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Having broken down again, we were feeling pretty worse for wear. We were pulled up at the side of a small country road, somewhere in the south of France. However that day, our bad luck seemed to be balanced with an equal amount of good luck. A small red car began to pull up, all faded and battered. It almost looked as if it had stories to tell. We dreaded it. We couldn’t speak a word of French, how are we going to explain our problem? The man stepped out and began to walk towards us. He had a rather daunting look about him, like a man who had seen a lot. The tattoos on his arms were faded and scared, the lines on his face told a story of his life but his eyes were bright. He had a certain kindness in his face. As he approached us he spoke, in a deep Scottish accent.
“I saw yer number plate, are ya having troubles?” We couldn’t believe our luck. He went on to explain that he lived on a canal boat and that he was a mechanic working on the boats there. He let us park up by his spot on the canal, where we could work on getting our van running again. He even offered to lend us tools and advice. That sweet little spot turned out to be the Canal Du Midi, and a regular spot for three van-dwellers. It was almost as though they had been sent to visit us, one by one.
We noticed that there was a small van, almost hidden in the bushes, near the entrance of the drive. The door was slightly ajar. A face peered around at us. A very kind, aged face, smiling at us warmly, eyes almost closing from the size of his smile. He reached for a pair of glasses and hopped out of his van. A very small but nimble man. As he approached us, he first spoke in French. However he quickly realised we couldn’t understand him and began to speak in English, with a slight lisp. He told us about how he was a chef and had been living in his van for some time. He was a very jolly person, always grinning, but I could sense he had a certain past. As we got to know him, he’d tell us more stories. Stories about the time he’d spent in jail and how he’d made a living selling soap on the markets, until he had a falling out with the lady in charge. He’d joke about how nasty she was and that he didn’t need her silly markets. He taught us about some of the wild food we could forage in the area, wild leeks and a surprisingly sweet white flower. He told us about a tradition in witch on a certain day, men would bring these flowers to their sweethearts and they’d batter them with sugar. On the last day of our stay, he cooked us the most delicious fish we’d ever tasted.
This man pulled up in a white sprinter van. He was a stern looking, tall man with a dropped face and fiery eyes. He wore a black beanie hat, his silver hair, curling out at either side. His clothes looked worn and old. We soon discovered he was a kind man, with a big heart. He didn’t speak any English, and we didn’t speak any French. So to start with we struggled to understand each other and began to grow frustrated. However with a little help from Carol’s translating, we began to get along. We picked up some words, and could start to communicate roughly. He didn’t speak much, he seemed to be rather introverted, although perhaps it was simply the language barrier. He gestured us over to where he was parked. He had set up a barbecue by his van, and asked if we’d like to join. Of course! I made up some delicious potato salad using my mother’s recipe, earning myself the nickname ‘Madam Potat’. Knowing we were broken down, he brought us a bag of food, for witch we were very grateful. He helped us out with fixing the van, and found a few bolts and bits for us.
Antonio had come along in convoy with Ludo. He was a thin, Moroccan man with aged olive skin and dark short hair. His eyes were a mesmerising sea of pale blue set back in a face that had so many stories to tell. When he looked at you, it was almost as though he was looking past your eyes, right into your soul. His wicker hat casts patterned shadows on his face. His smile was kind, partially hidden by a dark moustache. He muttered something in Spanish, almost singing as a little black dog jumped out of his purple van.
“Chico!” He shouted in a thick Spanish accent.
“Where are you going buddy?” The little black dog looked back at him, almost fox-like. He introduced himself and his schipperke Chico, and we sat down to eat. We shared stories late into the night as the stars twinkled above us. He told us of the times he’d got lost sailing through the Bermuda Triangle and lived on a boat in the Caribbean. How he’d been in jail in a foreign country as his girlfriend sold paintings on the street to make sure he was fed. That he’d lost his son. He taught us about the ‘Pachamama’ and how herbs can heal different ailments.
We spent the better part of two months with these three: sharing stories, drinking wine and sharing food. It’s rare to meet people with such genuine, kind souls. So to meet three in one place after our van breaking down is nothing short of a twist of fate. When it came to say goodbye it was difficult. I didn’t want to leave. We’d started to feel less like three strangers and more like a family. I gave little Chico one last cuddle and waved goodbye. They will be in my thoughts and memories until we meet again, and I’m sure we will.