Trurnaround – New Directions Once More
It’s six a.m. on Friday the third of June, and the air is full of the sound of birds welcoming the new day. Iggy the Hymer motorhome and I are the only ones awake in our little spot in Camping Lac Vert Plage, on the banks of a lake in Dun-sur-Meuse, northern France. Exactly nine days since Jay’s alarm roused us on Marine Parade in Dover, with a morning call for the eight thirty DFDS ferry to Calais.
Nine days is a lifetime on the road – as the saying goes. Well, if I’m honest, the actual saying might in fact be the oft quoted “A week is a long time in politics.” quipped, off cuff, by Harold Wilson many moons ago. But I’m sure he wouldn’t mind us repurposing it here and now. And it is something most, if not all, long-term plodders of the world’s highways would, I believe, agree with. Nine days, can indeed, be a lifetime on the road. Or anywhere, in any of our lives. Nine days; one day; an hour; a moment; these tiny increments of life are where our lives spin, turn, and change direction completely and evermore.
And so it is that our lives changed direction once more in the medieval walled city of Toul, just three days into our new journey across France.
It had been a difficult trip so far. Just five weeks before we set off from Edinburgh for Dover, I had emergency gallbladder surgery following five days of unrelenting fever and morphine-controlled pain while on a visit to the Shetland Islands for the funeral of my ex-husband Joe.
My children buried him the day before my surgery, while the doctors were telling me that they were planning on moving me to the high dependency unit the following day if my fever still refused to break.
In the wee small hours of the next morning, woken from my brief moments of sleep by the pain, I heard a man die through the open door of that very unit. Straight across the corridor from my bed I heard the call for the crash team, saw the swift, quiet footsteps that rushed to try and save him – that worked so hard to bring him back – but all to no avail.
Death surrounded me it seemed as the doctors came the next day to tell me that my fever was finally down, and they wanted to operate in six hours’ time – at two o’clock in the afternoon.
People came with consent forms, gave me literature and read out lists of things that could go wrong, alternatives and possibilities. I nodded and made appropriate noises as it all flew straight past my morphine and terror addled brain.
There was no option, that was plain to see, the fever had fought hard to keep its hold on my body, I couldn’t risk finding myself in that place again, and I signed the permission with gratitude for the opportunity to be free of it forever.
At eight p.m. on Tuesday the nineteenth of April, I woke from the anaesthetic to the news that all had gone well. The infection had been very bad, and it had taken the surgeons an entire hour just to unstick the offending gallbladder from my liver, never mind cut it off, but it was done. My new, gallbladder free life had begun. Full health and fitness were waiting a scant few weeks down the line – and so was our return to Bulgaria.
In an ideal world we would have waited another month or so before leaving, but Iggy had to be out of the country by the twenty-seventh of May at the latest. His new Bulgarian plates only allowed him six months a year in Britain, and his time was nearly up.
And so it was that I found myself back in the navigator seat of our beloved Iggy just five weeks later to the day. The doctors and surgeons had all given me their beaming approval, but I was still as weak as a kitten, unable to walk more than a few hundred metres at a time, and pretty much useless around the van bar navigation, planning, and preparing simple meals. And most of all filled with an anxiety about going abroad that sometimes threatened to swamp me completely.
The words I had heard from so many of the medical teams were to return to me often in the next few days.
“You’ve been through a lot Fiona. You’ve been very ill, and there’s been a lot of trauma. It’s going to take a while for it all to come out.”
I will not bore you with all the details of those first few days on the road. There were highlights, and there were difficulties – just as there are on all of our tours. The difficulties were many, and “the trauma” that the doctors spoke of began to gush out of me in rivers as I became over tired and overwhelmed by the day to day rigours and challenges of life on the road.
As we reached France, and I began choosing our stops, my lack of mobility became a source of huge frustration. So much so that we began to discuss buying a wheelchair so that I could get out and about more.
