Brothership

Of all the countries on the European continent we were due to pass through, I only had misgivings about Albania. Beyond vague inferences concerning Balkan ‘baddies’ in Hollywood movies, I could find for no logical reason for this sense of unease. Albania seems to have a similar reputation in Europe as Nigeria has in Africa – undeserved shade thrown by a fistful of exported gangster heavies and underground smugglers that by no means reflects the majority of the population.

Zola pointed out to me that Voldemort had been banished to Albania: that probably explains it!

The road to the border began to look more like Africa than Europe:

The road to the border…

offered no signs, cones or danger tape…

to warn of sudden roadworks on a collapsed bridge halfway down a very steep slope

Men with shovels standing amidst the CAT vehicles, cheerfully called Big Reg over the half-repaired road. My Dad would have had a heart attack.

The slow-moving queue at the border checkpoint made us nervous, but turned out to be due to a computer malfunction. A frustrated official repeatedly scanned our passports, while a 6 foot tall Albanian policewoman in a black uniform with red piping looked on, rocking her knee high boots, full glamour make up and aviator shades. She looked like she was auditioning for Rizzoli and Isles and was prepared to kick ass at any moment. But they waved our Green Card insurance copies through, no problem.

We drove in still feeling a bit tense, but the first man driving a donkey cart we saw split his face into the widest toothless grin and waved – Sampson and I automatically both waved back, delighted. This was a different style ‘We Are Not Europe’: it was a relief to be beyond Euro norms, back in a relatively tourist-free zone where it was natural to acknowledge your fellow human beings.

To us, Albania came across…

as more friendly…

far more colourful…

and more house proud…

(they love balconies… and lime… and purple)

than Montenegro

Albanians seems to take great pride in their houses, which are often colourful, and always dripping with balconies, pot plants and trailing vines. The first mosque we saw had a Disney-esque dainty white fluted minaret, and a church right next door.

Peaceful vibes

Sampson stopped to change an oil filter, and asked for water outside a restaurant and function venue that looked like a castle. ‘Location location location’ seems not to be a principle applied in Albanian real estate investment; this enormous building deserved to be surrounded by rolling lawns if not a moat, but was slap bang next to the Rruga Nacionale. Milling young boys called a waiter called Emejdi who spoke awesome English and invited us round the back to fill up. He was almost fluent after only 5 years of lessons at school – an extraordinary achievement without ever interacting with a native speaker. I take my hat off to his teacher.

An Albanian’s home is his castle: crenellated grandeur of Vllazmia bar restaurant

l to r: Kristi Tali, Aurel Tali, Romaldo Kupa and Emejdi Lagi aged between 14-17

It was so cheering to meet a 17 year old sincerely saying “We work hard to support our parents where we can”. The four of them work there after school every day. They reminded me of my grandparents’ generation: short back and sides, work ethic and all. Emejdi taught us how to say ‘Thank you’ in Albanian – Faleminderit in case you ever need to know – and explained that Vllazmia was built by two brothers, is staffed by extended family and the word itself means (he hesitated for a moment as he sought the right translation) “Brothership”. What a gorgeous evocation of friendship and brotherhood, personified by these shy lads. Or I misunderstood and it just signifies the bros are football fans.

As we drove south, I reflected that a relatively poor Eastern European city looks very much like a relatively rich African city: the same half finished buildings, dodgy roads and lack of traffic lights. There seemed to be no town planning or zoning – residential, retail and industrial were all mixed in together. I kept seeing super modern corporate architecture, all angles and mirrored glass, next to crumbling appartment blocks or marooned like spaceships in the middle of arable land. Albania had an extra line in flourishes such as the mock mini-palace office two storey with a giant Buckingham Palace sized statue of rearing horses and a fountain.

No feed lanes resulted in occasional traffic chaos

There were also men en masse in bars drinking coffee in the middle of the day. I only saw one woman in a cafe in the whole of Albania. This was to become the norm back in North Africa, but at this point it still felt strange that half the population had just disappeared.

Apart from the ‘for sale’ signage that made Sampson snigger…

and the giant ‘EHW’ sausage adverts…

the most striking thing about Albania…

was the size of the petrol stations

These huge double volume service stations were always right next to an extraordinarily flash hotel and bar. The forecourts were generally empty. Was it a case of ‘Build it and they will come’ or some massive money-laundering loophole?

That night we pulled off at Eurostop, where friendly waiters were happy for us to sleep overnight and enjoy the free passwordless high-speed wifi. I ate the last of our tuna and sweetcorn soup and sat online late into the night scrolling through the latest in the post-Weinstein avalanche of ‘revelations’ which were not a surprise to me or anyone female. One of the reasons I got ME in the first place was the toll taken on my health fighting in vain for justice in a series of rape cases at college when I was Womens’ Officer.

Sampson was feverishly downloading podcasts – I’m not sure when I wrote the following but feel the need to include it for British readers:

* * *

I just found out via a comedy podcast that Jacob Rees-Mogg is standing for leadership of the Conservative Party. Quelle horreur. I only came across him once during my time at Oxford. It was my first week, when I went on an introductory tour of the Oxford Union – not the student union, OUSU, but the exclusive pseudo-gentlemen’s club which you had to pay an extortionate price to access. It wasn’t going to be an option for me, but as Benazir Bhutto had been a recent President, I was keen to sneak a peak at how this venerable university institution was evolving.

As we freshers filed through the foyer, Rees-Mogg was standing in the entrance hall. He was in front of a fire place, with his hands behind his back Prince Charles-style, wearing a tweed jacket and a bow tie, with his glasses and side-parting looking pompous and middle aged already. I laughed out loud and looked around to see if the others had noticed.
‘Good on ‘em!’ I thought, ‘Kudos to the Oxford Union for paying a student actor to perform the stereotype of upper class Tory twat to acknowledge how far they have moved beyond that, by inviting lower class yobs from the Midlands like me to join.’

As we were shepherded past, without comment from our guide, the dawning realisation that he wasn’t an artful parody but the genuine article was one of the many black-hole horrors I felt engulf me that first week. Another was the sentence I cut out and kept from the OUSU Handbook: “The good news is that Oxford has a thriving live music scene and a wide range of DJs and dance venues. The bad news is that every word of that is a lie.” No wonder that more often than not I was on the last coach up to real life in London every Friday night. Thanks to Sunship for keeping me vaguely sane…

* * *

I warned you these catch-up blogs were going to be random. Like my veiled awareness at the time – hazy with brief periods of shocking lucidity.

Welcome to Eurostop!

In Albania there were Euro mentions…

and EU flags everywhere…

It seemed weird that Montenegro and Albania were trying so hard to get into the EU when the UK was trying so hard to get out.

I was increasingly foggy: the slow undermining of the constant cold combined with exponential effects of longterm insomnia meant my capacity was on a slippery slope.  I kept missing photo opportunities as I was lacking quick reactions to pull my camera out in time. Holding it up for too long gave me debilitating arm ache the next day.

I will always regret not capturing the turkey herders! We saw so many but I never managed to snap in time.

As Big Reg trundled along, Sampson and I sat in the front with the puppy on a bit of old blanket on the floor between us and discussed names:

‘Stig’ seemed wrong…

‘Montenegro’ a bit too jingo-tastic for my liking…

‘Kernow’ not quite him…

Twiggy Ba(r)ker?

Sampson loved ‘Monte’ best and already he seemed like his dog.

Monte spent most evenings lying on Sampson’s chest till he got his strength up

Sampson was as patient and tender with him as a newborn…

cleaning up the wees he did on the floor and exclaiming in delight at “proper poos!”

We were lucky to find this beautiful spot…

past Fier by the river

where Daniel’s music and honey hut resides

It was the first time Monte stood up and walked

As Sampson coaxed Monte to explore, Zola and I took our French translation outside in the last of the sun at 5pm, while the cabbage was cooking and the rice fluffed in the hot box. We reflected that the cat had become ours by default.

I was so tired I slept through the mossies and Sampson wiping up Monte’s middle of night poo-on-the-floor that made him gag. It was so cold by the river, I was grateful Lucky came to snuggle on my feet.

Sampson took early pics of Albanian fishermen throwing nets like in Angola

In the morning, Daniel was bemoaning the constant tug-of-war that is Balkan politics: “Kosovo and Serbia, Macedonia and Greece, Turkey and Kurdestan – Albania, we don’t have a problem with no one”. He played me some wonderful a cappella music which he told me is one of two UNESCO protected pieces of Albanian heritage – the Balkan folk harmonies somehow reminded me both of Celtic ballads and isiXhosa throat singers. He sits here all day in his hut by the side of the river selling his CDs and listening.
“I love nature too much” said Daniel dreamily.

Sampson with Daniel Mehmetaj at Mallakastër Poem who gave us an Albanian folk CD to remember him by

We figured he must have a sideline; people on motorbikes were popping by till very late and we couldn’t imagine that their need for traditional folk songs was that urgent.

Sampson also chatted to a passing Polish couple, who were somehow managing to travel home from temporary work in Croatia without passports. This was certainly not Europe!!

Tom and Anya – hope you made it home!

