The Pootle

12 Aug 2015
A couple of days on the road. Hoping to reach Lyon by nightfall on Saturday, we made good progress until Chalon sur Saône where, as tradition dictates, we entered the Pootle, the obligatory routine initiated by Heather on the first night of driving.


It generally begins something like this. At around 5, I’ll be googling hotels that fulfil a short list of criteria—they should be reasonably priced, they should be on the way, oh and they should preferably actually exist. At some point I’ll say something like “Right, the Ibis just north of Mâcon has a triple for 65 euros”, and Heather will stab at the map on my lap with her index finger. At no point will her eyes leave the road.


“Show me Lyon.” I point to it.


“Show me where we are.” I move my finger a few inches north and point again.


“What’s all that?” she asks, pointing at a military base, or a lake, or maybe my sudoku, close by.


And then it happens. She utters the terrible phrase that puts ice in my veins. “Is there maybe a green road…”


The general gist of a green road is that it takes us away from the motorway and is mainly characterised by a remarkable adjacency to a number of beauty spots and places of interest. A green road travels not only through the countryside but also back in time to an era resembling the 1930s but without all the fascism and genocide, in which geranium-bedecked chalets cluster the foothills, old maids sit in the square making lace and little anchovy pastries, the menfolk return from their honest toil in the field, stopping only to adjust their berets, smoke cigarettes and shrug manfully over a pop-up game of pétanque. The gable ends of houses are painted brightly with the names of dangerous alcoholic drinks spelled out in capital letters and, as you round the bend in the warm evening sun, you see a little handwritten sign hung in the window of an impossibly picturesque little cottage with a snoozing cat on the sill: Chambres d’hôtes. The rooms are at once dark & cosy and light & airy. The thick, crisp, sweet-scented cotton sheets are turned down and there’s a promising smell of a hearty cassoulet from the simple restaurant opposite. Edith Piaf walks past humming ‘La Vie en Rose’ and a pair of high, groomed carthorses saunters by. The green road is not always easy to find, but to stand the best chance of locating it, it is necessary to enter the Pootle.


We had bought a new road map of France this year, 400 pages of identical random diagrams. The most exciting thing about it is that the colours used to represent the roads are limited to red and yellow. I haven’t had the heart to tell Heather this yet. But, much like HG Wells’ Green Door, the green road will reveal itself, according to my wife, by sheer Process of Pootle.


Tonight’s Pootle began, as they do, innocently enough. We left the concrete & asphalt certainty of the A6 and soon found ourselves on a windy D road, yellow and in the high nine-hundreds. Heather had seen a sign with a picture of a bed on it. There was a chance, she reasoned, that it might lead to some sort of accommodation. I’ve long held the belief that the French enjoy putting pictures of everyday objects on pointy panels attached to posts and that one shouldn’t necessarily expect any sort of tangible outcome, but instead simply appreciate them as examples of outsider art. With dusk the Pootle entered the next inevitable phase—a weariness began to nibble at our spirits and little drops of rain gathered on the windshield. The Pootle changes nature at this point. The casual wander, the absent-minded browse, becomes the earnest search. We had careered through a couple of villages, and asked people, we had retraced our tracks… now, headlights on, chin on the steering wheel, we looked at the map again and resorted to heading for actual named places.


Top of the Rhône valley, first weekend in August, by the time we reached Tournus in the teeming rain, it was pitch black. Dex & Heather cowered in the car tucked into the station car park and I ran the length of the road, splashing from one ‘Complet’ sign to another. All pretence of the Pootle now washed from our evening, we headed deliberately, immediately, to Mâcon and its endless cheap motorway hotels. Presently we passed another picture of an everyday object on a post. Heather must have secreted a last emergency handful of Pootle in her knickers and now released it into the stormy night. As the windscreen wipers thrashed, she suddenly jerked the steering wheel to the left, across the water-spattered glare of the oncoming traffic, tearing us clear off the highway. Only then did I make the connection. That picture of an everyday object had ‘300m’ written below it. It was a picture of a tent.


Over the next 5 kilometres or so, various other pictures of tents appeared enticingly out of the gloom. The headlights picked out rows of trees through the sheets of rain, on and on, stone walls, a gaggle of low buildings huddling in the night. Another tiny picture of a tent. Suddenly, a junction. A gate. A large hoarding with a picture of some colourful camping arrangements in the sun, complete with a pool and parasols.


There were lights coming from a building that turned out to be a bar. There was a scattering of caravans under some tall trees. The paths ran as little brooks. The courtyard in front of the bar was under water. Thunder flashed. It was six minutes to ten. There was a shack leaning against the bar with the word ‘Restaurant’ on it. It apparently closed at ten, so we bundled ourselves in and ordered three lots of ham and chips with dark beers and coke. We had no cash, and despite the clear notice on the menu that cards were not accepted we went through the pantomime of going up to the guy on the cash register and giving him a card. In the proper Pootle version this is never an issue, but then in the Pootle version I don’t then stand among a small, bedraggled group of campers drinking at the bar, my toes two inches under, shouting to hold a conversation above the clatter of the rainfall on the fibreglass roof and offer them money to put up my tent for me.


We did pretty well. We snapped into some sort of survival mode like a low-budget pilot for a doomed game show format. I love our tent, though. I love how easily the poles extend, how they slip through the sleeves, how the inner section buttons into place, how the guys tighten, the flaps zip… and I love how all three of us can get busy simultaneously in the steaming glow of Volvo headlights and have an address in under ten minutes, one that looked a lot like a picture of an everyday object.

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