But despite the challenges it was still so, good to be back on the road in our Iggy van again. And so, so, good to be back in France.
We had chosen to head in a roughly straight line across France, Germany, Austria, Hungary, Romania and finally to our little house in Levka, Bulgaria. As I couldn’t get about much, I tried to find us a slow, scenic route. Driving no more than two hours each day. With easily accessed places of interest to stop at on the way. And small towns or villages with central Aires or campsites that would at least let me hobble to the centre to watch the world go by over a post-surgery friendly, decaffeinated coffee or alcohol free beer.
Our first stop at the free Aire in Le Cateau-Cambrésis sadly failed on too many counts by the simple misfortune of being on a hill.
The Aire itself was handy, (for people able to walk up and down the hill) fully serviced, but unattractive in itself. Placed on the main road, the town centre was a short walk away, there was a Lidl within sight, and the Aire backed onto woods and grass with plenty of scope for walking.
As a one night stopover enroute it served its purpose, and I may even have enjoyed it if I was able to get out and about. But the hill to the centre was just too steep for me to manage back up again in my weakened state.
My first night in France ended with a growing sense of the difficulties and frustrations that people with disabilities and long-term health problems face every day. Every single little thing in life is so much harder, so much more complicated, and requires so much more effort to plan and make possible.
My final thoughts as my head hit the pillow were of how truly lucky I was to be getting slowly more able with every passing day.
Day two in France was a better day entirely. I’d chosen another free Aire for our destination, this time in the town of Vouziers, with a couple of stops planned at tourist attractions along the way to break the journey and let us see some sites with minimal walking.
It was a lovely drive through the French countryside; rolling through villages, visiting the Castle in Guise, pulling to a halt as the road turned into a drawbridge in front of our wheels, to allow a canal boat to pass, and best of all, finding ourselves in the middle of a village bike race.
Yellow vested stewards alternately stopping us and urging us on. Stop. Start. Race forward at twice the legal speed limit. Stop again. Everyone pinwheeling their arms. Hurry! Hurry! Move to the next junction before the bikes come again!
Wings of laughter drove us from the village, and thankfully in the opposite direction from the bike race, and our hearts were happy from a wonderful day when we finally coasted in to Vouziers.
The town was not a disappointment. In fact, it was the perfect end to a perfect day. Well as perfect as you get when you can’t walk more than seven hundred metres at a time! But seven hundred metres was more than the five hundred metres of just a couple of days before. And it was also just enough to get me from the well-appointed free Aire by the cemetery into the town centre. Not only that but Vouziers was, so it happened, in the middle of some kind of a bank holiday weekend, mini festival.
After the disappointment of yesterday’s stopover, and the difficulties of the journey so far, this was such a gift to my battered body and soul. We made a leisurely journey through the market stalls, stopping halfway for a sit down and a coffee on a small café terrace. Then strolled into the main square for more drinks as the sun began to sink in the sky and the first band of the evening struck up on the open air stage.
On other tours we would have stayed longer. Sipped wine and beers, chatted with locals, enjoyed the bands and the warm evening air. But for now, one song was enough. Proud and pleased with how much I had managed we walked the short distance back to Iggy and dinner and a movie to finish our day.
And so, to Toul. Day three in France and the day that turned everything on its head once more.
If the day before had been as perfect as possible under the circumstances, then this day was anything but.
I woke with more pain than normal in my side and my stomach. Nothing terrible, just niggles that I put down to being more active the day before.
The place I had chosen for our tourist attraction visit halfway through the day’s journey was closed until July.
And the longer we drove, the more nauseous I became – until the last twenty minutes of the drive were mostly a snappy, irritable me, just driving not to vomit until we could stop.
I put it down to the driving and not being fully recovered from the surgery yet. But even before we arrived at the pretty Aire outside Toul’s medieval walls I began to feel chilled and shivery. The towers of the cathedral beckoned from across the empty moat, but it was under a duvet and some paracetamol for me.
