Travelling around Europe on a shoestring isn't just for backpackers and gap year students...
On the face of it, a fortnight’s holiday to somewhere near St Tropez probably doesn’t conjure up an instant image of Breadline Britons stoically enduring the worst depression since the 1920’s but this is our first foreign holiday for two years, last week we did a week in a haunted cottage in Cornwall. We’re not foraging for nutty slack just yet believe me, in 1500 words time I’ll have convinced you that we, The Middle, are struggling, in our own peculiar The Middle way.
Take the car for a start. We’re driving down in a car we’ve borrowed from my father-in-law. The aircon’s packed up on our old Citroen and we can’t afford to fix it. As F-in-L’s recently bought a new one, he offers to swap. So, he does the supermarket run with the windows down, we head for the south of France with the windows up.
Then, take the top of the car. We want to take a roofbox, we can’t afford to get the special Citroen bars fitted, so I spend hours on eBay searching for bars that will work on this model, for under a £100. This search involves a lengthy email discussion with a chap in a garage in Southern Ireland about whether we need vertical or horizontal ones, it gets a bit involved but we get there in the end and they’re dispatched, free p+p, to arrive a few days later. I even manage to fit them successfully.
Then, peer inside the roof box. That’s a fold-up bike. Again, the result of an eBay search lasting days involving many unsuccessful bids before I finally combine a job in Huddersfield with a trip to Droylesden to collect my bargain ‘buy-it-now’ purchase, £80-campsite transport sorted!
Ah yes, campsite. Sort of. Static caravan actually, courtesy of Thomson Alfresco. We wanted a three bedroom one but they’ve only got two bedroom available, but, rest assured, we’ve got decking.
I’ve planned the journey like a military campaign, blitzkrieg, but with two overnight stops en route. First, we’re in a family room in a Travelodge in Ashford, then I’ve ‘sourced’ a hotel halfway down France, where, again, the four of us, me, wife, two children, can sleep altogether. Heck, it’s cosier and besides, it’s cheaper. Except, our second night neccessitates going to find somewhere to eat in a small town on a Saturday night. This is France, shouldn’t be a problem should it? But this is France, ever contrary, and each attempt to find a table to eat meets either a cursory Gallic shrug accompanied by, “Nous sommes complets ce soir..”, or the claim that they’re not even serving food, in a restaurant, on a Saturday evening.
I’ve planned the journey like a military campaign, blitzkrieg, but with two overnight stops en route.
This causes the inevitable family row, two parents trudging along, twenty yards apart, separated by sad looking offspring. Heading back to the hotel, we find a place and could kiss the owner, both cheeks, it is France, when he says he has a table. It’s been a long day. I unwind with a couple of strong, dark beers and a huge ‘Corsican’ style burger. The offspring and wife have bruschetta with cheese on it, a French attempt to reinvent the pizza. I sit back, full and beer-relaxed. Until I get the bill, which adds over 80 euros to our running total. Then there’s the breakfast the next morning, not included in the online booking fee, the autoroute tolls, the fuel… we’re using a host of different credit and debit cards to pay for stuff, I’m like Paul Daniels at the petrol station counter, “Pick a card, any card, don’t show me..”.
I’m like Paul Daniels at the petrol station counter, “Pick a card, any card, don’t show me..”.
Major, unforeseen plumbing repairs prior to departure put the boot into our holiday fund, so we knew it was going to be tight but the trip down and the subsequent financial leakage lead me to a dramatic austerity decision. I announce to a packed caravan, well it is only small, that given the current state of our domestic economy, the need for austerity measures is essential, so we won’t be eating out for the next fortnight. The children slump on the sofa, to them this means two weeks worth of supermarket sausages cooked by me on the barbecue. Sorry kids, but hey! the sun’s shining and the sea’s warm!
