Tuesday, June 29, 2010

The Sisteron Citadel

I headed off to Sisteron on Wednesday morning to get Betty fixed up. I followed Miss SatNav to get there (oh, did I mention that she’s working again now that the battery’s been recharged?). She took me a different way than I took to get to Sisteron and I had to put my faith in her when I arrived at a T junction and a sign said “Toutes Directions” one way and SatNav took me the other way! It ended up just being more of a back road and I did have to navigate through one migrating flock of sheep but all in all it was a cool way to go. Maybe cool isn’t the right word as part way I noticed that Betty’s temperature gauge, which I previously thought didn’t work, was on red hot. Damn, did I spring a radiator leak yesterday on the descent from the hill? I stopped a few times to check her out but everything seemed okay. Nonetheless I took it a bit easy and coasted whenever possible. At one point the temperature gauge rapidly sank down to cold and I was relieved, but only for about a minute as it rocketed back up. I decided to press on but once I got on the main highway where the speed limit is 130 km/hr, I drove at 90 and put my hazards on. Limping into Sisteron, I found the garage and arrived at 11:30am, about an hour and a half later than expected. The super friendly, I assume owner, briefly checked her out and the alternator seemed to be charging the main battery okay but there was obviously a problem with charging the leisure battery. Huh, so in the end it was the weak belt that was preventing the perfectly okay alternator from keeping the main battery from dying four days earlier...damn. Claude told me to return at 2pm (most of France shuts down for lunch from 12-2pm) and they would take a look at her then as there was a problem with some junction box from the alternator to the leisure battery.

Heavy traffic:

I cruised further into town and decided to visit the big citadel situated on a rocky promontory that almost chokes off two valleys. It was a fortress for the French for hundreds of years but was never involved in a major battle. Probably the closest it got was letting Napoleon and his army of 1200 men march by when he was returning from his exile to the island of Elba. I clamoured all over the hill fort and it did have some fantastic views. Some of it had been rebuilt after it was bombed by the Allies in 1944, but you’d never really know it. I spent a little over an hour there and then got a baguette sandwich from a boulangerie which I ate in a park , and then back to the garage.

Entering the citadel:

The view across the river:

Crazy staircase:

Up on top:

The chapel:

A French style cemetary:

Within half an hour, the mechanic replaced a small relay box that was the other culprit to my problems and this time, after only 40 Euros (my best bargain yet), I was on my way back to St. Andre. Just as I arrived, super menacing, dark clouds unleashed their wrath with heavy rain and even hail. While sitting in Betty back at the campsite, I watched as the water gushed out of the holes of a nearby drain and small lakes formed. Unfortunately Betty did leak a bit through the skylight. Not too surprising as she was leaking before Steve and I fixed her hat. I put a few pots out to collect the water and at one point put a few plastic bags on the roof so it wasn’t too big of a deal in the end. I watched some of the World Cup football while snuggled up in my hopefully healthy Betty and hoped for better weather tomorrow.

The storm in St. Andre:

Friday, June 25, 2010

Adding the Gliding to Wanderglidng

Pierre came by earlier than expected but luckily I was already up. We ventured into the town centre, went to the boulangerie (bakery) and had a croissant breakfast with some tea/coffee from a cafe in the square. Then we visited the garage and the older mechanic there took a quick look at Betty and after seeing a number of disconnected wires and a configuration he wasn’t familiar with, he suggested a place that specializes in car electrics in Sisteron, a small city or large town that I had passed just before breaking down near Chateau Arnoux. Pierre called them for me and made an appointment for the following day....okay, let’s go paraglide!

We met a fellow name Alexi in the LZ (landing zone) and the three of us drove up to launch in Pierre’s car. Alexi is a 44 year old Frenchman who flies wherever and whenever he can and wants. He renovated some flats and gets some income from that, does some aerial photography and who knows what else to make ends meet. He used to be a river guide but broke his back while rescuing “a couple of stupid people” as he stated it. He was laid up for a year and a half but looking at him one wouldn’t know but he said it has changed the activities he can participate in. He lived in Africa for over 17 years as well...very interesting fellow.

It had been six or even eight months since I last flew so any kind of flight was going to be okay with me. I was the last of the three of us to launch but it was smooth and I was pleased with my launch. I headed away from the mountain to join Pierre while Alexi headed the other way and soared the ridge. Pierre was working a nice thermal and I soon joined in. We played around in the same area for most of the flight and I was just soaking in the gorgeous scenery. There are two launches at St. Andre, one facing the town and the other on the back side of the mountain. It was the latter that we had launched from so to reach the LZ by the campground, you must fly around the mountain through a gap that can sometimes have strong winds (it’s called a Venturi effect). Pierre headed through the gap about 50 minutes into the flight and I decided to follow him, perhaps he was looking for some thermals near town. No, he wasn’t, he was working his way down to land. I was above him over the LZ and that Venturi wind was happening so we set up our approach facing the gap. When he was 100-200 feet over the ground, from my perspective above him, he looked to be going backwards. He then penetrated and landed fine. The part that I didn’t see was that he had a frontal and that caused him to temporarily go backwards (a frontal is short for “frontal collapse”, it means that the whole leading edge of his paraglider folded down and this creates more drag and hence he went backwards briefly...it’s usually caused by strong downwards wind from above the front of the wing). I was cautious after seeing this and since the LZ is huge, I did my figure eight landing set up well in front of the trees. The landing was smooth and I had just completed my first flight of my Wandergliding trip....the gliding part had finally been realized!

