Mrs Garmin or Mrs Tom Tom?

In the early years of SATNAVs some family members came to visit. These are the relatives in our extended family to whom we are closest, socially if not geographically. They had visited on countless occasions during the twenty or so years we’d occupied our home and while they are not the most punctual of visitors they have travelled to stay with us enough times to know the route blindfold [as it were].

On this particular weekend we received a phone call from them to report progress on their travel. ‘We’re in Portsmouth’ they informed us. Portsmouth? Taking a route from their house to ours via Portsmouth would add a significant amount of time to the journey. ‘But this is the way the SATNAV brought us’ they said. Leaving aside the unlikely event of their losing their way on such a much-driven road we were at pains to understand why the device led them via Portsmouth.

Since then of course most of us have adopted satellite navigation systems in our vehicles, but while they are useful on occasion [especially for finding out-of-the-way campsites] they are not to be relied upon or obeyed without question. Husband, in his map-obsessed way likes to programme with co-ordinates whereas I prefer to key in an address. Both methods can succeed or fail and both are tricky whilst travelling.

For many years we’ve used Mrs Garmin, a stern-voiced martinet who was never able to back down in a stand-off, ordering us to turn the vehicle around for many kilometres past the junction where we’d disobeyed her. As she repeated her requests to take the last exit at the next roundabout or to make a U-turn she would appear to become more agitated, her voice more strident.

Another of her foibles was to lead us into ever smaller lanes until we’d be travelling on narrow cart tracks brushing the hedge on both sides, grass growing along the centre, whereupon the marked road on the screen would disappear altogether leaving the tiny, blue cartoon vehicle rotating in the middle of a large field. At this point the chequered flag was likely to materialise.

Mrs Garmin’s command of languages was also lamentable, her pronunciation of street names often so poor as to be unintelligible. ‘A-vay-noo Gay-nay-ral De-gole’ she would assure us as we followed some mystifying ring road around for the third time.

Sparky, the beautiful, electric wonder that resides in our driveway possesses his own, integrated directions lady. She has a gentile, cultured tone and is never hectoring or dictatorial, although she is at pains to inform me of the same speed cameras with repetitive attention to detail.

Mrs Garmin went on her grouchy way along with Jazzer the campervan when he moved on to a new owner.

Now we have a new van [Cider] and we have Mrs Tom Tom, a slightly nasal creature who is less authoritarian but also less attentive and misses the turning sometimes. She knows nothing about the nearest supermarkets and has a lacklustre display. You can’t win them all…

 

Crossing the Void and having to Avoid…

We wrenched ourselves from beautiful, sunny Paestum having ascertained that thunderstorms were amassing and that the next day, Easter Sunday would be a quiet, truck-free day on the roads.

Italy’s south west coast takes in Basilicata first then Calabria-the toe and the poor relation of Italy’s mainland. But the coast road is stunning and scenic, twisting and turning around a mountainous fringe as it wends south; a coastline to rival the famous Amalfi road and far less travelled. It was indeed quiet, Italy’s biggest religious holiday when families get together to celebrate.

As promised, towards mid-afternoon the glowering clouds vented in a thunderous, lightning-ridden deluge as we neared Italy’s toe and a few glimpses of Sicily.

Since Abruzzo we’d descended into internet silence and it was becoming clear that something was amiss concerning connectivity. We stopped just before the port town at ‘The Mimosas’, quiet, low season and dispiriting in the showery weather. The small beach, however offered our first, shadowy view of Sicily.

In the town where we were to get across the Straights of Messina we were to experience a taste of what was to come in terms of southern Italian driving behaviour. In the narrow streets there were vehicles parked on both sides, cars coming through, cars reversing, cars double-parked or parked across the road. Knowing where the port was located was no help in determining how to get to it. We drove around and around, helpless until a bystander helped out for a small remuneration, showing where to buy a ticket and where to join the queue. The stretch of water is narrow and offers a view of Messina sprawled along the coastline of Sicily.

