Continental Drifters (Part Two)

Pete & I woke up in the truck at the side of the “Autoroute du Soleil”, on the way to Lyon. our 2nd full day in France. It’s 754 miles from London to Florence  if you are a crow, longer if you’re taking the pretty way. A run for the sun, a long day in the saddle, remember to turn left before Spain & we should be eating our evening meal in Italy. This morning, a Friday, our Tour de France took us along the Rhone Valley…lovely. We put the miles in before breakfast, best to get some work done now because anything could happen today & that’s the way I like it…ah-ha, ah-ha !

We were making good time & having a good time too. It felt like we were heading for the weekend. Things got more interesting when we picked up 2 German women who were hitch-hiking to Avignon (of course we did). Our new friends were happy to get a long lift in the right direction, happy to talk. The one scrunched against me was attractive when she entered the cab & getting lovelier by the mile. We chatted, flirted, gave it the Cockney big potatoes charm. I was passing our contact details across for when they visited London. This was fun. Then Pete made a schoolboy error. He reached into a compartment above the windscreen, located our lump of hash, asked if they would like to smoke a doobie. That was that then…I do not want to stereotype anyone but… I had met German Green Party members before. “Atomkraft, Nein Danke !” serious types. These women were not impressed that they were travelling in (too) close proximity to a couple of wide boy pot smokers. The bonhomie suffered for the final part of their journey. We dropped them off, wished them luck &, ah well, pass the Rizla, on to the next.

That left turn, north of Marseilles, brought us to the coast road in the late afternoon, the sun behind us, Les Alpes Maritimes ahead. What an impressive road this is, bridges across the valleys, tunnels through the mountains. This is the E80, the Trans-European Motorway from Portugal to Turkey. We were part of  international trade here, moving stuff from one place to somewhere then some other stuff to somewhere else. In Turkey you can hook up with the AH1 & drive to Japan. Right now that seems like a plan. I’m feeling a good connection with my friend Pete the driver & with our mobile home from home.”Sal, we gotta go & never stop going ’till we get there”.

A-hem !

To the right the the land sloped steeply away to the blue Mediterranean. Signs directed us to the Cote d’Azur, Cannes, Antibes, Nice, Monte flipping Carlo…”La Belle Vie”… Nah man, I’m more riff-raff than “rififi”. On our left the Alpine foothills were just as cool as. I was like a little dog, head out of the window, tongue hanging out, smelling the air, loving life on the road as we headed for the Italian border.

These days border controls between EU countries have largely disappeared. I feel oddly comforted when the Swiss (non-EU) customs keep you waiting for 5 days because your paperwork covering works of art worth £2 million is a bit dodgy. (This happened on another trip, an unexpected holiday on the Rhine…cracking). That’s the world I grew up in, love a stamp in my passport. Back then customs checks were more rigorous. We would not be cleared to enter Italy until the morning. It was Friday night, we showered, changed & successfully found the pasta & beer we were looking for. On later trips we developed a liking for a digestivo of espresso & grappa. It made the walk home more interesting. I’m sure that Ventimiglia is a choice spot but we seemed to be hanging around the armpit district. The exotic even bizarre arrangement of bottles at the restaurant was a product of the graft extracted from the passing freight. No matter, we sat outside in the warm night air listening to our music of choice for when the work of the day is done.

All the 5 members of the Band had virtuoso talent, 3 were outstanding vocalists. My preference is for Rick Danko’s lovely whine & this aching song of lost love (another one). The clip is the version from “The Last Waltz”, Martin Scorsese’s film of their last concert. Find a better sax break in a song & send it over.

Saturday started without me. This bottom bunk was getting more comfortable. Pete was out early, doing the necessary to clear us across the border. He woke me to get a pack of 200 cigarettes we had bought at the ferry’s duty-free shop. He was obviously having to sweeten the deal. I roused myself, considered getting upright. I could be of little assistance but I was awake & I was his wingman. Pete knew the score, which way the wind was blowing, he raised his voice, switched into a full Bob Hoskins (Jah rest his soul). .”Look ! You have had my fucking cigarettes. You are not having the fucking whisky! Now stop fucking me about and let’s get this done”. I jumped out of the cab, but Pete was away with the  blackmailing bandit. I thought that if these customs clippers reacted badly to that Cockney combustion we could still be here on Wednesday. When Pete returned he winked, said a word that I believe is banned on the Internet & we were ready to roll.

It was understood that part of the cash given to the driver by his employer was to be used to bribe the various customs extortionists we encountered. No grift and the driver was ahead. Pete was a bottle of whisky ahead. OK, it’s a sunny Saturday morning, it’s my first day in Italy & we are legal. I have a 3 o’clock appointment in Florence. Are we having fun yet ?