Pierre flying in front of me...what a view!

Pierre, shortly after the frontal:

With Pierre’s car up on the mountain, I offered to drive him up in Betty but warned him that it would be a slow ride as she’s not the best climber. Another pilot, a Czech named Pavel, also needed to retrieve his vehicle so he jumped in. Betty did her best getting up there and did make a few funny noises here and there with the effort. At the top she was a bit slow to restart so Pierre was kind and offered to follow behind me. Shortly into the descent, the funny noise was gone but so was the effectiveness of my brakes, they worked, but not well...obviously the hydraulics weren’t helping out. I used the engine to slow down around the hairpin turns and gave Betty a real work out. It was a slow descent and as we reached town I planned to head into the garage as I couldn’t drive her like this tomorrow to Sisteron. Just as I pulled in there was yet a new noise. I popped the hood and saw that she was bubbling over due to overheating as it was the main belt that had made the noise on the way up and was now nowhere to be seen so the fan had not been running and this explained the lack of brakes.

The garage was on their two hour lunch break so Pierre and I did the same. We sat on the patio of the restaurant across the road and the lunch options were minimal. I was surprised that one option was raw beef, which Pierre opted for. The waitress, seeing that I was an uncultured English person, offered that mine could be cooked...make it so! I did try a bit of Pierre’s and it wasn’t bad but I don’t think I could have handled that many bitefuls of that consistency.

Pierre with his raw beef:

After lunch, the same mechanic that we consulted earlier did in fact have the appropriate belt, installed it and also topped up the coolant, for only another 70 Euros! Oh Betty. Pierre decided that he was going to head to Montpellier to meet up with his wife who was staying with some friends so we bid adieu and I returned to the campsite for a relaxing evening.

Betty set up for the evening:

Allons y à St. Andre Les Alpes

On Monday, June 21st, I awoke and headed over to the garage first thing in the morning hoping to get the work on Betty underway. The mechanic Marc, the same guy that gave me the tow, came over to the vehicle with a battery jumper. It barely turned the girl over. He returned almost an hour later with a small diesel car....same problem. He claimed that there could be more problems as the battery jumper he first tried can fire up the tow truck that Betty had ridden in on. He told me to pull the battery out and they would charge it at the garage. The other mechanic there said it would take 4-5 hours, ugh...4-5 hours to kill and then they might figure out that she needs a new alternator. I resigned myself to the fact that I might be staying yet another night in Chateau Arnoux. I went for another walk around, checking out the streets behind where I was parked. I somehow made five hours disappear and returned to the garage. The battery was ready so I reinstalled it and voila, she fired up. I went back to the service station but Marc was out towing someone. Since he wasn’t the friendliest guy, and my friends from Canada should be in St. Andre Les Alpes, and I’d had enough of Chateau, I high tailed it out of town. Fittingly I passed by Ahmed in his purple bumpered truck and emphatically waved goodbye to him.

About an hour later, driving down some windy roads between mountains while following a river, I entered into St. Andre only to be greeted by some dark clouds sprinkling some rain. I went to Pierre’s hotel but he wasn’t around although he was in fact staying there. I checked out the campground but Torge and Jodi weren’t staying there. Oh well, I will. I knew this was the campground Pierre had talked about so perhaps the newly married couple had continued on to Nice as Torge had a geology course there for the week. I was able to hook Betty up to electricity and connect to the Internet...I felt reconnected with the world. I had a skype call with Nola and was able to catch her up on all of my vehicular fun.

The beautiful scenery on the drive:

Pierre stopped by the campsite just as I was starting to walk towards his hotel and we went out for a nice dinner and planned to meet in the morning to have breakfast, inquire at the local garage about Betty’s alternator issue and hopefully go flying!!!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Exploring around Chateau Arnoux

Sunday, June 20th, I had a day to kill before Betty could be examined by a mechanic. After being dropped off by Ahmed, I decided to go and explore the local area. As we were driving back into Chateau Arnoux, I noticed a some ruins up on a hill and asked Ahmed about them. They were a couple of ruined towers and they weren’t terribly far from where crippled Betty was so I decided to head in that direction. I crossed a modern looking bridge and found a small park on the other side and then continued on. The town I entered was called Volonne and parts of it contained buildings clustered closely together. It’s definitely something that you don’t find in North America. I worked my way towards the ruined towers and didn’t find it too difficult to get up to them. The view was fantastic and I enjoyed checking out the surrounding towns and countryside. I had heard some boys playing among the narrow streets on my way up and from my new vantage point I saw tht they were playing war as they all carried around fake guns. I also noticed a few guys playing some sort of version of volleyball over a rectangle dark blue patch in their backyard and after they errantly lost the ball on the matt once or twice, I could tell that it was just a covering for their swimming pool.

Where Betty and I were stranded for a few days:

The remnants of the towers were impressive in their thickness of their walls and just the plain fact of who would bother building such structures up on a rocky hill. One sported a clock which actually seemed to be working. I looked in the door opening and could see that there were a few ladders to platforms but I was deterred from entering by the covered floor of bird droppings and at least four bird carcasses. Descending the hill I passed by an aqueduct from the 16th century which now merely served as a bridge and access to a few people’s backyards.

