The idea of being coerced into volunteering has never sat easily with the French. Memories of ‘pour encourager les autres’ a little too close for comfort.
When 15,000 elderly French citizens died in a heat wave in 2003, the government had what seemed to them the brilliant idea of cancelling the Pentecôte bank holiday and replacing it with La journée de solidarité during which all citizens were supposed to work for nothing and donate their wages to a fund to support the elderly and those with disabilities.
By 2006 the government had given up – less than half the country went to work, and declared themselves, with religious fanaticism, to be celebrating Pentecost rather than working for nothing.
Today it is not a bank holiday, but no one goes to work – a typically French solution. You cannot get anything done, so you might as well join in the great exodus to the sea.
We have got into the habit of taking off in our camper van to the Île d’Oléron. The tatty, impoverished younger sister of the Parisian smart Île de Ré. For one thing the 3,000 metre bridge connecting Oléron to the mainland is toll free – Île de Ré starts its sophisticated programme of parting you from oodles of Parisian cash the second you set wheel on the bridge, and continues indefatigably thereafter.
Besides, the camp sites aren’t populated by 100,000 euros worth of white leather upholstered Esterelle and our little Volkswagen doesn’t get metaphorical sand kicked in its face when we roll up.
Oléron is more of a free spirit. There are no signs directing you to the nearest 40 euro a night campsite complete with club house and vast heated swimming pool – they are all on Île de Ré.. You have to figure it out for yourself, by crawling along the lanes through the eucalyptus trees until you spot the tell tale white flank of a camper van. If you are lucky there will be a rudimentary wooden gate and a gnarled crone sitting there waiting to collect 6 euros….those are the only signs you will find that there might be a toilet block hidden in the trees, or even a single tap lodged up on high, euphemistically known as La Douche. If you pay as much as 6 euros there will be someone firing up an ancient chip fryer for the essential frites that night, and a van will pull up in the morning with hundreds of baguettes.
If you arrive on the non-bank holiday Pentecôte, even the crone will have been dispensed with – she’s down on the beach too, so it’s free. True, there are no frites, and you will be pestered by an endless stream of bemused Dutchmen wandering the site in search of someone to pay, if anyone knows the Dutch for ‘don’t look a gift horse in the mouth’ please e-mail me.
You drive through the undulating sand dunes, eucalyptus and pine trees, until you find a spot that is vaguely level. There are no regimented ‘camping spots’, no trimmed grass verges, no neat hedges that delineate your hired area. Just some spots that are more level than others. And corresponding numbers of campers that emerge in the morning trying to shake off the effects of sleeping with their feet two foot higher than their head.
A brief 20 metre hike through the pine trees and a death defying descent through ultra soft white sand will reveal the virtually unknown plage vert bois. Several miles of silky soft sand, as far as the eye can see in either direction. When the tide retreats, it reveals a half kilometre or so of ancient lava bed, home to a million immigrants clinging on for dear life. Winkles, there for the picking. Crabs scuttle for cover in a 100 different rock pools, and on the edge of the lava where it meets the incoming surf, thousands of wild oysters. That’s dinner taken care of.
I got lost in the forest once, it took me four hours to find my way back again – there is no one to ask, no signs to direct you. You just have to figure it out.
There are no signs forbidding you to light a fire, and in the shade of the evening light, a dozen or more fires showed themselves through the forest as campers lit the driftwood and grilled their days bounty, taking it upon themselves to be aware of the dangers of grilling themselves and their fellow campers. With great success. Self preservation is an age old instinct.
Come to that, there are no signs warning you of the dangers of eating wild oysters that haven’t been through ultra violet light and met all the relevant health and safety rules. Nor signs telling you when the lifeguard might be on duty – for there isn’t one. If you don’t have the wit to realise that the amorphous gelatinous lump with the long tentacles floating next to you in the Atlantic might not have your best interests at heart, then you stand a chance of being its first victim this year.
No one to warn that in the afternoon heat of 32° it might be wiser not to sunbathe – as the sun rises, the beachcombers and swimmers return to the shade of the pine trees all by themselves. Quite amazing.
There is no rule book telling you after which hour you are required to return ‘home’ quietly – so strangely, even the children observe the unspoken rule of ‘silence is golden’. There is no shop to sell them the wherewithal of manufactured entertainment; they amuse themselves collecting driftwood for the barbeque, climbing trees and sliding down sand dunes.
The site is so large that we were quite unaware until we left that some 60 other families had shared it with us. We barely heard or saw them. Just the sea and the surf, the wind in the eucalyptus trees, and a little self regulating community, that neither drowned nor burned nor poisoned itself. Nor paid anything for the privilege of not doing so.
Oléron always reminds me of the wild West coast of Scotland. But with a lid on. And God’s most efficient patio heater. And no rule book.
I recommend it.