Me and Michel Chapter Nine

‘What cannot be cured, must be endured.

Robert Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy

My nightly ablutions always involve a walk in my PJs past my fellow campers, bearing wash kit and towel, to a communal concrete building that is generally uninviting.

The wash blocks are all the same and all different in a way that makes no difference. They are generally smelly and the floors are always wet, no matter what the time of day, it seems. Some have showers that must be paid for with a coin, others use tokens, and others still provide hot water free of charge, though only at peak time in the mornings and the evenings. They are usually open to the air in some way, and they may be busy or deserted according to some habitude amongst the camping fraternity, or maybe a shared French custom, like the time one eats, lunchtime being sacrosanct and remarkably consistent wherever you go in this country. They will resent me saying so, but there is a conformist instinct in the French, perhaps a symptom of a certain chauvinism and a conscious sense of a shared culture, that we English lack. Or maybe we have our national characteristics, but disrupted by the persistence of a class riddled society that continues to make customs like tea and dinner mean very different things to different people.

The great leveller for all nationalities is to share the utilitarian sanctuary where you strip off your clothes, shave, shower, go to the toilet and clean your teeth. Shower blocks remind us of our common humanity, though I often find myself alone, or with only one or two companions, and I’m not at all sure ‘companions’ is quite the right word. My French is not good enough to hold a conversation of any length or depth, but the etiquette of these places is not geared towards getting to know one another, and that’s a relief. I’m learning that in lieu of passing the time of day, a clipped ‘Bonjour’ is as far as you should go in acknowledging anyone you meet at the basins or making their way to and from the stalls or the showers. More often, a nod of the head or better still, no expression at all is perfectly acceptable, even preferable.

Tonight, I feel no small satisfaction in the achievement of the day. Fifty kilometres according to the sat nav on my phone – the one I swore I wouldn’t use – fifty-two point four kilometres to be precise. I’ve reached Vielle-Saint-Girons and I’m staying at a site called Camping Eurosol. I walk back to my humble home past elaborate smoking barbeques and sneaked a look into the cosy interiors of oversized white camper vans and caravans I pass, their occupants ranged around tables under good, old-fashioned electric light, and felt a twinge of envy. But as I make my way back from what was a very hot shower to see my tent glowing softly in the distance, lit by my solar lamp, the mattress fully self-inflated under my crumpled sky blue down sleeping bag, I’m quietly proud of myself to be here, to be alone, and to be alright.

I pack my wash kit in the left hand pannier ready for the morning. I hang my damp towel out, knowing it won’t dry tonight, but positioning it as best I can to catch the first rays of the sun in the morning.

I’m wearing my version of pyjamas, cotton harem pants and a t-shirt, and debating whether to leave both on as I unzip the tent, at least until I warm up in the sleeping bag. It cost s something to bend my aching legs and get so low to the ground at the end of a long day, but I’m ready to be horizontal, though I know I’ll sleep soundly for a few hours, only to wake in the night and doze fitfully until morning. I’ve never been a good sleeper. Megs inherited insomnia from me, even as a baby. She didn’t sleep through the night for the first two years of her life. Not until we took her into our bed and she lay between us, comforted and happy, and whilst my ex-wife, who is a very good sleeper, or was then, was barely conscious of the warm little body between us, I clung to the edge of the bed and waited, open-eyed, for morning. Not that I hold a grudge. Now Megs is all grown up, sleep still doesn’t come easy, and Lilly, who used to be able to sleep anywhere, is finding it harder and harder. We all worry too much. It seems to run in the family.

I try to encourage sleep to come by thinking back on the day. It is true to say that I have spoken to very few people beyond those at receptions or in cafes, poor souls who have had to endure my schoolboy French. I have been alone for quite a while now, so much so that when I did strike up a conversation today, the experience was exhilarating, not least because I realised I had seen this young man two or three times before. Somehow, as we rode the same path, we had overlapped and begun to recognise each other with a nod or a wave. I would pass him and sometimes he would pass me. What was so distinctive about him was the ragged straw hat perched on his head that gave him the casual air of a peasant on the way to the fields to work, or an artisan taking a break from his atelier. I had my own straw hat, but not half so chic, nor could I compete with his air of insouciance and, well, ataraxia.

We spoke for the first time when I stopped to take a closer look at the Second World War bunkers that still litter this coast, part of the Atlantikwall, built by the German army to deter invasion from the sea by the Allies. I read that these stranded monoliths, many sliding into the sea or tipped at odd angles by eighty years of slippage in the sand and the pounding of the waves will one day vanish, but the process is slow. Some have graffiti, one or two still contain rusting machinery, and I saw a picture of one with a gun barrel poking through the concrete slit. To see them, is to remind yourself of war and conflict, but also to see the slow motion ability of nature to absorb the worst of us, to bury the evidence in sand and sea, and to make a nonsense of our temporary stewardship of the planet.