We drove on through the countryside

Had to get out to take a closer look at this amazing bronze of Ali Pasha at Tepelene

looking over the western lands of the Ottoman Empire he ruled with an iron fist

More wifi and another bath for Monte at another huge Autostop

While others went about their daily business

The weedy among us rested

This was the first day Lucky and Monte started playing together.

We got to the border and found it closed! Apparently Greek customs officials were on strike. I was so glad that we were not stuck and forced to sleep in cars like others there. It was a great excuse to drive 30km back to the city of Gjirokastër, Albania’s second example of UNESCO World Heritage that Daniel had told me about.

Gjirokastër, from the old Greek for ‘Silver Town’

I left Zola doing school and Sampson walking Monte…

and set out for the fortress above…

the ‘City of Stone’

I slowly climbed up the hill thanking God we had stopped and parked below

– even cars were struggling to negotiate the steep corners in the old town

On the road up to the fortress…

there were a scattering of energetic old ladies selling crochet work and bits of filligree lace, one with amazingly long silver-grey plaits like a venerable Pippi Longstocking

From up here you could get the best look at the ancient stone houses for which Gjirokastër is famous

The fortress has been here since before the 12th century

Artillery captured by the Communist resistance against German occupation is displayed…

including Italian tanks

as well a US Air Force plane symbolising victory over the ‘imperialist’ western powers

Ali Pasha himself added the clock tower in 1812

and the extraordinary self-proclaimed King Zog expanded the prison in 1932

The National Folk Festival is held here annually

The views are stupendous

I began to understand the Albanian obsession with castles. There was a supreme feeling of safety and stability in the solidity of the stone.

The fortress gave me great perspective over the last few hundred years: like the view from the clock tower over the valley, I could take in the sweep of history from the might of the Ottoman Empire, over the Nazis and the Communist republic. The tanks in the gallery all pointed to the inevitable rise and fall of fascists and dictators. All oppression will eventually be overthrown as its excess becomes too much even for the apathetic or the brainwashed to bear. It was a comforting thought in the age of Trump and Zuma.

Hidden away towards the back of the castle…

was a sacred shrine of two Bektashi Sufi Babas from 16th and 17th centuries

Before I knew anything about the sect or their beliefs…

I was overcome with a feeling of great calm

I can’t explain the feeling that descended on me as I entered that tiny courtyard under the trees. At the time, I knew nothing about the Bektashi and their panentheism, or the widespread religious persecution in Albania under the socialist regime. An information panel on the wall told me that the Bektashis were not forbidden alcohol and women went unveiled in public. Their were no gender divisions within the tekke and no strict rules on times of prayer or fasting. Above all, Bektashism taught tolerance of different nations and religions.

The tranquility of the Babas’ tomb wasn’t just generated by the green leafy calm and the lilting birdsong echoing off the ancient stone walls; no, there was something more tangible, created by hundreds of years of prayer, offerings and reflection in this glade. Great great peace.

This was the last time I walked anywhere alone for three months.

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We Are Not Europe

You are going to have to bear with me for the next few blogs. I usually write my most vivid impressions down as we’re going along, and polish them up for consumption later, but from November to February I was too unwell to type anything insightful at all. I’m having to put these recollections together from scribbles in my diary.

I am going to leave them, patchy and uneven as they are, because that is the only way to do justice to my memories of places that are hazy, blurred by brain fog.

* * *

We crossed Bosnia-Herzegovina in 15 minutes. Or at least, the sliver of it that lies between two tranches of Croatia, with the tiny town of Neum its one foot on the coast. As now it seems almost everyone is “famous for 15 minutes” as Warhol predicted, I’m going to be the first to assert that, in the future, everyone will spend 15 minutes in each country.

Welcome to Bosnia’s 20km of coastline

Bit more cramped than Croatia’s

Disappointingly, Big Reg didn’t encounter any wild boar

It’s a complete sham of course: I can’t say I’ve “been to Bosnia”. These pics are the equivalent of barging in for a selfie with a celeb and then telling everyone you’re BFFs. You need a week minimum to get even a taste of a place and a month is preferable to soak in its atmosphere. Passport stamping in-and-out stuff is pointless. Reminds me of those twerps who used their interailing ticket to try and ‘tick off’ all European countries within a month. It’s no coincidence that the places we’ve loved most deeply during our travels are the ones we spent the longest time in: Liberia and Senegal.

Now this guy is genuinely famous – so proud to see Black Coffee posters all along the Adriatic coast advertising summer gigs we’d just missed

*  *  *

Back in Croatia, we pulled over in a convenient bay for an early night, where a coachload of tourists from USA were already paddling and swimming. We could tell they were American because we couldn’t help hearing their accents – two of the women were talking so loudly, we could hear every word despite being 100m away. Why do so many Americans think it’s OK to dominate public space? I was tempted to ‘have a word’ but was just too tired. I sat on a low wall and watched them shout platitudes at each other across the water.

A lovely overnight spot

except when the peace is shattered by the shameless

I’d been trying to talk to my husband about my declining health, but he was resisting. The worse I get, the more his back hurts him, like his body is performing the equivalent of “la la la I can’t hear you”. He has always relied on me to be the strong, resilient one, and I know my increasing frailty frightens him. I understand that. But sometimes it feels like he subconsciously punishes me for daring to share, implying I shouldn’t mention my vulnerability as it’s a threat to his fragile mental health. I can’t bear the ‘listing of symptoms’ becoming a competitive sport, so I shut up.

But loneliness compounds suffering.

It wasn’t just the Americans. We were woken at 2am by a drunken old French couple in the camper next door showing off their fold-up bikes to another drunken old French couple. They were just enjoying life, wine and being jolly bon-viveurs and I felt bad interrupting with an “Excusez-moi, on essaye dormir…” They weren’t to know they had bombed my rest and condemned me to a day of pain.

I didn’t get back to sleep till 6am when I dreamed I somehow reached my hand through the wooden headboard to hold Sampson’s hand. When he woke up, the first thing he did was to stretch his hand over the top to find mine. Only the chronically sick will understand how something so small can be so comforting.

Martin Kapfhammer, a German cyclist who’d asked us for water two nights previously, saw us exercising and stopped off specially to have a chat, bless him. It was lovely to have a conversation with such a thoughtful young person. He’s not overkeen on Angela Merkel, too at the whim of voters in his opinion, with no firm policy on refugees “or indeed anything”.

Adventurer Martin, whom we hope to see in South Africa one day

I replied wistfully that the lack of backbone in a leader was such a European problem, on a different level from ours – hanging on to our civil liberties and state integrity by our fingernails in the face of the Zupta onslaught. Martin got my point, “but we should all be better!” His righteous indignation really cheered me up and he sheepishly overcame any German reserve when I gave him a big African hug goodbye !

I sunnily greeted the hungover Frenchies too; they seemed relieved. But it was tough climbing back up into the truck.

As we drove into the historic town of Dubrovnik, Sampson became nervous. I leant out to ask a couple of police what the height restrictions on the bridges were, but they didn’t know! We just had to chance it…

Are you feeling lucky, punks?

Suddenly Big Reg found himself next to a fort…

with enormously thick walls…

There was nowhere to park…

no way out but to be funnelled down the one way…

squeezed between castle and fortified wall and praying we’d make it underneath…

then flushed out onto a packed square heaving with 1000 tourists who’d just disembarked from the cruise ships in the harbour

This pic of 12 storey beast courtesy Zola Sampson

Apparently the popularity of Dubrovnik as a destination has boomed in recent years thanks to its appearance as ‘Kings Landing’ in Game of Thrones and ‘Canto Bight’ in The Last Jedi. We decided against battling the throng to see inside, but drove up out of town and were rewarded with a spectacular view from above. It was the only way for me to see the city without exhaustion.

I can’t tell you how elated I was not to have missed it entirely 🙂

Try lining up the next three images left to right

in your mind, to get a sense of

the spectacular panorama, ‘cos I’m too foggy to work out how to

I bet this cable car view is nearly as good as Table Mountain’s

encompassing the magnificence of the Minceta Tower

Dubrovnik Cathedral

and the graceful sweep of the harbour of this once independent maritime republic

Keep hold of your energy and carry on

* * *

First impressions of Montenegro were not good.

We hit the border at 4pm on Sunday, perfect timing when aiming for the least chance of getting hassled about leaving the EU. But no one was bothered about customs clearance for our tyres: instead we got hustled for extra vehicle insurance. We weren’t anticipating any trouble as we’d paid for 3 months’ ferociously expensive Green Card Euro-wide cover (mostly squandered while stranded stationary in a French garage) and then extended it for Sept and Oct.

But the border official rejected the proof emailed by our Dutch insurer parrotting “nothing online, originals only” and referred me to “the Chief”. I stood waiting for ages in the cold outside an empty booth, until a Basil Fawlty-esque bloke arrived, all uniformed and uptight. He blatantly ignored me and went and sat inside. I recognised the type, sighed internally and waited another 5 minutes before knocking.

I became irreproachably polite. I even crouched down so I was lower than where he sat, half to perform deference, half because I was just too damn tired to carry on standing. I didn’t dispute his premise of never accepting online copies, just pointed out that we live in a truck and thus have no address to which to mail originals, so how were we to proceed?

