the skinflint philosopher

Thrifting your way to a better life


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Warriors and wilderness : France #4

Next for our viewing pleasure, we travel uphill for what seems like the first time since entering the country. The landscape of Normany, Brittany and the Atlantic coastline had been incredibly flat, ideally suited to the agricultural production that seems to dominate – apples, sunflowers and the like- we even knew when we were passing fields of onions or leeks as the warm humidity filled Leo with an aromatic fuzz. The Dordogne made way to gently undulating hills, sporting vineyards like regiments of soldiers in perfectly straight lines, evidence of meticulous mathematical planning. Woe betide the vine that dares to grow a little bit scraggily.

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Now though we are climbing into the national park area of upper Langedoc. Here the roads twist and coil their way through serious craggy country, and wild olives and the stripped bark of cork and eucalyptus take centre stage. We wait for beret wearing old men to drive herds of sheep across the red dusty roads. The campsites are deserted or boarded up. We thought the coastal areas were quiet out of season, but this place has shut down, all except the racing circuit at Castellet, and the roads that surround it. At every corner (and there are many on this winding trail across the Black mountains) we observe wilted bouquets, and cairns, and epitaths to the dead. The modern love for speed jars with the slow, traditional beauty of the landscape they must pass by in a blur. We stay in Montelieu, and visit the fairy tale-esque Cite at Carcasonne. A mish mash of Gaul, Roman, Moor and Cathar fortifications, with a healthy dollop of tinkering by the 19th architect Viollet-le-Duc it is easy to see why this has been used for many film sets, and why tourists flock from all over to buy plastic helmets and swords for their children, and blow their ciggarette smoke out against the ramparts over their coffee and galettes.

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Tiddler of course is more interested in the warrior living statue making a few euros in the carpark, and the Italian brothers offering hand machine stiched merchandise. They sew her name on a piece of card for her, quicker than I could write it. It reminds me of roadside tailors in India, with such skill and dexterity that their labour appears as chorographed as a piano recital, should one have the time to marvel at it.

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From there we continue eastwards, visiting Arles, Varjas and Mandelieu. This is all fairly indistinguishable. The growth of seaside resorts along the Meditteranean has led to a conglomeration of urban conurbations, with apartment blocks springing up, We enjoy beatiful days on the beach, swim in the sea and enjoy the glorious warmth of the sun in October, but the environment is as claustrophobic as the many tunnels we whizz through to avoid Marseilles, and Cannes, and Nice, and Monaco. We are clearly not of the same ilk as the thousands who flock there.

We take a short detour to Saint Tropez, unexpectedly coinciding with a Porsche rally. We see plenty of low sleek cars, and wide sleek yachts, and low slung sleek golden glowed folk-about-town, but we spend the walk around constantly lifting Tiddler up to avoid the dog mess that carpets the hallowed streets of Saint Tropez. Dick Wittingdon this certainly isn’t. We journey on.

 

Next posts: how is our budget actually doing, and Au revoir France and Buon giorno Italie!

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Sore fingers and sore toes: France #3

After our brief sojurn into the ex-pat territory in the north Dordogne area, we headed into medieval France with the hilltop village of Pujols. As we continue our ‘out-of-season’ break, we again reap the benefits of a relatively deserted tourist hot spot. One of France’s designated most beautiful villages, its wooden beamed houses, narrow alleyways and tumbled down ramparts are a brief glimpse into what replaced the original fort that perched on the summit. The view of the wide valley below is stunning, and we treat ourselves to crepes and cafe au lait and sit in the sunshine in the pedestrianised cobbled square, in complete peace as we have clearly hit the long lunch time when we appear to be the only people in the world.

Although the village is full of art shops and workshop galleries, selling expensive ceramics mostly, the highlight is hidden behind a heavily laden sharon fruit tree behind the church. This is Le Maison de Jouets, an insiprational wood and natural objects den of fun. It is full of toys, instruments, and automatons all crafted from carefully selected found objects. The young curator tells us it is part of the lifetime work of an old man, who he says sees the world in a different way to everyone else. There is no charge, nothing for sale, and we are invited to play and handle the toys as much as we like. Tiddler is in seventh heaven, and Digger and I are not far behind in astonishment and amusement.

