Thursday, December 23, 2010

Driving home for Christmas.....

With the second 'cold front' hitting the UK, the talk on the news is all of cancelled flights, ruined holiday plans and tearful children who won't see granny at Christmas.  I have an involuntntary shudder as I am reminded of our one and only attempt to get to Sussex for Christmas with my parents when we lived in France.

I've taken this post from my old French blog and am sharing it for anyone who's Christmas plans have gone t*ts up.  You have my sympathies.

"At this time of year among the overseas community the most often asked question is 'Are you going to the UK for Christmas?'. Normally for us it would be yes but we are still traumatised by our last trip back for Christmas two years ago.

It's a long story, so pour yourself a glass of wine and pull up a chair.......

It all started a few weeks before Christmas when the Grand Gasguzzler started making a whining noise. I'm used to most whining noises (well I have two children don't I?) but this was different.

We took it to Monsieur L who has serviced our cars since we arrived in France. He kept it for the day, fiddled a bit and returned it to us. Still it whined. We sent it back, he fiddled, it came back whining. He thought it might be the gearbox but wasn't sure.

This carried on for several weeks until two days before Christmas. I went to collect the car.

"Is it fixed?" I asked in my bestest French.

"Erm, actually no" he replied in his bestest French

"What do you think it is?"

"I think there's a problem with the gearbox" he replied

"A big problem?"

He shrugged his best Gallic shrug

"The thing is" he said "I don't actually deal with automatic gearboxes. Don't really know a thing about them"

I tried to keep calm. What on earth had I been doing for the past weeks wasting my time with a garage that doesn't 'do' automatic gearboxes. I could have been sending it to a garage that did!

"You do know we are driving to the UK in two days?" I said, trying to keep the panic out of my voice. "Do you think it will make it?"

He shrugged another Gallic shrug.

I dashed home, looked at the huge pile of presents, cases of wine, food and other goodies we were planning to take, checked out the cost of flights (surely that must be the price in Chilean Pesos or something, it can't be sterling!!), had another quick panic and realised that we really had no other choice. There was no Plan B.

On 22nd December we set off, the Grand Gasguzzler stuffed to the roof with all our goodies. We decided to go for it and do the journey in one day, taking it easy to give the gearbox a fighting chance.

All went perfectly until just south of Rouen when suddenly the car started missing gears. The CH drove on, a smile (or more of a grimace) fixed on his face. I eyed him nervously.

"Should the car be doing that?" asked DD

"Don't worry, it's fine" I replied, my voice just a little too loud and high to be convincing.

Gradually, it started missing gears more and more. Finally, we came off a roundabout and it wouldn't move out of first gear. We limped along, to the annoyance of the other drivers, for a few kilometres until we found a layby and pulled in.

"Bugger, bugger, bugger" I said (or that's roughly what I said anyway)

We called the breakdown service who arrived within minutes. The mechanic did much sharp intaking of breath and pulling of chin.

"The gearbox is foutu" he said. (See earlier post for a translation of foutu)

"I could take you to Calais if you want. It would cost..... let me see..... 900 euros..... cash"

And a Bloody Merry Christmas to you too, I thought.

I phoned the insurance company (in France, breakdown insurance is included in your car insurance). They told me they would put us up in a hotel for the night then hire a car for us to go to Calais but from then on, we were on our own as they only had to take us as far as the French border.

The car was towed to a garage where the owner had a quick look, confirmed the diagnosis of a gearbox foutu and said, at a rough estimate it would cost 10,000 euros to repair.

I can't think of a suitably onomatopoeic word for somebody having a heart attack, but you get the rough idea!

"You have to be joking! I don't think the car is worth that much" I said, rapidly losing the ability to speak French.

He shrugged his Gallic shoulders.

The CH and I looked at our enormous pile of luggage and realised that there was no way we could get it all back to the UK as foot passengers on the ferry. With heavy hearts, we handed over a case of decent wine to the garage owner. Had we known that he would eventually charge us nearly 200 euros for 'parking' at his garage we would have been less generous!

A taxi (a large one) came and took us to a nearby hotel. The driver was lovely and terribly sympathetic with our plight. So we gave him a case of wine too .... but he deserved it.

At the hotel, everyone had heard of our disaster.

