Chepi, born at a time of great transition on the Canadian plains, is gifted with the ability to see into the past and into the future. Solitary and wholly independent, yet deeply connected to her Native Cree culture, she moves fluidly between worlds as both medicine woman and pragmatist, both nurturer and warrior.
Intuitive and intellectual, her highly adaptive survival skills help others to survive, to awaken, and to change, as she travels across oceans and continents, seeking knowledge of a rapidly changing world. All that she sees and experiences will be applied, when she returns home.
How Chepi’s self-contained, magnetic presence and decisive energetic influence holds others together, whether their meeting is brief or enduring, is the element that makes this story so compelling. The author provides his readers with a well- researched historical journey, a cross-cultural exploration of the human condition, and a deep character study of the singular, ineffable, magnificent creature who is Chepi.
This novel was two years in the creation – the longest time I’ve ever spent on a project. It is by no means my longest at less than 80,000 words. 100,000 + is my norm.
The time was taken by deep research and a desire to refine and reduce this complex story to a poetic fine point.
Chepi will be known to anyone who has read The Prairie Companions, the Daniel Series or the previous two in the Butterfly Effect Trilogy. In those novels, she was an important but secondary character.
I always felt she was deserving of her own story and so here it is. I am unashamed to say I feel it the best work I’ve done… so far. I have included a few extracts here as a taster.
(From Chapter 1)
The grey wolf ran darting and diving through the thick forest, the wet mist parting before him and trailing in eddies behind. Above him a hawk swerved and swooped, easily following. The hawk squealed and the grey wolf stopped and raised his head in cry, howling twice. He sniffed the air and howled once more. The hawk landed above and chirped his high squeal in answer. The grey wolf said, “The little fairy has no sex. The little fairy is not boy or girl and is both.” The hawk swooped and flew into a mist swirling above the canopy. Its call echoed and grew distant until it was a whisper. Sooleawa called in the mist, “Manito, tell me what grey wolf spoke to you.” The hawk hovered above her and spoke its music high and piping and its words entered Sooleawa in her mind but not her ears. She smiled and nodded and gave thanks to her manito.
(From Chapter 12)
It was almost black dark when she reached the river. She stopped and stilled. Breathing slower, she closed her eyes and looked with ears and nose. The river misted the air with chill freshness and old wood and leaves added their musk tone. A pine amber scent spoke of evergreens near. A mushroom pungency rose somewhere close. Little scampering scuttling things rustled in the leaf litter but no large animals gave up their presence to Chepi’s searching senses. She opened her eyes and the darkness was gone, replaced by slants of silver moon and starlight. Dark flashes of movement drew her eyes, as bats cruised the river picking moths foolishly lingering in the moonlight beams.
An area of low scrub on a rise of the riverbank was trampled flat as Chepi set up her small tent, tying it to branches around rather than using easily lost tent pegs. She unrolled her ex-army sleeping bag and found her bag of pemmican, cornbread and water bottle. She did not feel like disturbing the night with a fire so washed down her supper with plain water. She popped a rock of golden sugar under her tongue as a sweet treat and settled cross-legged by the tent entrance. She lit a pipe and whispered: “Sorry, forest things, if tobacco smoke intrudes upon you, but we humans are part of you and we bring far off things with us.”
Chepi sat late into the night in a state of peaceful stupor, her mind as blank and directionless as in sleep but… but she was hyper-awake – attuned to the nightlife of the forest. Lost in its palpable throb and pulse. She would from time to time have to bring her focused attention to a presence near. A bear came to the stream as morning was beginning to fanlight through the leaf lace. Chepi watched it drink and then snuffle and dig in the soft river banks, breakfasting on snails, worms and crunching beetles and the crawfish it nosed and clawed from their unsafe pools. After a time, the bear lifted its head and sniffed the air, slowly turning to the human scent Chepi wafted to it. It grunted its displeasure and plunged away into the forest, noisy and frustrated by the disturbance of the danger-laden human scent.
Chepi hung her rucksack high in a tree, then climbed into her sleeping bag, sighed, put her head down and instantly found a dream-free sleep. It was perhaps ten when she woke and crawled from her tent. She toileted, then plunged naked and squealing into the river to bathe. While there she spotted little trout hiding in a small pool nearby. She lay on a rock and fished for them with her hands. She was beginning to shiver with cold when she threw the second onto the bank. She lit a fire and put two stout sticks through the centre of the trout, pushing their spine and most of the small bones out as she pulled off the tails, spine bones and all. The fish cooked as she dressed and fetched water in her billy to boil for coffee.
