271 – Blogley in Italy

pexels-photoWaking up at Kokopelli Camping this morning was like waking up in a dream I’d forgotten existed. A dream where there’s no falling off cliffs or into holes, or being mown down by out-of-control lorries. A dream that starts slowly, gently gathers pace, meanders a bit through soft clouds and chocolate eclairs, then without any sudden death or injury, quietly finishes. No horror, blood, or pain. A seamless shift between sleep and reality where the reality is better than the dream. What most people call a holiday.

I arrived last night after an evening spent with the locals in the town hall of Serramonacesca eating pasta and quaffing wine at an event organised in aid of the recent earthquake. I hadn’t expected it in the slightest, I’d expected to spend a quiet evening with my friends nibbling on water biscuits and pecorino cheese.

Instead I was thrust into the madness of mountain village life, sitting on long benches chatting with local farmers trying to remember the Italian I’d learnt from my phrasebook. On the stage a local diva sang some opera, then some karaoke, then someone else told a story in a dialect that sounded like a cross between Russian and Chinese. Soon after a DJ started banging out Italian techno as I struggled on with my Italian, while men I’d never seen or met before brought me more wine.

It was a great baptism into Italian rural life, but it was also nice to go to bed and even better to wake up to mountain views, olive groves, fresh coffee, an outdoor kitchen, plus a couple of very small kittens clawing at my foot.

I’m here with Elizabeth to look after a campsite for six weeks for some friends while they holiday in Sardinia. Tucked below the mountainous Majella National Park and a couple of kilometres from the village of Serramonacesca, Kokopelli offers carefree camping with magnificent views of the raw countryside where bears and wolves still roam. It sounds like I’m writing their holiday brochure. I’m not, I’m just writing what I see. As I mentioned in my last post – write what you know.

What I know is that apart from a day in Venice years ago, this is my first time in Italy. And after hauling bags filled with lead weights round the Dordogne all summer, it’s a very welcome change. No more driving round the Perigord with a van full of indestructible coffin-shaped Samsonite suitcases big enough for the owners to be buried in. No more violent arguments with irate hoteliers. No more pretending to be polite when really I’m fuming beneath a painted-on smile. As the photographer Justin P Brown said to me after he’d moved to Barcelona after twelve smog-filled years in London, ‘This is paradise.’

After being shown the ropes of how the campsite works by my friends and waving them off to Sardinia in their Landrover, I was left to my own devices.

‘Now what do I do?’ I thought. As normal a million things rushed into my head, not wanting to waste a single minute of my time here. I wanted to do everything all at once: cycle up the mountains, swim in the river, hike up to the hermitage, cook spaghetti, write a novel, eat wild boar, learn Italian.

Instead I did nothing except cook some eggs, drink coffee, look at some maps, have another coffee, stoke the fire, and gaze blankly out at the scenery remembering that I was actually on holiday. A working holiday true, but the holidays I like best. Work to be done, but at my own pace. Slow down. Breathe. Relax.

Later I thought about dragging the bike out to see what the hills were like, but the urge passed and I made another coffee. ‘I wonder how much coffee I can drink?’ I thought. Probably quite a lot.

Whenever I go to new places, they’re always totally different to what I imagined. I once went to County Kildare in Ireland for a week and had to give myself a real talking to after I returned. I thought Ireland would be like England: dreary suburbia interspersed with the odd pocket of beauty. It was nothing of the sort.

I remember going into a pub for the first time. Where are all the trinkets and bodhrans hanging from the ceiling? The Oscar Wilde quotes, the Guinness adverts, the wooden confession boxes? The thick curtains and low lit lighting? This wasn’t right. This was just a room with brightly painted yellow walls. The tables and chairs were chrome and the only trinkets were a fire poker and coal shovel next to the fireplace which was real and alight.

I wasn’t going to poke my finger through a wafer thin partition wall here to reveal the breeze brick walls of a shopping centre. Its foreignness was real, not contrived or made to feel like somewhere else, like a Red Lion pub on the Costa Del Sol, selling egg and chips and pints of Fosters under the gigantic sunlamp of the Spanish sun.