The view from the towers:

The aqueduct:

I worked my way back into Chateau Arnoux and then proceeded to find a forested park on a hill behind where the fair was that I had gone to with Ahmed and his family. There was a map that really wasn’t much help at all. It had a “Vous etes ici” (You are here) but no corresponding dot for your location. It also had no legend for scale nor a compass rose. It did show me that most of it was forested trails and somewhere hidden in there was a “Boulodrome”. Well, I must find that! I knew that it would just be a flat area where avid boules or petanque players would fight it out. Boules is essentially the same as the Italian game bocce which my friends back in Canada and I love to play. They take this game quite seriously here. I eventually found it and was surprised that no one was playing yet I had seen 4-5 games going on around the restaurant at which I had met Ahmed the night before. While hiking on forested trails, I couldn't help but wonder at these wooden posts I'd come across that didn't seem to provide any help to a hiker. They would seemingly be randomly placed (not necessarily at a fork in the trail) and would just show a picture of a squirrel and point in both directions...I guess the same person probably made the map at the entrance to the park....

The confusing and useless sign:

I returned to Betty, tired after walking for nearly three hours. Later, after a simple meal, I ventured to the restaurant again to watch Brazil play Sierra Leone in the World Cup. Not too surprisingly I ran into Ahmed again. We had some lively conversations (some of which repeated from the night before...for some reason he really likes Winnipeg!) and a friend of his joined us with the hopes of practicing his English. I did retire to Betty this night as I didn’t want to impose on his wife again, he had to work in the morning and I didn’t feel like fending off flies in the early morning. It was a fun evening nonetheless.

Day 2: Miles, Riles and Smiles

I awoke early and got on the road at 6:30am. I found out quickly that I missed the functionality of Miss SatNav as I knew the highway I wanted to get on, but thanks to construction I found myself on the wrong one, heading to Paris. One problem with these toll highways are that the exits are few and far between and there are no turn around spots. I accepted my errant trajectory, took the first exit and then consulted my map. I sussed out a back roads way to end up just south of Reims but somehow my map didn’t match reality. I did eventually find my way to the highway (read: 1 ½ hours to get essentially 35 kilometres south of where I stayed last night). It actually wasn’t too bad as I got a glimpse of the Champagne valley. I cruised through some beautiful sleepy hamlets (and they actually were still sleeping) and enjoyed seeing a side of northern France that I could have likely whipped by.

The Champagne Valley:

Some castle, there was no signage as to whose it was:

The next four or five hours on the motorway weren’t terribly exciting. It was raining on and off, windy and just generally not a nice day. I passed Troyes, Dijon and then got stuck in some traffic in Lyon. I found out that my luck with the “on strike” toll staff was limited to the north as I must have paid close to 70 Euros in tolls. I then passed through Grenoble, the location of the headquarters for the company I used to work for, Schneider Electric. The clouds obscured a good portion of the mountains but the scenery was still quite stunning.

I began a vicious climb out of Grenoble to a place called Gap. Poor Betty doesn’t really like hills and I pulled over a number of times to let more able vehicles pass by. I reached the top of a climb and there was a beautiful lake with some sail boats plying about. I noticed a wedding party walking from their cars out to a statue of a man on a horse for some post ceremony photos. Just after a small hamlet, I decided to stop in a picnic area for a pee break. After some bladder relief, I hopped back in Betty and she wouldn’t fire up. Damn! What now? I grabbed my rain jacket and iPod and began walking back from where I’d come trying to rack my brains of the last gas station I had seen. I passed through the little town (if you’d even call it that) called Pettichet). I saw a guy walking towards me on the narrow road so I decided to ask him if he knew of a garage. His answer was not encouraging. He figured it was ten kilometres in either direction and the chances were, being Saturday, that they would all be closed. Excellent. He told me to follow him and we retraced the last 400 meters I had walked and then popped into a building. I was greeted by one of his friends who was interested in my predicament. This guy was quick to offer to drive me the 10km to the garage to see what we could sort out. It was a small bar inside and as the first guy met had a small powerful looking coffee from the mother of the second guy, the second guy went to change his clothes. They both then jumped in a small, terribly dirty car with me and we were off. We tried a few different places but no one could help us. Guy number two decided to call the Gendarmerie and they got a tow truck on its way to Betty. Guy number one jumped out as I guess we were closer to his house now and guy number one and I raced back to beat the tow truck to the campervan. Arriving at Betty, I thought I’d try her again so the guy could see what the problem was. Lo and behold, she fired up! Sweet. He called and cancelled the tow truck and I felt as though I’d saved another 113 Euros. The kind guy’s name that had helped me out was.....drum roll...Christophe! What?!? Is there a patron saint in France of St. Christophe, the saviour of stranded motorists?