I read somewhere that there is so much concrete in the world that it will soon outweigh all living matter. That’s every tree, every fish in the sea, every bird in the sky, and every one of us, not to mention whales, hippos and rhinoceros, grass, and every last insect, even the ants, not to mention lichens, mosses, bacteria…I could go on. More than half of all ‘human made things’ are made of concrete, and in a thousand years or more, when the ants look back on the brief reign of the bipeds who were so amusing to persecute, all they will have to remind them of us will be crumbling concrete. Which is why my home, be it ever so humble, will not be built with concrete.

I was musing on all this as I repacked my bike, having lunched on the beach, when the young man parked his own bike beside mine. He nodded to me congenially and when he saw me struggling with the language, he kindly spoke in English. He had a far away look and a calmness about him that was attractive. We chatted easily about my trip and his journey from his home, somewhere near the sea close to Montpellier. My thousand kilometres palled beside his plan to cycle around France, tracing the Spanish border, working his way up the Atlantic seaboard, and hugging the Brittany coast before heading south again via Paris, Dijon and Lyon, a total of some three thousand kilometres. But what surprised me the most was that he travelled so light with only a sleeping bag and a tiny one-man tent and he told me he never stayed in campsites.

‘Too expensive,’ he said, ‘I have not much money.’ When I asked why he was making the trip, he said simply, ‘I want to see my country.’ He didn’t seem to feel any further explanation was necessary. He planned to become an engineer and would begin college soon. He appeared to both embrace and accept his fate without question in a way that suggested a well thought out philosophy of life well beyond his years.

We parted as straightforwardly as we’d met, with a ‘bon chance et bon voyage’ and as I watched him go, I felt envious of his ease with himself and his ability to make do. I can’t remember being the same when I was eighteen or twenty – though I suppose it’s possible I seemed that way to others.

I didn’t ask his name, nor he mine, appropriate to the etiquette of anonymity between fellow travellers. But the encounter lingers. It’s as if his youth reminds me of another me, less inclined to fear and woe, more open to things as they are, and with less accumulated experience making me wary about what is to come. We all of us have a natural disposition, but I think many of us lose something precious in making life’s journey, even as we understand more about the world and who we are. We lose our innocence. Perhaps it’s as simple as that.


As I lie in the dark of the tent, I hear the occasional voice speaking in French or sometimes German or Dutch, as my fellow campers retire for the night. In the enveloping quiet that follows, the warmth of the sleeping bag and the chill of the night air are just sending me off to sleep when I realise there is something is crawling over my face. I scrabble for the torch, carefully positioned beside me for just such emergencies. Only I can’t find it. Perhaps it’s rolled under the self-inflating mattress. I lift one buttock, lean on my right elbow, and scrabble with my left hand. Nothing, bar the stones and pinecones I really ought to have swept away more diligently when I made camp. I repeat the exercise, this time leaning on my left elbow and patting the groundsheet with my right, to find a tube of cold steel. Got it.

I flick the switch and scan all around me; tent sides, clothes and valuables stored behind my head, and what about the pillow? Could it have been a mosquito? I lie back and scan the apex. There’s a bug, but it doesn’t look like a mozzie and it doesn’t look like it moves around very much – sans wings anyway – and harmless looking. I sweep the beam over the groundsheet once again, a searchlight seeking out intruders, forcing them into the shadows, all bar one solitary ant, rather bigger than I’m used to at home, and clearly pretty sure of himself. I wonder if he’s too fast to catch, or worse still, too big to kill. I’m alone. I have to judge the situation for myself, morally and pragmatically in my own best interests. I consider reaching for one my sweaty old trainers, left outside the door for obvious reasons, but that means unzipping and that might encourage more intruders, especially with the torch on. I opt for a soft barrier of clothes, a mini-mountain, a whole landscape to be explored, and a barrier between my sleeping position and his last known position. One ant an infestation doth not make. I have to man-up.

I lie back and check the time. Almost four. I need another couple of hours to face the day ahead. I’m exhausted, and suddenly fed up. What am I trying to prove by being here? That I can still hack it?

Let it go. I’m learning to let go, that’s why I’m here. I put the inflatable pillow back in position, careful to keep it away from the tent sides to avoid condensation seeping through the fabric. I wrap my sweatshirt over the pillow to create the illusion of a real pillow – and not a squeaky balloon – and I pull my sleeping bag as far up as it will go. I lift my bum for one last tug on the excess material gathered around my hips, curl my legs and lie on my side, holding the covered pillow in place with one hand until I hopefully nod off.

It’s then I hear a sound I’ve not heard before. The unmistakable hiss of air escaping under pressure. My self-inflating mattress is now self-deflating, matching my mood, and the surprisingly cold, stony ground of the forest floor is rising to meet my warm body. The icy embrace of the grave.