Travel: Have you ever heard the one about ...

relives an old joke

A JOB AS a coach courier for British tourists, operating out of a campsite in the south of France, was not the most glamorous of occupations. Most of the summer was spent going up and down the motorway between St Tropez and Monaco. Heading east every morning, squinting into the sun, and coming west every afternoon, squinting into the sun. Once a week, though, I would take a coach up to the Gorges du Verdon, a grande canyon lying to the north of Draguignan - a true natural wonder, unlike the ersatz pleasures of Monte Carlo.

One day, the campsite owner asked me if I spoke German. I said I'd learnt the language during a stint working for the British Army in Berlin. "We've got a load of Poles coming tomorrow and they want to see the Gorges. Take them up in their coach, give them a German commentary and I'll pay you double."

There were still a few years until the fall of the Wall, and east Europeans were fairly unknown in the west.

The next morning the campsite knew all about the arrival of a coach from Poland. It had spluttered and coughed its way over the Maures mountains, and along the coast road to St Tropez. The driver parked up at the entrance to the site, but left the engine running, almost single-handedly provoking a smog warning, and narrowly avoiding a forest fire.

Bright and early the next morning, I found my group of Polish tourists all waiting patiently outside the coach. As they climbed aboard, each and every one shook me by the hand and said something in Polish. "They are very happy," the group leader told me. All the men wore tank-tops two sizes too small.

The Polish coach was a prime example of east European technology. The chairs wobbled and the exhaust gases seemed to be filtered through the bus before being redirected out the back. That smell amalgamated with the curious aroma of miscellaneous provisions, mainly of the sausage variety, brought from home.

I launched into the commentary, a little unsure of my German, but I gamely struggled on as we climbed through the mountains towards Le Muy. As the miles rolled by, I was getting more confident with my foreign commentary. I turned around to face them once or twice and they seemed to be rapt. I was enjoying myself now, and even told a couple of jokes.

Near Draguignan, the driver leaned over and attempted to engage me in conversation, or so I thought, in English. I pretended to understand, but his accent was thick enough to cut. He tried French, and this time I understood. "My brakes are knackered", was the gist of it. "Any idea where we can get them fixed?"

I located the group leader and reminded him that we would be driving along the edge of the largest canyon in Europe on narrow roads. Would it not have been a good idea to get this checked out before? He shouted at the driver, who gesticulated wildly for a while. Everyone had a bit of a shout, but eventually they all seemed happy. "Forget it, we'll be fine. Let's just go on," he said.

We made our precarious way along the lip of the canyon. At the far end is a beautiful lake, with sparkling green water just crying out to be swum in. Everyone was desperate to get off the bus, but first I got the group leader to deliver the lecture about not getting sunburnt, be careful on the pedalos and, above all, get back to the coach on time, it being rude to keep your fellow travellers waiting, etc.

I had brought a couple of visiting friends from home along on the trip. Normally, I would sunbathe and read while the punters were off having fun, but my friends decided we just had to go downriver on a pedalo. It is a wonderful way of seeing this spectacular place, so we drifted along merrily until I realised we only had 30 minutes to get back to the coach. "We'd better be getting back," I said, but as we turned we realised how difficult this would be. We were pedalling against the water and didn't seem to be moving. An hour later, our leg muscles screaming in pain, we rounded the end of the gorge and managed to look up to where the coach waited. Silhouetted against the bright sky were 50 Poles, arms crossed.

I staggered up the ridge and apologised with every German expression of sorrow I could muster. The leader pulled me aside: "Do you speak English?"

"Of course I do, I am English. Why's that?" I asked.

"Because nobody on the coach speaks German."

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Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


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