When the coffee was blown cool enough to drink, she sat with her back on a tree and savoured the sugar tucked in her cheek, the heat of the coffee and the growing warmth of the day. Maybe I stay here longer. It is a good place here and I feel lazy and unwilling to walk. My feet and legs are pained still. Yes, another day and night here and then I climb high and look at the plains. I am at peace already – it was good to come here. I must keep thought and remembrance from me.
(From Chapter 15)
Only when she had made that eye contact with everyone present, did Chepi speak: “Gentlemen, ladies, I am Chepi Morningstar and I am Nehiawak or Cree in English. Beside me is Bonny-Ann Beckett an officer of the Canadian Security Service. Forgive me for this deviation but I must say why she is here. I call her Numees Bonny-Ann or simply Numees. This means sister or spirit-sister and this is what she is to me. If she had not been with me here, I would be dead. This morning three men tried to kill me outside our hotel. Numees stopped them, they’re all dead.”
Chepi paused as a murmur arose in the room. She waited for everyone to still and look back at her before she continued: “Numees, my sister, came to me when she was a girl of fourteen. We knew we would meet and we saw each other when we did. Saw we were sisters. I do not intend to explain the mystic element of this bond, it is not relevant to this place. I mention it to show you that all human kinship and human bonds know no boundaries of race or colour or background. Numees came with me because she knew I was in danger. She knew there are those who do not see these bonds, who do not believe in the commonality of humanity. Indeed, they are threatened by relationships such as ours because it undermines their dreadful certainties. This certainty is what drove those three men to try to kill me this morning and their dreadful certainty is encouraged and enabled by the various acts the Canadian government has in place to forcefully assimilate First Nation peoples. I will use that term rather than ‘aboriginal’ because Numees warns me ‘aboriginal’ is often a pejorative term.
I have seen dreadful certainty of this kind once before. It was in Germany and Poland in the 1930’s. There too, a government sought to de-humanise people. They made them separate – other – sub-human and then they tried to exterminate them. Yes, dreadful certainty is not a new thing. Genocide is not a new thing. My government has not resorted to death camps and I do not mean to compare them. But they have enacted laws that forcefully remove children from their parents and subject them to so called industrial schools and fostering. They seek to remove the cultural identity of those children and force a new culture upon them.”
Chepi was born into the void between male and female – the void between First Nation Cree and European Canadian – the void between native mysticism and science. Chepi must forge a new path using her unique abilities that may be a burden or a priceless gift. Chepi will touch the lives of many and change their life-paths, but Chepi will always be separate and alone.
This is part of the introduction to my next novel Chepi The Butterfly Effect due out next month. The theme of this, (and indeed the novel in progress right now. Title: Always Leoti.) is the life of an outsider.
In both these cases I created First Nation or Native American primary characters because in my view these people have been the ultimate outsiders. Here are a few lines from Leoti that are illustrative:
“I am sorry I have worried you my husband. I thank you for letting me be still and absent from you. As you say, demons have been at me and I have been fighting them. I can’t describe it, it is too complex but if I say that I have been coming to terms with the fact I am an orphan it might explain this struggle. I am a cultural orphan and I am orphaned from my family too. I think you know this feeling well my Aaron. You too are this kind of orphan yes.”
Aaron is from Belfast, as am I, and he too is a ‘cultural orphan.’
This feeling of not belonging, even in the country of ones birth, is fundamental in both these books.
Right now in the world, outsiders and cultural orphans face monumental challenges as rampant nationalism gains traction. In so many cases, those propagating and exploiting division and fear do so for the most crass motives, personal power and financial gain.
Those in power distract their followers with lies and fear and forget they and those that follow them were once outsiders, were once displaced and despised.
Our common humanity is degraded and history forgotten.
These two novels are my small attempt to remind us that all humanity share the same needs and value the same fundamental morals. We are all outsiders and we all need to feel wanted and included.
We left the Pyrenees behind and returned to the coast south of Biarritz, to the little resort of Bidart. My iPad had been left in a motel there and that was the reason and excuse for the return. We booked three nights in one of their comfortable self-catering apartments, which cost little more than three nights in a camp site – now it was high season and much more expensive.
