the skinflint philosopher

Attempting to thrift our way to a better life, with a toddler in tow!


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Europe on a shoestring?

It has become glaringly clear that the cheapest way to get to Bulgaria is not overland. We know the delightfully named Wizz Air and the like hop across with flights from London to Sofia at less than £100, but not only would that have severely restricted Tiddler’s books, toys and random paraphernalia that we could have brought, but would have meant we  would have gone straight from living with one set of grandparents (lovely as they are) slap bang into the welcoming arms of the others. We needed a little bit of a time out, as well as the opportunity to explore and experience a road trip.

Financially speaking then, let’s cut to the chase. Campsites with the discount ACSI card average around €17 per night. However it is a definite lottery as to what you finally end up paying as the French in particular have made the system so unfathomable (even with handy billboard size tables of rates on the walls for the brave or foolhardy to try and tot up for themselves). Here is the easy bit; rates vary according to high or low season. Then factor in number of people, extra people, children above a certain age, children below a certain age, dogs, tents for dogs, electric hook up or not, caravan, campervan, campervan above a certain length, motorhome, motorcycle trailer, other trailer, extra car, standard pitch size, large pitch size, grass pitch, hard standing and the list goes on ad infinitum. Then don’t forget to add on the tax on top for the final figure owed. We gave up trying to understand the system, and clearly some exasperated campsite owners had done the same and declared to us a flat fee on arrival, ignoring both Tiddler’s presence and tax in one fell swoop. Tres bon for the thrifty minded camper.

Digger’s French is not up to much, so he has taken to wearing a t-shirt that – provided he puts on a quizzical look and points to himself – mean we should end up with somewhere to kip at the end of the day.

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Sites vary immensely in terms of facilities, with heated or indoor pools in some and free wifi, right down to no toilet paper (not that it hadn’t been restocked, there simply wasn’t dispensers for the paper in the stalls in the first place) in others. Bizarrely, quite a number of the french toilet blocks had piped musak or local radio constantly on the go. I wondered if this was some sort of french intellectual cultural tradition, to ponder world politics while carrying out your morning ablutions, or perhaps a matter of french delicacy to mask those slightly embarrassing bodily sounds. Either way, a little bit of toilet paper would surely have not gone amiss.

We chose to hand wash our clothes as the weather was perfect for drying them even overnight, but some sites also had washing machines and tumble driers for a few euros a pop. Others organised pre-ordered deliveries of croissants and baguettes just in time for breakfast every day- again slightly more expensive a purchase but a welcome treat. The best savings to be made on food and drink were local markets in village squares for fresh produce, and Super U, Lidl and Carrefour for one euro cartons of wine. Digger and I make no claims at appreciating fine wines, and are more than happy with a cut price glassful, which we were consistently pleasantly surprised by.

Our main expenditure therefore was (aside from the sites themselves, which many motorhomers avoid by using lay-bys and service stations) the diesel for Leo (pricey given the mileage) and a few toll payments on the motorways (when Digger got fed up of traffic through the more built up areas). Tourists genuinely getting out and about and seeing attractions would also end up paying out for entrance fees and honeypot-priced food and drink, whereas with Tiddler’s attention span we spent more time pottering about making our own entertainment, and unofficially eating packed lunches where we probably shouldn’t. However Tiddler once spent a solid hour and a half making her own version of a jigsaw puzzle by matching acorns to their original acorn cups. This epic task was not for the faint hearted, and no doubt far better for her at this age than anything a museum or free wifi could provide.

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Low -cost things therefore we are so glad we brought with us: the paddling pool, the ACSI card, Tiddler’s bug shoes (in and out and in and out of the van, and then in and out again), the old scooter, sarongs instead of towels for speedy drying, a stove top kettle, sleep masks to block out the early morning light… though of course we also brought lots of things we probably won’t use at all until we get to Bulgaria, and in the meantime clutter up Leo.

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“The best teacher is experience and not through someone’s distorted point of view”

“Better to sleep in an uncomfortable bed free, than sleep in a comfortable bed unfree.”

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

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People in glass houses shouldn’t: Italy #1

Crossing borders in this part of Europe was very easy. Speeding along a motorway we entered a tunnel in France, and popped out the other end of it into Italy. It is a definite case of everything changes; everything stays the same. From scrubby olive trees and terracotta coloured apartment blocks, we rapidly switch to scrubby olives, teracotta coloured houses, swooping nerve defying flyovers with plunging chasms far below and impatient truckers undertaking a relatively slow moving, English-plated campervan who clearly is at fault, whatever it does. Beep beep! Beeeeeep!  The swathes of sloping glasshouses precariously terraced into the hillsides look eerily like some sort of Bladerunner-esque large scale industrial labratory. It is only later when we stop near the town of Ceriale, that we realise that many of these warehouses of glass are defunct and derelict, their old irrigation systems strung up across the beams like black and rotten tentacles, now full of dust as the agricultural trade has moved away to other regions and countries. There is more graffitti and litter. There are more signs on the gates warning of dogs and security cameras, but it is charmingly Italian, from every adult being unable to pass Tiddler without utterances of ‘Ciao Bella’ and huge platefuls of fragrant salads and tall latte machiatos on every corner.