I then made the mistake of mentioning that our online evidence had been accepted everywhere else across Europe. Mr Arsey bristled.
“We are not Europe!”
He nearly spat the words. I don’t know if I was reading into it, but his statement seemed both defiant and resentful at the same time. Montenegro has been negotiating the manifold hurdles to its formal entrance to the EU since 2012. So officially #This Is Not Europe? Brexiteers take note: it sucks being sidelined.

I think this was the first time on our journey that I met a border official who was absolutely immovable. His whole demeanor radiated brick wall. I was completely prepared to fight this blatant injustice on principle, ring Holland the next morning and get Maria to DHL the Green Card to Dubrovnik or speak to Mr Arsey personally – until I found out from the prematurely weary young man in the insurance office opposite that local insurance cover for a car was €15 for 15 days. He didn’t deny the listing of Montenegro on our Green Card was valid or that the copy was “Fine by me, but policeman…” He let his sentence’s tail-off do the talking.

So basically this insurance policy is a state-sanctioned swindle (like the Mauritanian border). The con was beautifully judged – not so expensive anyone could be bothered to complain, but not so cheap it wasn’t adding up a tidy amount for every European car queuing to cross the border that day. I paid for €18-worth of flimsy tissue paper to cover the truck and returned to find a young Italian woman having the exact same argument with Mr Arsey, waving a cell phone photo of her Green Card in vain. The way he was behaving with her made me more angry than the way he spoke to me: he was obviously getting such a kick out of wielding his little bitter bit of power. There was just no need to shout so much or refuse to listen to a word she said in such a disdainful manner.

I got back to the truck about 5pm to find Sampson chatting merrily to a Mossel Bay couple in the queue who greeted him when they saw the CA numberplates!

Montenegro initially looked a bit scruffier and dodgier than Croatia…

but maybe that was the effect of a plethora of poor design, bad fonts and no proof reading

The billboard blessings made up for it: ‘I give you my peace’ and ‘Mother with us’ in Montenegrin

We pulled over in a superb place at the opening of a massive quiet bay just beyond a busy ferry crossing. I was so glad I’d cooked our veggie supper at lunch time, in anticipation of border crossing day. I wasn’t up to standing up over a stove after all that.

Lying on the bed while the food was warming up, I scrolled through the news on Twitter – on top of everything else, it was the week of #MeToo. It was like watching the same frustrated rage I felt as Women’s Rep at my college on behalf of the raped-and-silenced ripple and magnify a million times. Have we advanced so little in 30 years?

That night, I dreamt a Mr Gradgrind-browed school caretaker in a dark uniform had been prodding my breasts under the guise of repositioning a necklace of words lying across my chest. I was laid out on a table with a crowd of girls watching as he leant over me, and I woke myself up shouting forcefully “If. You. Touch. A. Woman. Without. Her. Consent. That. Is. Sexual. Harassment!!!” Hmmm. Metaphor for yesterday revealing my deep-seated anger at toxic masculine authorities’ ongoing abuse of power at all?

GOOD MORNING MONTENEGRO!

Big Reg dwarfed besides the vast Bay of Kotor

We set off after Maths, as usual

Zola and I were trying to do a deadly dull English lesson

but kept being mesmerised

by the views through the window

Montenegro was like Croatia on steroids –

the mountains seemed sterner…

slopes steeper…

islands rockier…

beaches longer

and hotels bigger.

It

was

breathtaking

Montenegro seemed to be trying hard to sell itself but coming across a bit ‘trashy cougar’ compared to the delightfully understated Croatia – lots of flashy casinos. The road was also much bumpier here. It was hard going in the back.

Really?

Rather let nature do the talking

Away from the tourist centres…

Montenegro’s hidden corners…

had a fairytale quality

of mystery and magic

Boys digging it

but I couldn’t get down and up again so stayed in the truck

I was busy filling in parental consent affidavits to support Ruby’s Egyptian visa application. We paid for wifi in cafés en route by buying a hot chocolate, and as we passed through Croatia, Montenegro and Albania they got steadily thicker and stodgier as the weather got colder! It was now getting dark by 5pm. I was loving listening to Sampson and Zola chat over their stretching and unicycling before turning in for the night.

My ME-induced insomnia had settled into a ruthless pattern: no matter what I tried, I would wake at 3am and only be able to drop off again at 6, if I was lucky. Those two hours after dawn have always been my favourite time, when I walked beaches all along the West Coast of Africa. But now they were the difference between being mobile that day or not, being in bearable or debilitating pain. I had to sleep. I had to teach. But there was no energy left for anything beyond that.

‘Patience is its own reward’

so they told me in 1992

* * *

Overnight spot on the road to Ulcinj

in somewhat trashy Montenegro

My husband doesn’t like walking. In all these years he’s rarely come with us for a walk on the beach unless there was a surf at the end of it. So why on earth Sampson chose this day to walk up a hill to take a look at the dump at the top of it we’ll never know. He heard a tiny yelp and this little feller crawled out:

Meet Stig of the Dump

an abandoned Dobermann puppy, about 8 weeks old

too weak to make another sound for days

He looked like he’d been there a week without food or water and couldn’t stand. Sampson came back crying at the state of him, bathed and dried him like a baby, fed him bread and milk and mopped up his frothy diarrhoea.

This is why I love him folks.

Awwww – that takes me back

His innate nurturing skills cannot be faulted

Should we call the little feller Luckier?

What Europeans throw away: a diesel tank, an old patchwork quilt, a pedigree puppy. #ThisIsEurope!

Come in and meet the fam

Lucky bemused

That afternoon, when I sent pics to Ruby on WhatsApp, she immediately burst into tears and sent us a sobbing voice note expressing her profound joy! What a pair of oversensitive wazzocks I’ve got 🙂

I messaged my best friend, “Obviously, we can’t keep him, but hopefully he’ll live and we can give him away to someone kind in Greece before we put the truck on the ferry…”

Hmmm

Posted in 20a Europe | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Turning the Corner

It’s been so long since I’ve posted a blog, not because I’ve been too lazy or too busy, but because I’ve been too unwell. One of my New Year’s Resolutions is to be more upfront and unapologetic about the effects of having M.E. so please let me attempt to explain how my capacity unravelled over the last few months. I beg you to bear with the patchiness of my recollections – brain fog’s a bitch, but I’m still here underneath.

It was great to be moving again. We hit the road out of Milan playing ‘Name That Tune’ shuffling an 80s hits compilation Sampson had downloaded at Luca’s. Singing along to Katrina and the Waves’ Walking on Sunshine, I felt ridiculously happy.

Off we go again

Our original plan to visit northern Italy in August and move down the Adriatic coast in September would’ve been perfect for me climate-wise. Late in October it felt like we were pushing our luck. Mountains seemed to be bearing down on me, their snowy tops threatening.

Brrrrrrrrr

Big Reg drove as quickly and directly as possible, while forking out for as few euro-munching tolls as we could wangle. Not easy.

But we had a couple of very lucky breaks. Firstly, we pulled off the road in Precenicco, and by chance parked overnight next to the Mariussi Mercedes Benz service garage. In the morning surfer/biker Luigi Mariussi came out to take a pic and Sampson ended up being given fiddly parts for the diesel tank he’d just spent a whole month looking for fruitlessly in Marseille.

Thanks to Luigi at Mariussi Mercedes Benz…

and his employees Ethiopian Thewongel Yeshak and Emanuele Framzo for the fuel pipe connector

here where Italy flows into Slovenia

Secondly, before we left Milan, at the point in the admin avalanche when (after making the AA vehicle deposit and paying for carnet, ferry and assorted flights) we thought we were just going to make it into Egypt by the skin of our financial teeth, we were told that the cost of getting Big Reg out of Alexandria port was going to be €920. It was non-negotiable and a real kick in the teeth. We were down to the wire so Sampson asked his brother Paul if he could assist by advancing us a month’s rent from their Mum’s old house.

He replied that, as he was sitting at his computer wondering how else he could help, news came through from the probate lawyers about the liquidisation of a long forgotten offshore investment of their Mum’s. It had been delayed due to a rejected photocopy of a document; when the shares were sold he reckoned the proceeds should come in at about £2000.

When I got his email I started crying. It was like a sign from heaven. Without Joy we’d never have survived this journey: even though she passed on just after we left in 2013, she’s provided us with the shelter of her house when we got derailed by Ebola in 2014, rental income to cover Ruby’s boarding fees so we could carry on in 2016 and now emergency cash to get Big Reg back over the sea to Africa. It was like she was prodding from the other side to make sure we made it over this bump in the road!

Thanks Mum: Joy Sampson on her 70th birthday in 2004

The bright side of the 6 week delay in France, was that this side of Europe was much emptier than it would have been in high summer. Zola was very relieved as he hates crowds, especially lily-white ones. He feels too conspicuous. We both couldn’t wait to get back to Africa.

