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Bon voyage-

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  • 1. BON VOYAGE! 1. The ‘Eighty Kilometre’ Rule and Other Abnormalities of Physics ‘Always ask about everything in your rented car. As soon as you’ve got your rented car, ask the nearest person what, and (more importantly) WHERE everything is. You may find that – for some weird reason - your CD player is in the boot, or that the seatbelts are in the pockets of the front chairs.’ (Excerpt from the James Whitton diaries).May 2003:‘Where’s the car key?’‘Locked in the house.’‘Where’s the house key?’‘With the car key!’ My wife Lindy and I looked at each other with aterrible sinking feeling. This was the unpromisingbeginning of our holiday as we prepared to leave for theairport. It was a long way from being our first trip to Europe,and the third with our two children, James (14) andThomas (12). This time we had decided to take my wife’s66-year-old mother Enid along with us as well. For her itwas a dream come true, although she’d taken quite a bitof persuading. She couldnt believe that she wouldnt be aburden – bless her little floral apron – but she eventuallygave in to our sustained pressure and was now eagerly (ifa little anxiously) looking forward to sharing theadventure. Little did any of us realise what a rollercoaster of an adventure it would turn out to be! Locking the keys in the house before we’d even leftmust have made the Aged Relative wonder what she’d letherself in for! But as far as we were concerned, shecouldn’t have been in safer hands. We’d begun our 1
  • 2. preparations twelve months earlier, with hundreds (well,dozens – I’m a little prone to exaggeration, as you’ll see)of emails backwards and forwards to sundry hotels andprospective hosts. We had the logistics of managing thetravel of five people driving around Europe for six weeksplanned to within a centimetre of its life, and confidentlydismissed any qualms with a nonchalant wave of oursouvenir berets.Looking back, we should have had an inkling of our fate amonth earlier, when I opened a message from Lucia – theowner of our Tuscan villa. ‘Where is your deposit? I was expecting it severalweeks ago. Are you no longer interested in staying withus?’ Gripped with panic, I replied urgently reassuring herthat we were, and that I would look into the delayedremittance straight away. I spent a sleepless nightconstructing the conversation I intended having with mybank the next day – each moment bringing a new andbetter way of destroying some unsuspecting clerks lifeand self respect. You know how it is. You run through the scenario ahundred times in your head, always concluding with anargument or sarcastic comment to devastate your foe andhas them admitting defeat and tearfully promising torectify your problem with minimal fuss and no cost(perhaps even offering to compensate you for yourinconvenience?). In reality – and it seems as inevitableas poo – the problem stretches on for days and days, thenweeks, and in the end you’ve reduced your life expectancyby at least a dozen years, and the problem is onlymarginally resolved (at best). This lesson was to be repeated over and over againin the weeks to come. I can’t recall the exact conversation with the bankclerk in this circumstance, of course – but it ransomething like this: (Me) ‘Where the bloody hell has my deposit gone?’ (Clerk) ‘Which deposit would that be, sir?’ (Me) ‘The one I asked you to send off to Italy twomonths ago!’ 2
  • 3. (Clerk)‘I’ll just check for you and call you back in fiveminutes.’ (Me – calling back two hours later) ‘Well?!’ (Clerk) ‘Well what?’ (Me) ‘Where’s that bloody deposit gone?’ (Clerk) ‘Which deposit would that be, sir?’ - you get my drift. Multiply the above by the numberten, then factor in the need to eventually follow this upwith an Italian bank (no – whatever you’re imagining isn’teven close), and you can see that we were well up againstit. But, in my innocent naivety, once this matter had beenresolved I dismissed the whole episode with hardly asecond thought. ‘You don’t think it’s some kind of omen, do you?’asked Lindy apprehensively. It wasn’t just the childrenshe was concerned for, remember – there was the fate ofher mother to take into consideration, as well. ‘Don’t be so pessimistic!’ I replied confidently. ‘Thiswas our one piece of bad luck. Now we can look forwardto our holiday, confident in the knowledge that we’vealready dealt with our disasters.’Anyway – back to that first day - after squashing youngThomas through the only window we’d left open, weretrieved the house and car keys and were eventually onour way. There were no other incidents en route to warn ofwhat was to come – in fact, the flight to Paris wasrelatively pleasant (as far as twenty-four hours ofmedieval torture can be). The movies on offer wereparticularly appealing – the only drawback being that Ifoolishly forced myself to stay awake in order to watchthem all. As the other passengers dozed and snored allaround me, I was using matchsticks to keep my eyelidsopen. Unfortunately, I was so exhausted by theexperience that I couldn’t remember a single detailafterwards. Months later when we ended up borrowingthe DVDs, it was like seeing them for the first time. Nevertheless, the issue for me was – and shallalways remain – to make the most of free offers.Especially from airlines. 3
  • 4. When I did finally get to sleep, Enid (who’d drawnthe short straw and was sitting next to me) was keptawake for the remainder of the journey by my gentle,fairy-like snores. Such sensitivity to tiny noises did nothold her in good stead throughout the trip, although it hasbeen suggested that the experience was perhaps a littleworse than I’ve described. The highlight for Lindy was when the cabin crewdistributed the mini-Magnums. Her face lit up like astartled rabbit before the headlights, and her smile nearlysplit her face in two. Fortunately for me, she’s alwaysbeen impressed by the simple things in life. James and Thomas watched a few movies, pushedevery meal about their plates suspiciously without tastinga crumb, and were only truly happy when the planetouched down at Charles de Gaulle and we were on terrafirma once more. The Aged Relative and Son-in-Lawembraced excitedly, and within a reasonably short timewe’d collected our bags (Burke and Wills set off with lessluggage than us!) and car, and were on the road.We now confronted our first real challenge of the trip. Isuppose I should mention at this point that Lindy was todo all the driving – we had a manual car, and I can onlydrive the wind-up kind (i.e., automatics). It was thereforevery important that our journey on that first morning beas short and stress-free as possible. No one wants todrive much after a twenty-four hour plane trip (let’s faceit, breathing in and out is almost too much to be botheredwith), and we’d booked somewhere that was only abouteighty kilometres from the airport. Eighty kilometres. This figure became a sort of numerical jinxthroughout the trip. It’s probably some strange kind ofdimension-warp thing, but every time we estimated thatwe were about eighty kilometres from somewhere, itended up becoming a lot further – and I mean, a lotfurther! On the morning in question it became two hundredkilometres. 4
  • 5. I remember seeing the car’s mileage meter tick overthe eighty kilometre mark, then looking out the windowand feeling the tears stream down my face as I watched aplane landing at Charles de Gaulle airport, a couple ofhundred metres away on our right. Have you ever tried driving around Paris withoutusing the ring-road (Peripherique)? That particularhighway has a justifiably bad reputation, and I maintain tothis day that it’s not a bad idea trying to avoid it whenpicking up an unfamiliar car after a twenty-four hourplane trip – especially if you’re still trying to get used todriving on the other side of the road! But, let me tell you,it beats the hell out of trying to negotiate your wayaround the poorly signed country roads of the Ile deFrance. I expect wartime Britain was much the sameafter they took down all the signs to confuse the invadingGermans. I, for one, can guarantee that it’s terrificallyeffective. An invading army wouldn’t have stood achance, and the Whittons-plus-one were like lambs to theslaughter.The trip was so long that we were forced to stop for somerefreshment. Enid craved a hot chocolate, and I waslooking forward to my first cup of French coffee. Lindyneeded a break, and the boys were happy just to havesomething to stick in their mouths. First, let me go back a little to explain that we’d goneto great lengths before setting off to tell the boys that thisholiday was going to be different – we weren’t going to beconstantly stopping at McDonalds like we had in previoustrips. In fact, we probably wouldn’t even stop there at all!Not once! In the entire trip! Half an hour after landing in Paris we pulled intoMcDonalds for coffee and hot chocolate. The thing with McDonald’s in Europe is that the fewadvantages it usually offers – quick service and theopportunity for a cheap, hot meal – have been strippedaway. It took a good twenty minutes for our humbleorder to arrive, and it cost a bomb! My first coffee of thetrip wasn’t worthy of the name. 5
  • 6. Many hours later, we finally arrived at ourdestination, (after stopping at the wrong town andconducting a – not surprisingly - fruitless search for ourhotel). I was able, at last, to advise the concierge – inword-perfect French - that we had a reservation. Sixmonths of rehearsal had prepared me for this moment,and imagine the disappointment I felt when my speechwas met with indifference. I suspect Olivier would havefelt the same after hearing crickets in response to amasterful performance of Hamlet. To add to myhumiliation, he did something I had never expected – hereplied in French! In a mad panic, I responded withComment? – which (for those of you who dont know) isroughly the equivalent Huh? in French. Unfortunately,this only encouraged the fool to spout more French. Thetorrent of incomprehensibility gushed again from hismouth. Totally lost on me, of course. I tried smilinghelplessly and – believe it or not – it worked. Do youneed help with your bags? he asked – in English. I wasshattered after only my first conversation. Well, I sayconversation, but it was hardly that. A conversationrequires a two-way dialogue. Once wed switched toEnglish, though, I was fine. Quite fluent, in fact.(Although Lindy would say that English is only my secondlanguage – drivel being my first). I could have chatted allafternoon if need be, but that wasnt the point. After abrief shake of the head to indicate that I could carry thebags myself (the thought that he might say somethingelse in French – a distinct possibility, given that he wasFrench - filled me with terror), I was directed up fourteenlevels of staircases and along twenty miles of corridors toour rooms. This being our first night, we were forced to endurethis monumental trek accompanied by our entirecollection of baggage. By level twelve I was beginning toregret my pride. It was intriguing the way the hotelseemed to stretch on forever on the inside, but from theoutside it looked quite small. Just like Doctor Who’sTardis. Another one of those dimension-warp things, Iguess. 6
  • 7. Eventually, after ensuring the madams werecomfortably secure in their own room, the boys and Icollapsed on our beds and began to doze. Just as blissfulsleep descended upon us, we were awakened by thesound of foreign syllables (presumably French) beingbellowed from a public address system outside ourwindow. For a moment I had a vision of the Conciergestanding below and attempting to carry on our earlierconversation, but soon realised it was coming from furtheraway. The boys and I exchanged bewildered looks, andeventually summoned the strength to get out of bed andtake a look. At first I thought I must have been dreaming. Itseemed like the entire town had assembled on the banksacross the river and were fighting each other with woodenswords, while the woman on the PA tried futilely tosomehow choreograph the mayhem. We watched with amixture of amazement and horror, until it suddenlydawned on me that they were rehearsing for one of thoseson-et-lumiere productions that every town in Franceseems to put on for visitors over summer. This particularentertainment seemed to be recreating some longforgotten battle. From what we saw that afternoon, thebattle of Moret-sur-Loing was one of the silliest in history! In fairness, I suppose the fiasco would have lookedmore impressive if they’d been decked out in their periodcostumes – but it was difficult to suspend my disbeliefwhen they were dressed in jeans, t-shirts and runners.James and Thomas found the spectacle hysterical, andvowed never to attend a son-et-lumiere. A bit like havingthe magic trick revealed, I guess – all the mystery andromance had been destroyed. Our journey had begun in earnest. We lookedforward to it as an adventure and an opportunity to bondas a family. Well, looking back it certainly was anadventure, and every adventure shared is a bondstrengthened, but the process was not quite what we hadplanned. 7
  • 8. 2. Tips, Traps, and Words of WisdomHow much should you plan a holiday, and how muchshould you leave to chance? I’ve always leant moretowards the former, but I understand the attraction andbenefits of the latter. In our circumstance – needing tofind accommodation for five people every night – we hadno choice. On our previous visits with the children we’dsometimes spent hours looking desperately for someoneto take us in, usually ending up in the most miserableflea-pit and paying an exorbitant price for the privilege.Add an extra adult to that equation and it spelt potentialmisery - so this trip we opted for pre-booking as much aswe could. There are two risks involved with booking youraccommodation. First, the gorgeous looking abode whosepicture you had examined minutely on the Internet,nevertheless turns out to be a week short of beingcondemned. Second, it leaves you with little flexibility inyour itinerary. This means that the adventure is a littleless adventurous, and that mishaps which cause delays inyour schedule take on greater proportions – but moreabout that later.The next couple of days were spent travelling south at asteady rate into the Dordogne area of central/southernFrance. That first morning we stopped down the roadfrom Moret at the great Abbey church of Saint Benoit surLoire. Being a Sunday, we got to witness a service(accompanied by the famous Gregorian Chant of themonks of Saint Benoit), followed by a short organ recitalof Bach. Nice start, thought I. Afterwards, we picked upsome provisions in the village shop and headed off intothe temporary sunshine. As we left the town, Enid asked when the church ofSaint Benoit had been built. ‘Between the 12th and 13th centuries,’ I replied –happy to show off my knowledge. ‘Would that be the oldest church in France?’ sheasked. 8
  • 9. ‘No.’ ‘Where is the oldest church in France, then?’ shepersisted. Just then, I looked up from my map at the signon the village we were approaching. It said ‘Germigny-des-Pres – Oratoire Carolingian: circa 806AD’. ‘Would you like to see it?’ I asked nonchalantly.For Lindy and I, one of the delights of travelling in Franceis the pique-nique. Not only is there a wide variety ofchoice available (not the least of which is the humble butunsurpassed French baguette!), but the countryside isliberally strewn with meadows, forests, rivers, streams,lakes, and picnic tables to ensure that the whole eatingexperience is as pleasant as possible. Unfortunately, whilst it looked nice from inside thecar, for that first week (it was early May) the reality wasnear-hypothermia – particularly for the suffering AgedRelative. Enid braved the cold with fortitude – an invisiblemouth devouring food as if by magic from under the deep,all-enveloping folds of her blanket. The rest of us (themother and father, anyway) pretended it was all jollygood fun, whilst sawing away at the frozen Brie with thecarving knife.Our second day was devoted to the more popularchateaux of the Loire. As we passed through the treesand Enid caught her first glimpse of Chambord – allbristling with towers and chimneys, and dripping whitelike a gigantic, renaissance wedding cake – there was anaudible gasp from the back seat. We lunched in the surrounding parklands (carefullychoosing a spot that would best protect us from the arcticwinds), dreaming of southern sunshine and balmyTasmanian winters. Enid still resembled an overdressedEskimo, but soldiered on despite the frostbite. The icicles had melted and the sun made a briefappearance late that afternoon as we arrived at theromantic Chateau of Chenonceau. The gardens sprang tolife in the sunshine – as if they’d been given a nudge andtold to wake up and get their act together – and (some ofus) began peeling off layers of protective clothing. The 9
  • 10. palace cast picturesque reflections in the river acrosswhich it was built, but the boys remained unimpressed.Thomas, in particular, was more intrigued by the waterrats which populated the fetid waters of the nearbycanals!One of my great ideas (and I had more than a few)included the car games devised during quiet moments athome over the preceding year. Infused with myinexhaustible-but-not-always-(well, never)-appreciatedhumour, they were intended to be the saviour of longhours on the road. Did they work? Well, yes and no.They certainly achieved their aim of occupying time, butalso served to polarise personalities in the car. For example, there were a number of progressivestories that required each person to add their owncontributions to a set beginning. They’d start out with arather bizarre or macabre situation, then Enid wouldinvariably invent a beautiful princess who neededrescuing. Thomas would immediately have her devouredby a dragon, only to have the poor maiden resurrected (orworse – regurgitated) during Enid’s next turn. Thiscreated some friction – which was not helped by James’insistence on introducing Kermit the Frog and Miss Piggyto every story. Then, as if to pour petrol onto the flames,we had the appalling idea of scoring the contest. I thinkwe imagined at the time that it would introduce anelement of healthy competition, and provide anotherdimension of interest. What we failed to take into accountwas that Lindy had brought along her own, personallobbyist. At first it was quaint as Enid awarded herdaughter the highest points for each game – but over sixweeks (and as she drew further and further ahead) itwore very thin indeed.We spent our second night in a bed and breakfast(chambre d’hote in French). We had deliberately left thisnight unbooked because we wanted to stay in a FrenchB&B again, and they were difficult (back in 2003) toreserve in advance. When the time came to settle downfor the night, it was simply a matter of following the signs. 10