Next day we headed into nearby Bayonne. What a surprise that was! A delightful medieval city at the confluence of the Nive and the Adour rivers and the largest city in the French Basque region. We struggled to find a spot to park our longish van but found a place under the main bridge on the west bank of the river. The bridge led us into the heart of the old town and I soon sniffed out the market – I do love French markets!
The picture shows me sizing up a charcuterie. I did not pick anything there but found a very small stall were Madame specialised in poultry. (A small Label Rouge poulet was bought here and provided a splendid meal that evening. I simmered it in white wine with mushrooms and cream.)
We wandered the ancient streets and did our usual slow gawping tour, stopping to poke our noses into any interesting corner, building, church or shop. Bayonne was a completely unexpected delight and it was well worth ignoring its bland commercial suburbs to penetrate to the old center.
We ate out one evening in Bidart and found a lovely restaurant serving organic local produce in a smart and stylish way. After dinner and good wine, we walked the few miles to the beach and spent the evening, in the fading light, being mesmerised by the seas restless beauty. My reverie was spoiled by a loud band getting going in a nearby beach surfers bar.
Next day we returned to San Sebastian in the late afternoon and having found a place to park closer to the centre than during our previous visit; set off to explore the old town and the bars serving the famous Basque version of tapas – Pinchos. We peered into a few bars before one took our fancy and then we went mad and picked far too many pinchos. Two or three at most is normal –we had five or six! They all looked so damned good – picking just a few became impossible. Mostly they are served on small slices of baguette, I stay off bread when I can, so picked others things and one in particular was such a triumph, B went back for a portion herself having at first been not keen on the look. They were little tarts filled with elvers. Baby silvery eels. Had I not already had four other pinchos, including a mouth-watering mini steak sandwich topped with ham and fried quale egg, I would have had more of those. We had a few glasses of dry chilled white sherry with the food before moving on to explore more bars laden with tempting treats. When we saw the variety, we realised our mistake in stuffing our faces in the first bar we entered. A tour of different bars with one or two pinchos in each, is the way to do it. We did enter other irresistible bars, and had a few mini snacks. We left the town feeling a little tipsy and overstuffed. No dinner that night!
We headed north to La Rochelle and an appointment with one of the ‘Plate de Fruits de Mer’ that this sea port is renowned for. We found a camp site about ten miles south of the town that had all the facilities but was a typical high season French coastal site – stuffed with families noisily enjoying the extensive water park within. It was hot – meltingly hot –over 110f. We struggled to find anywhere to park the van in La Rochelle and ended up several miles outside the center. The walk down to the port was long and sweaty. We found a cool restaurant on the sea front that was bearable inside and had water misting devices cooling the outside tables that were inexplicably packed. Why do people sit outside in the blazing sun? No, how do they? Out Plate de Mer, featured lobster, crab, oysters, langoustines, prawns and would have had bullot–welks but we refused those as they attack me. We had a bottle of chilled Sancerre rouge and spent a happy two hours peeling and picking. It was much too hot to linger long in the craft market so we headed back. Now I am known for a great internal GPS and never get lost- never except this day when I did. We headed out of town, not the way we came in but: ‘by a more direct route” – said me. We were getting seriously hot and bothered and we could not recall the name of the road we’d parked on so asking directions didn’t help. Nearly two hours later I spotted an area I recognised and we staggered into the van and swallowed pints of water. The van had cooked in the sun and was unbearably hot inside, despite superb insulation. That night getting on the bed was like trying to sleep on a hot grill. Adding to our misery was the itch of multiple mosquitos bites got siting out trying to cool off before bed. Yes we had spray and burned citronella candles but these were determined buggers that got through all our defenses.
Next day we headed to the salt marshes that surround the town, the Marais. We stumbled upon a little town called Marans on one of the big canals that crisscross the marsh. There was a boat hire place there and we hired a little motor boat for a three hour cruise. It was delightful, peaceful and infinitely interesting seeing the area and the waterside houses from a different perspective. B loved driving the little boat and it did have a nice canopy to hide from the sun – however once again our anti-mossies’ spray failed us and we got chewed to bits. Not that we noticed as it was happening – only in bed did the itching and red spots erupt.
