Thursday, 29 August 2013

Euro13 Airstream Gathering, and Taking a Dog Abroad

I'm using my time in the Outer Hebrides to slow down and catch up a bit. Before getting up to date, we need to go back a couple of months:

June 2013.

Back in June '13 it was time to take my wee dog Dougal abroad for the first time. For some inexplicable reason that no ferry company can explain, dogs have to be left in cars on 'short sea' international ferry routes. That would probably be fine if it wasn't for all the numpties who fail to isolate their car alarms that screech incessantly for the entire crossing, freaking out any animal on the car deck and no doubt also annoying any off-duty crew who are trying to sleep in downstairs cabins.

Caledonian MacBrayne and WightLink, on the other hand, have no problem providing a pet area on board their ferries. Pets can go upstairs and travel with their owners in a dedicated lounge with vinyl seats and flooring. They're not allowed into the bars or food areas.

Not wishing to leave Dougal scared and alone on the car deck, we booked our passage to France with Eurotunnel. As ever, we booked through the Caravan Club who managed to do us a better deal than we would have managed even booking direct on the internet.

Very impressed with Eurotunnel I was too. Boarding was hassle-free, parking up a doddle, and for the 35 minute trip both myself and Dougal could travel together in the civilised comfort of our own Airstream. Meanwhile, 50 metres above us people were elbowing each other in queue for the cafeteria. Gas must be isolated in the Tunnel, so I had earlier prepared a flask of coffee to enjoy during the journey. Disembarkation was unbelievably quick. No getting wound up on crowded car decks while asphyxiated by lorry fumes… simply drive off, and within just two minutes you're on the motorway. It was all just so quick, easy, civilised, and dog-friendly.

For a few days we camped in the gorgeous yet little known German town of Oldenburg, which is in the North of the country between Hamburg and the border with the Netherlands. A very dear friend of mine lives in Oldenburg and I spent an enjoyable time being spoiled by his lavish hospitality and taking our dogs on longs walks in the lush green landscape of Lower Saxony.

A few days was also spent staying with some Dutch Airstreaming friends near Groningen where we met up with some Airstreaming friends from the UK. Many a boozy night was spent sat around the campfire talking until the small hours. I loved it. I'm not sure my liver did.

One day we all headed off back over the border to Germany to a village called Bockhorn, which was hosting a massive 'Old Timer' car show, including some lovely vintage caravan rigs too. Beautiful!

Why were we all overseas? We had a 'big' weekend to attend, the Euro13 Airstream Gathering in Weilburg, Germany. 56 rigs turned up from across Europe:

What a brilliant weekend it was too. For me it got off to a bad start when the local 'yoofs' thought it would be funny to chip golf balls out of the woods and into the queue of Airstreams waiting to enter the site. One of them hit my trailer and smashed the Heki causing over £300 of damage, and necessitating an afternoon spent in the Police station making a report. How grateful I am to fellow Airstreamer Phill for his help as an interpreter.

Other than this setback, it was great. The weekend was the perfect balance of being organised enough but not overly organised. It was certainly a credit to the organiser, the charismatic Armin Heun, and his friendly, enthusiastic, cheerful team from Airstream Germany. Attendees were free to do their own thing although a couple of activities were laid on for those who wished to go along. I very much enjoyed the visit to Airstream Germany's showroom and service centre, which is the absolute epitome of what you would expect from a premium retailer selling a premium brand. In fact, the entire UK contingent was very, very impressed.

Beer and food was generously laid on by Airstream Germany and by Airstream Europe.

We were even honoured to have the company of Rich Luhr (of Airstream Life magazine) and his lovely wife Eleanor who had come all the way from the US of A. Rich gave us a brilliant talk and an interesting insight into Airstreaming in the US and how it compares to how we do it in Europe.

Rich's verdict? It seems that here in Europe we are more willing to head off the beaten track and use sites without facilities than our US cousins, where 'boondocking' (off-grid caravanning) is less popular than it is here. I think we can thank the Caravan Club and the Camping and Caravanning Club for that, thanks to our enviable and maybe taken-for-granted network of Certificated Locations/Sites.

Another highlight of the weekend, for me at least, was being given the opportunity to have a go at playing the bagpipes by the very talented and all-round lovely fellow Airstreamer Elaine. Well, I say that it was a highlight for me. I think the 'strangled cat' noise that I produced was no doubt one of the low points of the weekend for the unfortunates whose ears witnessed that terrible assault.

