After a wonderful Sunday with the Bache family – collecting croissants from the boulangerie van in the village, breakfast outside in the sun, precision log stacking, a couple of highly-competitive games of footie with Ben, a drive in Paul’s Fiat Barchetta through some winding rural roads (WOW! I want!) and a roast lunch served by lovely friends of theirs in a neighbouring village – we were finally beginning to wind down as our trip reached its end.
As both Rachel and I have mentioned, my poor Nan isn’t very well, so we’ve decided to cut short our trip and head to the Midlands to bolster her, and hopefully get her back on track. Plus, give some moral support to my parents, who are worried sick about her. These things have to be done. So, apart from a detour to Bordeaux for duck fat chips at La Tupina restaurant, on Monday morning we were beginning our return journey, up along the west coast of France, after hugging the Pyrenees for the first stretch of the journey. First stop: Bordeaux. Second stop: a “glamping” site in Brittany. Third stop: Rouen and a vet stop for Henry’s last jabs. Fourth stop: Bromsgrove. It works out at about 1200km in total, so a fair way to go, but with some sightseeing in between I was hoping it wasn’t going to be too much of an arduous drive. French motorways are really bloody boring.
However, I would have preferred dull, straight roads with no excitement compared to what happened next. We were cruising (well, as much as our 4×4 does cruise) along a brand-new stretch of motorway, connecting the Pyrenees with Bordeaux. With about 100km to go before we reached our culinary pit-stop, the car began to shudder. Rachel was reading us a story – such was the arrow-like straightness of the new tarmac – and had to be hushed as I felt the shudders increase and the spluttering begin. At 60mph, the car cut out and we coasted onto the emergency hard-shoulder. Luckily, the motorway was deserted (an expensive stretch of toll, we’d decided to treat ourselves so we could spend as much time as possible in Bordeaux), so there were no scary lorries shaking our stationary car as they passed. It was made all the more quiet by the fact it was a Bank Holiday in France. Rachel and I exchanged looks and after a few turns of the key, the engine started over again. And then stopped. A few more tries and we were off! Oh blessed be! My toe glanced the accelerator, not pushing her too hard, but not letting the revs die either – it was precarious driving, but we were moving and racing towards Bordeaux. After about 10 minutes, the shuddering began again and we conked out and glided into an SOS bay. After a few more turns of the engine, it was clear we weren’t going anywhere – and certainly not Bordeaux. I traipsed to the orange SOS booth, had a quick look at the terms and conditions (noting the 141,50€ pick-up charge. GULP), and pressed the “talk” button. Explaining that I didn’t speak much French meant I was put onto an automated speech Q&A session. It was announced that the tow truck would be with us in 30 minutes and we were to wait near the car. I donned a reflective vest, put out my warning triangle and took the pooch out of the car and behind the crash barrier. Less than 15 minutes later, the tow truck arrived.
The mechanic – another term I shall use loosely – pulled open the bonnet, waggled the dipstick and announced the oil was fine. He turned the engine over once and then began getting our car ready to tow. He clearly thought it was not fixable at the roadside. Henry had decided that one horse-like leap over the crash barrier was enough for him, so refused to hurdle back over so we could get him into the tow truck. After a five-minute battle, I eventually managed to get him to crawl underneath the barrier, much to the amusement of the tow truck man. Realising the truck’s cabin was nearly eight-foot up, we had to have the car put back down onto the road so Henry could clamber into his usual spot in the back and then be raised onto the truck. His little face as he was propelled upwards, squashed up against the glass, looking bewildered and frightened at us on the road, was a heartbreaking picture.
The tow truck took us to Roquefort. Not the Roquefort, but another Roquefort. It was raining, we were upset and we had no idea where we were – apart from a long way from Bordeaux. The garage was closed due to the holidays, and upon dumping the car back to the ground, the “mechanic” announced that the 10-minute journey from the motorway was to cost us 212€ (an extra 50% is added on holidays and weekends) plus another 80€ the next day in order to take us to a Nissan garage. Despite clearly being a modern set-up, the boys weren’t willing to tinker with our old Nissan. A couple, who’d had a nasty-looking bash in their car, spoke English, so helped us out with some of the, erm, gaps in my vocabulary and they helped us arrange a hotel in the town for 39€ per night, including the dog. The tow truck driver, whether out of sympathy or fear for his life, kindly offered to take us in his van, and so dropped us off at the town’s only hotel.
To say it must have inspired the writer of The Shining is being kind. But, it was clean-ish in the rooms, had free ‘wiffy’ and took large hounds. We couldn’t really ask for much more. The rest of the town was in shut-down due to the Bank Holiday, so we felt relieved to have somewhere to sleep for the night. Henry could clearly feel our tension, and so paced the room. Rachel relented while I was downstairs getting the wifi codes and allowed him onto the spare single bed in the room. He slept like a baby and barely moved all night (just in case we realised our foolishness and moved him back to the floor!), so despite me being worried sick about what we were going to do, I slept brilliantly, too. As did Rachel. Ready to face a battle with French mechanics in the morning.
And so we find ourselves on the industrial outskirts of Mont-de-Marsan, next door to one of France’s largest RAF bases – the momentary peace is being constantly smashed by jets breaking the sound barrier as they land and take off on aerial exercises. The Nissan garage had not been told of our arrival (should we have expected that as part of the 300€ service by the Roquefort tow-men? Hell yeah), so they couldn’t fit us in. My lip quivering and Rachel’s tangible rage meant he offered to fit us in tomorrow (Wednedsay) at 11am. But all that would be was a look at the car, and not its actual repair. That could be, he said as he shrugged and turned his mouth downward, “three or four days, peut-être. Maybe more…” Aghast, I booked us in for our ‘check-up’ and made Rachel go outside to send texts to her father so he could speak to the mechanic in Spain whose palm we had quite recently crossed with muchos silver.
So now we’re in a Campanile hotel – a motel, basically, but without the cool, kitsch Americana vibe. It’s 72€ a night, plus 5€ for the pooch, so we feel un peu ripped-off. Henry has found himself the perfect cosy spot, in a carpeted vestibule by the front door. Bless him, he’s happy wherever we are. There’s a lesson right there…
So, we’re just waiting. And waiting. But working hard on projects that kick in as soon as we get back to London. Debating life over a cold beer in the hot sunshine (a bonus, I guess), but we’re feeling shattered, shell-shocked, unsure of the future, of where we want to be, how we get to that unknown place, that we miss Spain, but want to make London work, that we need to be near our families, but need to get back on our feet again… And wondering whether the trusty steed is even going to get us home and to the family that I need to be near right now.