Mike and I drove down from London to the south of France in a VW camper van with a gay couple my step-dad befriended in the 60s. Rob and Paul were a gruff duo who rarely touched, and slept in separate beds. Paul had Parkinson’s and was an artist: his bed was child-sized for some reason, and he had to curl himself up into a ball to fit in it.
The VW had been converted; Rob said he added a yard to it. It had a toilet in the back but we were discouraged from using it. It also had a small stove Rob used to soft boil eggs.
Rob had eyebrows that made him look like an owl, and his nose glowed hot when he drank. He had a phobia about cheese which was rooted in a childhood experience he never talked about. That was fine, except it ruined more than one night out in a French restaurant, when Rob would confront the waiter about the food and had it been in contact with cheese, because Rob was certain it had.
Paul collected antiques and modified them to works of art. Their house in London was stuffed full of projects, some of which hung on the walls as complete, most of which were in progress. He also made lewd illustrations which are probably best not described here, and which I had to get rid of, for fear of someone else finding them and getting the wrong idea about me.
The drive from London to the south of France was sadly similar to Pennsylvania. Rob did all the driving — and I almost forgot, they had their two Basset hounds with us, too. We’d stop periodically to let the Bassets out, and they’d look back at us bored and morose, similar to the looks we’d get from Rob and Paul, in the back seat.
There was no drinking in the van, unless we stopped. Then, we’d make gin and tonics and leave the side doors open, and Mike would smoke cigarettes as Rob and Paul chastised him.
Rob and Paul made no efforts to speak French, with the French. In fact, it was a kind of defiant English they spoke that made me embarrassed. Paul would just talk louder if the waiter didn’t understand, and his tone would sharpen as his face got red.
Rob and Paul slept outside in the camper van at my mom’s condo, near the Mediterranean sea. They might have showered once that week, and wore about the same outfit every day, although Rob wore a pressed shirt and tucked it in, while Paul, thinner, wore a combination of layers and hats.
They called every Christmas and we handed the phone around, describing what we had eaten and drank. I don’t remember how exactly they met my step-dad John, but it’s they who led us to a small town in France, befriended the artist Barry Blend, and left me with a lot of art that adorns our walls, including my favorite, a pub sign that says Youngs Snug Bar.
It’s confusing to my kids because the people who last owned our house were named Young, so they thought the prior owners left it behind. Now it’s ours, along with the sign.