Health Warning: This blog post is longer than normal because we’ve had no access to the Internet for days. My nerves are in tatters. Blogging has become such a huge part of my enjoyment on these tours that being unable to get online has caused me to curse and sulk. Here is a double dose – apologies to anyone who was hoping for a quick read.
On Being Foreigners
By the time we were on the east side of Holland we didn’t see another British vehicle – that’s when we knew we were truly abroad and on another adventure. Pulling in to the camperplaats near Millingen on the Rhine, which is still in Holland but only a couple of miles from the German border, we saw that all the other motorhomes were Dutch. Sometimes we make huge assumptions and one of ours is that all Dutch people speak English. Of course it’s an entirely false assumption as we quickly discovered when we booked in. The very pleasant lady who owned the site could say only a handful of words in English and of course, to our shame, we could only say ‘Dunk u well’ in response. We do know a few other Dutch words but only because they sound either cute or filthy. They are of no use at all when asking for the password for wifi or directions to the chemical toilet dump.
Here is the sum total of our Dutch vocabulary with our own unique translation:
Durkand verkeer: Follow this sign if you don’t know where the hell you’re going
Knuffle: Cuddle on offer / required
Winkel: Place where you can buy stuff
U k-nt: Fill the gap with the obvious letter. We don’t know what it means but you see it on road signs and if you are as juvenile as us, you giggle guiltily as you pass by.
One of the things we love about the Netherlands is the provision of refrigerated vending machines where local farmers sell their produce. Just up the road from the site was just such a machine beside an apple orchard where we could see the fruit on the trees. We bought a kilo of apples and a dozen free range eggs for €2.50 and felt as though we’d won a prize – it got even better when we ate one and found that it tasted like apples used to taste before mass production. I swear it was fizzy with flavour.
One of the disadvantages of being in a British motorhome in Europe is that our habitation door is on the opposite side to local vans. Motorhome parks (Stellplatz in Germany) are to be found almost everywhere and they cost a lot less than campsites, which is great, but they normally have much smaller pitches. This means that you are often parked fairly close to your neighbour. When all the vans are in a row each one has a small area to sit outside. You get privacy because your bit of space is facing the offside of your neighbours van. Being in a UK van means that you potentially park with your door facing your neighbour. Because we’re British we are, much to our European neighbour’s amusement, extra aware of personal space so we feel a bit uncomfortable when this happens. The solution is to park the opposite way to everyone else so that our door is on the correct side. Today on our little patch of space on the Stellplatz in Wesel, a German van rolled in next to us and also parked the other way round so that their door was facing ours. They were not in the slightest bit fazed by this and proceeded to roll out their awning, get out their table and chairs and BBQ and almost completely fill the available space. We took our chairs round to the other side, as the only other option would be to sit under their awning. It is hot here and we would have appreciated the shade but it just isn’t British to be that close to people we don’t know is it?
On these Stellplatz, when the wind is in the wrong direction, you can hear the bodily noises of your neighbours. So far we have had a barking cougher and a honking nose blower and we’ve only been here 48 hours. There are some people in this world who deserve some kind of recognition for patience. I am not one of them. Just saying…
Wesel, a town on the Rhine in Germany, is just over the border from Holland. The Stellplatz (German for motorhome park) is close to the banks of the river. There is a promenade on the river bank with beer gardens, children’s play parks, cafés and a couple of restaurants. There is also a purpose built dog walk where they can be let off the lead safely as there is no way they can run out of the area. We are about a kilometre from the town where there is a massive pedestrian shopping area and just about everything you could need for a couple of days of chilling. On the first night we cycled into the town for ice cream and a stroll round the square. We walked back in again the following morning to the open air market and a visit to Tourist Information. We didn’t get a lot of information but we did get a warm and friendly welcome and good advice about where to get a map of Germany. It seems like a good idea as we have no real idea where we are or where we’re going except to say that we’re following the Rhine south. After a stroll through the shops listening to some really outstanding street musicians we returned to the town square for an organ recital in the cathedral. After the recital we bought German sausages in rolls from a hot food stall and munched them on our way back to the van. Thank you to the numerous people who have recommended the sausages in Germany – you were right – they were yummy. So our morning was complete – a friendly face, a few words of English spoken to us, a little shopping, some culture and a sausage in a bun. This is the life!