The ferries came and went in a relentless stream, uninfluenced by the religious holiday of Easter Monday and soon we’d driven into the bowels of one. We joined the throng of passengers climbing up to the café and there was just time to get a coffee before the vessel docked-at Messina!

Having disembarked and trundled off the dockside into the rambling town we began to experience the complete and utter bun-fight that is Sicilian driving. Vehicles shooting out of side roads and parking spaces, no indication of intention, overtaking on both sides, double and triple parking, stopping mid-road and getting out, disregarding red lights, other cars and any kind of safety procedure. This was to be the norm.

The outskirts of Messina, a long built-up stretch were lined with scruffy housing, numerous assorted vans, trucks and cars selling mostly green beans heaped up in mountains in car boots and on truck beds. This is clearly not a wealthy area.

Later the road morphed into seaside suburbia and we found the way to the autostrada where we made for the first site [near as we could get to the tourist hotspot of Taormina]. Elements of doubt crept in as we bumped around an unmade road and past a cement works sporting a statue of a praying monk, [San Cementus, perhaps? –the patron saint of concrete?] but there was the entrance, shrouded in a choking cloud of barbecue smoke on this holiday afternoon; the small, dishevelled site crammed with holidaying Italians. We were shown a spot overlooking the sea front. Here at last!

 

Going South

While it is fair to say I’m less confident at driving the van than I was I don’t expect Husband to undertake all the driving. On a trip like this it would be tricky to do the distance. So I take a turn to give him a break.

We leave Venice and turn south on the coast road towards Rimini and Ancona. The journey is without incident and a little slow due to the 50kmh limit almost all the way. I am happy enough driving through the built up area where I cannot overtake and cannot be overtaken. At the end of the long day we arrive at a coastal site south of Ancona where a handful of motorhomes have also stopped. The site opened a few days before but is clearly not ready to receive visitors, the bathrooms strewn with electrical cables and tins of paint, the sound of sawing and the to-iing and fro-ing of the workmen as they labour.

At reception I am told to return in half an hour, even though the vast expanse of site is so sparsely occupied as to be almost empty. At last we are supplied with a shower key for a slot to provide hot water, the delivery of which lasts all of 2 minutes-enough time to work shampoo up to a lather and little else…

Of the numerous toilets, only one is able to be sat on, the remaining cubicles being the archaic, squatty type. Half of these are filled to the brim with excrement. We are not impressed!

Next day I take first turn, assured by Husband that we’ll do autostrada; that we can ‘just drive’ and it will be easy. I turn on to the motorway, settling behind a lorry until I feel confident enough to overtake. It is a large tanker. Seeing a space, I pull out into the middle and begin to pass-just at the sign for a lane closure, the tanker’s lane. Horrors! The lorry driver makes his predictable, terrifying move as I am part-way past, indicating and lurching sideways in a bid to bully us in. By now I’m hyperventilating, yelping. Husband urges me to put my foot down and go, which I do…then I am past and I can swing back in, gasping in relief. A few moments later, as we limp along behind the next lorry the tanker driver regains his advantage, displaying his superiority from his testosterone filled cab and I let him go. That’s enough near-death experiences for one day.

Later we leave the motorway to climb into the mountains of Abruzzo and stop at Opi to be greeted by the owner speaking American English in a beautiful, remote site surrounded by towering peaks and woods supposedly occupied by bears and wolves. Across the field there is a lone, Dutch motor-home but the couple are enjoying their solitude. After dinner we sit by a huge wood burner in the empty restaurant, share a local brew of beer and chat to the owner’s daughter, recently returned from Boston.

In the cold night I fancy I hear wolves baying. The friendly site dog is sitting outside in the sunshine waiting to greet us next morning and as I wander up the lane to supply the fluffy donkey with a carrot a troupe of little pigs and a gaggle of white ducks come running up.

Then we are off again, heading down off the Appenines and away to the west to skirt Naples-I am adamant this time that I will not drive on the motorway. But we are to encounter far worse driving related incidents as we progress south.

