(A Place Where) Dreams Really do come True – France 1995
Katharine and I have three kids (and just a few weeks ago a grandchild). All of them are girls, all three feisty and full of hell. When younger, Arwen (the middle & most noticeably ginger one) was notoriously difficult to impress. Even at the tender age of three or four she’d summarise any experience: films; food; festivals; parties; TV programmes; games; days out, with the catch all expression s’pose it was awright, and that would be that. We gave up trying to do anything impressive safe in the knowledge that she was one of the most contented and placid people we’ve known. Her baby years were mainly spent playing happily for hours with pieces of string and pay doh – something she has pretty much continued latterly into her career as a sculptor.
So imagine our shock and amazement when at the age of nine she announced in hushed tones that implied an absolute sense of wonder, and which brooked no argument, that: this is the place where dreams really do come true.
Now what do you think that she might have been talking about. The Planetarium? Madame Tussauds? The London Dungeon? The Tower of London? Durham Cathedral? Alton Towers? No, these were all places that had elicited the usual response, and she had even reserved particular scorn for the Tower of London, since on the one day we’d visited, the room housing the Crown Jewels was closed and to add insult to injury a Beefeater had made her accompany him up the 100 stairs to see for herself the room that was closed, and count them all. Just for a laugh (ahahaha).
Need a clue? At the time an attraction across the water that was so glittering and wondrous it could only be entirely American in origin, was about to be unleashed on the unsuspecting Europeans and in particular the people living near Paris. For weeks the TV had regaled us with adverts, and although there were rumours that not all was financially well in fairyland, we were cheerfully told over and over that it was -a place where dreams…… – well I think you can guess the rest for yourselves! Our three sat glued even closer to the television than usual for the adverts announcing the launch of Disneyland Paris, and as a result we were subjected to almost continuous Bart Simpson style exhortations like Dad will you take us to Mount Splashmore, only this one went mum and dad, please take us to Disneyland Paris…please, please, please etc and on and on.
So of course we just had to go! At the time I cordially disliked the Americans - with their glitz and glamour and relentless proselytising of the capitalist dream – viewing them with the kind of disdain that you might expect of an anti-nuclear activist and practising hippie, and I warned all who would listen (which amounted pretty much only to the cat and she didn’t have much choice in the matter) that it would be total rubbish. Even she was right to doubt me, and despite the fact that I’d made up my mind not to like Disneyland Paris, it only took a sight of the golden Edoras glimmering in the distance, the luxurious reception area and a turn on one ride – Pirates of the Carribean (long before it became a film) – to completely change my mind! I mean, any organisation that can make water flow upwards, as it did in the ride that subsequently inspired the Johnny Depp version of Pirates, must be capable of some pretty awe inspiring feats of engineering and some serious inspiration and creativity, not to mention the application of extremely large sums of the old green stuff!
I was bowled over, as were all of us, and during a rest stop, taking shelter from the remorseless heat of an August afternoon, Arwen made her pronouncement – one that has passed into family mythology, and usually signifies something like, well, really, really, really special. We had been – or were about to go – on it’s a Small World After All; Big Thunder Mountain; Space Mountain; Star Tours; a replica paddle steamer straight out of Huckeleberry Finn, and at midnight there was a firework display of such magnificance and duration that we could only gasp in wonder. It had been timed – we thought wrongly, especially for us, since it took place at nearly midnight while we were taking the last trip of the evening on the the paddle steamer, and were in the middle of the enormous artificial lake that had been created for it to sail on. Our trajectory had taken us to to the middle of the lake, and the fireworks illuminated the night sky over the spot our craft had reached with luxuriant and undreamt of splendour.
We went back to the campsite, exhausted but exultant, tucked ourselves into Charlie and dreamed the dreams of the innocent. For the girls, I think it was what childhood should be about, and for Kath and I it was a return to a time of comfort, wonder and heedless laughter, and I think whoever coined the phrase ‘there’s a child in all of us’ wasn’t far wrong.
In contrast any journey in Charlie was usually edged with a degree of uncertainty and a small amount of danger. Even the ferry companies conspired to get in on the act. They could never decide whether Charlie was a large car, or having six seats and an elevating roof was in fact a small mini-bus and therefore should be charged for accordingly. In the days before the internet we were required to spend an eternity on the phone answering questions about our beloved vehicle, whilst waiting endlessly for lackeys in what we imagined to be windowless, dust filled rooms to pronounce upon the cost of tickets and the type of insurance that would be required. Height; length, width; number of seats; weight; elevating roof; spare tyre on front – all required further consideration by the powers that be, and our phone bill grew so large and my patience so thin that I eventually resorted to lying. A useful tactic, which proved entirely successful! Naivley, I believed that my deception would eventually be found out, and we’d get turned back at the ferry port, but very few, if any employees of ferry companies check to see if something that appears on their docket as a VW Station Wagon, is in fact a large 2 ton Kombi Van, so fortunately this never happened.
