Travelling Times

Saturday 19 December

Such an effective way to travel when you’re a non-mechanical woman driver with a small van chock-a-block full of all your personal, valuable stuff. Just take the car off the road and go on a cross-channel ferry from Portsmouth in England, to La Havre in France – you can sleep through the night,get proper coffee in the morning with a very decent french croissant, and take about 600kms off the road trip!!

Ferries are amazing – if you’ve not been on one yet, the one I travelled on is the size of a small shopping centre, the whole side opens so it can take on board a number of petrol tankers, some Massive diesel trucks, a few busses, and then hundreds of cars and vans.

The original road trip I’d carefully planned, never happened – first of all I heard about the job of my dreams – which I applied for, never thinking it would come to anything – but then got an interview opportunity … which was 1 day before I’d arranged to hand over my keys, get all my personal things out my apartment, and get on the ferry. Guessing an interview would prevent final packing being done in time, I postponed the ferry by 3 days, then…

Having gotten myself into the Van with all my boxes, at the absolute last moment I could leave London to get there on time, with telephone and computer chargers, passports, bank details, boxes of books and everything I needed to complete my studying, candles and matches(more about THAT later) and loads of warm clothes … plus plates and pots, as the house I’m going to is completely unfurnished… I left home, turned out of my road feeling quite proud of my packing and timing, got onto the local main road quite easily, and then just got stuck – in the most unbelievable traffic jam I’ve ever experienced in London. Specially organised for me.

In the end, I turned back and just slept one more night in the empty apartment, the traffic had me sitting for 80 minutes during which I moved a mere 2 miles from home…

Sooooo I booked a third “cheap” non-refundable ticket, they were getting relatively expensive at that stage – for the following night. Which gave me a chance to go for one last coffee with friends at my favourite local london coffee shop, NAturalis, check all my lists, catch up on emails, tidy up a little more before leaving, so this journey seemed pretty auspicious.

Actually, these kinds of changes of plan really don’t bother me – I half expect them to happen. While I came up with a plan and the concept of going to live in POrtugal for the winter, to learn portuguese and investigate properties in the area I’d like to farm, I knew it would happen the way Life flowed. Its so much easier to let things happen the way they want, not spend a lot of energy worrying or trying to change too much, if my initial plans don’t work or even fireworks blown right through them (i.e. we’re on a different page of the calendar not just set-back a few minutes!)

In my experience, it never works to force a situation back into the picture I originally had of it. This is just playing with mental awareness – Firstly, the world really doesn’t look the way we think it does, so plans are just ideas and concepts, not solid things. If we keep that in mind, when a new plan comes along, or a reason we can’t continue with the old one, its just easier to rename the new situation as “reality” and make any personal emotional or mental adjustments I need, for it to work. Mostly these are around mindful observance of my annoyance or fear when things change – I thought the situation would look like “X” and when it looks like “Y” I am not controlling it, its controlling me. But since I’ve realised that mostly, I’m not controlling anything – not the people around me, the traffic, my health, politics and economics, most stuff – I feel a lot more relaxed. There’s a great saying that works for me in this situation – True happiness does not lie in getting what you want, but in wanting (or deciding to want) what you actually get.

I’m sure there will be times when that philosophy is not going to work, but its keeping me pretty happy so far. So this is how it was with the multiple ferry rides – although the changes cost a fortune, and I don’t recommend booking tickets until you’re quite sure you’re travelling the next day as they’re usually available, I am sure it was meant to happen the way it did. And it was perfect.

So nearly a week later than planned, I finally drove out of London at 4pm on a Friday, on route to the Ferry, France and Spain, and finally to Portugal.

First though, my GPS tested me, taking me the longest possible route to get through London that I could imagine. It was a good thing as knowing London, I recognised it was a very sideways and upside down way to go, so checked all my settings on the gadget, before giving it control of my route in Europe where I wouldn’t have known I was going the wrong way. Turned out I had something called “eco-friendly” switched on, my advice – never use it. I have no idea what criteria it uses to decide if a road is “eco-friendly” but in London it took me way off the main, direct route, and down a lot of unlit narrow suburban side roads with major speedbumps. I think its punishment for eco-warriors, perhaps the idea is to make us pay in pain (head or bum ache from all those bumps) for the kilometres we’re driving.

Getting on the ferry was exciting and a little tense for me – I’ve never done it before, and there’s not much information given out about what to expect or what to do. And then you get there, and everyone else looks like they know exactly what they’re doing – driving into specific lanes, switching their cars on and off at odd times, just hanging out and chatting to their partners. I didn’t see anyone else travelling alone, except for the Big truck drivers, all male. So no-one to easily share the moment with.

Its a bit of a strange feeling, knowing its just me who has to make all the choices and decisions and there is literally no-one to check things with. But I’m getting better at this “diving into change” – the main thing to keep in mind always is that obviously, we can all do most things other people can. So while everyone has a first time on a ferry, first time to drive through Europe, etc., these things are not rocket science, slow and steady and a careful look at what other people do, and I should be ok.

