However, before I go into more teaching stories, there is the topic of my first summer holiday in Europe.
I got this so wrong, but then I don’t know how many times I am going to write this in my various writings, we would all do things differently if we had a time machine.
I had taught at Eastlea for three terms and then moved across the universe to Sarah Bonnell, but even with my short term of relaxed teaching at Sarah Bonnell, I was still suffering the after effects of Eastlea, and desperately needed some down time.
So what did I do?
I got in a Kombi van with four others and drove across Europe in the sweltering summer heat for two months and nearly did my head in fully.
But all that’s ahead.
It all started with a phone call from my friend Peter Lewis.
Peter was a geography teacher with whom I had gone into the trenches at Eastlea.
I picked up the phone and Peter, with that oh-so-Eastlea habit of not mucking around, said, “Hey Lock, do you want to go to Europe this summer in a van?”
I, like many of us, never think things through, and so said “yes”, we made a further few arrangements to meet and get it organised, and then rang off.
‘Great’, I thought to myself, ‘Europe in the summer, that’ll be relaxing’.
Boy, was I in for a shock.
We then began scanning the classifieds in the Southern Cross, a newspaper in London put out for visitors like us from the southern hemisphere.
We eventually tracked down a van which seemed suitable and then I went with Peter and his girlfriend, Sylvana across London to have a look at it.
It seemed OK, not that any of us had much mechanical nouse, and so we made arrangements to have it looked at by a mechanic, then left.
The nice young Dutch couple that were selling it needed it in the intervening period to move into their new house and so we agreed that once moved in they would call.
We then faced the issue of which mechanic to get to appraise the beast for us.
I had grown up on the TV show Minder and the snaky wiles of Terry’s boss, Athur Daley, the ultimate used car salesman, and so was trepidatious to say the least.
I can’t recall from this remove how we found this mechanic, but we did, and, when a few days later the call came from them, went across to the Dutch couple’s address, got the van and then did my first driving in London.
IT was manic.
My friend Sean from Canada once told me that “80% of people think they are above average drivers”.
And Ben Elton put it well when he wrote, “You never hear a guy come into the pub and say that he caused an accident on the way here because he’s not a very good driver and also he couldn’t get it up last night.”
And those two quotes are relevant because the driving that was going on was helter-skelter at the minimum, with seemingly everyone behind the wheel convinced they were the only driver on the road who knew how to do it.
I thought I was a good driver, and could handle anything having driven tractors and four-wheel drives on the farm, and had driven in Sydney.
But when I look back on it, I realise that I hadn’t driven a car for a long time.
While still in Sydney I had been a student at teacher’s college, and so couldn’t afford a car.
Then I had been in Asia where I had been driven, nearly mad, as well as around by the locals in their rattling death machines.
So this trip across London to the mechanic’s was my first drive in nearly 18 months, and it showed.
What’s more, of course this was my first time in a Kombi, and this one in particular, so the trip was fraught with many hazards to start with.
Then there was the traffic.
Oh, my god, does London have traffic.
Previous to this my worst experience of traffic was in LA.
LA has traffic jams at two in the morning, the morning peak hour is in reality the morning peak four hours.
And now I was finding that London was similar.
To put in into context, England and Scotland form an island the size of Victoria, Australia, but while the population of Victoria is a decidedly well-spread six million, sixty million people stand, and drive in 34 million cars, in England and Scotland.
And like all ancient cities, built for foot traffic and at most a coach and horses, the streets of London were in no way built for modern traffic.
Recently a friend told me that modern Londoners who own a car spend an average of seven days, 168 hours, a year looking for a parking space.
Ben Elton in his book, Gridlock, and Michael Palin, in his TV show, Carsick, have shown that Britain is overfull of cars, and I can assure you, that trip across London, if I didn’t believe there were too many cars in Britain, I certainly did after.
I navigated onto a main road and began traversing the southern edge of London.
I got into the middle lane and was doing about 80k, with the speed limit being 100.
I decided to just stick to this plan till I got near the mechanics workshop, when a truck driver pulled up on my left, the inner, slower lane, and screeched at me for going too slowly in the middle lane.
I was too shaken already by the nightmare traffic to do more than look at him, and then, thankfully, he gave me a two-fingered salute and then spurted off at a greater speed.