Our son was in fullblown teenage transition. The most obvious sign was his sleeping: waking him up in the morning was becoming more and more difficult. It seemed incredible that just over a year ago he was leaping up at dawn to walk with me on the beaches of Morocco. He was changing so quickly, almost weekly, and I felt so glad I was right next to him witnessing it. His shoulders were suddenly twice the width of his waist – even he couldn’t believe it when we measured him! His face was rapidly losing its rounded boyishness; as his face lengthened, his jaw line was becoming as prominent as his stubbornness.

The Guilty Feminist podcast had overtaken Claire in the Community as his favourite thing to listen to while doing the washing up, which, in the absence of his sister, was now his sole responsibilty. I must say he handles the relentlessness of the chore better than she would have. He loses himself in his music, jamming on the keyboard or rapping along to downloads.

We drove across sunny Slovenia in 45 minutes. Autumnal colours of the falling leaves were reflected in the terracotta and Tuscan yellow houses. Here, where Italy meets the Dinaric Alps and warm Mediterranean colour meets Swiss order, they had the same cute shutters, but more chocolate box prettiness – ‘Heidi’ vibes were creeping in. It was fascinating to see the countries flow into each other.

Wish I could taste how they do too, hey Juz?

I felt embarassed to be so ignorant about Eastern Europe. Until now, pouring over Papi’s maps, I had no idea Croatia calls itself Hrvatska, Montenegro is actually Crna Gora or Albania is known locally as Shqipëria, Land of the Eagles. I was also rather delighted to discover that Viola must have been shipwrecked somewhere along this coast, for “This is Illyria lady”. Finally we’d turned the corner and were heading due south towards Africa and proper sunshine with warmth in it – I was just praying we’d get there in time.

Turning the corner –

at long last, we were heading south

It had been an ambition of mine to visit Croatia since I met a wonderful Croatian girl in Prague in 1992. (She’s now a wonderful woman who lives in Scotland.) So despite the delay, I insisted we not put the Big Green Truck on a ferry from southern Italy to Egypt but stick to our original plan of driving 2000km along the Adriatic coast.

Welcome to Hrvatska!

Croatia did not let me down. It was by far the most beautiful place we saw in Europe, with the bluest sky and the most spectacular lonely coastal road. Imagine driving from Camps Bay to Chapman’s Peak, but for three solid days, with ever more stunning views around every bend… it was like that.

Gobsmackingly lovely

with a bit of this

and a lot of that

Hooray for Croatia!

The sea was clear as crystal and just as cold: Sampson went swimming at Sveti Juraj at 19˚ while I could barely stand the icy wind coming off the mountains on the islands of Krk and Rab opposite.

Fancy a dip?

Both the boys ventured down…

but only Sampson was nuts enough to dive in

Zola found more sensible ways to exercise: unicycling on a wall

Our first morning in Croatia, Zola was still asleep and we were outside doing our exercises in Novi Vinodolski when a local smoking outside the café opposite came to greet us, in valiantly broken English. When he heard which continent we had crossed, he pulled a face and wondered if we weren’t frightened of “black people from the jungle with red things in their hair?” Seems some Croatians’ ignorance about Africans is on the same scale as mine about Eastern Europeans. #This Is Europe!

Does the somewhat phallic symbolism of the harbourside mural in Novi Vinodolski…

celebrate the might of Croatia’s Christian heritage?

Meandering through the small towns and villages from Senj to Maslenica…

on a road sweeping above then below…

it just kept getting more and more beautiful

The skies were as astounding…

as the seas

It seemed like an endless thrill ride

with occasional hearts in our mouths

and a multitude of delights in our eyes

Olive orchards and vineyards stretched over the hillsides all the way down to the Adriatic. It was relatively underdeveloped, how I imagined the South of France looked like 50 years ago, and the light was glorious. If it was warmer, I would love to live here.

But my God it was cold.

Overnight above the Bay of Novigrad

When the temperature drops below 20˚C I  experience dramatically negative effects on my health, as do many people with ME (pwME). Every degree lost equals a reduction in my capacity of about 10%. I’d been just about managing to function at 18˚C in Italy. But in Northern Croatia, with a biting wind blowing down off the Alps, when it dropped to 13˚C inside overnight, the cold became crippling.

After a good sleep (under two sleeping bags, wearing my sheepskin hoodie over my pyjamas) I might wake up relatively warm and manage to get outside for T’ai Chi only to realise I have zero energy. It’s like I’m failing to recharge overnight and my batteries are flat. So even though I’ve been in bed for 11 hours and asleep for maybe 8 or 9 of them, I’m still operating on the equivalent power of 3 or 4 hours’ sleep. Every day. And that’s a good night.

After a bad one, it takes me 2 hours to get up. I wake dizzy and completely disorientated as if I’ve just stepped off a fairground ride. I feel sick with nausea and my heart is racing like I’ve been running all night. I have arthritic pain in my joints and when I step out of bed, the soles of my feet feel like I’m walking on needles. I can’t speak because everything is too raw and I’m overwhelmed by sensory perceptions – light is brutal, any noise booms and the cold is a violent assault. I can’t be hugged because it hurts.

I drag myself up, start T’ai Chi, and slowly begin to feel a bit better as the movement gently thaws my body. When sun breaks through, the warm makes such a difference to my feeling of wellness, it feels like a blessing.

It was sad that all the blackberries had shrivelled on the bushes before we could get there to pick them.

At 13˚C inside, it was 10˚C outside and 8˚C in the oil tanks – no wonder Big Reg was struggling as much as me. It was taking a lot longer than normal for the heat exchange plate to warm the waste veg oil enough for it to flow through the pipes like diesel. We were forced into extreme measures:

Using a boogie board to keep the radiator cosy!

On day two we drove from Zadar to the posher end of the coast, south of Split. There was a marked return of “Massive Yachts” (in the accent of the Russian dealer in Cabin Pressure) we last saw in Cannes. I was very sorry to miss Diocletian’s Palace – but I was not strong enough to go and walk around the town.

Massive Yachts. For Ann-Sofie xxx

and more stunning views

At 4pm, I had to go and lie down in the back. My whole head was throbbing, my brain feeling bruised. I kept waiting to come round but somehow the Ibuprofen wasn’t working. Finally Sampson said “You’re feeling shaken-in-the-cab again” and I realised he was right: I was feeling as bad after 2 days on a good tar road as I did after 6 days in the tumble dryer on the Road to Foulamori in Guinea in 2015. It was a blow to realise how much weaker I’d got since then.

The next day we pulled off here outside Camping Linda in Lokva Rogoznica to rest

The boys climbed down to go snorkelling

whilst Lucky and I restricted ourselves to more modest pursuits

Utterly exhausted, I couldn’t go down 100 steps to the sea,  but cooked supper at lunchtime then lay down to write.

It was Zola’s first day back to school in term 4 and for English that morning, he’d had to do an unprepared speech. I set the topic as “I’m looking forward to travelling down the East Coast of Africa because…” and he said, without hesitation, “My sister is coming.” GULP.

What a darling

Waking up the next morning, I initially felt bit better but quickly realised that I was running on empty again; somehow all the energy had been knocked out of me as if I’d been winded with a baseball bat. So we stayed an extra day.

Not a bad place to have to stick around in

Sampson helped me hang the handful of pants and socks I hand washed in the sink

but it still left me with dead arm pain the day after. pwME call this post-exertional malaise (PEM)

A few hours of unbroken sleep bolstered me into waking Zola with a blast of Anarchy in the UK on day 3. I was surprised to reflect on how tuneful and lyrically complex this classic from Never Mind the Bollocks was compared to modern toons – 3 verses! I am definitely getting old.

Goodness knows what we’re doing to the poor kid

We moved a couple of km along to Auto Camp Sirena

whose genial owner generously offered us water and a free berth

Back in dubious Maths territory, the brain fog common to pwME wasn’t helping me grapple to explain negative integers to Zola. I comforted myself that for him to see me battling to understand but persevering was a good lesson in itself.

Long faces and long nails over maths

I was hammering away at the satirical This Is Europe blog. When she was featured on Desert Island Discs, Sandi Toksvig described the process of editing as filleting a fish, delivering only the best to the reader. But for me, editing is more like sculpting: an infinitely delicate chipping away to achieve an ultimate smoothness that looks effortless. But the sudden yawning gaps in my brain were affecting my judgement, my capacity to make connections. Everything was too jagged.

That afternoon Hub helped me down the shallower slope of Sirena to the sea

In a special hour in the heat of the day, he found these for me

and explained how sea urchins work – how had I not known till now?!

We lay on the beach until it got too cold at 3.30pm. Ruby was pouring her heart out to me over WhatsApp: how she’d cried in Afrikaans class today because she felt so humiliated. She’d missed 31 months of Afrikaans lessons between 2013-2016, but her teacher was making her feel like she was stupid or lazy. The school could not allow her drop it and substitute French for Matric because Western Cape Education Dept rules state that exemption from Afrikaans can only be granted after 2 consecutive years out of the country.

We’d submitted an appeal late in 2016 (explaining that I would have taught Afrikaans if there was a textbook available in English) but despite dozens of chasing emails had not yet received a response from the WCED. I felt terrible about this unintended consequence of travel for our daughter; she was scoring above 70% in her other subjects, but her 20-30% in Afrikaans was bringing her average way down.

