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Beyond Paris

RV Camping à la Française – Part 1

It was warm Saturday. Warm enough to leave the coat and scarf at home, and sit happily in the direct sunlight on the terrace of The Frog and Rosbif, sipping a pint and staring at the steady stream of pedestrians and convertibles. As one car comes to a sputtering halt before us, smoking under the hood, the requisite cursing of the driver and the blasé stares of the passers-by, I am suddenly reminded of why Mr. Hall wasn’t there with me on the terrace. Mr. Hall was at a fair in Rouen, checking out RV’s, or as the French say, Campervans.

Exodus On Our Minds As the weather heats up in Spring, the Parisian mind turns its attention to one thing: getting the heck out of Paris! Sure, all of you out there in every other city in the world think that I’m exaggerating. But it’s true—when you live here, it’s not a full-time vacation in the City of Lights. I envy my colleague’s parents, who come often to Paris, making a beeline for Sephora cosmetics (mom), Deux Magots (dad), and romantic restaurants on the Seine. Then they get to go home and be happy in their daydreams of Paris. When you live here, and it’s probably the same anywhere in the world, it’s hard to appreciate it all of the time. Good thing the French government understands our plight. They have made it easy, practically compulsory, to go on vacation here in France.

Five Weeks and Every Day in May I was once reading an ad in the International Herald Tribune from an American company trying to hire someone from Europe. I don’t remember who it was on what the position would be, I just remember cringing in pity for this poor company when I saw, under the benefits they listed, “Two weeks paid vacation!” In France, they get, minimum, five weeks paid vacations. Five whole weeks. And most people take a whole month of that five weeks all at once, usually in August (when all of the tourists arrive in Paris, all the natives are at the beach). Then there’s the State holidays, which don’t count as part of your own vacation time. The fun and glory begins in May, with the annual May Day Workers March. It’s a national holiday, like Labor Day, and for some reason a large number of the French seem to think a good way to spend the free day is to march around the streets of Paris. Maybe they just want to show the government how proud they are to have that day free, and by golly no one better try and take it away from them! Every weekend in May is a three day weekend. I forget why, and no one else sees to know or care. They’re all busy practising for the five week break.

The Great Plan So here we are, planning our vacation along with the rest of the country. We’re feeling pretty smug, too, because we get three months. Don’t ask. New job, going back to school, we’ve got this one and only chance to spend an extended amount of time on vacation. I’m collecting clippings for boat trips in Russia, thermal baths in Iceland, sunbathing in Figi…then Mr. Hall presented his Great Idea. “Let’s buy a CamperVan!” I have to admit, I can see the attraction: no airport delays, no expensive hotels lacking hot water, no tour guides from hell. Absolute freedom to go wherever we want, whenever we wanted. Of course, watching the distressed driver in front of the pub on Saturday, some sort of liquid spewing forth from his engine, I can’t help but wonder if we’ll be able to handle a CamperVan on our own.

A Few Considerations I’m pulling for one with a shower and a good engine. Mr. Hall is concerned with the sleeping arrangements and the accessories, like a bike rack and canopy. These are the easy things. The difficulty lies in the driving itself. I’ve still got my U.S. driver’s licence, from a state that France doesn’t count in its list of states whose drivers’ licences are accepted in France. That means, I’ll either drive as a tourist with my AAA international driver’s card ($10, until your licence runs out, this is okay), or I’ll have to take the French Driving Test. Eeek. And even though I’ve crossed the U.S. in a Volkswagen minibus, the thought of driving a huge CamperVan with a manual transmission, up winding, impossibly narrow roads, sometimes on the LEFT side of the road, I am a bit timid. I want one with an airbag. And an ejection seat with parachute. But I’m getting ahead of myself. We still have to find this illustrious CamperVan.

Coming Soon! National Lampoon’s Summer Vacation? God, I hope not. In the next few installments, discover the best links, learn all about French CamperVans, the pro’s and con’s of renting vs. buying, and the best places to find information and the one and only Magic Bus itself. Look out for the vocab, the warnings, and the pre-vacation adventure of the Hall’s as they attempt to buy the perfect CamperVan, and plan the perfect roadtrip.

This article is one of the 78 original “Secrets of Paris” articles published between September 1999 and July 2004. After disappearing into the internet graveyard for almost 15 years, I’ve republished them in autumn 2019 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Secrets of Paris: “1999-2019: Twenty Years of the Secrets of Paris” Broken and dead links have been updated or deactivated, but otherwise the article remains unchanged.