We headed north again headed for Le Mont St Michel and a hotel of the same name. We needed respite and air-con and baths to heal from the heat and bites. I’d booked the hotel on line but when we got close we discovered it was on the causeway leading to the Mont and behind a barrier that one needed a code to open. This was new since we’d last visited the area and it nearly got me arrested! There were lines of vehicles waiting to go through and nowhere to park near the barrier. I sent B to walk to the hotel in search of the code. I stopped near the barrier, out of the way and causing no obstruction. Local police arrived and a female officer came and told me to move. I refused, explaining that if I moved B would not find me again. She kept saying I was “causing an obstruction” – “No I’m not, vehicles are passing easily alongside and behind.” She was adamant and I dug my heals in. Clearly she was not used to disobedience and was getting very agitated. French police are armed and as her hand rested on her pistol I decided to give in and move. I drove around in a big circle and came back to the same spot, just in time for a text from B giving me the code. It was worth nearly getting shot, the hotel was lovely, the free bus ride out to the Mont was fun and the food we had in a restaurant in one of the most spectacular locations on earth was average but made splendid by the stunning views.
The drive to Cherbourg and the last supermarket stock up before sailing home was uneventful and only a little sad. B said she wanted to turn around a do it all again. We could not do that but our next sailing is booked for next June and we will have another four week adventure in Rocinante – south of France and Northern coastal Italy is the target – we are counting the days. Consolation will come at Christmas when we fly to Rome for two weeks in a nice little hotel, much walking and gawping. A cheap old-fart high-speed train travel that will take us for day trips to Florence and Venice. We do love to travel with or without Rocinante.
Biarritz is a legendary resort town with a history of glamour and stylish display. As we drove through the town onto the promenade, we had in mind a stay in one of the swish hotels. I hated it – truly hated it. The beaches were crowded with the ‘beautiful’ people showing themselves and displaying a level of shallow vacuity that I find deeply unattractive. Don’t get me wrong: I am a lover of all things female and enjoy seeing feminine beauty on display. But there is something about the culture of sun-worship on beaches that I find… confusing. How can one empty one’s head for such long periods and remain still while one’s skin burns – where is the pleasure? It mystifies me.
That might have something to do with my fair-skinned northern predilection for going red and blistering if exposed to even an hours naked exposure. B will tan but she shares my aversion to the beach life. We love to walk on a beach or the shore to explore and pick up shells and peer into pools. These French beaches are not suitable for that. They are not for that kind of pleasure. We drove through Biarritz without stopping and followed the road south. We found a lovely and very inexpensive little motel in a town called Bidart and stayed a night there. I will return to this place later, literally and figuratively.
From Bidart it’s only a short drive to the Spanish border and on to Donostia San Sebastian at the heart of the Basque region.
We struggled to find a place to park and ended up several miles round the promenade that curves around the picturesque bay in which the city nestles. The walk back gave us more opportunity to ponder the mysteries of beach culture, as even in the middle of this working day, the sands were crowded. Siesta time in Spain, even in this Basque area, is a difficulty us north Europeans struggle to deal with. From two until after six, great areas of the cities close up. Main eating happens late at night, much too late for us, we suffer painful regurgitation when in bed. How Spaniards get to sleep on such late filled stomachs is yet another mystery. We noticed many young men wearing white trousers and tops with big red sashes and shops selling the same outfits. A-ah! The bull run fiesta in nearby Pamplona!
We had intended to head there next but decided we would avoid Pamplona town and seek somewhere to stay nearby. It was on route to the mountains of the Spanish Pyrenees. San Sebastian was interesting enough on our brief walk about, during sleepy siesta time, to make us decide we must return this way for a longer visit.
We made a quick and slightly rash decision to stop at an attractive bodega style hotel in the hills a few miles before Pamplona. The El Toro was attractive, served good food at a civilized hour – around seven, and was stylish if expensive. We decided we needed a pampering treat. Unfortunately the hotel was being rebuilt, so no pool and no spa. The room was comfortable and the dinner really good so we were happy enough.
Next day, we began the long drive into the mountains, broken by a stop at a quaint and ancient hill top town. We kept seeing the scallop-shell signs marking the lanes of the great pilgrimage route to Compostela de Santiago. I found myself wondering at the mystical draw that makes people want to do, what is to me, such an inexplicable thing. More of that anon.