  • 11. Our hosts that evening turned out to be an elderlycouple, the male of which was apparently hard of hearing.I make this presumption based on the fact that, when wefirst arrived, the television was turned up so loud that itcould be heard by aircraft passing several kilometresabove us. Their house was very comfortable, though, andthey had a swimming pool! It must have made a curious sight for our hosts withLindy and Enid huddled beneath a blanket, whilst Jamesand Thomas frolicked in the water. Tasmanian childrenare made of strong stuff, and, once a hole had beencarved through the surface ice, there was no stopping theboys enjoying the luxury of a swim. From theirperspective, it might have been their last opportunity forthe whole trip. Enid was heard to mumble somethingabout it having to come from my side of the family.The true benefit of staying in a chamber d’hote, however,was only truly appreciated the next morning. Uponentering the dining room, we were assailed by thedelicious odour of freshly baked baguette, the mostsublime, fresh coffee, and a plethora (is it plethora – orperhaps a gaggle? Or pride?) of home made jams. Wegorged ourselves unashamedly, and utilised what littleFrench we knew (or could invent) in chatting with theowners. ‘Bonjour madame, monsieur. Comment ca va?’ Isaid, to which our hosts replied in eloquent French. Iunderstood the words ‘bon’ (good) and ‘café’ (coffee)only. Naturally, I smiled and nodded knowingly – lookingaskance at Lindy to indicate that I needed her assistance.Fortunately she’d understood enough to make some sortof reply, and our reputation was saved. Eventually, the friendly couple went off to enjoy theirown breakfast in private, whilst we finished at our leisure.As the last of us stumbled to their feet and waddled offtowards the car, I went looking for madame in order topay. I was devastated to find her seated with herhusband at a tiny, plastic covered table before a humblebowl of corn flakes and – I shudder to write it – a cup ofinstant coffee. The spell was broken – the magic was 11
  • 12. gone – and the scales fell from my eyes. I realised in thatone, horrendous moment, that many French people don’tsit down every morning to breakfast banquets, but haveto slum it like the rest of us. It took days of grievingbefore I could come to terms with this revelation, and it isa scar I’ll carry with me forever. I can only be gratefulthat the others were spared this devastating spectacle.The morning was spent in the city of Bourges. We headedstraight for the medieval palace of Jacques Couer, anddiscovered that we were to be subjected to that terror ofEurope – the guided tour not-in-English! For myself, Iwas happy to just look around and let the music of thewords wash over me, but the children were counting theseconds like prisoners awaiting parole. The guide rambledon and on, oblivious to their misery. We also visited the great gothic cathedral of SaintEtienne with its huge, overwhelming nave and beautifulmedieval stained glass. But the highlight, for me, waswhen I bought the postage stamps for Enid. Call meshallow, but I strutted like a peacock after successfullynegotiating the transaction without having to resort toEnglish! The youthful, pleasant postal clerk lookedimpressed (or perhaps he was just relieved), and Trevorinched up a few notches in mother-in-law’s esteem.When we hit the Auvergne later that day the countrysidereally became spectacular. The sun was shining (albeitweakly), the leaves were freshly open on the trees, andthe green, grassy meadows swayed under a gentlebreeze. I swear that even the cows were smiling as wesailed past, accompanied by theatrical oohs and ahhsfrom within the car. Naturally, this trip was planned with the interests ofthe children in mind. On our previous visit they’d beenimpressed with ruined castles, and the Auvergne offeredone with a bonus – live, period-dress entertainment. Theguidebook said that it’s a “must” for the children. Well,perhaps for some – but our children certainly didn’t see itthat way. For a start you have to climb a short rise (or,as James and Thomas described it, a high alpine pass) to 12
  • 13. get to it from the car park. That set them against theproject from the outset. Then came the entertainment. Mother, father, and granny were enchanted by themock King, Queen, Princess (no dragons for Tom to feedher to) and guards who greeted the new arrivals as theypassed through the ancient gateway and approached thetumbling remains of the keep. We snapped away happilywith our cameras - behaving as embarrassingly as onlythe parents and grandparents of teenage children can -whilst James and Thomas looked desperately fordisguises. The only spark of interest for the boys was kindledwhen Thomas went exploring behind one of the ruinedwalls on the hillside. His excited shouts brought usrunning, and he proudly showed us a small plot with fivegrave markers basking in the late afternoon sunlight. ‘Count them.’ He said. ‘Five. That’s the samenumber as us.’ (And they say our public school systemisn’t effective!). With a shudder of disquiet, the grownupssmiled indulgently and went back to the entertainment,leaving Thomas taking his first photographs of the tripand James rechecking his brother’s mathematics.After a beautiful drive across the mountains of the MontsDore – snow-capped on its peaks and flower-strewn in itsmeadows - we arrived in the tiny village of Orcival. Ourhotel for the night was located right next to the gloriousRomanesque church – Lindy and Enid’s room enjoying afirst-class view of the belltower. After mother- and son-in-law shared a short,pleasant walk along a remote, sun dappled lane above thetown, we rejoined the rest of the family and entered thehotel restaurant with not a little trepidation. The onlytable available for five people was occupied by whatappeared to be the village lout - a cigarette dangling fromhis lips and a cloud of foul smoke engulfing the room fromhis epicentre. We looked confused for a moment – notknowing where to sit – before he smiled and stood up tolet us have the table to ourselves. We mumbled ourthanks, then watched in horror as he donned his apronand went into the kitchen to begin cooking – the smoke 13
  • 14. following him like the wake of a funnel from an oceanliner. Well, this was France and you should never dismiss acook – or a restaurant, for that matter – by his, her, or itsappearance. No doubt you’ve heard claims in travel booksbefore that start out saying ‘the food was simple, butdelicious’ and then go on to describe something bothexotic and complex – bison roasted in aardvark jelly witha truffle marinade, for example – but I won’t let youdown. I’m talking omelettes (no, without the truffles),and trout (caught fresh that morning in the local stream) -pan fried in a simple cream and almond sauce. The gloryof this dinner was not just the quality of the cooking (howdo you make a humble omelette taste so special?), butthe fact that it satisfied everyone – including the twogastronomic philistines! Later, we washed it all down withlashings of home-made strawberry ice cream. This was our first introduction to that astonishingproduct – the European strawberry. It was a revelation.Moses experienced the same sort of thing as he glancedover the Ten Commandments after descending fromMount Sinai and putting his feet up in his favourite chairnext to the fire. ‘Mon Dieu!’ I expect was his reaction, aswas ours. Now, I’m afraid that this is the point in my storywhere I’m going to disappoint. I know it’s expected that Idescribe the wine we enjoyed during this meal, but I’vegot to break the news to you that I was the only memberof the expedition that touched alcohol, so bottles of winewere rare and, when indulged, inexpensive. Sorry, I knowI’m breaking a fundamental rule of travel books, but thereyou have it. Take your purchase back to the shop and seeif you can get a refund if you feel strongly about it.That night I was enchanted by the centuries-old bellsringing in the church outside our hotel window, and it wasthen that I discovered that not everybody found thisexperience as romantic as me. It was to be a constantsource of irritation to the rest of the party for theremainder of the trip, and one of my most pleasurablememories. It was not to be the last time that my happy, 14
  • 15. early morning, smiling face was greeted by bleary-eyedscowls. To add insult to injury – or injury to injury –Lindy and Enid had found that their room was designedwith Chinese water torture in mind. The shower drippedincessantly all night, and absolutely nothing they could dowould stop it. On the positive side, they did discover thattheyd have made lousy spies – having been willing togive up the most closely guarded secrets in a nanosecondin exchange for a peaceful nights sleep! 15
  • 16. 3. Towards Catastrophe ‘There’ll be another hotel just around the corner.’ Mum, three hours before we found a hotel. (Excerpt from the James Whitton diaries).Before we began our trip, Lindy’s sister had lent us hervideo camera to record our journey and, naturally, we alltook our own cameras as well. The result was that everyphoto stop resembled the shooting of the latest epic fromSteven Spielberg. Birds couldn’t hear each other over theclicking. Night skies were lit by our flashes like Londonduring the blitz. Japanese tourists would gape in awe andpoint. Our coverage of the terrain of Europe was morecomplete and comprehensive than the most detailed aerialsurveys. Google earth offered to sub-contract us. Stocksin Fuji and Kodak soared. When all flashes were inoperation, the temperature of the immediate surroundingsjumped by ten degrees (Celsius). We took a lot of photos. But - you’ll be astonished to know - not all of thisexposed film was of high quality. Our first videoexperiments werent enhanced (or perhaps they were) bythe fact that Lindy constantly forgot to stop the camera,replacing the lens cap and leaving the blessed thingrunning in the back of the car. But they say every cloudhas a silver lining, and this error did provide us withanother record of our trip – a darker, more sinister record.You see that camera - whilst you couldn’t actually seeanything – did record our candid, unedited conversations. Some of it wasnt very pretty. This document provides an opportunity to catch theWhittons-plus-one during unbuttoned, unguardedmoments. Confident in the knowledge that what we weresaying couldn’t be heard by anyone else, it gives aninsight into life’s uglier side. One such memorablemoment was when Lindy was busy looking for a toilet. ‘Why didn’t you go before we left the Hotel?’ says thehelpful husband. 16
  • 17. ‘Because I bloody-well didn’t need to go then!’ saysthe little woman through clenched teeth. Definitely adults-only viewing.The third morning of our holiday was one of thosemarvellous driving experiences. The roads were relativelyempty, the countryside glorious (even though the weatherwasn’t perfect), and the distance to be covered in the daymodest. We left very early and had to wait an hourbefore the patisseries opened. We bagged our gross offresh croissants and several baguettes in a pleasant, quietlittle town, then – sated and happy – headed south. Not far down the road, we came across a particularlybucolic scene, and the paparazzi began harassing the locallivestock, each of the older contingent trying to capturethat perfect, cow-in-foreground-rustic-farmhouse-in-middle-ground-and-forested-hill-in-backgroundphotograph. Satisfied with our efforts, we jumped smuglyinto our car and took off down the road. Now, to effectively explain what happened next I’llneed to carefully put our situation into perspective foryou. We had a hatchback Renault, and, because of thelarge number of cameras being transported, had to storethem in the back and retrieve them from the (very full)boot every time we stopped. So, on this occasion – aswith hundreds of others - we stopped, took out ourcameras, took our photographs, then placed theinstruments back in the boot before climbing into ourrespective places. The last one in closes the boot. Okay, got the picture? How was it that we travelled nearly a kilometre withthe windows closed, yet no-one remarked on the fact thatthe wind was blowing through our hair? I don’t know –it’s a mystery. And who was the last in the car andtherefore responsible for closing the boot? Again, nobodycan say for sure. Some say this person, some sayanother. If we’d felt particularly strongly about it, Isuppose we could have referred it to forensic experts - butto date the matter remains unresolved. 17
  • 18. The issue for me was – how could at least fifteencars pass us in both directions, and not one thought toflash their lights or sound their horns to indicate that ourboot was wide open? Coats, baggage and croissants werestrewn behind us like confetti at a wedding. And yet,remarkably - even though they were sitting on top of thepile - not one camera was lost to the asphalt. Don’t tell me there’s no such thing as theparanormal!Toilets. Things have improved out of sight since my firsttrip to Europe, when public toilets were rare enough to beawarded stars in a modestly sized Michelin guide. Butthere are still isolated parts of the Continent where the oldchallenge awaits the tourist willing to put in the effortrequired to find them. Some local councils see it as acommunity service, I’m sure, to resist the corruptingchange sweeping the rest of the country and maintain astandard that they see is a major contributor to thebuilding of character. The satisfaction felt in overcoming that challenge isimpossible to put into words. Sure, for the male of thespecies it’s easy – many now just aim it out the windowas they drive along (and I’m not just talking about thepassengers!). Ever wondered why the wildflowers are solush along the side of much of Europe’s roads? Well,regular watering and fertilising is the secret to anygarden’s success. But, no - I’m not talking aboutsatisfaction gained from simply peeing by the side of theroad. To be honest, in many countries (France and Italy,for certain) I think it’s an actual offence not to have doneso at least once a day. I’m talking about getting youractual bottom onto an actual toilet seat. With the addedburden of catering for five, comes additional pleasure atovercoming almost insurmountable odds. I can recall several occasions on this trip when Isidled into a restaurant/café/bar and respectfully asked ifI could use their facilities. The waiter would shrug in asuperior manner that bespoke of his pride in possessingsuch marvellous technology, and my spirits soared as Iwaved to the hordes waiting eagerly outside. His smug 18
  • 19. manner would disintegrate like ice from a heatedwindscreen. Now that’s the kind of achievement even astronautscan only dream about.I’ll never forget the moment in the Dordogne town ofArgentat when I casually – almost indifferently – placedthat first strawberry in my mouth. Yes, we’d enjoyed thestrawberry flavoured ice cream in Orcival, but this was ourfirst experience of the actual fruit – raw and unadorned. How do I describe it to you? It sounds trite to saythat it tasted like strawberry – but that’s exactly what itwas like. Not the bland, tasteless fruit you get fromsupermarkets, but the real McCoy. Sun-drenched sums itup for me – like the strawberry had absorbed the full blastof the sun as it grew, concentrating the flavour, only to bereleased at the first bight of the lucky consumer. After the first effects of the shock wore off, I lookedat Lindy and Enid, and saw that they, too, had tasted ofthe Fruits of Paradise. The sort of far away look in theeyes and reverent motion of the jaw is unmistakable, onceexperienced. We thought we’d just been lucky, findingthe one grower who’d just happened to stumble onperfection. Well, it did turn out to be the best we tasted,but we were relentless in our efforts to deplete theContinent’s supplies of strawberries for the remainder ofthat Spring - and the others we sampled weren’t very faraway from that first batch.The French are a much maligned people. Many casualtravellers – and those who’ve never been to France –maintain that they’re rude and arrogant. I’ve made it myCrusade to disabuse the world of this misapprehension.The “Dordogne Picnic” event will help illustrate my point. We were following the Dordogne south-west fromArgentat - boxes of strawberries squeezed into everyspare space in the car and occasionally tumbling from theinexpertly tied supplies on the roof – looking for a picnicspot. The weather had warmed, the sun was shining, andat last we came upon the perfect setting. Located on agrassy lawn between the river and the road, surrounded 19
  • 20. by a shrubbery and devoid of other picnickers – itbeckoned to us seductively. There was, however, a fly inthe ointment. Or, to be entirely accurate, three flies. It was lawn-cutting and hedge-trimming day in themunicipality to which this slice of heaven belonged, andthe workers were not those half-hearted fellows oftenassociated the world over with such labours. No, our menwere getting stuck into their task with gusto – and theyhad the machinery to do it justice! Drowning out all butthe loudest lorry thundering past on the road, they wereattacking the vegetation as if it were personal. Our spiritswaned and we prepared to depart, when one of theworkmen spotted us and signalled to his comrades. Aftera moment’s hesitation and a rueful sidelong glance at thetemporarily reprieved grass, the mower grew silent.Seconds later the hedge trimmer did the same. The threemen packed up their tools, and stood by their truck,waving us towards the now vacant picnic area with a sadresignation. They stood watching, enjoying a leisurelylunch, and didn’t recommence the slaughter until we’dpacked up and left, half an hour later. True gentlemen!The market town of Sarlat is one of those peculiar townsthat hides its attractions extremely well. Colmar in Alsaceis the same - you wonder what on earth has brought youto such an uninteresting (nay, hideous) destination as youpark the car. It’s only when you’ve negotiated theirforbidding exteriors and enter the old part of town thatyou look around and say to yourself, ‘Oh, so that’s whatall the fuss is about.’ Sure, there are countless otherplaces where you have to travel through ugly outskirts toget to the good bits, but the attractions are usuallyevident well before you dispense with the car. We struggled through the traffic, followed the signsto the tourist parking, and finally found a small vacancyinto which we could just about squeeze the beast. Lindywas just about to pull in when a little Citroen came fromnowhere and beat her to it. As we stared out of thewindow in shock the driver turned his aged, beret-cladhead towards us and – scowling furiously – waved his fist! 20
  • 21. We were all too stunned to respond, but I - for one – hadlearned a lesson which I was later to put to good stead. As we finally disposed of the automobile, I could tellthat Enid was wondering what we were doing in such aplace. Walking down the frenetic main street - dodgingtraffic from the six inch-wide pavement - I saw that, ifanything, this pessimism was growing. I suppose a lot of Sarlat’s attraction is that you turndirectly from its traffic-congested, uninteresting mainroad, directly into the attractive, historic pedestrian-onlyzone. The difference is startling and impressive. Thesound of traffic abates, the pace becomes more relaxed(despite the hordes of tourists), and the old stonebuildings, narrow alleyways and mysterious cul-de-sacsbegin to weave their enchantment. The adults had a ballexploring these attractions, as well as the craft and artshops, and ended up feeling that the effort to visit theplace was well and truly worth the effort. James and Thomas – despite the usual ice creambribes - just saw the town as a necessary evil that had tobe endured before they got to the swimming pool at thatevening’s accommodation!Two years earlier – on our last trip with the boys – we’dchanced upon the chambre d’hote from heaven whilsttouring through the Dordogne near le Bugue. We’dfollowed an insubstantial signpost through a remote,unsurfaced forest road to a farmhouse whose outbuildingshad been converted into discrete, characterful andcomfortable accommodation, run by an Englishwoman andher husband. Naturally – for no self-respecting chambred’hote from heaven would dare be without one – itpossessed a swimming pool, as well as acres of meadows,forests, and even a small lake. We stayed there only twodays, and it rained for most of the time, but we retainedextremely fond memories of the place. Les Sarazzines – the Saracens? The ownersthemselves weren’t quite sure where the name had comefrom, but it dated back many centuries to a time beforethe house was built. Intending to pass through the areaagain, we’d booked it for a couple of nights and hoped 21