Then of course there was also the uncertainty that Charlie would deign to let us go where we wanted to. Breakdowns (fortunately rare); the often frequent need for the old screwdriver trick referred to in a previous chapter; the lack of heating in winter and cooling in summer; the reluctance to start on chilly winter mornings; the lack of power steering; all contributed to being what I fondly imagined to part of the adventure. The journey – according to the buddah – is more important than the getting there. I still firmly believe this but now we have a powerful and pretty reliable Audi with all mod cons, and I enjoy the journey just as much!
There was from time to time an agreebly sociable element to Charlie’s need for large amounts of TLC. Breakdowns usually elicited help from VW enthusiasts, some of who we stayed in contact with for many years; AA Patrols invariably went ‘above and beyond’ in their attempts to resolve the problem, doubtless taking pity on a bunch of helpless hippies and their young offspring, all of who would begin crying and sobbing on cue when such an events happened; complete strangers would stop and chat; people would offer us large sums of money for Charlie (which we invariably refused); and on one occasion Charlie drew larger crowds than our campsite’s entertainment menu. Admittedly this comprised a listless and not at all glitzy karaoke with a completely out of date song list, a tired ‘talent’ show and some films that dated back at least several centuries before even Charlie Chaplin. Even so, I felt quite chuffed in a way at being with Charlie the centre of attention.
Now, it seemed that the French on our particular campsite liked nothing better than the sight of an air cooled engine & carburettor being stripped down and (badly) re-assembled by someone they clearly regarded as being a bit like an English Gerard Depardieu, but not as the handsome devil he so obviously is, but rather of him in his Cerano de Bergerac incarnation as a bumbling if good natured fool. As I toiled in the blazing heat of the day to rectify a fault which had developed in the carburettor, a large crowd of French blokes, all wearing pencil thin moustaches and implausibly large cheery bellies, diverted from their usually endless game of boules and gathered to proffer advice, pass me screwdivers and wrenches, help turn the engine over, all accompanied by an amused air of tolerance and eyebrow jiggling that plainly said (in cod French if you please), ‘aha, ze English fool knows nuzing about ze carburettor, n’est pa’).
Larger crowds gathered whilst wives and partners of the assembled multitude spread picnic blankets nearby and produced French sticks, ham cheese and wine. Kids wandered round and tried to use Charlie as an adventure playground, and all the time the merciless sun blazed down, raising the temperature to a very un – English 35 degrees. Fortunately, the campsite was well equipped with a large number of sizeable willow trees, and Charlie had come to rest under the shade of one of them before signalling carburettor exhaustion and refusing to budge any further. My task was made slightly (and I stress, only slightly) easier by this, but by the time the bread, wine and cheese had been consumed I kinda didn’t care much anymore for my mechanical assignment anyway, so having agreed that my days labours had pretty much been in vain, I agreed to a re-run the next day. This time an even larger crowd assembled and even larger pic-nics were produced, but this time I nailed it; mid way through the afternoon one of my able assistants turned the key, put his foot on the gas, and eventually the engine turned over merrily accompanied by great cheers from the crowd. I did a sort of victory lap of honour, shaking hands with the foregathered multitude, and giving Macca style thumbs up signs to all in sundry.
I think they were visibly disappointed that the entertainment had come to an end, but the next day I managed again to become the centre of attention by cutting my foot in the river and bleeding copiously. A doctor was called for, but there were none on the campsite, nor were there any first aiders. Now what’s the best thing after a doctor or first aider when you’re bleeding to death – of course I hear you say – a Vet!! A vet duly arrived (no campsite should be without one), and pronounced me in me in the pink – literally, given the amount of blood I’d lost, and told me in a louche tone that no French vet should be without, well that, actually he didn’t really know, not having his vet’s bag and all, but that the cut looked clean, and that a hospital visit was unlikely to be necessary. How would I know if this was the right decision? Possibly by having my leg turn green and drop off in the night, but fortunately this didn’t happpen. So I was bandaged up and again became of no entertainment value whatsoever. The crowd once more dispersed and I was unable to rise to the dizzying heights of interest & debate again. I don’t think I was entirely disappointed no longer to be the centre of attention – I prefer not to be in the spotlight wherever possible.