Gorgeous views en route:

Okay, no more stopping until I arrive at St. Andre des Alpes, where I should meet up with Pierre, Jodi and Torge, paragliding friends from Victoria (well the latter two now live in Germany). There were more steep climbs and descents and poor old Betty was working hard. Arriving in the larger town (or small city) of Gap, I noticed that my fuel gauge was abnormally low. I chalked it up to the fact that Betty was on such inclines and declines that perhaps the fuel had congregated on one side of the fuel tank...but I better keep an eye on it. Just past a place called Sisteron, I had a difficult decision: stop to fuel up and risk her not starting again, or continue on and risk running out of gas. I decided to pull into the next aire. Strangely the indicator didn’t seem to be functioning correctly as it was just a solid light on the dashboard. Before arriving at the pumps, I got out to look at them from the outside. Betty lurched forward as I hadn’t properly checked that she was in neutral. Damn, I’ve stalled her. I guess I’ll find out now if she’ll start again. What?!? The battery is dead now too?!? This is going from bad to worse. I tried to open her hood but even the lever to open it wasn’t working. The gas station was devoid of any cars and I figured that it might be shut. I walked up to the building and thankfully there was a lady there. I explained my situation and she called for a tow truck. Having not had a proper meal yet today and figuring I had at least half an hour till the truck arrived, I began to cook some ravioli, at least Betty’s stove still works!. Before I had finished 4 mouthfuls, the truck arrived. The driver didn’t even want to look at Betty, he just wanted to tow her. I guess I was probably disturbing his Saturday night. He quickly loaded the van up and we were off to a place called Chateau Arnoux. Nothing would be done to the vehicle until Monday morning...damn.

Betty and I were dropped off next to the Renault service station and Marc said that I would be good here for the weekend and there were even public toilets 50 meters away. I asked whether there was anywhere with Internet access as that was how I could communicate with Pierre but he was unsure. Once he was gone, I set about exploring nearby to see what I could find. Some young teenage girls asked me whether I had any cigarettes and were disappointed when I replied that I didn’t smoke. I asked them back about Internet access and they suggested I try a nearby restaurant. The restaurant had aa mass of empty tables and chairs outside, a covered patio type area with a sad looking bar and a big screen TV and then the proper restaurant inside which looked to be of a northern African flavour. I sat down at a long table near the TV as there was a football game on. The proprietor asked me if I wanted something after he had finished his rolled cigarette. No luck on the Internet but I decided to get a beer and watch a bit of the game. It had been a long day, about 14 hours with Betty.

Near the end of the game, a darker skinned man came in with his 3 or 4 year old daughter and sat close to me. In French he instructed his daughter not to talk as she would be disturbing me. I responded back that it was okay as I couldn’t understand half of what the commentators were saying. I briefly mentioned my predicament in my broken French. When he learned that I was a Canadian, I had an instant friend. It turns out that Ahmed, originally from Morocco, had travelled across most of Canada by Greyhound bus in the late 90s and he loved how helpful Canadians had been to him. We chatted for another half an hour after the game was finished. He then insisted that I should come and stay with his family which consisted of his wife Assayi who spoke next to no French, only Arabic, his 3-4 year old Sofia and 8 month old daughter Ocean. My first instinct was to decline the offer but then I thought “When in Rome...”. Ahmed explained that they would first be going to a fête, which to me means party in English. I thought “Strange, they’re going to a 4 year olds birthday party at 11pm? Don’t these French people know how to raise kids?” (not that I’m an expert!). Turns out that it was a party for the whole town! The annual carnival had arrived so there were your standard rides like bumper cars and merry-go-rounds and also the “pathetically rigged so you rarely win” games like ring toss. Ahmed is a popular guy in town as every third or fourth person came up and gave him a big hug and kiss on the cheek or at least a handshake with a big smile. How could you not like this guy, his energy is infectious. He introduced me to a friend of his, Nicole, who was a fifty something woman all decked out for the event complete with black pants, black mesh shirt that was a bit revealing for someone her age (typically at least...I know Cher does it) and a black jacket. Turns out she’s a “bergère”, which is a shepherdess, I think the first one I’ve ever met. She should me a few videos on her phone of her flock and some of the dogs that helped her. She was quite a nice lady but I got the impression that she was attempting to use her herding techniques on me.

After Sofia had gone on a few rides, Ahmed bought us all a drink on a patio as we watched a dozen or so teenagers dancing to some rock music across the street with a foam machine attempting to add some ambiance. Sofia was noticeably tired and I couldn’t blame her, it was 1am.

The Chateau Arnoux fair:

Sofia on a ride:

Super friendly Ahmed:

Shepherdess Nicole and Cool Ahmed:

I piled into Ahmed’s white pickup truck sporting a purple bumper with his family and we headed about five kilometres to their rented upstairs apartment of a house. It was relatively small and only had one bedroom...and yet Ahmed had insisted I come and stay with them...heart of gold I tell you. Ahmed had not only traveled across Canada but he had been to New York City and gone up one of the World Trade Center towers just a few months before 9/11. He had various memorabilia from his two trips, including his bus tickets, which he proudly showed me. Assayi got the kids ready for bed and I was ready too myself as I had started driving at 6:30am, but Ahmed was full into it and it took another 20 minutes of subtle hints from me and not so subtle ones from his wife before we all went to bed. I slept on the couch in the living room which was comfy enough but there were a number of flies in the house that kept landing on my face in the early morning so I had to pretty much cover myself completely up.