I continued my nerve-jangling way and eventually got to the suburb I required and thankfully left the main road, (The south circular for those with knowledge of London), and joined the local traffic.
And for about three milliseconds I was able to relax.
But then I encountered the problems of driving in the suburbs of London.
I had left a road where I had been yelled at for going to slow, and now I was in traffic where I wanted to yell at someone because it was not fast enough.
There were cars parked on both sides of the road and to say the local throughways were barely adequate to handle four cars wide was an understatement.
So nearly demolishing the wing mirrors of parked cars on my left, and the oncoming traffic nearly doing the same to my van, on my right, I inched my way through to the mechanic’s workshop.
To say I got out of the car with relief was another understatement, I felt like I had just completed some arduous polar trek and had planted my flag at the pole.
I went into the office and spoke to the coverall-wearing man behind the desk, “Hi, er, My name’s Lachlan, I spoke to Garry?” I paused, and the man nodded indicating he was Garry, so I went on, “We called about getting our van checked?”
He nodded again, then came out from behind the desk and led me out into the yard and we surveyed the van.
He didn’t start laughing, which I judged a good sign, and additionally didn’t add, “And you say this thing moved?”, which was mechanic’s short-hand for this is gonna cost you a heap of money.
He nodded again and asked me for the keys, then he got in, wiggled up and down a bit in the driver’s seat, then started the engine.
He then got out and came around to the back of the vehicle and stared for a moment at the exhaust.
Then he crouched down, pulled a rag from his pocket, and put his covered hand over the exhaust pipe.
After a few seconds the engine began to heave, and he took his hand off the exhaust.
Then he went back and turned off the engine and turned to me.
“Yeah, she’s fine, you could probably use new rear shocks though.”
I was a little taken aback, I thought the checking would be a bit more extensive than that, but then I wasn’t a mechanic, and so had to take him for his word.
“Oh, right”, I said, then asked a question that no Londoner can do without, “How much will that cost?”
“Aw, I could do it for ya’ for fifty quid.”
I said “great” and we went into the office and made the arrangements and then I left, thankfully carless, for the nearest tube station to go home.
A week or so later Garry called back to say that the van was ready and I could come and pick it up.
So I got Craig, the handsome music teacher from Sarah Bonnell, he of the ten-love-notes-a-day fame, who was also coming on the trip and we trained across London to Garry’s workshop.
We walked in and Garry was once again behind the desk, he looked up and nodded, then said, “Come for your van, huh? OK, I’ll just print out your bill.”
He went to his computer and hit a few keys and then an invoice appeared from his printer.
He tore it off and then gave it to us, and there in the total column was ₤300.
I stared at it in consternation.
All of us going on the trip were teachers and so were relatively well off by English earning standards, but I had previously told those going on the trip that we would only be up for fifty quid for the shocks.
I looked searchingly at Garry, “I thought you said it would be fifty?”
He looked searchingly at me, “Oh, sorry, no, fifty for the labour, parts cost two fifty.”
“Oh”, I said, “well, um, I’ve, er, we, only brought fifty quid cash.”
“Oh”, he said in return.
I was uncertain how to go on, but thankfully Craig took over, “Can we go to a bank machine? Is there one nearby? I’ve got that much in my account, so I can cover it.”
I looked at Craig gratefully, thank god here was there.
I should say that this was in 1992, and EFTPOS wasn’t widespread at the time, it certainly didn’t exist in mechanic’s workshops in the suburbs where the Arthur-Daley-esque cry of “less VAT for cash” was heard incessantly.
VAT is the English version of GST in Australia, a common scam was to pay cash to avoid it.
Most repairs were therefore paid in cash so the mechanic didn’t have to declare the full, if any of the amount, on his tax.
So Garry gave us directions to the high street and Craig and I went down there, got the money out and then returned.
We paid up and Garry added graciously, “Sorry about the fright”, and then with Craig at the wheel we drove away in our van.
We parked it at Craig’s place in the suburbs and then went around to Peter and Sylvana’s place near Earl’s Court.
Yes, that’s where they lived, talk about Australian stereotypes.
It was a curious living place, but then not if you were a Londoner, for they lived in a bay window.