We had a frustrating drive around the town of Jaca, trying to find a sign-posted Auchan supermarket. We never did find it and stocked up in a local marketo that was a great find, since it had a nice range of very local produce. We then headed into the mountains following the most spectacular narrow road through a dramatic gorge. The narrow road with oncoming trucks, needed many a stop and few precarious reverses. The camp site at Benesque was the most scenically gifted one we had stayed at so far. It sat by the side of a rocky river surrounded by high mountains, sky slopes and forest.
We headed to the French side of the range to a camp site high in the mountains at Sazus near the little town of Luz-Saint-Saveur. The journey took us over two of the great Cols used often in the Tour de France, Col d’ Aspin and the Tourmalet. Rocinante got a little hot and bothered on these great climbs and I had to watch the temperature gauge carefully. We stopped a few times to let Rocinante cool down, but that was no hardship in this stunning environment.
Watching the amateur cyclists grinding up the cols emulating their Tour heroes made me sympathetically breathless. Why do humans like to push themselves to such painful extremes? That was almost as much a wonder as the grandeur of the peaks. We decided on an extended stay in this lovely area and planned a trip to the nearby town of Lourdes.
Those of you who hold strong religious views might want to stop reading here.
Lourdes as a place of pilgrimage is popular in Ireland and coach loads of, ladies of a certain age, go there every year, often repeating the trip many times. When we parked and wandered into the town seeking our lunch, we stumbled on the street leading to the Lourdes Basilica. We sat in a pavement café and gawped astonished at shop after shop selling… I called it religious tat. It was like Disney land for believers. A thyme park for the mystically bewildered.
The basilica and the grotto was high theater to watch. Lines upon lines of unfortunates, the lame, the ill, the confused, were wheeled by uniformed attendants, into a cave were they rubbed the rock, polished smoothed by millions of previous hands, genuflecting at the icon and leaving hopeful of cure or comfort.
I found the spectacle upsetting and it made me sad and despairing of a humanity that needs such unseasoned mythological nonsense and that inflicts such uncomfortable travel to get there on those unfortunates. There they join a sad and desperate procession of damaged people, many of whom scarcely know where or why they are here. I tried to understand, I really did, but such mythology seems to me to have no place in my idea of how the modern world should and could be.
I had left my iPad in the motel at Bidart on the coast, so we headed back there. Back to Basque country and appointment with ‘Pinchos’ in San-Sebastian.
The French wine regions are always a great draw for foodies such as us. We had done Burgundy, Rhone, Provence the Southern Languedoc and Roussillon in past years. On this trip we intended to take in the Loire and Bordeaux. My personal favorite wines all originate from the gravels to the south of the Garonne. So Grave was a target for our travels but first we headed for the Samur region of the Loire.
We had joined an organization called: ‘France Passion’. For a small yearly fee one gets a list of places that welcome motor-homes or ‘camping cars’, as they are known in France. These are mostly vineyards and artisan food producers who will provide a place to park overnight for free. One can of course, taste their produce and perhaps buy some, but there is no obligation to do so. We headed for the village of La-Cune and the domain of Jean-Luc and Jean-Albert Mary. We were given a warm welcome and parked up right beside the winery on the edge of the vineyard. We set up our generator for the first time and were therefore truly self-sufficient. Having spent an hour with Jean-Luc tasting his produce, we bought three six-bottle cases. Two rouge and one fizzy rose. We popped one for our dinner of grilled veal chops. It was a wet evening but we managed a wander round the bucolic and pretty village peering at ancient homes and bemoaning the many high fuck-off walls that spoiled our nebbing and nosing curiosity.
Next morning we went to visit the city of Samur and the tank museum there. I hate war but love machinery – go figure – big boy toys I suppose.
We moved on to a site on the banks of the Loire at Montjean near Angers. Then another further east near Montrechard. The grand chateaux of Chenonceaux was the main event here. I have to admit great houses are not really my thing but B loves them so…
Next stop a nice site 18k from Bordeaux city.
We had a booking at a much vaunted restaurant in the city called La Tubina. This place is renowned for simple regional produce cooked over wood fires. B had a starter of scallops poached in clear and simple tomato broth. It was divine and I was green with envy. My choice of baby squids, and I mean minute little things, was great but didn’t reach the heights of B’s. I followed with a main of crisp coated sliced sweatbreads. (I’m a sucker for offal.) B had simple grilled-over-wood beef fillet. We had a great and very potent 14.5% Grave to wash it all down.