Ahmed's house:

Cute Sofia and Ocean:

The next morning they offered me breakfast and then Ahmed gave me a lift back to Betty. He was a sportsman hunter and there was some shooting competition that he was taking part in that day. I bid him farewell and thanked him for opening his home to me. Some people are rich with money, others are rich with family and a joie de vies...and he was definitely the latter.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

Day 1 in France

My plan for day 1 on the continent was to ferry over, head to the Vimy Ridge memorial and then continue on a bit and stay somewhere near the city Reims. England was playing Algeria that evening so if all went as planned, perhaps I’d be able to catch some of the game.

The day started off well (yes, some foreshadowing...). I arrived at the Dover ferry terminal with an hour to spare. The only eventful thing on my drive from Aldershot was seeing a poof of feathers over the centre median and witnessing a poor pigeon flutter down to the ground. It had obviously been hit by a car travelling in the opposite direction.

The ferry was a similar size to the ones that ply the water between Victoria and Vancouver but the interior was much different. It was all about lounges and multiple bars and a big arcade for kids at the back. There was a much greater variety in the seat and table arrangements, I liked it, oh, and did I mention they serve beer! (although I didn’t bother having one) What I didn’t like was the lack of outdoor deck space but I guess the Channel probably tends to be much windier than the BC waters. The only outside deck was at the back and one had to walk through the arcade to get there which seemed a bit silly. Due to the lack of outside deck on the sides, the windows are not easily accessible to be cleaned and therefore the viewing from inside wasn’t great as the windows were covered in sea salt.

I watched as we pulled away from the white cliffs of Dover and wondered what lay ahead.

Arriving in Calais, I decided to head into town to get some Euros. I would be taking some toll roads to get to Vimy (near Arras) and might need the cash. It didn’t take long for me to find a cash machine and I got back in Betty, grabbed the sat nav (a Garmin GPS unit that talks to me in a nice yet stern female English accented voice and tells me directions to where I want to go) and turned it on. Wait a sec, it won’t turn on. I tried again and again. Es ist kaput! Super, day 1 on the continent and the little electronic lady who was going to guide me around Europe has already quit! I guess I’ll have to do it the old fashion way for the time being; thankfully I have a big map of France.

I hopped on the toll highway and sped towards Arras. The speed limit is 130 km/h which by luck turns out to be Betty’s top speed! Arriving at the exit for Arras and Vimy, I approached the toll booth. Those who are regulars on the highways have some sort of electronic card so they go through a different gate but I approached the one for paying cash. The window was closed, not a person in sight and a sign said “En Greve”. Hmm, not sure what that means, but the gate is open so I’ll just cruise through I guess. Not wanting to break the law in the first hours of being in France, I pulled over into a small parking area with some washrooms to look up what “greve” means. On strike. Sweet! Saves me some money. I saw the sign for Vimy, everything right on schedule apart from Miss SatNav not functioning.

I turned the key on Betty to get moving again. The diesel engine turned and turned but would not fire up. I tried again, and again. No luck. As the French would say, “Que faire?”. At first I figured I might have flooded the old girl so I’d doing some reading up on Vimy Ridge from some Wikipedia pages I’d saved on my computer. There was a group of 4-5 people standing around in the parking lot talking. I wondered why they’d be hanging out here. I found out soon enough. There was a big maroon van with some flowers in it. I hadn’t clued in that it was in fact a hearse that had broken down until the tow truck arrived. Imagine that, being late for your own funeral. “Here’s my chance” I thought, “I better go and talk to the tow truck driver”. In my rusty French I explained my situation and he told me that there wasn’t anything he could do and the hearse driver said that there was a phone in the nearby building and they were off. I had already been in that building but there was no phone and no one there, just a couple of toilets. With the toll workers on strike, the place was a ghost town apart from the fairly steady stream of cars exiting the highway. I asked the next guy that stopped in the parking lot who was driving a truck with mattresses in it and he explained that the phone he had could only be used for calling the company headquarters. Eventually this nice couple in their 60s who were from the north coast of Belgium offered to go and see what they could find in the nearby town. They returned twenty minutes later with a phone number and tried it. It turns out that one must call the Gendarmerie, a sort of branch of the police that deals with the roads. They send a specific, government approved tow truck (depanneur) to you. The gentleman, Christoph, and I went back in the building and eventually, after searching all of the postings on the bulletin boards, we found the number. He called and got a tow truck on its way. Thanks so much Christoph and your wife!

Within half an hour a truck showed up and after only five minutes the young guy had Betty purring again. I asked him to explain a couple times to me what he had done. It had to do with the fuel pump and that air had gotten into the fuel line but I wasn’t completely clear of the exact fix he did. Oh well, she’s running. Since I don’t have any assistance insurance here (like the BCAA I have in Canada), the five minute fix cost me 113 Euros! Ouch, but at least I’m back in action and only three hours after the break down occurred. On to Vimy.

It was now after 5pm when I arrived at Vimy Ridge. Vimy was the site of a World War I battle that is significant in the history of Canada. It is the first time that all Canadian battalions fought together and they successfully beat the Germans off of this valuable high ground at one flank of the Western front. Some consider it to be the moment when Canada actually became a nation. I’ve actually read Pierre Berton’s book “Vimy Ridge” and have always found the two World Wars to be fascinating, although I have to say that there’s no way you’d find me participating in them!