Sunday came way too soon, bringing with it the departure of good friends old and new. As we started to say our goodbyes, the tears started to flow. As daft as it sounds, I was so sad that it was over.

If you have a spare few minutes, do have a peek at the video I made of the weekend:

Euro13 Airstream Gathering video

Dougal and I headed off on our own to Belgium and spent a lovely couple of days chilling at Camping Blaarmeersen in the beautiful city of Ghent. It seems that the E40 motorway traversing Belgium has improved greatly over the past few years, as in general it was well surfaced and traffic flowed freely.

Blaarmeersen was as pretty and perfunctory in equal measure as it has always been, and it was super to catch up with another friend on a lazy summer's day.

Of course, there was also the small task of getting Dougal's worming process signed off for his passport.

On Eurotunnel, the return leg was as straightforward as the outward. First of all we had to stop at the Pet Passport area for Dougal to be scanned and his paperwork checked.

Here we saw a poster telling us that a million… yes, ONE MILLION pets have now travelled with Eurotunnel.

Don't the ferry companies want a slice of that pie? It appears not.

The smooth 35 minute journey was spent cuddled up on the sofa of the Airstream having a snooze while the hoards 50 metres above us were still elbowing each other in the scrum for the bar. I know where I would rather be.

Tuesday, 20 August 2013

What are you learning THAT for?

Tha Sassainach a th’ annam, ach tha mi ag ionnsachadh Gàidhlig, comhla ri Sabhal Mòr Ostaig anns an Eilean Sgitheanach. Dè? Chan eil fios agamsa. 

The digital sabbatical will have to wait another 24 hours as I'm on a site with free wifi. The rain is persisting down outside so it's a good time to neck a few wee drams and compose a bit of an egotistical rambling. It's about something I really don't understand, and probably something that won't be of interest to many.

You see, I'm from Kent. My family is from Kent. I even had a distant relative in the USA trace the family tree back a few generations (she gave up when it transpired that my great-great-great something was carrying on with the Housekeeper and the records went a bit skew-whiff) and they were ALL from Kent. I spent every happy childhood summer in the caravan in...Kent. 

This makes it all the more puzzling as to why on earth I love the Western Isles of Scotland so much. Not just in a 'Ooh, isn't it pretty?' kind of a way, but in a deep down right-under-the-skin way where every minute of my life that is not spent in Scotland is a minute that, while not wasted, is a minute closer to my next trip. 

Even my parents haven't been to Scotland, if you excuse the one time they got lost in Edinburgh and didn't even get out of the car as they became inanely cross about the sheer number of traffic lights. 

From Dover, it's so much easier and cheaper to head to the likes of France or Wales. 

It took until 2009 to finally make the journey North of the Border with the caravan and it was, unbeknown to me at the time, a turning point in my life. I spent three weeks discovering the Outer Hebrides and life changed instantly. I instinctively knew that this was THE place. Nowhere else would captivate me in the same way. 

I went home and life changed dramatically. 'I don't know what happened to you up there but since you've come back I hardly know you,' declared my partner before rapidly becoming my Ex after six happy years. 

The visits to the islands increased in frequency. If you include a trip to the Inner Hebridean island of Skye, this August trip in 2013 is my fourth this year already. 

In an attempt to try and make some sense of it all, I started to learn Scottish Gaelic. Like most keen students, I thought I'd do the cheap self-study route of 'Gaelic in 12 Weeks'. I think I made it to chapter three before giving up. 

You see, to my mind there are two approaches to learning a language: Scientific, and intuitive. 

'Scientific' is for academic people who like to learn verb tables, clauses, and know what the third person singular means. For these people, I'm sure that 'Gaelic in 12 Weeks' might work. Just don't expect too much in the way of spontaneous converstation. 

'Intuitive' is for thickos like me who like to learn a language by ACTUALLY SPEAKING it. You know, a bit like how we learned our first language when a baby. You listen, eventually understand, and start to say the words yourself. OK, your grammar may not be spot on, but you can converse face-to-face with people and form a connection. 

In January this year I enrolled at Sabhal Mòr Ostaig, Scotland's Gaelic college on the Isle of Skye, for a distance-learning course, and have now completed my first term. 