At last we are over at the opposite coast, The Mediterranean, at Paestum and we settle down for a couple of nights by a beach under the shade of some eucalyptus trees with a handful of German, Swiss and Austrian neighbours soaking up the warm sunshine.

A Potted Driving History

I learned to drive when I was twenty four. It was the mid seventies and I had all my lessons in the dark of a snowy winter in London. As my first test approached the instructor suggested I have some lessons during the day because I’d had no experience of driving in daylight.

I hadn’t needed a car for work, as I walked there. I was motivated by a need to be independent. I remember going to a party, staying late and having no means of getting home to my shared flat in Putney. A man I’d been chatting to offered me a lift back to my flat, which I gratefully accepted. Feeling I should reciprocate, when we arrived I offered coffee-an offer that was rejected. He didn’t want coffee, but he did want sex. I considered myself worldly as a twenty something-having been a student through late sixties hippy-dom, the freedom of ‘the pill’ and beyond into laissez-faire student territory, nevertheless I was shocked that someone would offer a lift and expect sex in return.

I needed two tests, failing my first [in Guildford] and taking the second only two weeks later [in Teddington]. Neither test venue was familiar to me. While waiting for the second test, with a new, female instructor we got a coffee and she proceeded to regale me with a tearful discourse on the subject of her messy divorce, an experience that I later conjectured as a device to avert pre-driving test nerves.

I got a car, a classy Austin A40 with a steering wheel so enormous that simply rounding a bend almost wrenched my arms from their sockets and only one door that would open; this was the rear tailgate. Entering the vehicle involved climbing into it and diving to the front seat-not a dignified manoeuvre. None of this mattered. I had my independence.

I got to like driving-I still do, but roads, traffic and vehicles have changed in the intervening years. Here in the UK there are few major roads that don’t become clogged with traffic for at least some time during every day. A few days ago, sitting overlooking the M1 motorway at Leicester Forest services the road seemed like some future dystopian world where colossal titans spewing noxious gas had taken possession of the planet and had multiplied until every vestige of space and air were exhausted.

I’ve also noticed that age strips some driver confidence away, resulting in fearfulness of the speed and aggression you find amongst traffic in large conurbations or on five-lane motorways. I am spooked by angry hooting, vehicles cutting across mine at roundabouts or pushing out from junctions in front of me. ‘Be my guest’ I want to squeak, ‘you go first-if your need is so urgent you must terrify everyone else to satisfy it’.

Symptomatic of today’s society? Perhaps. In larger countries with more space and in less populated areas driving can be reminiscent of my early driving years. This is often true for travel away from the autoroutes in France, although time must be no object. How will it all pan out? I can only imagine the vehicles nose-to-tail habit will progress to being conjoined-and then what? Oh of course-railways.

In the fast lane there’s a shredded, nervous wreck trying to get out.

                A situation at home prompted us to cut short our meanderings on the Med and make a dash back to the ferry and from there onwards. This involved two days’ of nine hour drives. We are accustomed to driving long distances for trips nevertheless it was, to say the least, tiring. The method we employ for driving many kilometres is to take turns of two hours and then swap over.

                At the beginning of my stint at the wheel of the van I always consider myself to be strong, competent, emancipated woman, boldly handling the vehicle upon the highways of Europe amongst the macho, truck-driving fraternity and international travellers of all kinds. By the end of the two hours, however I am usually a freaked-out, whimpering, cowering wreck who finds it necessary to stop, climb out and beg for the alternative driver [Husband] to reverse into a space that could accommodate a double-decker bus.

                Certain conditions inspire terror in my driver persona. For one thing, whilst motorways and dual carriageways are relatively calm, safe conveyors of traffic they become angst provoking nightmares when swept by crosswinds that buffet the van and threaten to tear the wheel from my hands. I’m happy to overtake trucks and lorries, but find it nerve wracking to be sandwiched between giant lorries overtaking each other. Often, during overtaking moves, fellow drivers approach aggressively from behind, headlights blazing in bullying reproach as the van fails to get by fast enough for them, despite the feeble driver’s foot being flat down as far as it can go. Nowhere is this behaviour more prevalent than in Germany, where a glance in the rear view mirror reveals nothing until you are half way round a lorry-then a vehicle appears from out of nowhere virtually stuck to your rear bumper.

