Trans-Atlantic Travelogue #11

The Friendliest Campground in Europe

Olivet, France

June 13, 2001

Scoreboard: 12,175 miles; 6 Countries, 20 states

I’m hardly a scientist, but I don’t like dealing in absolutes. Of course, the pinnacle of my formal education was law school where you are taught (if you listen well), “There is no law or truth, only judges.” This bottom line is a bit different than scientific grad work where complete and empirical evidence is required to support any conclusive findings.

So I’m a little hesitant to make broad, sweeping, encompassing statements, but less so than someone who takes into full account what they’re saying with maximum reservation. True poets have no such difficulties. They see the most beautiful flower of the field and know it right away, they need see no others.

We are in the friendliest campground in Europe. It is true that even considering my extensive camping in Europe twenty to thirty years ago, I have only collected empirical evidence regarding several hundred of what must be tens of thousands of campgrounds. No matter, my cerebral jury has returned.

The Keck family

Denis, Annie, Freddie, Jean-Francois and Oliver Keck

Camping Municipal in Olivet, France, is the friendliest campground in Europe. It’s a family affair, run by Jean-Francois and Annie Keck and their sons Oliver and Denis. The Kecks are the absolute salt of the earth: they have offered us every kindness imaginable; I check my email and work on the internet in their house, the day that my AT&T connection was down they offered me use of their computer and server, they give the girls strawberries fresh from the garden, they offered us use of their phone when they (rightly) suspected that we were too broke to obtain a phone card. It’s absolutely incredible.

They found us at the supermarket, after major shopping, looking bewildered and vaguely for a cab (between trying to figure which of us might be able to carry what back to camp). They insisted on giving us a ride back to camp, before they did their own shopping so that we wouldn’t have to wait. Naturally they refused gas money.

Loiret River

Loiret River

Our camp site is on the bank of the Loiret River, we can hear the river sounds as we go to sleep. This morning a red squirrel tried to sneak down and nab some of our French Bread (picked up fresh each morning in the European tradition). I tried to throw him a piece, but he thought I was throwing it at him. I probably shouldn’t have thrown him a piece twice his size. Just trying to be friendly…

It won’t go to waste, the entire area is like a wildlife sanctuary. We have swans, and ducks, and muskrats, a dog or two, hedgehogs, a beaver I think…so many birds.

The Bird Symphony starts around 5 a.m., and is performed in the trees above our tents. Doves, woodpeckers, starlings…to tell the truth I don’t know all that much about birds.

But The Symphony is incredible! The doves are the gentle rhythm section, then the cuckoos or whoever go off into these bizarre off-tempo solos. There are at least seven identifiable segments of the orchestra, each praising the return of the sun in their chosen way. It’s absolutely beautiful. You could sell CDs of this stuff for $30 a pop in California.

I have a CD of dolphins with me, as a matter of fact. I wonder what the birds would do if I cranked the dolphins at them? File under “worthy experiments I should have conducted but didn’t.”

I usually listen to The Symphony for twenty minutes or so, then fall back to sleep. The last of the codas are winding down when I get up a few hours later.

While on the subject of animals, I must tell of our beloved dog Blackberry, then I will move on to Volkswagens and race horse bars.

One perceptive reader has informed me that Blackberry has not been, as advertised, a regularly featured member of the cast, and requested an explanation. Here it is:

Blackberry Trapp

Blackberry Trapp

Blackberry is a beloved family member, but he is not with us in Europe at this time. He stayed in Vermont, and was to meet us in Frankfurt, several weeks back. He is a very intelligent guy, but he’s an island dog, and was hit by a car in Vermont. He is rehabilitating quickly and a full recovery is expected. We love him very much and look forward to seeing him as soon as we get back to the mainland from England, more than we look forward to seeing anything else. We miss you, Mr. Dog, we love you!

Rehabilitating a car is not nearly so stressful as a dog, and we have located a mechanic willing and able to rebuild Sweet Pea’s motor at a price we can afford (we just aren’t sure how). We look to aim again towards London in two weeks, spend four to six weeks stabilizing things there, then head to Denmark through Belgium and The Netherlands.

Getting stuck in Olivet, basically a satellite of Orleans, has been pretty fun actually. It’s given us a chance to hang out in a relatively typical French town, and to get to know some of the local people.

An internet friend of ours in Germany (the legendary Dr. Nusskopf, whom I originally met in a Neil Young discussion group) heard of our plight and hooked us up with some of his internet friends (from a different Neil Young discussion group) out this way.

Ray Moon and Patrice invited us out to their suburban home for what couldn’t possibly have been a typical French lunch. There must have been fifteen courses!!, strategically accompanied by the appropriate wines. The French always assure us that Americans lack la Gastronomie, and I’m not here to argue about it.

There are many wonderful things about having lunch in the yard under a big tent, discussing a Neil Young show fifteen years ago in southern California (that I attended and they have tapes of), drinking wonderful French wine as their son Stefan jams with a Pink Floyd tape upstairs.

