together before puberty are not so very different from their British or American cousins, they are raised to grow big and strong on jambon purée, ham and mashed potatoes. The less fortunate variety are comforted with pasta and ketchup, (no kidding), but to be fair it does say Sauce Tomate on the bottle, don’t blame them blame Heinz. The lucky ones who do grow up straight and tall will all have a built in preference for steack (sic) frites. We ordered three steak and chips with the options for the meat given as blue, bloody or well cooked. I think you can guess which one we took, and a side order of a bottle of Côtes du Rhône apiece, as we were actually dining in an empty restaurant, smack dab on the banks of that self same mighty river.
Most of the rest of the evening was spent seeking out a bar that seemed to be open. Almost on the point of giving up, we eventually stumbled into a bar de La Poste, de La Gare, Le Pont or some such, a sawdust and spit establishment that was open for business even if it wasn’t exactly booming, but we definitely fancied our chances of being served with a well earned drink or two here. The only other customer was a badly dressed faggot in a thick cloud of illegal tobacco smoke, propping up the bar, spitting and swearing alternately. Swearing rather nastily I thought, just reciting the old favourites; bordel, merde, putain, connasse, but it’s the way you say it that counts. I watched him carefully for a moment, a lonely desperate, tragic figure of a man, and my heart went out to him; how hard life must be with only one imaginary friend! Then I noticed, he was on the ‘phone, asshole.
Whisky was the obvious choice and the easiest to pronounce.
“Twar wisskee seal vou play garsson”
Twying to sound even more like a British twat. I don’t know why I said it that way, but I did. Had a feeling.
“Scotch, Irish or Kentucky lads? A double a baby or foetus? And what kind of glasses?”
“Clean ones, if you don’t mind, and you’re from Norwich aren’t you?”
” I am sir.” he said without a wisp of surprise, as he served three very generous portions of Johnny Jameson and sons’ finest.
“Then perhaps you could tell us why this town is so dismally deserted on this public holiday of a day, if you really are from Norwich.”
The big man in a yellow tee-shirt and green shorts seemed ready to talk, looked straight at me and said:
” Have you any Idea what France did last night? Where the hell were you?”
”Well said Sir!” But no I have no answer to either of those questions.”
“Well I’ll give you a hint, it ate a lot, a hell of a lot, and didn’t stop eating and drinking until the early hours of this morning. It ate and drunk so much that it ended up with a painful attack of the national imaginary ailment, a crise de foie, a liver attack. That’s why there are no froggies abroad tonight, just me and Sir Henry” Motioning towards the shabby faggot.
“A crise de foi if you ask me chaps, a real onion souper! Sir Henry Blodwyn-Pigge, Bishop of Bridlington,”
he said offering a hand, “jolly pleased to meet you fellars.”
“So now you know why we left my parents’ place in such a hurry Rodney”
“I just thought they had told us to fuck off.”
We stayed for a few more rounds at Sir Henry’s expense but it was all getting a bit too French for me. Getting drunk three times in one day was a younger man’s exploit. We finally took our leave and left for La Bagatelle.
We were awoked most horribly the following morning, not by an angry Lou Mistral, but by two more coppers, Gendarmes in heavy shades, the tops of their ears slightly feathered, they slapped our Tipperary homes roughly shouting:
“sortay! sortay vous and be sharp about it!”
Like stranger’s thumbs they just stood there, rigid and resolved as I emerged tentatively from my cosy hole, relieved that Steve was still snoring and not about to finally fulfil a lifetime’s ambition. Gag him with a spoon? I surely would.
“Is it about a C15?” My pre-emptive strike.
“It is not” said the one, “It is about two” said the other. “Plural. Two pristine examples of la différence Francaise, purloined and usurped, if you will permit me the expression, under our very noses. outside a brothel of our connivance in God’s own city of Cavaillon this very good yestermorning”!
Just about then, Eric leaped out at us still in his sleeping bag screaming:
“Thank the lord! You’re here at last. Have you caught the bastards yet?”
“To which particular breed of bastard are you referring odd fellow?
There are many more than several of those types on today’s agenda.”
“Why the scoundrels that left those horrid vans over there and told us that if we breathed one word we’d get two more…!”
“Stop your blithercorn, fool in a sac, we have in our possession faxed facsimiles of you three personages, top notch thievery, I’ll be bound. It’s fines and custodial sentences ago-go coming your way. Ha! Ha!”