I ordered a pint of Guinness even though I hated the stuff – ‘tastes of soot’ I once told a friend. But what else was I going to drink on my first visit to Ireland. Budweiser? Probably, because that’s what everybody else was drinking. I was the only one drinking the fabled Black Stuff while the rest of the pub – full blooded Irishmen and women – sat around drinking American lager.

Last night in the town hall in Serramonacesca, I had another ‘Irish moment’, where once again everything I’d thought I knew about a country came crashing down on my thick English head. I didn’t imagine for a second that everybody would be prancing about in Gucci suits and Prada heels drinking campari and sodas, I’m not that stupid. However, I certainly didn’t imagine techno, opera and karaoke on the same night, served up with stodgy ragu on paper plates, all washed down with red wine sloshed out shakily from giant 10 litre flagons like it was floor cleaner.

Never second guess. That’s what I’ve learnt so far from my 42 years on this planet. Never think you know anything about anything until you’ve seen it, done it, got the T-shirt. Countries, cultures, traditions, customs, languages and food all need to be experienced at first hand before you can make any sort of judgement. Otherwise you end up making a tit of yourself. Like drinking a pint of Guinness in a pub in Ireland. Or asking for Spaghetti Bolognese in an Italian restaurant…

270 – Life as a Holiday Rep

When I was 12 I went to Benidorm with my father on a package holiday. I remember the rep meeting us at the airport along with 50 other red-faced Brits, most of whom had already got burnt walking across the tarmac from the plane to the terminal building.

Once outside he started doing a roll-call from a list of names stapled to a Thomson Holidays emblemed clipboard. He was wearing a vomit yellow polo shirt plus matching baseball hat and seemed to be having trouble pronouncing the names, even the simple ones like Smith and Lewis. When he came to our name, Ogley, he pronounced it ‘Ugly’ and everybody laughed, including me and my dad, who corrected him telling him it was actually OGLEY.

‘As in…’ he started, but couldn’t finish the sentence because as we’d realised many times before OGLEY doesn’t rhyme with anything, except Flogley or Bogley, which aren’t real words. The rep ticked our names and moved on to some other names he couldn’t pronounce like Cleugh, Coughlan and Cluister, finally allowing us to get on the furnace-hot coach to the hotel about ten hours later.

Things didn’t improve. Just after the WELCOME TO THE COSTA BLANCA sign a few kilometres from the airport, somebody a few seats behind me was violently sick. I remember smelling the fetid stench of half digested airplane food mixed with cheap sparkling wine and asked my dad how far it was to the hotel. He said a couple of hours and I wondered if I’d make it before I ejected my own personal offering of airline beef lasagne over the folk in front of me.

Luckily, my stomach held up and I was delighted to pull up outside our hotel. The Hotel Regenta, a 25 storey concrete rectangle pockmarked with a hundred tiny concrete balconies, which made the whole building look like a giant advent calendar. But instead of scenes of the Nativity behind every patio window, it was crammed full of lobster red humans plastered in After Sun lying on their beds either dying of heat exhaustion, sunburn or alcohol poisoning. Or all three.

Once inside the hotel foyer that smelt of chips, the rep started waffling on about the week’s entertainment program. This consisted of fancy dress competitions, barbeques and dust-to-dawn drinking with musical accompaniment supplied exclusively, or so it seemed, by Black Lace. Everybody appeared incredibly content until the happy-go-lucky, soon to become the not-so-happy-go-lucky rep, came to his final announcement.

‘Due to unforeseen circumstances, the pool is out of action until further notice.’

The rep tried to hold his smile for as long as he could, perhaps hoping that everybody might be content swimming in the sea. Until someone threw a brick into his face. A metaphorical brick of course – this wasn’t the Middle Ages – but the level of abuse aimed at the poor soul was equivalent to a lorry load of breeze blocks tumbling down on his head from a great height.

