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TALES OF THE UNEXPECTED (Tour de France 14)

The Pied Piper of the Camargue

The Pied Piper of the Camargue

We are on our way back to our campsite along the road from Aigues Mortes. We have travelled this road umpteen times since we arrived here about 10 days ago. Just off this road there are two houses built in the typical old Camargue fashion, south facing with the backs of the houses shaped rather like the stern of an upside down boat. They are built in this way to resist the Mistral, the powerful wind that blows in from the north, and can sometimes reach 220 kph I am led to believe. Every time we drive past these two houses Julia points them out to me. ‘Have you noticed those typical old Camargue houses?’ she says. If she has told me once, she has told me half a dozen times. I don’t think that it is because she has forgotten that she has already told me this … I think it is because she doesn’t think I listen to her enough?

Anyway, this time, as we approach these two houses I think that I will ‘beat her to the punch’. ‘I know what you are going to say next!’ I tell her. ‘Oh look!’ she says in response, ‘There is an egret standing on the back of a horse!’ I look where she is pointing, and there is indeed an egret standing on the back of one of the white Camargue horses in the field by the houses! ‘You weren’t expecting me to say that, were you?’ says Julia. And she is quite right … I wasn’t. And so begins a few days of unexpected events … the kind of things that can only happen when you go camping in France … tales of the unexpected we might call them!

The week had begun well! After seven days of putting up with crappy showers in the shower block … the kind of showers that only dribble water, that are usually luke warm at the best, that suddenly inexplicably turn really hot or really cold for a couple of seconds, that have knobs that (in typical French fashion) turn anti-clockwise rather than clockwise to turn on or increase the water temperature … I unexpectedly find the perfect shower! Everything works absolutely perfectly … hot water, great pressure, enough pegs to hang your stuff on! You go 20 yards down the path by our pitch to the first shower block, you then go round the back of the shower block to the showers in a lovely sunlit quadrangle, and the shower is the third one on the left! Every day this week I have managed to get to the shower early, have my shower, and then stay in there … resisting little children who come knocking at the shower door, and adults (pleading my ignorance of the French language) … until Julia comes for her shower!

Equally unexpected has been some of the wonderful places we have been to this week. The lovely university town of Montpellier with its magnificent architecture, and the beautiful coastal resorts of Le Grau du Roi and La Grande Motte. True we had some trouble finding our way in to the centre of Montpellier – apparently finding your way in to the centre is notoriously difficult – even Kate (our new SatNav) struggled. But this was compensated for by the unexpected joy of finally emerging from the underground car park to find ourselves right in the magnificent Place de la Comedie. The warmth of the Mediterranean when we went for a swim; the hilarious ‘ice cream wars’ (as we dubbed them) with countless numbers of ice cream salespeople all vying for the same customers on the beach; the buzz of Le Grau du Roi of an evening and the fact that we were able to buy a great seafood dinner (with wine) for under 50€ for the two of us, were all very unexpected. Another unexpected happening was that right next to our restaurant the ‘boat jousting’ was taking place. Think of mediaeval knights jousting … and you have something similar but with boats rather than horses. The boats row past each others, crewed by about 20 rowers, and with a man on a platform in the stern armed with wooden shield and lance. The objective was to knock your opponent off his platform. It was great fun. What was unexpected, however, was that when someone got knocked into the water, the rescue boat didn’t bother to pick him up … just the wooden shield and lance? Obviously they were more valuable.

The friendliness of our neighbours on this campsite has also been unexpected … not simply the friendliness but the warmth of the friendliness … and the unexpected hilarity of some of the things that have happened. We return from one of our ‘trips’ … we have to unfailingly follow Julia’s planned itinerary … to discover that the French family who we lent our spare electric cable to had packed up and left? There was no sign of our cable anywhere by our pitch? ‘I hope they haven’t taken it with them!’ I say to Julia. ‘I hope they didn’t cut off just the length they needed?’ Julia replies. We both roar  with laughter at the thought of finding our electric cable … with only eight inches of cable left on it? Thankfully we do find it … intact … by the French family’s now vacated pitch.