So I edged closer carefully, not wanting to drive into the sea by mistake for a start, or stall my little van in front of a row of petrol tankers queueing at the door. Silly things to worry about I know – but I think we all do this in a completely new situation like a class or new job or even taking a new train to work – even if mechanical or simple to perform, we wonder if there are any secret tricks other’s know, or skills we don’t have which are required. So waiting to get on the ferry I found challenging. And that was only the very beginning of my journey!

Anyway, turns out you can relax, listen to music, and a nice chap in a yellow reflective vest will make absolutely sure you stop where you need to, and go when you need. And its a great idea to put on the European “headlight adjusters” on your car, while you wait, so you don’t risk forgetting on the other side, highly illegal – and anyway you have at least an hour to kill waiting for all the other trucks and cars to load.

They must have seen my eye-rolling during the wait, as my van was – wait for this – the absolutely LAST vehicle on the french ferry that friday night. Is that beginners luck? At least 40 truck drivers waiting to go up the internal lift, had the great opportunity to watch me carefully reverse park into the tiny spot left at the door. After a bit of nifty pedalwork, I was a bit disapointed they didn’t chain my car down, as I saw their petrol tankers were chained, seems to me the lighter vehicles are more likely to move around – but I guess they do less damage if they do.

I’m guess a couple hundred vehicles get on, so its quite funny that being so concerned about the whole process, I then had to watch absolutely everyone else do it first. But getting on last is a bonus… as you’re then first off onthe other side. And quite impossible to organise. They go by vehicle size in loading up, and in spite of being really early, and totally midsized, my van somehow ended up being the perfect “final straw” for them to load. So no matter what planning and worrying I did, it all turned out more perfect than I could imagine. As things do so often – which I only notice when I stop and think about the past and my life process, and realise just how grateful I am for all the easy things, the skillful things, the beautiful things that just happened.

As I am writing this a few weeks later, you already know the outcome – a completely painless and straightforward crossing, nowt wrong.

On the weight of feedback in internet reviews I read, I booked a large luxury cabin, the biggest cabin as it was the only one left by the time I booked. The other option didn’t sound good – trying to sleep in a reclining chair, in a large public wooden-floored lounge, with 200 other people, all shuffling about trying to stay warm and get some sleep, with double doors opening out onto the freezing cold deck and equally wide doors going into the bar.

When I got to my cabin, the door wouldn’t open, and I was about to go back down to reception to get a new key. But I had a little moment – this incredibly hunky sailor-type, in a tight black t-shirt with amazing tattoos, stopped and asked me in french if I was ok. Seeing that the door wouldn’t unlock, he simply typed in some secret code, and bobs my auntie the door popped open. I looked at him a little weirdly, thinking “oops – the whole crew knows how to get into my cabin” and he read my mind. He winked, and pointed to his chest. Some kind of insignia. “I’m the captain” he laughed, and walked off – the crew’s quarters are just next to the two larger cabins on the upper deck. I was probably sleeping in his 🙂

So I thoroughly enjoyed my privacy (?!), the warmth, the little porthole through which I could see part of the deck, the disapearing port lights, and the waves off to each side. I loved the sweet built in wooden bunks and neat shelves and lots of places to put bottles and cups so they didn’t fall in the night, I had to unpack my little bag just to put things on all the shelves and in all the nooks and corners. There were pristine white warm cotton duvets ready for me – it looked just like the first class trains in India!

I fell asleep amazingly easily for such a strange new bed, listening to the creaks and noises of the waves moving the ship. The whole thing moved much more than I thought something so big would… but the ocean is just that much bigger I guess. There were some pretty impressive movements, the ferry goes up and down with the waves as it moves forward, but there’s also (sorry, for those who know all about ocean travel – kind of my first experience!!!) a funky sideways roll going on (swell?) so you can almost feel the ships timbers bending slightly as the front goes up (or down) while it simultaneously rolls from side to side. Please don’t let me put you off though – its all quite manageable, but not like being on land.

Half expected to find my car cuddled up to a petrol tanker in the morning when we docked, but the van was almost exactly as I left it. Had a bit of performance anxiety, having rushed to unlock and get the van started, and be in the right place before about 200 other vehicles needed to go around me, as I was literally parked right across the door. Luckily, car started and I didn’t fall off the ramp, just got off absolutely first – which was pretty cool!

Customs was hilarious – they stop everyone and want to look at what you’re carrying in some detail. Now you have to picture my van packed to the roof behind the front seats, with all sorts of boxes and bags, and blankets (and a spade) tucked into the remaining airspaces. It was quite tricky just opening a side door to get an overview. Thinking this might take all morning, I nonchalantly caught Retha’s olive tree in its little green pot which she’d given me to bring to Portugal, as it dropped off the top of the pile. The customs policewoman looked at it (there were some olives on it) and grinned, and that was it. Women importing olive trees in small pots along with about a ton of stuff in boxes and hidden by blankets, do not, apparently, constitute any threat to the French state.

