Thursday, May 31, 2012

My take on RAC's European Breakdown Cover

This is going to come across as something of a rant. I'd much rather it didn't. I'm going to try and explain this fairly and even-handedly and I invite you, the reader, to leave comments that point out areas where I've allowed any traces of bias to seep through.

The RAC are a pile of big, fat, filthy mother-fucking wankers.

Why I bought the policy

When embarking on a six-month solo tour of Europe on a budget, it's important to consider safety as well as cost. What items, what paperwork, what servicing really needs to be done before you go? I took the low-risk approach. I started by heading to a VW specialist in West London for a full mechanical service. My campervan was not broken, did not need fixing, and indeed had just that week passed a new MOT with flying colours. But it's better to be safe. So I spent over £1,100 getting everything polished and replaced, from gear brushes to battery wires. In fact, sod it, here's the full list if you're feeling up to it:
An almost complete list of things Cecil had before I left (yes there was more).
I therefore had no expectation that he might break down in Europe... but it's still better to be safe. So I called the RAC and asked for their most comprehensive, most expensive, most 'peace of mind' policy to cover me in every country I could ever possibly visit. The quote was £680, a hard pill to swallow, but I withdrew a credit card from my wallet with shaking hand and read out the numbers knowing that this was the right thing to do.

Letting them take control

Well, wouldn't luck have it? On the second day of my six-month tour, the engine died. I pulled on to the side of the road thinking, "shit", but also thinking, "thank God for the RAC - come and save me you rugged heroes!".

Save me they did. They called a man from Citroen who (eventually) found me and dragged me to his garage. This was the extent of the RAC cover for Cecil - as soon as the campervan had been collected, all the expenses would be mine. OK, fair enough, there can't be much wrong with it anyway. The RAC put me in a hotel - OK, fine, not something I would do of my own accord but let's enjoy it while it's being offered, eh? Left to my own devices, I would probably have either kipped in my own camper, popped up the little hiking tent or caught a train to my parents' house, but they were offering a hotel - great!

Of course, another part of this service is the communication with the garage. Well wasn't that fantastic? The European breakdown service is provided by a third party called Opteven. Apparently they have a team of mechanical experts, fluent in French, who would call the mechanics almost daily for a detailed update. Then they would try to explain it to the customer services team in laymen's terms. Finally Debbie from the communications team would call me and say "they're working on it" or "it's not ready yet". If I pushed her for details, I might get, "they've done something with the wiring". No amount of nagging would get me any kind of meaningful information about what my money was being spent on or even how much I was spending.

Which one's Debbie? Grrrr...
I jumped up and down, cried, sent email upon email begging for information on my campervan but none of it was any use. 6 weeks later I collected Cecil and drained my bank account to the tune of 960 Euros. Don't try and tell me they didn't see the insurance company coming.

Taking my own control

So when I finally got to my Mum and Dad's house and discovered a nasty oil leak, I didn't have much interest in calling the RAC back. What good were they? I didn't need to be dragged off the side of a road and I didn't need a hotel. And I certainly didn't need total and utter confusion about what was happening to my campervan. So I saved everyone some time and money by sourcing a local mechanic to help out. He wasn't available for a while but sod it, I had places to be and caught my Ryanair flight to Belgium for the week.

Stuck on a motorway

Now, sadly every mechanic has his bad days, and when I departed for Spain 4 weeks later Cecil broke down again. This time I did need dragging around so I took a deep breath and called the RAC. They couldn't recover me themselves due to Autoroute regulations but they would pay for the private recovery. Cool! I was recovered a distance of, what, 6 miles in tandem with two ladies and their Renault. The first question was "do you have insurance?", and what a surprise that having replied "yes" his bill suddenly rocketed to over 200 Euros. And you can bet the two ladies (ahem, their insurance, ahem) were charged the same.

Having left the motorway and having established that the campervan really was broken again, I called the RAC to discuss options. I told them that a mechanic back up North had done the work and that I was very keen for him to continue that work, rather than taking it to yet another garage. They initially told me that the policy was limited to 100km tows and that my mechanic was around 120km away. I asked if they could just take me the 100km in that case, that perhaps I could find my own way the final 20km, but they seemed unsure.