He tried to appease them as best he could, telling them they were working on the problem. But the insults and threats kept coming and no amount of half hearted gestures and promises were going to get the rep out of this one. Or for that matter, remove the stagnant mass of raw sewage that was filling the pool.

It was at this point that I vowed never to work as a holiday rep. Never would I put myself in a position where I could be subjected to such foul mouthed abuse from members of the public. Never as long as I lived.

Thirty years later, I became a holiday rep on the Dordogne.

Luckily most of my customers arrive by train or in Volvos wearing Berghaus gaiters and Karrimor waterproofs bought in the 1970s. If I had to tell them the pool was closed, they wouldn’t be that bothered. ‘We’re here to walk, not lounge round the pool, if we wanted to do that we’d go to Benidorm.’

This is the rep job you get when you’re 42. The Berghaus Rep as I’ve coined it. The rep job where you spend half an hour each evening with customers discussing route notes over a glass of Monbazillac. Route notes that were written thirty years ago by a rep who used the Bayeux tapestry as a map and who hand wrote the notes out on parchment. But of course you don’t say that. No point in alerting them before they set off. Simply wait for the inevitable phone call.

‘Oi, rep! Where the fuck am I? It says here there’s a vineyard on my left, but all I can see is a supermarket.’

Gone is the polite chatter from a few nights ago, replaced by harsh words and bile, as I try to explain that the vineyard may have been there in the Middle Ages, only now it’s a branch of Lidl. ‘It’s called progress dummy!’ I shout. Then turn my phone off and go out for a few days.

From my experience, these things tend to resolve themselves. They eventually find out where they are and by trial and error end up at the hotel. Sometimes the wrong hotel. But a hotel all the same.

What I’ve learned from this job is that people are going to complain no matter what I do. But that’s OK by me. That’s their problem not mine. If people want to go on holiday looking for trouble, looking for things to poke at, looking for a fight. Then there’s nothing I can do about it. I can only do my best. Which is what I do. And if I’ve done my best and it’s not enough, then the best thing I can do is lie down somewhere warm and go to sleep. See you in Italy. Ciao.

sleeping

(For more Philip Ugly adventures, why not read A Man in France, available at Blogley Books.)

264 – Souillac: A small town in France

The rain is beating down today like a baton hitting an English football supporter. Hard raps against my window as I look out over a waterlogged road. When it’s sunny here, it’s as good as anywhere. When it’s raining, it’s like North Wales. Grey skies that look like they’re going to fall on you like a tonne of slate. I should know, I grew up there. Oswestry to be precise. Technically English, but Welsh at some point in its Godforsaken past.

There’s a football match on Thursday night involving the two teams (and supporters later on I’m sure). I haven’t got any Welsh ancestry, but I can’t help hoping they’ll win. For the simple reason that England teams are rubbish considering the players and money they have. They pick the wrong players in the wrong positions and think they’re going to win by right because, like all the folk back home supporting the Leave campaign in the EU referendum, there’s still an Empire. We then lose and look for someone else to blame. Normally the Russians. Or the French. Or in the case of the recent violence, both.

I used to watch Forest vs. Leeds at the City Ground when I lived in Nottingham and could never decide who I wanted to win. I’m from Leeds and have supported them since I was a kid. On the other hand, I’ve always liked Forest because of Brian Clough and the great European Cup winning sides of ’79 and ’80. Plus I lived there for nine great years as a student and musician in the 90s.

Sitting in the City Ground waving my red or white flag depending on if I was in the Home or Away ends, I always wanted a draw, with perhaps Leeds nicking a last minute winner in injury time. As it happened Forest won every time, so I always left a little bit gutted, but not as much as if they’d lost to Chelsea or Man Utd – or Derby.

I started writing this post to advertise my latest short film on the little French town where I live and got sidetracked by football and the weather. Two of my favourite subjects, or so I’m told by the hoteliers who I work with here. As though they don’t exist in this part of France.