  • 22. desperately that we’d be able to find it again. This wasmade all the more challenging by the fact that we wereapproaching from the opposite direction this time, and weknew there were no signposts at all on the road by whichwe intended to arrive. We got very close at our first try, but - it must beadmitted - did get a little lost. Lindy (with urging fromthe AR) insisted on stopping beside a couple of farmersand forcing me to ask directions. I mean – how? Even ifyou manage to ask the question, how on earth are yougoing to understand the bloody answer? Flushed withembarrassment, I wound down the window, smiled andoffered them a hearty ‘bonjour’. Like all decentFrenchmen, they returned my greeting with a smile andwaited. Broadening my smile, I asked: ‘Ou est les Sarazzines?’ which, I think (in retrospect)means ‘Where are the Saracens?’ Fortunately for me,they tactfully ignored the fact that I was obviously acongenital idiot, and pointed into the distance. This wasfollowed by a string of words, which included a lot of‘gauche’s’ (lefts), ‘adroit’s’ (rights) and ‘tout adroit’s’(straight aheads). I continued smiling and nodded –always a sure sign that I haven’t understood a word –while Lindy thanked them and began backing up the car. ‘You understood them?’ I asked in awe. ‘Most of it,’ - was the not-altogether-reassuringreply. Nevertheless, I was impressed. I suppose weunderstood more French than the average tourist (andwe’ve improved over the years since then), but this wasscaling new heights. I may have whispered ‘my mate’ or‘my hero’, but the boys were reserving judgement untilwe’d actually arrived at our destination.I remember the first time I heard my wife speakingFrench. It was on our first trip together, and - afterseveral days in France in which she’d given no hint thatshe possessed anything beyond ‘bonjour’, ‘merci’ and ‘aurevoir’ - we stopped at a petrol station and I heard herstring out a whole sentence – complex and word perfect(or so it seemed to me). As she got in the car Istammered ‘What did you say to him?’ 22
  • 23. ‘I told him I couldn’t speak French.’Les Sarazzines was under new management – but stillBritish. Lindy and Mike greeted us like long lost friends,and we basked in the luxury of being their only guests.We unpacked the car, settled ourselves in, and made themost of the fine evening by dining al fresco. Lindy (mywife, not the owner – I’ll call her Lindy One to saveconfusion) produced a veritable feast of fettucine allacarbonara, mixed green salad, baguettes, brie,camembert, strawberries and (luxury!) a bottle of redwine for the father. The children wolfed down their dinnerwith minimal ceremony, and ran off to play in the pool. As the sun set and evening descended, not a soundcould be heard but for a quiet, persistent ‘cuck-oo, cuck-oo, cuck-oo’ from the surrounding woods and theoccasional splash and quiet, secret conversation of theboys - invisible behind the nearest wall of the swimmingpool.James and Thomas opted out of our excursion the nextday, deciding instead to spend some time playing tabletennis, swimming, and generally relaxing. The adults hada terrific time exploring castles, enjoying the forests,fields and isolated hamlets of the Dordogne countryside,and nearly buying a painting in the hilltop town ofDomme. Unfortunately, the artist didn’t take traveller’scheques or credit card, and none of the banks were open,so his masterpiece remained in France. Seeing ourdisappointment, he told us where the scene in thepainting was located, presumably so we could go andpaint it ourselves!Our hosts had invited us for a drink that night.Consequently, there was much discussion over what weshould do during the course of the day - there being alittle reluctance on the part of Lindy One and Enid becausethey were teetotallers. I’m usually a bit of a social reclusemyself, but I liked and felt comfortable with Lindy Twoand Mike, so eventually I convinced Lindy One to be politeand join me in accepting their hospitality. 23
  • 24. The amazing thing was that we were only stayingtwo nights, yet they treated us like regular visitors who’dcome to stay for weeks. There were about half a dozenbottles of wine lined up on the table when we arrived (notto mention the complimentary bottle presented to us uponour arrival the previous day) – and we were rude andignorant enough to come without so much as a packet ofpeanuts! Mike was the voluble one, and we chatted animatedlywhile I shamelessly swilled his alcohol. After muchdiscussion and drinking, Mike decided to open his heartand admit his deepest secret – he was a Francophile!Lindy One and I, being very fond of the French ourselves,became interested. ‘That’s why you bought this place?’ ‘Of course. And particularly because it was in theDordogne – I just love the castles.’ He then went on totell us about his adventures exploring the nooks andcrannies of the area, and the obscure ruins he’d run toground over the years. ‘We went to Bonaguil castle today – it was terrific!’ Ireplied, getting into the swing of things. Bonaguil is avery popular tourist destination, about eighty kilometresaway (or one hundred in our case, due to the eightykilometre rule). ‘Where?’ he replied, blank faced. ‘Bonaguil.’ I replied, spelling it in case my perfectFrench pronunciation had thrown him. ‘I don’t know that one.’ he admitted. Now it was myturn to look blank. ‘How do you get on with the language, living here?’asked Lindy One, quickly changing the subject. ‘I don’t do too bad.’ admitted Lindy Two. ‘But Mikedoesn’t speak a word of French.’ I exchanged anonplussed glance with my wife, our mouths hangingopen in the vain hope that our minds would findappropriate words to fill them. So – not really a Francophile, then, we thought.When I look back on the following day, I’m reminded ofbutterflies flitting peacefully in the sunshine from fragrant 24
  • 25. flower to fragrant flower, oblivious to the napalm about tobe unleashed from the low flying plane above them. We spent the day travelling the gorgeous Aveyronvalley. The sun was shining brightly, and the countrysidealternated between forests, meadows, streams andisolated medieval, hump-backed bridges. And thosebeautiful, honey-stoned villages and their spectacularcastles! Najac – strung out along a wooded ridge with itsruined castle sticking up like an exclamation mark; SaintAntonin with its spectacular backdrop of cliffs; Penne withits impossible finger of rock, which upon closer inspectionturns out to be a castle; and Bruniquel, where the horrorbegan to unfold. Gradually, during the course of the day, the touristnumbers had steadily increased from virtually none, tohundreds. Still oblivious to what was to come, I enteredthe tourist office in Bruniquel and casually asked if theycould find us a chambre d’hote in the area that couldaccommodate five. The woman behind the counter lookeddismayed. ‘I’ll try,’ she promised – not very encouragingly. ‘Butit will be very difficult.’ It was a valiant effort. Despite her scepticism, shepersevered for a good 40 minutes (calling everyone withina twenty kilometre radius) before surrendering to theinevitable. ‘Je suis desolee,’ she said (I’m sorry) - then thosedreaded words: ‘C’est complet!’ ‘Full? Everything?’ I asked, amazed. Still we remained unaware of the true horror of oursituation. ‘Not everyone will be listed with the tourist office,’said Lindy confidently as we left. ‘If we just keep driving,we’ll come across something.’ Three hours and eighty kilometres later (there’s thatdistance again!) we arrived in Moissac – exhausted,desperate and beaten. We’d stopped at every hotel,chambre d’hote, and bus shelter along the way – butalways the same response: ‘C’est complet!’ 25
  • 26. But for some reason the tourist hordes had stayedaway from Moissac. The place was a magnet for thosetravelling the popular pilgrimage route to Santiago inSpain, but they all seemed to be staying in the pilgrim’shostel. I sighed audibly as the concierge of the hoteladmitted that they had a vacancy. The price wasaffordable, and the rooms comfortable and clean. I left tobreak the glad news to the eagerly awaiting family (theirexpectant, anxious faces pressed up against the carwindow as I approached brought a lump to my throat),just as the heavens opened. To this day I believe it wasan omen. We rushed through the rain into the hotel, and Iwent to reception to sign the registration forms. ‘May I have your credit card number please,Monsieur?’ ‘Of course. I’ll just……’ Ten minutes later I wasstanding in the hotel room with Lindy – all the colourdrained from my face. ‘I’ve lost my credit card.’ 26
  • 27. 4. The Saga of the Lost Credit cardPrepare yourself for a story so tragic, so epic in its scale,that your view on life may very well change forever.Compared to us, Job (you know, from the bible) was awhinger who was prone to moaning over the slightestsetback and Jean Valjean (the pessimist from LesMiserables) was a man blessed with indescribable goodfortune, but tended to dwell too much on the fewnegatives in his life. It wouldn’t have been so bad if we’d eventually foundmy credit card. And it wouldn’t have been so bad if it hadbeen a simple matter to contact the Credit card people toorganise a replacement. And it wouldn’t have been sobad if we’d been able to organise a replacement quicklyand easily. And it wouldn’t have been so bad if thereplacement itself hadn’t gone astray. And it wouldn’thave been so bad if it hadn’t been pelting with rain thatmorning in Moissac when Lindy and I wandered thestreets trying to find a telephone service that would allowus to call the free call numbers provided by our Bank forjust such an occasion. But for all these circumstances tohave occurred all at once betrays evidence of celestialplanning on a massive scale. Which was the worst bit? Getting soaked to the skinwhile we went from telephone to telephone? Enid and theboys waiting in the car in the pouring rain for two and ahalf hours not knowing what was going on? No, I think itwas the endless phone calls on the mobile trying to get anumber we could actually use. You see, the mobileservice was provided from Australia, so the dollar signsrolled around like tumblers in a poker machine for everyfrustrating minute spent battling the bureaucracy. Thetrouble was that France didn’t allow you to access free callnumbers through a public or mobile telephone. Why? Idon’t know. Perhaps it’s another one of those character-building things. Nor would the operator connect you – notfor all the begging, pleading, bribing or threatening in theworld. But could the Bank grasp this simple – thoughinexplicable – fact? No they could not. We’d call them 27
  • 28. up, explain our predicament, and they’d produce another,miraculous telephone number. We’d try it, only to hearyet another recorded message beginning with the dreaded‘desolee’. So we’d call the Bank back, only to get adifferent person to whom you’d have to explain the wholesituation all over again. After several minutes ofexplanation, they’d just try and give you the standardphone number again. ‘But we can’t get through on that one,’ Lindyexplained. So she got another one. That didn’t work,either. Back to the Bank and a different operator. Explainit all over again. Get the same contact number. ‘No, thatdoesn’t work.’ Get the second number again. ‘No, thatdoesn’t work, either.’ ‘Well, try this third number.’ To this day I’m convinced they had a jar of telephonenumbers, into which they randomly dipped their handsevery time they got a phone call. But we were desperate– we kept calling back. Eventually they promised to getthe credit card company to call us on our mobile. Twohours later we rang them back. ‘The credit card company hasn’t called us.’ ‘You’ve lost your credit card?’ ‘Yes!!!’ ‘Then call this toll-free number……………’ Earlier that morning I’d gone alone to visit thechurch of Saint Peter. Like I said, Moissac is an importantstop on the pilgrimage route to Santiago, and has beenfor centuries. The tympanum of the church and thecarvings in the adjoining cloisters are justifiably famous,but I found them difficult to appreciate. I wandered the cloister with a definite air ofdistraction, before being stopped by a doe-eyed Britishpilgrim. ‘You’re from Australia?’ she ventured. I shookmyself out of a dark reverie and looked at her quizzically. ‘How did you know?’ ‘I heard you say so in the ticket office.’ (They askwhere you’re from for their survey.) ‘Are you on apilgrimage?’ she asked. She was pleasant enough, I 28
  • 29. suppose, but I’m afraid I was in no mood for her flakinessthat morning. ‘No. Just on holiday,’ I replied somewhat curtly. Shelooked me up and down thoughtfully, then seemed tocome to a decision. ‘You will – someday,’ she pronounced. A hundredreplies clambered for life, and the one I chose was: ‘No I bloody won’t!’ and stormed off. Not somethingI’m very proud of, but at least I’m being honest. You getall the story, you see - warts and all.The car games took on a sinister aspect during the courseof that day. Each story beginning or movie title invariablyended up with a bank clerk being decapitated by a creditcard. But now, with the benefit of hindsight, I can stepback and see the silver lining in that dark, ominous cloud. The fact was that our frustration with the telephonesdistracted the others from the real cause of our misery –me. For it was I, dear reader, who lost the damned thingin the first place, but we were all so preoccupied withtrying to redress the situation that this simple fact hadescaped our attention. Who knows what would havehappened otherwise? The newspaper headline ‘Fathertorn to shreds by maniacal family’ swims before my eyeseach night before I go to sleep. You’ll think I’m exaggerating, but I promise you it’snot the case. Im giving you the abbreviated version. Mytherapist has succeeded in getting me to block the worstexcesses of that day, but I can tell you that this fiascolasted until we arrived at our destination in the Pyreneeslater that evening. As we pulled up outside the hotel, ourphone rang at last. It was the credit card company – theydid exist! ‘I understand you’ve lost your credit card?’ ‘Yes. Can you arrange a replacement?’ ‘Nothing could be simpler. Just call this toll-freenumber…..’ We were a sorry bunch of campers as we tramped,sodden and miserable, into our hotel. The rain was stillfalling, but the one bright speck which had kept us goingall day was the thought that at least we had our rooms 29
  • 30. booked and didn’t have to repeat the misery of findingaccommodation. The five of us filed up to the front desk nonchalantly– almost arrogant in the knowledge that we had abooking. In fact, I told the concierge as much: ‘I have a booking,’ I said. ‘What name?’ he replied. ‘Whitton,’ I said. He frowned. He scanned, thenrescanned the page before him. ‘W-h-i-t-t-o-n.’ Irepeated – spelling it out. I was growing agitated. Theman shook his head. ‘No – no booking for Whitton.’ I swallowed hard. Idelved deep and somehow summoned the strength toask: ‘Do you have accommodation for five people tonight,anyway?’ ‘Desolee – c’est complet,’ he replied, shaking hishead emphatically. I staggered, and my lips began totremble. Let’s go back to the beginning, I thought. ‘But you must have a booking for me – TrevorWhitton.’ His eyes suddenly grew round withcomprehension. ‘We have a booking for a Monsieur Trevor,’ he said,happy to throw me a lifeline. I threw my arms around theastonished man and sobbed uncontrollably.Out of adversity comes a fuller appreciation of ourblessings. As we were settling into our room later thatafternoon the mobile phone rang – it was the credit cardcompany. ‘We have arranged for your card to be sent toAvignon in a week’s time, as you requested,’ said thedelightful little soul. ‘That’s perfect,’ said Lindy, visibly relaxing (she mayhave even smiled a little). ‘Simply present yourself to the Banque National deParis in the Rue de la Republique, and ask for MonsieurMasoni.’ This must be the real thing, we thought – they’deven given us a name! Well, I’ll leave that story untold 30
  • 31. for the moment – but remember that name – you’ll hear itmany more times in the course of my narrative. Lindy and I embraced with delight once she’d rungoff, then we collected the others and headed downstairs todinner. You remember me telling you not to judge Frenchrestaurants by their appearance? Well the Hotel d’Ossauwas a perfect illustration of what I meant. As we enteredthe smoke filled room it resembled something out of “TheDen of the Secret Nine”. Not at all what we were hopingfor that night! Men sat alone in corners, casting furtiveglances in our direction while they waited for their drugdealers, arms shipments, biological weapons, or whatever.James turned to leave, muttering something like: ‘This never happens in McDonalds.’ Lindy caught himby the collar. ‘It’ll be fine,’ she said soothingly. But James wasn’thaving a bar of it. ‘No it won’t – it’s horrible.’ he said – loudly. As thesweat broke on my brow I was sure I could hear thesubtle click of switchblades being opened surreptitiouslybeneath the tables around us. Then the waiter-cum-concierge arrived and showed us to our table – and theentire atmosphere changed. He led us into the back of the restaurant, wherethere were no smugglers, drug addicts, assassins or serialkillers. But – more importantly – there was no cigarettesmoke! Other families filled the premises and waved tous encouragingly, and the waiter smiled good-humouredly. That meal was one of the most wondrous events ofmy life. From unpromising beginnings (to say the least),we soon relaxed and ended up thoroughly enjoyingourselves. The food was quite good – trout a-la crème(again, fresh from local streams), fettucine in a salmonand cream sauce, the ubiquitous (but still outstanding)omelette, and chicken cordon bleu – just to give you asample. Nothing particularly fancy, but just what wasneeded after the day we’d had. Once again, even theboys found something they enjoyed, and I ingested themuscle relaxant (a large, cold glass of beer). 31
  • 32. But the true accolades must be reserved for thewaiter. He knew just when to bring each course, he wasattentive and flattering to the ladies (Enid talked casuallyabout the benefits of late-life marriages and toy-boys atone stage), and he treated our attempted French with thedignity it never deserved. Most of all, he was just goodcompany! The relief we all felt after the day we’d enduredwas indescribable. Viva la Hotel d’Ossau! 32
