Well we’re back in the UK for a spell chasing some work and all that. The drive back was, as ever, eventful though happily not dramatic. We got away late as I was up till 2 am the night before doing some urgent work for a client. We then had to pack the car up in the morning and get the house all cleaned up/locked up which took longer than I had anticipated. I also needed to get the tyres, oil and water etc checked at our local garage in Servigliano and also pick up R’s repaired glasses so we finally headed off around 1pm and needed to make Strasbourg, getting on for 600 miles away. I was already jaded and wasn’t really looking forward to it, truth be told.
The section up to Bologna takes about 3 hours and passed by smoothly. But as we approached Milan we drove through a snow-laden landscape shrouded by this white mist like a scene from The Shining. It was very eerie and atmospheric. Thankfully the roads were still clear – the snow had been falling for days beforehand but had relented the day we drove up and the gritters/ploughs had done their job. What a change from the scene in London over the last 48 hours which has come close to total shut down – no buses nor trains, hardly any tube stations open, airports closed, planes grounded and 50 mile queues on the M25. Mind you we’d only had 72 hours notice that it was coming so we musn’t complain, eh.
But back to the journey home. As we headed up to the Swiss border the snow started falling heavily. Great…. Alpine sports just when you don’t need it. It had already turned dark and the temperature fell to below freezing. My favourite driving conditions in my favourite country. There were hardly any cars on the route up to the Gothard tunnel but plenty of lorries. I hate tracking them in those conditions – they always crawl along 20-30 mph less than I prefer to drive but I was wary of overtaking them in the outside lane which was full of slippery snow. I then hit on the solution which was to blast past them in the many tunnels leading up to the big Goth (gently praying that the wet shiny stuff on the road surface was just water and not sheet ice – not a great place to skid; in a tunnel at 80mph beside a petrol tanker).
Happily we didn’t skid and I had two more reasons to smile in Canton country; firstly passing a lorry load of locally-produced fruit juice which was branded ‘Looza’. Maybe they’re short of them in Switzerland. I guess it could have been worse (or maybe more appropriate) if they’d called it ‘Loosa’. Such fun. I could really make a living being a brand and marketing consultant in the place but I doubt they’d be happy with me dropping the ‘w’ for an ‘h’. Ah well, the second bit of good fortune concerns the road tax. Remember me telling you that the Swiss frontier guards are vicious fascist tax collectors who exist simply to collect 40 Sfr from the unsuspecting visitor. Now in return for this pernicious little toll you get a little sticker which enables the visitor to use the woefully inadequate Swiss motorway system for the remainder of the year without further harrassment from the ubergruppentaxenmeisterfuhren. Well mine had run out on the 31st Dec and all the way up to the frontier point at Chiasso this little knot of resentment was building up inside me at the thought of having to pay the frigging toll yet again. By the time I saw the Swiss border guard standing there in his crisply pressed serge uniform with matching machine gun and tax collection bag, the knot was as big as the Matterhorn. I slowly drove up to him and I could already see him searching the windscreen for the ’09 sticker and then as we pulled up close I flashed him our quietly understated maroon UK passports which because they are beautifully iconic, dazzled him with their brand purity. He let me through without further ado. Looza!
By 8.30pm we’d passed through Basel and were heading up towards Strasbourg; the snow had abated and Switzerland was behind us. Plus we were on a German autobahn so we could at last get out of 3rd gear and drive a little faster than was permissible in missable Swissible. As we headed past Freiburg I noticed we needed to re-fuel so we pulled into the next service station which had a McDonald’s next door. It was after 9.30pm and realising that it was going to be well after 10pm by the time we were going to hit Strasbourg, I suggested to R that we should grab a bite whilst we had the opportunity. It had been a long day and we hadn’t eaten anything substantial since Bologna.
Now I took German at school and although that was back in the Middle Ages, I could still remember a smattering of the language. Anyway a Big Mac’s pretty universally understood so I wasn’t anticipating too many problems ordering our meal. R fancied having a fillet-o-fish meal and it sounded good to me so in my best Lanca-Deutsche I asked the frumpy fraulein from Freiburg behind the counter for zwei fillet-o-fish meals, ein mit Coke und ein mit tea. She plopped the drinks on a tray with one set of fries and a complimentary coffee mug, charged me €7.20 and, in German, invited us to sit down whilst they prepared the rest of the meal. Just as R and I were polishing off the one packet of fries and the drinks, Heidi turned up with a box containing a single fillet-o-fish. Sigh. I gave this to R whilst I went up to the counter where I ordered, or at least thought I ordered, ein fillet mit keine (no) fries und drink. Just a single solitary fillet-o-fish burger, all by itself and as fast as she could please because I was starving and tired and in no mood to play linguistic ping-pong with some Teutonic air-head. She charged me €6.80 which I thought was a little steep for one item but I couldn’t be arsed to argue with her at this point. She asked me to sit down again and 5 minutes later she trotted over with not one but two fillet-o-fish burgers. Sigh. So that night R and I feasted on fish – lots of it. Is it me?
Anyway we got to Strasbourg and found the ‘Premiere Class’ Hotel which C had booked for us. Now it sounds rather special doesn’t it? Well as brand names go, this is a bit of a stretch. Firstly the reception had closed and we could only gain access by re-booking through the automatic check-in facility. So I was concerned we’d paid twice for the room and what a room. I’ve seen better equipped jail cells. It was basic and the bathroom (ho ho) was a plastic triangular wet room screwed into one corner, which leaked water onto the cold lino flooring. But it was at least warm and the cot beds were not uncomfortable and I was out cold before I could say ‘sacre frigging bleu’.
Next morning we headed off early – there wasn’t much to hang around for – and by mid-morning we were heading up the Saar valley, which makes Port Talbot look like Portmeirion on a summer’s day. We had a great brunch before hitting Luxembourg and had a super run through the whole of Belgium. Our ferry was booked for 6pm but we made Dunkirk by 3.15pm and I was hoping they’d let us on the 4pm ferry so that we could get home earlier than planned. However we arrived at the check-in point for Norfolk Line only to discover that the 4pm sailing was cancelled through lack of ferries. Sigh. Having blasted up through Germany, France, Luxembourg, Belgium and France again that day we then had to kick our heels for nearly 3 hours in the most under-resourced terminus building surely in the civilised world. There’s nothing but a hole in the wall snack bar serving stewed coffee and stale biscuits. No duty free area, no newspaper or magazine stand, no internet cafe, no games zone, no tv area. But they did have dozens of bored passengers desperate to find something to spend their spare Euros on in idle time-consuming amusement. It’s such a wasted opportunity Norfolk Line!
Never mind we eventually got on the ferry, made a bee-line for the newspaper stand and the bar-cum-sky-tv-area and spent nearly two hours in happy receive-only mode. The weather when we landed in good old Blighty was dreadful of course. It always, always is whenever we return. But it felt good to be back and after a night or two at my daughter E’s in Brighton I’d soon be hooking up with C in London. And a surprise was in store for my lovely wife….