Continental Drifters (Part One)

Pete was an old friend, a genuine South London geezer. London is a magnet for people across the country and the world but Pete was Streatham born, bred & still there. He drove trucks. When I lived in Birmingham & he had a job in the North West he would load up, make the 100 miles up the MI/M6 to spend the night at our place. The first we knew was the rumble of the big engine, the swish of the air brakes, unfamiliar sounds of an evening in a suburban Midland street. It was always a pleasure to see the man. I went out with him to a power station up in Snowdonia. It was a good day, perched above the rest of the traffic, looking at the world through a windshield. The wild North Wales countryside,what passes for mountains in Britain. Strong, sweet tea & home-made food in the transport cafes, bloody good company.

From: London, UK To: Florence, ItalyMoving to London meant that I got to hang with Pete a lot more.  He was driving the long distance continental runs now. He would get home, sleep for 15 hours, do his laundry & be ready to play out for a couple of nights before he was back on the road. I was not-so-young but I was free & single. There really were places to go & people to see. I gave my notice at the 9 to 5, 50 weeks a year & took a gig on a building site intent on creating more free time to see more of the world. I spoke to Pete & he was getting some good jobs. We synchronized our schedules & arranged a 10 day trip together to Florence. That’s all it took. Buon Viaggio !

I was the passenger, map reader, DJ, court jester. An 18-wheeler-dealer ready to try my “O” Level French out on the natives. Our soundtrack had to include plenty of that American country rock we both loved, Commander Cody for the morning, the Burritos & Little Feat in the p.m. for a couple of greasy truckers. “Our rig’s a little old but that don’t mean she’s slow” ! Those trucking songs still do it. “Hot Licks, Cold Steel & Truckers’ Favorites”  is Commander Cody & His Lost Planet Airmen’s best work, a solid collection with a not-too-serious take on that “truckers are the new cowboys” horsefeathers. If your country rock collection is to be definitive then you need this record. Del Reeves…his is the original version of “Looking At The World Through A Windshield”.

My holidays begin with the first step of the journey. Get on the ferry, hit the bar & hungover for my first day on Continental Europe. The big boat had a drivers’ restaurant, a prix-fixé (see what I did there) all you can eat & drink buffet. The pros from Dover to Calais are not drinking much…that’s more for me then. We crashed out in a car park…a French car park.

The morning run through Normandy is as green & pleasant as the English countryside we saw yesterday. It’s the signs to Loos, Arras, Picardie, the crossing of the River Somme, some of the most evocative names in modern European history, that raise the specter of the awful, pointless deaths of millions of young men in “the war to end all wars”. Hey, the sun was shining & Pete’s sister lived in Paris so that’s where we were headed.

The plan was to find a parking space in Paris for a 40ft wagon. What were we thinking ?  Pigalle is near the centre & we knew we had a problem. It must have been obvious & we were approached at some lights by a guy who, along with some stuff we could not understand,said “le parking”. Well “oui”…he climbed into the cab alongside me. You could not have invented our Good Samaritan. An old bloke in a beret & neckerchief, the guy smelled of garlic ! Seriously, I was sat next to him. The only thing missing was a string of onions around his neck. He totally came through & found us a big old car park. We slipped him a few francs & never saw him again. ” Merci, Au revoir, monsieur” (We were now speaking Franglais).

Pete’s sister lived in Monmartre, a butte rising above the city, an historic artists’ community built around the beautiful Sacre Coeur Basilica. Walking through the narrow lanes was a impressionistic buzz. His sister was happy to see us. She fed us well and the wine flowed. She told us about the Arab sex club she had attended the previous night ! This was my first afternoon in Paris & already I was living “la Vie Bohemien”. Oh Yeah ! We had, though, miles to go that night to make up time spent on our indulgent stopover. We said our goodbyes & went in search of a cab to retrieve our over-sized chariot.

Easier said than done. The car park closed at 8 o’clock. Our frustration blossomed as the prospect of sleeping in Paris, hundreds of miles behind schedule, loomed. Finally we got a ride &  arrived at the car park with only minutes to spare. The attendant was just starting to lock up for the night.It was time for action. I told Pete to ignore the guy & to get the lorry. In a series of manic gestures and phrases of cracked French I implored the attendant to give us a couple of minutes. I must have looked like Kilgore Trout’s alien who could only communicate by farting & tap-dancing. (In my dreams !). Pete pulled up in the truck, I jumped in & we were on our way. Goddamn, looks like we got us a team.

We left Paris, hit the autoroute & headed south. I rolled myself a joint & settled into the comfortable passenger seat. Mistake. When the only stimuli are white lines on asphalt & on-coming headlights the buzz is killed. I should have waited to get high…yeah right. Sometime in the early hours of tomorrow we had made up the kilometres & were right on time. We found a lay-by, sat out under the stars, the French stars, for a beer &  a smoke. This end of the day niceness became a thing. A tape that Pete already had in his cab became the signature sound of our nights away.

“Arcadian Driftwood” the story of the Arcadian French leaving a British dominated Canada and moving to French Louisiana to become Cajuns, is the epic of “Northern Lights, Southern Cross” one of the Band’s later LPs. It’s a lovely, evocative, plaintive thing. An anthem in the tradition of “The Weight” & “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down”. OK , our wagon had two bunks, this was no “Brokeback Mountain” deal. We fell asleep to the sound of passing traffic.” Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever on the road”, that’s right Jack.