Leaving the Jouets behind eventually, we wander into the church and realise we are at one of the posts of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route. We take a moment to stop, and reflect. Tiddler stamps her hand with the scallop shell print, and lights a candle.

We end up staying more night at the Pujols campsite than intended. I turn abruptly in the confines of Leo, and catch my toe on the edge of a board. I hear a crack. It is not the board. My toe is clearly broken. Having broken the big toe on the same foot two years ago I know the signs, and also know there is no point seeking medical advice. I strap it up (the compulsory first aid kit coming in handy after all) and limp around the campsite. Digger had cut a couple of bamboo poles from the side of the road a few days earlier with the intention of making a sun shade, and now I take one with me for support like some sort of jungle Gandalf. Tiddler runs around semi naked with the other pretending it is a sword, or a wand, or a blowpipe. We get a few strange looks from the elderly clientele in the neighbouring pitches, but that is okay, we are English, and therefore expected to be a bit eccentric.

Digger takes the opportunity to take Leo to the garage. There has been a squeaking whine on the back wheel for a few days, which we have avoided dealing with so far by switching the radio up louder. A couple of hours work and €43 later and the whine has gone. The exact problem the mechanic could not translate for us, but it is solved now no matter what the language.

We take the opportunity to get the guitar out. This has sat in our attic for about four years, always with the intention that we would learn. Life happens of course, and you don’t find time. Despite taking up valuable space in Leo, we were determined to bring it with us. Again, we need to apologise to our camping neighbours as the sounds of our poorly constructed chords and slightly out of tune singing filter out in the afternoon sun. Fortunately for everyone, at this early stage of learning my fingers can’t cope and I have to stop before too long and give my hands a rest before blisters develop. Tiddler wades in with the tambourine and warbles a fairly decent rendition of ‘muckle in tyre’ in an attempt to copy my Mull of Kintyre, which has to be the easiest song ever to play on the guitar, if even I can manage it. Then peace returns.

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Next post: travelling on a shoe string, warriors and the Med.


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That old chestnut France #2

Leaving Le Mont St Michel behind, we headed south to a nondescript town called Heric, whose only saving grace was the artisan boulangerie in an otherwise empty  square. The campsite we stayed in was almost as bland- a pit stop for motorhomers heading south- except Tiddler befriended the owner’s five year old son. She had a scooter. He had a bike. Clearly a common language was unnecessary. They raced around the pitches to cries of ‘ Le grande prix’ and ‘viva La France’ stopping only to break off acorn laden sprigs of oak to feed to the two curious goats, Desiree and Prunette.

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We then spent two miserably wet days on the Ile de Re. The guide book clearly saw us coming, enticing us in with promises of ‘the highest levels of sunlight in France , excepting the Côte d’Azur. Joined to La Rochelle by an €8 toll bridge, the island is a cross somewhere between Sandbanks (Dorset) and a Spanish holiday resort. It reeks of exclusivity, but clearly caters to a mass market of local and foreign tourists in it’s green shuttered clone towns. Someone either bought a job lot on green paint, or it is all part of the image being marketed. We saw it out of season (many campsites in France close at the end of September) and in the rain, so perhaps not viewed at its best, but it was all a little reminiscent of  The Prisoner.

 

 

Onwards to Vieux Mariuel, via Cognac for a lazy lunch out treat, where we came across a campsite L’etang Bleu, run by an English couple who relocated their family to the Dordogne in 2001. A little bar open in the evenings was propped up by a motley crew of English static caravan owners who clearly lived much of the year on site. It was a little like walking into a local back home, from the in-jokes, to the questions, to the drunk at the end of the bar, so we felt quite at home and had a couple of social beers before last orders at 8.30pm.

