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This is a question Family Holidays

Back in the 80s when my Dad got made redundant (hello Dad!), he spent all the redundancy money on one of those big motor caravans.

Us kids loved it, apart from when my sister threw up on my sleeping bag, but looking back I'm not so sure my mum did. There was a certain tension every time the big van was even mentioned, let alone driven around France for weeks on end with her still having to cook and do all the washing.

What went wrong, what went right, and how did you survive the shame of having your family with you as a teenager?

(, Thu 2 Aug 2007, 14:33)
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Calling occupants of interplanetary craft
First off: yeah, it's long -- read it or don't. Also: no it's not entirely on-topic -- so sue me. Finally: yeah, it's true.

I'm 16, heading towards A Levels and in order to improve my French my parents decide that I should spend some time there with a French family. Being short of cash and somewhat lazy, they decide to avoid the costly and time-consuming process of going through some sort of organised exchange service, opting instead to ask around to see if anyone they know might know someone who knows someone...

Et voila! Our next-door neighbours happen to know a family who live in the south of France, who have a similarly-aged son who'd benefit from some time in Blighty. The deal is done, although strangely with no direct contact -- they don't have a 'phone so it's all day indirectly through friends. I know literally nothing about them beyond the son's name. I don't even have their address.

The time comes, my parents accompany me to the station and stick me on a train with 250 francs (about £25) in my pocket and a ticket to Spain -- for some reason they're to meet me on the bull-hating side of the Franco/Spanish border. It's an uneventful journey to Paris, but things start to go wrong when I try to get from Gare du Nord to Gare d'Austerlitz. The 250F was intended to pay for a taxi across town (my mother deciding that the Metro was too dangerous to negotiate alone) but I quickly find that it's nowhere near enough to pay for such a journey unless I want to risk my life, possessions and/or possibly my anal integrity to a dodgy-looking Moroccan gent who accosts me while standing in the taxi rank queue. I don't.

Back in the Gare du Nord I begin to investigate the Metro. First of all I'm completely unable to find the ticket office, my pathetic O-level French failing at even this most basic of tasks. The metro station is a maze, and each person I ask gives me a completely different set of utterly incomprehensible instructions. When I do finally find a ticket office, the babbling goon behind the desk flat out refuses to make change from the 200F bank note I offer him.

I'm beginning to get a little nervous -- time is getting short. Finally I find a ticket office where somebody actually consents to sell me a ticket, then on my way to the platform, I'm accosted by an English-speaking woman who needs to find a map of the metro system. I happen to know where this is (having recently explored every inch of the place) and in return for my help, she gives me one of her metro tickets. Thanks lady, you're about an hour late.

I arrive at Gare d'Austerlitz with less than ten minutes to spare. Giving up on my French I simply walk up to every uniformed figure until I find one that speaks decent enough English to tell me which platform I need. I run. I find my train. I get on and look for my reserved seat. There's someone in it. I am perplexed. Not wanting to cause a scene, I find a guard and somehow make myself understood. He shakes his head: the reserved seat was for Calais-Paris. I have no reserved seat for this leg of the journey. And every single seat on the train is full. I resign myself to the prospect of spending the next twelve hours (i.e. through the night) sitting on my bag in the corridor.

Luckily, a friendly lady takes pity on me and lets me have the seat that one of her two children should be sitting in, only he's sitting in her lap. Said child then falls asleep across my lap, and I'm so worried about waking him up that I don't move for the remainder of the journey. Neither can I sleep: the train is full to bursting, it's hot and everyone is sweltering, even through the night.

We finally roll into Portbou the following morning, and I'm met at the station by a couple who I assume to be the parents of the family I'm to be staying with. I've had nothing to eat or drink in 24 hours: they hand me a dry croissant to munch on as we career at insane speeds along twisty coastal roads, back towards France. It's fortunate that I no longer suffer from the carsickness that I mentioned in an earlier post.

We arrive at a nondescript house in the suburbs of Perpignan. It's still morning but already horribly hot. Not having slept in over 24 hours, I'm looking forward to being shown my room, so I can crash out for a while. But it's not to be: as we walk through the door I'm greeted by a great crowd of people -- I have no idea how many -- all smiling and friendly, and in many cases barely clothed. There's a LOT of flesh on display, some of it belonging to some delightfully-proportioned young females, and even some bits that until that point I hadn't witnessed outside the pages of Razzle. My eyes are out on stalks. I think I must be hallucinating from lack of sleep/food/drink.

We're barely in the door when I'm ushered out again, back into the car and off we go -- once again over the border to Spain, where we're going to a restaurant for lunch. In spite of my hunger I'm frankly revolted by the food that's offered -- I have no idea what it was but suspect it was intestinal -- so decline and instead go for a walk along the adjacent beach: more naked flesh to ogle. Bargain!