One of worst things about being a person with ME is the appalling insomina. Cruelly, the tireder we get, the less capable we are of recuperative sleep. That night, I got less than 2 hours. I don’t know how I managed to shower the next day, let alone teach. Zola was recalcitrant, mulishly resisting my efforts to illuminate the subtraction of negative integers. In end I confronted him: “Why this sulky overreaction to constructive criticism? This is not preprimary school, where encouragement comes before everything else. I need to correct you when you’re wrong, before you go miles off course.”

When I wondered if he thought that I thought he was stupid and thus so touchy  – “that’s the negative voices in your head saying you’re stupid, not me” – the penny dropped. I saw realisation dawn in his face. I suspect he may have been telling himself he’s stupid since Grade 2 when his (old, white) teacher assumed all the Xhosa kids in her class were dim (rather than labouring under the burden of trying to learn maths in a second language). It took her till term 4 to realise he was “actually quite bright” – always the tone of surprise, grrrrrr.

Later, after supper, Zola said “I think I learned a good lesson today”. Bless him. He’s so gracious, especially compared to his sister at 13 – and she’d be the first to agree with me. He also did some brilliant conjugating of French reflexive verbs that his Dad certainly couldn’t do!

We moved on down the Makarkska Riviera

It just got wilder…

and prettier around every corner

until Sampson lucked upon the best spot so far

Big Reg squeezed in under the trees…

to this tiny picnic area that was 50 kuna a day in summer, but deserted now

Beyond exhausted, I crashed out that night and managed to achieve a decent sleep. It was a joy to wake to less pain and the sound of sea washing against shingle. Zola and I walked uphill around the corner and were rewarded with the most turquoise and cobalt sea ever. It was a privilege to share the great peace of walking not talking with my boy. We turned back when we reached a village – he shrank from seeing strangers. At times like this, I sorely regret taking him away from the close friends he is comfortable with.

On the way home he ran back to fetch my camera so I could snap this shot of the bay we parked in

And capture the sea’s dozen different shades of blue:

from cobalt to the most exquisite turquoise.

It was Juzzie heaven.

Zola brought my camera back on his unicycle (I wasn’t going to make it up here twice)…

and managed to whizz back down this slope…

and around this corner without coming off!

Gotta love this zoom and that kind boy

I was so thrilled to get these pics and will forever feel touched and grateful that he ran to do this for me without complaint.

Sampson soaking up some Croatian solar power

We did afternoon school on the beach that day, after a picnic tray lunch of cheese, lettuce and grapes. Zola amused himself by teasing his Dad, tickling his feet, throwing pebbles and acting all innocent until caught out.

I captured these shots of him on the cusp between boy and man.

So forgive me…

for being a bit self-indulgent…

but just how mischievously beautiful is this boy?

Don’t

let

his

avoidance of the spotlight

fool you into thinking

he’s not got anything to say

While Sampson sunbathed, Zola and I moved into a rocky corner to avoid the chill wind. He interrupted me as I started to warn him about danger of wedging a deckchair backwards on a shingley slope. You can imagine the painfully put-upon teenage tones:
“I know how to sit on a chair, Mom…”

Way too cool for school

Tsssssssst…

Whilst I was typing up a script I’d scribbled down first thing this morning, he was reading out water facts from his Life Orientation lesson in a shocked voice:
“It takes 200L of water to make 1L of milk??”
His textbook predicted that Cape Town would be water stressed by 2012. No kidding. The day before we’d found out about the new level 4b water restrictions for our drought-stricken home city and I’d woken up with a fully formed idea in my head of a useful video we could make. (We filmed it when Ruby joined us – see it here.)

Half an hour later, the chair subsided – luckily sideways not backwards, so he just missed falling into the sea!

He had grace to laugh with me and let me take this.

It was a wonderful day. I felt like I’d achieved a lot and would sleep well. But another ghastly night followed. I woke every hour and never got down deep enough to recovery level. Aching and sweating, I felt so unwell I couldn’t get comfortable and woke with my heart thumping, feeling like I couldn’t breathe. On nights like this, pwME wake up more exhausted than when they went to bed because it feels like they spent all night fighting to sleep.

That morning 14th Oct, I wrote in my diary:
“Seriously I wouldn’t be surprised if I had a heart attack any time from now, it doesn’t feel like it’s coping. I don’t feel scared, just relieved we set off travelling when we did. I’m enfeebling at such a rate of knots, it feels like it will be a miracle to make it home.”

* * *

Billy Connolly once said “There’s no such thing as bad weather, just the wrong clothes”. We’d only planned to be in Europe during summer, so had packed all our winter gear back into the attic at Noordhoek before we left Cape Town (thanks Eckleys) and couldn’t afford to spend euros on jerseys or coats that we would only need for a couple of months. The solution? Back in France, Sampson had delighted in digging around in recycling bins for second-hand clothes. “Fishing” he called it.
“Well,” he said, “it says here they’re meant for Africa; we’re just delivering more directly”. Shameless.

As soon as the cold hit, he took every opportunity to poke around trying to extract a jersey big enough for him and at last succeeded in snagging a spectacularly ugly padded gilet as well as these municipal worker trousers for Zola.

Sampson fished these rather fetching baggy clown trousers out of this bin with a stick

In Italy, a kind delivery man at IN’s supermarket left three bagfuls of labelled street wear outside the truck at 6am, which gave Zola a completely new winter wardrobe.

Best of all was when we pulled over outside an antiques market in Antibes. Amongst the artisanal coffee and heaps of bric-a-brac were piles of second-hand clothes of astonishing quality. There were rails and rails of pure wool and even fur coats. I snapped up a €2 pair of T’ai Chi troos and a much needed jersey for Hub for €3.

Sampson modelling his new gear

But the very first thing I saw was this patchwork quilt. I knew immediately it was exactly what Sampson was wanting for his bed. I had already commandeered Ruby’s extra sleeping bag as well as our one blanket and he was struggling with just one layer. I’d envisaged what he needed, something light enough not to weigh on his bad back and wide enough not to slip off with his constant tossing and turning. And there it was: perfect.

What is magical about patchwork is that each of the patterns sampled may be quite ugly in isolation: old curtains, ancient duvet covers, faded and unfashionable colours or prints. But it is the very act of recycling – searching out the best bits, placing them carefully in relation to each other and stitching them together so diligently – which makes them beautiful. Every morning when I lift and fold this blanket, I can feel the love in it, of the woman who worked the thousands upon thousands of tiny uneven stitches by hand, all those years ago.

This blog is the patchwork quilt I am slowly sewing for my children, to comfort and warm them in wintry times to come.

Lovelovelove

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We Interrupt This Blog To Bring You….

Happy New Year from the Sampson family.

Family Sampson selfie in Giza, Dec 2017

If you would like to understand why I keep falling behind with this blog, what ‘relapse’ means to me and how I become too weak to write, please join us in the Big Green Truck this Friday 5th Jan to watch the film UNREST, which recently made the documentary shortlist for the Oscars. Our virtual House Party screening is part of the Time for Unrest global initiative to raise awareness about M.E.

I fell ill in 1992, after contracting dysentery while travelling in Asia post-glandular fever during my final year at Oxford. I was diagnosed with M.E. a year later by a reluctant GP who could find no other explanation for my bizarre range of debilitating symptoms. I spent 2 years mostly bedridden, and couldn’t work full time for another 4 years. I was strongest in my early thirties, but only held down a job by careful management of my work/rest ratio and a strict diet: no alcohol, no caffeine, no gluten, no sugar, no processed foods. Giving birth nearly killed me, as those of you who ever heard my husband’s amusing comedy routine about haemorraging on the sofa may remember. And I am one of the lucky ones: 25% of people with M.E. never make it out of their darkened bedrooms.

If you ever wondered why I came to South Africa in the first place, why I didn’t pursue my career in comedy/carnival/academia, why I abandoned eMzantsi life to travel Africa Clockwise with a kitchen and a bed in tow – I hope watching UNREST might help explain and excuse my absences.

I haven’t seen the film yet, and I fear that even this revealing glimpse into the lives of people with M.E. is limited to the view of a privileged minority who have enough energy and resources to make movies about it. But nevertheless it is a huge achievement and a massive step forward for the ‘Millions Missing’ who continue to suffer from invisible illnesses and the stigma around them. If you can, pledge to download a digital copy and join the Sampsons, who will be watching somewhere in Egypt at 7pm on Friday 5th Jan, and invite as many friends, family and medical professionals as possible to join you.

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Fashion Week

The day we arrived in Milan, we drove straight in to the NE area of Padova and found our friend Luca’s street quite easily, but identifying his apartment was another matter. After I’d walked up and down a few times and figured out it had to be somewhere between the clearly labelled smart block no 15 and no 10 marked on the other side, I asked a young ambulance driver who was parked on the pavement if he spoke English and if this building was indeed number 11?
“Ah yes” he said “But it’s not a good place.”
“You don’t think so?” I replied quizzically.
“No,” he said, thoughtfully, shaking his head, “Noooooo”.

