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Sunday, October 6, 2013

Leaving My Cares Behind...or So I'd Thought

My vacation started off auspiciously enough.

I drove up to my friend Innis’s where we took care of lots of last minute stuff, like haircuts (there is a UK wedding to attend in a week) and vet appointments (UK restrictions for admission of dogs have eased but they’re still required to see a vet within 48 hours of arrival at the port, having had a vet-administered worming pill and verification of their rabies vaccine being current). 

The following morning we set off under blessedly slightly cloudy skies for the seven-hour drive to Calais and, after a two-hour lunch stop to walk the dogs and picnic in the car due to rain, we arrived shortly before dinnertime.

The crossing the next morning was a bit choppy and it was difficult to walk across the boat’s food court, even empty-handed. We had awoken early enough to catch the 8:50am boat instead of the 9:50 we’d reserved, so we arrived in Dover just a few minutes after 9am local time.

We had an overnight booked in Eastbourne by the sea, about an hour or more from the port, our hotel facing the English Channel, and we found a nice little Italian restaurant for an enjoyable dinner. Then it was off to our first week’s vacation rental, in Stoke Abbot, Beaminster (pronounced BEHM-ster, as the Brits do like to muddle their pronunciations), in Dorset, a lovely pastoral setting with no internet or mobile signals, the quiet broken only by the occasional peal of the church bells next door (one of which dates back to 1470) and the periodic bleat of the sheep outside our windows.

It was getting to Dorset that would prove a bit challenging.

We made a quick stop at a shop in Chichester that Innis wanted to visit, and decided we would stop at Hedge End, about 90 minutes shy of our destination, to where there was a large Marks and Spencer’s with a great food market, to pick up some easy quality food items for dinner so we wouldn’t have to spend much time that night preparing dinner.

I had adapted fairly quickly to driving on the left side of the road, grateful that I was at least driving my own French car, with the steering wheel on the left side, rather than on the right, as the British cars do. We were whizzing along the A27, approaching where it becomes a full-fledged motorway, the M27 (it was already four lanes in each direction) and I moved to pass a car. All of a sudden, the gas pedal resisted and I realized I’d completely lost acceleration. The car was slowing and I had to quickly cross two lanes of heavy traffic to coast into the breakdown lane, the shoulder. I shifted down and heard a rev so I knew the engine was still running. Baffled, I stopped, hit the emergency flashers and cut the engine. It turned over but refused to catch. Innis and I looked at each other.

There was no sign of overheating, which is what had happened in Ireland. There, I’d broken down on the Dublin motorway ring road on a Saturday at 9pm, the night before Halloween. Sundays the repair shops were all closed. And Monday, All Saints Day, the day I was supposed to finish packing up to leave my 7-month housesit and catch the ferry from Wexford to France, was a holiday. That had been a real disaster and had cost me a mind-boggling €900 just to replace the water pump. I made the ferry with just minutes to spare. But I digress...

I checked the gauges again. There was no indication my battery had failed, something I was acutely aware of, having had to replace my alternator twice within just 2-1/2 years. 

I was baffled.

Add to this the fact that I’d recently switched to cheaper cellphone provider, not realizing it would not work outside France or even dial or text international numbers. Innis, fortunately, had €25 on her old French sim card so we had a phone. We dialed my insurance company’s roadside service in France and they called us back when they’d secured a local tow service. We waited about 75 minutes, during which time the motorway patrol service had stopped to see if we were okay, encouraging us to ring them if our own service let us down. I realized what an advantage it was to be in an English-speaking country!

The tow truck driver asked me details of what happened and then took a look under the hood while I cranked the ignition a few times.

“It’s the timing belt,” he said. “Unfortunately, this being Saturday afternoon, you’re not going to see anything done before Monday.” I sighed inwardly. We were still a good 90 minutes from our destination and we could not function without a car. My insurance provided a rental, but not outside France. 