For Julia and myself one of the most unexpected things in life is the way God suddenly reveals himself to people. I think of C S Lewis’ testimony in his lovely book, Surprised by Joy of how he found God for himself whilst on a visit to Whipsnade Zoo. At the start of the journey, he tells us, he didn’t believe in God, but by the end of the journey, he did! Gerard Hughes God of Surprises is another great book of spiritual guidance. A lovely, wise and lucid book of deep humanity, it is above all a useful book – a book to be used by those who find it hard to forgive themselves: the stumblers and agnostics who hardly dare believe that God can be at work within them.

Today we are going on a mini-tour around the Camargue. We plan to visit the Museum of the Camargue (where we have been before three years ago), an Abbey, and a Nature Reserve. We have forgotten, of course, that today is Bastille Day … a very important day for the French and a national holiday. So … when we get to the Museum, the Abbey, the Nature Reserve … they are all closed of course! The French do not see the irony of celebrating the day when the Bastille Prison was opened (and the prisoners freed) by having a day when everything people want to visit (on a national holiday) is closed! We should have expected this of course. At least the cafés are open so we can get a coffee!

The most unexpected event, however, happened yesterday afternoon. It was about 3.00 p.m. and we were all ‘spark out’ … lying around on an assortment of airbeds, deckchairs, blankets etc. It has been so hot here that the only thing any of us can do between 2.00 p.m. and 4.30 p.m. is find some shade … and sleep. Well, there we all are … sleeping … when suddenly we are interrupted by the horrendous sound of the bagpipes being played! As far as I know Julia and I (and another couple) are the only Brits on the campsite. It is largely the French themselves (and the Belgians) that come here. In fact even the staff here don’t really speak any English. I think I am dreaming! It’s a nightmare! I wake unexpectedly to hear ‘Flower of Scotland’, ‘A Scottish Soldier’, ‘Amazing Grace’ all being played on the bagpipes very loudly. I wonder at first if it something to do with the children’s activities over by the main meeting area … but no, it is a man playing the bagpipes! We are all awake now! The French and the Belgians come running over to us as if it is all our fault! ‘The McGregors are coming!’ our Belgian neighbour tells us! I try and explain that we are English (not Scottish) and that one of the reasons we leave the UK each summer and come to France is to escape the sound of bagpipes! I tell them that if we English had been allowed to vote in the recent ‘Independence for Scotland’ referendum, Scotland would have been given independence … primarily because of the noise of bagpipes! We tackle the man playing the bagpipes. He thinks we all like the sound of the bagpipes because he is now marching around the campsite playing as loudly as he can!  Julia attempts the gentle approach. ‘Was that ‘Flower of Scotland’ you were playing?’ she asks him. ‘No!’ he replies, ‘It was Primrose of Belgium!’ (at least we think that was how his French translated). It turns out that he is Belgian … nothing whatsoever to do with Scotland. The Piper carries on marching around and playing loudly. Our fellow campers are groaning (and putting their fingers in their ears). The dogs are all howling! We decide to go out for the rest of the day … and jump in our car and drive off. As we leave we see the children … following the Pied Piper … (no doubt inspired by James Bond) they are throwing things at him!

We arrive back at our campsite late in the evening. All is quiet. We go to bed, tired after our great evening in Le Grau du Roi. I am woken at 7.30 a.m. by the sound of the bagpipes being played! Its o.k., I am just dreaming! I get up anyway and go for my shower. I go the 20 yards down the path by our pitch to the first shower block, and round the back of the shower block to the showers in the lovely sunlit quadrangle. I walk towards the third shower on the left! ‘Stop!’ says the huge French lady who cleans the showers every day. ‘I am just about to clean these showers … you cannot use the only really good shower on the whole campsite!’ Here is something else that is quite unexpected. Why, on earth, is this woman cleaning the showers at a time when most of us actually want to go and use the showers? ‘Go round the corner’ she says, ‘use the crappy showers …the showers that only dribble water, that are luke warm at the best, that suddenly inexplicably turn really hot or really cold for no good reason, the showers that have knobs that turn in the wrong direction in order to punish you! Go and use the crappy showers like everybody else!

Jim Binney

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