Tuesday, June 29, 2021

L'Arlesienne - Early Van Life

I was never cut out to be a farmer and the fact  that was the life I was born into never dissuaded me from the notion that there was more to life than growing crops and moaning about the weather. Had I been born a couple of generations earlier I could have been a gentleman farmer, a different creature altogether who watches other people do the labor. My grandfather traveled around the world on the toil of his sharecroppers to assuage his grief at the untimely death of his wife. His sharecroppers kept working no matter how miserable they were. And they had cause to be quite unhappy if they were the least bit ambitious.
By the time I came along it was every landowner for himself  and I found the cycle of life tedious beyond belief, mucky sweaty repetitive and endless. I sought relief in escape through books and on wheels. My family cursed me for being a bookworm so I took my bicycle and my book and I rode off to find peace and quite. Later a motorcycle did a better job of transporting me. I was barely interested in cars as they seemed to encapsulate not enough adventure.
One early spring probably around 1976 I got in an argument over some farm thing with my family and without really thinking I just left. I wanted to do something different so I left the motorcycle and took the Jeep, a lumbering Fiat copy of a Willys civilian Jeep equipped with a  tractor-like diesel engine and a top speed of 60 miles an hour downhill. I found this picture of an identical model online.
The fact that it could climb trenches like a tank meant less to me than the fact that it had a windshield and a canvas roof and space to sleep in the back. It was cold and wet in central Italy when I drove past Todi before dawn and pointed the big brown snout north toward the Alps. I wanted to see the Camargue, a mysterious marshy region of France I had heard about in school,  the flat lands at the mouth of the Rhone near the city of Arles, full of gypsies and horses and absolutely no farming at all in the tidal mudflats at the water's edge.
I got on the freeway and droned north, the 45 horsepower diesel engine was geared for torque and could pull the Jeep (known in Italian as a Campagnola - a "country vehicle") through 2 feet of water but could only cruise happily at 50 miles per hour on paved roads. I was entirely happy surrounded by the smell of the metal interior and faint aromas of diesel oil overlaid through the vents of the furnace heater. This was better than motorcycling in the mood I was in. 
I had little money but I did bring an old army surplus sleeping bag and some sort of sleeping pad to put down in the back. I had no telephone, no camping gear, just a  small backpack with a  few extra clothes and some snacks. It was an impulse journey with no planning or organization at all. I had no idea what I would do if I broke down or got hurt or anything. I was 20 years old and pissed off and frantic to feel alive again. Driving to Nice was an all day affair at the excruciating speeds I drove, but I had all the time in the world to see the world unfurling before me. The French border was a stop of no greater duration that the time it took me to pay the highway tolls in Italy. I flashed my passport to a bored Frenchman who waved me through into a country of different customs, different currency and a different language. The Mediterranean Sea was sparkling to my left in the afternoon sunlight. Not a soul knew where I was; I had vanished. I was utterly content.
History and geography have bene my fascination since I learned to read. Obviously I needed to get to Monaco the second smallest country in the world, the smallest being the Vatican with which I was already familiar. To get to Monaco, a strip of land on the water's edge, I had to waddle the Jeep through Nice, a city once Italian but traded with the French Emperor as a guarantee of non interference while the King of Sardinia fought a war to unify the rest of the Italian states. That sort of nerdy stuff cheers me up no end. Quite aside from the history the fact is the city was beautiful even at the end of winter with warm breezes, date palms lining the clean smooth roads and beautiful women promenading on the waterfront. That I was a country bumpkin in a  farm truck didn't bother me in the least. I was free!
It was dusk by the time I negotiated the traffic along the winding coastal road lined with villas and hedges and stone walls and almost no room to drive. Even in 1976 Monaco was no longer a peasant town but the capital of a thriving tax evasion scheme reserved for wealthy immigrants who wanted to hide their loot from tax inspectors. There were local people who grew up in Monaco, Conchs of the Riviera, but they lived out of sight behind the gilded fa├žade of the independent principality so small, you walk the length of it in half an hour ambling slowly. There were even then no border formalities, just a change in signage and a sense that you had landed in an upper class neighborhood. I looked for a place to park.
I gravitated as we all do to the Casino, a baroque church-like temple of gaming, a building overlooking a square where James Bond and his ilk went to gamble and gambol. I went there to sleep. Nowadays I wouldn't last five minutes parking my Jeep where rich people play and security guards patrol. In those days I didn't give it a thought, I was 20 and there were no consequences. Rolling out my sleeping bag and finding my legs to be too long I lowered the tailgate and slept with my feet sticking out the back. No one bothered me and I was exhausted so I slept soundly.
In the morning I scrounged breakfast and a comb (and a toilet if you must know!) at a gas station and with a full tank and a rolled up sleeping bag I set off for Arles and the Camargue in the unnatural Spring sunshine of the French Riviera winter. I remember those few days as the happiest of that period in my life. I had thrown off responsibility, cast caution to the wind and I was exactly where I should be. 
I had no idea what I was doing, sleeping in the Jeep, uncomfortably, eating sandwiches and drinking canned sodas, scruffy and completely unprepared for the demands of life on the road. No preparation served me well, by not over thinking I left home and analysis paralysis couldn't take root. Discomfort didn't bother me because I was having too much fun. 
I drove around the marshes that had infected my brain. I rented a horse and went for a ride. I was never much of a horseman preferring motorcycles but I had grown up around my sister's horses and knew enough to saddle one and ride it. I dare say they at home would have been astonished to see me happy on a horse but I was that day.
I checked out the city of Arles and wandered around the Roman arena, I walked the medieval walls of Aigues Morts and I never stopped wondering why I had to go home. This was living, even if I was on the edge with no money no plan and a diminishing sense of injustice. I knew I had to go home and face the music.
Disaster never befell me. Lack of money and a sense of duty, embalmed deep within  me forced me home. I had seen the Camargue at last, the place Mr Roger Chapman had me all worked up about when I was a schoolboy sitting at a  desk. We read a novel set in Les Saintes Marie de la Mer, all about gypsies, festivals and mayhem.  He loved France and the French language and he was one of those teachers who imparted his knowledge and excitement to just a few of us at Downside School. This madcap drive was his fault and I doubt he ever knew how much his French lessons meant to me.
I had had enough of the Corniche driving of the Riviera. The roads set in the hillside were called Corniches and they were slow and spectacular and I had seen all I needed of them. I had a different plan to go home and lounging on the beaches or forcing the old Jeep through the alleys of fashionable St Tropez were not part of them.
I decided to take the inland road back to Italy, backroads far less trafficked in those days with olive trees and rocks burning under the inland sun. The Jeep was never going to win any races but I took the doors off and put them in the back and smelled the sage and pine as we drove through the scrubby desert forests of the interior. 
Driving the Jeep was an ordeal as the Naugahyde seats were unsprung and fixed in position. There was no cruise control or sound system, the controls were adequate but rudimentary, made of sturdy steel with no pretensions toward middle class luxury. I sat slouched behind the enormous black Bakelite wheel and after I got the four speed gearbox into top gear (at about 25 miles per hour) there was nothing left to do but hold down the enormous metal accelerator pedal and try to keep the beast in it's lane.

