Sunday, April 22, 2007

Caveman Camping

The smaller size of European RVs – a twenty-four footer for example, is notably “big” – is mirrored in reduced or non-existent facilities in many other areas of the continental camping life. The rustic camping procedures that have developed around these circumstances are quaint at best, laughable at worst – an inevitable outcome of low expectations, one supposes.
In France, for example, sites are approximately thirty feet square and are, more often than not, surrounded on three sides by hedges. Italian sites are smaller at about 24 feet square. Even though Heidi is only six meters long (just under 20 feet) it is closer to 21’ 6” with the bike rack and, on one Italian site, had to be moved forward into the roadway each time the bikes were taken on or off since there was insufficient room to manage them otherwise. With respect to site facilities, sparse grass and a hedge is about it. No picnic table or fire ring, no sewer port, no water spigot and only electricity available from a more or less distant communal electric pylon.
Such pylons have been seen with as many as a dozen outlets and the luckless camper who is host to the pylon on his site can have as many as eleven other campers periodically traipsing across his site to connect or disconnect their supply. At a campsite in Florence, Italy, the “Pylon Host” camper, when sitting outside, was obliged to move his feet to allow his neighbors access to the outlets! Of course, long electrical cords are essential and 100’ is not unusual. Not too much of a problem though, since available current ranges from 2 amps to 6 amps!
No on site water of course, is easily handled by on board water storage, or so one might think. However, when the storage capacity is limited to 15 gallons or so, careful management is required to avoid frequent trips to the closest faucet to refill. Most rigs carry a six gallon container and a 12 volt electric pump to assist in on site partial refills as required. Gray water is more problematic. Again, with a capacity of around 15 gallons but no sewer hook-up, the tank must periodically be drained. This is a crude procedure to say the least. The vehicle has to be negotiated over a drain such that the gray tank discharge outlet is directly above the drain grating. A valve is then set to let the evil brew vomit forth and mostly go into the drain. When done, the vehicle is moved and the entire drain area is hosed down. What joy!
The black tank management however, makes these machinations look like a walk in the park. Every European RV sports an innocent looking little door somewhere low on the rear end. Opening the door reveals the dreaded Thetford Cassette, skulking at the back. This little beauty is the black tank. With a capacity of three gallons or so it sits peacefully in it’s lair until the dreaded Red Light comes on – a serious call to action. At this point, the cassette has to be dragged from its hiding place and brought out into the open. It then has to be carried as much as a quarter of a mile to the nearest disposal point, uncapped, decanted, flushed and re-vitalized with noxious blue stuff before being returned to its nest. The decanting process itself is fraught with gurgling, glugging and splattering dangers and would preferably be done from within the security of a large yellow Haz-Mat suit although these are not provided. The only redeeming feature of this entire pantomime is that once done, it can be as long as a day and a half before the next Red Light alarm.
The net result of these privations is really rather comical. In spite of having paid a Kings ransom for one of these self-contained RVs, nobody uses the built in facilities because of the almost incessant housekeeping required. Instead, like a World War II prison camp movie, campers can be seen throughout the day (and presumably the night, although I’ve never looked) schlepping along to the bathhouses in slippers and bathrobes to do what people do in bathhouses. Better yet, every meal is followed by an additional trip, this time with a basket of crocks and cutlery, to do the dishes. Moreover, since the occupants are on vacation, the last thing they seem to want is to be confined to their vehicles. Thus there are chairs, tables, ground-sheets, awnings, tent-like extensions, windbreaks, umbrellas, insect repellents, fly swats, sundry miscellaneous paraphernalia and a profusion of strange garments enabling the determined vacationers to sit out in high winds, cold temperatures, rain, insect swarms and squint-producing sunshine. Mealtimes are particularly bizarre. Tablecloth, napkins, china and good looking silverware along with condiments, wine glasses and other accoutrements of fine dining are all precariously carefully laid out on a rickety card table. Once the meal is served, a strange ritual begins in which one diner at a time cuts off a piece of food while the second diner holds down the wine glasses and rescues other falling items from certain destruction. These roles are repeatedly reversed until the fly ridden and largely cold meal is finally consumed. Another triumph for civilization and all performed within ten feet of a perfectly serviceable table and comfortable chairs in the vehicle! Go figure. Reluctantly, one feels, such campers retire for the night to the interior to rest up and fortify themselves for another day of like enjoyment tomorrow. It has been observed, that the better time managers among these brave souls actually find time between their necessary chores to polish windshields, clean tires, dust off equipment and, once in a while, spring clean the entire ensemble. Needless to say, we have thus far resisted the temptations of this pampered lifestyle and remained either resolutely “in doors” or out and about seeing the sights.
Sites, incidentally, are priced on an a-la-carte basis. So much for the site itself with a motor-home. An additional amount per person. Additions for dogs, electricity, extra vehicle and so on, may also be levied. Overall, site cost for two people has been between $15.00 and $50.00 per night but some sites go for as much as $80.00. Even at that, it is desirable to read the descriptions of the sites quite carefully. Here are some extracts from the 2007 Caravan Club Guide. “Narrow pitches, possible manhandling of vans into position required”, “Steep narrow access, unsuitable without high power to weight ratio”, “Watch out for the light switches in the sanitation buildings”, “Short stay pitches may have difficulty leveling”, “Difficult if wet” and “Narrow road access not recommended for large outfits or the fainthearted”. Certainly, we are having our share of unplanned thrills.

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