August. Every year, one of the largest barbarian migrations is taking place: Whole Europe goes on vacation. Off to warmer climes. Off to other countries. Or off to The Continent, as they say in Great Britain. TTAC’s insular correspondent Cammy Corrigan often mentioned that she would want to write the story of her first trip to The Continent. What better time than this?
“What’s going on?”
“We’re going on holiday!”
“France! Go pack your things! Quickly! We’re leaving in half an hour!”
This didn’t bode well. I hated France. I hated the food, the people, countryside, just everything. It’s not so bad now. Now, I just hate the food. And I’m still not too keen on the people, but it’s a start. In case you were wondering, that was my father. He woke me up to tell me we were going to spend two weeks in France. It’s a shame he couldn’t tell me a few days earlier, I would have more time to pack. Or get sick. But 30 minutes were all I had. I stumbled down to the car, still bleary eyed carrying my sports bag stuffed with clothes. They weren’t folded; I only had thirty minutes, remember? We all bundled into the car and set off. It was a cold, wet morning, 1985 in the UK. The inside of the car had misted up, so I couldn’t even look outside and say goodbye to the UK. I was still tired, but figured I could get a good nap on the plane. Then I noticed that were heading away from Heathrow airport.
“Dad? Why are we heading away from the airport?”
“Airport? We’re not going by plane! We’re driving there!”
Oh God! Car?! CAR?! I’m going to be stuck in a country I don’t like in a flipping box?!
“And there’s a surprise for later!”
I was frightened as to what that could be.
We pulled up into Dover port (located on the South eastern Kent coastline). There was no Chunnel yet. There was a ferry. They hadn’t even started digging for that Chunnel yet. It’s that long ago. My mother handed the port officer our passports and we drove onto the boat. I tried writing “Help! I’ve been kidnapped!” on the misted window, in a last ditch attempt to save myself, but could only write “Help! I’ve b…” My writing was too big.
90 minutes later, we made landfall and were in France. Calais, to be precise. We got onto the wrong side of the road, and so began one of the worst fortnights of my life.
Northern France is pretty dull. It’s mainly industrial towns, like Lille. It was like driving through a series of factories. We eventually came to mid-France and the weather changed, dramatically. 27 degree centigrade. I was sweating like nun awaiting the results of her pregnancy test. I was stuck in a Toyota Corolla (much like the one pictured above). This Corolla was from the era of Toyota’s “fat engineering”. Mechanically, the car was bullet-proof. I couldn’t fault it. But it wasn’t the outside I was interested in. It was the interior. You see, Corollas of that era in the UK, weren’t the most contented. The windows were manual and so were the mirrors. The interior had more plastic than Jocelyn Wildenstein. But more importantly, it had no air conditioning. Let me repeat that for you, I was in 27 degree (81 F for you Yanks) heat AND HAD NO AIR CONDITIONING!
The seats were no help. They were made of the furriest substance known to man. I had one last chance. The window. Nope, my mother had sorted that one out; she was the bean counter for the family.
“Don’t you open that window!”
“Mum, please! I’m dying here!”
“We’ll end up burning more petrol if you open that window! Close it!”
I was going to die of either heatstroke or dehydration in the name of aerodynamics. 3 days into the trip and apart from losing 3 pounds through sweating, nothing of interest happened.
The holiday could have turned out different. A few years prior my father had a Chrysler. A big brute of a machine it was, by UK standards, anyway. It had an engine at least 3 litres big and was so big, it couldn’t fit on our drive or garage. Why am I so vague on details? Because I was too young to remember it that well. In writing this story I spoke to my father to ask him more about the Chrysler. He can’t remember too much about it, other than that it was big, had a very soft ride and comfortable seats. It still didn’t have air conditioning, but at least we’d have had more space and more comfy seats to fall asleep in. Now that I’m a bit more car-savvy these days (keep your snide comments to yourself!) I showed him some pictures to try and jog his memory and the one which closely matched his memory was the Chrysler Saratoga (even though the timelines don’t match up). When I saw the picture I was taken aback. It was quite a good looking car. Well, much better looking than the Corolla. If we had that car and went around Europe, it would have been a more pleasant affair. So, why didn’t we have it any more? Well, my mother (the bean counter, if you remember) couldn’t justify a 3 litre luxo-barge which couldn’t fit in our drive and garage. I suppose on reflection, she was right. But couldn’t she tell him to get rid of it AFTER our holiday?! Anyway, back to 1985.
On the fourth day, we did meet an interesting character. We stopped at a petrol station. It was in the middle of nowhere. And I mean nowhere. The station was on a straight road. If you looked either way all you could see is road. No shops, houses, anything. My dad started talking to the guy who owned the station.
“How long does it take you to drive here for work?”
“Oh I don’t drive.”
A petrol station owner who DOESN’T drive? My dad carried on.
“You don’t drive? So you cycle here?”
“No, I walk.”
“What? You walk?!”
“Yes. I live 8km that way (he pointed).”
“So you walk 8km to open the station at 6am and then close it at mid-night, walk back another 8km and repeat it the next day?”
“Yes! Keeps me active!”
Suddenly, I felt lazy taking the bus to school. After our break, we packed up and headed off. Day 7 and we were now approaching the South of France. I’d lost so much weight through sweating I looked like Calista Flockhart. My mother was moaning at my father for being “too heavy on the accelerator and burning more fuel up” and my father was still staying optimistic through gritted teeth.
But so was I. Because in the distance I could see the beaches. Golden sands, blue waters and beautiful people. It was easy to see why so many rich and famous people buy properties here. For the first time on this trip I was somewhere near “happy”. We could spend a day at the beach and then spend the next week driving back. All of a sudden, just as the beach got closer and closer, it starting getting further and further away.
“Erm, Dad? Why are we going away from the beach?”
“I made a wrong turn. I didn’t want to come here.”
“You DIDN’T want to come here?”
You boys would LOVE that beach, because there, it had been a holiday tradition for centuries to dispense with the bikini top. Maybe that was the reason my Dad didn’t want me to go there. I was young and there wasn’t much to see. Or was it Mum who didn’t want Dad to go?
Then where the hell DID he want to go? Well, do you remember that “surprise” he mentioned earlier?
“We’re not spending the whole 2 weeks in France! We’re driving around Europe! Next stop, Italy!”
Oh God! Our holiday in a box with no air conditioning has expanded from a country to a continent?! My heart sank. As I waved good bye to the beach we headed towards the Italian border. But that’s a story for another time…
To be continued tomorrow.