I first stopped at a beautiful graveyard with white tombstones, row upon row, surrounded by lovely flowers and bushes and a monument here and there. What surprised me was the number of unnamed graves. Not sure why it caught me off guard as the ground of nearby forests comprised of many mounds and pockets, the result of the incredible amount of artillery pounding the area received so I’m sure many corpses were unrecognizable, blown to bits in the massive bombardment.

I then drove up to the Vimy Ridge memorial. It is a stunning white twin set of towering obelisks with a variety of statues who all bared the body language of languishing pain and suffering (oh, and the occasional breast). It was quite stunning. Names of thousands of soldiers that had perished in the war were on the base of the towers. There was a view of at least ten kilometres out across the countryside and it was easy to see why this was such a critical piece of land during war. I was fortunate in that there were only a couple of joggers running the periphery and one other person around the memorial. As I was leaving, a double-decker bus of teenage kids just arrived so I timed it well. The last part of Vimy that I wanted to see was the visitor’s centre which includes some of the trenches and tunnels that were part of the defences there. Unfortunately they were just closing it up so I had a decision to make, try and camp somewhere nearby and come back in the morning or press on, I opted to press on.

The Vimy Ridge Memorial:

The surrounding valley:

I drove another hour or so to Reims. As part of my preparation for my trip, I had ordered a book from the French Amazon site called “Aires de Service”. These “aires” vary from road side stops to full on camping sites but all of them provide the weary motorist with a place to crash. There was an aire in Reims that was free and included Internet access so it seemed perfect, apart from the fact that I couldn’t find it! It was supposed to be just 1 kilometer from the city centre off of the highway. I did see an amazing cathedral way down one main road and I was about to press on but as I hopped back on the highway, I saw three or four campers and campervans in a parking lot of a stadium across the other side of the thoroughfare. Let’s check that out. I made my way back around and found the slightly treed lot that looked good apart from being close to the freeway. I parked and decided to go for a walk to see the cathedral and try and find a place to watch the England football game.

On the corner before I turned onto the street where I saw the massive cathedral there was a little brasserie (cafe) and the wait staff were moving some tables and chairs inside so more clientele could watch a football game. I looked at the big screen and saw that the initials for the teams playing were “ALG” and “ANG”. Algeria versus Angola?!? Strange...oh, wait, it’s Angleterre dumb ass. There was some drumming originating from the cathedral area so I decided to first go check that out before returning for the game.

Almost all of the buildings in the five or six blocks that I walked towards the cathedral had their wooden or steel shutters closed and there was next to no activity. This was quite a contrast to what was happening in front of the place of worship. There was a stage with scantily clad men and women dancing to bongo drums with a crowd of one to two hundred people watching. I read a French poster that mentioned that it was an ethnic celebration. This must have been the South Pacific contingent. I noticed some Russian or Ukrainian dancers waiting off to the side. It was entertaining but I have to admit that the music seemed to sound the same for the entire 20 minutes I heard it so after admiring the amazing cathedral that was obviously under some restoration, I headed back towards the brasserie to hopefully catch the second half of the game, which I did, only to see England tie Algeria 0-0. Some of the wait staff and a few customers must have been of Algerian descent as they celebrated the tie big time. There was also a table of an English family (parents and two twenty something sons) who took the celebrations with a smile....awesome to see this kind of national pride yet world unity.

The cathedral of Reims:

The South Pacific dancers:

I walked back to Betty and surprisingly all of the other campers were gone. Hmm....is it actually okay to stay here? I figured I’d be told if it wasn’t so I prepared for bed. While reading a book, I kept hearing some cars entering the parking lot, driving around a bit, parking here and there. I couldn’t make rhyme or reason for it but decided to ignore it and that was the right call. I had an okay sleep. It did get a bit chilly in the night but only enough to briefly wake me. I still had extra blankets and long underwear I could have used so so far no heater is not an issue. My first night in Betty was just fine...

Golfing and Celebrating - Last Full Day in England

It was a beautiful day on Thursday, June 17th, and Sonia had already left for her exam when Sid and I arose. We played nine holes at the Farnham par 3 golf course. Apart from one guy, I think no one else there was under 70 years old. Can’t blame them, it was a beautiful little course and what a great activity for a pensioner. This course had a lot more hills, trees and bunkers than the one in Weymouth but surprisingly we didn’t lose a single ball, well, I did but I found another so no net loss. I was pleased with my play although Sid felt he could have done better but that’s the nature of golf isn’t it.

Sid whacking one:

Me teeing off:

We went for lunch at the nearby Six Bells pub, did a little running around downtown Aldershot and then headed to the Funky End for a few drinks. Sonia met up with us there and thankfully she felt that the exam had gone quite well. We celebrated that fact with a few more drinks in the garden of the Crimea pub (I love the plentiful pubs in England; Sid reckons that there are 100 within a half hour walking distance of his place! Later that evening we had a game of Carcasonne and then Sonia obliged me with a bit of a fix up of my recent haircut. Hey, I fixed Betty's lid the other day, had to deal with mine!

Drinks at the Funky End:

The lovely couple of Sid and Son and the Crimea:

Sonia fixing my do:

The following morning we were all up early and then wished me well on my adventure. Thanks so much Sid and Sonia for hosting me for I’m sure a lot longer than you expected! It was awesome to get to know you too even better and even become friends with your friends. Aldershot feels like a second home to me now. See you in October!