Certainly, the block had certainly seen better days maintenance-wise. It was crumbling, mouldy and couldn’t remember when it had last seen a lick of paint. Five stories of flats were stacked high round a courtyard like a pile of old magazines with torn bits sticking out: bicycles on every level, blankets and washing hung airing from every balcony, toddlers’ heads poking from in between. But as I walked in, a shaft of golden afternoon light glittered down across the bins and I felt there was something magical about it. Something Dickensian. It felt like a treasure trove of stories.

Luca’s Milano apartment block

I approached two young men sitting in one corner and smiled hopefully, knowing what I was about to say sounded ridiculously ignorant: “Sorry I don’t speak Italian… I’m looking for Luca?” They called a 9 year old girl who seemed to be the oracle when it came to knowledge of the block. “Luca the Italian?” she asked “Er… yes” I responded, confused – was this not Italy? “Oh, over there then” she pointed to the opposite corner… It was only later that I realised that, of course, Luca was probably the only person of Italian parentage in the whole block – and even he wasn’t born here, he was born in Liberia.

According to Wikipedia, Milan is the most cosmopolitan and multicultural city in Italy. The number of immigrants have doubled in the last 15 years and now make up 20% of the population. Luca’s building reflected a predominance of Egyptians, Romanians, Chinese and Peruvians whose paths had all led to them being here together. Their presence made the ambulance driver feel as uncomfortable as Nigel Farage on a London train, but I found the kaleidoscope of intwined origins fascinating. I think Luca feels the same, which is why he has remained when many other Italians have moved out.

Luca’s gate slides on recycled rollerblades. Doncha just love him already?

We met Luca Bai Varaschini that fabulous Christmas we spent in Liberia back in 2015. Within 5 minutes of chatting to him on the beach, we recognised a kindred spirit. Luca’s father was the local doctor in Robertsport back in the 60’s and Luca spent his childhood there. He is proudly Liberian and unhappy that, as a ‘non-negro’ person, he is denied citizenship under the constitution even though he was born there. Perhaps this is why he finds it easier to empathise with his neighbours.

Despite the fact he is forbidden from owning land or property in Liberia, graphic designer Luca committed to spending time there annually since 2009. The year we met him, he was delighted to be rediscovering the people and places of his childhood. He was entranced with the environment, the scenery of wild Liberia, the red earth, the soft black rocks, the forest, the birds and the sea. All these are reflected in his most recent labour of love:

Luca has designed and illustrated a new version of Peter Pinney’s collected Legends of Liberia first published in 1954.

It is possibly the most beautiful book I’ve ever seen.

I haven’t been able to read much of it yet, because it’s too heavy for me to hold up in my present condition…

but I’m loving it when I can.

Luca’s book would make an awesome Xmas present for anyone who loves Africa or loves stories. If you’d like to order one, send me your details in the comments and I’ll hook you up.

On September 1st when the weather turned cold in France, I warned Mark that, as soon as the tank was fixed, we had to get moving as quickly as possible. I didn’t want a repeat of 2014 when my health deteriorated so fast as autumn came on in UK – from functional at the beginning of September to housebound by the end of November and mostly bedbound by January.

We had left the garage on Sept 11th, and motored steadily along south coast, chasing the tail of summer across Europe, with winter nipping at our heels. The roads around Nice and Cannes were still so crowded, it was probably a good job that we didn’t try driving through the Riviera in peak season. We entered Italy too late to do anything but drive straight across it – Luca had been expecting us since August and now there were only a few days left before he left again for Liberia. We are grateful that Papi had given us his maps of Italy and Europe to help us navigate.

Italy at last

I felt a little cheated that I was unable to show my son the baroque splendours of Rome, Florence and Venice but was recompensed with the unexpected joys of Luca’s tiny flat which was a work of art in itself. Every single inch was covered with enchanting images from his abundantly fertile mind, the vast majority made from recycled materials. Move over Michelangelo.

Welcome to Luca’s world, full of imaginative magic and sparkly mandarin cocktails

Every drawer and every shelf is teeming with treasures,

every nook and cranny of his flat…

is crammed with things to delight the heart and amuse the eye…

rewarding close attention…

and expressing his sheer love of life.

His kitchen particularly…

nourishes both body and soul…

and reflects his genius for recycling…

in endlessly creative ways

From keyrings…

to mobiles…

and more mobiles…

to models…

and the plane streaking across the ceiling!

I felt truly honoured to be offered a glimpse of this bijou gallery. I can honestly say I got as much pleasure from it as I did from spending an afternoon at the gorgeous Galleria d’Italia       perusing the great 19th century portraits of the city.

Even the reading material next to his toilet is collectible:

Even Luca’s loo is a delight:

Check the Sears catalogue from the year of my birth 1970

I’m sorry but I can’t resist showcasing some of my favourite pages:

“His ‘n’ Hers” coordinated knits…

Matching pyjamas for the Whole Family *shriek*

“Today: the Dynamic Look of BROWN” *snigger*

“ANYTIME’S the RIGHT TIME for… PANTS” *falls off chair*

With Big Reg ensconced in the carpark behind the IN’s supermarket on the opposite side of the road, we took the Metro to see the sights of Milano:

We set out from our cosy berth in the supermarket carpark…

complete with astonishingly good gluten-free snacks on tap…

past the apartment blocks

and philosophical graffiti of this bohemian quarter…

and took the underground to see Sforza Castle

then wandered through the city…

admiring sights both ancient…

and modern…

Milano is everything you might expect…

with added attention to gorgeous detail…

The Milanese are impeccably stylish, whether riding limousines…

or the ubiquitous scooters…

Even their smart cars seem smarter

It was exhilarating…

to finally be here drinking up the culture after our garage drought.

In France I had started sending Ruby postcards of everywhere we visited without her, and from Milan I sent one of Italy’s oldest shopping mall, the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele II, which opened in 1877. The extraordinary iron and glass-domed arcade and its décor are as extravagant as the range of luxury retailers arrayed within.

The Victor Emmanuel II Galleria

celebrating the richest spoils of Africa above…

and displaying the most expensive brands of Europe below.

Sampson stood and scoffed for a full minute in front of this window at the prospect of anyone actually wanting to wear Prada carwash coats

When we reached the Duomo it was still hot in the full sun on the piazza though ominously chilly in the shade. The superlative Gothic grandeur of the third largest church in the world, decorated with 3400 statues, was somewhat dwarfed by a giant billboard, bigger than its famous bronze doors, and an LED screen suspended on the side. These ads apparently help pay for restoration, but still there seemed something egregious in this blatant slap-branding over something crafted so painstakingly over six hundred years by generations of artisans for the glory of their Creator. *Sigh*. Shamelessness seems to be the fashion just now.

Er… Wow

Glorying in a moment of being here at last

Sampson insists I include pics of the bronze doors carved with floral Gothic reliefs in 1906 by Ludovico Pogliaghi…

Looks like people rub these legs for luck

But what was all this about?

Do DKNY really think this is going to help them sell more bags and jeans?

Milan sees itself as the fashion and design capital of Europe, and residents certainly show their commitment to upholding that reputation. Within our first couple of hours walking the streets of central Milan I swear I saw all of the following fabulous folk: a young man in a skirt having a picnic with his girlfriend in the park behind Castello Sforzesco; a Japanese Carrie Bradshaw carrying a clutch of upmarket label shopping bags dressed in a severe monochrome palette complete with giant fluffy white slippers; two women older than me striding along in red geometric stiletto-heeled boots; a girl flying past on a Vespa wearing suede boots over long diamond plaid socks; a woman in the most enviable deep cerise satin boots which glowed along the pavement; and finally a model-looking girl on an Underground platform in black suede knee high boots and a black mini skirt, her dark hair slicked back in the sleekest imaginable ponytail, rocking a sunshine yellow bolero leather jacket. Ciao!

It was the biannual Milan Fashion Week when we were there, so perhaps the quotient of cool was higher than usual, but so few heads turned, it felt like the norm.

Karl Lagerfeld balloons in front of San Carlo

Elle magazine’s red carpet installation in Brera

If only Nigel could be transformed into something so appealing

Wils will be horrified to learn that on this post-M.E. trip to Italy I didn’t have a single gelato. While interailing in 1990 we had minimum one every day. Sigh.

I wish I’d had the energy to see more, or at least sit and chat with Luca’s neighbours, but my energy was being consumed by a mountain of admin. While Zola was busy doing end of term tests, I was making arrangements to get the truck’s renewed carnet issued by the AA and safely posted to the SA Embassy in Athens, booking Big Reg on a RORO (roll-on roll-off) ferry from Greece, researching the costs of flights we were going to have to take to Alexandria and agonising over whether we should risk buying Ruby’s Xmas holiday flights to Egypt now when it was cheaper, or later when we were sure we were going to make it to Cairo on time to meet her…

Unlike any other country, Egypt requires you to lodge twice the value of your vehicle before entering as a guarantee against you selling it and avoiding import duties; as a result, even though we had wangled a sympathetic valuation from the AA assessor before we left in 2013, we were still walloped by having to deposit a whack of cash, taking us right down to the wire. I was terrified that if we broke down on the way to Greece and couldn’t get to the ferry on time, we wouldn’t be able to afford to book Ruby another set of tickets to meet us somewhere else. This wasn’t helping my insomnia.

