Change of Life

August 2010. I’m about to be 50. Dee is 53 and a half. We’ve been together for 12 years, and married for five. We’ve put our house on the market and bought a caravan. We’re going to live in France and make a living through gardening and tree work.

This is not a spur of the moment decision, it’s been mulling around for a few years (as a serious proposition that is, for many years before that we along with countless others have often thought semi-seriously about giving up the day job and running away). This is not about running away now though. It’s about giving serious consideration to how we want to spend the rest of our lives.

We’ve been running our Glenaffric Ltd business for the last 10 years which has made us a bit of money for which we have worked pretty hard. Our money is in the bank which is not the comfort and security it once was. We’ve been dealing with some family stuff which has caused us quite a lot of stress and angst.

We’ve also had to do an awful lot of travel around the UK. We’ve seen the insides of most of Britain’s universities and have become way too familiar with motorways, train stations and airport lounges. I hate airports and Dee hates flying. A couple of years ago we vowed to avoid leaving the surface of the globe if at all possible – this meant taking trains for UK journeys and ferries (or Eurostar) to Europe. We have a fleet of bicycles for all occasions (the tourers for long distance journeys, the mountain bikes for fun and coping with mud and stones in Scotland, and the folders for short city hops from stations to hotels and meetings).

The novelty of staying in hotels wore off a very long time ago. We dread checking in (what’s the name of the other occupant, assumptions about gender, do you want a twin room, curious looks, frequent embarrassment, occasional antagonism). We’ve preferred to stay in anonymous chains because we know what to expect – not great, not exciting, not particularly comfortable or even sometimes all that clean but our expectations are not high so we are not consistently disappointed.

Our food requirements are not particularly demanding but seem bizarrely to be increasingly hard to meet in UK restaurants. We like fresh, unfussy food, we eat an awful lot of vegetables and fruit, and fish. We do not want our salads swimming in oil or disguised in a coating of whitish gloop. We do not want our fish to be an endangered exotic species fished some weeks ago from tropical waters and air-freighted vast distances in a semi-frozen state. We despair of the presentation and consumption of unnecessary calories (no I do not want extra garlic bread thank you) and the mean attitude to vegetables and salads (£2 for extra chips, £4 for a bit of limp lettuce and a fridge-cold tomato in a weird-shaped little bowl).

We have been increasingly appreciating the European food market culture – rows and rows of stalls run by people who grow their own, display them proudly, and seem to really want you to enjoy their produce. That you can ask for avocados that will be ready on a particular day, and they will be perfect to eat on that day. That you can buy a tray of local apples which will keep for weeks, or put some money in an honesty box for a punnet of cherries from a table under the tree they grew on. That you can taste and smell the freshness of the grass in the cheese. The link with the land is still firm and solid, the pride in the produce is palpable and perceptible.

Hence a few changes in the way we live our lives.

We’ve been learning to be gardeners. ‘What do you want to do if you don’t do this any more?’ ‘Och, can I not just dig my garden?’ Il faut cultiver notre jardin – Voltaire plays in my head on a running loop. Candide and his friends went round the world, they discovered new lands, they fought wars, they reasoned and discussed deeply, and in the end they returned to base to dig their garden. There’s an allegory there for all of our work-related travel, the kinds of development work we were involved in, the reports we had to write – and where it has all taken us.

I have just completed the RHS Level 2 Certificate in Horticulture with the RBGE – a very steep learning curve, an awful lot of things to know and learn, all theory, supplemented with practice at Abriachan Garden Nursery up the road (see previous entries). Two exams, which were more tests of memory recall and quick thinking than actual knowledge, but the value was in the revision.

Dee and I have both completed a course with the City and Guilds and are officially certified to climb trees and perform aerial rescues. The next stage of this qualification is to do all this using a chain saw, but that’s not the sort of gardening we want to do. Dee is working on qualifications in arboriculture and I am thinking about doing the RHS Level 3. We still have an academic mindset that values qualifications and recognises the need to blend experience and practice with knowledge and official recognition.