Here the weather began to improve, and we set off on a foraging walk. A good haul on the chestnuts, but we didn’t feel confident enough to brave the champignons on offer. Digger says, sitting on the makeshift bench we pulled together on the forest floor to pause for lunch, ‘Listen to the chestnuts. I can’t hear anything but the sound of them falling. They are falling out of the trees just for us’. Seeing as we had spotted the very same for sale at €7.99 per kilo, an excellent thrifty supplement to our travelling diet, and a lovely afternoon all together spuddling under the quiet trees.

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Next post: sore fingers and sore toes.


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Bouncy castles in the air France #1

 

We’ve been on the road now for 10 days, and have found our way down to Pujols, a medieval hilltop settlement in the south of France. More detail of all that to come , but firstly as a good skinflinter must, let’s tot up the financial hit that we needed to take to get going on this little mini adventure.

Expected costs:

Leo the campervan £6250

Insurance £371 once they had decided our island driving licences were not completely suspicious

Tax  £246

Breakdown cover £90

Ferry crossing Poole to Cherbourg £160

followed by slightly unexpected costs:

a new battery for Leo £101

Chairs (Sale price as we are at the end of the uk season) £10

Awning and groundsheet ( after our trial run of an overnight near Bristol to visit a friend from university, we realised Tiddler in the van is a bit like a bee in a jam jar). Extra ‘living’ space was a must. Second hand from a Facebook selling site £75

Legalities, including breathalyser kits, warning triangle, high vis for Tiddler ( Digger had two for us from his work fortunately) GB sticker, headlamp deflectors etc £50 ish

ACIS camping discount card, for low season, already saved us £10 on our trial night away £17

Gadgetry, water container, electric hook up adaptor etc £30

Completely unexpected costs:

Speedo shorts for Digger. We still haven’t fathomed the logic but trunks are a big ‘nil point’ in French pools. Digger is not impressed with the look. €8

All in all then, it’s not exactly been a budget get away to start with, but as my Grandad always said, ‘ The more you eat, the better you’re paid’. Sometimes paying out in advance is a necessary evil. Let’s hope Leo stays the distance!

First few nights in Framce were spent in a little ghost town of a coastal village, in St.Jean de la Riviera, in the La Manche region of lower Normandy. This was just a short hour drive from Cherbourg, so just giving Digger enough time to get used to driving on the right. Of course, that is the norm for him in Bulgaria, but not in a right hand drive vehicle, and following French road signs. He’s coping admirable however, with me as co-pilot with different scale maps in various stages of falling apart at the seams spread over my knees. Tiddler wants to map read too, but she tells us every map leads us to, based on a half remembered conversation from Papa, Dorchester.

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Digger and Tiddler scooter round the campsite observing countries of registration on the vehicle stickers, and taking note of our fellow campers. The English couple watching ITV news out the back of their motor home. The Dutch chap with his cunning two washing up bowl system. The French man doing a sun salutation on his groundsheet. Before long we are Bonjour-ing and Bonsoir-ing like the best of them, and ordering croissants to be delivered for breakfast and drinking red wine at lunch. Leo is clearly the poor man’s version of a motor home. We are slightly in awe of the sleek, refined vehicles all around us. Driving Leo in this part of the world is clearly like taking a mongrol to Crufts.

Both at this campsite and the next, there are bouncy castles and covered pools. Digger gets his money’s worth from the speedos, and Tiddler seems to be the only child on site so gets the bouncy castle all to herself, and I sneak on for a crafty bounce myself seeing as no one is about.

The next castle however is real. We head down and stay for two nights in what is clearly the des res of sites in Beauvoir, a well aimed stone’s throw from supposedly the biggest attraction in France (excluding Paris) and receiving upwards of three million visitors per year- Le Mont St Michel. On a slightly damp day in October we were glad to have taken the advice of our neighbours and get there early before the rampaging hoards of tourists, including numerous school parties of slightly sulky French teenagers, scoffing Nutella crepes and sneaking cigarettes on the ramparts, before entertaining the crowds by going barefoot through the grey mud flats, shrieking and slipping over and scrawling French graffiti and quite possibly rude words in the sand.

