I’m a little late with this offering, which should have appeared on January 9 to tie in with that day being 20 Nivôse in the French Republican Calendar, and having the name of van.
A van at the time the calendar was created was a winnowing basket, which was a thin, flat wicker basket. It was used to winnow the grain from the chaff by gently tossing the contents of the basket so that the current of air this created carried away the light chaff.
These days, van also means horse-box. And this, in a slightly cheaty way, is what I’m going to talk about on the jour du van. We had a van of this latter variety for many years, but in our case it was actually a llama-box.
Besides our hovel with its accompanying slightly smaller hovel, humungous barn and splendid lakes, one of our first investments in France was llamas. In November 2006, after an initial visit to assess these beguiling camelids at close quarters, we became the owners of the four BOLD boys, namely Bernard, Oscar, Larry and Denis. Bold in Ireland, from where we’d moved to France, has the meaning of naughty, cheeky rather than the UK version of fearless, courageous. True, a llama is no pushover as its habit is to whirl round and face a threat, at least initially, but it has a strong streak of mischief too, as we were soon to discover. The BOLD boys were to be the basis of our llama trekking side hustle, an activity that we hoped would bring us a steady income which would sustain us until our fishing holiday empire became established. Little did we know.
Below is Bernard in his Christmas rug.
We’d hired a van and borrowed a 4x4 to collect the llamas from the vendor, about two hours south from us. Our plan was to offer llama treks at scenic, local spots so we’d need our own van to transport the animals to and fro. We set about studying the rules and regulations concerning PTAC – poids total autorisé en charge i.e. how big a load your vehicle car can pull without anything breaking – in intricate detail. (PTAC has since been replaced by MMTA, short for the even more pompous-sounding Masse Maximale Techniquement Admissable.) We worked out that our solid Renault Grand Scénic would be adequate to tow a smallish van and two, max three, llamas. We’d quickly discounted Larry as being a trekkable llama as he was too nervy, and whilst Bernard was amenable, there was a scheming glint in his eye that I didn’t entirely trust. For the time being, Oscar and Denis would be our stalwarts, so, conveniently, a one-horse van would suffice. Llamas fold up very tidily and compactly, and having done so take up surprisingly little space.
We started to look around and eventually picked up a forty-year-old wooden horse box from Espace Emeraude in Montluçon. It was dignified rather than smart, not quite managing to conceal the fact it had seen much better days, but it was functional and affordable and those were the crucial factors. Over the next week, I set about transforming it from brown to shades of purple. Caiti and Chris produced a wooden stencil of a llama, and so silver llamas, together with announcements of llama trekking and our phone number, soon graced the transformed van. It looked really rather magnificent and it was definitely eye-catching.
As it turned out, it only got used in its official capacity a few times. We did some practice runs with the van and llamas to a couple of venues, namely St Priest, Malval and Bois de Lassoux, and did just the one trek with clients at the latter venue. Then bluetongue disease descended on Europe. This unpleasant disease is spread by midges. It is particularly nasty in sheep with a high morbidity rate, but also affects other ruminants although to a less drastic degree. I looked into getting my llamas vaccinated against it but the local DDSV (Direction Départementale des Services Vétérinaire) hadn’t authorised the vaccine for camelids so that was a non-starter. The vet sold me a powerful but-eradicating liquid with which to swab down the van, and I coated my animals liberally with an assortment of insect repellents but we decided the safest bet was not to leave the farm. We therefore created two trekking routes around our estate: the Balade Grand Lama walk for longer legs, and the Balade Petit Cria for smaller clients. (Balade might look like ‘ballad’ and suggest music was involved, but it’s what’s called a sneaky faux ami – false friend – which implies a shared meaning between similar-looking words in two different languages, although none is in fact present.) There were quiz questions on the way round as a fun way of teaching clients a few llama facts and figures. We got featured in local papers, and even on TV.
Our llama trekking enterprise only lasted a few years. There was plenty of interest in seeing the llamas for free, but not in paying to go on a relaxing walk with them. We never got close to even breaking even on the project. Our little souvenir shop, which sold equitable trade items made by villagers in Peru, plus some home-produced goods, didn’t make much money either, despite young Ruadhrí’s enthusiastic salesmanship. And so we retired the llamas. Their job now was to look jolly in our fields and lend novelty value to our gîte. The van carried on being useful in a more practical, less aesthetic way. We used it to bring home from the budget hardware store the many large items we needed for renovating the two hovels. On one of these trips the back door fell off, but fortunately on our driveway and on the outward journey. Wheel-related problems eventually rendered the van unroadworthy, but that didn’t mark the end of its life. It became a pig house, at different times and in different combinations, for the various members of our trio of Berkshire pigs and their offspring. With its weatherproofness, easy-access ramp and still-smart appearance we thought it was truly a porcine des-res. The pigs showed their appreciation by trashing it. Bit by bit they chewed, rubbed and ate sections of it away, reducing it to a shadow of its former glory. Strong winds did some damage too, but nothing compared to what the pigs inflicted.
However, there’s a happy ending. A French handyman acquaintance of ours now has possession of our van and is doing it up even as I write this. Our van will ride again.