Camping hasn't really changed at all since the seventies when my pre-adolescent self discovered the campsites of France on holiday with my parents. Having driven the length of Europe the first sign you saw on arrival, Accueil, was just as much of a misnomer then as it was this weekend after a drive of about an hour for two days' camping on Lacanau lake with the children and a little friend. The people behind the reception desk are still some of the most miserable examples of French inhospitality imaginable.
Some of the rituals I had forgotten about: queuing at the campsite shop to pick up the morning baguette and croissants, the trek to the sanitaires toilet-roll in hand, the garlic-laden plats à emporter. Other things immediately felt familiar: the sensation of sand between one's toes and the acrylic sleeping bag, the dilemma of finding a way of getting out of a shower and into flip flops without stepping on muddy floor tiles, the problem of finding something soft enough to form an ersatz pillow.
When night falls, a piece of canvas between you and a massive storm still feels hopelessly flimsy and amplifies the sound of pelting rain to unbelievable levels. Those tents may be the new sort that set themselves up in two seconds but folding them up still involves a certain amount of wrestling. And while the caravans may sport satellite dishes now, their owners still wear socks with sandals. As ever, the clientèle is still predominantly Dutch although they seem to favour Crocs over wooden clogs nowadays.
Enthusiastic parents still beam approvingly at their children as they make friends with little Hans and Gretchen. They think that this is the way it should be: all of us playing together with no language or cultural barriers — this is the future of Europe.
By coincidence the paperback that I threw into the boot as an afterthought after multiple spades and buckets and my little ponies was Europa by Tim Parks. So as I lay like a freakishly fat sardine in the tin with fidgeting children packed in sleeping bags on either side, to the murmur of various nationalities no doubt sharing a bottle of vin on plastic furniture swapping tips on the best place to buy Primagaz refills, I tried to read a few pages of Tim Parks's rather alarmingly cynical novel and learned among other things that the divorce rate for marriages involving two European nationalities is fifty percent higher than for mono-nationality marriages. Pierre steer clear of that little Ingrid!
Then I spent the rest of the night reflecting at regular intervals as I attempted to turn over, that my creaking body was definitely not overjoyed at this renewed encounter with the hard, unforgiving ground.