10 minutes later, the phone rang and the chap told me, "OK as an exception we'll tow you the 120km, but if you break down again in the next few days it will be difficult".
"The next few days?", I replied, "no problem - it'll probably be in the garage again anyway and I certainly won't plan for it to break down!". As far as I was concerned, that was it.

However, soon after that the phone rang again. This time it was the supervisor. "I just want to make sure my colleague explained to you that we will not be able to cover future breakdowns."
"Yes", I replied, "for the next few days, right?".
"For the rest of this trip".
"Hang on a minute - you mean until the end of August? You mean if I break down in Poland in mid-July you won't cover me for that?". He confirmed.

Eventually we agreed that I would pay 50% of the tow charge and my policy would stay in force. I had a phonecall from yet another representative to take payment for my half, based on the tow company's quote of 517 Euros plus motorway tolls. Read that again: 517 Euros plus motorway tolls. With no other option apparent I paid again, my half of the total coming to 267 Euros.

When the tow company turned up they were expecting to take me to Montpellier. I stopped them immediately - that was far too far. We went into the office - I found the correct address on Google Maps for them and we left for the correct address, approximately half the distance of Montpellier. I called the RAC back to explain the mixup and to tell them we would not have to pay so much after all, and that I expected to get a partial refund from my half.

Wishing they'd go away

The tow company dropped me off ('dropped' being the operative word but I can't bring myself to mentally relive that moment) at the closed garage and made me sign a piece of paper. I tried to discuss costs with them but they refused, telling me to speak only with my insurance company. My favourite people. I telephoned them as soon as I got back to Dad's and explained the situation: even if the distance weren't so much shorter, we hadn't even been on the motorway that I'd supposedly prepaid tolls for!

Well they weren't interested in the slightest. The quote from the supervisor was "we're just lucky someone accepted the job", not appreciating how much every single Euro cent means to me right now. After days of hassling, I had to let it drop when they explained, "well there was a 50% surcharge you see".
"50%? Why so much ? A weekend is 25%."
"They charged 25% for the weekend and another 25% for being a bank holiday".
"But the bank holiday is on Monday. It's either the bank holiday or the weekend, not both!" As if that made a difference. Insurance job, right?

Excuse my French

It's been quite a relief to me that the RAC / Opteven / Big Fat Wankers don't have to be involved in these latest repairs. I've been able to wander round and visit the mechanic regularly - he's shown me the parts and the problems, and through waving and grinning we've understood each other well. We have a friendly relationship and he's reasonable, even apologetic, about correcting mistakes he made last time. The BFWankers had asked me for his phone number but I told them there was no need - they could save their time and energy and I could continue on my own. And that seemed fine.

Until today. Today I was called and told that the remainder of my policy cover had been cancelled. The reason? The tow company had informed them that I had directed them to 'my home address'. The BFWankers therefore felt I had reneged on the agreement and that I was abusing my policy to - what? Put my feet up and avoid driving? The fact that I had not given them a phone number was proof that my campervan wasn't even broken and that I was a naughty girl who was not to be given any futher assistance.

Yeah, 'cos Mum and Dad's house is exactly where I always wanted to spent my adventure-of-a-lifetime!

It needs saying.
And finally...

I've just given them all the phone numbers and addresses that I know and they've told me that they plan to check them out tomorrow. I feel almost ready to explode: these people cost me in the first place, they're continuing to cost me and they're continually stressing me *the* *fuck* *out*. Yes, they've probably paid out at least £680 on me so far. But that hasn't been £680 that I would have needed to pay! That's £680 of wasted money that's been absorbed by greedy recovery drivers, by unreasonable surcharges and by overpriced hotels beyond my means and way beyond my requirements. £680 that they've wasted and at least that amount again that I've wasted by paying for the things they won't cover.

If I hadn't taken that tow back to the Minervois on Sunday, who would have benefitted? The RAC would have had to start picking out hotels again, maybe also a hire car. I would have been presented with a whole new garage, one that was busy, ignorant and could smell insurance in the air. Both the RAC and I would have been ripped off. Again. Yeah, great idea.