As much as the abbey and village isolated in the estuary had their charms, I actually preferred the view and vista we saw the previous day as we drove along the less well travelled coastal road. In the late afternoon sun, shining a warm golden haze on the maize fields, the island rose eerily into view like a distant backdrop in a movie. Tiddler thought it was a pirate ship, sailing through the swaying landscape, with the archangel Micheal the flag on a crows nest, and I like that idea better.

From here we continued south: next post to include goats, lighthouses, chestnuts and a breakage!

 

 

 

 

 

 


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Trois, deux, un, allez!

Finally, we are off! (in two days time). Keen readers will know we have been semi-thwarted with various obstacles- the V5C logbook/registration document being sent by the DVLA not once, but twice (!), with spelling mistakes in Digger’s name. Leo’s insurance being cancelled with no notice as our island driving licences were deemed ‘irregular’, which then led to other companies not wanting to insure us as we ‘had had insurance cancelled’ and therefore were clearly tainted and downright suspicious. The insurance company not paying back the full payment as promised. Fair to say, I have spent quite a lot of time being passively-aggressive on the telephone recently.

Meanwhile, getting off my high horse. Ferry booked, Leo loaded, and even (due to Granny Westcountry assuming we would have been gone already, meaning she has booked B&B guests into the rooms we have been using over the last few weeks) we are now living in Leo. This isn’t I’m afraid as ‘on the road’ as it sounds, instead rather ‘on the driveway at Granny’s house’. This has serious perks though as we can get used to the rhythm of campervan life, moving around each other in a (sometimes) beautifully choreographed flow of sidestepping each other, waiting for a cupboard to be closed, and passing things through multiple hands. It also means we are still popping in for cuppas whenever we feel like it, full board in terms of food and meals supplied, and Tiddler still gets the run of the house and garden. But this is all the equivalent of ‘playing dens’ as children.

Until we wave a farewell to the Westcountry at Silly o’clock on Monday morning we won’t really know how prepared we actually are. Digger has been poking around with the gas bottle all morning before going for a haircut, clearly feeling the need to make a good impression on the local Cherbourg populace when he arrives, regardless of whether we have a working cooker. I’ve been researching campsites and swotting up on my GCSE French, and packing plenty of teabags as you just know the continental ones won’t taste right and some things are sacrosanct. Tiddler has been finding more snails and trying to smuggle them into the van. I’m not sure if EU regulations have anything about that in the small print, but clearly it’s a no from me.

In terms of how we are feeling then, it is a mixture of anxious enthusiasm. I feel I have been neglecting Tiddler, which defeats the whole object of taking this time out from work, and normal life as we know it. I have been on the internet researching, or in the van packing, or in the hardware shop purchasing. I haven’t sat down just the two of us, to make a craft or play a game for days. She isn’t worried of course as has had cousins and auntie and grandparents to fawn upon and be entertained by, and I accept that this is really part of the overall goal too, and a great bonus for her. She will be stuck with just us soon enough, but I realise how easy it is to ‘miss’ my own child, even when I see her all the time. I’ve perhaps got a little too used to island life where I was without doubt the most important person to her. I’m very aware that this is of course just the beginning of the transition into her being her own person, and it is a a journey best not to think too much about at this time.

The bonne voyage of course to consider right now is this- the very roughly hewn plan is head through Normandy, down the west coast of France, and then along through the southern regions. Cross into Italy, where we shall try and visit two sets of island friends- one couple taking a year out to work in a school near Parma, and another couple who will be holidaying for a week, destination as yet unkown. Ferry across to Greece, amble our way through there and arrive in Bulgaria at Baba and Dyado’s house sometime in November.

Sounds good.

