Simon Apfel: The Dark Night – One night exposed to the elements in an industrial hellhole
The coast of France is associated in most people’s minds with azure skies and white sandy beaches; with lazy afternoons sitting at quaint outdoor cafés sipping Moët out of long, elegant flutes; with supreme ease and leisure, and a general air of comfort and contentment. Which makes it an unlikely setting for the worst experience of my life.
This is the rare case where learning from experience turns out to be catastrophic. Four years earlier, also in August, having run out of travelling money, I’d spent an entire week living on a beach in the Greek Island of Aegina. And it had been a relatively calm, comfortable, enjoyable week. I certainly couldn’t recall feeling cold at any stage. And that is why, stepping off the boat in Dieppe, northern France, with little more than 500 Euros in my wallet – an amount meant to last me an entire week seeing as much of the country as I could – I made the call to rough it. It would just be one night. It was already after 5pm. By bedding down on the beach, I’d have more cash to burn in more appealing locales over the rest of that week. The question you might be asking at this stage is, isn’t the French coast spectacular? Well, not all of it. And Dieppe was a hell-hole, no question about it. A belching, steaming, noxious industrial wasteland. Think Isando by the sea and then add more factories and smog. I was only here because Dover-to-Dieppe was the shortest, cheapest route to France from England. I made my way from the harbour to the beach, about an hour’s walk, in high spirits. I may even have been whistling La Marseillaise. As the sun set over the English Channel, I waded into the water for my evening ablutions. It was as I was wading out that I received the first fleeting premonition of what awaited me that night. A sharp breeze swept over the waves and lashed me across the chest. I shivered briefly. It snapped me out my warm, happy daze and I suddenly realised two things that I should probably have realised before. Not every European country has the same climate. And the beach I was about to spend the night on was covered not with soft white sand, but with hard jagged pebbles. Darkness settled in, and the breeze came on stronger and the pebbles got harder and sharper. It’s now 9pm. I’m tossing and turning on a bed of rocks, and wearing every single item of clothing I have in my bag. My face is wrapped in socks and underpants. And every time the wind whips up, I get a new, richer understanding of the term “bone-chilling”. I remove seven sets of underpants from my eyes and cast a look around in wild desperation. Beach huts! I make a dash for it in a hail of ocean spray and stinging sand, arms upraised, Barber’s Adagio for Strings ringing in my ears, like Willem Dafoe rushing headlong through a Vietnamese battlefield in Platoon. F%$#! The doors are locked and bolted. I notice that the huts are raised from the beach on sets of stilts. I dive under one of the huts seeking shelter, but it’s basically just a wind tunnel. My desperation growing to the point of madness I wedge myself between two huts. I’m now suspended in mid air, wedged between two multi-coloured wooden structures on a deserted beach somewhere in the North of France, warmer than I was, but also struck by the realisation that I’ve just exceeded the limits of what I’m willing to do for warmth. Besides, sleep in the surreal position my body now finds itself is an impossibility. I’m a light sleeper, granted, but Sleeping Beauty on Temazepam would have struggled under these conditions. It’s time to consider my options. Still wrapped up in seven layers of clothing, my face shrouded in socks and underwear, I gather up my empty backpack and start to head back to the mainland. It’s almost midnight but the factories are in full force, thick blankets of smoke billowing out into the black sky. Electric pylons are buzzing ominously overhead. An inexplicable grinding noise fills the air. There are shit-loads of bats. In the distance there’s a cackle of laughter. It stops, then a few minutes later, it starts up again. It sounds like Satan himself. The wind is now a low sensuous moan, ripping through the streets and alleyways, rising and falling like a siren. My insides are ice, my face frozen stiff, my body numb from the neck down, as I trudge through this hell-scape. I’ve reached the town centre, and, unsurprisingly, nothing’s open. I’m not even sure there is a backpacker’s lodge, or any kind of lodgings for that matter. I try banging on the door of a house. An upstairs window opens, and a woman bellows allez-vous en! and slams the window shut. I don’t speak French, but her meaning is not ambiguous. I have a brainwave. I recall that the harbour building was mostly enclosed, and that there was an inviting row of seats. I feel a twinge of something it seems I haven’t felt in years. Hope… There’s a guard manning the harbour gate. The gate is locked. The guard shakes his head. The date is 7/7/05. The co-ordinated terror attacks on the London Underground happened earlier that day, and public transport nodes across Europe are in full lock-down mode. At this point, I realise that God doesn’t really like me. I’m tottering around Dieppe, drunk with cold, sobbing uncontrollably. The hours drift by glacially and I’m not even sure what I’m doing or where I’m going. I have no game plan at all. Eventually I collapse in a heap on a small patch of grass in the centre of town. The spot is somehow insulated by the surrounding buildings, and it’s a little less cold, but it’s the exhaustion and fear and deep existential despair that sends me to sleep somewhere around 4.30am. I wake up to the world ending. Or beginning. Last night I understood for the first time what it means to be cold, and now I’m experiencing a new frontier in noise. Horns honking, shop shutters being pulled up, enormous loads being laid down, jack hammer drills boring into concrete, people bellowing across the street at each other. Removing the underpants and socks, I rub my eyes and look around. I’m in the centre of town in the most literal sense. The place where I fell asleep is some sort of traffic circle at the epicentre of Dieppe. There are cars whizzing around me, and what seems like the entire town coming to life within a 10-metre radius. There’s a happy ending to this story. A chink of light that makes it possible for me to recount it at all. The cold having thawed as if it was never there, I took abrisk walk to Dieppe train station, and booked a ticket to the neighbouring town of Rouen, the next stop on my itinerary. The plan was to make my way to Paris in stages and then spend the bulk of my trip there. It worked out cheaper that way. I paid the 15 Euros for the ticket, took my seat in the train, and immediately fell asleep. I woke up in Paris. I’d slept three-and-a-half hours and saved 120 Euros on train fare. With that unanticipated windfall, and after making detailed inquires about the establishment’s heating facilities, I booked a night at the first backpacker’s lodge I came across. I never slept on a beach again. DM