A huge black vent spewed heat if I needed it with outlets to the windshield. To cool off the driver's area there was a way of opening the windshield at an angle to let fresh air inside. For slow speed work, say in the fields you could fold the windshield completely onto the hood and expose yourself completely to the wind. Take off the canvas roof and you were in the ultimate slow speed convertible.
I had my sleeping bag and a pad, and I used my backpack with some spare clothes for a pillow. I laid down between the bench seats on either side of the back and slept on the floor, curled up in the event of rain and stretched out over the back if it was dry. I have no memory of washing but Europe even then was littered with campgrounds so if a traveler got desperate there were stops with facilities. When I went motorcycle touring I never made reservations; I just showed up and was almost never turned away. In some ways it was a simpler world before the Internet as telephones were crude and the best form of communication was simply showing up so that's what everyone did until whoever the merchant was, sold out of whatever they were selling. Nowadays it seems we are expected to program every aspect of our lives.
I drove and napped all the way home. A cursory passport check at a bend in the mountain road and I was back in Italy. It was a different country then, at a time when France and Italy were joined by the EEC- the European Common Market - more formally known as the European Economic Community. It was a group of trading nations each with their own currency and borders were still borders. I feel like I grew up in another world but at my age I suppose that is a common feeling.
When I got home I discovered the power of taking people by surprise. I expected an interrogation but they looked at me sideways and I slipped back into the routines. Where did I go? France I said, a reply so outlandish and outside their experience they were afraid to ask the next obvious question. I never told them why I went. I didn't know myself as I had never heard of van life or wild camping or being "on the road". I just did what came naturally because I wanted to, and the petit bourgeois family I left at home had no clue who I was or what motivated me.
They had even less of a clue when I left home a few years later without explanation on my motorcycle and never returned. Van Life planted a seed even before van life existed.