Back to the plot.
So… instead of our planned Grand Tour of the ancient capitals of Europe, meandering at leisure through the Mediterranean summer, we spent six weeks in a garage. A garage in an industrial area about half an hour from Marseille, on the outskirts of France’s petrochemical capital Martigues.
We didn’t get to visit Tractafric in Paris, Mercedes in Stuttgart or Salsa in Switzerland as we’d hoped. I didn’t get to see Amsterdam at last, or show Zola Prague or Rome. But shoo, did Sampson get an in-depth refresher course in diesel mechanics…
Big Reg was struggling. When we got back from South Africa, he’d started up first time after being stationery for nine months, but now was choking up so often it was obvious the fuel tanks needed cleaning. Sampson had to change the diesel filters four times en route between Spain and France.
More urgently, the exhaust brake needed seeing to. It had been dodgy ever since we set off from SA (it first got stuck on in Springbok), but suddenly it was worse than ever. It had gone from gasping to a whistling which was getting more and more piercing as the bodge job gaskets they’d installed in Senegal got more and more worn out.
When we first went to Euromaster at the end of June, we asked the workshop manager if he knew where we could get a replacement joint; in response Fred did a classic Gallic shrug. He phoned a friend who dealt with scrap parts but didn’t hold out much hope. “Worse” he announced, “we can’t do the alignment on these new tyres until you replace the barre de direction and barre de trajectoire (steering rods). If you hit a heavy road on these, the wheel might come off…” 😦
We continued to ask around Marseille and Viterolles throughout the July school holiday with no joy. But, as our priority was to give our girl a good time in those precious few weeks, we only seriously embarked on looking for parts once Ruby had left. This was a mistake. In August, all factories in France shut down. It’s the equivalent of trying to get anything done in SA between 16th December and 16th Jan. You can whistle for it.
The outlook seemed bleak until the universe sent us Aurelien. The sweetest, kindest spirit north of Africa, Aurelien spotted Big Reg in the municipal camping car stop in Sausset les Pins and stopped to speak to us. He surveyed Big Reg with shining eyes and couldn’t stop asking questions. He so adores old trucks, he not only lives in one, but he has a job providing parts for all different brands of them. Luckily for us! Thanks to Aurelien, and his company Norca’s comprehensive parts catalogue, he was finally able to sourced us the barre de direction and a replacement ball joint for the other. But despite many hours scouring southern France, he had no luck with le joint. Three times he came back with wrong sizes. They just didn’t seem to make them anymore.
We were invited to visit his truck and spent a wonderful evening chatting with his French-Italian girlfriend Claudia and his friend Joachim (both university students) while hyperactive Aurelien and Zola ran about the orchard like puppies trying to catch cicadas.
Aurelien and Claudia were thrilled to have recently been allowed to rent this land, having spent months being constantly moved along by the authorities. Aurelien explained that most French people, when they see you living in a truck, assume you’re some sort of dirty traveller/gypsy/scum, probably with a ratty dog on a string – referred to locally as a ‘punk à chien’ (punk with a dog).
His words underlined my sense of how our status had shifted. In Africa, people travelling in a truck are (mostly) regarded with wide-eyed admiration; in Europe they are more often viewed with narrow-eyed suspicion. Of course in Africa, most travellers are privileged whites and seen as brave adventurers. Here, truck-dwellers are seen as wastrels at best and drug-dealers at worst. You’re made to feel like a criminal for daring to opt out of the system. #This Is Europe!
This partially explained our feeling that there were three types of people in France. The first type would turn their noses up and walk past the truck without looking at us directly for fear of dirtying their auras.
The second type would beam at the sight of us, delight in hearing the bizarre details of our story and always wish us “Bon courage”. Quite often they’d throw in a “Chapeau!” which literally means “Hats off to you”. They tended to be older folk, who had travelled a bit and envied our escape from the “Metro-boulot-dodo” grind (French slang for “Tube–graft–kip”, encapsulating the relentlessness of the modern Groundhog Day existence) but without the foolhardy drive to embark on it fulltime themselves.