London is a very crowded place.
The roads, as stated, just sort of grew in an organic octopus-like way across time and space, and the houses were much the same.
Peter and Sylvana lived at the front of a three story house that over the years had been slowly compartmentalised into smaller and smaller living places.
I myself was living in a similar place in north London and my room was so small that I had to walk sideways to get past my bed.
Peter and Sylvana had lucked into the plum spot, at the front of the house.
They lived in one room about the size of a car, with guests sitting on the ledge of the bay window.
There was a tiny, sorry, microscopic, kitchenette, and their bed filled up the rest of the floor space.
The fifth of us, Renee, was also there and so, in its way it was good training for the months to come, with all five of us jammed into a space about the size of our van.
We had some curry and made our plans.
We set a leaving date, sorted out where we were with money, then went our separate ways to our various accommodations.
And so finally the day came, we were out of the claustrophobia of London and on our way south the ferry at Dover.
We bought our tickets and then drove on board.
We stood on the rails and watched the channel flow by, until the horn sounded and we all scurried below to our cars.
We drove off the ferry and suddenly, schizophrenically, we were in France.
Like most, we had some adjustment-nausea.
First we had driven on to the ferry on the left, not we had to leave the terminal on the right.
That done, we joined the south flowing traffic for Paris.
Many have described French drivers, but I think it was best put by Peter Wherret in his car show, Torque, said Wherret: “You only have to look at traffic on the Champs-Elysees to know that not only did the French invent motor racing, they’re still at it.”
We were the slowest vehicle on that motorway to Paris by a wide margin.
The other drivers flew by us as blurs, the speed limit was listed as 130kph, but this was seemingly only used by the other drivers as a speed to enter petrol stations.
However, it was big wide freeway and we were able to pootle along quite happily in the slow lane.
We entered Paris and using our guide book found a campground.
We then set up and it was time to explore a bit.
But here already I began to come up against my “know why your going, before you go there” philosophy.
I didn’t like sight seeing, still don’t, I seem to more prefer doing things than just looking at things.
Actually, as we are to see, if I had any real awareness, I would have driven or flown straight to Benidorm and got drunk every day till my money ran out, but that was all ahead as well.
So we took ourselves to the place all visitors go first, the Eiffel Tower.
Up we went, observed the view, and this was indeed fine.
Then we came down and went to the Louvre, and it was here that I was to first observe that most recurrent part of European summer holidays, queues.
The line stretched out of the entrance and around the block, possibly finally ending in the outer suburbs of Paris.
I wanted no part of that, so while Sylvana, Renee and Peter, joined the line, Craig and I went off on our own to see a different exhibition.
I might add, I have never had any interest in art, due to a horrendous, dragon of an arts-and-crafts teacher I had in primary school, Mrs Ashelford.
She did everything possible to destroy a young child’s love of that subject.
She played favourites, which no teacher should ever do, it’s bad enough when it happens by accident, it’s deplorable when it’s done on purpose and everyone in the class knows who the favourites are.
She criticised everything I did, which I think is likewise reprehensible for art, maths you have to criticise and show the student when they have the wrong answer, otherwise they won’t learn.
But art in primary school should be an expression of wonder at the amazing world that the child is exploring.
Mrs Ashelford would abuse you forcibly if she couldn’t recognise what you had drawn.
So I became scared to do anything.
I might add, when I was very young my brother showed me something I thought quite amazing, how to draw a landscape.
With a series of overlapping triangles he made mountains, then in the middle he put overlapping semi-circles to make hills, and a few sinuous wriggles in the nearground made streams creeping out of the hills.
Once coloured, green for the hills, blue streams and white and grey for the mountains, it looked genuinely like a landscape painting done by a real artist.
So with this technique, I was now able to do art and not be screamed at by Mrs Ashelford.
However, talk about when you’re on a good thing stick to it, I then did that every time I was asked to do art.
While it kept me out of trouble with the dragon, I then began to come adrift when the teacher would ask us to do something different, like a portrait.
In second class, me aged seven, a, thankfully, softer voiced teacher, said, “Lachlan, whenever we do drawing, you always do the same thing, mountains, hills and streams. Why not put something different in? Like a cow eating the grass or something?”