This was outrageous’
” Do we look like the sort of men that go about the country stealing other chap’s vans and letting their dogs out?”
I said so pompously, that I was not even aware of my gaffe concerning the dogs.
“Yes Sirs, Indeed you do, in fact I’d say you are the very paradigme (sic) of such abominations.”
I have always thought that anyone who uses the word paradigm with no knowledge of what the dictionary says it means, should be sent to bed without his supper, or shot, no exceptions, but I didn’t say it, don’t have the ability to say all that in French and anyway they had both turned their attentions in the direction of my mopeds.
“From whom did you steal those two boys?”
They asked, quite certain of our culpability.
Enough was enough, I had to speak out:
“They are my own treasured and private property, those Mobylettes and as such, should you not be referring to them as girls?”
Both officers appeared to be both shocked and appalled at the same time, not so much I think at my impertinence in trying to pick nits with their grammar, but the fact that I was so ignorant that I didn’t even know the difference between a Mobylette and a Cyclomoteur. Just what kind of low life scum were they dealing with now?
” Une Mobylette, cher Monsieur, is a is a Motobecane, un cyclomoteur est un blinking Peugeot! Vos papiers s’il vous plaît Messieurs!”
I was preparing a little speech in my head, along the lines of,
” Do you know exactly who you’re talking to squire? Raving Lord Rodney of Skirvishley, nephew to the Pope…..”
When at last Steve poked his bonny red-topped bonce out of the zip. “Good morning to you sirs,” he beamed, miraculously boil free and cheerful.
I knew in an instant that if he didn’t have Sir Henry inside that tent with him we were all good. There had been an unlikely spate of televised documentaries recently about the little known heroes of the Tour de France, with a pile of previously unreleased or lost footage of the untold greats; Carlos Nostia, Hans Freshona, Mike “hot tuna’ Nixe, not to mention Mister Steve himself, El Tequito. Living legends, to a man, not to mention the late great Ukrainians Yogosan and Sodergarden, god rest their souls. We were home in a boat.
“This is my very good friend Steve Milliband,”I smiled crudely self satisfied.
“As an unsung hero of one of the world’s top three most pointless sporting events, perhaps you would care to make amends and sing him a little song? Just before you fuck off.”
“Vos papiers s’il vous plaît Messieurs!”
Steve and I of course had no papers, but thoughtful Eric began rummaging about in his saddlebags and eventually produced a sharp plastic Republique Française ID card with mugshot. He held the card firmly in his left hand, studied it for a fraction of a second, then looking up, straight at them said:
“What is he name of the current Minister of the Interior?”
“We are not going for gold here boyo, get on with it damn you”
Eric handed them the card with a spoilt brat grin and said,
The two of them both just froze on the spot, took root, petrified….
“Monsieur Burnett, Le Loup Hurlant, Oh! La plume de ma tante!”
Not wishing to lose face as soldiers seldom do, they said we could leave at our whimsical pleasure, that the World Cup and the Olympic Games were every bit as ridiculous as ”Le Tour.” Nonsensical nonsense to be sure.
“But please, gentlemen, be quite certain to leave the little white vans just as they are when we did.”
Now that’s what I call a fair cop.
We all agreed that it was time to pack up and move on, reconvene at the Norwich City Social Club for le petit dejeuner.
Repacking the little tents though turned out to be considerably more difficult than dispatching a pair of Gendarmes with their tails tucked firmly into their undergarments. Get in! Get in you little shit, into the bag, right now. Do we look like men that don’t know nothing about bivouacs? Prepare for a beating! Eric, more patient tried his level best to bend those carbon fibre bastards to his will. but they just sprang back in his face, Time after time. I can honestly say that not for one moment do I believe that these things ever came out of bags in the first place, totally improbable.
“We must go back to the shop and watch the video again” Said Steve,
“We shall do no such thing! Show them your passport Eric!”
And then the wind began to break, gently, ever so gently at first, gusting, circling, north north-west. The mighty evergreen cypress giants planted all around for protection began to sway ominously. A fir-tree roaring in its leafless top, disturbing foul mouthed magpies. Nestling soft, we could hear that loathsome wind and its ill-concealed intentions for a hundred miles.
Whoosk! When it came whoosk, was hardly the word. Cold and freezing to the bone we braced, shivered and cheered, jabbered and screamed as those rotten domes from hell, lifting their leanness took flight like giant kites. Crumbs! What kites they were!