‘Weather? We don’t have that here. Just blank skies and breezeless days. And as for football. Pah! Nothing to do with us. Only Rugby here.’

Which is why Souillac hasn’t really entered into the spirit of the tournament. There’s a board outside the Grand Hotel next to the Plat du Jour board that reads Match du Jour. One reads France vs. Romania, the other Confit du Canard.  Today is Tuesday, the France game was last Friday, so maybe that’s all I’m going to get during these Euros. A five-day old football match and a plate of reheated duck.

Enjoy the film

More films @ https://blogley.com/blogley-films/

Books @ https://blogley.com/blogley-books/

262 – Things I like about France No. 1: Routes Nationales

road photo - thumb

From my window I have a clear view of the D820, the old Route Nationale (RN) that runs from Toulouse to Paris. For me these represent old France. France before iPhones, prepackaged sandwiches, shopping centres and Renault Meganes. The reason people went to France instead of Spain or Greece for their holidays. Pulling off at an ancient boulangerie in some obscure, unpronounceable town to demolish two or three pain au chocolat in one go, washed down with some heavy, undrinkable coffee.

In 1998, me and some guys drove down to Nice to play in a bar for a week, taking the old routes as part of the trip. It was great, stopping at broken down cafes and bars that seemed barely standing, ordering brie filled baguettes and demis that we topped up with our own supply of lager we’d bought from the supermarket.

It was great. We were young, we were going to play in a bar for a week with free food and booze, plus some cash at the end of it. OK, so the gigs were a bit of a disaster, mainly because the owner of the bar wanted three hours of catchy covers, not 70 minutes of prog rock, as we played. We spent most of the first night learning cover standards like Hotel California and Stand By Me, some of which we played two or three times a night. On the way back, we drove back on the expensive autoroutes because we were tired, arriving back in Nottingham with about 20 quid to spare.

Of course, a lot of the old routes are really busy now, especially around towns or where there’s no autoroute alternative. But there are stretches that are practically deserted, especially in the evenings. Even the D820 outside my window, which is a main route, has periods when I’m wondering where the next car will come from. In fact, towards midnight, you could probably have a picnic in the middle of it. If you felt like it.

The old garages, auberges, cafes and hotels that once lined this route before the Paris-Toulouse motorway was built still thrive, although many now serve tourists rather than salesmen, drivers and travellers.

When people ask me, what do you like about France, Oggers? I say Route Nationales every time. They are surprised. They expect me to say food or wine or scenery or campsites or cakes. But no, the old RNs are always top of my list…

…Well, maybe that’s not quite true any more. I’ve recently discovered an almost childlike penchant for cakes. Especially Flan. A huge oozing mass of eggs, cream, milk and flour cut into slices. It’s like a thick blancmange or concentrated custard put in a pastry base. It’s really cheap and if you find a good patisserie you can really eat a lot. Which is probably why I’m starting cycling again, which is another thing I like about France.

..to be continued.

259 – Blogley in Souillac

 

Where is Souillac and why am I here? Good question.

Over previous summers, I’ve taught English to earn a few coins. This year I wanted to do something different. Mainly because I’ve retired from teaching, as I was starting to feel self righteous, and I didn’t want to become one of those people who think teaching is the most gratifying job on the planet. It isn’t. It’s tedious and boring and I’ve had enough. Good. I’ve got that out of the way.

Enter life as a holiday rep in the Dordogne. Ferrying folk around from hotel to hotel, giving cycling and canoeing lessons, and dealing with fuming Basil Fawlty type hoteliers.

‘But surely Phil, isn’t that a bit of a step down? Isn’t that what you do in your twenties? Shouldn’t you be thinking of a career?

The answer to all those questions is NO. If I’d wanted a career, I’d have spent my twenties saying ‘Yes sir, no sir,’ to people I didn’t like waiting to get promoted or fired. Now 42, I’ve luckily avoided that phase, and as a result can pick and choose what I do with my precious time. This summer, it’s being a holiday rep in the Dordogne. Next summer, I might be wearing a kangaroo outfit in a circus in St. Petersburg.