"Don't worry" said, the receptionist "It could have been worse" (how exactly?)

We arrived in our room, exhausted and not a little stressed. The children were wonderful. Not a word of complaint. We still seemed to have the equivalent of an EU wine and food mountain with us, not to mention the christmas presents.

"I don't know how we are going to get this lot back to the UK" said the CH, mirroring my thoughts. "Let's just hope they get us a big hire car".

Early the next day, Alain from the insurance company phoned.

"The news isn't good, Madame" he said

God, what did I do in a past life?

"There are no hire cars available in the whole of the north of France"

"What do you mean? No cars available"

"Well, actually, as it's Sunday all the offices are closed"

Damn France and its Sunday Trading laws!!

"Don't you have an emergency number or something?" I asked hopefully

"I'm afraid not. There's no car"

"Just give me a minute and I'll call you back" I said.

"What did he say?" the CH asked, knowing it wasn't good

"There are no bloody hire cars available!"

"So what do we do?"

Well with all these boxes of wine we could probably build a flaming raft and sail the Channel!

"I'm phoning my Mum" I said.

"I don't think now's the time....."

Oooooh, be quiet and give me the phone.

"Mum, can you check out the Eurostar and see if there are any seats available"

Hah! What a clever girl I am. All is not lost after all.

Eventually Dad called back to say there was space on all the Eurostars, we just had to get to Paris. Right, now we have a Plan B.

I called the insurance company. They said they would book us tickets from Rouen to Paris, arrange all the transfers and even better, it was free of charge. Hallelujah! There is a God after all.

"Right," I said to the CH. "We need more suitcases."

We dashed down to reception who confirmed there was a supermarket open for the next hour which might sell suitcases. A map was drawn and the CH and DS set off.

Nearly two hours later and they hadn't returned. That's it, they've been kidnapped by gypsies. It's all over. I'm a widow now. (Well I was just a teensy bit stressed)

They finally arrived back dragging two suitcases.

"It took longer to get there than we thought" said the CH "and the receptionist forgot to mention the 6 lane motorway that runs between here and the supermarket!"

"So what did you do?" I asked nervously.

Turns out they had to run across the motorway. Thank God it was Sunday so there was hardly any traffic. We sorted out the presents and food and made a 'Must Go' and a 'Can't Go' pile.

The insurance company rang back. No seats on the train till tomorrow morning.

"That would be Christmas Eve then, the 24th?"

Cutting it far too fine for my liking but we had no choice. The following day we packed up our 7 suitcases and assorted carrier bags. We distributed our bounty to the hotel staff, who all collected to see us off. The nice taxi driver turned up and we set off for the station in Rouen.

Now Rouen is a biggish place so I imagined it would be a bit like Waterloo Station or something with a few bookshops and a couple of nice places to keep warm and have a coffee.

Wrong..... it was a dreadful place, full of drunks, completely open on one side so it was freezing and the only cafe, which was decidedly grotty, was closed.

Never mind, only 2 hours to wait ... on cold metal seats. A girl could get piles like this!

Eventually the platform number came up. It was the only platform that was on a different level.

We took the children and a few suitcases down first, then left them there, with strict instructions to speak to nobody, and dashed off for the rest of the luggage. They looked like little evacuees with their suitcases and carrier bags slung round their necks like gasmasks!

After several trips we finally had all our bags and children on the platform waiting for the train.

"Gosh, you have a lot of luggage" said a lady standing next to us.

"Yes, our car broke down. We are on the way to the UK for Christmas"

The train arrived, we hauled all our stuff on with the help of some other passengers.

"Gosh you've got a lot of luggage" they said.

"Yes, we are on the way back to the UK for Christmas and the car broke down."

We smiled weakly and collapsed into four conveniently empty seats by the door. After a few minutes the CH asked about a sign above our heads.

It said 'These seats are reserved for pregnant women and people who were mutilated in the war'. Honest, that's what it said! Just let them try and move me, I thought..

We arrived in Paris with three Eurostars still left. All that remained was the short transfer between stations. We phoned the insurance company to make sure that there was a people carrier to transport us, spelling out exactly how much luggage we had. No problem, we were told.

Any my biggest mistake was to believe them.

We were told to go out and wait at the taxi rank. A man was standing there holding a plaque with our names on.

"Is this all yours?" he asked, indicating our luggage.