(We mostly encountered the latter while stranded at our favourite camping spot: the carpark outside Lidl at Sausset les Pins. The super cheap supermarket chain Lidl seems to have a policy of employing almost exclusively female staff under thirty. This brilliant strategy produces a wonderfully efficient workforce, dynamic management and a lovely relaxed atmosphere. Thanks to their kindness, it was the only place we could stay unhassled by police. Apologies for getting stranded there over two consecutive weekends…)
The third type were those who joyfully approached us as fellow members of a persecuted tribe:
Fellow renegade Stèphane Mariani found us in the park4night site at Ensuès le Redonne. Even though it was clearly marked as an overnight stop for camping cars, with a waste disposal facility, the municipal police came by to tell us we couldn’t stay there. Stèphane had travelled in a truck across 70 countries in his time, but is now battling stomach cancer. He came back to drop off things languishing in his garage he thought we might find useful: a reflective jacket, an electronic triangle, a wing mirror, a 24V lamp. Most valuable of all though, he found us a mechanic who knew about old trucks.
Maurice Bechelli, aged 74, is known universally as Papi Maurice, with the French word for grandfather being used somewhat as the isiXhosa Tata is used, as a mark of respect. Maurice’s grandparents’ transport business employed horses; after the war his generation moved on to lorries and he drove longdistance all over Europe. It’s illegal to do that over the age of 70 – having got caught and fined on a trip to Austria, he now confines himself to short journeys like nipping to the port and back. And he fixes trucks.
On 1st August, I slept through the night. I couldn’t remember the last time it happened, a whole night of uninterrupted sleep. It felt like a miracle. To have been blessed with true, restorative, healing sleep. I felt groggy not foggy. Groggy like a teenager woken from the depths of slumber, not foggy like the longterm sleep-deprived parent of a newborn. Joy, joy, joy!!! It was such a gift to be briefly without any pain, without tiredness even, properly rested. Finally, I felt I had clawed my way back from my winter relapse in SA. T’ai Chi was so easy, my balance was perfect, I felt so powerful! Full of happiness to share, laughing with my son, kissing my husband. The light!
If only we could have moved on at that point. However, 1st August was also the day we moved into the garage… Sampson said we’d need to be there a week. So I braced myself for two… ok, three, tops.
That first week, with Stèph’s help, the boys took off the exhaust brake, steering rods and diesel tank. In between times, while Papi was away doing driving jobs, Sampson flushed out the latter, repainted all the tanks and siliconed the roof leaks.
That first week in August – the one we spent stationary in the garage with no sea breeze to save us – there was a dangerous heatwave across southern Europe with governments from Spain to Croatia issuing official warnings. Foolishly, we’d parked the truck with the door open to the worst of the midday 40˚C heat and we couldn’t turn it round once the parts had been taken off. Sampson was devastated that the brand new reverse camera he’d brought from SA simply melted!
Not my best wedding anniversary, admittedly.
We did our best to combat the feeling of being marooned. Although an official notice from the sapeurs pompiers forbids entry to cars of picnikers in the summer to prevent the wild fires which raged across the area while we were there, we explored the bush behind the garage on foot:
In week two Aurelien tracked down a joint – but the circumference was too small. As we couldn’t go anywhere while we were waiting for the gaskets, Sampson decided he might as well take off all three oil tanks and power clean them as well with Steph’s ‘Karcher’. As there was no point doing things by halves, he thought he’d better take off all the constricted pipes and connectors and replace them too. While he redid all that, Maurice was doing the welding.
On Saturday, Steph came to say he’d been told that applying a layer of copper silicone would work as well as a gasket. Sampson was sceptical, but thought there was no harm in trying it… We ended up stuck at Lidl.
On Monday of week three, Maurice drove out to the supermarket to help fix a ‘leaking nipple’ which Sampson thought might be the problem affecting the air pressure of the exhaust brake, and adjusted the clutch again.
On Friday, we did the test drive down the hill back to Lidl. The brake was still whistling.
By week four, things were getting desperate. Papi was driving up and down the Côte Bleue, looking for gaskets everywhere, in vain.
Aurelien arrived with another joint that was still too small, but at least the right material and for the first time the right thickness (3mm), so Sampson cut and glued two of them together to fit.