Drove through a very pink sunrise at La Havre, carefully staying to the right sides of roads, and aiming immediately for the toll road. There was no hurry to reach Portugal, but rather than wander down all the gorgeous side roads, I decided to minimise the complexity of driving through Europe my first time, in a fairly old car, on my own, on the “wrong” side of the road, trying to follow roadsigns in a foreign language to places I didn’t know – by staying on the freeways this trip. There’s always next time to take the side roads and the by-ways.

France is simply a beautiful country. Incredibly industrialised – hardly a spot appears to be “wild” – if its “natural” looking, its been gardened that way. This extends to all the farmland I passed through, realistically the land on either side of a major international motorway is going to be more developed than elsewhere in the country, but it is noticeable how built-up and trimmed the french countryside looks. The roads are incredibly good, expensive, tolls cost me as much as diesel for the trip, but there are rest stops every 10 kilometres, and petrol stations with hotels, restuarants and shops, about every 20 kilometres. I have two useful electrical outlets on my dash (let’s hear it for the fiat doblo) so can plug in the gps and a phone or mp3 player at the same time, so I had great communications and music all the way. And after deleting the eco-warrior punishment mode, the gps gadget was quite good about keeping me on the right roads – its got funky 3D visuals for intersections which really help when you’re driving on a different side of the road.

Again, this was a new experience for me. I’ve driven in a portuguese car in Portugal, but this was an english car in France – so I was on the wrong side, for the roads I was on. Trusted friends had advised that its not hard to do – only toll booths are a mission (you’re on the wrong side of the car to take tickets or put coins in a slot – especially without a passenger to do it for you) and sharp slanted intersections are a problem as you’re on the far side of the direction other drivers will come from, so don’t see them easily. I just took it slow, and felt protected by the sheer bulk of the little van – normal cars would be unlikely to drive into me by mistake, even if I was in the wrong, as long as I drove slowly, and I have generally found truck drivers to be the most aware and considerate drivers around. At least, that is still my theory, and its worked so far!

France is all neat fields and postcard villages, they even have roadsigns with the postcard on for you to take photo’s in case you don’t visit the village. And mile upon mile of vineyards: Bordeaux and Cognac regions, have to go back and do those much more slowly (and with a stop-over so I can do some tasting!)

On the first day I was so relaxed by the easy driving on the toll roads, and the good nights rest on the ferry, that I did nearly a ton of mileage – 900kms. It may also have been all that AMAZING french coffee I grabbed everytime I stop to pee….

Its standard practise for me to go with the flow and see where the road or “fate” leads, so I hadn’t booked a place to sleep. I wasn’t even sure whether I’d stop, or whether I’d just pull over into one of the truck stops, and grab 30 winks like the truck drivers do. But having been chatted up by 4 different interesting but not very sensitive looking truckers, on the ferry, while just getting water and a coffee in the morning, I wasn’t that keen to take a chance on being the sole female in a french truck stop.

So I found an amazingly organised motel just off the freeway in Biarritz, kind of smokey french roadside motel movie style. Booked in with a minimum of effort – its interesting how these transactions require very little language skill. You need a room, for 1 night, for 1 person. Almost all this can be indicated by pointing at the pricelist, and gesticulating at my car (parking?) and the ashtray (slashing hand across throat – NO SMOKING room please). Anyway, the lady seemed to get it, and the room was fine.

It even came with a tubby shirtless dude next door who obviously fancied himself as the Star of the “french motel movie” – walking round the balcony (it is winter here, by the way) half-naked, smoking, and shouting on his phone in French, I’m guessing making very impressive deals like in the mafia movies but as I’m english… and the people the other side were spanish, sadly his show was a little wasted.

Luckily for everyone he quietened down by the time I came back from the buffet, and had stopped smoking outside my window. I’m a pretty easy going traveller, and I try not to stand-out or attract any unecessary attention. But smoking near my bed – especially considering the EU has great regulations on this – is just seriously going to cheese me off! He must have recognised the look of a rabid anti-smoking crusader, as he was gone.

Morning brought more amusement though. He came to breakfast – this is a cheap but conservative little family motel – full of kids, young couples, couples taking gran somewhere – in his leopard print DRESSING GOWN, and matching fuzzy slippers. Fairly certainly naked underneath, you have to imagine a chunky looking chap of about 35, deeply tanned, heavy gold chain, seriously weird mohawk type haircut and an expression of pure delight on his face, watching everyone else watching him. When I see people behave like that, I often wonder – are they a total narcissist and can’t see any problem with their actions, or is this a buddha – provoking us all to react and respond, giving us an opportunity to be mindful?

The receptionist got really cross, (he was obviously not her type) and told him to go change so they had a long and very verbose arguement which I wished I could understand, as lots of people kept smiling, I think the argument got quite personal. His friend looked slightly embarrassed but kept tucking into the croissants from the buffet, much to the receptionist’s further annoyance as its strictly one each, but she was so distracted by dressing gown man, his friend kept finding moments to nick another bun. I think the two of them were even travelling in a big red sportscar parked sideways across two spaces, perhaps he was actually a porno star – the French riviera must be a good place to make those kinds of movies? not sure about his weird haircut, maybe it was a punk movie. But he was pretty tanned. All over by the look of it. Who knows. Certainly kept me chuckling through breakfast.