"Yes, you have got a people carrier haven't you? I specifically asked for one"

"Well, not exactly"

He led us to a large saloon car and one look was enough to realise that not even half our bags would fit in it. He said he'd call the office and get a bigger car and not to worry as he would wait until it arrived.

I called the insurance company to make sure that the message was relayed that we needed a BIG car.

"No problem" said Alain. Now where have I heard this before.

I reported back to the CH and the children that the taxi would arrive any minute. The taxi driver confirmed that his colleague was on his way, he wished us Bon Voyage and left. By now it was starting to snow and was bitterly cold.

Half an hour later we were still standing there, DD's lips were now a very unbecoming shade of blue. Right, I'm ringing the insurance company again. I took out my phone. Damn, the battery was dead. I took the CH's and rang the number. It rang a few times before starting to beep and the screen went blank. Both phones were out of battery.

I went off to find a payphone with instruction to sit on the taxi driver if he arrived while I was gone. I found a payphone which took credit cards, the only one in the station. Of course that meant it was a popular spot for making those last minute Christmas phonecalls to your extended family in Djibouti. I waited patiently in line while the caller spoke to most of her hometown before I was able to make my call.

"Alain, where's this taxi? We've already missed one Eurostar"

He went off to check.

"The taxi company says it's at the station"

Great. I ran back expecting to see the CH loading up our bags into a nice Renault Espace but no, they were all still sitting on our cases in the snow like a family of Romanian refugees.

Back to the phone and the next caller to Djibouti. I waited again

"Alain, where is this taxi?" I was starting to get annoyed.

He went off to check.

"He says he can't find you"

"Tell him we are the family sitting on a mountain of suitcases at the side entrance to the station. He can't miss us." I gave him road names, landmarks and apart from satellite coordinates I couldn't do any more.

"OK. He'll come and find you"

I went back to the frozen ones, stopping just to make sure that DD hadn't frozen to death. I checked my watch. Another Eurostar had left.

"I don't bloody believe it! It's going to be Christmas in Paris at this rate" I shouted.

"Mum," came a tiny, frozen voice "I don't want to be in Paris for Christmas. I want to be at Grandma's"

God bless them but it was the only thing vaguely approaching a complaint that either of them had made.

Another 15 minutes passed. Right, now I'm really angry!

I rushed back to the phone. Physically removed the poor woman who was using it and rang the insurance company.


"There's no reason to be angry, Madame" he said.

"Au contraire, Alain, there is every reason to be angry! I've waited for nearly 3 hours in the snow. I've told you exactly where are standing and still the flaming taxi driver isn't here. I don't want to spend Christmas in some shitty little hotel in Paris. Now get this sorted out!"

I we back to where the others were, literally, frozen to the spot. Within minutes a taxi driver arrived..... on foot.

"I'm parked on the other side of the station. Follow me"


He ran off like a scalded cat and several minutes later arrived where we were waiting. In a delicious irony, he was driving a Grand Gasguzzler!.

He whizzed through the Paris traffic to the Gare du Nord. I could feel myself visibly relaxing. We were going to make it!

We rushed into the station which was heaving and headed for the ticket desk. Us and about 200 other people. We only had 20 minutes before the last train left there was no way we'd get down the queue in that time.

I left the others in the queue and went to investigate the ticket machines.

'All tickets' it said. That must include the Eurostar then!

I put in my credit card, selected the last Eurostar, pressed the button for 4 tickets, blanched slightly when I realised it would cost us 500 euros and in a whirr of machinery, they dropped into the slot. You could hear the whoop of joy across the station.

We grabbed our three luggage trolleys and headed for the Eurostar platform.

'One suitcase per passenger' the notice said but they were obviously in festive spirit and let us through.

"Gosh you've got a lot of luggage!" they said. "

Yes we have, haven't we" I said through gritted teeth.

We ran to the platform.

"Come on love," shouted the Eurostar man. "Let me give you a hand. Hey, Ern, come and give us a hand. Gosh you've got a lot of luggage...!" AAAARRRRRGGHHHHHH!

With literally minutes to spare we were on the last Eurostar out of Paris on Christmas Eve. Our epic journey was nearly over. We were going to be home for Christmas!

So now you see why we don't go anywhere for Christmas now."


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