At the end of the month the Bosch factory opened and Papi bought us new ones. But Sampson’s homemade ones were working well enough, and we couldn’t face ‘démonter-ing and remonter-ing’ the whole exhaust brake yet again, so we haven’t replaced them yet.
“Finally” we thought “we can go” – and headed back to Lidl one last time to stock up before departing. We always tried to arrive there on a Saturday afternoon, because they were closed on Sunday and it was blissfully quiet and peaceful.
That weekend, Sampson discovered a small puddle on the ground underneath the truck: there was a tiny tiny leak in the diesel tank.
Aaaaaaaaaaarrrrrrrgggggggghhhhhhhhhh nooooooooooooooooooooo! Where were we going to find a new tank? And how on earth were we going to pay for it?? We’d already had to shell out for two new carbon batteries in Spain and a whole slew of parts in France. Not to mention an extra month’s groceries in the most expensive country in Europe (a cooked chicken from a supermarket in Spain cost €5, in France it was €10) when we’d hoped to be in ‘bargain basement’ Greece by now.
When Papi and Sampson took it off and investigated the crack, they found the thin steel was rusting away from the inside, and was covered in algae too. It was a good job we discovered this now because the rusting bits would only have carried on clogging the filters. But at the time it was such a kick in the teeth.
When we went back to the garage in week five, I apologised to Papi for not being able to pay him any more cash just now. He just looked at me sideways and said “Did I ask for any?”
From this moment, Papi took on the job as his personal mission. This became his project as much as ours. Know how the French survived the Occupation? Stubbornness and determination, with a dash of inspired improvisation. Luckily for us, Papi has it all in spades.
First, he found this in the scrap yard next door:
But it was also the wrong size, so had to be turned round to squeeze into the space. So then Papi and Sampson had to re-engineer the feed pipes and battle with a baffle in the wrong plane…
This took another 2 weeks. Another. Two. Weeks.
With the tank off, we couldn’t move the truck at all. (Big Reg can’t start up on waste vegetable oil because the fuel first has to be heated and thinned by a running engine, so it needs to go three minutes on bio/diesel before we switch over.) This was particularly worrying when the threat of fire became very real:
On the bright side, Zola and I bashed through 10 weeks of school work in 7, there being not much else to do…
Zola and Mia used to run around the artic trailers lined up outside the garage every morning like it was a giant jungle gym. Zola can now parkour across remorques like no other person in Europe.
Towards the end of August, we got news of the tragically early death of a friend. It was the fourth this year. Sampson and I were dizzy with grief. It was deeply frustrating that, not only couldn’t we attend Bood’s memorial, but due to the horrendous costs of data-guzzling Orange, we couldn’t even get online to witness it.
On the day all of our friends gathered to celebrate his luminous spirit (thanks Helena), we were stuck in the garage, but the universe sent us this:
One of Eric’s chatty lorry drivers stopped to drop off this tiny scrap, that he’d picked up from the side of the road. The one-day old abandoned kitten was probably thrown out of a car, judging by her bloodied nose. Although far too young to tell, I immediately called her ‘she’: firstly in defiance of my husband assuming it was a ‘he’ and to teach my son that the default setting shouldn’t necessarily be male; secondly because there was quite enough yang energy in the truck already.
Lucky proved to share Bood’s spirit of playfulness and insistence on sheer unapologetic fun. (Six weeks later, she also proved to be a tom. However we’re so used to calling her ‘she’, we’re sticking with our trans-cat. Her vibe definitely helps to diffuse macho energy.)
Bood’s passing put our petty garage woes into perspective, while caring for this newborn helped us all through the surreal limbo of this time. I was very grateful to become punk à chat.
During the first week in September, mean temperatures suddenly dropped to below 20˚C, as the Mistral kicked the cold air back in.
At the time I wrote:
“The Circle of Purgatory reserved for me is a dusty garage forecourt at the mercy of both the heat of the August sun and the sharp September cold whipped in across the étang by the vicious Provence wind, le Mistral. The infernal buzzing of the giant pylon looming directly above us drones all through the night. By day, the relentless drilling of the clanking quarry machine in the industrial park on the other side of the highway sounds like a drunken woodpecker or one of those ridged primary school percussion instruments played with a scraper amplified to 1000 decibel levels. These noises are interrupted by the screech of the double storey metal doors of the carrosserie, like giant’s nails on a blackboard, where every other day they respray vehicles.