Isn't this type of policy supposed to make you feel relaxed, comfortable, secure? Isn't it supposed to ease your mind and leave you free to concentrate on other things? Assuming this is true, the RAC is in serious breach of contract. I could be here relaxing, talking to my mechanic and getting things sorted out but no - instead I'm talking to the RAC, I'm explaining myself to them, I'm getting frustrated by their absolute lack of any kind of motivation to assist and I'm leaking money. And what's the betting that tomorrow morning they'll start calling those numbers I've given them and upsetting the people who're helping me. That garage bill ain't gonna go down.

So in conclusion, there are upside and downsides to having comprehensive RAC breakdown cover. Except that actually they're all downsides. No upsides. And you shouldn't buy it. And the RAC are a pile of big, fat, filthy mother-fucking wankers.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

At least it's not just me

Today has been quite a day for vehicles, old and new. And not just mine.

The Quad Bike Saga

My parents' village has quite a nifty scheme. Each year, they divide up an area of a forest on their nearby mountain, and each villager is allocated a plot that they can cut down for firewood. In order to collect his allocation, my Dad uses an old quad bike to tow a trailer up and down the slope.

An old second-hand jobby, but it served the purpose
A couple of months ago it was stolen from his driveway in the night. Since it wasn't registered for road use, neither was it insured and my Dad was gutted. Gut-ted. So it was straight onto some dealers to find a replacement.

To cut a very, very long story short, he eventually found one in Wales at the right price and with the right spec and ordered it for delivery to the house in France. It had been so difficult to source that we had all hopes pinned on it arriving on time and in one piece - and this morning it would be coming, between 11am and midday.

At 9am the phone rang. My Mother answered the phone to a french warehouse worker who started talking about 'problem' and 'broken' and she panicked, calling my french friend out of bed to translate. He told us that when the quad bike had been delivered to the nearby warehouse it had been missing most of its packaging and that they'd therefore struggled to take it off the lorry. The warehouse worker described a box smashing and the tyres being flat and said that:
a) he was unable to load it onto his lorry for delivery and
b) if it was him, he'd refuse to accept the item and have it sent back to its sender.

This was not the news we wanted. My father, generally a solid and reasonable man, was close to tears. We asked to visit the warehouse (only 25 miles away) to see the damage for ourselves, fearing the worst. We imagined the bike having been dropped or having had something dropped on it... we assumed that the tyres would be the least of the problems, that the vehicle could be a complete write-off.

A burst tyre... not the end of the world
Such a relief when we were introduced to the beast! It was all a misunderstanding. The bike had been dispatched on a metal palette which had collapsed, but that was all. One tyre was flat - just one - and there was no other damage. The warehouse worker had misunderstood because he usually only saw brand new bikes shipped in fibre glass boxes, so he was surprised to see this one without. We rolled it off of the broken palette and arranged for a next-day delivery.

The Citroen Graveyard

This is a field that we passed on the way back. It's not quite as sad as it looks - there's a mechanic who owns the field and, although he's probably collected too many, he does work on them and may well refurbish them one-at-a-time to order. But there must have been 80 of them parked up here, in various states of repair.

They're just so ugly, aren't they? And wouldn't they make fantastic campervans?
Back to Cecil

My final visit was to the usual mechanic to check on Cecil, expecting to take him home today. You see, after our disaster en route to Spain, the mechanic diagnosed the following:
- The gasket rocker cover that he'd replaced before I left no longer matched perfectly with the one next to it, which was very slightly distorted. He said that he'd be gluing the two together to straighten them out and that this would finally fix the oil leak.
- The voltage regulator - an easy part to source and fit - was broken by the old alternator, so he would order this for the next day.

If that 5-day-old Bosch alternator is broken, I may hurt someone.
Unfortunately, nothing's ever that simple. The boss was there when I arrived and he started by telling me something I didn't want to hear: "the new alternator is broken". Nooooooooo! After more discussion, he explained that they had fitted the new voltage regulator but that the problem was still present. He promised that tomorrow he would carry out more tests to establish for certain which part was at fault and to form a plan of action. Please, please pray to whatever Gods or spirits you have belief in that my alternator will be OK!