The day was a scorcher 40c (110f.) We suffered on the walk back to the car park and drove only a little out of town before finding a shaded spot to park up and collapse on the bed in-back to sleep off the excess of wine, food and fierce heat.
We headed south through the Grave region and tried without success to visit and buy some of my favored wine. Everywhere was closed! Either for an extended lunch or for their pre-peak-rush break. We added a dozen bottles to our under-bed stash at a few supermarkets that kindly provided a sampling of the Grave that the producers didn’t want to sell to us direct.
Leaving Bordeaux we drove south through the scorched plains of the the Landes heading for the ‘supposedly glamorous’ resort of Biarritz.
A holiday can be a very stressful thing. A month-long tour living in such close proximity to ones partner can bring that stress to boiling point very easily. We had invested a huge junk of savings in Rocinante and this was his first serious test, so I was anxious lest I’d forgotten something or something broke or didn’t work. So I was tense for the first week. As we settled at out first camp site on the north Brittany coast, that was expressed in my increasingly annoying supervision of everything B did. We had a few minor yaps and barks about that and I tried to back off; not entirely successfully. Even though the van had been very cleverly designed and laid out we had to be careful about exactly how items where stored and where. Efficiency became an obsession for me so as I watched B, I’d be saying things like: “That goes there and needs to go in before that so they don’t rattle and you’d be better to snap-shut the lock now or you might forget later.” Real pain in the ass micro-management stuff.
She was nervous too and that showed in anxiety as I drove, she’d second guess the sat-nav or warn me about stuff I’d seen and was reacting too. In other words we were getting on each others tits big time! The crisis came to a head one evening when we had heavy rain and there was something in the cab we needed. (There are three front seats in the cab and one can’t walk through to the living quarters.) Rather than get out and get soaked I wiggled over the top of the seats and got the item from the glove box. Wiggled is not accurate – stuffed – forced – fell head first might be more accurate. I’m not as lithe in body as my mind thinks I am! I flailed about like a stunned tuna trying to return to where I’d so impetuously come from. My thrashing legs got tangled in something and I was yelling for B to clear it and hold my legs so I might return. I was not too polite about it as I was beginning to hurt and thought I might do-in my back or lose my dinner all over the front seats. “Move that fucking stuff. What stuff? The fucking stuff tangled in my legs of coarse!”
When I got out, B lost the plot at me, cursing and yelling as she went off on an indignation rage. I lay on the bed and begged her to stop. She didn’t and the van shook with the yelling with me mostly shouting for her to: “Just stop! Please just stop.”
When we did eventually calm down I spoke of humiliation and how I reacted badly to feeling it or having it inflicted upon me or doing it to myself with stupid errors. I was humiliated by my mistake and my bodies failings. A childhood tortured by a mother, who delighted in humiliating me at every opportunity, has made me ultra sensitive to the feeling. I get too controlling trying to avoid mistakes that might produce the feeling.
B saw she had, and often does, use humiliation as a tool. We had a big break through of understanding and empathy. That was the last of the stress eruptions and we truly settled into enjoying the holiday, as we headed to the south coast and a camp site near Lorient. A place called Moténo Camping on the shore of an oyster filled bay called La Ria. (My daughter is called Ria and I love oysters nearly as much as her.)
Lorient itself was a disappointment, but the world war 2 U-Boat pens were worth the visit. They are still in use and many world ocean racing teams are based there.
I found the place awe inspiring but not in a good way. I could not escape the melancholy thoughts about how much resources and cleverness the Germans put into ever more efficient killing.
We enjoyed our four days in this area, walked the shore, visited the little towns, delighted in a local blues band at the little village pub while eating crepes, and getting a bit drunk. We went to Carnac and looked down our noses at the beach-set and sun-worshipers, as I tried NOT to notice the acres of nubile female flesh on abundant display.
We stopped at a… a field full of antiques and jumble. A big tent surrounded by row upon row of jumble. We collect pewter and we found a nice big jug that we paid a whole six Euro for. It polished up a treat and serves as reminder of how wonderful travel can be – after the storm has passed.