Zola’s term 3 technology project

All this wasn’t made any easier by the epic battle I had to engage in with ABSA to get my internet banking working again. Despite spending over an hour at our branch before we left to make doubly sure they knew our itinerary so our account wouldn’t be blocked like last time, I’d been complaining to them since 1st August that I wasn’t able to load any new beneficiaries. Now their entire RVN system stopped issuing confirmations to me it became impossible to make the payments for Ruby’s flights even when I’d worked up the courage to book them – this delayed us by 5 days trying in vain to get it sorted out over a weekend.

I am eternally grateful to Luca for giving us access to free wifi in his flat, as we’d never have sorted it out otherwise. But you can blame ABSA for how very very cold I got sitting waiting for hours and days for them to call me back – it’s one of the reasons I relapsed again and am so behind in the blog.

The night before Luca left, we went to his favourite place for pizza with his daughter Ada, a handmade doll designer who has inherited his exquisitely quirky sense of style. How we wish we’d had more time with these fascinating darlings. Sampson’s dream is to go back and hang out for a decent interval with Luca and Hugo in Liberia.

Pizza with Luca and Ada

with a visit to Lucky in the truck afterwards

Ada was smitten…

though Lucky was mostly into her last bottle – time to wean now Dad!

Ada cooed over Lucky as much as Ruby would have. It made me miss her more than ever.

Ada’s dolls are as beguiling a combination of delicate and funky as she is

Ada was about to leave to join her brother in London. I would recommend anyone wanting to visit Milan to stay in the flat Luca built next door for his kids that he’s about to rent out on Air B’n’B.

It’s beautifully designed – of course –

combining cleverly constructed light wood panelling…

with the satisfyingly tactile finish of original walls…

and witty touches in every room which bring a smile to your face…

as well as being the perfect base from which to explore the city

Luca took the sun with him to Liberia. He picked exactly the right time to go: the last week in September, the blue went out of the sky. European skies can be so relentlessly grim. How are they somehow so gloomy and glarey at the same time? You think you need your sunglasses, but when you put them on you can’t see a thing. #This Is Europe!

‘White with a hint of grey’. The sky above the Basilica of Sant’ Ambrogio when Zola and I went to visit

Ornately gorgeous inside…

with parts of the building dating from the 4th century and the Christ Pantokrator mosaic ceiling from the 12th …

The altar, made in 835, depicts the life of Christ in gold leaf on the front and the life of St Ambrose in gilded silver on the back

The Honeymoon Suites’ style of love radiating from the heart of this statue. Feeling Bood with us every day.

Zola was so shocked when we stumbled upon the glazed skeletons of the three saints Ambrose, Gervasus and Protasus displayed in episcopal finery, satin robes and slippers in the crypt behind the golden altar. I baulked from taking a photo of human remains, even from the 3rd and 4th centuries, and quickly whisked him away. But on reflection, I feel obligated to include some downloads here.

Only glass lies between you and the mortal remains of the saints…

exposed from their crowned skulls…

to their slippered feet.

If this was Africa, wouldn’t the words ‘primitive’ ‘gory’ and ‘exotic’ be attached to the veneration of such relics? #This Is Europe!

The grim weather continued. Not surprisingly, after his recent travails in Le Rove, Sampson got sick with a virus and wasn’t well enough to drive for a week. Zola and I both went down with it afterwards; it wasn’t the best way to spend our holiday week off school. 1st October was the first day the solar system stopped working because there hadn’t been enough sun the last few days to charge the batteries. #This Is Europe!

We’d like to offer sincere thanks to the lovely people of IN’S Mercato who patiently put up with us in their carpark for a fortnight:

Especially Fabio Palumbo

Sabrina Defanis and Marco Marino

Sabrina saved us with her excellent English and spoiled us rotten with treats:

This is just what she bought for the humans. You should’ve seen the spread the kitten got – she likes cats more 😉

We didn’t get invited to any Fashion Week shows, but I did manage to pick up my own little piece of joy in the neighbourhood ‘antique and retro’ market:

We walked from Luca’s to this neighbourhood goods market…

tucked in a narrow street between geranium boxed balconies…

and perused the vintage clothes and furniture…

between the art, accessories and cupcakes…

But the very first thing I saw was this!

This garment spoke to me. It said “I am soft sunset orange faux leather and completely impractical for African travel but you want me, I fit you perfectly and I’m only €5!” Ruby loathes it but I love it because it reminds me of that last sunny day in Italy. Forever after I shall tell people “Oh this old thing… yes, I picked it up in Milan during Fashion Week…”

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Punk à Chat

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.

Welcome to Le Rove

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.

Bodge job gaskets from Dakar had done well to last this long

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 are indebted to Aurelien Berrocal

of truck parts company Norca

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’s Mercedes home

His DIY conversion is very cosy…

with a hilariously high built-on bedroom

Joachim gave Zola some tips…

on mastering the slack wire

It was sobering to realise Zola is far nearer their age than we are

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…)

We love Lidl!

The third type were those who joyfully approached us as fellow members of a persecuted tribe:

Thanks to Germans Silvie and Kalle who tipped us off that under French law you can park anywhere for one night and up to 3 without prosecution…

Olivier and Anaïs, who welcomed us to France with freshly caught sardines…

French couple Manthoune and Alex we met last year in Spain, who told us about park4night, with their truck Neuchaco

Spaniard Luis Carmona Horta (Duncan Dragon doppelgänger) whose wonderful blog promotes his ideal that ‘Love heals everything’

and finally, Stèphane.

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.

Sampson, Maurice and Stèphane

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.

Our dear Papi Maurice. Where would we be without him?

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.

Our home for the summer – the garage of OKE Trucks Societé Transport

owned by M. Eric Oke, the giant guy (centre) from Benin, and his wife Audrey, pictured here with some of their hardworking team

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.

The exhaust brake that caused all the trouble

Replacement rotule for the steering rod thanks to Aurelien

Diesel tank off

Steph blasting it with his mum’s Karcher – merci maman!

It was a four man job…

to get it back on…

though simpler to refill, with Steph’s innovations!

The dynamic duo seemed to be making good progress

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.

No such thing as global warming? I remember when 30˚C was hot for southern France

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:

Zola and I walked up the mountain behind the industrial area…

and were rewarded with a fabulous view of the valley and relatively fresh air…

from a cave carved by centuries of buffeting by wind off the étang…

and wondered what the forest floor used to look like before the Anthropocene

while also practising our modelling poses…

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.

All 3 fuel tanks off…

Zola getting the hang of cleaning them

while Sampson tackled the connectors…

He was glad he bothered when he found…

algae growing along the feed pipes inside!

Not to mention the gunk…

in the mouth of the filler pipe

While they cleaned the fuel tanks, I cleaned out the drinking water tank

Before…

and After!

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.

The abortive copper silicone gasket filler

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.

Papi to the rescue

This nipple was giving grief

Having driven all over Marseille searching in vain for a gasket, Papi now attempted to make some himself from scrap metal.

Ta-daa!

He wanted to Loctite them in to be sure, though Sampson wasn’t keen

On Friday, we did the test drive down the hill back to Lidl. The brake was still whistling.

Sampson spent the weekend scrubbing Loctite off the exhaust brake…

then cut two more gaskets himself…

from the remaining scrap

I tried to cheer us up with some appropriately punky haircuts

By week four, things were getting desperate. Papi was driving up and down the Côte Bleue,  looking for gaskets everywhere, in vain.

He even came back once with some rubbery material from the Airbus helicopter factory they said would work but looked unlikely

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.

Sampson’s DIY gasket, made by fitting two ill-sized ones together

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.

Lidl’s carpark: the most peaceful campsite on the Côte Bleue

with the cheapest Friday Night Treats!

(we’d have got our knickers in a twist without it)

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.

After all that cleaning and painting and reinstalling, it still had to be binned…

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:

An aluminium fuel tank, much lighter than the one we’d had to take off. Sampson was thrilled.

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.

First they had to design a tray on which to suspend the tank…

weld cross bars on…

extend the connectors…

and bend them to fit.

Some trial and quite a lot of error involved…

It took over a week just to find an aluminium welder to add this extra panel…

to begin the process of reengineering the fuel delivery system…

not to mention the time and hair-yanking it took to source this 14mm ‘tap’….

in order for Papi and Sampson to create a brand new thread…

painfully slowly and carefully…

because if they messed it up we couldn’t afford the time or the cash to do it all over again….

PHEW! Nice job!

No wonder they’re looking so chuffed with themselves!

Don’t think anyone’s done this shit BY HAND in half a century…

A thing of beauty indeed.

Now for the second one…. eeek.

This was one of the most nerve-wracking experiences of my life…

and I was only watching!

Did it work? Papi tests it by putting a screw in.

Yayyyyyyyyy!!!!

Papi dignified in triumph but quietly very pleased 🙂

It took another agonising amount of time and persistence to get the feedpipes and banjos working. Air locks are the bane of every diesel mechanic’s life…

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:

Not a bush fire, but a gas explosion that ignited a pile of old tyres next door…

The firemen and women arrived in a very impressive 5 minutes, had it under control in 15 and out in an hour

On the bright side, Zola and I bashed through 10 weeks of school work in 7, there being not much else to do…

except play with the dog:

we became so fond of OKE’s guardian Mia, we even discussed smuggling her out…

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.