Sod it, whatever the news is tomorrow, I AM going to Barcelona. By plane, by train, hell by walking - I'm going to see Spain. Uuuugh.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Happy Ending Revoked

I can't quite bring myself to write this update... so I'll let the pictures tell the story.

I packed the bus and drove South from the Minervois. I was stopped by the Gendarmes for a random document check, which I passed, picked up a hitchiker who only wanted to go 500m, and was waved to by no fewer than 5 other VW buses (all of them more modern - T25s and later). Just before the Spanish border, I stopped for petrol and a sandwich.
As I was about to go again, my Generator light came on. Now, normally a bit of revving persuades the bus that it actually is charging, but this time no luck... revving would dim the light but it always returned. So I peered into the engine bay. Everything appeared to be working mechanically. And then a nearby Spaniard pointed out the growing puddle of oil underneath... 
Because I was on a motorway, I had to call 112 to get a tow from the service station (we made it 150 metres on this setup before the guy realised how stupid it was and swapped the vehicles over). I shared my lift with two chatty middle-aged sisters and their pet bird.
After the tow, once the sisters were sorted out, we lifted Cecil into the air and took a look underneath. The engine was still starting and running all right but there was a clear leak of oil coming from the gasket area - exactly the same as last time. The mechanic also did a quick test of the alternator but he didn't trust his own results.
Finally, after a lot of argument and discussion between me, the recovery mechanic and the RAC, a tow truck arrived to take me back to the Minervois and to the garage that was supposed to have repaired my bus on Friday. It was a bumpy road and an old french lady shouted at us when we arrived, but at least it was done. My heart sank when I tried to start the engine to park it and found the battery flat. Is it possible that a brand new alternator has met the same fate as the last one?
Well today (Monday) is a bank holiday in France so we just have to wait until the mechanic returns tomorrow. In the meantime, I'm going to get very drunk and snap at people who don't deserve it. Feel free to leave a comment to test this conviction!

Friday, May 25, 2012

A post with a happy ending

I think we're all bored with "my campervan's broken" by now... well it's not any more!

Waiting for attention
What happened this time?

You'll remember that before I went to Belgium I discovered a nasty oil leak at the back of the bus, which prompted me to take it into a local garage in France rather than drive any further. Well, after a couple of days, the mechanic came back with news:

Good - the oil leak was not a serious problem and he could fix it manually.
Bad - the oil had leaked all over the alternator and broken it, so it needed replacing (groan).

I stopped in the garage for a chat and he said he may be able to source a reconditioned alternator for around 300 Euros. Woah there! VW Heritage in the UK have a brand new unit in stock for £119. So he agreed to let me buy it.

The WiFi wasn't working that afternoon, so I did the old-fashioned thing and telephoned the supplier. We had a quick conversation in which I described my bus and the operator assured me that he had the exact part there for only £104. Bonus! I paid over the phone. The next question was regarding postage - their standard service to the South of France was £48. I declined this and instead asked them to print out a label for Parcels Please, who would collect it from their warehouse and deliver it to me for only £17.50. I'm afraid this did confuse them a bit, but they got to grips with it in the end.

Unfortunately this meant another week's wait, so I relaxed again and painted some more yoghurt pots.

My Mum can sell them at the Poppy Fayre
Did it go smoothly for once?

The next week, my parcel was delivered and I tore it open, delighted to see a real life alternator inside. My Dad got his car out and we buzzed down to the garage to present our wares. "Non", said the mechanic. My bus was already in the air with its alternator removed and it was clearly different. We were baffled... if this was the correct alternator, then was my bus in fact fitted with some bizarre non-standard engine?

The bit that was causing all the trouble
I sloped home and got online to check it out. It didn't take long to work out that the problem was simple: VW Heritage had sent me the wrong part. Again. Although I really have to give them their dues - the next day they admitted their mistake and agreed to rush a replacement alternator out by Express service within 24 hours. And so I repackaged the incorrect part, waited at home and did the swap when the courier arrived (apparently following a long lunch).

That was on Wednesday. And today, I'm delighted to share that everything is done. The bus is back with me, shiny and healthy and raring to go.

What next?

