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Open Features: What To Do When You Are Bored – Part 1

Linda McLean begins an account of a holiday in the Dordogne with two companions in wheelchairs.

It is cold in Scotland in winter. There is no doubt about that. It is even colder for people who lack the ability to keep themselves warm through exercise, or walking. That is, those in wheelchairs. Not surprisingly winter nights are spent dreaming of somewhere warm…

Some years ago I was friendly with Phil, a civil servant, and his friend Roddy, who was a lawyer. Roddy was a real live wire and extremely popular. He was so disgusted at his treatment by the law firm because of his disability that he never really took able bodied people seriously thereafter. He felt that they had life far too cushy, and did not even know it. He left his firm in disgust to join the legal arm of the Civil Service, where he met Phil.

Roddy and Phil, both confined to wheelchairs, wanted to go to the Dordogne, but for various reasons needed someone to escort and assist them. Phil could drive, as could Roddy, but at the time I could not. However, one mad winter’s night, we decided we would all go camping in the Dordogne.

I had been several times before to a very friendly campsite, and I was sure that the owner would keep a place very near the toilets for the use of the disabled.

In the spring it had been duly booked and confirmed, and we readied all our stuff. We were towing a trailer tent and were sailing from Portsmouth to Le Havre because one of the guys had friends there, and it meant we could stay the night for nothing. The car goes on the ferry for nothing if you are a member of the Disabled Drivers Club. So, that meant a cheap start to the adventure.

We arrived at Le Havre, and enjoyed our visit there tremendously. We were made very welcome and had enormous fun blowing up the inflatable lilos, which were to be beds for the guys.

We left early next morning for our long trip south. It was almost eight o’clock in the evening when we approached the camp site, and I was getting very worried. I had to put a trailer tent up myself. I didn’t know if there was going to be enough light left. And then, as the campsite came into view, I saw that the spot that I had specifically requested to be reserved for our use had been taken. There was a pink caravan on it.

I did not believe it. Victor Meldrew rose up within me, and I would have fought with anybody or nobody.

As we drove into the campsite, my rehearsed French was improving in leaps and bounds. I do not like fighting in a foreign language, it is much more difficult, so I decided to be very coldly angry, to articulate slowly and well. As we approached the site owner, I had probably reached about minus 20 degrees Centigrade mentally.

Before I got a chance to say a word, he welcomed me with open arms, kissed me on both cheeks, told me he had been waiting for us.

Slightly stunned, I responded, “What about the pink caravan?”

He literally hooted with laughter. Oh, yes. The pink caravan, “la petite caravan rose”. It had been put there to mark our spot, so nobody would take it. Feeling suitably chastened, I thanked him profusely, and said that I must get the tent up before nightfall.

“Do not worry, it is already done,” he responded.

With a whistle he summoned his four sons, and the tent went up in the wink of an eye.

And so we were installed. The campsite worked well, even although it was on a steep hill. The part that we were using beside the toilet block was level and well maintained.

There was a barn on the summit, which was a gathering place each evening. In the barn you met your neighbours and drank wine. And there were lots of games for the kids, who learned amazingly to play each others’ games even with no knowledge of their opponent’s language. It was a warm and friendly place. The guys were the only ones allowed to take the car up there.

The days were warm and the nights full of fun. A little van came to the site every day to deliver fresh bread, and we quickly got into the habit of croissants and hot chocolate in the morning.

Occasionally we had to go into town to restock our fridge, but apart from that, life was simple, sunbathing down by the lake most days with friends we had made on the campsite. I would read part of a book during this time, and then condense what I had read and give a brief synopsis over tea, as there was no television. It was interesting how well this was received in this format.

I always waited to see if they would ask, and they always did, “Well, what happened today to Becky then?” or some other character in the book. I would launch into my narrative. This was so successful that there was quite a fight over which book I should read next.

It was always fun watching new British people arrive, because there was so much to tell them. “Market day is on a Wednesday,” I informed a new couple, “but you have to be careful, because the town goes one way on a Wednesday.”

They looked at me in disbelief.

“It can’t go one way for one day only!”

“Oh, yes it does,” I assured them.

They chose not to believe me, and I watched these poor souls trying to drive the wrong way through the streets, being attacked with the odd bread stick by every Frenchman in sight. I now knew why those sticks were called batons.

The owner had known me over the years, and if there was a problem with English I was called in. So it happened that Jennifer appeared one Saturday morning at our tent with her Mum.

“She has terrible earache,” her Mum explained. “We have got the address of the local doctor from the site owner, but none of us speak French. Would you come with us?”

One look at the child convinced me that this would be a hospital job. A GP would have to refer her on. “There goes my Saturday,” I thought.

So we went to the doctor who did as I had predicted. He thought the child had an abscess and sent us to hospital in Perigeuex.

We started out for Perigeux, mum and dad in the front of the car, Jennifer crying beside me in the back…

Then suddenly Jennifer looked startled. “Something’s happened,” she informed me.

I inspected her ear. Sure enough the abscess had burst. The pain had gone. Jennifer was now quite happy.

“We had better continue anyway, seeing as how we have been referred,” said the parents. I agreed.

The thought of a long wait in Accident and Emergency did not cheer me. However, the French do things differently. There’s no waiting in a queue if a GP has phoned ahead to the hospital. You go straight to the Ear, Nose and Throat department and are seen instantly.

The room was clean, shining, and pristine. We would happily have eaten from the floor. What a difference from our hospitals at home.

(To be continued next week.}

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