Camping Space

“I just want somewhere where I can’t see other people,” I sobbed. “There are people everywhere, there’s nowhere to get away from them.” I knew I was being ridiculous and that I was scaring the children, who were too quietly waiting out Mama’s storm in the back of the Volkswagen van, but I couldn’t stop myself. I wanted nature, wanted to camp with only the trees around and the sound of birds. I didn’t want to have someone else’s tent nestled up against our van while we carefully ignored their presence. I wanted space.

That campground in the Pyrenees

We were nearing the end of our summer in France three years ago, and we’d just spent the hot day driving half the length of the Pyrenees chasing the description of a campground: close to nature, quiet and alone. We got there and, while the setting was lovely, it was just the same as all the other campgrounds we’d been to. Camping families piled up against each other, little space separating their campsites, no expectation or thought given to privacy from others.

After 12 years in Europe, I was still looking camping that resembled the camping I missed from my native British Columbia. There, camping means going out into nature. At national and provincial campgrounds, even car campers get a spot complete with picnic table and fire pit, artfully set away from other people, where they can set up their tent and tarp masterpiece so they can live for a few days surrounded by trees and water and wild animals. Part of the pleasure is “roughing it”, without electricity or sanitary facilities with running water. We play games in the dark, dark night, or gaze up at the millions of stars, and, if conditions allow it, we sit by our campfire and harken back to earlier times.

Camping in BC

Camping in Europe is not like that. Here camping is often on an open field near a road. Sometimes sites are separated by hedges or trees but often there are only imaginary straight lines separating spots not much larger than the tent, camper (rv) or caravan (travel trailer) they contain. Tents are big, usually with multiple rooms, and caravans and campers often have identical blue and grey tents set up in front, or at the very least an awning. The sites give you no illusion of being alone, so people retreat to bigger “inside” spaces.

There’s also little roughing it. Nearly every spot has electricity, and usually water close by, and fires are almost never allowed, and you bring your own furniture. There are buildings with toilets, showers and sinks to do the dishes, and lights to get you there after dark. The only wild animals are small birds and bugs. If you’ve forgotten something you can often get it at the small store on the site, or in the nearby village. In many places, especially in France, you can order bread and pastries to be delivered every morning. There may be a swimming pool. There’s almost always a playground. At biggest campgrounds, there are guided activities for the kids in the vacations and even ‘discos’ for the teenagers at night.

Somewhere in France

Part of the issue is simply that there is less space per person in Europe than in North America, and there isn’t much nature that hasn’t been extensively managed by human hands for a very long time. But a lot of it is also perception and expectations. A few days earlier on that trip, as we drove through the French countryside, I was looking at the lines of the farms, noting how everywhere we looked there was evidence of human presence and how it had made the landscape anything but wild (even though it is lovely). Just then, my Dutch husband spoke up. “It sure is empty here, isn’t it?”

These campgrounds are also what people expect. As I write this, I’m sitting at a campground outside of Budapest. Last night, when we returned late from watching the fireworks in the city, I only looked resignedly at the camper that had decided to take the space just next to ours instead of leaving one between us, meaning they were living just outside of our window. The unwritten rule of spacing between people choosing bathroom stalls and bus seats does not apply here. The proximity of others doesn’t bother them at all and they have no way of knowing how much it bothers the non-European me.

One way they are not bothered is that they ignore everyone else, even when they are living with their tent in someone’s window. At a campground in BC, it’s fairly normal to engage in small talk with the neighbours, if you do happen to see them. And if you did end up in speaking distance another group, it would be very odd not to exchange small talk. Here it’s very much like a New York City subway, where everything is seen without eye contact, where what is happening is observed and ignored in the same moment. In these campgrounds, the rule is that you pretend the people next to you do not exist. You don’t talk to them or in any way or interact unless absolutely necessary. Bonds of country or language don’t matter. You also don’t talk to others while doing dishes, at the swimming pool or just about anywhere else. But even as you ignore the others, you are considerate of them (for the most part). You observe the rules, end your conversation precisely at 11 pm, and sweep the water away when you’re done with your shower.

This immunity to the close proximity of others comes, I think, from how close we all live together in urban areas when we’re not on vacation. In my relatively posh and very liveable neighbourhood in the Netherlands, just over 4000 people live in just under half a square kilometre, a population density of over 9000 per km2. In comparison, my hometown of Vancouver has the highest population density in Canada at 5400 people per km2. The European countries that send out the most campers are the Netherlands (508 people/km2), Germany (240 people/km2) and France (119 people/km2). Not surprising that they accept different camping conditions than those found in Canada, where there are just 4 people in a square kilometre or in the US where there are 36.

When I’m at home in Utrecht, I like what the density brings. I like not needing to drive unless I want to, the shops within our neighbourhood, the kids’ activities that they can get to independently, the ability to cycle everywhere, and that we’re close to the train station and the medieval centre. On my last visit home, I was reminded again of how much I disliked all the time in the car and the soulless face of North American suburbia that gives its residents space between them.

But when it comes to camping, I still want the trees and unspoiled nature that I can’t have. I still want the space that isn’t there. But, I have come to accept that this is what camping in Europe is like, that I can’t rail against the inevitable forever. There are no more outbursts, just the quiet appreciation of the space when we do find somewhere where we can be alone.

One of the places we came the closest, in the Netherlands