Well, I tried, I couldn’t of course tell this gentler teacher that my always-the-same-drawings were yet another defence mechanism to prevent the dreaded Mrs Ashelford screaming at me, but I put in a cow, and I’ll never forget this teacher’s expression when I showed it to her, I know she wanted to say, “I thought you were going to draw a cow? What the fuck is that!”
But to her credit, she recognised that I had tried, and the odd four-legged object cropping the grass by one of my streams, was an attempt at least.
In the end my attitude to Art was best demonstrated by two TV shows, Futurama and Absolutely Fabulous.
In Futurama, one of the characters, Dr Zoidberg, gets $300 Earth dollars as part of a global stimulus package, and decided to spend it on something classy, art.
He goes into a gallery in New New York, walks in, pulls out his money and says to the attendant, “One art, please”.
Jennifer Saunders in ‘Ab Fab’, plays the fabulously wealthy Edina.
She is advised by her accountant to get some artworks for her office and home, so she goes down to an exclusive art gallery in Bond St.
The concierge comes to attend her, and says, “Good morning, madam, may I be of assistance?”
To which Edina replies: “I want some art.”
The concierge, replies, in a decidedly bemused fashion, “I’m sorry?”
And Edina says, “I want art. I just want to buy some art.”
And Edina says, “I want art. I just want to buy some art.”
“Oh well, we have some stunning pieces on display at the moment, would you care to browse?”
Edina nods and walks up to a collection of coat hangers on strings.
She turns to the concierge and says, “Is this Art?”
He says, “Yes, this is a stunning thought piece by radical German edge artist Horsten Klanmp”.
He says, “Yes, this is a stunning thought piece by radical German edge artist Horsten Klanmp”.
And Edina says, “That’ll do.”
So she buys it and has it brought to her house and installed.
Then her friend Patsy comes over to visit, sees the installation and says, “Is this the art?”
Edina says, “Yes, what do you think of it?”
Patsy stares for a moment and says, “I’m not sure, how much did it cost?”
To which Patsy replies, “Oh, well it’s fabulous then.”
Anyway, back to Paris.
Craig and I left the other three and went across town to see the Monet exhibition.
At least I think it was Monet, it was whoever did the painting with the lilies floating on the water.
This was actually a good move, not because either of us had much interest in art, but because there was no one else there.
We walked the largely silent, and gloriously air-conditioned halls, perused the art in a bemused fashion, then returned to the campground.
The others had seen the Mona Lisa and thought it only “OK”, mainly because it is quite a small picture and the room is always, always crowded, so they looked for a little while over the bobbing heads, and then left.
Now that I think about it, there must be other art works in the Louvre, but only genuine art lovers would know what they were.
We continued our sightseeing, we saw the palace of Versailles, I remember that, we took out second mortgages to eat, I remember that for sure, then after three days, we decided we had seen enough of Paris and began to go south.
But before we leave the French capital I’ll just say the thing I remember most is Jim Morrison’s grave, which Craig and I went to see one afternoon in Pere Lachaise cemetery.
A lot of famous people are buried there, Chopin, for one, but no one knows where his grave is, the most “popular” grave, I can’t think of a better way to put it, is that of Jim.
The circumstances of Jim’s death are still clouded, with those that were with him at the time, still under suspicion from hard core fans, but in essence he died of a drug overdose, heroin combined with heavy drinking.
Anyway, his grave was a tremendously moving experience for me, and was worth the trip to Europe for that alone.
I do not wish to compare myself with Jim’s greatness in any way, but at a very low level I have always felt myself a very Jim Morrison-esque character.
Well read, intelligent, creative, but massively, massively, self-destructive.
On at least four nights of heavy drinking I can think of, I nearly died.
Twice in near car accidents, once when I unforgiveably drove drunk, I came out the next morning and saw that my passenger-side front whell was flat and shredded, with white dust on the wall, and realised that I’d driven into a gutter last night, and had no recollection of it.
Once I got in a car with someone as drunk as me, and we nearly went over a cliff.
Once from alcohol poisoning, in which I luckily vomited for twelve hours and survived (Keith Moon, the drummer of The Who, was not so lucky, choking on his vomit after passing out), and once when I nearly drowned, having gone surfing when nearly too drunk to stand.