  • 33. 5. A Mother’s Day to Remember ‘Why isn’t there a sign saying the pass isn’t open?’My parents at the top of the mountain, with a sign at the bottom saying the pass isn’t open. (Excerpt from the James Whitton diaries)I’m not a huge fan of chickens. I certainly don’t mindthem – and as a species they’ve never done me wrong.But after our holiday in Europe, I now have the reputationfor being something of a danger to their kind. Farmershustle them into the safety of their pens when they seeme coming, and mother hens cast a protective wing overtheir brood. It all began in the town of Laruns, the day after theepisode with the credit card (or ‘CC Day’, as it came to beknown). We took our time leaving the town, as the weatherwas still overcast and there was an enticing market inoperation. We did some shopping, and Lindy – inspired,no doubt, by our experience of the previous day – boughtthe largest umbrella in existence. Not only was it big, butit didn’t fold up like its more practical brethren. It wasproud of its bigness. ‘Be Big – Stay Big’ was its motto.(Naturally, it hardly rained again during the remainder ofthe trip!) Anyway, we were strolling leisurely about thestalls investigating the vegetables, cheeses, patisseriesand racks of clothes - when It happened. At first the sensation was subconscious. Then,slowly but inexorably, I became aware of the smell. Itgrew more pronounced, and my senses began to react toit. My mouth watered like a Saint Bernard puppy happyto see its owner. My tongue lolled about my navel and Ibegan to scan the horizon for a Sign. Then I saw it. A rotisserie chicken van. As my body was screaming for me to get over to itand begin securing a couple of carcasses, my mind wasstudying the phenomenon. ‘Wait a minute,’ it said, ‘I’m 33
  • 34. not that fond of chicken.’ ‘The hell your not!’ repliedstomach. ‘Now get moving.’ When I arrived at this gastronomic Nirvana, I foundthat, sadly, the corpses were raw and still several hoursaway from being edible. ‘Don’t worry about that,’ urgedstomach. ‘Get transacting!’. Fortunately, I was able toresist – vaguely recalling something about salmonella,which related somehow to poultry. But those gorgeouschickens basting in that golden, glistening oil was all Icould think about all day. And for some reason, thisaddiction stayed with me for the rest of the holiday.The supreme optimists – we drove up into the mountainslater that morning, hoping that the weather would clear,or that we could rise above the clouds. Every piece ofblue sky or lightening of the greyness was met with wordsof encouragement from the older contingent – the boysblissfully ignorant and their noses buried deep in theGameboys. ‘That cloud over there seems to be getting lighter,’said Enid - about every five minutes. ‘Let me know when we reach Venice,’ said Thomas,without looking up. About half way to the Pass summit we noticed acommotion on one of the hairpin bends. A youngadolescent was remonstrating with a man in his car. Aswe approached, the boy disappeared down a shallowgully, then reappeared seconds later carrying a rock thesize of the Matterhorn high above his head. We watchedin silent horror as he launched the missile at hisadversary’s car, then ran as fast his legs could carry himinto the forest. Not knowing whether he was escaping orgoing to get more ammunition, we put our foot on theaccelerator – leaving the poor man to his fate. Even the boys looked up - briefly. The view at the top of the Pass was – of course –virtually non-existent, so we decided to make the most ofthe journey by passing ever-so-briefly into Spain. As wecrossed the border and pulled to a stop, Enid’s mobilebeeped to let her know she had a text message. Looking 34
  • 35. at us with a puzzled frown, she pushed the appropriatebuttons. ‘Welcome to Spain.’ - it read. As a little postscript to this part of the journey, onthe way back down the road we came across the man andhis adolescent antagonist sitting calmly by the side of theroad, deep in cheerful conversation - for all the world as ifnothing had happened. Spooky! We’d deliberately taken our time that day, as wewerent expecting to travel far. Near the bottom of theroad another road led east over another Pass and on toour night’s destination. Lindy took the turn and weascended again, remarking positively on the lack of traffic. It was a long, torturous road, and the view was(again) limited. When we finally reached the summit,Lindy needed a break and we all welcomed an opportunityto stretch our legs. I crossed the wide saddle in order tocommune with nature in solitude, when I suddenly heardraised voices behind me. ‘What’s the matter?’ I asked as I ran over to Lindyand James. ‘The Pass is closed,’ replied the not-so-little woman,her breast heaving with fury. ‘What do you mean closed?’ I asked, searching forclarification. ‘She means closed, Dad,’ said James helpfully. ‘How can you close a pass?’ I asked. ‘There’s a ruddy great gate with a padlock on it,’explained Lindy. I didn’t believe her. I had to see formyself. I followed her over the rise and looked down indisbelief at the offending barrier. ‘Why would they close the Pass?’ I screamed.‘There’s no snow!’ The trip back down the way we had come was not ahappy one. We kept asking the same two questions overand over again. ‘Why would they close the Pass?’ and ‘Why isn’t therea sign at the turnoff telling you it’s closed?’ As I sat looking forlornly at my map, I noticed -almost too small for the human eye to detect – a small 35
  • 36. note written beside the name of the Pass: ‘Open July –September’. I kept the news to myself. As we reached the turnoff back onto the main road,we all looked across at the ‘Pass Closed’ sign. As thenavigator, everyone looked at me. I buried my head inthe map and tried to count the extra kilometres we nowhad to travel to that night’s hotel. The original distance had been – eighty kilometres!Now we were looking at several hundred.The drive to Saint Bertrand de Comminges wasmagnificent, particularly the latter part after Lourdes. Thevillage of Saint Bertrand itself lived up to the splendour ofits approaches. The setting is perfect - located on a hillsurrounded by fields, with the Pyrenees in the distance.The village is pleasant, without being spectacular, but thechurch (and its cloisters in particular) is superb. Webooked into our hotel in what was becoming the usualway – Enid sharing with James and Thomas in one room,and Lindy and I in another. You may think it impressivethat our sons enjoyed sharing a room with theirgrandmother, but there was a less than altruistic reasonbehind their generosity. You see, on previous trips they’dbeen generally forced to share with their parents, and hadthus been exposed to the Curse of the Whittons. To put itbluntly, I used to snore a little bit. Sometimes more thana little bit. I remember one morning receiving a petitionfrom the town council, signed by the entire populace anddemanding we quit their town – or else. It seems thattheir buildings had not been constructed to withstandmoderately-sized earthquakes, and I was considered botha danger and a menace. Not surprisingly, James and Thomas were happy tobe relieved of this burden.The next day was Mother’s Day (in Australia, anyway),and we’d planned to spend it exploring the Cathar castlesof the eastern Pyrenees. But the day turned out to be sobeautiful, and the boys had been so indifferent aboutcastles so far, that we decided to backtrack a little the 36
  • 37. way we had come and head back into the High Pyrenees.(‘It’s only about eighty kilometres away,’ I told thegroaning children.) Some days you make inspired choices – and this wasone of them. We went to the Cirque du Gavarnie, which isa stupendous amphitheatre of cliffs that loom over a flat,fertile valley. I thought Enid was going to faint when wefirst arrived. She’s always been a great lover ofmountains, and these were the first serious one’s she’dcome across in the splendour of a sparkling, sunny day.And didn’t they sparkle! All that rain of the previous dayshad translated into snow on the peaks, and they glistenedgloriously against the deep blue of a clear sky. There’s usually only one drawback to walking in themountains – no matter which direction you go, youinvariably have to deal with going uphill at some stage.That’s one of the reasons why Gavarnie is so appealing –the track runs beside a gurgling little stream along onlythe slightest of inclines. There’s a short (and I do meanshort) climb onto the remains of a terminal moraine atone point, but I’ll happily put up with that when the viewat the top is as rewarding as this was. A broad, flat valleyfanned out beneath the cliffs, dotted with pine forests anda meandering stream snaking carelessly amongst themeadows. After frolicking like lambs in springtime across thesunny meadows, we returned to have a picnic in the carpark at Gavarnie. I went off to get a few extraprovisions, when I became aware of being followed up theroad by a series of wolf whistles. When I returned frommy short expedition, I found that the incidence had – ifanything – increased. Now, though it pains me to admitit, I am not the sort of person who normally attracts wolfwhistles – particularly in the multitude I was nowexperiencing. It was baffling. A little bit of investigationrevealed the culprit – a souvenir donkey that let out awhistle every time it detected movement. Goodnessknows how the stallholders maintained their sanity duringhigh tourist season! (By the way – I can quitecategorically deny the rumour that I actually bought one 37
  • 38. of these animals and pull it out when my ego needs a bitof a boost. Absolutely – it didn’t happen!) Enid and Lindy enjoyed a wonderful Mother’s Day! 38
  • 39. 6. To the Sublime and the RidiculousThe next few days were just glorious. I realise now that itwas fate preparing the ground for a monumental letdown,but it’s stupid to endure the bad and not enjoy the good -so we did. We left our bed and breakfast near the Pyreneesearly (a comfortable farmhouse, but breaking withtradition in providing stale bread and croissants forbreakfast, and trusting its guests to leave their money onthe table when they leave!), and travelled east across theface of the distantly gleaming mountains. ‘They seem to go on forever,’ said Enid for thehundredth time. We were reluctant to head north when the timecame, but that was one of the drawbacks of having ouraccommodation booked – we had places to be that day!The town of Mirepoix has the most interesting market Ihave ever seen. For a start, the setting is perfect - atown square surrounded by gaily painted, half-timberedfacades. The stalls are dominated by beautiful, brightlypatterned fabrics, which compliment the buildings aroundthem. Then there are the animals. It’s one of the fewmarkets I’ve come across that sells a wide range of liveproduce. Chickens, of course. And Rabbits. And pigs.And caged birds. And snails. And then there was (of course) the food. Sausagesand salamis; naked – almost obscene – chickens andgeese; pigs’ and sheep’s heads that looked out at theworld - unblinking and accusing; pates of everycombination known to man; aubergines; cauliflowers;asparagus tied and trussed in small, green bouquets;bright, yellow melons; artichoke hearts; Pyrenean goatand sheep’s cheeses; walnuts, almonds, cashews andpeanuts; tiny quails eggs and huge, white goose eggs;pastries, flans and tarts guaranteed to send yourcholesterol levels soaring; mushrooms (from tinychampignons, to huge, brightly spotted exhibits whichcould have sheltered a small family); breads, baguettes 39
  • 40. and rolls; honeys dyed improbable colours (like brightblue lavender); and……..strawberries! But the real attraction was the people. Stall owners,locals, visitors and farmers mingled in an animateddiscord of conversation and commerce. Bereted old menwith girths that betrayed their love of food and wine, andfaces like dried, knobbly apples talked and gesticulatedceaselessly to one another – whilst their wives stood byand smiled indulgently. Everywhere we looked there werestraw shopping baskets stretched to breaking point, andeven someone wheeling a small trolley! Tourists(identifiable by their cameras) were few, and the air wasfilled with the sales pitches of stall owners. While the rest of the contingent soaked up theatmosphere, I went off to cash some traveller’s cheques. This apparently banal task (now, thankfully, largelyunnecessary) had often turned out to be a monumentallycomplex undertaking in the past – particularly in Franceand Italy. I remember one experience during an earliertrip when I went into a bank in Paris wanting to cash acouple of these curious bills. The teller looked dubious. ‘What currency?’ she asked, pursing her lipssceptically. I smiled confidently. ‘French francs,’ I replied. She looked sad and shookher head. ‘I’m sorry, I can’t cash them.’ Stunned andperplexed at this news, I wandered around the Bastillearea for about a quarter of an hour looking for anotherbank, before examining my earlier conversation carefully.An idea – a bizarre, outrageous idea – presented itself. Iwent back into the same bank. ‘May I help you?’ said the teller (a different one). ‘I’d like to cash some traveller’s cheques,’ I admitted– cautiously. ‘What type?’ ‘Deutschmark.’ (We had taken two currencies.) ‘Yes, that’s fine. How much would you like tochange?’ But even that pales in comparison with Italy. LikeFrance, I’ve found that – for no apparent reason – somebanks will do business with you, and some won’t. 40
  • 41. Sometimes I’ve had to take my query to several tellers forthe one transaction. Occasionally you meet the dreadedpursed lips. ‘What’s today?’ ‘I beg your pardon?’ ‘Today – what day is it?’ ‘Wednesday,’ I reply, not a little confused. The tellerlooks sad and shakes his head. ‘I’m sorry. I’m the Monday, Tuesday and Thursdaytraveller’s cheque teller.’ Or – ‘Yes, I can cash traveller’s cheques. May I see it?’ Ihand over the item as requested. Pursed lips and anothershake of the head. ‘I’m sorry, you’re in the even serial-number line. You need to go over to the odd serial-number line.’ I look in the direction he’s pointing at theline of people snaking out the door and down the street -like the queue at a Grand Final - and realise why somepeople turn to bank robbery. To this day I can’t work out why some banksdisplaying Change signs will cash traveller’s cheques, andsome won’t. Yet another mystery!Having filled you in on the background, so to speak, youcan appreciate my joy when the Banque Agricole people inMirepoix conducted my transaction without the slightestproblem, and with a minimum of fuss. It had a significantbearing on my opinion of that town! Collecting the familyand their hundredweight of provisions, we waved a fondfarewell to Mirepoix and recommenced our travels.The Cevennes is one of my favourite areas of France. It’swild, relatively untouristed, and, in some places,downright isolated. On a previous trip we visited theTemplar village of La Couvertoirade. Surrounded by thedesolate landscape of one of the limestone plateaux forwhich the Cevennes is renowned, the atmosphere couldn’tbe more effective. Unfortunately, when the boys I wentoff exploring the castle ruins I managed to slip and fallinto a sort of chasm between the crumbling walls. I laythere for a good five minutes – unable to move – while 41
  • 42. the boys shrugged their shoulders and kept exploring.Eventually Lindy noticed that one of us was missing. ‘Where’s your father?’ she asked. ‘He fell down a hole,’ replied the unconcernedoffspring. At least they didn’t laugh….. This trip, a highlight was the wonderful village ofSaint Guilhem le Desert. In high tourist season, Iunderstand that the place is intolerably busy. In the lateafternoon sunshine of a perfect Spring day, with hardly atourist to be seen, it was sublime. We wandered the oldstone streets and explored the geranium-bedeckedcourtyards and alleyways, totally enchanted. At one pointI came across a pot devoid of plants. On closer inspectionI found a black cat curled up inside, sound asleep.Thomas (who is a cataholic – or is it catatonic?) was inseventh heaven. Lindy and Enid came across a marzipan shop,sparkling with all the colours of the rainbow andmimicking more fruit and vegetables than you’d havethought possible. ‘Do you like marzipan?’ I asked the enchanted ladies. ‘Hate the stuff,’ came the prompt reply. ‘But it lookswonderful.’ Unfortunately, we couldn’t stay in the town becauseit was Tuesday and every hotel and chamber d’hote wasclosed. I’m not kidding. Back then they closed everyTuesday. I love the French!The next day was spent travelling through the gorges ofthe central Cevennes. The Gorge du Tarn was trulymagnificent. We’d planned to drive through it in an houror so, but found ourselves stopping every hundredmetres. We clicked like we’d never clicked before – evenJames and Thomas took photographs! The site of our picnic was ideal. We lunched on awhite, shingle beach which was almost blinding in thebright sunshine, next to a cool pool formed by themomentarily still waters of the River Tarn. High above uswas the single spanned bridge linking the main road to 42
  • 43. the town, and on all sides were the forested slopes of thegorge. Ahead, through the arch of the bridge, the oldstone buildings of the town clung desperately to the sideof a precipice, which plunged fifteen metres or more.From under one of the houses ran a stream, which fell asa waterfall into the emerald green river below. It was a nice picnic spot.The afternoon was spent travelling down the Gorge of theArdeche River into the broad plain of the Rhone. Westopped briefly at the spectacular Pont d’Arc – a great,natural arch above a large, inviting pool. For a minute itlooked like Lindy might realise her trip-long fantasy ofcanoeing along a beautiful river, then the place wasinundated with about a thousand school kids. Dwellingsadly on what might have been, she led the way back tothe car – the happy laughter of children in the backgroundsimply lending more poignancy to the tragedy. It had been a very long – albeit rewarding – day,made more stressful by the ladies’ desperate need for atoilet as we drove above the snakelike meanderings of theriver far below. In fact, the situation became so dire thatLindy was heard at one stage to scream into the hills - ‘Iwish I had a penis!’. It was one of those unbooked days, so we were verykeen to find somewhere quickly, particularly as we weregetting very close to Provence – a notoriously difficultplace to find accommodation on spec. Fortunately, wewere successful after only two goes. Our chambre d’hote was in a chateau that had seenbetter days. There were two corner turrets (one of whichwe occupied), a swimming pool (that was frustratinglyclosed – even though it was about 25 degrees!), and arailway track not twenty metres from the front door! A busy railway track. A very busy railway track. The elderly lady who was our host spoke not a wordof English, but was friendly and patient with my awfulFrench. Between us, we somehow worked out what wewanted and what she could offer, came to an agreement,and settled ourselves in. 43