The red dust gets everywhere. The campsite pitches are earthern, bordered by ornate succulents that the Dutch couple who own it clearly maintain, along with their aviary of perhaps twenty blue and yellow budgies. The soil has broken down through oveuse and penetrates everything. Tiddler and Leo are immediate dust magnets. I start to wonder if the terracotta coloured houses were actually painted white and I’m just seeing the stain left behind. Out of season the pool is closed, but it is hot and arid. We burrow into Leo’s inner stowaway seats and pull out the paddling pool. Tiddler splashes and makes mud pies. The few other visitors on site look on benignly and return to their newsapers. Even the gentle crooning of Mull of Kintyre, and the newly learnt strains of Jolene don’t warrant any attention.

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The motorhome season is drawing to a clear close. Digger searches for future sites but Italy has all but shut up for the season. We decide not to try the ‘sortees’- break stops suitable for motorhomes to park up alongside the long distance truckers which many motorhomers in Italy swear by, but we prefer a little more security travelling as we are with Tiddler. It is clear we must travel bigger distances at a time, tracing across a map of the Boot and joining up the dots that are the open campsites Digger has studiously marked. We are beginning the transition not only through the seasons, but through the West-East wealth spectrum across Europe. With many miles still to go before we reach Bulgaria, we are bound to see this continue.

Next posts: budget busting, festivals and amici in unexected places

p.s. a ccouple of new photos have been added to some of the France posts- we have had poor access to wifi and time for posts and photos….


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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.

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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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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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Hop on the bus, Gus

No need to discuss much? What was Paul Simon thinking when he penned those lines? If Digger and I, with the added matured-with-age input of Granny and Papa Westcountry are anything to go by, any attempt to hop on a bus needs plenty of discussion, pontificating, and generally going round in verbal circles. Hopefully Digger and I will still be speaking to each other when we finally do hit the road otherwise it’s going to be an awfully quiet journey all the way to Bulgaria.

Update needed I think on where we are at. We have welcomed into our family a new addition. Hello to Leo!

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Leo (named by the previous owners and we didn’t bother to question why- reasons no doubt lost in obscurity) is a converted minbus. The chap we bought it from scavenged and stripped an old caravan, using all the fittings to kit out Leo with a fridge, oven and hob, sink, double bed, toilet and all the expected storage units. It is clearly a DIY conversion, but that makes it a little bit quirky. We hestitated handing over our hard earned and saved cash, considering whether Leo would have any re-sale value, but in the end we decided better to buy now and get going, rather than sit and wait for the perfect motorhome to turn up for sale while we may still be drumming our heels here at Christmas. So we now have Leo, possible warts and all.

In order to seat Tiddler safely, in a three-way seat belt for her car seat, we have had to lock in an additional minibus seat into the floor, which unfortunately blocks access to the fridge. Digger and the previous owner conferred and have worked out a system where the whole seat can be slid backwards and forwards, at least allowing us to use the fridge when we need to, but looks like we’ll probably end up storing random stuff in there instead of food!

Next on the hit list of upgrades is a bed for Tiddler. The original conversion has just a (smallish) double bed, and while we could squeeze Tiddler in with us no-one will get much sleep with that option. So Digger (he is so excited as now has a genuine reason to get his tools out and tinker around in the garden with a pencil behind his ear!) is trying various plans to make and secure a raised bunk. This should go above our bed, but still needs to be dismantled and ideally store flat so it doesn’t clog up our limited space. The two benches/sofas that become the double bed are here in this picture, with a plan for a raised bunk on the right hand side.

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Inkeeping with our thrifty ways, we managed to find a suitable board to take Tiddler’s weight jammed in the roof space in Papa’s garage, and then found a couple of old dumped chairs in the corner of a carpark. I’d spotted them abandoned a few days previously and walked past without a thought, till Digger mentioned he needed some sort of stand to support the bed. Guerilla chair stealing moments later, Digger is chopping them up on the lawn, taking the metal legs as bed supports while Tiddler steals the brown seat and sets up an impromtu musical concert with herself as the star performer.

Sounds good so far, though Digger has come in shaking his head tonight and so the bunk may need a little rethink before I can post up the finished article. Plenty of opportunties of course for us all to have our pennyworth on the best way to do it. Don’t even get me started on the negotiations regarding the best way to fit the curtain to save anyone’s blushes (our own, or random Gallic passers by) around the ‘bathroom’ area.

In the mean time, I’m beginning to sort through our boxes, packing into Leo things we think we need. We are of course complete novices at the motorhoming lark, though I have survived plenty of kayak wild camps and expeditions, and Scouting in the past, so I am pretty handy with setting up a tent and brewing a cuppa on a trangia. But now I have a whole vehicle to pack, I’m a bit stumped. We are not sure when to cut back (I really don’t need all those t-shirts) and when to splurge (I am taking a pair of wine glasses) so that we actually enjoy the experience. It shouldn’t all be masochistic minimalism. China plates or plastic? Duvets or sleeping bags?
We still don’t have a plan for when we get to Bulgaria, so we don’t know what we need for that, let alone what we will need for the journey. My very good friend, found on her blog here, has started writing lists for me of things to consider. Carbon monoxide alarms. Washing lines and pegs. Hot water bottle. Maps.

We are now motivated for the off, to get on that (mini)bus, Gus, but we are still waiting. Waiting for confirmation that Digger’s island driving licence is valid with the insurance. Waiting for the V5C vehicle logbook to be sent back. Still waiting for Digger to be able to get a bank account.

So my philosophy for today is, that it is very true that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. What you need to watch out for is that someone hasn’t tied your shoelaces together before you even start.