We’re interested in low impact gardening, care for plants and trees, biodiversity, biodynamic gardening. Using hand tools not petrol-driven machines (high quality Japanese handsaws not chain saws, scythes not strimmers), avoiding synthetic chemicals (more despair of our neighbours here who spray glyphosate indiscriminately and wage chemical warfare on ants). Water conservation. Understanding the earth, weather, seasons. Respect for the environment and the elements.

We have established our gardening business, bonarbo, which is run along these principles, and have been working for clients found through recommendation from my practical experience at Abriachan. We’ve not tried to scale the business up yet for various reasons – we don’t want to establish a client base here and then move away, there have been other things going on this year (including quite a lot of travel), we still have Glenaffric work on the books and more coming in – and it pays more than gardening. The small amount of gardening work we do serves a number of important purposes – it’s enabled us to work out and hone our business systems and workflows, it has helped to confirm the kind of gardeners we want to be and the sort of gardening we want to do. This is emphatically NOT cutting lawns and pulling weeds. It is about enabling and empowering people to look after their own gardens, to care for the plants they have, to create and sustain an environment that supports a whole raft of wildlife.

We have a raft of other skills, experience and knowledge that we can bring to bear – we’re educators, we use technology, we have pretty well developed research skills, we can talk to people and communicate messages. We can do this in a number of different languages, I have relatively fluent French and German, Dee has been learning French and is making good progress.

We want to do all this in France. This is not a naïve pipe dream, it’s something we’ve been working towards for a few years now too. Regular visits to Brittany, renewed friendships in Alsace and Lorraine. There is francophony in the family – Wilf and Gélise in Belgium, Rose and Sylvain in Montreal. The Duchess of Bodelzi looking after the family pile in Brittany. Dorothy’s house in the Vendée. If we were in Eastern France W+G could come and see us regularly on their way back and forth to Switzerland and maybe, just maybe, R + S might come and join us. Rose might still prefer to live somewhere a bit closer to the sea but we are working on her.

So a number of things come together. A concatenation of events (Hardy). The time is right (apologies to Shakespeare). Things are of their time (Glenaffric). Carpe diem (Horace).

We are about to take proud possession of our Eriba Troll Touring 552. Dee did a lot of research and we both did a lot of working out before coming to the conclusion that this was indeed the van we wanted, and that we could set off in it for an indefinite period (but definitely more than a week or so) with our two cats for company. Two years old, one careful owner, French built, lifting roof, fixed bed, shower room and loo, hot and cold water, gas/electric heating, fridge, gas hob, seating area. Probably not enough room to swing a cat but we were never fond of that phrase or practice anyway.

And what a lot there is to learn and do.

Purchase of awning – full size, aluminium poles, winter hardy (if we keep the weight of snow off it), summer ventilation. The aim is to give us space to divest ourselves of wet muddy clothes, store bikes and said wet muddy clothes, keep cats in the fresh-ish air but safe and secure, and significantly increase our living space.

Insurance. Eriba is not British built, which makes British insurers very nervous, presumably because of the cost of parts and available expertise rather than innate racism. It has a lifting roof so has integral canvas parts, which also makes insurers nervous. It cost more than the current ceiling for ‘is your van worth more than xx?’ Dee has spent hours negotiating with insurers. We’ve come to the conclusion that insurance in the UK is about working people up into a right lather with worst case scenarios. Does it have a tracking device fitter? Does it have the right kind of wheel clamp? Is our van alarmed? No, but we are at the prospect of someone nicking it off the hitch and taking off with all our worldly goods and chattels. This has just put into my head the not altogether unwelcome image of Fiona Shaw as Mother Courage at the National Theatre last year, astride her ‘roulotte’ (language note here, grâce à Rose – French Canadian for caravan is apparently ‘ma tente roulotte’, compare French French ‘caravane’ and US English ‘trailer’).