  • 44. Madame suggested we picnic on the table in herfront garden – an offer too good to refuse. Sitting in thesun before the ivy-clad façade of the old chateau – ourpicnic spread out luxuriously before us - we felt likeroyalty.Lindy and I – our bedroom located at the back of thebuilding - slept peacefully that night. Enid, James andThomas counted trains the way other people count sheep,and didn’t fare so well. Breakfast the next morning was an unforgettableexperience. Madame sat with us and chatted – obliviousand undeterred by our ignorance of her language. Lindystruggled manfully (or, rather, womanfully) and, throughher, we were able to follow some of the conversation. Allpart of the obligation for running a chamber d’hote(apparently), but nonetheless charming for that. The breakfast itself was a curious affair, with variousunusual homemade jams and conserves – kiwi fruit,grape, cumquat, pear and nectarine spring to mind - butthe highlight was when Madame’s granddaughter entered.She greeted us all with the most formal and polite‘bonjour’, and then gave us each a kiss on the cheek.James and Thomas nearly dropped out of their chairs inhorror! She must have been all of 6 years old, with acharming, toothless smile. Eventually – and reluctantly - we said goodbye toMadame (Enid embarrassing herself with her first stab atFrench, calling her ‘Monsieur’), and headed off intodisaster.Remember the lost credit card? Remember MonsieurMasoni? We had dismissed ‘CC Day’ totally from our mindsover the previous few days, confident in the expectationthat a replacement was waiting for us in Avignon. Weentered the city with a debonair nonchalance – withouteven an inkling of what was about to befall us. Lindy went off to the Bank to collect the card withher mum, James and Thomas, while I visited the Pope’sPalace (they weren’t interested – believing they’d seen 44
  • 45. enough Palaces for a while). We were all to meet in thequiet gardens located on the hill above the city an hour orso later. I arrived early, sat down comfortably, andwaited. And waited. And waited. Eventually, the disenchanted group appeared. Iknow you won’t believe my naivety when I say that, eventhen, I had no idea that there was a problem. ‘The card wasn’t there,’ said Lindy. Poor, innocentfool that I was – I was shocked. ‘But it must have been there. They even gave you aname. Did you ask for Monsieur Masoni?’ ‘No, I asked for Mr Smith! she growled. Yes Iasked for Monsieur Masoni. Of course I asked forMonsieur Masoni. Why wouldn’t I have asked forMonsieur Masoni?’ Apparently, an apologetic Monsieur Masoni hadsuggested that our precious card might turn up bylunchtime. He’d promised to phone us on our mobilewhen it arrived. We had lunch. A miserable, indigestible lunch. Lindy and I went back to the Bank. ‘No. It has notarrived yet. Perhaps later this afternoon.’ We drove to Arles (an eighty kilometre round trip!)to kill time. We had a reasonably pleasant visit, given thecircumstances, but it was impossible to relax. Now, atlast, a germ of doubt began gnawing at my optimism. We walked around the Roman amphitheatre, and Ivisited the church of Saint Trophime while the rest of thefamily ate ice cream. Then Lindy and Enid went shoppingin an enticing-looking ‘fabricerie’ (as its name suggest, itsells fabrics), coming out some ten minutes later havingchosen a vibrantly coloured cloth of yellow, blue andgreen, with a lemon, barley and sunflower motif. Isuppose for many it would have epitomised Provence -but not in the mood we were in. Black would have beenmore appropriate. When we got back to our car, Lindy telephonedMonsieur Masoni – still no credit card. 45
  • 46. We drove back to Avignon. We negotiated thehorrendous traffic for a second time and went through therigmarole of finding another car park. We trooped back tothe bank. No credit card. This time we rang the credit card people. ‘Can I help you?’ ‘I want to enquire about a replacement credit card.’ ‘I’m afraid you’ll have to ring this toll-freenumber……’ I can’t repeat verbatim what Lindy said to theoperator, nor the genealogical description she offered inregard to her heritage and offspring, for this is a familybook. Eventually, she found someone willing toinvestigate the matter. ‘The card has been held up in French Customs fortwenty-four hours. It’s normal procedure.’ ‘But we reported it lost days ago!’ ‘Did you? Um, it will be there tomorrow. Just bepatient.’That night we had a hotel booked in Bonnieux – in theLuberon just east of Avignon. We did battle on the roadsonce more – this time with the added interest of peakhour traffic – and silently made our way to our night’saccommodation. ‘Please God, make it nice,’ I prayed (I felt we’dearned it!). Perhaps they’d even have a swimming pool, ifthere was any justice in the Universe. It was a flea-pit. No, it was worse than a flea-pit. I saw fleas standingoutside shaking their heads in disgust and moving on tothe building next door! Wearily, we dumped our bags and wandered thestreets looking for somewhere to eat. By now I’dabandoned all hope and optimism, and had resignedmyself to the fact that we were going to have a miserabledinner to go with our miserable day. The pizza bar weeventually decided on looked guaranteed to deliver myexpectations. 46
  • 47. Do you remember me telling you – not a few times –not to judge a restaurant or café by its appearance?Somehow – and if you tied me down, poured honey on myeyelids and released ants over my face, I couldn’t tell youhow – it all came right. The atmosphere – despite the constant fightingbetween the husband and wife who ran the establishment– was congenial. The food was very simple (I’m talkingpizza and spaghetti), but it turned out to be just what weall needed. I asked for a beer. ‘Une tres grande biere’.The boy’s eyes nearly popped out of their sockets when itarrived. It had two handles just so you could pick it up! ‘We want a lemonade that big.’ James and Thomasdemanded. But Lindy was feeling financially vulnerable. ‘Just the normal-sized lemonades, boys.’ Daddy drank the beer (at a gulp), then orderedanother. I’m not normally a beer drinker – but that daywas special. The children revolted. Lindy stood firm. ‘I can’t control your father, but I can control you,’was her reply. Oliver Twist probably experienced thesame sensation as James and Thomas. I tapped Lindy onthe shoulder and motioned for her to join me at theparapet of the terrace. The sun was getting low and theview was splendid. Enid, James and Thomas watched eagerly as Davidfaced Goliath. The two antagonists seemed calm andstrangely rational from a distance. Soon they finishedtheir discussion and returned to the table. ‘Have as much as you want, boys,’ said Lindy withresignation. ‘How do you say bucket-full in French, Mum?’ askedThomas excitedly.After dinner, Lindy and I went for a walk through town,climbing the streets and lanes towards the church on thesummit, and watching the approaching sunset. After awhile, Lindy decided she’d go back to the Hotel ‘Pit deFlea’ – but I couldn’t quite face it yet, and continued tothe top of the hill. 47
  • 48. The tiny, ancient, dilapidated church was beautifullyserene in the late evening light, and the sunset over theplains below was spectacular. I leant on the crumbling,vine-covered wall overlooking the town and countryside,breathing in deep the scent of jasmine, and for a few briefmoments I was allowed some respite from the stress ofour ordeal.The next morning dawned sunny and bright. I awokethinking that, if our credit card arrived that morning, we’dhave lost nothing and all our worries would have beenover nothing but a slight inconvenience. Poor, poor innocent fool! We drove through the hills of the Luberon. Lindy,Enid and I went for a short walk through the thyme-and-sage-infused cedar forest, before ringing Monsieur Masonionce more. ‘I’m afraid Monsieur Masoni isn’t in today,’ came thecalm response. Devastation! Lindy explained ourposition, and the clerk – who’s name was Carole –promised to look into the matter. After a few minutes shecame back: ‘I’m sorry, your credit card still isn’t here.Try again later.’ Lindy rang off, close to tears. We visited the hill town of Oppede-le-vieux and hadlunch in an outdoor restaurant that delivered its food froma kitchen across the square. We called Carole on the wayback to our car, but still no credit card. We drove across the valley to the beehive dwellingsabove Gordes, and when we found that you had to pay toget in, I decided that enough was enough. I revoltedagainst fate. A man can only take so much – and I tookthe phone and began dialling. ‘It’s time for some action. Let me deal with this,’ Isaid in my deepest Clarke Kent voice. I called the creditcard company number. I ranted. I raved. I demanded.I threatened. I berated. Eventually, I got on to the shiftsupervisor. ‘I can appreciate what you’ve been through sir, and Imean to fix it for you.’ 48
  • 49. ‘Good. Now we’re getting somewhere,’ I replied,puffing out my chest and throwing a look of triumph atLindy. ‘If you’ll just ring this toll-free number…….’ Again you’ll think I’m exaggerating, and there’snothing I can do about it except assure you that – withouta word of a lie – I’m giving you the abbreviated version ofthis catastrophe. Eventually, after reverting to the good ol’ tried andtrue method of bursting into tears, I got the credit cardpeople to look into the matter and call me back. Then wewent looking for accommodation. The cosmic puppeteers must have decided thatthey’d better give us a reprieve or risk wholesaleslaughter, because we found – virtually first pop – themost fantastic chamber d’hote I’ve ever seen. Thehostess was enormously friendly and helpful; theaccommodation bright, welcoming and spacious; thekitchen opened out on to a magnificent pool; and ourEnglish neighbours were friendly and sympathetic to ourplight. I dived into the pool and stayed underwater for aslong as I could, hoping my troubles would simply washaway. Lindy, Enid, James and Thomas expressed theirresolve to spend the remainder of the holiday there. Then the phone rang. ‘We’ve located your credit card!’ ‘That’s marvellous. Where is it?’ ‘Marseilles.’ Stunned silence. ‘Marseilles? What’s it doing there?’ - ominouslycalm. ‘The courier took it to the wrong place,’ chirruped thehappy official, imagining in her warped condition that shewas sharing a humorous anecdote with me. I told her I did not intend to go to Marseilles for mycredit card and demanded she arrange things so I couldpick it up the following morning from Avignon. Much argument back and forth – promises to ringback. When she finally called back a little later: 49
  • 50. ‘Good news, Mister Whitton. Your card’s not inMarseilles.’ ‘Excellent! Is it in Avignon?’ ‘No, Montpellier.’ Stunned silence. ‘Montpellier.’ - ominously calm. ‘Yes. Apparently, it went to the Bank in Avignon,who instructed the courier to take it to their branch inMontpellier.’ – again that attitude insinuating that we weresharing a joke over something affecting another familyentirely. ‘Who told him to take it to Montpellier?’ ‘A Monsieur Masoni.’ I tossed the phone into the rosemary hedge andsank below the welcoming waters without a trace.The next morning we rang the bank. ‘Monsieur Masoni, please.’ ‘I’m sorry, Monsieur Masoni is not in today.’ ‘Then can I speak to Carole?’ ‘I’m sorry, Carole isn’t in today, either.’ Taking a deep breath and squeezing a nearby breadroll into a pulp, Lindy proceeded to narrate our little storyfor the hundredth time – utterly devoid of anythingresembling hope. Having caught the gist of herconversation, I once again disappeared beneath theserene waters of the swimming pool – hoping for oblivionand a quick, blessed release from this mortal world.When the clerk eventually informed her several minuteslater that the credit card had arrived, Lindy found herselfasking for the catch. ‘‘Catch’, madame?’ ‘Trap – snare – trick,’ she explained, with tremblingvoice. ‘No trick, madame. I have it here – you can pick itup any time.’ But Lindy was taking no chances. Youre actually holding it, are you? Oui, madame. In your hand, I mean? Oui madame. And youre in Avignon? 50
  • 51. Oui, madame. France? After spending a rather extended spell in the pool inway of celebration, we dragged ourselves reluctantly backto Avignon and the Banque Nationale de Paris. Eventuallywe triumphantly held the little plastic wonder tightly in ourhands and kissed it repeatedly, before disgorgingourselves from that city for (hopefully) the last time in ourlives.It was only later that we put two and two together andrealised that Monsieur Masoni and Carole were in cahoots,and that they’d obviously gone off together - living thehigh life on our original replacement credit card. Itexplained why they were both absent from work that day,and allowed us to maintain our sanity! As a postscript, I often wonder why the replacementof the replacement credit card - which was also sentovernight to France from America - was not required towait the twenty-four hours in Customs which it’spredecessor had been forced to endure. Yet another unexplained mystery. 51
  • 52. 7. The Worms Turn ‘If you book accommodation before you go to Europe,don’t expect it to be good just because it’s expensive. Itcould turn out to be a horrible, over-priced place that just has a lot of lies on its website.’ (Excerpt from the James Whitton diaries).I love the Provencal hinterland. We drove through miles of not-quite-ready-to-flowerlavender fields, and past meadows of red poppies andsundry other wild flowers (or weeds – depending on yourperspective). The sun was still shining - but not too hot –and the roads were comparatively empty. We headed upinto, then over the mountains, through gorges, andeventually stopped near the medieval town of Entreveux –our last night in France (for a while). For the second night running, Enid had the luxury ofa room to herself. Well, not so much a room, as acupboard. Nevertheless, she was able to have a breakfrom the boys, and vice-versa. Our hosts were friendly,and the rooms clean, comfortable and quiet. The male ofthe species spoke excellent English, and joined us thenext morning for breakfast. Or, not so much joined us, asstood over us and watched. It was a peculiar experience. He stood behind Enid and chatted away happily, but Icould see the Aged Relative getting more and moreuncomfortable by the minute. After a while, herdiscomfort turned to anger, and her lips became one thin,straight line of disapproval. We ate the bare minimumand got out of there as quickly as we could. It was a miserable, rainy morning. I hate the RivieraCorniche at the best of times, but the dull weather madeit even more miserable that day. We drove withoutstopping along that interminable motorway, until wereached Riomaggiore on the Cinqueterre, around 2pm.Lindy shaved several years off her life expectancy in 52
  • 53. negotiating the torturous, winding road down the cliffs tothe town, and was stopped at the barrier. ‘You can’t drive in to Riomaggiore,’ said a guard. ‘It’s alright,’ I said dismissively. ‘We haveaccommodation booked.’ You’d have thought by now thatI’d have learnt! The guard simply shook his head. ‘No-one may drive in to Riomaggiore.’ ‘But the Apartment has parking. Look it says sohere.’ But the guard wasn’t interested in the flutteringpiece of paper I was waving under his nose. ‘You must park in the public car park,’ he insisted.By now, we just wanted to get where we were going andsettle in, so we did as we were told. Lindy drove up anddown and round and round the car park until she found anempty spot (left vacant by a bicycle which had only justmanaged to squeeze into the space itself). After aneternity of backwards-and-forwarding, she managed tosqueeze in (we all had to get out beforehand as there wasno room for the car doors to open). Leaving the rest ofthe contingent to gather our bags and pack thenecessities, I went on ahead to find Roberto. Riomaggiore had been the first place we’d bookedwhen organising our trip. The information I’d read saidthat our apartment was only fifty metres from the beachand, although it was far from cheap, it had seemedcomparatively inexpensive for the famous Cinqueterre. Ihad communicated many times with the manager over thecourse of the months (I’d even sent him a Christmasgreeting!), and was looking forward to meeting him in theflesh. I strode into his office and held out my arms like along-absent friend. I was met by a blank look. ‘Signor Whitton – from Australia,’ I explained. ‘Ah, S…S…Signor W…W…Whitton.’ By now I hadbecome a little uneasy. The way he wouldn’t look at me,but glanced furtively from side to side – and that nervousstutter. I began to have misgivings. ‘Where can I park, Roberto? That fool at the roadbarrier said we’re not allowed to drive in to town.’ ‘P…Park? In the p…p…public car p…p…park, ofcourse. You can’t p…park in Rio…m…maggiore.’ I 53
  • 54. swallowed. It had been a long, tiring day, and the heatwas taking its toll. ‘But your website says the accommodation comeswith parking,’ I replied, trying to remain calm. Roberto’sface lit up. ‘Ah yes, of c…course it does! Stupido! Sure. I’llg…give you the k…key to the g…g…garage after I havetaken you to see the apartment.’ This was more like it.Now we were getting somewhere. You just have to beassertive, I thought – congratulating myself. He led me outside and down the street. After a whilewe went up some steps into a lane and began climbing.We kept climbing. Up and up we went above the town –above the clouds. The atmosphere thinned and I was inneed of an oxygen mask. At last we came to a door andRoberto blew softly – it crumpled like paper. He motionedfor me to enter, and waited outside – unable to face thehorror within. After the initial shock, I tried to be positive. Well,okay, so the kitchen was awful – but it was usable.Probably. Maybe. Anyway, there were plenty of nicerestaurants in town. But at least the bedrooms weretolerable. Well, bedroom and hallway. A hallway withthree beds in it. I couldn’t speak. I gazed out the window to admirethe view and buy some time to think. It looked out upona small courtyard. Well, a narrow space between thedilapidated walls of the surrounding apartments. Withclotheslines strung across it. I pulled out the picture I’d downloaded from theInternet and studied it. I looked around at ourapartment. I looked back at the picture. I looked atRoberto, who was still standing on the doorstep with hisback to me, whistling nervously. This was too big a decision to make on my own. Itook the keys and decided to bring Lindy down to have alook. Perhaps my view was somewhat jaundiced? AsRoberto and I parted company back at his office, I asked: ‘Where’s the garage for our car?’ ‘In the p…public car p…park – second floor.’ I triedto glare at him, but he refused to meet my eyes. I 54
  • 55. climbed the hill back to the car park, sweat pouring offme, and my mind in turmoil. I stopped off to look at theprivate parking on my way, and wasn’t surprised to seethat it was already occupied. I gave my opinion of the apartment to Lindy, andsuggested she come with me to assess the extent of thedamage for herself. We trudged dejectedly down thestreet past Roberto’s office, and eventually stood beforethe mighty climb. Enid and the boys stayed at basecamp, while Lindy and I – declining the use of Sherpas -scaled the North Face. When we reached the top, shetook one look at the monstrosity, swung on her heals andstomped out. ‘Let’s go.’ ‘But what will we tell Roberto?’ I asked. By now we’drejoined the family. We both looked at Enid, then eachother. ‘We won’t be staying here, I’m afraid,’ Lindyannounced to the disappointed crowd. ‘You all go back tothe car and meet us there.’ – then we went to do battlewith Roberto. We entered his office a little nervously, pushed pastthe crowd of backpackers, and confronted our nemesis. ‘The apartment is no good for us,’ I said withoutpreamble. Roberto looked at me for the first time – hiseyes round with disbelief. ‘But I have b…booked it for you!’ I glanced aroundat the line-up of customers outside, snaking away into thedistance, and didn’t feel guilty. ‘I’m afraid my mother-in-law has a bad hip, and can’tmanage all those stairs,’ I lied. Brazenly. Not a twinge ofconscience. ‘But you hadn’t t…told me this! It’s not my f…fault.’Well, we could have stood there all day arguing over whathis advertising promised, what we had expected, andwhat the reality was - but I knew time was getting on andwe still had to find somewhere to stay. And – mystomach reminded me – we hadn’t even had lunch yet. Then I had an inspiration. ‘I left my credit card details as deposit – use that.’ 55
