At the start of summer of 2014, a friend sends me a text message to invite us to join him on a group holiday at his family’s chateau in the Dordogne. The suggested dates are propitiously within the two weeks we have booked off work, so our answer is an easy one. Oh yes please, count us in! The invitation is for one week and thus we incubate a plan to embark on a leisurely journey through France, stopping to camp for a few days along the way. Burying all memories of our previous camping experience in the darkest corners of our consciousness.
After abandoning our tent in Woolacombe Bay the summer holiday before, we were left with no choice but to buy a new tent for my fortieth birthday celebrations at the Isle of Wight festival. The biggest one that we could get delivered the next day, by Amazon Prime, because we had left it to the last minute. So it seemed simple. We had the tent, we thought: “Camping in France, what could possibly go wrong?”
We looked at the map and found ourselves a campsite near Rouens in the Loire Valley. Feeling confident that we’d learned from our mistakes, we pack with military precision, prepare meals and set off for our European adventure. I’d even bought a Tom Tom to make sure that we would not get lost. This trip would be a success.
With minor navigation issues (Calamity always gets lost), we manage to find our campsite to set up for the night in August 2014. It was getting dark pretty quickly, we needed to get our tent up fast. We had only pitched it once before. At the Isle Of Wight Festival, with the help of some friends. Deja Vu? Anticipating that we would arrive later than planned (inevitable with all the toilet stops, why can’t they all bloody go at the same time, Calamity included), I had prepared some chicken pasta before leaving the house, so luckily I could reheat that for our dinner to have with some of the cheese and wine. The boy refused the pasta and ate crackers and cheese.
The next day, tired from the journey, we laze around the campsite, attempt the pool, and just relax with the children scratching between the trees and playing with the twigs. It isn’t particularly warm (in France! In August!) and we find ourselves settling in for an early night to beat the cold. Because the tent had three pods and children are too young to sleep on their own, Calamity shares with Mayhem and I sleep with Haribo. Mayhem thrashes too much to allow me any sleep, and Calamity would not wake up if the boy gets too cold in the night.
We are not asleep for long when I hear Mayhem coughing. A sort of distressed cough that I recognise with a sense of alarm.
I sit up and call to Calamity.
I hear the cough again, and then, as I expect, it turns to retching. Calamity wakes up as a stream of vomit lands squarely across his sleeping bag. I scramble out of my wobbly airbed, frantically searching for a bucket, as I hear her retch and vomit again. We haul her out of the tent, a little too late. Both of their sleeping bags are covered in foul smelling sick, soggy and drenched through. We abandon the soiled sleeping bags outside and get them back to bed with all the spare blankets and towels that we find, the smell hanging heavily within the canvas enclosure.
Around an hour later, the retching starts again.
Calamity fails to drag himself from his slumber again.
She hurls all over them. Again. No more blankets or towels spare, we cover them in all the clothes we have packed and they huddle in putrid pod, trying to keep warm.
The tent smells acrid, odoriferous, vile.
I am grateful that I am bunking with the boy, but there is no escaping the fragrant tang.
The next morning brings sunshine and warmer weather. The washing machine is my friend. I wash all day.
Mayhem is still a little pale, but the vomiting has stopped. We settle down to lunch. Calamity says he has no appetite.
It’s not long before Calamity lurches to the bushes to be violently ill. The toilet is too far. Listless and feeling grisly, we decide to stay close to the campsite again.
By the next morning, we are feeling sprightly enough to tackle the nearby towns for a little (gentle) adventure. We find a restaurant in a neighbouring town and decide to stop for some lunch. Camp stove cooking at the pitch is moderately unappealing. Can’t imagine why.
Calamity orders a salad. Never seen this before, he must be sick. Full of gusto, I order a steak and frites. Calamity, out of character, picks at his salad as I devour my lunch. Calamity says he is still not feeling too well, we ask for the bill as soon as the children’s ice-creams arrive.
Suddenly, my stomach lurches uncomfortably. Furtively (with a panicked smile on my face) I ask for directions to the toilet. It’s right at the back of the large restaurant. Down the stairs. The furthest corner away from where we are sitting. Of course it is. I saunter (as fast as I can, without throwing tables and chairs out of my way) casually through the room. Which seems unreasonably gargantuan. My stomach now cramping spasmodically, waves of nausea engulfing me. I run the last stretch down the stairs (dignity forgotten) into the nearest cubicle but I am too late. I create an impressive mess everywhere. On the walls. On the floor. Toilet paper in a restaurant in a small French town? No. Paper towels? No.
I return to the table, alarmed to see Calamity run past me toward the toilets. I want to get out of there fast. Before someone goes into the women’s toilets.
Calamity returns, he has redecorated the men’s toilets in a similar stupendous fashion. The setting of a cheap horror film, courtesy of the calamitous camping pair. We practically fall out of the restaurant in our hasty retreat to get out of there before someone discovers the horror of the spewing duo.
We reach our campsite, blissfully secluded, protected by hedges and trees, the car pulled into the only gap, giving us privacy to be sick again and lie in misery on the ground, faces pressed to the damp cool grass, too weak to move. The children are running riot, we are too feeble and sickly to chase after the lively two year old and an energetic five year old ( bloody ice-cream). Pathetically weak, we cave and let them watch a film (three times) on the DVD players in the car, until it’s dark and we can go to bed, still feeling exhausted from the vicious onslaught of the vomit bug from hell.
I wake up at 5am, feeling semi-human, ready to pack all the camping equipment to leave for the Dordogne, eager to put the traumatic experience behind us. As Calamity completes the mammoth pack and gets behind the wheel, I jubilantly text our friends, telling them that we will be arriving at the chateau in a few hours.
The car won’t start.
The battery has been run down by the DVD players.
Calamity sets off in search of the campsite manager, in the hope that they have some jumper cables. With his broken French, he manages to communicate our problem. We are in luck for a change. The proprietor returns on a diminutive tractor, armed with the equipment we need.
All is not bleak
As he pulls up on his nifty little tractor, we realise that he cannot reach the front of the car. Calamity has parked the car in the gap between the hedges, with the bonnet too far into the pitch to reach the battery with the cables, but not far enough to allow anything else access to the pitch. Through the hedges, around the hedges, over the hedges, the cable cannot reach the car battery.
Call the AA.
Message our friends who are about to leave London: “You might get there before us. In spite of the fact that we are camping in France already. Just another typical Voguish & Calamity holiday, stuck in a fully loaded car waiting for the AA to come”
It’s the hottest day of the holiday so far.
3 hours, one French mechanic, his smoking cigar (in my bleeding car) and one jump start later, we finally set off for our destination in the Dordognne.
Message friends: “Thankfully now en route to Chateau. That was the last attempt at camping in this lifetime. X”
What did we learn from this experience?
Don’t cook chicken, travel 8 hours and then reheat it on a camping stove. In the dark. Although the lack of light is quite possibly irrelevant.
Always pack spare sleeping bags.
Keep a bucket next to the beds. At all times.
We should give up camping. But we don’t. We keep going back for more. Will we ever get it right?