Here I come, Barcelona! Monday is a bank holiday in France (yes, again) so I'll make my escape on Sunday when they're all busy drinking wine. Barcelona should be reachable in about 6 hours and it's one of the European cities I'm most excited to visit. Vroooommmm...

Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Dam Tourists

Escaping Belgium

I breathed a sigh of relief as the train accelerated away from Bruges station and whisked me over the border into the Netherlands. First stop: Rotterdam.

I jumped on a tram at Rotterdam Central station and was dropped off outside a huge 1920s building, a fairly unusual sight in the city centre since most of it was flattened in the second world war. I was very impressed with the hostel which was big and solid and not too expensive. A singer / guitarist set up for the evening and I enjoyed a quiet night of live music and beer before settling into my bunk bed for the night.

Rotterdam's Weird

Sadly I only had 24 hours to spend here so I spent the little time I had walking round the city and taking photographs of the fascinating sculptures and buildings. I was told that, since so much of it had to be rebuilt following the war, the city has moved away from tradition and adopted an 'anything goes' attitude to architecture that allows for some very interesting and adventurous designs. Here's one of my favourite examples:

The Cube Houses - a self contained estate based on trees
Back to Amsterdam

I've visited the capital several times before, so there's an odd sense of 'going home' there. But this time I was going to meet a large group of friends from London, some of whom had been before and some of whom were coming for the first time. This actually made quite an odd combination - who wants to go to the Van Gogh museum again? But who'd want to miss it?

So the mission became very simple: get drunk and go clubbing. This is a dangerous way to behave in a city that's hungry for your cash and will charge for anything (50c to use the club loos!).

L-R Gurvinder, Rob and me
I had booked a campsite on the edge of the city, thinking that Cecil and I could park there and enjoy some luxury for a few days. Of course, with Cecil not feeling too well that just wouldn't work, so I attempted to cancel. The policy of the campsite was to retain 50% of the booking as a cancellation fee, and since I'd prepaid online there was no way to guarantee I'd even get the balance back. So instead I switched to one of their wooden cabins.

It actually proved to be rather a lovely retreat... the campsite was in fact a small island accessible only by bridge and therefore very peaceful. Its facilities included a tiny private beach, canoe rentals and a petting zoo. And the tram stop on the bridge was serviced very frequently, taking just 7 minutes to reach Central Station.

I was in the yellow cabin in the middle
Yesterday I flew back to the South of France and was kindly collected by my father. This morning we drove to the garage and dropped Cecil off to have his oil leak seen to, something that should be finished on Friday according to the mechanic. My new fuel gauge has arrived although we're not sure what to do with it yet.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Is the secret in the diet?

There's a long-standing theory in my family that one's mood is directly related to the food one consumes. In other words, a healthy well-balanced diet will lead to a happy, intelligent and reasonable person in a jolly old mood.

So is that were the Belgians went wrong?

It's not long since I got back from Japan, where I felt that I was surrounded by the most polite, curious, hard-working and considerate people at all times. And of course the Japanese diet is widely considered to be the most healthy in the world with its fish, tofu, rice and often nine portions of fruit and vegetables per day.

So how can the poor Belgians possibly be expected to keep up on their waffles, chocolate, chips and beer? The poor devils have no choice but to be ignorant, selfish, beaurocratic and unhelpful. They just have to scowl and bear it.

A Belgian diet?

Hints at Groezrock

Some of this culture had managed to leak into the weekend's festival, although of course it was impossible to realise it at the time - my natural assumption was that these things were symptomatic of a less-than-perfect festival organiser:

1. Signposting. On arrival, we approached the gate only to be told that we would first need to exchange our tickets for wristbands at a different location. Where was this location? Back where we had come from, at a small unmarked kiosk. Everybody at the entire festival must have followed our same exact steps. And at the unmarked kiosk, oh no, no, you're too early for the festival wristband. You'll have to take a camping wristband but retain your secondary ticket and come back in the morning.

2. Queuing - you had to queue for the cash machine, then queue to purchase drinks vouchers, then queue separately for food vouchers. Only then could you join the queue for food or drink.