The heady paint fumes are so toxic for me that last night, when I woke at 3am feeling like my skull was about to implode, I just had to get away. I got up and walked up the mountain in the dark to the caves and slept outdoors wrapped in a blanket until dawn… I wasn’t scared, too worn out with the constant battle against oil and paint, oil and paint, walked all over the floor, clasped over handles and towels, dripped over bedding. All these fumes and dirt and noise against the constant backdrop of articulated lorries dropping off their remorques every hour of the day or night, but most often at 5pm and 5am, so we wake up completely parked in by trailers. Worst than feeling trapped is the sense of helplessness: I feel like a newborn kitten in the hands of fate, as there’s almost nothing I can do to get us out of here, it’s all down to Sampson. I’m just the translator.”
I don’t think my husband has ever worked so physically hard in his life as those 6 weeks. Every day at least 7 hours hard labour and straight through the last 3 weekends; he was utterly exhausted by the end of it. We may not have chosen this as our preferred way to pass the summer, but Sampson sure felt a lot more confident about setting out for Africa afterwards. He’d personally checked Big Reg over from top to toe, from tanks to engine to brakes, and he knew we were ready for Part 2.
Stèphane had said we wouldn’t be able to understand Papi’s accent, as Maurice speaks the thick patois of Provence, and at first he was right. But as the weeks wore on, and he came to share lunchtimes and teatimes with us, we learned to understand each other.
Sampson and he spoke an hilarious mixture of Franglais and sign language. They share a very silly sense of humour and used to hoot with laughter half the day. This was precious time for Sampson – he felt he was being granted an experience he longed for but never had with his father. Maurice, he said, has the same hands as Reg, mechanic’s hands: flattened fingers, skin engrained with oil, ridged nails.
Thanks to all the friendly people of le Côte Bleue we came to call family:
Michael, the little bagful of wild lavender from your garden continues to lift me in testing times, bless you!
Thanks also to the generous folk who replenished our waste vegetable oil stocks so Big Reg left France completely full and ready to cross Europe:
Driving on (tax-free) waste vegetable oil is illegal in France but a network of cooperatives called ‘Roule Ma Frite’ have been operating local recycling initiatives nationwide for more than a decade. Roule Ma Frite Perpignan and Roule Ma Frite Oléron clubbed together to donate 225L to us under the aegis of Oléo-Déclic, a magnificent non-profit enterprise in south Marseille that makes no charge to collect WVO from local restaurants before recycling it for heating oil, mostly for school radiators. They also successfully lobbied the government for a change in the law to make this legal.
We’re really looking forward to getting Alain together with our good friend Roy De Gouveia from BioGreen someday soon – they are brothers in oil! BioGreen South Africa has made such a difference by selling the environmental business case to companies such as Pick’n’Pay, Steers, Burger King and Woolworths. BioGreen recycles the waste oil from their kitchens to help power their delivery vehicles.
Our greatest contributor was M. Abdul Ali Doghmane, who, by mind-bending coincidence, had a waste oil collection business right next door to the garage. He sends it to Spain to be recycled for bio-diesel but very kindly donated more than 300L to us; his teenage sons also helped Aurelien and Zola get it on the roof. M. Doghmane is a most dignified, modest man and declined to be photographed, but we want to thank him publicly for demonstrating a key tenet of Islam: to give graciously whenever possible without thought of recompense.
Most of all thanks to our ‘nephew’ Aurelien, eyes as wide as the generosity of his spirit, and our Papi Maurice. We look forward to repaying their enormous kindness when they come to visit us in South Africa.
P.S. On the day we left Le Rove we bought this for Zola via Le Bon Coin, France’s equivalent of Gumtree:
Cyriac, the lovely man we bought the unicycle from, who’d given up trying to learn after 6 years, will be appalled to know Zola got the hang of it within 24 hours. Chapeau!