The others gradually emerge after gorging themselves on garlic-stuffed tripe or whatever, and gather around in a group in a shady spot beneath some trees. I wander over to talk to the woman who (I correctly guessed) is the mother of the lad I'm to exchange with. He's just arrived, and we're introduced: his name is Ramuel. He is handsome, muscled, tanned and cool -- he sports of mohican (this is the 80s, ok?) and struts around like he has balls the size of coconuts.

In short, he is everything that I'm not. We have absolutely nothing in common, and his English is no better than my French so we could hardly communicate even if we did. I dislike him immediately and it's clear that he feels the same way.

And this is where it all started to get a bit weird.

We're called over to join the main group, who are now standing in a large circle. I'm made to understand the we should all hold hands and close our eyes, so I join the circle and do so. A very large, pot-bellied, intensely hairy man begins to talk in French. He drones on for a very long time. I don't understand a single word, but I'm sleepy, his voice is very calming and I feel very relaxed. By the end I'm nicely chilled. The mother calls me over and in broken English, she explains what has just happened.

First of all, the man I had assumed was her husband, was not. In fact, her husband is currently on a book tour of Canada. His name is Claude Vorilhon, and the book he's selling is all about the religious movement he founded -- Raelianism. For those of you who've never heard of it, the Raelian movement came about when he (Vorilhon, or Rael as he later styled himself) happened to be walking on a mountain one day, carrying a copy of the Bible (as you do). There he found a space ship, and in it some extra-terrestrials who told him (taken from Wikipedia):

"...every life form on Earth was created by advanced human scientists from another planet with 25,000 years of scientific advances who, according to Raelians were originally called Elohim or "those who came from the sky", and that some forty prophets in Earth's history were sent by Elohim whose messages were misunderstood and distorted by humans, largely because of the difference in the level of scientific understanding between the advanced race and our primitive one."

All the people at the house and now gathered around were members of this group/cult/religion (whatever). The group hand-holding had been an attempt to telepathically contact these aliens and summon them.

No, really.

Looking back on it now, I wonder at my equanimity upon having this related to me by an otherwise apparently sane adult. Perhaps it was that I was already spaced-out from the sleep deprivation, the hunger and the heat. It didn't seem in the least bit odd, and unbelievably I didn't even have the faintest urge to laugh at her. Which, by rights, is exactly what I should have done.

At this point I'm whisked off again, this time to a small airport where a pretty young thing of about my age is due to fly off somewhere with her father. Strange to report, in the hour or so we spend in the back seat of the car and then a hot airport waiting room, we fall in love. We barely speak, just smile at each other. I can't break eye contact, and we hold hands as we cross the tarmac to her father's Cessna. She flies off. I never see her again.

Heat/hunger/tiredness/horniness? Possibly. I can remember her face to this day.

The next week I'm given further insight into the Raelian movement, and do my best to take it seriously. There's a lot of group meditation which is genuinely quite relaxing, as long as you ignore the fact that the others think they're communing with the Elohim. One day we go to see the Dali museum (I later learned that he was there at the time, dying slowly in a small room in one of the towers). Another day I sunburn my feet (painful), somehow end up having to walk five miles in espadrilles (excruciating), then arrive at the house to find all the (middle-aged, overweight) menfolk sat around the kitchen table, stark bollock naked to a man, playing cards. I decline to join them, and head to bed.

But frankly, most of the time is spent lying around by the swimming pool, ogling scantily-clad young things while trying to a) not be seen to be ogling and b) not get a stiffy. Apparently free love is part of the religion (it's true -- look it up!) but alas I don't get any -- apart from being crushingly shy I'm also horrifically unattractive, especially compared to the various other bronzed hunks about the place. Ramuel basically ignores me.

At the end of the week, it's time for us to head for the green and pleasant land. Ramuel is less than happy, and who could blame him, when he's leaving behind sun and sex for a grey, cold English summer? We have an interesting time when we're stopped by armed border guards at Calais -- it turns out he's only 15, and you can't travel on a French ID card if you're under 16 unless you have written permission from your parents. And his mother can't be contacted because she has no 'phone. Somehow we managed to track her down, and were allowed on our way.

Ramuel was miserable for the entire week and bizarrely, ate nothing but apples. My sister fell in love with him. I gave up trying to entertain him and just left him to mope until the time came for him to return home. Needless to say, we didn't keep in touch.

To this day, I find the whole thing rather surreal. And the Realians turn out to be even more bizarre than the above story might suggest -- like, remember that group who claimed a few years back that they'd cloned a human? That was them. Great fun story to tell the kids, though.

Nanu nanu.
(, Wed 8 Aug 2007, 16:39, Reply)

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