Other austerity measures are soon put in place in a belt-tightening exercise that would impress the Chancellor, if he wasn’t away enjoying the delights of a villa with its own pool, fine wines and regular 8 course banquets somewhere in Tuscany, probably. I order a beer at the bar as we wait for a takeaway pizza. “Small or BEEEEG?”, the barman enquires, in response to my “Un biere, s’il vous plait?”. “BEEEG!”, I reply, first day crazy, bit flash. He pours, presents, “Seeex euro”, I splutter. That’s 6 pounds a bloody pint! Well, almost, the exchange rate was more favourable this summer, but still, nearly 6 pounds a pint! From this point on, I have about four more pints in the fortnight, each one a guilty little nocturnal treat, only to be supped slowly as we enjoy Melvis Bublay, the Cote D’Azur’s top Elvis impersonator. I even resort to sneaking little bottles of own-brand hypermarche beers down one night when there’s a gig on, I stay in the shadows, checking over each shoulder, before I reach down into my bag and open another one. I manage to evade arrest.
“Small or BEEEEG?”, the barman enquires, in response to my “Un biere, s’il vous plait?”.
In the same way that the budget deficit seems to be rising no matter how much we’re all supposed to belt-tightening, a trip to St Tropez sees our fiscal policy reduced to ruins. My wife accidentally punches my youngest daughter in the eye, don’t ask, and she’s feeling groggy, so we sit down at a bar by the harbour side, you know the one? Populated by massive motor yachts, that all seem to be registered in the Channel Islands? Our attentive waiter zips over. It’s a deux petit bieres, un l’eau et un Orangina order. We sit and sip and enjoy the streetlife and a particularly good street entertainer. When it comes to passing round the hat we slide down in our seats, happy to leave it to the Oligarchs, the old guys with the very young skinny girls, checking the NASDAQ on their iphones. Then we get the bill, 27 euros.. I’m the one who should be passing round the hat. At 7 euros a piece, those small beers prove to be the most expensive I’ve ever drunk and, Lord knows, I’ve drunk lots of beers in lots of places.
That’s what it does to you, isn’t it? It reduces every act to a transaction. “Can we go on a little boat daddy?”, “How much is it? 25 euros for half an hour?! No chance..”. We rub our hands at the fact that there’s a bottle of rose in the supermarket for 2 euros! Bottles of something like a Cava for less than that!
There’s one awkward moment when our two worlds almost collide. Another British family arrive, with two daughters, and they stop to chat as they head out on their first evening. “Where’s good to eat in town?”, they ask. Just as I’m trying to come up with a suitably non-committal response that doesn’t involve the phrase, ‘don’t know, we can’t afford it’, my wife interjects, “Don’t know, we haven’t been out to eat, it’s too expensive!”. There’s a slightly awkward middle-class moment. They don’t know how to deal with this. We all laugh nervously. But it’s a subject that we skirt around. Subsequent conversations reveal him to be an engineer, Chief I think, with a big petroleum company. I think he earns a few quid, certainly more than me but he’s from Sunderland so he gets it. His wife is from Aberdeen so, she understands as well. So we don’t’ really talk about it. Even as our children play together, and we sip cheap sparkling wine on our decking, we don’t get down to brass tacks, like, “Are you overdrawn at the end of every month?” and “Are you wearing any clothes from a charity shop?”. It’s a source of potential embarrassment, for me at least, the Great Provider, so we don’t go there.
There’s a slightly awkward middle-class moment. They don’t know how to deal with this.
I actually enjoy the freedom of not feeling under any pressure to go out and do anything. I enjoy cooking sausages on the barbecue, I even get a little bit more ambitious this year with turkey kebabs and pork chops in a Provencale dressing, both well-received. We sit on the decking, wander down to the beach, drink wine from a big, silver bag and those little bottles of beer, play cards, table tennis, chat. My wife spends the fortnight pining for moules et frites but, she’s realistic enough to know, it’s not going to happen, blame the leaking shower pump for that one.
It’s a fine holiday. Man can live on baguettes, beer, fromage and jambon alone and my little eBay bike proves a star performer. But it’s packed up back in the roof as we head home and hit our austerity highpoint 500 miles later. We’re checked into a roadside motel. Again, family room, which involves a mezzanine floor which the children occupy. We arrive on a Sunday night, in the rain. We’re on the outskirts of Troyes, near an industrial estate and our location doesn’t boast an abundance of obvious eating options. Except for a glowing KFC sign, easily visible from the balcony landing outside our room. So, our last night in France is spent sitting on the big bed, a bargain bucket, sorry, bouquet, contents spread out on a towel from the bathroom in our midst, eating chicken and chips with our fingers. My wife and I drink warm rose from the silver bag I managed to extricate from the depths of the boot. Ah, La Belle France!
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