  • 56. I’m ashamed to admit that we ran up the street.With squealing tyres we left the car park and Riomaggiore– every second expecting Roberto to realise that it wasour credit card and not his machine that was the reasonbehind the continual transaction rejections, and comeracing up the street after us calling for the police. With our pulses racing, we eventually pulled over toa spot overlooking the ocean and the Cinqueterre, and ateour lunch by the side of the road. It was the first timewe’d been forced to eat in this way, and we were at ourlowest ebb (amongst many low ebbs!) as Lindy, Enid andI struggled to make sandwiches from out of the boot ofthe car. The sweet scent of frangipani that accompanied ourmeal and the glorious view over the ocean and villagesseemed somehow obscene, given the circumstances.Italy. Lindy and I have this passionate love-haterelationship with the country and its people. We find itcharming and infuriating in equal measure. On thenegative side, when it’s frantic and hectic, you feel inimminent danger of either being robbed or wiped out in acar accident at every moment. But – on the other hand –our most magical moments have been spent there. On the occasion of our last visit in particular, Iremember renting an apartment on the shore of Lagod’Iseo (one of the lesser known Italian lakes) andenjoying a couple of glorious, relaxing days swimming,eating, and walking in the hills high above the lake. Onour last evening, we fed the children early (pizza –naturally), and dined in the hotel restaurant. James andThomas decided to go for a swim, and the proprietor gaveus his premier table – on a small balcony overhanging thewater. Enjoying a candlelit meal, watching the sun setcrimson behind the foothills of the Alps, and listening tothe happy chatter of the boys paddling around us in thedimming twilight, was not only one of the highlights of ourholidays – it was a highlight of my life. And – whilst thiswas the best – it was in no way an isolated incidentamongst our experiences in Italy. On the other hand… 56
  • 57. I also remember hotels that were so stuffy, noisy,uncomfortable and expensive, that it was sheer misery forthe intrepid holidaymakers. And now we had Riomaggioreto add to the list. Whilst we ate our lunch, Lindy and I pondered ouroptions. Personally, I was just about ready to cut ourlosses and head north to Switzerland. We were all feelingvery negative about Italy, but we had a lot of bookingsand there was little room for flexibility - one of thedrawbacks to our choice of travel, unfortunately. We’d booked our apartment in Riomaggiore for twonights, so were due in our Tuscan Villa in two day’s time.I decided to call Lucia (remember Lucia?) to see if wecould arrange two extra nights at Podere Pietrata. The others held their breath as I dialled. ‘Hello? Signora Ceci?’ ‘Si.’ ‘This is signor Whitton.’ ‘Ah! Trevor. Are you still coming? Nothing hashappened?’ ‘Yes, we’re still coming. But I was wondering if itwas possible to extend our booking for tonight andtomorrow night as well?’ ‘Well, tonight is not possible. But tomorrow is fine.What time will you be arriving?’ Upon reflection, this wasprobably the best outcome. It was going to be a longdrive into southern Tuscany from where we were, anyway,so I was happy to rough it for tonight. I looked at themap. We wanted somewhere that wasn’t too big andintimidating, but big and/or popular enough to provide agood choice of accommodation. No matter what it cost,we were determined to stay somewhere comfortable! We ended up heading for Lucca, but there was someconcern amongst the boys when I told them it was eightykilometres away. James hid his head in his hands andgroaned, while Thomas tried to get me to considersomewhere closer – say, a hundred and fifty kilometres.Fortunately – inexplicably, given our run of bad luck - the‘eighty kilometre rule’ didn’t apply on this occasion, andwe arrived at our destination without incident less than anhour later. 57
  • 58. After a minimum of fuss, we found a suitable spotclose to the city centre and Lindy parked the car. I leftthe family with some trepidation in order to pound thestreets to find the impossible – reasonable, comfortableaccommodation for five people in Italy at short notice! In the car, the boys became restless. A long, hotday had become longer and hotter over the past fewhours, and they became understandably impatient. Lindyreasoned with them: ‘Look, I know it’s hard for you, but think of yourfather. He’s walking the streets, knocking on doors andtrying to communicate and negotiate in a foreignlanguage. Spare a thought for him and be grateful.’ In the small square next to the car park I found asign: “Accommodation – Vacancy”. I stepped in andintroduced myself to the young man behind the counter.He spoke excellent English. ‘Call me Marco.’ he said pleasantly. ‘Do you have a nice room for five people?’ I asked,confident of his negative reply. ‘Just a minute, I’ll call my uncle.’ he said. I waitedimpatiently. After much discussion that I couldn’t follow(my Italian is only a little bit better than my French), herang off and beamed. ‘Yes, I have an apartment for you.But I will need to take you there. It’s about five minutes’walk from here.’ But I knew better. I knew what toexpect. ‘Look, I don’t want to waste your time unnecessarily.I’m looking for somewhere very nice. It’s been a difficultday for my family, and I’ve promised them somewherecomfortable.’ To his credit, Marco was unoffended. ‘It is very nice. I guarantee you will like it.’ Whatcan you do? I had to at least go and look at it.Meanwhile, time was ticking on. He led me through the streets and markets, chattingall the while. Apparently, he’d lived with is brother inChicago for a while. ‘America is great. Especially at Christmas. It’s notlike here – Christmas is a big deal in America.Decorations everywhere. Lights everywhere. Lots ofpresents. Lots of food.’ Then he went on to tell me about 58
  • 59. the market in Lucca. It was a special market, he said aswe squeezed through the throng. ‘Very historic.Continuous since the Middle Ages.’ Just then, ourconversation was cut short by a moped winding its waythrough the crowd. Marco was outraged. He threw hishands in the air and shook his head in disbelief. ‘He’s notsupposed to be driving here – there are signs saying so.Italian drivers are terrible!’ he said. I tried to look non-committal. ‘Have you seen the way they drive on themotorways? They never obey the speed limits. Just likethat moped – they never obey any rules. I get scared justcrossing the road!’ I couldn’t help feeling that Marcodidn’t belong in Italy. His naivety astonished me. Anyonewho was still surprised to find that Italians weredangerous drivers after having lived here for most of theirlives was destined to die a frustrated, bitter man. It waslike an Australian being disappointed to discover thatthere were kangaroos in the outback – the one virtuallydefined the other and the two were inseparable. After a few minutes’ navigating through the crowd,we entered a quieter side street. Marco took out his keysand began preparing me for a letdown. ‘The entrance wayis awful,’ he admitted. ‘My uncle keeps trying to getsomeone to fix it up, but no one ever does. It deterssome people.’ We stopped at a doorway and he began doing battlewith the locks. Eventually the door swung open and westepped inside. He hadn’t lied. The entrance was awful. It was darkand dingy, with plaster peeling off the walls and papersstrewn about the floor. I wondered whether the stairsleading up to the second story would hold our combinedweight. We climbed gingerly to the next landing – eachstep creaking and straining as we ascended. Anotherbattle with the keys, then he threw the door open. It was magnificent. Well, perhaps not magnificent. But very nice. Clean,spacious, quiet – and with a lovely kitchen and generouslyproportioned bathroom. Heck, it even had an ironingboard! 59
  • 60. Meanwhile, back at the car, life was quickly ebbingfrom the long-suffering occupants. When I returned afterabout three quarters of an hour and told them I’d foundsomewhere nice first pop out of the can, they nearlystrangled me. ‘The least you could have done was suffer like therest of us!’ snarled Lindy. ‘Why did you take so long?’ ‘Well, first Marco….’ ‘Marco?’ ‘He runs the place. You see, first he had to call hisuncle, then we had to walk across town through themarket – it’s a great market, by the way – then we nearlygot run down by a moped, then he couldn’t get the dooropen…’ ‘Alright, alright. Just take us there.’ We had a terrific stay in Lucca. After we’d unpackedand settled in to the apartment, Lindy and I decided to gofor a walk. The late afternoon light was golden as themarket was packing up, so the streets were lively andanimated without being too crowded. We came across anAsian man making grasshoppers out of reeds, and were soimpressed that we bought one. The detail was exquisite.We stepped into an alimentari-cum-macellaio (a kind ofcross between a general store, delicatessen, butcher andwine shop), and started to drool. We were sooverwhelmed, we could hardly decide what to order. Weended up buying fresh pasta (naturally), salami, Parmaham, Gorgonzola cheese, a pasta salad, spiced potatoes,and a veal ragout. Swooning, we took our haul back tothe apartment, and began cooking. As the aroma fromthe rosemary, garlic, thyme and tomatoes filled theapartment, we all began to salivate. It was one of the finest meals of our holiday.Later, we joined the townspeople in that most Italian ofpastimes – passegiatta. Or – in English - wanderingaround the piazza eating gelato. Young, smart lookingcouples promenaded aimlessly, showing off the latestfashions and sneaking the occasional sidelong glance atthemselves reflected in the shop windows (and I’m notjust talking about the women). Girls strolled arm in arm 60
  • 61. and boys experimented with macho poses – each castingfurtive glances at the other in the hope that they wereattracting attention (which they invariably were). Butwhere were all the old people? Or adults, for that matter?The place resembled a huge schoolyard. I suppose theparents and grandparents were inside watching televisionor reading – having had their surfeit of promenading intheir own youths. We looked very much out of place. As we licked our gelato and tried to lookinconspicuous, I remember thinking how improbable thispleasant evening had looked earlier that afternoon, aswe’d made our escape from the clutches of theredoubtable Roberto.My attitude had changed, but as we negotiated theindustrialised Arno valley on our way south the next day, Icould see that Enid, for one, was far from convinced aboutthe attractions of Italy. Then we left the Arno behind, andTuscany embraced us. The factories disappeared, theugly towns disappeared, the countryside became emptyand green, and the roads became clear and traffic-free. San Gimignano was sparkling under a clear, sunnysky, and the crowds weren’t too horrendous. The trek upthe main street was a long, slow one, as Lindy and Enidwere drawn to each and every souvenir stall. What wasthe attraction, I wonder? They all sold the samepostcards, after all. I wandered on ahead and enjoyedlooking into the picturesque alimentari. The Italians havea flair for presenting food, there’s no doubt about it -particularly fruit and vegetables. The best way I can findto describe it is to say that they present their food withthe same style that they dress themselves. I waited at the top of the hill with James and Thomasas the two ladies caught us up. As they did so, Enid’sphone rang. It was her granddaughter, Emma, who washouse-sitting for us. ‘Hi, Emma.’ she began. ‘Everything okay?’ A frownquickly crossed her brow. ‘I’d better put you on to Lindy,’she replied at last - and I began to worry. What now?! ‘Hello Emma. What’s the matter?’ said Lindy. Istarted to relax as she smiled maliciously. ‘No, you did 61
  • 62. right. Don’t do anything. How is the cat?’ Lindy wasobviously relaxed about whatever it was Emma had calledabout, but I was still a little uneasy. ‘What is it?’ I asked – breaking into the conversation. ‘Hold on a sec, Emma,’ she said - then, turning tome: ‘We got an email from some hotel saying they’d triedto charge our credit card last night, and it didn’t work.They wanted the new credit card number.’ ‘Roberto?’ I asked. ‘Who else could it be?’ Not leaving anything tochance, I asked if I could speak to Emma. ‘Who was the email from?’ I asked. ‘I don’t exactly remember. Something like“Accommodation on Line”,’ said Emma. A memory stirredwithin me. ‘Can you have a look again and give me the wholemessage?’ ‘It’s in front of me now. It’s from someone calledNada Liboskova.’ I breathed deeply at the thought of howclose we’d come to another catastrophe. ‘Is there any reference to something called“Adalbert”?’ I asked. ‘Just a minute.’ There was silence on the other endas she read the message carefully to herself, then, ‘Yes,next to something called a “Cesky Krumlov”.’ I sighedwith relief and reached for the new credit card. ‘Can you send them a reply, tell them we’re stillinterested in the bookings, and give them this new creditcard number, please.’ Once I’d rung off, I explained tothe others, ‘It was our two bookings for the CzechRepublic. If they’d cancelled our hotels, we would havearrived in Cesky Krumlov and Prague withoutaccommodation. That’s not a good thing in June.’ ‘Thank God she phoned,’ said Lindy. ‘Thank God I realised it wasn’t Roberto.’ ‘What a coincidence that they emailed the day we’dhad that run in at Riomaggiore!’ There was a moment’ssilence as we reflected on this latest brush with disaster,then Lindy asked: ‘Did she say how the cat was?’ 62
  • 63. We wandered around the old town, revelling in theoccasional distant view of pleasant, gently rolling hillsagain. We eventually relaxed somewhat - but by now Iwas wiser, and wasn’t to be led into a false sense ofsecurity so easily. In the back of my mind lingeredconcerns over Podere Pietrata – for we had booked ourTuscan villa for five nights, and had just added another.Six nights in a dump did not appeal. I was also concernedabout that errant deposit I’d spent so much fruitless timechasing up from home. After stocking up on a few rations and sampling thelocal gelato, we climbed back into our car and motoredsouth towards the val d’Orcia – expectations and anxietyrising in equal measure. After a while James, Thomas andEnid asked to see the photographs of our villa. ‘It will have a pool, won’t it Dad?’ asked Thomasanxiously. ‘It says it does, doesn’t it?’ ‘Well yes, but…’ ‘Then I’m sure it does.’ The countryside became progressively prettier as weapproach Radicofani, where our villa was located. Wefound the turn-off easily, and began trundling down therutted dirt road. We approached a gorgeous looking villa– immaculate gardens, magnificent views, beckoning,glistening swimming pool and attractive, old stonefarmhouse. Our hopes soared - but it wasn’t PoderePietrata. Then we approached a run-down, dilapidated oldshack, with weeds for a garden and untidy, half-deadtrees blocking the view. Our hopes plummeted - but thatwasn’t it, either. A car approached from the oppositedirection. It slowed down. A woman leant out of thewindow. ‘Trevor?’ she queried. ‘Yes. Lucia?’ We all piled out of our cars (Lucia wastravelling with her husband and some friends) andgreeted each other like long lost relatives. I think some ofus embraced. I found myself hugging complete strangers,but we were all swept away by the spirit of the occasionand didn’t care. After much happy chatter and repeated‘welcome’ ‘s and ‘it’s lovely to meet you at last’ ’s, we 63
  • 64. piled back into our cars and continued down the road. Atlast Lucia turned into a driveway and we had our firstsight of Podere Pietrata. It was beautiful. The photographs on the Internet hadn’t done itjustice. It was one of those delightful old stonefarmhouses, surrounded by an immaculate garden andoverlooking a vista of valleys, ploughed fields, isolatedhilltop villages and distant mountains. Then we were shown into our apartment. Apparently, a podere is a farmhouse with stables onthe ground floor, and living quarters above. We werelocated in what used to be the stables. There was a large,modern kitchen, which looked directly out on the pool andthe hills beyond, and had everything we could havepossibly needed. There was a dining room next to thekitchen, a large family room with a generous scattering ofcomfortable chairs, and two large bedrooms with theirown large bathrooms. And there was a laundry. At the sight of the latter, Enid’s eyes lit up like astarving man spotting a sirloin steak, and she begancollecting all the clothes in sight and stuffing them intothe washing machine. She was heard to whisper‘Nirvana!’ with awed reverence, as the water began to fillthe tub. Then there was the swimming pool. The empty swimming pool. James and Thomas cast an angry look in mydirection. ‘It’s not my fault!’ I pleaded, but it was no good. I’dbeen tried and found guilty. After enquiring, Luciapromised that it would be ready ‘domani’ – tomorrow. Orperhaps the day after. She introduced us to Mauro andAnna – the housekeepers. ‘When will the pool be ready?’ she asked them. ‘Domani.’ Or perhaps the day after. At last the time had come to broach the subject I’dbeen dreading ever since leaving Australia. ‘Did you find out what happened to my deposit?’ Iasked. I’d already made up my mind to wear the loss if it 64
  • 65. hadn’t been found - this place was too good to waste timeover worrying about money. But I needn’t have troubledmyself. ‘Oh yes. That was my bank’s mistake. It’s all beensorted out.’ The price structure was such that it was so much pernight for up to five nights, with a reduced rate if you stayfor six or more. Consequently, our generous host offeredto let us have our extra night for a pittance – thedifference between what we were going to pay for fivenights and the reduced cost for staying six. The place wasinexpensive as it was, and I almost felt like we weretaking advantage of Lucia’s generosity. When shepresented me with a complimentary bottle of wine fromher cellar, my happiness was complete. 65