This has led me to declare my first recommendation for Americans traveling to Europe.

RECOMMENDATION #1: Join a Neil Young discussion group.

Ray Moon found our VW mechanic, through a friend of hers in Paris (also on one of the Neil Young discussion groups). The mechanic is going to rebuild our engine at roughly one-third of the price of the other quotes that we got. It still ain’t going to be cheap. This leads me to make my second recommendation for Americans traveling in Europe:

RECOMMENDATION #2: Bring along an extra engine.

Of course, much of our experience is now wildly at odds with the typical American caricature of the French as obnoxious people who love to be rude and make life as difficult as possible for Americans. In fact, from my own experience of living in Europe as a child I remembered the French as the least friendly nationality (and the Czechs as the friendliest).

How to reconcile these apparent contradictions?

I think that France probably does have more than its share of rude people who delight in confounding tourists from everywhere, and perhaps the Americans and British most of all. France may even have more rude people per capita than New York or Dallas, though I doubt the latter at least. Paris surely is competitive with anywhere in the world in this category.

As true as that is, there is also another even more important strain of French character, deeper, altruistic, caring, patient…the stuff of Camus and Sartre, of Voltaire, of the Fauves and the Impressionists…I’ll leave Celine out of it, though I love his stuff, too.

So anyway, as you race along through France on your five day excursion, trying to fit in Paris, Carnac, and Nice, there is only time to notice and appreciate the rude French caricature personalities. A rushed tour offers no opportunity to appreciate the more subtle French character, the extraordinary generosity that is found nowhere in the United States to this extent (Norbert, the head of the local VW club checks in on us nearly daily to see if we need a ride somewhere, or would like another tent), though it obviously can be found in many American individuals.

The best way that I can think of to experience the rich, subtle, French experience is to blow up your engine and get stuck somewhere in France, to take in the local colour.

Not everywhere has an Eiffel Tower, but there’s always something interesting. With slightly recharged finances Theresa, Myles, and I were walking around downtown Olivet trying to buy a phone card on Sunday. Of course being Sunday, everything was closed.

Well, Bar Le Sport was open, and we were hungry so I ordered a few beers. Also a delicacy called Monsieur Coquette, which turned out to be a quasi-pizza (for $3!); great cheese over ham (Jambon! is my favorite word in my steadily increasing French vocabulary, though I use it more like “yee haw” than “ham”) on this great crusty bread.

There was a harness horse race on, and one of the entrants was from Olivet. Naturally everyone in the pub has money riding on him. The race began and the owner, a handsome grey-haired guy with a bier in one hand, a smoke in the other, and a very large gold crucifix worn prominently outside a black t-shirt, started prancing around making a running commentary on the race that we couldn’t understand at all.

The local horse pulled into the lead and the place went crazy, with the owner acting as a hybrid raconteur/cheerleader. Sadly the local faded in the stretch thereby setting off a lot of dark French commentary and arm-waving. The owner recovered quickly and brought Myles a big plate of cookies. For free!

Just before the race started a city bus pulled up to the curb outside, effectively parking in the middle of the street. The bus driver ordered a beer, caught the race, thanked them, and resumed his rounds.

I heard an even better story this week.

It was raining like hell a few nights back, the kids were asleep. Theresa and I were huddled beneath the overhang outside the laundry room, nursing a few industrial strength British import lagers (cheaper than Budweiser or Coors!) and discussing whether it might be preferable to be back on Orcas Island with the singular difficulty of deciding what film to watch on satellite.

A Dutchman with whom I’d briefly discussed politics in the bathroom earlier in the day came running out, under an umbrella, and asked us into his caravan. It turned out that he’s a teacher, and he and his wife were on their way to Giverny to visit the Monet gardens there.

Naturally a discussion ensued for several hours with far too many high points to get into here. They were a very wonderful couple, and enough beer went around that I eventually confided that the last great Led Zeppelin show had taken place in their very country, in Rotterdam.

“At The Ahoy?” she asked. Yes.

We spent a lot of time discussing various aspects of the European Union, big business, nice family businesses like the campground that we’re on, what a disaster it would be if Budweiser bought out European bier interests, and so on.

They were in The Czech Republic a few years back, when the very first McDonald’s opened in Prague. It was a huge cultural event, apparently, with the mayor, and visiting mayors, and all sorts of people dressed up like they were in for a night at the opera. Very formal, very big business, very yuppie with old world charm.

A giant red carpet was literally rolled out from the McDonald’s to the street, so that the invitees wouldn’t have to touch the sidewalk with their patent leather shoes.

Our friends from The Netherlands imagined that the entire thing was just for them. They had a great time. They love The Czech Republic. We all agreed that Vaclav Havel is a great guy. They have a pleasant McDonald’s association.


The Swans have arrived for dinner!

So we’ll be here for two more weeks. Tune in next week when we check out a chateau, or a cathedral, or both. Tune in and see who takes us in from the rain, and if eclairs fall from the sky to illuminate the road for us.

It’s been a difficult last week or so, but the dream is good again.

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