3. Just 'avin' a larf - on the first day, I approached a food counter, waved my vouchers and stared at the staff on the other side for a full 8 minutes before they confessed they weren't open. And later I approached a food counter with no queue, under a sign with a picture of felafels and asked for, uh, felafels. The woman told me I had to join the half-hour queue next door and buy them from her colleague. While she stood there failing to sell any paninis.

In Brussels

Brussels seemed like a nice city, with an Art Mountain a pretty square lined with traditional buildings. We had a beer in a cafe that employed a freakishly talented waiter, able to mentally record and relay 20+ food and drink orders with perfect accuracy.

After I said goodbye to my companions, I marched off in search of a youth hostel. My plans were 1. Stumble across one (there were plenty of hotels so why not?), 2. Find a tourist information spot or similar and ask for directions, 3. Charge my phone somewhere and look them up.

Well plan 1 wasn't going so well - I marched up and down a number of streets with my rucksack and started to tire of it. Equally there had been no luck finding tourist info so I moved quickly onto Plan 3.

Walking through the gay hub, an exuberant young man tried to call me into a dingy corner bar. I stopped and peered insight for electrical sockets. The man asked if I'd like a drink and I replied "I'd love one, if I can plug my mobile phone in!". The man, named Kim, passed my request on to the surly landlady who simply shook her head without looking up from the beer glass she was polishing. I sighed and explained my quest. Kim immediately lit up and told me he knew of a great Auberge round the corner and that he would walk me there.

We chatted as we walked and Kim was immediately apologetic about "his people". He had a strong belief that his countrymen were cold and without humour, and confided that he was desperate to escape to Barcelona. I was incredibly grateful for his kindness in taking me to the hostel and tried to buy him a drink but he was gone as quickly as he'd appeared.

That evening I walked into the city centre and took some photographs. I seemed to be surrounded by grumpy faces and stubborn elbows, and had to push my way through a crowd of people who took no notice of me "excuse-moi"-ing my way through. I found a supermarket with the longest queues I've ever seen - in fact before long I'd learned that the technique was to enter the store and join the queue immediately. This way you could pick up items for your basket as you followed the line up and down aisles. Certainly no-one would allow you to browse the items alongside their bit of the queue. I witnessed several people, mostly mothers with buggies, smuggling items out rather than queuing to pay... and many, many more just leaving with nothing, choosing their freedom over nutrition.

In Bruges

I resolved to move on the next day. Capital cities are often unrepresentative and anyway, Colin Farrel had filmed an amusing film in this medieval city near the coast. So I packed my rucksack and caught a train.
On arrival in Bruges I was once again baffled by the system. The train station is out of town so buses run to the centre. But there were queues, ticket machines, bus stops and LCD screens, none of which seemed to relate to one another. Eventually I just pushed my way onto a bus, a technique employed by the locals. It worked.
A pretty van selling waffles in Bruges
At the hostel I was cut off halfway through saying "I have a reservation -" by the emotionless request "passport". This turned out to be fairly typical customer service. When I asked for a launderette I was told "over the bridge", a direction so vague in a city with at least 9 bridges that it took me an hour to travel the 1.5 miles to it. On arrival, I discovered a machine that exchanged €1 coins for tokens. I abandoned my laundry and bustled into a nearby bar who explained curtly that I would have to buy something to get change, so I swallowed an overpriced orange juice. I poured my money into the machine and got the tokens but guess what? No laundry detergent. None in the machines, none for sale, none without walking 2 miles to the supermarket and buying a whole box. My clothes had to rely on whatever suds had stuck in the machine's tray.

The final straw

Two days later I packed up again to move to the Netherlands. I queued up to buy a ticket at the train station but the man in front of me was clearly having some sort of trouble, so I approached the counter next door when it became available. "Oh no, no, that's an international ticket - you have to see my colleague next door". While he sat back in his swing chair, his fingers interlaced across his ample chocolate-and-beer-filled belly, watching the clock tick.

Perhaps it really is the perfect base for the EU.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Rocking in Belgium; waiting for Belgium to rock back

This is technically day 5 in Belgium, although can a music festival really be included as time spent in a particular location? I'm not sure. But here's what's been happening:

Sharing a tent with the ex

Groezrock 2012 was supposed to be a festival spent in luxury. My campervan was loaded with baked beans, my solar panel carefully checked and stowed, my fridge filled with cider and wine.