A few hours, a low grade fever and a couple of bouts of throwing up later, and I was in Toul hospital for blood tests and observations, with a resulting diagnosis of kidney stones.
The doctor was happy to release me, but said I needed to have scans done. Both to confirm the diagnosis and also to check if any stones were too big to pass through my system on their own.
And there, and then, everything changed once again.
What should we do?
It made sense to return to Scotland and have everything done by my GP there. He was fully aware of everything that had been happening with my health these past four months. Plus, we could stay for another two or three months and get the money together for Marley’s operation. It definitely seemed like the most sensible course of action.
But what about Iggy? If we came back to the UK with him now, we would need to re-import him, and re-register him back on British plates. How much would it cost? Could we get it organised in time? And what about the broken bumper we were planning on getting fixed once we were back out East in Sofia? It was fine by Bulgarian standards, but I was pretty sure it couldn’t pass a British MOT.
Another possibility was to put Iggy in storage somewhere near one of the ferry ports and go back over without him. If we took the Amsterdam to Newcastle ferry it was just a couple of hours train journey at the other side. We could even pick up a cheap car for the time we would be in Edinburgh and sell it on when it was time to leave again.
And there we were, torn between our three choices. Carry on to Bulgaria; re-register Iggy in the UK; leave Iggy in Holland and return to Scotland without him.
The logistics threw up hurdles in every direction I looked, and I still didn’t have enough mental and emotional strength to throw at the situation.
But most of all I just didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to run back to Scotland if it wasn’t necessary. And I definitely didn’t want to give in to that gnawing fear that remained in my belly from all the events of the last few weeks. I wanted to be brave. A fearless traveller of the world. I wanted everything to just be okay.
But everything, being a bit of an awkward old so and so at times, just didn’t want to play. Like it or not, decisions had to be made. Though maybe they didn’t quite need to be made today.
And so here we are, six days later and circling our way back towards the North Sea and Scotland. We’ve been moving very slowly in that time – no more than forty kilometres or so each day – and have come to peace with our decision to return to Edinburgh for now.
It makes sense. But more than that, over the last few days it has come to mean something more. Strangely it has given us a sense of freedom restored.
We will still renovate the house and gardens in Bulgaria and aim to open that little motorhome stopover that we dreamed of. We are lucky in that our solicitor finally arranged our affairs so that we currently have dual residency of both the UK and Bulgaria. But so much time away from travelling each year was never really part of our plans and hopes.
Jay has paragliding courses he wants to do. We have in mind a long awaited six month tour of the States in Iggy come the autumn of 2024. We both want to get our Day Skipper sailing tickets from one of the RYA accredited schools in Corfu. African safaris and a cruise down the Nile have been on my mind since childhood.
There is, always, more life to be lived than any of us can possibly live long enough to experience. We have not finished with our Bulgarian adventure. Not by a whisker nor a mile. But suddenly the path in front of us is much emptier again. Maybe there are trees in the way, or the heat haze from all this glorious French sun is blinding my eyes, because it seems that all I can see is open road ahead.
On Sunday Marley is having her worm treatment and passport signed for coming back to the UK. By Thursday we will be on a ferry “home”.
We don’t know if we will be able to jump through all the necessary hoops for HMRC to get Iggy re-registered, but we’ll give it our best shot.
I’m worried we won’t be able to get the bumper and some other work done in time. Worried there will be problems with the paperwork because it’s Bulgarian, and Bulgarian paperwork is always a problem! I’m worried about delaying getting back to the house in Levka for even longer. And I’m worried that the doctors might not be able to fix me; of never being fit and strong again.
There’s a saying about worry. It goes something like this:
“If you have fear of some pain or suffering, you should examine whether there is anything you can do about it. If you can, there is no need to worry about it; if you cannot do anything, then there is also no need to worry.”
- Dalai Llama
I’m not promising that I can stop worrying. But we think we can do something about it. And so, we have turned around. But not to go backwards. To go forward – to new directions once more.