Adventures in language, one European campground at a time

For more than 30 years, my wife, Valerie, and I have owned camper vans that we keep in Europe. This all began when we bought a VW Westfalia in St. Catharines and took delivery of the vehicle in Belgium as part of a now-defunct European delivery program that VW and other manufacturers offered. We traveled in the van for eight months and shipped it home, where we enjoyed it for many years, traveling coast-to-coast over time. We found the camper experience in Europe so appealing, though, that we soon bought a used vehicle in Germany that we stored with friends in France to use when we vacationed there. When that one wore out, we bought another and stored it at a campsite just outside of Marseille, in the south of France. The proprietor would pick us up at the airport and drive us the 15 minutes to his camp, where the van would be ready to go. Having our accommodation and transportation waiting for us meant that whenever we could take advantage of a cheap flight to Europe, we could enjoy a vagabond vacation, preparing our own food and traveling at our own pace while staying at Europe’s lavish and convenient campsites.

Camping in Europe is an unexpectedly luxurious experience. We have stayed at campgrounds that have fine restaurants, multiple pools, spas, shopping malls, hair salons, and discos. Many feature live entertainment in the evening, and all of them have takeaway food, access to local baked goods, and spotlessly clean and beautifully appointed washrooms, showers, and laundry facilities. There are destinations for all tastes and itineraries, from beachfront locations to city centres, from remote getaways to kid-friendly resorts.

Our travels in our campers over the years have taken us from England to Turkey, from Portugal to Slovenia, with stops at just about everywhere in between. One of the main deterrents for people we have talked with about our camper travel has always been language. “How do you manage without speaking the language?” “What if you need something or get lost and don’t speak Greek or Slovenian or German or Portuguese?” Frankly, we’ve never found it a problem. If you’re willing to make an effort with whatever few words you have in another tongue, or have some ability with charades, most people will meet you at least halfway and try to communicate.

We always carry bikes on the back of the van to make it easy to get from the campground to the local markets or sights. We enjoyed an hour-long conversation with a bike enthusiast in Croatia that took the form of pointing at various bicycle components and pantomiming our satisfaction or displeasure with each. When we ran out of steam on that theme, the conversation descended into naming rock groups we enjoyed in common. He’d say, “Beatles!” with a big grin and thumbs up, and I’d say, “Grateful Dead!” to which he would hum a few bars of Truckin’ while thrashing an air guitar. Our interchange will not bring world peace, but it was hugely satisfying to be able to reach each other even in this ridiculous way without being able to speak a word of each other’s language.

The Westfalia camper van that started it all. GREEN FAMILY

I have had other memorable moments with language. Back when Steve Bauer was the pride of Canadian cycling and competing near the front of the Tour de France, we were in Italy where we avidly watched his thrilling rides whenever we were near a television. Our enthusiasm was noted by some Italian cycling fans in a campground outside of Sienna, and when they discovered we were Canadian, became animated in their interest in Steve Bauer. I don’t know Steve, though I’ve met him as he grew up down the street from me, and I wanted to convey this to the Italians in order to share a little of his glory. But the concept was far too complex for my pathetic Italian vocabulary and all I could think of was to say that he was my friend. As it turned out I told the Italian cycling fans that he was my lover. Luckily, after much hilarity, they managed to explain my mistake and bought me a birra.

Perhaps my finest linguistic moment was in the lovely little southern French village of Frontignan. Valerie and I had ridden into town from one of our favorite campsites on the Mediterranean beach at Frontignan Plage to enjoy the lively weekly market. After wandering through the glorious produce section and fragrant cheese stalls, filling our bike paniers with all manner of good food, Valerie spotted an artisanal woodworker selling little toy trains with detachable carriages. Just the thing for a nephew back home. So while she negotiated the purchase of an engine and several freight cars, I strolled to the next door stall of a man repairing shoes. He was evidently an institution at the market, because his stall was surrounded by gossiping men smoking cigarettes and chattering like squirrels. My French is not bad, so long as I confine myself to ordering meals in a restaurant or simple conversations about the weather. One of the gathered men beckoned me over and in English far worse than my French asked if I spoke English. My standard reply is, “a little” and that seemed to satisfy him because he then asked if I could translate something for him. His favorite music group was an English band called “Throbbing Gristle” and could I tell him what it meant in French. I won’t go into how I managed to convey the essentials to him, but he and his buddies all nodded sagely at my explanation and indicated that it was just as they thought.

He and his buddies all nodded sagely at my explanation and indicated that it was just as they thought

While I take pride in my efforts on that occasion, I have had the odd disaster. We celebrated Val’s 40th birthday with a three-hour lunch in a three-star Michelin restaurant near Lyon called Troisgros. Staggering from the excesses of that meal and glowing from the incredible dining experience, we drove our camper into the countryside to a beautiful rural campsite on the banks of the upper Seine River, where it is not much more than a stream. After parking the van and setting up our campsite, I produced a bottle of champagne to continue the celebration. Our array of glassware in the camper was pretty utilitarian and the champagne deserved better, so I headed up to the campground café to borrow proper champagne flutes.

The place was lively at that time of day, and when I made my request to the woman behind the bar, she got everyone’s attention by asking in a very loud voice, “Mais oui, monsieur… but what is the occasion?”

Knowing that my French vocabulary could handle this, I said with great confidence, “It is my wife’s 14th birthday!” The bar erupted in cheers and congratulations and wishes for good luck. I bowed sheepishly and, clutching my champagne flutes, fled. Travel teaches you many things, but not least among them is humility.

We’ve bought tires in Greek, fished with a guide in Czech, had my bike repaired in Slovenian, had a haircut and shave in Croatian, bought shoes in Spanish, and reported a theft in French… not to mention ordering meals, buying groceries and gas, negotiating campsites, and enjoying the odd simple conversation about sports, music, and life. Language can be a barrier, but with willingness, a sense of humour, and the ability to put your self-consciousness on the shelf, communication, in spite of that barrier, can be surprisingly rewarding.