So I have a great affinity with Jim, and I guess I am lucky in the end that I received competent mental health treatment and am alive today.
To see that small, square stone in the ground, with simply ‘James Morrison, 1943-1971’ and a small Greek inscription, the meaning of which is still unclear, but most think it says something like: ‘by my own daemon’, was, as I say, massively sad.
Anyway, time to hit the road, and head for Spain.
It is hard to piece things together form this remove, it was 20 years ago, but most of the middle of France is a blank to me.
The next concrete thing I remember in the timeline of the journey is Bordeaux in the south, but somewhere in the middle of France, before we reached the capital of claret country, we had our first mechanical trouble.
Peter was driving and we came around a corner, and I, in the passenger seat, noticed him swing wide, he looked down with concern at the wheel and he had just started to say “I think there’s something wrong with the steering”, when we heard the telltale thump-thump-thump, of a shredded tyre.
We pulled over on this small, and thankfully little trafficked, road in the middle of rural France and surveyed the problem.
We got out the spare tyre and went about putting it on, when something Garry, the mechanic back in London had said came back to me.
As I’ve written quite extensively, I am, and always have been a cheapskate, and when Garry had given us the bill for ₤300, I had said to him, “could we have bought the parts and done it ourselves?” (A hopelessly, wildly, lunatically optimistic opinion of my mechanical skills, I might add.)
He had shaken his head and replied, “Well, I don’t think so. What’s more when we went to put the shocks on, there was something wrong with the wheel nuts, and it took three of us an hour, and with the use of a makeshift extended spanner to get the damn things off, you would never have done that on your own.”
And as I looked at the vehicle on the side of the road, I was glad to my cheapskate heart that we had had the shocks done In London, because even with that pre-treatment, just getting the wheel nuts off took every bit of combined strength Peter, Craig and I had.
But then with the wheel off we rolled the spare around and discovered our next problem, it was too big.
If the three still inflated wheels were thirty centimetres in diameter, the spare was forty.
However, we were exceptionally lucky because the new larger tyre had the same sized hub, so the stems fitted the holes, and after a bit of monkeying around we got the enlarged tyre under the wheel arch and in place.
We tightened the nuts and then set off, slanted off centre like a ship with no rudder lurching drunkenly into the harbour mouth, and began looking desperately for a village large enough to have petrol station and a mechanic.
Fortunately we found one, and he came out of his workshop, wiping his blackened hands on an even blacker rag.
He surveyed the wheel and then nodded, Garry fashion, then addressed us in French.
This was a problem as none of us spoke it, I had passable tourist Spanish, Craig had a bit of Italian, but the best French any of us had was of the “pen of my aunt is in the garden” variety.
In retrospect, the first person we should have booked for our trip to Europe was a language teacher, but there you go.
Anyway, we all stood there for a moment, and then our French mechanic friend, I’m guessing used to this sort of thing in the summer, took over.
He got went over to the wheel we had changed, front passenger side, and made a cutting motion with his hand, then he lead us around to the matching tyre on the other side, and made the same motion.
Then he lead us to the rear of the vehicle, pointed at the rear wheels and made a thumbs up motion, then he went back to the front and help up two fingers.
I suddenly grasped what he meant, I took a closer look at the front tyres, compared them with those on the rear, and guessed his meaning.
I turned to my friends and said in English, “I think, I’ve figured it out, he’s saying that we need to replace both front tyres as they’re shot, but the rear ones are Ok.”
I then showed my friends the treads on the rear tyres and compared them with those on the front.
Once pointed out it was quite obvious, so we all nodded our heads in agreement and I spoke to our mechanic friend, I held up two fingers and pointed to the front tyres.
He nodded and with sign language we all agreed we needed two tyres, and then passed to the recurrent question of European travel, “How Much?”, I said to the mechanic.
He got my meaning, but unable to pass on the information, he went back inside and got out his tyre catalogue.
He brought it back out, thumbing through the pages, then found the page for Volkswagen, ran his finger down the list and pointed at a certain tyre, the price was in francs, but Renee had a personal organiser with an exchange rate app on it, and we saw the price in pounds, it seemed reasonable, so we agreed the price.