  • 66. 8. Tuscan Paradise For the next few days we were in heaven. When wevisited the little convenience shops in Radicofani we wereat first put off by the interminable conversations that keptyou waiting ten minutes for even the most minor ofpurchases. But after a while we got into the swing ofthings and realised it was part of the reason we werethere – to enjoy the relaxed, friendly lifestyle of Toscana. Despite our lack of Italian, we were made feelwelcome and offered unsolicited advice about ourpurchases (‘No, not that one! This one is much better!’).On one occasion, I went to the butcher’s to but some icecream. Yes – you heard right. The butcher’s. What’swrong with ice cream in a butcher’s shop? I proudlydemonstrated my limited Italian, and the owner made afriend for life by flattering my pathetic efforts. One small, general store was reached through anarchway in a little courtyard swathed in pot plants ofendless colours and combinations. No one ever seemedto buy anything, because it got in the way ofconversation. Half way up the hill was a simple, medievalchurch with a little shady piazza overlooking a vista thatstretched halfway to Rome. On top of the hill was aruined castle, dating from the 10th century andsuccessively occupied by monks, the Papacy, and eventhe infamous Medici. It doesn’t figure largely in many of the guidebooks,but Radicofani was perfect for us.Lucia and her entourage had left the evening we arrived,so the housekeeper and groundsman were left in charge.Mauro and Anna were terrific. They spoke English worsethan I spoke Italian (no, it’s true – but at least it improvedover the years, whilst my Italian…), but every morningMauro and I would hail each other happily. ‘Piscina giorno, Mauro?’ (Pool today?) I’d askhopefully. ‘Domani.’ – would come the inevitable reply,accompanied by an apologetic shrug. Eventually, we 66
  • 67. worked out that the full, beckoning blue water had justbeen chlorinated and needed a day or two to dissipate.As far as the Whittons-plus-one were concerned, we werewilling to take the risk, but I suppose our hosts had a sortof duty of care – as well as a genuine concern for ourhealth. So we grinned and tried to be patient.I discovered one day that Mauro collected foreign coins. Iwas happy to give him some of my Australian shrapnel,but he thought I was doing him a huge favour. His eyesbecame round like saucers and he dragged me off to thecellar. ‘Pick a bottle,’ he said (in Italian – I suppose thatwas what he said), with a wave of his hand. ‘No, Mauro. It’s nothing really,’ I insisted - but anItalian isn’t deterred from offering hospitality as easily asthat. He chose a bottle himself and thrust it into myhand. I handed it back, repeating my protests. ‘Not good enough? Well have this one!’ he said,thrusting another at me. Resigning myself to my fate, Itook the gift and thanked him warmly. I wouldn’t have felt so bad if the cellar had been his.When the pool eventually opened, we were quickly joinedby our neighbours. They lived in Belgium, but thehusband was from Denmark and the wife from Alsace.The former worked in the European Parliament inBrussels, and spoke English. And Flemish. And French.And Italian. And (of course) Danish. Fluently. If his other languages were as good as his English,he spoke them without a trace of an accent. It washumiliating! But he and his family were really easy going,and we thoroughly enjoyed their company. Their youngson and daughter had haunted the swimming pool asfrequently as James and Thomas over the preceding days,and now there was no dragging any of them away. I spent the entire day frolicking (you know, the wayhippos don’t) with the boys, and by nightfall the radiationemanating from my body made lighting redundant. Itseemed unfair to me. I was red raw, and the boys were 67
  • 68. just lightly tanned – the benefits of having a mummy toapply the sunscreen, I suppose. The sad fact was that,after days of harassing Mauro to let us have a swim, I hadshot my bolt and was now unable to enjoy that littlepleasure for at least a week.We ate al fresco every breakfast. And lunch. And dinner. We discovered that nearby Montepulciano had amarket, so decided to do our shopping there. We parkednear the top of the hill and walked up to the main square– marvelling at the glorious view over the surroundingfields and hills, and the curious lack of people. Wereached the piazza and found it empty. Fortunately, thetourist office was close by, so we went to ask what hadhappened to their famous market. ‘It’s held in the piazza beside the bus station – at thebottom of the hill,’ the official replied. Muttering underour breath we headed down the main street, past therenaissance and medieval Palazzi, past the strange metalcarnival figure that stands on top of one of those Palazziand beats an old, untuned bell every hour, and throughthe town gate. We reached the bottom of the hill, crossedthe main road, and entered the fray. It wasn’t a pretty market. Okay, it had plenty offood vans selling fresh fish, eels and sundry othercreatures plucked from nearby Lago Trasimeno; freshcheeses of all shapes and types; fresh fruit andvegetables; and fresh meats - all direct from thefisherman/farmer. But the vast majority of the stallsresembled a flea market – including racks second handclothes, coins (did Mauro come here, I wondered?),indecipherable rusted metal paraphernalia, and even a hotdog van. A trash and treasure, without the treasure. Although we were far from inspired, we had enoughchoice to do some more-than-decent shopping, so we gotstuck in. Whilst Lindy and her mother were occupied withthe fruit stall, I was attracted to the ‘porcetta’ van, wherethe local farmer was selling slices of warm, delicious,seasoned porcetta – fresh from his farm to the customer,and cooked on the premises. 68
  • 69. He gave me a taste, and I reeled. I’d never tastedanything like it! I ordered eight slices. The generouslyproportioned gentleman sliced away happily – holding upeach one for my approval. ‘Si! Si!’ I kept saying, encouragingly. He weighedand wrapped the little parcel, and beamed at me. ‘Otto Euro, por favore.’ I did a double take directlyfrom Charlie Chaplin. That was fifteen Australian dollars!! ‘No, no, signor. Il troppo!’ I tried to explain that Iwanted eight slices, not the entire pig. He unwrapped theparcel and showed me the contents. ‘Si – otto!’ Then he showed me the price per kilohanging from the back of the van. There were more zerosthan I could count! Just then Lindy and Enid arrived. ‘What are you buying?’ asked the former. I tried tosmile. ‘I wanted to get some porcetta, but….’ and I pointedguiltily to the figure on the cash register. Lindy’s jawdropped and her eyes bulged – just the way they do incartoons. Eventually I beat the poor man down to six slices,and – declining to transport the precious cargo in anarmoured van - took our purchase home carefully nestledon my lap. When we set the table for lunch, I placed theparcel on a tray by itself – away from the riff-raff – andstared. We paid appropriate homage to the precious thing(Saint Peter’s bones were less venerated than the remainsof that amazing pig), but nobody could bring themselvesto eat the stuff. Then, reluctantly and with greatceremony, I took a slice. It was magnificent. But, ofcourse I’d have to say that. It had come from the mostexpensive animal in existence.Tuscany is pretty amazing – from a multitude ofperspectives. Those clouds, for a start. No matter whattime of year I’ve visited – and I’ve been there in spring,summer and autumn – they always billow against thehorizon like miniature atomic explosions. It creates abackdrop to the distant hills so picturesque that it’s almostclichéd. And then there’s the art! I could bore you ad 69
  • 70. nauseum with a discourse on the art of Florence, Sienna,Pisa and co., but I’ll spare you the agony. Suffice it to saythat you could spend a month exploring the treasures ofthe region, and not even scratch the surface. It makestravelling there difficult with children. I usually rushabout Florence, madly ticking off the sights and artefactsas quickly as possible, while Lindy fills in time with theheirs of the Whitton Estate as best she can. We have tried to engage their interest in art – butquickly learnt the error of our ways. During earlier trips,the leaning tower at Pisa got short shrift (‘It’s not leaningthat much!’), as did the various medieval, hilltop villages(‘Oh no – not another one!’). Somehow, Siennasucceeded in getting better Press (the cynic in me puts itdown to the gelato). Talking about Tuscany and our boys puts me in mindof one of the difficulties facing people travelling withchildren – peculiar to that land of unbridled passion.During one visit we stayed in quite a nice hotel in the cityof Pistoia (it was a three star affair, I think). James andThomas were only 8 and 10, and were consequentlysharing the room with us. Late in the evening Lindy and Iwere awoken by the most blood-curdling screams we’dever heard. Sitting up in alarm, we tried to work out whatwas going on. ‘Oh, oh. Ooooooooooh,’ – came the sound oncemore. We looked at each other. ‘Oh, ahu, ahu, ahu – oooooooooooooooh! Si! Si!’ –continued the poor, suffering wretch. Then it hit us. Shewasn’t suffering at all! ‘Oh si, oh si, oh si…..ooooooooooooooooh!’Unfortunately, writing isn’t like music – you can’t insertppp’s or fff’s to indicate very soft and very loud, so I canonly explain to you that this racket appeared to be comingfrom the floor above us, and was of the magnitude of yourlouder-than-average rock concert. The time she musthave been having! It made me feel quite inadequate.She went on for half an hour unabated – without a wordof exaggeration! It’s amazing how these things can affect people. Wewere just wondering how we were going to explain this 70
  • 71. phenomenon to the boys if they woke up, when the soundof creaking bedsprings began emanating from the roomnext door. It seemed that this woman was acting as asort of beacon – an inspiration to others. Fortunately –miraculously – James and Thomas didn’t wake, and wedidn’t have to think of an explanation. Nevertheless, Ifeel it acts as a warning to those travelling in Italy withsmall children…Leaving our Tuscan Paradise was very difficult. Given thestresses of the days leading up to our arrival we werereluctant to leave the security of our apartment and headback into the wide, uncertain world. Mauro and Anna saidgoodbye, presenting us with a tiny, painted ceramic sceneof Radicofani – done for us by their daughter. We left anote thanking Lucia and praising her wonderful Villa (Ineglected to mention that she and her husband lived andworked in Rome, driving up each weekend to PoderePietrata), and took to the road once more. 71
  • 72. 9. Venice‘If you go to Venice on your travels, don’t expect it to becool just because it’s built on the sea. You’d think that italways has a nice sea breeze, but it’s actually quite hot.’ (Excerpt from the James Whitton diaries)Is Venice just a contraction of VEry NICE? In allprobability. The view from the top storey of the car parkthe afternoon we arrived certainly suggested that this wasa plausible explanation. The sky was cloudless, the lightgolden, and a gentle sea breeze ensured that the air wasperfectly clear. Annalisa met us at the Vallaresso ferry stop about anhour later, and led us to our apartment. The only timewe’d previously lashed out to pay the fortune required toactually stay in a hotel in Venice, we found that all we’dsecured was a stuffy, dirty cupboard drawer. This timewe’d scanned the Internet to find our ownaccommodation, rather than restrict our options to theoverpriced and poor quality rooms available throughTravel Agents. The pictures, location, and friendlycommunications with the owner had been veryencouraging. But the memory of Roberto still lingered... We held our respective breaths as we marched upthe stairs to what was to be our home for the next fewdays. As we stepped into the room, there were five sighsof relief and smiles all round. The value for money wasastonishing. For a large, comfortable apartment, with anice kitchen, cooking facilities, two bedrooms, airconditioning, laundry, dining room and a small terrace, wewere paying almost half the price of something awful in atwo star hotel. And if I opened the window and tossedThomas hard enough, he would have flattened a pigeon inSaint Mark’s square, just a hundred metres away! As Annalisa chatted with us (‘Why are they cullingkangaroos in Australia?’ she demanded) and showed usthe various facilities, the bells of Saint Mark’s began 72
  • 73. tolling. It couldn’t have been a more perfect welcome toVenice – especially as it was Enid’s birthday!James, in particular, loved Venice. He’d been before, butrelished the fact that on this occasion we were situated insuch a central location and – most importantly – had airconditioning. It wasn’t overly hot - just humid - but hereally enjoyed being able to cool down after going for awalk. Normally, both sons were reluctant to come for walks– regardless of the circumstances – but, in Venice, theywere happy to come wherever and whenever theopportunity arose. My fondest memory was of taking awalk one evening alone with James. We took no map,and didn’t much care where we went. We explored themysterious, narrow calles, fondamenti, campi andsotoportegi (all variations on the theme of street oralleyway) of the district, pretty well at random. Naturally,we stopped for gelato, got lost, and generally just soakedup the atmosphere and enjoyed the experience. But I think he and Thomas would have preferred agondola to themselves. They’d been harassing us for a gondola trip since ourfirst visit, but by now they were 12 and 14 respectively –hardly an appropriate age for two self-respecting boys tobe sharing a gondola with their parents and grandmother.Still, they tolerated the experience with fortitude. Tomeven became positively enthusiastic after he saw a deaddog floating in one of the canals, from then on keeping hiseyes peeled for more local wildlife – camera poised likeDavid Attenborough. As for Enid - well, she certainly liked the idea of agondola trip, but objected to the fact that the event tookplace on water. We explained that the two things wereinextricably linked, but still she demurred. Eventually thelure of the romantic got the upper hand, and she closedher eyes, held her nose, took the arm of the gondolier,and stepped in. Then she relaxed. And never stopped talking. The poor man was assailed by a never endingbarrage of questions. ‘How many gondoliers are there in 73
  • 74. Venice? How many bridges? How many canals? Howlong have you been a gondolier? How long do mostgondoliers gondoleer? Is insurance difficult to get? Doyou own your own boat? How old are you? Are youmarried? What did you have for tea?’ And, eventually,‘How much did your gondola cost?’ I swear she wasconsidering buying her own! As for the gondolier himself, I could tell he wasanxious about his boat sinking under the combined weightof our photographic equipment, only recovering hisequanimity after we’d unloaded our cargo at thecompletion of our ride. As the Plimsoll line popped upabove the water once again, he mopped his brow andrelaxed for the first time in half an hour.Lindy and I awoke early one morning, and decided totreat ourselves to one of the world’s rarest sights – PiazzaSan Marco devoid of people. The view as we passedunder the loggia of the Correr museum was unforgettable.Pigeons fluttered about in the foreground, and SaintMark’s (silhouetted in the soft light of the newly risen sun)formed a perfect background. After strolling across thedeserted piazza, we turned right into the piazetta, whichlooked out across the arched, candy-like façade of theDoge’s Palace; past the twin columns proudly holding aloftthe winged lion of Saint Mark and Saint Theodore with hisdragon (which I had always thought – and still suspect -was actually a gondolier riding on the back of a dolphin!);and out over the glistening waters of Saint Mark’s basin.Palladio’s church of San Giorgio floated serenely above thewaters of the lagoon like a mirage, and the air glimmeredin anticipation of another warm, humid day. We strolled contentedly across to the Molo, wherethe water lapped against the embankment and themoored gondolas rocked gently up and down. To ourright, the great dome of that most theatrically perfect ofchurches (Santa Maria della Salute) arose majestically –offering its eternal protection to the entrance of the GrandCanal. To our left, the Riva stretched in a great arc intothe distance, it’s palazzi providing a colourful backdrop. All this, and hardly a soul in sight! 74
  • 75. One morning Enid and I visited the Basilica San Marco.We’d just been passing, and the line that usually snakedaround the piazza for hundreds of metres was, for once,relatively short. We stepped over the threshold and intothe ancient narthex, and entered another world. Wegaped at the first mosaic – the story of Noah. Next to it,adorning the dome to the right, was the story of genesis,with God separating the firmament from the water,followed by the story of Cain and Able. Discovering thatwe were causing a blockage at the doorway, we passedquickly into the main body of the church. The effect was overwhelming, and we didn’t reallyrecover until we’d travelled the length of the nave. Then we heard the choir. They were obviously practicing – possibly for aconcert, possibly for a recording. It was quite a smallensemble, and their unaccompanied, unamplified voiceseasily filled the church from their position above thecrossing in one of the galleries. As their voices floatedabout us, we entered the sanctuary and passed behindthe altar to view the famed Pala d’Oro. This altarpiece –one of the most precious works of art in existence –started life in Constantinople in the 10th century, beforebeing lifted by the Venetians during an aborted Crusade(rather than return empty handed, they convinced therest of the forces to sack Christian Constantinople – justso the enterprise wasn’t a complete waste of time!). Aphantasmagoria of gold, enamel, rubies, pearls,sapphires, emeralds and other precious stones, the pieceis not to all tastes, but would be a compellingconversation piece in any home!One evening, after the throngs had again deserted thestreets, we all took a relaxing stroll around Saint Mark’ssquare. Being a high tide, water gurgled up through thedrains dotting the piazza. Shallow pools reflected thespotlit façade of the basilica, as well as the fairy lightsadorning the surrounding arcades of the ProcuratieVecchie and Nuove. 75
  • 76. As usual, the various musical ensembles were vyingfor supremacy. In an impulsive fit of romanticism, Lindyand I embraced and attempted a vague approximation ofa waltz. After I’d flattened her toes, I found I was stillunsated and reached for the horrified mother-in-law. Ohwell. It’s the thought that counts. One morning I went out on my own to visit a coupleof churches and museums. The crowds were growing as Icrossed Saint Mark’s square, then almost immediatelythinned to a trickle as I headed east. Past the delicioussmelling little forni (bread shops); past the tiny alimentariwith their customers and owners endlessly chatting andgossiping - seemingly oblivious to time and impervious tohaste – and past the mysterious little trade shops withtheir dark interiors. I was heading for the Scuola di SanGiorgio to see the Carpaccio paintings. I admireCarpaccio and don’t mean to trivialise his work, but thepaintings in the Scuola have always amused me. SaintGeorge Slaying the Dragon is almost like a Stephen Kingmovie, with its extremely graphic, grotesque and brutaldepiction of half-eaten and decaying corpses, and thelance of the knight piercing the mouth of the monster andcoming out through the back of its head – accompaniedby generous lashings of blood. Saint Jerome Leading theTamed Lion to the Monastery is downright hilarious. Themonks are unaware (or unconvinced) that the animal hasbeen tamed, and scatter in terror as the fearless (orstupid?) frail old man brings his new pet to meet hisfriends. On the way back to our apartment, I visited the Cad’Oro Palace. Originally sheathed in gold leaf, the façadeon the Grand Canal is one of the loveliest gothic creationsin existence. Now a smallish art museum, I eventuallyclimbed to the second floor and stepped onto the balcony.As I looked through the traceried arches at the rows ofpalaces stretching both left and right, a ferry passed andsome of the passengers waved. I felt like royalty. 76
