August. Whole Europe goes on vacation. TTAC’s insular correspondent Cammy Corrigan often mentioned that she would want to write the story of her first trip to The Continent. Last time we left her somewhere on the mountainous road between Nice, France and Ventimiglia, Italy. Let’s catch up with her …
As we were leaving France, my spirits started to lift. Even though I was waving goodbye to the beautiful beach, I saw the silver lining. I’d been to France many times before and was sick of it. I was sick of a country I didn’t like to begin with. But Italy was different. I’d never been to Italy. The closest I’d been to Italy was a Spaghetti Carbonara I had once. I didn’t know what to expect.
My father, if you remember, was driving. And he knew EXACTLY what to expect. You see, driving in the UK is quite a sedate affair. You may get the odd person who’ll stick 2 fingers up at you, but on the whole, it’s quite a stress-free experience. Italy, on the other hand, was its polar opposite.
Traffic lights were just seen as pretty street lamps, road signs were seen as “suggestions” and the most used part of the car was the horn. You see a friend in the street? Honk your horn. Someone cuts you up? Honk your horn. Police stop you? You scream at him and honk your horn. Football team won? You drive up and down the streets honking, you guessed it, your horn. Want to insult an Italian man? Give him the hand signal for two horns, indicating that his wife is sleeping around. If you want to completely disable an Italian car, simply disconnect the horn.
This should give you an idea of how noisy the streets of Italy were.
If the noise didn’t drive you (no pun intended) mad, then the driving would. And the only way to survive on these manic roads was to drive just as mad. And so, for the Italian leg of our trip, my father disappeared and the spirit of Ayrton Senna arrived.
This would have been quite a decent experience, except for one thing. We were in a Toyota Corolla and the last time I checked, Toyota Corollas weren’t famed for their driving dynamics. So there we were, zigging and zagging through Northern Italy in a car with the handling of a…well, Corolla. What also made the experience more unpleasant were my headaches. Remember in the last piece I mentioned that the interior was chock-full of plastic? I also should have mentioned that it was rock hard and the C-pillar was covered in it. And my head was next to it. And the car was twisting more than a car at the Nurburgring. Plastic covered C-pillar + Italian style driving + my head = headaches.
Eventually, we reached our hotel. And for the first time on our holiday, something went right. It was a nice hotel. The beds were comfortable, the food was good and the view was pretty good. The vista was on an Autostrada. That’s Autobahn in Italian. I could watch Italians driving crazy from a safe distance. Morning came and we all went downstairs for breakfast and I noticed something I didn’t last night (probably due to my plastic-induced headache).
EVERY man was picking their noses! It was disgusting. At the breakfast table and we were surrounded by men having a good dig around in their noses! I thought maybe there was a nose picking convention in town and they’d booked the hotel out, but no. When we got back on the road again, I looked out of the window and notice more and more men wondering what treasures lurked in their nasal cavities. Suddenly, my headaches were coupled with nausea. They never showed this in “The Godfather”.
Anyway, we stopped at a petrol station in a beautiful part of the Italian countryside. I went for a wander to see what was around. I walked through a field which were full of daisies four foot high and found a car dealership. I took a closer look and saw it specialised in luxury sports cars. And there was the first time I saw a Ferrari in the flesh. I don’t remember what one it was, but it didn’t matter. The beauty was enough for me. It was red and striking. My eyes just couldn’t leave it. It was like meeting a celebrity. I’d seen them on the TV many times, but it’s a completely different thing to meet one up close and personal. My father then caught up with me.
“It’s a beauty isn’t it?”
He wasn’t wrong. Then the owner of the dealership walked over to us.
“She’s beautiful, no?”
“She sure is!” said my father.
“You interested in buying?”
“Depends. How much can you do for trade in on that?” He pointed to our Toyota Corolla.
Strangely, at that precise point, the owner had to take a phone call. Which was odd because we didn’t hear the phone ring. No matter, back in the sweatbox and off we went.
We jumped the border to Switzerland, a country which was so memorable I slept right through it. Even the Alps couldn’t keep my interest. I must have slept through all of Germany.
We came to Luxembourg. That’s a country which is so small you could fit 269 of them inside Texas and still have room to spare. So you’d think that pretty much nothing could happen here, right? Wrong. We decided to stay in Luxembourg for the night and checked into a hotel. The hotel was nice enough, but the hotel manager was quite odd. In fact, downright creepy, would be another way of putting it. You see, he looked EXACTLY like Count Dracula. His hair was greased back so he had that pointed look to his hairline. He had a pale complexion and his canine teeth were as pointed as his hairline. He even turned up to work (on the nightshift, no less) in a white shirt and black suit! That night when we had dinner, I ordered the garlic chicken with extra garlic and a side order of crucifixes and pointy wooden dowels. I was petrified.
Next morning we woke up and I checked my neck to make sure the hotel manager hadn’t paid us a visit. My mum told me not to be so stupid, get packing and brush my teeth again as I stank of garlic. We left the hotel, jumped in the mobile sauna and set off again. We drove through Belgium and true to stereotype, there was nothing of interest there. Next day, we set off for France and Calais port. It was time to go home and I was never happier than I was then. “Home”. Had a nice ring to it.
We got to Calais port and drove up so customs could do their job. I could see the UK across the sea. It was so close you feel you could jump in the English Channel (which is one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world) and swim there. If you stand on Dover beach and hold your cell phone up (we’ve left 1985 for a moment) you can see it switching between UK and French mobile networks. That’s how close you are. We were only 21 miles away from home. Surely nothing could go wrong here? It could.
The Calais gendarmes (we’re back in 1985, now) asked my father to get out of the car. Out he came. They then started to frisk him. Then, my mother came out demanding to know what was going on. Then handcuffs came out and we knew something serious was about to happen.
You see, while we were travelling around Europe something bad happened in Belgium. On May the 29th, 1985, the Heysel Stadium Disaster had happened where 39 people died. Folks from Liverpool had issues with people from Turin. Major rioting ensued. The authorities were still on the lookout for the instigators. They were convinced my Dad was one of them.
What happened was my mother screaming at them, in French, how they could think that a middle aged man, with his wife and family in a car could be involved in rioting at a football stadium we can’t even spell? After 2 hours of shouting, the French authorities were eventually convinced that my father wasn’t a football hooligan. We drove onto the boat and set sail for the UK. 90 minutes later, we were driving on the right hand side of the road. I meant, the correct side. Home!
I can’t emphasise how glad I was that the fortnight was over. The only positive experience, apart from seeing my first Ferrari, was the fact I’d have some stories to tell. This holiday did something I never thought possible. It actually made me glad to go back to school. Why? Because no matter how badly I behaved, they couldn’t stick me in a Toyota Corolla for 2 weeks with no air conditioning.