The naming of parts. Our Eriba caravan has to have a name. And of course she’s a girl. We’re dismissing names of people we know (Erica, Vanessa). We’ve considered Marianne the Van (after the French resistance heroine). We’ve followed obscure mythological and cultural trains of thought (we have a lot of these) from Troll to Nibelungen to the Rhine Maidens and their mother Erde (Gaia, mother earth, the mothership – all positive resonances). But the jury is still out and the van currently without name. Dee’s current favourite is ‘Trollop’.

Kitting out. We’ve made a list of the equipment we need and the personal stuff (clothes etc) we can each take. We’ve not yet gathered the stuff together and weighed it but will need to do something along these lines before we set off in earnest for the wild blue yonder. But there’s plenty time to practice first, do our shakedowns (cycle touring has taught us how invaluable a proper shakedown is before a big trip). There’s been a lot of discussion about pots and pans – we live in a house where half of one wall in our kitchen is given over the frying pans and pots, as well as two cupboards for the bigger pots, lids and other large cooking implements. None of the existing pans has passed all the caravan tests (size, weight, shape, coating) so another one has been bought. Storage space being at a premium we are exploring various possibilities for crockery and utensils, weighing up (in various senses of the phrase) form and function, and keeping aware of current research in the constantly evolving science of plastics. We’re debating the relative merits of microwaves, grills, ovens and Remoska cookers and coming to the conclusion that we want none of these. We’re aware of the limitations of working with caravan electrics and the need to keep the wattage down, and will replace our 1.7l 3kW fast-boil kettle with something smaller and slower. Some things we just can’t live without, so there will be a coffee machine on board. We’ve bought an FM radio with iPod dock and speakers and are looking forward to reacquainting ourselves with the world of radio (the world of radio has gone DAB of course but not in rural areas which is where we hope to be).

Maintaining standards. While we’re quite happy to mix our salad in melamine and eat our dinner out of Lexan, we will not drink our gin out of anything other than crystal. So we’ve bought a couple of Gleneagles crystal glasses that are considerably lighter than the Edinburgh crystal we habitually use. Seasoned caravanners may mock, and our new crystal glasses may not survive our first trip, but one has to do one’s best.

Looking after the business end. Dee has been finding out what hoses we need, what kinds of tanks and buckets for our waste water (grey and black or is it brown – at any rate our new Royal Waste Water carrier, oh how the mind boggles, is green), what chemicals and disinfectants to add and which to avoid in maintaining our low impact principles.

Pas devant les enfants. We’ve been very concerned about how best to transport our beloved Bob and Aggie while we’re in transit and how they will live, eat, sleep, exercise and do their other business when we are pitched up somewhere. After much deliberation and the creation of a prototype two-hammock two-tier cat cage, we have just bought them separate soft dog crates which we can kit out with beds and potties for them to travel in. They have only ever lived here and have an extensive territory in the fields behind the garden. But they’re 11 years old now, and do not roam as far as we once might have thought. They both have nests in different corners of the fields and when they are out, that’s where they are. We hope that we can get them to wear a harness and be tethered to a stake under or near the awning, so we can provide an external environment where they feel safe and are sheltered from the elements.

Join the club. We’ve been investigating the relative merits of the Caravan Club and the Camping and Caravanning Club, and exploring French equivalents. We’re near demented with the toe-curling exploits of the British Caravan Club, Scottish division but you don’t have to join in to appreciate the efforts that some people go to to join together for mutually supportive fun.

Turning on a sixpence. The task of manoeuvring the Eriba while she’s hitched to the car will fall almost entirely to Dee. She has been towing the trailer (Brenda) we acquired for bonarbo but our experiences in going backwards have not always been entirely happy. There’s a course in trailing a caravan she can do. Our van is also fitted with a fancy automatic mover on account of the previous owner had a bad back and a penchant for gadgets. We’re not at all sure how we will get on with this, it may be a godsend, or it may be a whole load of unnecessary hassle and weight.

More of this caravanese to follow. Things are moving fast at the moment (metaphorically speaking of course, nothing in the world of caravans moves all that fast). Today’s excitement – apart from celebrating five years of marriage – has been taking possession of various pieces of equipment and joined the Camping and Caravanning Club. Watch this space.

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