Learning is done on a self-study basis, where workbooks, exercises, and sound files are emailed in the form of password-protected files. What makes this a little different to many self-study courses is that there is a weekly tutorial at a fixed time. Once a week you phone in with your fellow classmates and go through the week's work with your tutor. If you are as tight (I mean, as careful with money) as me, you make sure that you've got the work done in order to get your money's worth out of the course. 

'But what on earth are you learning THAT for?' is the common question. After all, everyone in Scotland speaks English anyway, don't they? 

Well, yes. But I am hoping that by learning the language I will learn about and understand the culture on an ever increasing level. That in itself may in turn lead to an understanding about why on earth I feel so connected to the Outer Hebrides, and why I love it so much here. 

There's also something rather nice in a niche kind of a way in learning a language that you cannot simply put in to Google Translate - it's just too small and complex. 

It's still very early days. In the first term, as well as learning a few basics in the language, I have learned about the game of Shinty and I have started, just started, to learn about how Gaelic is perceived in Scotland. It's not all sweetness and light as I have also come across apathy and anti-Gaelic sentiment. However, this just makes me want to dig deeper. 

It's easy for an Outsider to romantically muse about how sad it is that the language is still waning. When you're a student in the Outer Hebrides and you want to get on in life, you might still think that English-medium education could offer you better long-term prospects than Gaelic-medium education. Who's going to risk their entire future for the sake of a romantic historic idyll? 

Never before have I enjoyed studying. However, when the first term of college ended I was really, really sad. I thought about Summer School but the classes didn't fit in with the timetable of the distance-learning courses. Gaelic is a fiendishly difficult language to learn, but I think that that's what makes it so interesting and what creates the motivation. 

So far on this trip I've stayed on a couple of campsites run by Gaelic speakers and have insisted on practicing my limited conversation on them. 'We could see that you were bursting to have a go' laughed Catriona at Moorcroft Campsite on North Uist. But why not. Learning even a few words of the language and a bit about the culture of where you go shows a level of respect towards your host country. That could be France, Spain, Croatia, or indeed the Western Isles of Scotland. 

Gàidhlig. Cànan beag, beartas mòr. 

Monday, 19 August 2013

Full-Timing - more to think about. And tomorrow, somewhere new.

Finally I am in my beloved Outer Hebrides and starting slowly to unwind. I have needed time and space to think since October last year, and for one reason and another it's been snatched away. Obviously, those times were not the right times to think about future life.

Further to the last post, 'Full timing - are you Tough Enough?' I've watched a brilliant video and read a brilliant blog entry.

First off, the video - Tomorrow Somewhere New

Click on the name above to watch it. I love everything about this film. The style, the content, the participants, the message, the art, the feeling of it... and the lovely starring couple have the most amazing teeth!

Of course, there is more to living on the road than portrayed in this film. They don't show the loo emptying, setting up in the rain and snow, or the man sitting at his computer for hours and hours making a living. But dreams are good.

I realise while I'm here in the Hebrides that I need to unplug from the internet a bit. A couple of entries on Facebook made me realise this. A caravan page that I deliberately don't follow asked the question 'Airstreams - love 'em or hate 'em?' and a friend of mine innocently tagged me in his response, saying that I owned one. So of course, I get to see the diatribe of comments. Ugh. So much narrow-minded judgmentalism. I asked for the tag to be removed but by now I was already wound up.

Here and now in the Lochboisdale Cafe, I checked out one of my favourite blogs on my reading list, Notes from a Nomadic Knitter by my friend and fellow Airstreamer Tracy. 

Tracy had written a brilliant post that hit the nail on the head as far as I was concerned... Just because we like Airstreams, we still have other stuff to do. Sometimes it is lovely when you meet a like-minded nomad, be they in a £100k A-Class motorhome or a £50 tent. That 'connection' is a joy to behold, but sadly it's the exception rather than the rule. The rule is that you'll meet people who will tell you what they think even if you have not invited their opinion. Often, there is a complete insensitivity to the fact that you are busy setting up or breaking down, or you simply want to get your head down. It's not being antisocial, it's being tired and maybe hungry.

Anyway, one of the upsides of an Airstream is that you're noticed for good reasons too. The lovely folks in the Outer Hebrides know that the Man With The Silver Carvavan is back and already I'm getting smiles and waves from familiar people.