“If you’re lucky,” Rob said, “it’ll just be the belt, but it’ll take five or six hours to fix so we’re talking about £200. However, if the pistons did any damage by continuing to fire without the valves working, you could be looking upwards of £700-800 and it might not be fixed until Wednesday or Thursday. Unfortunately, there’s no way to know if there’s any damage until the belt is replaced and it’s tested.”

Rob towed us back to his garage. The dogs rode in the car and we sat in the truck. I pulled out my laptop and hopped onto the internet there to try and find us a rental car. By now it was after 3pm. I found a reasonable rate with unlimited mileage with Europcar but we had to ring the London office. The rep taking our reservation had such a heavy Indian or Middle Eastern accent that I had to finally hand the phone to Rob hoping he would be able to understand him better. He had just as much trouble.

When the rep found out I had both French and US driving licenses but not a UK one, he said we’d have to pay a £1000 deposit that we’d get back when we returned the car. Not a problem, as long as I didn’t have to actually spend it, I thought. He kept us on the phone until 3:35 at which point he casually mentioned that the rental office would close at 4 and that we’d better get a move on. We raced to transfer all the contents of the car, including the dogs, into the tow truck and Rob drove us to nearby Southsea, Innis and I anxiously glancing at our watches. We arrived at 3:59pm and I begged Rob to leap out and tell the agent we had arrived while we gathered up our stuff.

It was infuriating but not surprising to find out that the reservation agent had not even notified the rental office of our coming or that they were expected to have a car for us at such short notice. Fortunately, someone had failed to pick up their rental car so we got that one. The gal was great, despite our keeping her after hours, and got us out the door (with a request for just a £250 deposit!) within minutes. Then came the moment of truth.

I looked at the car, a nice compact Vauxhall, and swallowed hard. The steering wheel was on the right side of the car. Rentals with automatic transmissions are rare and quite expensive so this was a stick shift. Not a problem for me as I’ve driven a stick shift since I was sixteen, but I'd never had to shift with my left hand. The rearview mirror was on my left instead of my right, and I wondered if I could manage all this and stay inside my lane without drifting too far to the left and colliding with a hedgerow.

I got in, familiarized myself perfunctorily with the lights, wipers and such, adjusted the mirrors and turned the key. Nothing. We scanned the instructions quickly but couldn’t see anything to explain why we couldn’t turn over the starter. I got out of the car and went back to the office. The door was unlocked but the agents were long gone. I ran into a young man—a kid really—and asked if he worked there. He did. I explained my problem. He got behind the wheel, turned the ignition and it fired right up.

“What did you do?” I demanded. “Nothing happened when I turned the key.”

“You have to depress the clutch first,” he said, smugly. “Have you never driven a standard before?” I gave him a withering look.

“I learned to drive a stick before you were born, if you want to know the truth. I drive a stick now. I never need to depress the clutch as long as the car’s in neutral.” He shook his head.

“Never heard of that. You always have to press the clutch first.” I wasn't going to argue. The important thing was that we were up and running. Now I just had to be sure I didn’t run into anything.

We made a quick stop in Hedge End to the nearest Marks and Spencer’s for some takeout (or takeaway, as the Brits call it). Having missed lunch, we were ravenous.

As we approached our final destination in Dorset, we left main roads for narrow country lanes wide enough only for one car. I felt sick. It was all I could do to keep from scraping the hedgerows on the left and I prayed fervently that we would not encounter any cars coming in the opposite direction. My prayers were answered.

I heaved a sigh of relief as we finally found Blackberie Cottage, my legs cramped and aching from the tension, my eyes burning from the relentless glare of the setting sun as we’d driven westward. I was glad that we’d already agreed that Sunday, the following day, would be a late morning, leisurely breakfast and zero driving!


Sharon Lichota said...

Hi there! As always, I love hearing about all your adventures! I am now left wondering if your renovations have continued or finished. :) Hopefully you will post something new very soon.

Siobhan M Gallagher said...

Hi, Sharon, things have been a whirlwind and I keep meaning to squeeze in time to catch up here and I fail. But I'll try soon. Lots to tell. Thanks for reading! Siobhan