Camping in France is not the same as camping in the US. It does not mean going off into the woods with a tent and s’mores and experiencing nature at its most raw and virginal. No, camping in France is more like what we refer to as losing: sitting around in a trailer park on the edge of town. The campsites are generally large, unpaved parking lots with some trees and a communal bathroom.
At these facilities you will find three types of toilets:
1. The Squat: This is the toilet your hippie friends will tell you is healthier. It’s a square indentation in the floor with two basic foot shapes rising up to floor level and a hole at the back. Does it have handles on the wall? If so, you’re in luck, that’s deluxe. Pro tip: Take your pants off. All the way off. Trust me.
2. The Demi-Squat: A toilet with the seat taken off. So you have the option to squat (but they never have handles), hover, or sit. I think you’re supposed to hover.
3. Regular Toilet: Something to be happy about.
The shower stalls take some getting used to. Personally I considered wearing a condom and a sombrero whenever I showered. The real mystery is why guests pay to put up with all this. How can they stand to eat dinner so close to be-Speedoed Bavarians (Stereotype? Yes. True? Yes.)? How do they not mind paying to sleep eight feet away from a tubercular Romanian family?
It may be that the continental camper simply does not know anything better. It’s all about space. We have it and they don’t. In a lot of ways living so close together has worked out well for France—they have a lot of unspoiled country because every Frenchman does not expect to live in a freestanding mansion with an acre lawn. Even in the richest French villages, you can easily spit into your neighbour’s living room.
It is savagery, but the scenery almost makes it worth it. France is basically Pennsylvania pushed up against California. We drove by Mt. Aiguille (elev. 6,841 ft.), which looks like the Devil’s Tower, but with a face like the stub of a broken knife blade. It’s been scaring white people for millennia and inspired the birth of mountaineering when the king ordered some poor schmucks to go up its sheer faces.
France has some massive highways but we didn’t take them because they are too expensive. We took the Route National—equivalent to the US routes, but smaller and windier. It takes at least 50% longer to take them anywhere. We drove down in three days to make it easier. Taking the smaller roads forces the journey to be at least as interesting as the destination. And when your goal is a run-down campsite the journey better be more interesting than the destination.
The first day we drove down through Lorraine, but didn't stop, even when signs tantalized us with the existence of an amusement park called Walygator. We spent that first night at a very clean campsite on a farm in the Jura. We were able to snag a spot behind a hedge and on the edge of the camp so we had more privacy than most. As an introduction to camping in France, it was both gentle and misleading.
The next day, we drove into the lower Alps. We passed some typically European features: walled cities, castles. The hills started to get higher and jagged. The houses started to look a little alpine. We stopped for lunch in Orgelet.
As we were settling in to eat, a woman behind me made a big show of pulling on her backpack and knocking into me as she got up from her table. I got the sense she was looking at my wife. This old crone (no other word describes her accurately) was staring at my lifepartner and muttered something very quietly. “What did you say?” my wife said, in English. “You heard what I said,” the witch said, in German. I wheeled around and said “Excuse me?” in German. She toddled off, knocking into a chair or two on her way out. Neither of us had heard what she had said. Fucking malign enigma, that’s what she was.
I kept an eye on her out the window until she disappeared down the road. Some Australians a few tables over kept us entertained for the remainder of the meal with their loud, private conversation about British television.
That night, we stayed at a campsite in Aix-les-Bains in the lower Alps, tucked away in some buggy woods behind a 1960s apartment complex. The toilets were full of roaches. The urinals were placed behind a very low wall facing toward the property fence. Most of the other campers were French and Italian. Some clever Germans across the way from us put the TV in their kitchen window so they could watch it while they were outside. They were watching The Perfect Storm. That movie always puts me in mind of the nearly inconceivable loneliness of a corpse sinking to the bottom of the deep ocean.