So during this new five-week eight-country journey, we’ve stayed mostly on aires (some free, some costing up to 10 euros, but all including fresh water, grey and chemical loo disposal, others with showers and security too). We’ve stayed on one that was a cross between a campsite and an aire, complete with lovely swimming pool and tapas restaurant. We’ve stayed on a quiet wide roadside once (when a noisy outdoor party that developed next to us in a park seemed to be going well enough to last all night!), in large gardens turned over to motorhome camping and at regular campsites with all the trimmings. They’ve all held their own charm – a selection from various countries can be seen below.
We’ve also stayed outside the house of a wonderful Aussie lady called Polly who we met in a laundrette in Provence and who fed us too and introduced us to her Aussie friend Derry who was travelling around and staying there at the time. Awesome times and we made some awesome new friends there.Then we were invited to the Eagle’s Nest, pictured above, a fantastic educational centre in the Cévennes mountain range in the south of France that’s run by the very lovely Mike and Gilly. They had heard about our adventures and educational concept, so got in touch. Their place is wonderful, and they were amazing hosts. The drive up was a twisting one that went up and up and up, and the views at the top from the Eagle’s Nest were breathtaking.
Then we headed back to Montpellier, where we’d been a few days before and where I’d done some searching and sent an email. And this is where our journey was thrown into a new light. And this is where the blog changes style a bit: forgive me, it’s important that this is written down, cathartic to me for sure, but also a reminder of why we’re doing what we’re doing, and why family and friends should be always at the top of everyone’s “most important in my life” priority list.
Our travels started a year ago now, amazingly, when we were compelled by sudden losses of loved ones to live a venture we called Face2Facebook where we visited 150 friends in person rather than staring at snippets of their lives through a flat screen. We developed this into the teaching travels concept that we’re presently on that we call Education By Astonishment, where we visit astonishing people, places and things on our journey to teach our two little boys this way. On these travels we’ll visit friends too when we can (to keep Face2Facebook going plus because we know friends and family are the most important thing in our lives).
So with this in mind we visited Montpellier, a fantastic city in the south of France, where I’d spent a few great times in the late 1980s, visiting and staying for a few years running. Then back in London where I was living at the time I met a guy like me who was in his early 20s called Sébastien. He was from Montpellier and I told him I loved his hometown. We shared a love of reading and writing, and chatted about novels, and we both loved poetry and partying. I was in the early years of my journalism career and Sébastien was studying journalism. We both wanted to write moving words that got published. We sought some inspiration in the pubs of London, many an evening.
One summer, possibly 1989, he went back to visit family in Montpellier and I said I’d get the train down to meet him. I stayed at his family’s fabulous apartment in the centre of Montpellier at the Place de la Comédie. Then one day he took us to his grandparent’s house not far away in the countryside.
The house was amazing, big and tall with long green wooden shutters. Vineyards surrounded it, owned by Sébastien’s grandparents. They welcomed us with wine, then Sébastien took me to somewhere that is one of the most magical afternoons I’ve had. We walked to a nearby river and swam in it and played there for hours, just us, and not a care in the world. We splashed and swam and sat in the sun talking about our love of life, then plunged into the refreshing teal-blue waters again. It was bliss. I felt like I was in a novel.
This day stretched on forever and still I didn’t want it to end. When we went back to the grand house his grandparents had laid on the most incredible dinner and we ate and drank and laughed again.
I saw Sébastien back in London many more times, but then some months later I went on travels. I lost touch, but always felt I’d bump into him again. London’s a big city but intimate like that. Or I’d see him somewhere in the world for he was a roamer and seeker too.
But the years went by – this before social media or digital photographs – and I held Sébastien in my heart and often fondly remembered that dreamlike day down by the river.
So on this trip I looked for his family’s nameplate at the apartment where I’d stayed in central Montpellier more than quarter of a century ago. But to avail. I so wanted to see Sébastien again though, we’d been kindred spirits. I’d told Debs about him and especially that day many times, but alas had no photos, not even one of Sébastien as I’d had my photos lost by a dodgy removals firm a decade ago. I still remembered what he’d looked like, but what would he look like now? I mean, last time he’d seen me I’d had long hair…!
So I Googled him but with no luck. However a musician called Henri from Montpellier appeared with his surname. Not really expecting a positive reply I emailed asking if he was related to my old friend Sébastien.
To my surprise I received a reply a day later just as we set off up to the Cévennes:
Hi David, Yes, actually I am his brother.
Unfortunately Sébastien died in 2000. He was living in London after his studies at the university there and worked as a journalist. He had that horrible thing called motor neuron disease.
The world went silent. This couldn’t be. But it was. His brother Henri and I then exchanged a series of emails. He explained that at the age of 27 – probably not even a year or two after I’d last been in touch with Sébastien – that his brother had completely out of the blue and with no family history of this illness suddenly started stumbling and noticing that he couldn’t ride his bike without his feet coming off the pedals or suchlike. For me it was too much to take in, almost impossible to comprehend: I recall Sébastien as a fit young guy with so much life, always laughing and smiling.