Our mechanic friend went back inside, got to new tyres, brought them out, did the job and then we were ready to roll again.
With much thanking in French, “merky buckets (Merci Beaucoup)”, we drove away from his little workshop and headed south again.
Do you know what ‘circulation difficile’ means?
We were heading south-west from Paris, toward Spain, and thus the next major town on our route was Bordeaux.
We perfectly disorganised our arrival in Bordeaux for the afternoon peak hour, and as we began to skirt the city’s western arm this phrase was written on the electronic sign.
It was novel for a couple of reasons, it was actually the first time I had seen one of these traffic indicator signs, most famously represented in the Steve Martin movie, LA Story, and secondly, it was my first acquaintance with this French phrase.
Renee punched it into her little personal organiser’s translation app, and the response came back, ‘movement difficult’.
Of course by the time she had done that, we could have all told her what it meant.
The traffic was moving like treacle, and I think the reason it was so annoying for us was that we had already driven six hours that day.
No one likes being in traffic, but there is something about heavy traffic at the end of your driving day that makes it worse.
These days I live in a coastal resort town on NSW’s north coast, and we have the same issue here.
Before they put in the new super-duper roundabout and change system on the highway out of town, tourists used to report taking six hours to get from Ballina to Byron Bay, since this is a distance of 44k, that’s a long time.
And if you have already driven from Sydney, ten hours or so, then six hours in traffic when you have already done ten at the wheel is enough to cause gunfire.
Additionally, we weren’t even going to Bordeaux, but all the roads in the area were laid down by the Romans nearly two thousand years ago, and so every road in the area lead, if not to Rome, certainly to Bordeaux, and so we were stuck with it.
We inched along on the commuter expressway in the evening sun.
We sweated in our shorts, Craig, who was driving, developed RSI of the ankle from changing gear from first to second and back a hundred times an hour.
But eventually we got around the rim and were able to launch off the road to the south-west and the Spanish border.
However, the extra time we had spent in the traffic had brought dusk upon us, and so we had to go through the already loathed process of finding a campground in a strange city, in a foreign country, where none of us spoke the language.
‘Ou eh le camping?’ (Where is a campground?) was an expression we were already becoming familiar with, as we said it leaning out of the driving window.
However we found one, set up camp, already becoming tedious, bought some of the cheapest claret we could find, had dinner and few drinks, then hit the ground for sleep.
The next morning we were up early and made it to the Spanish border.
We were entering the north-eastern corner of Spain, known as ‘wet Spain’.
Most of us have a picture of Spain being a vast brown, sun-baked plain, consisting largely of dirt, and that is generally true, but up here, where the coast of Europe makes a sharp turn run out of France for Spain and the bay of Biscay, the land is lush and green, as of an Ireland in the south.
It was actually raining as we crossed the border and headed for the county capital San Sebastian.
San Sebastian is a beautiful place, or perhaps, better put, I is a standard large city on a beautiful coast.
As we entered we passed two middle-aged people on a biking tour of Europe (I guessed), they had all their possessions in four panniers each on the front and backs of their bikes.
Anyway, they were riding into town in the rain, they were covered in mud, dripping wet, and neither of them had a smile on their face.
I mention them because tempers were starting to fray in the van, but looking at them we realised we were well off.
However, I then perpetrated a bit of cowardice that would lead to some more shortened tempers.
I had navigated this day from our campground of the night before outside Bordeaux, through the Spanish border, to our current location, the outskirts of San Sebastian.
But at this point, I was feeling pretty tired, so I said, “I need a bit of rest, can someone else take over the navigating?”
One of the others said “yes”, and so I handed over the map and lay back on my seat and let my eyes close.
It was cowardice because we were all tired, we’d been on the road for a week or so now, and also I spoke the best Spanish, which of course our map was written in, so in retrospect I should have kept navigating into the campground.
Anyway, I was lying back and slowly dozing off, when I heard the others trying to find out where we were on the map.
We passed a sign which said ‘cambio de sentido’, and I heard Peter say, “cambio de sentido, let’s see if we can find that on the map.”
In my dozing state, the phrase rang a bell, the arguments went on among my companions, and so I came awake again and grabbed my Spanish-English dictionary.