Monday, June 21, 2010

For Betty or for Worse

I called the garage on Monday morning, the one that had originally fixed Betty’s non-stopping issue and the internal electrics. I was to bring it in the following morning. I worked on a few other items with the vehicle such as spray painting her new hat white. The mechanic Jerem spent 20 minutes looking at her the next day but he didn’t think there was much he could do...oh well, I’ll just have to deal with it. He did give me a great tip of killing her engine by putting it in 4th or 5th gear instead of 1st and then she wouldn’t lurch forward so violently, even reverse if I’m very close to someone in front. He also briefly looked at her heater but didn’t have any luck either. I made a few calls afterwards to guys who specialize in campervans but they didn’t think they could help. Oh well, I shouldn’t need the heater during the summer.

For some strange but lucky reason, Betty started stopping on her own when I turn the key...sweet! So let’s see, what problems are there with the lady..the heater doesn’t work, the fridge is not a 3 way one but a 2 way (works on gas and 240 volt but not the battery) and the hot water tap is kaput. Not a problem, let’s go! I decided to delay my departure yet a couple more days as Sonia was writing an English literature exam on Thursday and Sid also had the day off. We could go golfing at a local par 3 course and then meet up with Son for some post exam celebrations. I booked the ferry for Friday morning at 10am from Dover to Calais...excellent, the game is afoot!

Hiking, Cheering and Fibreglassing in Weymouth

That weekend (June 11-13) Sid and I headed down to Weymouth to see Auntie Shirley, Gemma and Charles. England was playing their first World Cup game so it would be fun to watch it with them plus Sonia had an English Lit exam coming up so it would be beneficial for us to vacate the flat to let her study and it would also be another good test run for Betty.

Arriving in Weymouth we first met up with Charles and his cousin Tom for a pint at the Spyglass pub. It sits up on a hill and has a lovely view of the sea and nearby cliffs. Weymouth itself is a bit obscured by some recently developed houses but that did not detract from our enjoyment. It was nice to see Shirley and Gemma again even though it had only been a few weeks since we were together in Canada during my father’s illness. We had a lovely curry dinner (thanks to Shirley) and a pleasant evening.

On Saturday morning the plan was to go on a hike along the coast at a place called Lulworth. The group consisted of Shirley, Gem, Sid, Charles and Charles’ sister Kate whom I’d met before at the wedding. It was a gorgeous day although a bit windy at times. West Lulworth was a beautiful little hamlet tucked between a couple of hills by the seaside. There were quite a few others with the same idea as us as we ended up parking in overflow parking in a field beside the regular car park. As wise hikers we decided to fuel up with a drink at the pub before setting off.

Charles and Gem had brought a book about hikes in Dorset so we followed the guide and were well underway with a climb up a 120 meter high hill to the east of Lulworth. The view was spectacular and well worth the price of admission. Below was a nearly perfectly circular bay, Lulworth Bay, which was a popular smuggling spot in days gone by. We reached the end of the ridge and there was a sign for an optional section of the hike was to check out the “fantastic fossil forest” as the book put it. Unfortunately the forest was a steep descent back down the hill we’d just climbed and it was quite steep although there were some steps embedded in the hillside. Only Charles and I were up for the exertion required so we began trotting down the stairs as the others waited. We reached the bottom and entered a small forested bit but did not see anything fossilized. We came out in a clearing and the path led us to a fence which cordoned off the military’s artillery range. Just beyond the fence the sign indicating that the fossil forest was down below a cliff we could not reach nor could we see anything....so it was a bust. Oh well, some good exercise...we jogged back to the base of the hill and then swiftly climbed it. The hike then continued along the middle spine of the mound and back down towards the town. We then walked by a farm along the backside of another hill, by a caravan park and to the coast where there were a few magnificent rock arches along the coast, the big one being known as Durdle Door. Gem bought us all ice cream and then we began the final leg of the hike back to Lulworth. In the end we covered over 7 kilometers and we all fully enjoyed it and we capped it off with another pint in the pub (now we felt like we deserved it!).

Lulworth Bay:

The hikers:

Stymied by the army:

Durdle Door:

Spectacular views:

That evening more of Charles’ family came over for a barbeque and to watch England versus the US in the World Cup. Leslie his mom, Tom his cousin, Lisa his sister with her husband Steve and kids Emily and Charlotte joined all of us who had hiked earlier. Steve cooked up a storm and I couldn’t believe how much food there was. We were all kitted up with our England shirts and even a goofy red and white hat with fake white braids. The game started off well with England scoring early but later the US scored a fluky one as the English goalie bobbled the ball. It was pretty obvious that the viewers in the house were not impressed with a draw with the United States!

Come on England!