He saw a London doctor after several weeks when it was apparent something was amiss. After some investigation the doctor told him directly that he had motor neurone disease (MND)… and that he had probably only two years left to live, and that during this time all his muscles would waste away to the extent that he couldn’t even swallow or breathe. His brilliant mind would remain, but he’d find it increasingly difficult to communicate.
MND is a progressive disease that attacks the motor neurones, or nerves, in the brain and spinal cord. This means messages gradually stop reaching muscles, which leads to weakness and wasting. It can affect how someone with it walks, talks, eats, drinks and breathes.
Sébastien survived longer than he was told, and I have no doubt now having met his brother and mother that it was much to do with their love and selfless care. He had other family and many good friends too. I wish I could have been there for him. But life takes us from some of our special people some times. It’s a stark reminder to us not to let this happen though.
Although he survived longer than expected, Sébastien was soon in a wheelchair after the diagnosis and within a year could no longer do his job as a journalist. He returned to live in his grandparent’s house where I’d gone with him that glorious dreamlike day that I remembered so well and so frequently with a warm heart and a smile. His mother and Henri went there to care for him and converted a room at the top of the house to be his place, complete with a lift they had put on the outside of the building so he could get down and outside in his wheelchair. This is all actually heartbreaking just to write. He finally passed away aged only 32.
So we were invited to the house where Sébastien’s mother still lived and where Henri is converting a barn. Although we’d never properly met (although I recall fleetingly meeting Henri when he worked in London at the Marquee club) we were greeted and treated like family. I said I could not fathom what had happened to Sébastien. Henri replied that no one could, that it was just bad luck. There is no other reasoning for why such a lovely and popular young guy so full of life could have had such a terrible few years and died so tragically young.
To see that house after so long and to know it’s where Sébastien spent his last four years, deteriorating, as Henri told us, every week, was surreal and so sad. But as well it was like having a dream about a dream, but where the main person in the first dream was inexplicably not there any longer. I felt Sébastien’s presence though, and Henri and his mother showed us some old photographs. Debs was finally able to see how my fantastic old friend had looked.
Then Henri took us for the walk down to that river where Sébastien and I had trodden all those years ago, down to that river where we’d swam with all that life – so we naturally thought – ahead of us. We were so young and carefree, so easily happy. The river was a vision. It flowed just as I remembered. We turned our sadness into happy memories, and we gained a new friend in Henri. We went back to the house and we chatted and ate and Henri and Daniel made some wonderful music together.
Then Henri told me that Sébastien had written about his developing illness in a series of poems, that his mother had made into a book. I read these and re-read them. Then re-read them. They brought tears to my eyes, also some smiles as I heard Sébastien’s clever mind and his voice. Amazing words, Sébastien was a great writer. But they also revealed to me in a way no other words have what it’s like to be told you only have a short time to live, and also what it’s like to develop an unknown illness, a terminal one, to then be in a wheelchair, and to know that this is it. I love that guy, and I think his poems deserve a greater audience. Here are some of his words and thoughts and emotions. We said our farewells after staying the night and sharing lunch. I still cannot believe I’ve been back to that house and that river, and Debs has finally seen where I’d spoken about so often over the years since we’d met. But it didn’t work out how I’d ever thought it would. I still cannot believe that either.
This is the point: life is precious. Make the most of it. And do it now! This is the major driving force behind what we are doing, spending time together as a family, visiting friends, seeing places, making new friends, laughing and smiling. As far as I know we only have this one life and we’re all in it together. So time to share and enjoy our days on earth.
It was strange to continue our journey, but we did, perhaps knowing that despite sacrifices and the budgeting that we have to do, the fact that we were spending so much time together as a family and with friends as we travelled was worth everything. It is everything.
We crossed the border on a mammoth drive to Spain, driven by the heartbeats of reaching a country we love so much (and where Debs can communicate fluently!) and before we knew it we had reached Figueres where Dali was born, and we had to check out his unique museum. What another brilliant mind on display!
Then it was on to beautiful Barcelona. Of course we visited the Sagrada Familia, probably the most astounding building we’ve all seen.
We wandered Barcelona for a day, then after an overnight stay there we spent a day at nearby Sitges. From there we drove to Peñíscola and then headed down to Javea, where Debs grew up. We paused here for a few days, before the last leg of our trip – to Andalusia where we are looking to see if we can get a campsite up and running to offer a space for families and children to experience an Education By Astonishment, as we’ve been lucky enough to have lived for the past year. Now is your time to live. Hope we see you soon! XxxX
“Go for it now. The future is promised to no one.”
– Wayne Dyer, 1940-2015.