I looked it up, and it meant, literally, ‘change of direction’, or in this context, ‘detour’.
With a sigh, realising that if we were looking for a road called ‘cambio de sentido’ on the map we were going to be lost for a long time, I woke fully and agreed to take over the navigating again.
I got my dictionary, looked at the street names and got us to a campground not far away.
And since we’re on the topic of mixing up street names ina foreign language, I’ll just tell you a story told to me by my German friend, Martin the language expert.
Martin was asked to teach an English automotive engineer German, as the engineer was being sent to work on placement at the car company’s main plant outside Stuttgart.
However, as Martin told me, this fellow was one of those who just find Languages a closed book.
Marin studied with him intensively for six weeks, but at the end of that period, said Martin, he was still struggling with the ‘ein bier, bitte’ level of German.
Anyway, he sent him on his way to do the best he could, and the Englishman caught his flight to Stuttgart and booked into a hotel.
He then went outside and read the name of the street his hotel was on, then took a cab into town and had dinner.
Dinner over, he came outside and flagged a cab to take him back to the hotel.
When the cabbie asked him where to, the Englishman said his street name, ‘Eingang Strasse’.
The cabbie looked at him askance, as ‘eingang strasse’ means ‘one way street’.
However the story became a testament to German efficiency and helpfulness.
With the passenger not knowing where his hotel was or even what it was called, he drove him around to the police station.
Inside the cabbie told the desk sergeant his passenger’s story, then the sergeant asked the Englishman how long approximately his cab ride to the restaurant had been, conferred with the cabbie on where he had picked him up, then looked at the map and conjectured approximately where his hotel was, then the sergeant rang the hotels in the area until he found the right one, and was able to send the engineer home safe.
Back in San Sebastian we found our campground, set up the tent and the interior of the van for sleeping, then went to get some Spanish money.
This is a complicated enough procedure when dealing with a human, but we tried to do it through a bank machine.
Thus, I put my English bank card in and then tapped in my pin.
That went fine, but then of course the menu commands came up in Spanish.
So I took out my dictionary again and began to frantically look up the commands on the menu and then pressing the requisite buttons.
A queue formed behind us.
After some frantic shuttle finance, read machine, read dictionary, press button, I got through to receiving my pesetas
I tucked them into my money pouch and then Craig wanted to get some money.
So we went through the same process.
The people in the queue began to get restive, to put it mildly, and I began to hear the phrase, ‘English bastards’ far too often for my comfort.
However, we got through that, but then with Peter, Renee and Sylvana wanting money as well, we decided to take a break before we got lynched.
So we let the locals through and once the line had cleared, then went through the process for the other three.
I should add, Australians are unknown in Europe, and so anyone of pale northern skin speaking English and causing a delay, is invariably labelled English, usually with an expletive prefix.
That done we spent a nice three days in San Sebastian, relaxing after the rigours of crossing France in two days, then once more lit out for the south.
Once we were not very far south of San Sebastian, the green disappeared and we were in Spain proper.
And man, it was hot.
Our van was dark coloured, and the drive down to Madrid had the same feel I have read of people having who have driven the Nullabor.
A flat, seemingly endless brown plain stretched out, seemingly eternally in front of us, while behind the same view rescinded with glacial pace.
We stopped for meals in roadside villages that leant new meaning to the term dusty.
I remember one lunch where I ate something that might as well have been advertised as ‘eggs with dust’, as that was all I could remember tasting.
However, eventually we made the outskirts of Madrid and joined the next set of city bound slow-moving traffic in the unbearable summer heat.
What’s more, our map of Madrid was less than adequate.
For some reason we had a decent map of San Sebastian and its environs, but our only guide to the streets of Madrid was one page of our guide book, the species of which Bill Bryson, acerbically, and accurately, said should be called ‘Let’s Go Get Another Guide Book’.
Also, if the heat of the central Spanish plain had been bad, at least we had been moving at 80k an hour, and gaining some breeze from it, but now in the traffic of central Madrid, we were down to a crawl, and all of us inside the van were suffering.
On top of that, Kombis are air-, rather than, water-cooled, and so our van was beginning to show signs of strain.