People travel for different reasons, for us it’s all about curiosity on the small scale. The details of how others live, where they live, how they eat. We are long term Francophiles and have traveled there often. It is a big country and the regional differences are striking and fascinating. This 32 day maxi-venture in Rocinante presented us with an unrivaled opportunity to see the country in a new way. No route plans, no itinerary and lots of time to poke about in the detail. In particular have a fully equipped kitchen on-board allowed me to explore my passion for French regional cuisines. Markets and supermarkets are a constant source of delight for me and B often joshed me about suffering what we called ‘kitchenitis’ when we stayed in hotels.
No kitchen longings this time. We got off the ferry in Cherbourg with our fridge empty. Our first stop was a little town famous for the making and selling of copper pots – Villedieu les Poéles. We’d had a lovely sauté pan from there many years ago but that was destroyed by a wire wool wielding pot washer in our restaurant. So we returned and left with a splendid new pan. We then found a supermarket and stocked up on goodies for that nights supper. Veal was the main event.
We were heading for the north coast of Brittany and a site from the CC Camping Card book we’d invested 15€ in. This gives discounts at listed sights in the off season. Off season runs to around the 7th to 10th of July. We were aiming for the little resort town of Le Val-Andre on the Baie de Saint Brieuc on the North Brittany coast. This proved to be a longer drive than anticipated and we didn’t arrive at the site until 18.10. Our very first camp-site proved to be a vexing and discouraging problem. The entrance was closed by barriers, the office was shut and the contact number was a message. Our email booking had not warned us of their strict ‘closed at 18.00’ policy. We were saved by the Garmin sat-nav which pointed us to another site near by at Pleneuf Val- Andre. This little family run site was not in the book but was open, friendly and welcoming. Unlike Stalagluft 61 atop the hill in Le Val-Andre.
By the time we got set up I was hot, bothered, a little flustered, and I made a real hash of dinner. The veal might have been edible had I remembered the electric grill we carried, but I fried it and it came out like boot-soles! Dinner was a disaster. We opened a bottle of wine, had showers and collapsed in our very comfortable loungers under the gazebo that B had struggled to put up, as I cursed over a hot pan.
After a few glasses and B telling me to: “Shut up and give over with ranting and apologies.”
The area and the site were so nice we lingered longer than intended and explored the area. The resort had been full of acres of short-short exposed thighs and assorted flesh when we’d arrived in scorching sun. Next day it was overcast and the sun worshipers had vanished to be replaced by real people and a nice little market in the town center. I do love a French market. B bought a cheap woven bag and I bought nothing but looked at all the fish and offal. My previous night’s disaster had kerbed my enthusiasm for the pans. That night we ate out.
So we settled into our routines and tweaked Rocinante to increase comfort. By the third day my anxiety had receded and our initial slightly tetchy stress had subsided. We knew we were going to have a wonderful adventure.
Four days was he deliberating upon what name he should give him; for as he said himself, it would be improper that a horse so excellent, appertaining to knight so famous, should be without an appropriate name. … he finally determined upon Rocinante (Rozinante), a name in his opinion lofty, sonorous, and full of meaning…..
I had no idea to tilt at windmills but had an idea I might go to La Mancha on the hot Spanish plains to see where the mythic monsters live. My steed was to carry two and it would be named Rocinante 6. Rocinante was the name Cervantes gave to Don Quixote’s horse. It was the name John Steinbeck gave to his camper in his book Travels with Charlie in search of America and it was the name I gave to my first camper – Rocinante 3 to be fair to the previous users. Now we have Rocinante 6 my latest and best camping-car /motor-home/motor-caravan.
There is some disagreement about the spelling for the Don’s mount, I’ve seen it rendered with an S rather than C and a Z too. How so ever it’s spelt; it’s the idea that counts. The noble and faithful mount that carries it’s knightly and grandly deluded rider on his adventures and his final doomed tilt at a monstrous windmill.
A knight errant without a mistress was a tree without fruit or leaves and body without a soul.
My mistress was to be the ‘beloved B’. Brigitte shared my dream of romantic wandering over unknown lands filled with sunshine and lacking the rain so… always here, in Ireland.
Our Rocinante 6 was a long time in the finding. Beloved B and I having decided we wanted to spend some retirement funds on a vehicle for our dreams – dreams of adventure and exploration – mini-ventures locally here in Ireland – midi ventures here and the UK for longer periods and maxi-ventures to continental Europe. Close encounters with windmills would be avoided and no lance would be carried.