Please feel free to post any advice, comments, places to visit, things to see……

 


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Pimping my ride : Leo

The latest on Leo’s overhaul- Digger found both a flat battery and a leaky water connection when he wired Leo up to the mains, but all now resolved (we hope for good). I finally had my maiden voyage in The good ship Leo (only down to the petrol station and back) and then we carried on getting things ready.

Digger has tried out the sleeping accomodation, spending a night on the driveway while Tiddler and I were tucked up asleep in the house.

Verdict, comfy but cold. The second week of September and that is the UK weather, unless we wrap ourselves in tinfoil in there it is going to be cool at night. 9 degrees he said, at silly o’clock when he got up to christen the porta potty. Thank goodness we are going south, but we do need to get going, and note to self: hot water bottle. I also realised that all my white bedlinen is not the most practical thing to be heading off in a campervan with, but it is what we have got, and no point in buying new.

He has also finished Tiddler’s bunk, in the end without the ‘stolen’ chair legs.  It is more satisfy that it is all in wood, though now with a hinged support is is heavier, but still will sit flat under the side seat during the day.

 

We realised however that by the time the mattress (a sun lounger cushion borrowed from Granny (Hoarder) and Papa (Snoozer) inside an old sheet sewn up into a sort of giant pillowcase) is on the bunk, plus pillow, Tiddler, and duvet, she is fairly high up from the double bed below. As Tiddler is also ‘Wriggler’, we now needed a solution to keep her in the bunk.

In the end we came up with what I explained to the others as ‘the windbreak design’. This gave me the chance to make another thrifty item at no cost to us – a piece of old window blind fabric, an old broom handle (that Digger had brought with him from the island- goodness only knows what he was thinking he would use it for at the time!), and the chance to use my mother’s lovely old Singer sewing machine, complete with a random box of sewing paraphernalia as part of the hygge factor. The final picture show it before I sewed in the last baton, but hopefully you get the idea. The broom handle pieces can just be pushed down into the holes in the main bed board after she falls asleep, so we still can do goodnight stories, but she isn’t going to attempt to crowd surf us in the middle of the night.

While this was going on, Digger took a break to fashion something else out of wood. My parents have a bit of a seagull problem. The tealeaf-ing gulls get in through the chicken doors to the sheds, and peck and eat the hens eggs. Friends have suggested nets or awnings overhead but the seagulls will still land and walk in, a dead gull hanging up (!), and blowing eggs and filling the empty shells with mustard or chilli sauce as a decoy, which sounds pretty epic but fiddly. So Digger put together a little roosting box with a double slope so in theory the eggs should roll down and under a second board, so the gulls can’t get to them but we can. In place this evening, so will have to see whether it works, and whether even the hens will take to it as a place to sit.

My next job has been carpet fitting. Again using an old off cut we had, with Papa in the background back seat directing with ‘measure twice, cut once’, and Digger extolling the virtues of the correct way to cut with a stanley knife to avoid impaling myself,  I then had to get my head round the reverse maths of cutting on the back to then flip over to fit.Not exactly a perfect job, but given the wierd shape of the floor space I’m pretty darn chuffed with my attempt.

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In non Leo related news, Tiddler and I have been playing playgroup roulette, trying out various groups in the neighbourhood to give her a bit of ‘other children’ time.  Tiddler has tried out the local pool, and managed full immersion for the first time, albeit while laying on her tummy underwater on a shallow step. She has learnt to say ‘ramsbottom’ and ‘bonzo’ and other random sayings of my father. I have had emails from work colleagues asking how we are doing and telling me that the start of the new term is pretty much like always. Digger and I hold hands on the sofa and smile a quiet smile at each other while we are watching TV with my parents. We are busy, but not tired. We are planning, but not stressed. I ask Tiddler in the morning what she dreamt of. ‘It was you Mama, dancing.’

 

 

[Motorhomers out there- still open to suggestions and ideas you may have of things we should take, or things we should know before we set off. Particularly any legal requirments for Europe we might not be aware of? Any comments welcome please- thank you!]