On Sunday I took Steve up on an offer to try and mend Betty’s skylight cover. I don’t think he realized what he got himself into. We made a wooden frame around the base of the cover as some of the corners no longer existed and then the plan was to fibreglass over it. Steve had a fibreglass kit from many years ago that he had planned to use to fix his surfboard but he ended up just getting a new one. On our first attempt we miscalculated a bit on one of the batches and put too much of one of the chemicals which caused the fibreglass to have a lovely strawberry jam colour to it and it also hardened quicker than we could apply it. So we had to drive into town to get some more of these lovely chemicals for round two. An hour or two later we had a finished product, albeit not terribly appealing to the eye but quite functional. Now, the challenge to attach it to Betty... The original reason it blew off was that I hadn’t completely closed the vent and it is attached by four meagre plastic bits, actually only three as I found out a month before when I had taken it off to clean it. We super glued and then fibreglassed the pieces but it became obvious that it wasn’t going to do the trick. I was surprised when Steve offered to help construct a wooden contraption to keep it on, surprised as we’d now been at it for over three hours and he was going well and above the call of duty. So we set about fashioning something up and I’m pleased to say that in the end I have a solid lid (or hat as Sonia calls it) on Betty. Granted it doesn’t open anymore but if I’m staying somewhere for a while, I just have to remove four screws and I should have ventilation while not losing the rain cover. Thanks so much Steve...you are a top notch guy!

Betty's new hat:

Thanks to all of this, Sid and I got on the road later than expected. We arrived to Aldershot after 10pm and as I parked Betty in the lot, I pulled out the key and....damn, Betty’s still running! The problem’s back again...yet another item to get fixed before I can hit the open road. Oh Betty, please be kind to me...

Back to Jolly ol’ England

I returned to England on Monday, June 7th (my sister Sarah’s birthday). I made my own way to Aldershot as Sid and Sonia were working that day. Arriving to Aldershot with three hours to kill before they were home, I sauntered into the Funky End for a few pints and a bit of lunch. Sid showed up early and it turns out he didn’t go into work after all. The day before they had gone into London to see a special Rage Against the Machine concert and I guess it took them until 3 in the morning to get home so he was a bit knackered.

The rest of the week I worked on getting my van Betty ready. There were some days that seemed like I’d take a couple of steps forward and one or two back. Case in point was Tuesday where I began driving down a motorway to head to Halfords (an automotive store) to get some items for the van. I heard a bit of a thud or crack as I got up to speed on the merge lane. I looked around and everything seemed fine. Less than a minute later, a lorry came barrelling up beside me and was frantically waving for me to pull over. Again I checked around, couldn’t see or feel any issues with Betty so I proceeded to the next exit before stopping due to the lack of a shoulder on the road. I stopped, got out and did a walk about of the vehicle...everything looked fine. Hmm...I got back in the van, looked back and saw blue sky...damn, the skylight cover blew off! I eventually got turned around and headed back to where it blew off and as I passed the spot heading in the other direction, I could see the white square piece of plastic in the middle of the lane. I decided to park Betty off the roundabout and jog down to retrieve it. Sadly it had been run over, probably by the lorry that motioned to me, and I couldn’t even find all of the plastic bits. One more thing to deal with before I can get on my way...

Friday, June 4, 2010

A Celebration of a Great Life

Yesterday was a day that I will never forget, as was this past Saturday, May 29, 2010. Yesterday we held a Celebration of Life for my father who passed away peacefully on Saturday at the Cross Cancer Institute in Edmonton, Alberta at the age of 68. My sisters Julie and Sarah, my stepmom Nola and one of her daughters, Corinne, were there with him as he took his final breaths. He was a courageous fighter and still cracked jokes and made us smile right to the end.

He did not want a funeral so in lieu we held a Celebration of Life instead at the Glendale Golf and Country Club where he was a member and played many rounds of golf. It was also the site of his wedding reception with Nola back in 1995. It was a beautiful day outside with a big blue sky dotted with big white fluffy cumulus clouds which provided a gorgeous backdrop for the event. With about 150 people in attendance including family from England, Maryland and Arizona viewing via Skype on four different laptops, we paid our tributes to a wonderful man. There was great energy in the room before the formal part of the event began.

Tudor, his brother-in-law, was the master of ceremonies and did a wonderful job. We had five different sets of speakers that outlined the major roles that he played in his life: Paul the husband, Paul the father, Paul the grandfather, Paul the friend and Paul the co-worker and golfer. My stepmom Nola of course talked about her spouse. Sarah, Julie and I spoke to the father topic while my stepsisters Corinne and Michelle touched on the grandfather role. His good friend Brent Hodgins toasted him as a friend and Brian Spooner reminisced about working and golfing with Dad. There were many tears shed but also a great many laughs and smiles. It was an event that my father would have loved to attend and that’s exactly what we wanted.

Since his death on Saturday, it’s been go go go and I and my family haven’t had much time to think. The gravity and finality of the recent events will surely start to sink in over the next few weeks. I can foresee that moments of sadness and loneliness will find me, especially while by myself camping in “Betty” (my Ford campervan) in Europe but I will try to focus on all the wonderful experiences and positive influence my father has had on me.

My cousin Gemma in England summed it up oh so well with the following:

Thank you Paul, from so many for so much,
So many roles; father, grandfather, doctor, husband, friend,
An example to us all, a true leader and gentleman,
Subtle direction, given gently with love.

Our branches sway, but we stay strong in the storm,
The roots you laid keep us on the ground,
We are blessed to have known you and are now better people,
We will never forget the lessons you taught.

I would like to thank all of my family and friends that have supported me through this difficult time.

I love you Dad and will forever miss you.