And thank goddess for the basketball hoop we bought him from Decathlon for his birthday.

Papi welded a pull-ups bar on for him too

Zola also learned to juggle clubs…

and his written French was coming on a bundle, though he still mostly refused to speak it.

He also read all 10 of the Cherub and Skullduggery books we’d brought with us

We initiated a daily music hour –

which finally got me to get the bass guitar down, after all these years…

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.

Thanks to the Miramar restaurant, down the road from Lidl, for letting me use their wifi during the few days away from the garage…

while enjoying the sea view, allowing me to load a blog and catch up on sad news from home

Thanks also to Hotel les Piellettes up the road who sometimes allowed me to sit in their laundry room and log on

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:

Meet Lucky.

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.

Actions stations: after improvising the first day with a pipette, I biked down to the pharmacy to get formula and biberon

though it was Sampson who took on most of the feeding duties…

as I was struggling to get enough sleep as it was…

Not surprisingly then how furry chest man became her mum

Though we all fell in love with her

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.

Irresistible life force? Moi?

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.”

My constant battle with oil: the part scrubbed with baking soda above, the tread-heavy entrance still to do below

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.

Dad said Zola’s massages were often the only thing that freed his back up and kept him going

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 Maurice spent many happy hours chatting away to each other in a mutually unintelligible ramble…

I am proud to say I converted Papi to a cup of Rooibos every day at 4pm

while he converted me to Calissons d’Aix, my new most favourite thing NOM NOM

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.

By week 6, Sampson was looking like a vrai méchano

Thanks to all the friendly people of le Côte Bleue we came to call family:

Frank (with his new puppy) who brought us our daily bread.

If you’re restricted to bread and cheese, make it French bread and cheese – Le Rove baguettes were the best

The fragrant and funky Djidji who volunteered her washing machine for a day

and inspired me with the incredible story of her discovery of, and recovery from, a brain tumour

‘The Madagascans’ Christelle et Marcel Berlioz who did another washing day shift

and American Michael Lodwick and his French wife Catherine who spoiled us with delicious meals, wifi, chauffering, invaluable advice, translation services and half a dozen cooked chickens!

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:

M. Régis Koch of Ibis Marseille-Provence Airport

Mika Magic from Snack Mika

The lovely Frank from Restaurant Chutes Lavie

and most of all: Oléo Déclic

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.

Merci mille fois to tireless recycling campaigner Alain Vigier…

and his development manager Romain Ugarte

who, along with Jocelyn Michard who handles oil collection and a hardcore band of volunteers, make up the super dedicated Oléo Déclic team.

Their generous donation made all the difference to getting us back on the road

(We can’t wait to introduce Alain to our great friend and supporter Roy de Gouveia of BioGreen – whom we happened to bump into at the airport on our way back to Spain in May!)

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.

Aurélien pourrait même nous rattraper dans son camion!

Merci Papi, nous n’aurions pas pu aller aussi loin sans toi

Nous sommes impatients…

de rembourser ta gentillesse…

lorsque tu et Véro viendront nous rendre visite en Afrique du Sud.

P.S. On the day we left Le Rove we bought this for Zola via Le Bon Coin, France’s equivalent of Gumtree:

Zola’s first day on a unicycle

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!

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Canary in a Coal Mine

(Forgive me – just one more detour before we resolve the cliffhanger…)

A week after we arrived back in Spain, I woke up at 1am in the morning and couldn’t work out what was happening. My head seemed to be on fire. The pain was like Dr Frankenstein had sawn around from the nape of my neck to my crown and tried to wrench off the back of my skull. I crawled off the bed on to the toilet and had to concentrate quite hard not to throw up. Was it a migraine? I couldn’t stand and I couldn’t think. I had to wake Sampson. When I told him it felt like my burning brain was pressing up against the back of my head he figured it out and threw the door open: it was the glue fumes.

Early the previous day, we had gone to the garage to get the worn down accelerator pedal fixed. Genius Fernando of Fali Molina e Hijos had popped round the corner to buy a giant hinge, sawn the sides off, screwed it to the floor and refixed the pedal to that. Sampson dropped Zola and me at my folks’ flat so we could finish school while he re-glued the soundproofing he’d cut out of the floor around the pedal. We both know that fumes affect me badly at the best of times –I once started choking in my office, upstairs on the other side of the house from the kitchen where he’d just sprayed oven cleaner – but in my weakened post-relapse state it needed to air off for a couple of hours at least before I ventured to return.

By 6pm you could hardly smell glue at all and I thought no more about it while cooking. After supper, we closed the door and snuggled down to watch an episode of Modern Family on our laptop truck cinema system. I dismissed the little headache that had come on by bedtime as due to the golden European evening light beaming in the back window at a low angle.

Four hours later I woke to find that the toxins in the air had clobbered me good and proper. I forced down a dry ricecake to line my stomach, swallowed an Ibuprofen and began to breathe more easily as it reduced the inflamation of my brainstem. We left the door open till dawn. Zola – lying directly above the gluey area of the cab – slept solidly through it all like the true teenager he was about to become.

The next day I wrote: “Sometimes even I wonder whether all this M.E. stuff is real, whether it’s all in my head, whether I’m not really any more sensitive than anyone else and I’m just being weedy and should really pull myself together. So strangely maybe it’s good to have days like today when the facts stand up and whack you soundly up side yer head…”

A month later I had a frighteningly similar reaction when, having been steadily moved along down the Côte Bleue by various municipal officials during the first week of Ruby’s holiday, we spent the night at the only police-approved camping spot: a patch of waste land between the power station and the refinery outside Martigues, the centre of France’s petrochemical industry.

Camping at Martigues

next to the power station and petrochemical factories at Lavera

I woke at 2am feeling very unwell and unable to breathe. The bitumen smell in the air was overpowering. I staggered to the window desperate for some fresh air but when the wind gusted through it was warm and muggy with no oxygen in it. Fighting for breath, I had that feeling of carbon monoxide poisioning: a thick head, muzzyness, the lethal throb of fingers and toes. The others slept peacefully on, oblivious.

Killing me softly

I am the canary in the coal mine. I am slowly dying of these fumes and you will too, only later. You may not believe me but when I’m long gone and you start to choke, you’ll realise I wasn’t such a dippy hippy after all.

Thankfully the worst emissions stopped by 4am and I was able to breathe again, sleep and recover a little before it was time to rise. We worked out the factory towers tended to eject the worst waste in the middle of the night so it would mostly clear by morning.

N.B. If you don’t believe in M.E., or want to understand more about it, I beg you to see the film Unrest, originally called Canary in a Coalmine – which I wrote about during my relapse in UK in 2015 – coming to cinemas in the US and UK this October. I’m hoping it’s going to do for invisible illness what An Inconvenient Truth did for climate change. Here’s the trailer.

We spent the next few weeks shifting around Sausset les Pins trying to avoid both the gaze of the police and being caught downwind of the fumes. The day Ruby went back to school, I woke just before dawn in Sainte-Croix, the safest place we’d found so far, feeling sick again. The way I get when I’m trapped in a room with a gas fire and no ventilation: headache, painful nape of neck, druggy doze – the feeling of slowly suffocating. That warm fuggy smell was once again on the breeze through my window.

Sainte-Croix: It seemed cruel that anywhere so beautiful could be so lethal

I couldn’t believe that beachgoers round the corner at the Anse de Bonnieu…

weren’t bothered by the smog coming from the refinery…

and weren’t as oppressed as me by the black cloud on the horizon

My tried and tested means to get back off to sleep in the early hours is to set some podcasts murmuring in my ear. Unfortunately the back-to-back TED talks didn’t soothe me into slumber like they usually do. The overlap between the messages of Sisonke Msimang‘s If a story moves you, act on it and Emily Parsons-Lord‘s Art made of the air we breathe seemed so startling, I had to get up and write it down while it was still clear to me:

Emily creates samples of past air and future air which allow people to vicerally experience environmental degradation. She underlines the insidious quality of air, which is invisible but intimately present, around us, within us, penetrating. Her art proves that, while theoretical pollution might be easy to ignore, the very real heavy effects are not – show your kids what happens when she breathes it in, it’s both horrific and hilarious.

Sisonke speaks entertainingly, acknowledging the power of a story to light the way, but also the pressing need for us to seize that beacon and run with it (#MeToo). She applauds the internet for amplifying a multitude of previously silenced voices, but simultaneously bemoans the ballooning amount of fake news. The present generation don’t trust the media, she says, with good reason.

I reflected how I have changed since we started out on this journey. How I no longer trust the priorities of the headlines on the BBC World Service (never mind CNN or Fox News) or mourn the lack of being able to hear it here in Europe because the bias is so much more obvious to me now I have travelled across the half of the world invisible to it.

The poison of prejudiced news, like the increasingly polluted air, is everywhere around us, invading us, inflaming us, but most of us are oblivious to it (manipulated by propaganda in US, UK, South Africa). Will we not realise until we are on the point of choking to death on it?

Written in August in response to Charlottesville.

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