A few more days to decompress and unplug from the internet a wee bit, then I'll keep you posted about this trip.

I feel an all-new Caravanner's Guide to the Outer Hebrides coming on too.

Thursday, 1 August 2013

Fulltiming - Are you tough enough?



When thinking about making the move to fulltiming, the usual considerations such as address, doctors, and other such practicalities spring to mind. But there are other factors to consider that are far less obvious. What about the social and mental implications? Are you tough enough to handle it?

Setting up the Airstream on a rural CL on a picture-postcard day, a familiar and much-repeated scenario occurred. Up rolled a lovely couple in their ancient yet trusty Hymer motorhome. 'What a lovely caravan!' the lady said as she admired my rig with a beaming smile. We engaged in conversation, and very quickly I admitted that my Airstream was my home. Immediately she 'got' it and could see the attraction. Many caravanners and motor caravanners do. However, we are but a wee minority of the general populace.

Most people out there in the real world go about their business with little thought to alternative ways of doing things. Their opinions are formed by one-sided propaganda in all forms of media from newspapers to television, not to mention the constant bombardment of information and advertising that relentlessly attacks all of us from all angles. Yet people allow advertising and media to insult them in the most shocking ways. They actually lie down and swallow it! Why? Because fear of the unknown prevents many people from breaking out of the everyday routine, and from doing what is expected by society in general. 

That's absolutely fine. The world would be a frightfully dull place if we were all the same, shared the same opinions, and did the same thing.

However, there are very few people doing what we full-timers are doing. Young singles are generally building careers, going to the gym, and doing what they think they need to do to attract themselves a partner and secure themselves a future. Couples and families settle down and build 'solid' roots for their future, allowing themselves two weeks of holiday pleasure after 50 weeks on the treadmill. As the kids fly the nest, older couples and singles start to think about slowing down and maybe expanding their social lives, taking up golf and the like.

By no means is this observation meant as derogatory. However, don't expect any of the above people to understand why you prefer to be free. Fulltiming young singles will be popular with their mates on a sunny August day in Brighton, but the chances of meeting a partner who shares their vision are highly remote. Couples and families can expect their social circle shrink dramatically and their existing social lives dry up. As for dealing with the stigma of home-schooling your child in a caravan, that's a whole new subject for another day. Few people will see how full and rich a child's education can be when approached outwith the stifling and tunnel-visioned mainstream education system.

It's not all doom and gloom. There are of course people who totally understand the reasons and motivations for full-timing even if they choose not to make that step themselves. Real friends, the friends you can count on one hand, will stand by and support you. By the nature of where we camp, we will meet like-minded people. Fortunately for us, caravanners are the nicest people on the planet. There are other fulltimers around (thank goodness for the internet) with whom you can strike a real or a virtual friendship. 

Fulltiming retirees often head to warmer climes for the winter, and whole communities of like-minded folk spring up in campsites across the Med. The irony here is that older folk receive more support, social interraction and everyday contact with like-minded people (i.e. have bucketloads more FUN) than those do who are trapped in a house on a lonely housing estate where everyone else is out at work all day. 

Outside the confines of the caravanning community, there are few people who 'get it'. Many of them won't think twice about telling you what they think about your life choice either, despite the fact you have not invited their opinion or been so arrogant as to judge how they live their lives.

Every week I seem to end up defending the lifestyle from people who think it's funny to mock. Today's insult was that I was living in an 'Unplumbed Hellhole'. I kid you not. His comment was made from a building in a built-up area in a town this person didn't enjoy living. Here's a picture of where my rig is right now: 

I'm tired.

It's bloody tiring to have to constantly explain and justify why you live the way you do. When you put yourself out into the everyday world, be it at a party or even just on Facebook, you can end up feeling very lonely indeed as nobody else seems to 'get it'. As such, many fulltimers simply withdraw from wider society, keep to themselves, and only choose to associate with the very few people who support and encourage the way they live their lives.

By no means let the extradition from narrow-minded Daily Mail reading X-Factor watching automatrons prevent you from following your dreams. Just don't expect your decision to be popular or understood by everyone. Defending the lifestyle can be a grind, especially when you know that, deep down, those highly vocal critics with their tired digs and unfunny quips are secretly incredibly jealous that you have the courage, the pragmatism, the dynamism, the self-assurance, the open-mindedness, and the balls that they so obviously lack themselves.