Wax Ear Plugs, Vomit and Dettol

Going abroad in the mid-70s felt like going to another planet

To go to France, we caught the ferry from Plymouth. We left Bromley early in the morning and broke down in Purley. The clutch on our relatively new Renault had gone. We spent the rest of the day sitting in the Renault Garage in Beckenham as the car was repaired

The night before we left to go to France, we’d piled the kitchen table high with all the supplies we were going to take : Tins of baked beans, tuna, packs of instant mash. As mum was going to bed, she saw a mouse dart across the kitchen floor. She freaked and spent the whole holiday worrying that we would come back to a house overrun with vermin.

The journey from London to Plymouth was the farthest ever distance I had been driven in the UK by car

It was the farthest I had ever been driven in a French car

For our picnic on the way down, Mum had bought Marks and Spencer’s Cornish pasties from M&S in Bromley. This was the first time I had ever eaten an M&S cornish pastie.

When we stopped for lunch, I had to go to the loo. Of course there were no loos. I had to go behind a hedge. I did a huge poo and had to wipe my bum on a Boots 2 ply tissue, because we were keeping the loo roll for the holiday. Boots 2 ply was not up to the job. My finger went right through. By the way, I had never pooed in a field before. (and haven’t done since)

I had never been on a Channel Ferry before.

We crossed on the Brittany Ferries boat « the Penn Ar Bed » or a name of that ilk. The boat was full of French families. I had never seen so many French people in my life.

The boat was smelly. It stank of rotting fish and vomit. (or was it rotten fish vomit ?) I thought that it might be the people, but it wasn’t. The fishy stink came from a lorry carrying a cargo of . . . stinking fish.

As the French coast loomed into view, we all went on deck. This was the first time that I had ever seen the coast of France

This trip was the first and only time that I have put my hands in a stranger’s vomit. Person or persons unknown had been sick over the side of the boat. As I hauled myself up on the handrail to get a glimpse of France, I put my hands in the vomit. Dettol wipes had not yet been invented, so I had to go below decks to the vomit stinking loos to wash off the vomit.

When we eventually got off the Ferry at Roscoff, everyone spoke French and all the signs were in French and we would have got lost, had my mum not decided to follow another English family on the pretext that they « look like they know where they are going. » We followed the family until they turned off the main road to go somewhere that we weren’t going. Now we were lost.

We eventually got to the campsite at the dead of night. The camp courrier showed us to our tent. I had always been mad about tents. Every year, Dad would take us to the camping and caravanning show on the car park of Twickenham rugby stadium. One summer, he brought home an ex-army tent – thick green canvas and wooden tent poles. Dad even managed to put it up. Of course dad could put up a tent. He was born in 1917 and he had been in the War, though with his thick glasses and dodgy heart, I don’t think that he had ever seen any fighting – one of the “back room boys”

Though we had the tent in the garden most summers, I had never slept in a tent. Strictly forbidden by mum – “What if rats get in and bite you to death?” I was never aware that we had rats in the garden. They were actually supposed to come from the house next door – a property rented by a bunch of “dirty, long-haired layabout students.” When I was 19, I too joined the ranks of the long-haired layabouts, I can’t remember being all that dirty though.

Apart from never sleeping in a tent, before we went camping in Brittany …

I had never gone to sleep with medicated wax ear plugs in my ears. (or anywhere else for that matter)

I had never slept in socks before

I had never slept with my pyjama trousers tucked firmly in my socks, to stop creepy crawlies crawling up my trouser legs.

I had never been to the loo in the dark with a torch

In the tent next to us was a family from Croydon. To this day, I have never been so far to meet anyone from Croydon. Come to think of it, these were the first people I had ever met from Croydon.

The boy from Croydon in the tent next door had his birthday whilst on holiday. He got a Swiss army knife. Me, the “Croydon knife boy”, and the other English kids on the camp got together and proceeded to cut down loads of bushes in the woods next to the campsite. We made a « shelter » and played in it

Two days after we had made the shelter, a very irate campsite owner came to our tent to tell us that we had cut down “scenic” her garden. We pleaded ignorance saying that it didn’t look like a garden. Mum had a very heated meeting with all the other parents of the kids involved. She had to pay eighteen quid for the damage we had caused.

Other memories.

It rained everyday of the holiday

When it was raining, we went to the market in Quimper. There was a lady there with a crêpe stall, who, made the best crêpes I’ve ever tasted. What she possessed in terms of gastronomic savoir-faire, she totally lacked in hygiene terms. There were flies everywhere and arsenic-coated fly-papers hanging from the ceiling. You know what they say – the best food comes from the dirtiest kitchens

In Quimper we walked along the banks of the river Odet. It was covered in green slime and stank of rotten eggs. It was an open sewer. One day we saw a dead rat floating on the surface.

When it wasn’t raining we went to the beach at Benodet. This was where the Odet river flowed into the sea. The beach was as smelly as the river.

It was on holiday that I learned our family didn’t do the same things the same way as other families. Everyone else got up really early, we never surfaced until mid morning, by which time all the other families had cleared off to the beach. We never left for the beach until three, by which time all the other families were coming home. In the evening, we were sitting down to dinner as everyone else was going to bed. Mum said that we were living a continental lifestyle

We never washed for two weeks. I was amazed to see other families all wearing dressing gowns and trooping up to the washing block, all clutching enormous sponge bags. We didn’t have sponge bags. We did clean our teeth though.

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