This is the Rhine – we’re really doing it!
On Sunday we drove south, past the big cities of Cologne, Dusseldorf and Bonn, through an almighty thunder and lightning storm. The motorways were packed solid and the rain was torrential, creating driving conditions that even slowed the German drivers down. Our aim was to get to Remagan in the picturesque part of the Rhine just south of Bonn where we would begin a slow tour with just short hops between each stop. Wesel and Remagan have a bit of history in common, in that their bridges were blown up by the German army during World War II to prevent the allied forces crossing the Rhine. In both towns there are monuments to peace and the end of wars. There is something particularly touching for Shirley on this journey as her Dad was in Bomber Command during the war and at the end of his life he suffered much regret at the literal impact of his war effort on the people of towns like these.
We arrived at the big Stellplatz in Remagan to find a British motorhome parked across from us. We were ridiculously pleased to be able to chat effortlessly in our own language and talk about possible routes and places to see. They however decided that we must be avoided from here on as every time we stepped out of the van to walk the dogs or go on a bike ride the heavens opened and we got drenched. This unfortunate turn of events only continued for about eight hours but by then we had soaked nearly every outfit we have with us. A laundrette is next on the list of essentials.
Monday morning, after a trip to the supermarket, we got on our bikes and cycled into town to visit Tourist Information. I think I could write a complete article, perhaps even a book, on the people who work in Tourist Information centres in Europe. Some of them are so obviously not right for the job that it is almost comic. Today’s Mr Helpful (not) had the lugubrious expression of a disgruntled bull dog. He had absolutely no interest whatever in offering us information of any kind and sighed deeply when we asked about where we could see the Rhine in Flames and when it would be on. After grunting a bit he wrote a few grudging words on a piece of paper, handed it over and dismissed us with a withering look. We braved the chilled atmosphere long enough to pick up a couple of leaflets and left. It is therefore perfectly understandable and in no way due to any weakness of will on our part that we had to give in to temptation in a cake shop just down the road. I did one year of German in school and can remember only a very few words but fortunately, or so I believed, two of those words are coffee and cake. We went into the shop and ordered Kaffee und Kuchen and sat down at a table quite delighted with ourselves. Sadly one of my two words of German let me down as we only got coffee. Was I going to let that beat me? No I was not. I went back into the shop and asked for two enormous cakes and was rewarded with a smile from the waitress when she finally got my drift, aided by my look of longing in the direction of the cabinet full of delights.
Sitting outside we were accosted by a very elderly lady who began chatting to us. We apologised and told her we only spoke English but she cared not a jot and continued her tale in rapid German. Three times we tried to explain that we couldn’t understand her and three times she smacked me lightly on the shoulder and went on with her story. We were guiltily relieved when she gave up and went into the shop, only to stop as she passed our table to say “I am a little slow. I’m nearly 90. You are English!” and we cried “Yes!” (This was no time to try to explain about being Scottish) and then she began speaking rapid German again, blew us two kisses and went inside for her coffee and cake. How we wished we could speak German at that moment. She was a wonderfully feisty woman and would no doubt have a great life story. Sadly we will never hear it.
On our way back along the banks of the Rhine we stopped at the ticket office for trips along the river to ask if dogs are allowed on board. The ticket lady spoke English and was obviously an excellent saleswoman as she managed, without any real effort, to persuade us to rush back to the van, collect the dogs and be back within half and hour to get on the boat going up river to Bonn and back. What we didn’t know, until it was too late and we had paid our fare, was that we couldn’t get off in Bonn and would have to stay on board as it was the last boat coming back. We settled on the top deck and enjoyed a truly lovely three hour round trip with a light lunch and some brief information about the places we were passing coming over the sound system in both German and English. Typically, Poppy had a grand time peering over the side and watching everything while Boo sat on Shirley’s knee and quivered.
On our return, we were much amused to see two nuns power walking along the riverside in full habits. Their rhythm fitted exactly with the tune “How do you solve a problem like Maria?” so Shirley felt obliged to sing along until the boat past them. I would have pretended I didn’t know her but it was too late. I’ve been seen with her – we’ll just have to move on.