                But the situations that induce the most panic by far are large, busy, unfamiliar cities in which the route must be located as well as negotiating the [largely unsympathetic] teeming traffic.

                I happened to be on my ‘shift’ as we neared our selected, overnight stop South of Paris, coinciding with late afternoon rush hour. Lovely.

“Please!” I begged Husband, “Tell me which lane”.

                He ruminated, switching from atlas to satnav and back again-“Um…left…no…right…no…”

I felt myself grow hot and an urge to empty the bladder as we lurched to a stop at a red light, in front of a long, impatient column of cars. From somewhere there was the ominous whine of a siren, and growing louder. I stared around to try and locate the source, finally, and with foreboding seeing the flashing blue light approaching behind us, the lines of cars parting to allow its passage. I was at the light, with nowhere to go, a stalemate as the police car blazed and blared in an insistent decree behind us. The driver in the adjoining lane waved his arms and shouted for us to move. At last a car stopped in its path across us and allowed me to drive through the light. Another five minutes saw us safe into the hotel car park, where I felt like weeping with relief.

I stopped in front of a space and climbed out, wobbly legged. Husband, of course did the reversing into a space thing.

In terms of late life career options, I suppose lorry driver would be somewhere down near the bottom of the list?

En route …and more…

                Postings may well be intermittent for the next few weeks. This is due to our attempt to make an escape from the continuing winter of the UK and undertake one of our frequent journeys south. At the moment we are somewhere in mid-France, a journey we have made too many times to count, having spent more weeks holidaying in France than anywhere else-either en route to somewhere or as a destination in itself.

                I can still remember the feverish excitement of my first foray into ‘abroad’ with my parents, when I was fourteen. Back then it seemed unutterably glamorous and thrilling to be driving on to a cross channel ferry, showing my passport, going through customs and entering the other world that was a foreign country. I seem to think we were boldly striking out to Switzerland, via France; staying in dark, olde worlde hotels in out-of-the-way places, attempting to communicate [I recall it was all down to me, the ‘expert’ after 2 whole years of learning French], trying to decode the menu, tentative tastes of the strange, unrecognisable fare we’d ordered. My father made the mistake of idly pressing a button, only to summon the elderly chambermaid up the stairs-an event that rendered us helpless with mirth and my father reduced to red faced embarrassment.

                We’ve made the trip too often now to sustain that kind of novelty. We are accustomed to the long drive to Dover via the M25, the grey, choppy traversal of the channel and the less than lovely entrance to the port of Dunkirk. Well aware of the canteen food, we take lunch with us. On arrival we know there will be a slow crawl out at ‘Gravelines’-the unlovely environs. Sometimes we go straight out via the coast, by way of Calais. This time we’ve come across to Lilles then down. Either way you have to travel across part of flat, French Flanders. Flanders has a language and a charm that is all its own, although it is only to be discovered by plunging into the bucolic, agricultural  hinterland, where the views are all reminiscent of a van Eyck or a Brueghel painting. This is a safe, sturdy landscape with fields of stocky, white cattle, solid, ploughed clods of mud studded with heaps of manure. There are clusters of houses surrounding squat churches and neat, industrious farms.

                Sometimes we stop to spend a night or two at a hamlet where a couple have built a campsite –and a reputation as gregarious and extrovert hosts. The land is flat for cycling, with quiet lanes or tracks by canals. There are peaceful roads from one village to the next and an occasional, small bar-open if you’re lucky. The area is overlooked by most people but in the summer it can be a gem of a place to escape to.

                But we are not staying this time. The weather is no different. We are heading south as far as necessary to get warm sun, or at least warm. Fingers crossed…