Much research and one false start led us to this bright red VW LT35, beautifully fitted out with exquisite carpentry by a fastidious enthusiast. It is not conventional in that it is all electric – no gas fridge or cooker. This means either an electric hook up in a camp site, a small portable gas stove or – we get out the 3kw generator hiding under the big box inside the side door. (This was my way of giving us freedom to camp almost anywhere.) All though called silent, the generator running makes enough noise so we would not want to stop near other campers.
Rocinante 6 is the right size for us, big enough not to be cramped inside. We can leave the rear bed made up and still have a table to eat at and plenty of space to work at cooking and cleaning. It’s narrow enough to negotiate little mountain roads and easy enough to park. It is comfortable to drive and very fast but the economy is good too. All camper vans are by their nature a compromise but this one has the right balance of compromises for us. However, a few short trips showed us some mods were needed to the bed arrangement. My six two frame would not fit – so some woodworking was needed to extend the bed. It now sleeps two long folks in great comfort.
Rocinante’s maiden maxi-venture was planed for June/July – 32 days in France and Spain. No actual route plans were made. We would land in Cherbourg and head southish – that was the extent of the planning.
In the next blog I’ll get into the actual travel and waffle about the philosophy of looking and touching the new.
The tec: VW LT35. Max weight 3.5 tonnes. 2.5 ltr 5cyl turbo diesel. Shares body with Mercedes Sprinter. Top speed 100mph! Average fuel – 30mpg. Fully insulated and winterised. Fully loaded weight ready for maxi ventures = 3.1 tonne. ( Lots of space and payload to return laden with fine French wines!) Special alloy wheels fitted to save weight and allow heavy duty 16″ tyres.
My beloved B and I recently returned from four days in Barcelona. The Catalan capital has long been on our bucket list, largely due to an architect called Antoni Gaudí. We have seen many iconic images and films about his work. A potent appetizer. His natural forms and original thinking appealed to us hugely.
Expectation and images had created a… an appeal, an appetite that could easily have led to disappointment. Too often we have been underwhelmed when reality has failed to match such expectation. We have stood before certain great works in Rome and Amsterdam and been respectfully awed by the obvious talent and skill that created such work but somehow we remained underwhelmed, unmoved.
And so we approached Casa Batlló with restrained optimism. Huge crowds stood outside the tall thin terrace and that kicked in my aversion to long queues. We looked from across La Rambla at the extraordinary exterior and that was enough to encourage me to cross the road. As it happened the dense crowd was content with the exterior and few had joined the ticket line. We were inside in minutes and since it was early it was not oppressively crowded.
As we climbed the stairs to the first floor we exchanged knowing grins. There was going to be no disappointment here. We pointed, smiled, touched and minutely observed a great deal but spoke little, as we drank in the detail and the forms. We were truly and properly awed by the small-scale spectacle of Gaudí’s achievement. The beauty was in the detail and the overwhelming attention to every tiny facet of the design. On the way back down from the roof I stood by a door with my fingers nestling in the ergonomically perfect form of a small handle shaped to fit the hand. I called B and she too held it and smiled and a tear moistened her eye. We sighed and smiled and touched each other and we were silent.
That day we saw more, so much more, but it was only when we lay side-by-side back in our hotel that we spoke of the Gaudí house that had moved B to tears of joy.
We replayed and synced our mind movies and talked: “The blue tiles in the light-well that were graduated from dark to lighter lower down to exaggerate the incoming light…”
“The turtle shell patterns…”
“The curved organic flow of wood in windows and frames and the way light was used to paint rooms through stained class…”
Those mind movies play still so that weeks later we share and try to find words to connect our imaginations so our four-day break will stretch into the future.
I marvel at the power of imagination; I marvel at the creative spark that can move others to a lifetime altered by that creative spark that ignites ones’ imagination to previously unknown heights of … what? ‘Aesthetic appreciation’ is accurate but too narrow. The nature and power of the human imagination, when done this well, is a soaring flight that lifts us and makes us feel glad we have that creative spark. Some, like me, try to find that spark in words, others like B, in dance movement, still others with music or paint or film or any of the other arts-and-crafts that seem so fundamental a part of the human imagination.
For me the majesty of Gaudí’s basilica Sagrada Familia, is a homage not to any religious mystical experience, but to that spark and leap of human imagination that can create joy and tears in us.