Distance covered today: 221 miles (some of it in a train under water)
Total distance covered: 2104 miles
There’s more fun at Les Pirates bar in Calais after the last posting, as I unexpectedly start making friends with some of the locals! After posting the blog, I get another Hoegaarden from the bar, and a lady next to me compliments me on my chapeau. I must say, over the years my hat has been a good conversation starter…
Her English isn’t that great and neither is my French; but maybe it’s the convivial surroundings, and that doesn’t seem to stop us having a great chat. Her name’s Sophie, and she introduces me to fellow hat admirer Herve, next to her at the bar. We chat for a while, then she introduces me to the drily humorous, deadpan barman Michel, and his wife Sandrine.
By the end of the night, I’ve been christened “Indiana Jones”, and we’re playing doubles on the bar pool table. I’m not brilliant at pool but neither is anyone else – with the possible exception of Sandrine, who gets pot after pot. Michel gives me a sympathetic look – I’m pretty sure I saw him throw a shot earlier so his wife could win. It’s me and Sophie vs Herve and Sandrine – turns out French rules are different than I’m used to, and in doubles you don’t carry on if you pot a ball but let your partner take the next shot. Ah, cultural differences.
Of course Herve and Sandrine win, but it’s been a fun game, and I couldn’t have asked for a better last night in Europe. I’ve made new friends, talked in French, played pool and almost won. After a lot of hugging and cheek kissing, I head back to the van, much later than planned – it’s 12:30 am, and I still have to drive to the Eurotunnel in the morning!
It’s not a worry though – the tunnel is literally ten minutes drive from where I parked. In my recent spirit of trying things I’d previously rejected, I wake up and spend a while listening to the Radio 1 Sunday Breakfast show as I have a cup of tea; no, it’s still rubbish.
Getting to the tunnel is like being dashed with cold water. This is it. The trip’s really at an end. In about half an hour, I’ll be back in chilly old England. It makes me tear up a bit, as I sit stationary in the long queue to drive onto the 09:20 train. I’ve loved my time here, and I really don’t want to go. I find myself wishing I’d taken Tom’s suggestion about just staying in Barcelona and training there; but I know I have to clear up my old life first.
Well fuck it, to quote Gareth Thomas’ last line in the first episode of Blakes 7, “no, I’m coming back”. This can’t be the end of it. I need a new life – think of my return to Blighty as just clearing up the loose ends of the old one. Yeah, it’ll take a few months, and some work – but I need a purpose to work towards, and this is a good one.
At least in the mean time, there’s a bit of an event on the way home, in the form of a family reunion. My dad, who’s lived in California since 1980, is making another of his “farewell tours” to the country of his birth, and my brother, half-sister and I are going to meet up with him at his Heathrow hotel.
And it is of course my birthday, probably the quietest one in some years. Well good – I know some people who make no big deal of their birthdays, and in fact the pressure to make every year really cool with some kind of gathering is something I can live without this year.
It’s a mere 99 miles from the tunnel to the Premier Inn at Bath Road, Heathrow. 99 miles? That’s like a trip to the corner shop after the last couple of weeks. The faithful old Falcon gets me there with no trouble at all, the ronk-ronk noises from the leaky wheel bearing having no effect. That mechanic in Barcelona was right. The wheel bearing might be leaky and worn, but it’s got me another 1000 miles with no problem other than irritating noises.
The family gathering is great. My dad and I haven’t always got on, over the years, but both of us have mellowed with age and can gently take the piss out of each other without causing offence. He’s amazed when I tell him what I’ve been up to for the past couple of weeks, and remarks that I’m worlds away from the shy, bookish kid that I was.
That takes me aback for a moment. And I realise that, whatever my problems, I have changed. I’ve had the courage to drive across most of Europe with no-one to rely on but myself. I’ve seen new things. I’ve done new things. I’ve faced down some personal demons, and if not defeated them at least put them in stalemate. I think it’s maybe time to give myself some credit.
It’s good, catching up on this quiet birthday. My brother Tim and I are very close, and he knows everything that’s been going on these last few weeks. We have some good chats; he’s a source of good advice, and I trust him absolutely. Even if he does look like Jason Statham.
My sister Justine too, who’s closer to me in terms of personality – if not better, having actually lived up to her anarchist views and participated in the sort of protests I only pontificate about on social media. She’s the one I turned to on that darkest night in Barcelona, and I’m forever grateful for that.
I’ve got a standing invitation to visit her in Sheffield, where she can use her training in physical therapy to introduce me to some kind of exercise regime. I’ve heard that can be really good for depression, so I’m going to take her up on that as soon as I can. Plus she looks better in my hat than I do.
After a while, we go our separate ways. Tim and his wife Karen have to get back to Wiltshire, Justine to Sheffield, and me to the remote Cambridgeshire Fens. If I had my choice, I’d wish to still be up that hill in Parc de Montjuic, but I know there are things to do.
It’s a long drive in the dark back to Stretham, and I realise I still have the headlamp beam deflectors on the front of the Falcon. Not that this seems to make any difference – its one gesture to modernity is that it has fantastically good headlights. That almost makes up for the recurring flashing of the ABS warning light on the shoddy plastic dashboard. I’m going to have the old dear looked at when I get back. But for now, I’m singing along to This Corrosion by Sisters of Mercy as I speed through the dark, muttering Tom Baker-style words of encouragement at my trusty steed – “come on old girl, just one more time”.
I really know I’m back in England as I enter a village and see the sign:
Please Drive Carefully
Nowhere in mainland Europe would have a name like that. I’ll be honest, for all my current reservations, I like England. I don’t want to leave it because I’m not proud of it (in some ways at least). But I want to travel, and there’s more to the world than just this sceptr’d isle. These last couple of weeks have given me a glimpse of that larger world, and I want to see more.
I roll into Stretham at about 9:40pm, just early enough to get a pint at the local before Sunday early closing. If I’d been hoping for a rousing welcome back like Phineas Fogg got on his return to the Reform Club in Around the World in 80 Days, I’m disappointed – nearly everyone has gone home.
Still, a couple of my mates are in, and give me a hearty welcome back. And I have a couple of pints of Marston Pedigree. However much I’ve loved France and Spain, they don’t have beer like this.
Only time for a couple though, then back home for the first time in more than two weeks. Well, I say “home”, but it’s never really felt like that since I had to move out after splitting up with Barry. It’s a temporary refuge, after the Expulsion from Paradise, but “home”? No, after these last couple of months my van already feels more like that.
Getting back to the bungalow is weird. These last few weeks, I’ve got accustomed to living in the Falcon; she’s got everything I need. Now, suddenly, I’m shocked by all the space. It’s ridiculous, for one man. And I realise how much even these last weeks have changed me. I don’t want this any more. This empty, expensive room. All this stuff. All these coats. Projection TVs and expensive surround sound systems. For weeks I’ve managed without any of it, and I haven’t missed it at all.
It’s been amazing, this trip, and I really don’t want it to end. And in a sense it hasn’t – this is just a pause. A bit of time to gather my thoughts maybe, but the work begins now. Sell what I can, give away what I can’t. Get my qualification. One step at a time. And maybe, finally, move on from this period of my life. I’ve done it before, and I can do it again. Maybe my adventure is just beginning.