One from the Archives – TSP69 – Sept. 2008

Liberté, Fraternité and Car Parks


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Surfing France without the flash apartments and bourgeois bars can teach you a lot about life. Question is, do you want to know?

Story By Wil Crisp

If you were to take a stroll along Hossegor’s beachfront on a summer’s evening you could be forgiven for thinking that the surf lifestyle was one of endless overpriced half-litres of lager, consumed in the shiniest of bars by beautiful people wrapped up in the trendiest surf gear. But there’s much more to surfing in France than sashaying between the Rockfood and the Rip Curl Pro in €70 flip flops.

Trawl the free campsites dotted along the French Atlantic coast and you’ll find a very different style of surf tourist, ranging from German techno-freaks playing drug-fuelled five-a-side football in caravan parks, to single-fin toting hippies chilling out in pine forests. This summer I stumbled across a campsite a mere 10km away from Hossegor’s cocktail-sipping surf fashionista, which opened my eyes to the lengths some people will go to when they’re hunting French barrels on a budget.

My friend Matt and I were feeling a bit strapped for cash. He was looking at the prospect of spending his final year of university living out of the back of his van and I was about to move to the city with barely any bank balance, but we decided that couldn’t stop us from having one last end-of-summer French surf binge.

The trip took a slant towards the surreal when we stopped to ask for directions to a free campsite at a small supermarket, only to be told the site we were looking for was the supermarket car park itself.

Netto is a low-cost French supermarket chain, which, it turns out, encourages people to camp outside their shops. Why would any business do this? Was it some kind of trap or just a desperate ploy to boost croissant sales? As we exited the shop we suspiciously eyed the car park and decided to pitch our dome tents on a welcoming patch of tarmac next to a white van with a couple of Frankenstein surfboards in the back.

Gradually we became assimilated into the strange utopian community of the car park. The resident traveller-gypsy-types showed us how to find the best food in the supermarket bins and we ... shared everything from herbs and gas stoves to skateboards and ding repair kits.

The van’s owner quickly introduced himself as Sam. Sam was an unusual evangelical Christian in his mid-twenties. He divided his time in the car park between pushing around on his long skateboard, sucking his pipe, muttering bawdy stories or lecherous comments (“Oh why Lord, won’t you give me a hunk of that ass?"), and handing out evangelical pamphlets. And at no point would he stop talking. He was impossible to shut up, forever spilling his soul, confessing and jive talking. He’d also occasionally enter a religious reverie and speak in tongues as well as make outrageous statements, like claiming his 1970s mini-mal with a missing centre fin was the most responsive surfboard ever made; and boasting that he’d eaten the still-beating heart of a giant blackbird he killed with a catapult.

With Sam we would learn that Netto was much more than just an unpleasant-looking, urban campsite.

Gradually we became assimilated into the strange utopian community of the car park. The resident traveller-gypsy-types showed us how to find the best food in the supermarket bins and we pooled our resources with everyone else, who shared everything from herbs and gas stoves to skateboards and ding repair kits.

We’d spend all day with Sam at various nearby beaches and retire to the cool, fine-grained asphalt of the car park at night where we’d circle our vehicles with the Dutch and the gypsies and sit down to a feast of rescued ready-meals, stale cakes and one-day-past-their-sell-by-date yoghurts. We’d talk over the day’s highlights and hold-downs, try to invent new skateboard tricks, discuss the finer points of camper-van conversion, and argue over the likelihood of the gypsies’ dogs overheating and dying inside their trucks.

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The longer we lived in the car park the more we learnt just how ‘special’ our Netto companions were. The gypsy-traveller-posse would sometimes disappear for a couple of days before turning up again with increased supplies of cheap red wine, out of date food and feral animals; while the Dutch family would engage in seemingly endless games of some kind of bastard tennis variant; and Sam constantly revealed more bizarre character traits/flaws. Apart from his obsession with waves and women he was fanatical about his budget (two Euros a day, not including petrol money, supplemented by cash made busking with a mandolin he had no idea how to play). This obsession had led to an almost pathological compulsion to cost everything. It wasn’t unusual for him to calculate the price of a single sandwich’s worth of jam when spreading it on a baguette or approach dog owners to ask them how much their pets cost them per week.

The Netto family we had become part of was a many-armed monster. Everyone staying in the car park came from completely different backgrounds, with different qualities and outlooks on life. In fact, all the Netto inhabitants seemed deeply dysfunctional and completely incompatible, but were united through a shared love of cheap living and surfing.

Car park life did have its downsides, like the human shit clogging up the drain under the only tap, which supplied dubious-looking, yellowy water; and the constant paranoia that an absent-minded shopper would run you over as you slept; but the pros far outweighed the cons.

What other campsite has such a smooth, floodlit surface for late night skating? Where else on earth could gypsies in dirty pick-ups live in harmony with weird Dutch families in 40ft motor homes? And surely there’s no other campsite in France, which supplies its residents with tons of free food every day?

Netto showed me that there’s more than one way to skin a surf trip. Sometimes it’s nice to have the cold beers and beachside apartment or the five-star campsite with flumes and a disco. But you know you’re really having fun when you’re arm wrestling a gypsy on a pile of pallets, beating Dutch children in midnight games of skate, or having a drunken ‘who can eat the most risky thing out of the trash’ competition.

Maybe if you choose a classy campsite or chalet your water will be clean and you won’t be resigned to a nightly argument about whether the Bible is better than The Stormrider Guide to Europe, but you also won’t get the companionship of freaks like Sam or the satisfaction of passing out on cool tarmac after a long day of battling French waves.

Screw the Rock Food. Vivre le Netto!

The author Wil Crisp grew up in Guernsey, Channel Islands, UK, where he became well versed in the disciplines of the beach: swimming, surfing, beach games, beach art, and sun bathing. He’s currently doing a radio course in London, which means spending a lot of time skateboarding, photocopying and persuading his friends to take him to Cornwall.