I’ve never done this type of work before, so I don’t know what it’s going to be like. I once worked for a festival company driving and managing a burrito stall over a summer. I guess it’s going to be similar. Only this time I’ll be driving around holidaymakers and canoes instead of boxes of canned chili con carne and tortilla wraps.

Truth is, these types of jobs are like jigsaws. Once you get a few pieces in place – reading a map, telling the time, buying hoteliers bottles of pastis (in this case)  – the rest usually falls into place. Even the tricky leafy woodland part, where all the greens look the same, eventually becomes clear. Unless you’re really bad at them and your beautiful Turner landscape ends up looking like the vomit stained carpet of an inter city nightclub. In which case, it’s probably best to go back to teaching. Or cleaning toilets (of a nightclub?).

So that’s you all filled in. Updated and ready for another chapter of Blogley. Another chapter of A Man in France, which of course you can buy from Blogley Books.cover image

257 – Blogley Rolls On…And On…And On

I once watched a Status Quo documentary entitled Roll On…And On…And On. They kept going on tour because they didn’t know any other way of life. In two weeks I’ll be on the road again. This time to Souillac, about 100km north of here, in the Dordogne. Why? Well, Elizabeth and I are going to be spending the summer giving cycling and canoe tours to holiday folk.

It’s very difficult to know whether this is the right line I’m taking. The line of constantly moving around, doing lots of different jobs while trying to forge a writing career. I’ve lost count of the amount of places I’ve lived in and the jobs to go with it. But it’s probably well over a 100 now.

I have friends and family who’ve stayed in the same job all their lives in the same town. I can’t imagine that life. Not because that life wouldn’t be good – it probably would – but simply because never having led that life, it’s hard to envisage what it’d be like, if you get my drift.

In fact I sometimes wonder what it’d be like to live in the same town where I grew up, do the same job week in, week out, playing footy on a Sunday, downing pints on a Saturday night with the same people I played tiddlywinks with at school. I can see a version of myself in that life, a murky dreamscape of a life in Leeds. But then it vanishes and I’m back to where I am. Which is normally stuck out in the middle of nowhere in France.

The truth is though, going to another town to do another job seems as natural as eating bacon and eggs for breakfast. Even if my cycling colleagues in the Caussade Cyclo Club think it’s totally whacked out to eat eggs for breakfast. A long discussion then ensues over the benefits of the croissant versus the fry-up until they eventually come round to the realisation that they are wrong and I’m right, and we finally get to go cycling.

I’m not quite sure how I arrived in this state of transience (and Elizabeth neither), but we did, and while it’s sometimes unsettling, it’s become a way of life. I recently posted on Twitter (@Blogley1) the following:

I’d never used the term travel writer before, but seeing as I move around a lot and I write quite a lot, the term travel writer seemed appropriate. I had a moment of doubt as to whether I deserved the title, until I concluded that I can call myself whatever I like. ‘Travel writing as you’ve never seen it before…’ it says on the back of my book. So what the hell!

This period in Auty in southwest France has been the best housesit we’ve done. But I think it’s as far as we can take the looking after other people’s houses malarky. We’ve had loads of time to think. It’s been free. I’ve managed to write three books, two of which I’ve published. The other, my novel, is still being worked on. However, the novelty has worn off a bit and it’s time to embark on other things. Like taking canoe and cycle trips in the Dordogne, for example.

I’ve never done it before, but it sounds great, and I even get paid for it. And I can write about it too. I’m thinking the Man in France series might outlast Status Quo. Why not?

A Man in France celebrates his 70th birthday on a canoe in the Dordogne.

 

A Man in France cycles across the Massif Central on a tricycle aged 80.

 

A Man in France flies across the Pyrenees in a paper airplane aged 100…

 

I’ve realised these past few years that I’m capable of more things than I thought I was.  And so on we go to Souillac…and on…and on.

 

phil in country
A MAN IN FRANCE