I was having trouble changing gears, and I was noticing a distinct loss of power.
However, I put it down to the heat and the traffic and tried not to think about it.
But we got there, using our inadequate guide book map and our near expiring van.
The campground was not the coolly, shaded, riverbank, idyll that I had begun longing for in the traffic, but instead of piece of urban ground, dry, windswept and dusty.
But anything was better than moving another centimetre in the vehicle.
So we debussed, set up our camp, a task that was already becoming onerous, and then went up to the kiosk and had a Cerveza (Beer, for the uninitiated).
I’ve had a lot of beer in my time, as you all know well know, but I can assure you that beer was one of the top ten.
So at the top of page twelve we come neatly to the end of the chapter, and since I can’t honestly remember what we did in Madrid, I have no recollection of seeing any sights, so instead I’ll tell you the story of the woman with the suitcase.
The Madrid Cityrail station that those in the campground used was across a fairly major suburban road, four lanes at least, and to get to it, you had to use an overhead walkway.
This walkway was about six or seven metres above the road, and the steps up and down were quite the workout.
The next morning when we went into town there was woman, an attractive youngish, middle-aged type standing at the bottom of the stairs with a large suitcase.
She obviously needed help, and as the five of us approached, Craig stopped and asked her if she wanted help carrying the case up the stairs and down the other side.
She appraised us for a moment or two, then said, “No, Thank You”, in Spanish.
We thought this a bit odd, so I added, “Are you sure, we are going to the station.”
But she demurred again, and with a repeated “No, thank you”, waved us on our way.
So off we went and went into Madrid and looked about.
When we came home that evening, she was gone, so we figured naturally enough that she had got some help with her case, and caught the train, though why our help was not required, we couldn’t begin to speculate on.
The next morning came and we headed for the station, and she was back, standing at the base of the stairs with her bag.
This morning I was with only Craig, and we once again asked her if she needed help, once again she said “no”.
So we went off once more, that evening she was gone.
But the next morning she was back, so with curiosity finally getting the better of me, I asked at the campground kiosk about her.
She was a prostitute.
Turns out prostitution is illegal, and heavily frowned upon in catholic Spain, so this woman had come up with an ingenious solution, she lurked at the base of the stairs with her bag, and then when a single male came along, and offered to help, she accepted and used this to get some custom.
As far as I could tell she didn’t want our help on either morning, because we weren’t rich.
I had been wearing the same shorts for a week now, and it showed, while Craig, had looked cleaner, but was still clearly a penniless backpacker.
And as I came through on my second pass of editing, I re-read that bit about the woman with the suitcase, and it reminded me of something else I saw in Madrid, that was even less wholesome.
At Martin’s direction, I had begun reading comic books in tandem with my language dictionaries, to learn, at least how to read the languages, and in Madrid I needed some fresh comic books.
So I found a bookstore in the heart of town and went in and asked about Garfield comics.
I was directed to the comic section I went browsing along the section looking for the characteristic ginger and black stripes of Garfield, when I saw a comic book with an oddly contorted human couple on the cover.
I took a closer look and realised it was a hard core pornographic comic.
It was such an appalling thing to be on display in a section, comic books, devoted mostly to children.
I opened it and looked inside, and simply couldn’t believe my eyes, inside women with breasts like nose cones of Polaris missiles and men with muscles like Schwarzenegger engaged in the most explicit acts.
I was frankly shaken.
So I put it down, found some much more wholesome comic books of Garfield, Tintin, and some Calvin and Hobbes, made my purchases and left.
But as I write I am once more driven to the remarkable lack of logic that goes with a country heavily dominated by religion.
The greatest woman in biblical history, Mary Magdalene, was a prostitute, yet in Spain prostitution is illegal, so much so that a practitioner had to lurk by a road overpass with a suitcase as an excuse, while just twenty blocks away, hard core pornography is sold in the comic book section of bookstores.
So I guess that’s all for Madrid, a city of a thousand years of culture, and all I remember are XXX comic books and the prostitute with a suitcase that was big enough to hide in if the cops came along.
Perhaps that’s where she got the idea in the first place.
Next time we move onto the southern Spanish coast around Barcelona, then back across the south of France and onward for the Brindisi ferry to Greece.