Well clearly dear old Cecil wasn't going to make it so instead my good friend (we've been split up longer than we were ever going out) sent out a last-minute Facebook plea and managed to secure the loan of a slightly mouldy but otherwise adequate tent. He also found a bed roll (I tried not to think about the circumstances that might lead to one losing their high-quality camping equipment before a festival) and I supplied a pair of my old sleeping bags, originally acquired for Girl Guides so probably not made with the most recent technology.

Thanks to an unexpectedly useless public transport system I finally arrived on site shortly after midnight on Friday night / Saturday morning and found the tent ready-pitched and surrounded by good-natured blokes from Switzerland and England. My original Welsh friend was already pretty blotto so I poured myself a glass of wine, chuckled at him for a while and then bedded down, looking forward to a weekend of punk and hardcore.


This was by far my biggest fear. All predictions pointed to three days of hardcore rain to complement the tunes, possibly adorned with a hail or thunder storm. And cold. These are not the conditions that sheets of green canvas held erect by poles are best known for providing comfort in. I prepared myself with plastic trousers, plastic bags and even went to the length of lining my purse with tupperware, to protect smaller items such as money and phones.

None of this, however, proved necessary. We had one shower of serious rain on that first night but this was contained within the small hours and had no particular effect on the surface conditions. In fact I could almost call the weather perfect overall - most of the time it was dark and cloudy enough to allow daytime sleeping and to keep us warm at night without actually raining. Win!

The neighbours

Um, well. Aside from our immediate neighbours, who were of course lovely, this was something of a problem.

For starters the wine, the wine that I'd retrieved from the campervan and smuggled across Europe using Ryanair's ample luggage charges, was stolen. From our tent. In the night. Two glasses had been poured from a three litre bag at the time. Of course, it could have been worse - whilst booze at a festival has an increased value it's often abandoned once the last band has played. And they could have taken the Doc Marten's stowed immediately beside the wine, which would have been far more difficult to replace.

No, more than the wine, it was the sleep theft that bothered us. It seems to me perfectly reasonable to drift around drinking speciality beer, listening to live music and hurling yourself into pits of overexcited revellers until 3am and then to return panting with exhaustion to your tent, allowing your body just enough recovery to do it all again.


I consider myself a pretty easy sleeper. As long as I have something warm to snuggle into, I'll curl up in any corner on any surface and sleep through any noises I choose to ignore. At a festival it's often amusing to drift off listening to random snippets of conversation outside, such as the american guy talking about his family's gun ownership history (I'm not stereotyping, his Dad was crazy) or the group of Netherlanders singing the wrong words to a classic tune in unison.

However things you can't sleep through include:
- firecrackers being set off within 10 feet of your head?
- girls calling "Fire! Oh God oh God, FIRE!",
- groups of drunk 16-yr-olds from Manchester shouting, nay screeching, their favourite football chants as if in direct competition with everyone around them. At 4-5am.

I can't just blame it on the brits either - I might not have understood everything the locals said but I could hear them phlegming and pissing between the tents all night. And who knows which nationality of person it is that keeps stepping on your pillow (narrowly missing your head but sometimes catching the hair) as they attempt to stagger from one place to another?

In my days as a Girl Guide I never once woke up to find my tent and all those around me buried in discarded food and rubbish.

The good bits

All this paints Groezrock up to be a disaster but that would be entirely unfair! There was great food, a range of Belgian beers and most importantly rock. The tented stages did suffer from sound difficulties but Lagwagon, Reel Big Fish, Your Demise (I wasn't impressed when my Welsh friend said he was looking forward to this in an earlier conversation), Rancid, The Bronx and Refused were all excellent. We drank, rocked and enjoyed.

Sunday headliners: Refused

So I got back to Brussels yesterday, hugged friends new and old and checked into a youth hostel to shower and sleep. Boy did I sleep! And today I caught a train to Bruges from where I write to you. Tomorrow I'm doing an official tour of the city (oo-er) so I'll let you know whether it's worth blogging about...