  • 77. 10. Of Picnics and LakesBefore I go any further, I want to talk about picnics. For Lindy and me, picnics have always been anintegral part of any European vacation. Not only is it aninexpensive way of eating, but it provides an opportunityto enjoy your food in the sunshine. Most of all, it’s anenjoyable experience because the food in Europe is sosuited to it. The only trouble is, our family is cursed. No,really! We discovered this disturbing fact on our first tripwith the boys, when we found that the three essentialelements of a successful picnic – means, opportunity andmotive (i.e., food, picnic spot and sunshine) – neverseemed to coincide. One day we’d have the food and anendless supply of picnic spots – but the weather would bedreadful. The next day we’d have sunshine and anendless supply of picnic spots – but no food. But mostcommon of all was the third occurrence: food, sunshine –but no picnic spot! It happened over and over and over again. We’ddrive on for miles, determined to tough it out - but ofpicnic spots, there’d be none. To be honest, this happensless frequently in France. But the signs were ominous asour car climbed into the mountains the day we left Venice. First, we stopped at a supermarket to stock up onsupplies. As we were heading into the wonderfulDolomites, none of us at first suspected that we’d havetrouble finding somewhere to do our food justice. Nooncame and went, and Lindy remarked on the fact that shehadn’t seen any picnic spots all day. ‘That’s just because we’ve been in the plains,’ I saidreassuringly. ‘The Dolomites are prime picnic country – itwon’t be long before they start popping up everywhere.’ It got to 12.30 – still nothing. I began to worry.James and Thomas began to worry. But Enid wasuninitiated into this phenomenon – she reprimanded usfor being so negative. ‘You just need to be patient,’ she saidcondescendingly. 77
  • 78. 1pm approached. The minute hand crossed the hourhand and headed towards the half hour. Stomachsrumbled. Now even Enid was admitting that we mighthave to do without a proper picnic spot. As it got close to2pm we threw up our hands in defeat and stopped by theside of the road. Lindy and I did one of those appalling out-the-back-of-the-car jobs with our lunch, and we sat eatingsqueezed uncomfortably together, with cars and truckszooming past within inches of collecting us. As we packedup and headed off, the Whittons were all aware of whatwas happening, but Enid was still in blissful ignorance. ‘How far up the road will we find a perfect picnicspot?’ I asked the car in general. ‘Ten kilometres,’ said Lindy, without a second’shesitation. ‘Five kilometres,’ I countered. ‘Two kilometres,’ said Thomas. ‘One kilometre,’ said James – always the pessimist. I could tell mother-in-law was getting quite crosswith this negative attitude, and wasn’t going to put upwith it. ‘Well, I think we simply aren’t in the area for picnictables and…’ – she hardly had the words out of her mouthwhen we passed a sign denoting “Picnic Spot Ahead”, andthere – in all its glory – was a magnificent, grassedterrace with a deserted picnic table set back from the roadand sitting under a shady tree next to a babbling river.Enid’s jaw dropped. ‘Five hundred metres,’ said Lindy, referring to thedistance meter. ‘I win!’ announced James joyfully. ‘What do I get?’ Then we passed another one. Then another one.Then another. We passed ten picnic spots within the next tenkilometres. After that we stopped counting – it seemedtoo much like self-flagellation. We’d driven for a hundredand forty kilometres and over two hours without finding asingle picnic spot. Then - after giving in to the inevitableand suffering our lunch in the car – there was an averageof one every kilometre! 78
  • 79. No amount of rationalisation can explain that. And this happened time and time again over the nextfew weeks. I remember once in Germany, we drovebeside a river along a wooded valley for three and a halfhours – determined we were just going to keep going untilfate threw in the towel and we could break this curse onceand for all. Three and a half hours! In the end it was eator perish. Somehow, we knew that Carole and Monsieur Masoniwere behind these phenomena, but couldn’t find anyevidence to support the theory. Or perhaps it wasRoberto exacting his revenge?Our car stories were becoming increasingly bizarre. WithJames introducing Miss Piggy and Kermit into every story,they were inevitably married. Have you ever imagined lifefor a pig married to a frog? We did. Have you exploredthe ramifications of a union ‘twixt these two creatures?We did. We conjectured what the child would look like.We speculated on life with such a disability. We imaginedthe difficulties of finding a partner for the child. We evengave it a name – a prog. Then the stories got weird. Aardvarks (called Pongo) went looking for specialfamily heirlooms down drains. Aliens managed toinfiltrate every story. Seals were talking on mobilephones. And princesses continued to come and go undermore and more macabre circumstances – usually involvinga dragon called George. I can categorically deny that we were using anyillegal substances (well, I wasn’t, anyway).We hit Domaso on Lake Como in brilliant afternoonsunshine. To the north, the snow-clad peaks ofSwitzerland beckoned, and Enid kept casting her gaze inthat direction, like a desert traveller wondering why thecaravan was avoiding the oasis. When we eventuallytracked down our elusive hosts (after a lot of muckingaround), we discovered that, due to burst pipes in thebooked apartment, we’d been transferred to another -replete with a swimming pool. 79
  • 80. After a brief but refreshing dip, the evening wasspent promenading along the waterfront, armed with theubiquitous gelato and admiring the pastel facades of thetown strung out above the sparkling water. In theintensity of the late afternoon light, the lake was deepblue and the forested hills and mountains emerald greenbeneath cotton-wool peaks. Lindy and I chose a benchbeneath a spreading plane tree while Enid continued tostroll – immensely satisfied with our lot.The next morning we negotiated the narrow roads, trafficand continuous tunnels of the western shore of LakeComo, before taking a short pass over the hills and intothe less hectic countryside towards Switzerland. It can bea confusing experience touring the northern shores of theItalian lakes - particularly for the elderly. In the twinklingof an eye you pass from one country to another and backagain. Lake Lugarno is very underrated. Being surroundedpractically on all sides with hills, it’s much more shelteredthan the better-known Italian Lakes. This means that itswaters are usually calm and still, and its reflections oftenmirror-like. The only thing is, there’s hardly anywhere tostop and admire the view. We entered Switzerland. I had a marvellous plan, meant to save us manykilometres of travelling and reduce stress for the poordriver. We’d cut across the northern shore of LagoMaggiore, then take a mountain pass directly to the westto link up with the road over the Simplon Pass. Wefulfilled the first part of my plan without a hitch, butcouldn’t find the turn-off to the mountain pass.Inevitably, Lindy and Enid did their double-act thing andgot me to ask a passer-by. Have you ever tried to ask where the turn off to theroad leading to the Simplon Pass is, in Italian? It’s noteasy – particularly when the person asked replies inItalian. Nevertheless, we worked it all out (more or less)and headed in the direction of his waving arms. We re-entered Italy. 80
  • 81. An hour and a half, three hundred hairpin bends anda dozen near-accidents later, we reached the “PassClosed” sign. With growing dread I looked more closely atthe map: ‘Open July – September.’ I felt sick. But this time there was a benign purpose to thedisaster – although it wasn’t apparent for some hours.We backtracked to Lago Maggiore in fuming silence, whileI recalculated distances. ‘At least we can have a nice picnic lunch beside theLake,’ said the Aged Relative – trying to see the silverlining. Lindy and I looked at each other sceptically. We re-entered Switzerland. We hit the shoreline and turned south, lookingdesperately for a grassy park by the water. After thirtyminutes driving we could find absolutely no public accessto the lake, and our spirits began to sink. We re-entered Italy – and Enid gave up trying toremember which country we were in. We found a gravel car park by the side of the road(no, not the lake side) and decided it would have to do.We spread a blanket and had a tolerable lunch, but I wasangry that we couldn’t enjoy the benefits of being besidea beautiful lake on a gorgeous, sunny day. Naturally, less than a kilometre down the road wecame across a great swathe of lightly wooded parkland,with free parking, ice creams, picnic tables, and a beach.But fate gave us a reprieve – because it also hadpedalloes (paddle boats to the uninitiated). We’d been able to get Enid onto a gondola, but shedrew the line at the pedallo. So James, Thomas, Lindyand I boarded the poor, straining vessel and wavedfarewell to the AR as we manoeuvred our way into themiddle of the lake. It was glorious! I can think of nobetter way of killing an hour than by drifting on an ItalianLake in one of those marvels of invention – particularly ifyou have two strong, keen children who are willing to doall the work while you and your wife lie on your backswatching a flawless sky and majestic mountains drift lazily 81
  • 82. by - your feet dangling refreshingly in the cool, coolwater…….ahhh! After our hour was up, we replenished our depletedenergy reserves with yet another round of gelato, andreluctantly piled into the car. The ensuing drive down theshore of Lago Maggiore was magnificent. Unlike LakesComo and Garda, there are few tunnels, and the view isvirtually uninterrupted for the entire length of the trip.We passed glorious vista after glorious vista, andmarvelled at some of the spectacular villas we could seeby the shoreline. Then we turned north towards the Simplon Pass –and re-entered Switzerland. 82
  • 83. 11. Into the Mountains‘If you go on a walk in the mountains in Europe, don’t be fooled by people saying it’s only a short walk. A short walk can range from 6 minutes (highly unlikely) to 6 hours (much more likely). Also watch out for people saying it’s a flat walk. That just means there are flat parts on it (but not much).’ (Excerpt from the James Whitton diaries).As we climbed the road to the summit of the Simplon Passand the mountains and waterfalls began appearing, Enidstarted becoming restless with anticipation. I spotted thesigns and offered to change seats (you could see a lotmore from the front seat, but normally I needed to bethere for navigating) – an offer she readily and gratefullyaccepted. We pulled up at the summit next to the peculiarcylindrical hotel (someone must have thought it was agood idea once) and piled out of the car. Enid – it washer hour - gasped and clapped her hands like a schoolgirlat the sight of the surrounding snow covered mountains.James and Thomas stretched their legs and went lookingfor some wildlife to annoy, and Lindy and I took a well-earned break from driving and navigating. A little further on – just after we began our descenttowards Brig – we stopped again. The view of the peaksof the Bernese Oberland and Aletsch ice field across thevalley was even more stunning than what had gone before– and the AR became visibly moved. She was in seriousdanger of pulling a muscle in her neck. When we arrived in Tasch (just north of that mostsoulless of places, Zermatt), we were greeted by afriendly, but bewildered hostess. ‘You have a booking? For tonight?’ she repeated,sceptically. ‘Mister Whitton – from Australia,’ I reassured her. ‘Okay, if you say so,’ she shrugged. It was anunpromising beginning, but her house was inviting (one of 83
  • 84. those huge, typical Swiss chalets) and perfectly locatedbetween wildflower-strewn meadows on one side, and thevillage on the other. As it turned out, there was no onestaying there and we had our choice of rooms. Lindy, theboys and I chose the two bedroom apartment and Enidhad the luxury of a place to herself. What a marvellous welcome to Switzerland.We had a fair bit planned for the next day (making surewe made the most of the good weather while it lasted), somade an early start. Zermatt was deserted in the early, pre-seasonmorning, and (out of the range of choices on offer ingetting above the town) we decided to take the so-called‘metro’. We purchased our tickets and walked down along tunnel (just like in a metro) to the train – waiting onits almost perpendicular track inside the hill. Being the only passengers, we had our choice ofseating, so the boys and I chose one at random, whileLindy and Enid walked up and down the platform unableto decide which one was the best. At last they urged usto join them on the top carriage: ‘The view will be better from up here,’ said Lindy. At last the train slid gently off (the way only Swisstrains can) and we were on our way – up and up throughthe tunnel. And still in the tunnel. After a few minutes itdawned on us – metros stay underground, even when thatground is almost vertical. We sat back and enjoyed asuperb view of the darkness, James and Thomas providingthe predictable sarcastic accompaniment. Within minutes we were stepping out into theblinding sunshine. The Matterhorn hit us right betweenthe eyes – dominating the higher peaks surrounding it.Its distinctive wizard’s/night cap shape looked almostcontrived, and I found it difficult to tear my eyes away.We headed off to a small lake, which provided perfectlyreflected mirror images - followed by curiously reluctantchildren. You’d have thought they’d welcome anopportunity to run free like Bambi – or do I mean Elsa thelioness? – after all that time cooped up in a car, but theydidn’t. 84
  • 85. Accompanied by the peaceful tinkle of sheep bells(no, not cow bells), we wandered around the high alpinemeadows, stumbling upon the occasional frolickingmarmot, yet always having our gaze drawn back to thehuge slab of snow-encrusted rock dominating the skylineto the south-west. Lindy tried her umpteenth panoramicsweep with the video camera (accompanied in thebackground by the usual groans from her offspring), thenwe strolled lazily back to the metro.We’d decided to save several hundred kilometres ofdriving that day by catching the car train link fromGoppenstein to Kandersteg, on the other side of theBernese Alps. I admit to having been more than a littleapprehensive about the prospect, but the benefitsappeared to considerably outweigh the risks. As it turned out, it was one of the more disturbingexperiences of my life. After gliding efficiently onto the back of an openwagon (along with a few dozen other adventurous spirits),the train slid off and we hurtled into the pitch black tunnellike the damned being transported into hell. Forcing mymind to dismiss the delusion that I could detect a faintwhiff of brimstone, I tried concentrating on the benefits ofthis option. ‘We’re shortening today’s trip by a good three hours,’I told myself. ‘You’re shortening your life by a good three years!’replied the pessimist within. ‘Think of it as character building,’ said self. ‘More likely to come out the other side a gibberinglunatic,’ responded the pessimist. ‘But what an experience – look at that bare rock,whizzing past just a metre from the car roof! It’ssomething you’ll be able to tell your grandchildren!’ ‘Unless there’s one of those terrible Swiss tunnelaccidents where all the victims are charred beyondrecognition, and the conflagration consumes everything sothat..…’ – I suddenly broke off from my reverie and triedto think of bunny rabbits and sunny fields, with Lindybeside me trying to free her hand from my terrified grip. 85
  • 86. Just as I thought I couldn’t take any more and was aboutto open the car door and step into oblivion, the darknessbegan to abate and a light appeared up ahead. Curiously– but not altogether surprisingly – I thought of near-deathexperiences which describe very similar incidents. Myrelief was palpable when we finally spewed out into thesunshine and pulled up at Kandersteg station. Into paradise. On our left was an enormous waterfall gushing overa hanging valley, with snow-clad peaks soaring above. Infact, snow-clad peaks surrounded us on all sides. But thereason this little village and its valley were so special werethe acres and acres of wildflower-choked meadows, andthe constant tinkle of cow bells. If I can’t have churchbells, give me cow bells! Why is it that they’re so calmingand relaxing? We stopped by the side of one particularlyspectacular field so the grown-ups could play “skippingthrough the wildflowers” (while the children cringed), butthey grew too thick (the wildflowers, I mean – not thegrown-ups). On one side was a little, stone church, withthe waterfall and towering mountains in the background,and the field of wildflowers in the foreground. Youcouldn’t have improved on the scene if you’d designed it! Now, I know I should describe these wonderfulwildflowers, but I’m afraid I can’t. Meadowsweet –certainly. Columbines? Probably. Buttercups? Cowslips?I’m afraid I’m guessing now. Nevertheless, it wasbreathtaking. After much discussion, we decided to take thechairlift and walk to Lake Oeschinen above Kandersteg.James and Thomas took one look at the exposedcontraption, and refused to go – and Enid took somecoaxing as well. In the end she accepted that the threatto her life was probably worth the risk, so we packed apicnic, threw the boys some money for ice creams, andthrew caution to the wind! As we ascended, the entire valley was revealed -spread out below us. Massive cliffs on one side revealed amultitude of waterfalls and a large expanse of pine forest.The walk from the top of the chairlift was a little longerthan we’d anticipated, but was well worth it. Alpine 86
  • 87. wildflowers spread across the high meadows in alldirections, and neat paths beckoned the walker ontowards the lake. At one stage Lindy and her mum lingered behind tophotograph some colourful hang gliders, while I walked onahead. Soon they were accosted by a couple of middle-aged Englishmen who fancied their chances. ‘Don’t worry about waiting for them to take off; takethe picture now – it’ll look better,’ said one of them. ‘This is classic Swiss scenery, you know,’ said theother, informatively. ‘Oh yes,’ agreed his friend. ‘Much nicer thanGrindelwald.’ ‘Too touristy.’ ‘Absolutely. But Kandersteg is perfect. Just the rightamount of tourists.’ ‘You’re from Australia, aren’t you?’ Meanwhile, thebesieged women had caught up with their protector andtook his arms possessively in theirs. The two menshrugged as if to say, ‘Oh well, there’s plenty of other fishin the sea.’ and passed by without so much as a greetingto your’s truly. It was my one and only experience of being a knightin shining armour. Gradually the path descended, the trees parted, andthere before us was the lake - its backdrop of cliffs andsnow-clad mountains picture-perfect. We chose a grassyknoll on the edge of the pine forest and picnicked on ourrolls, fruit and cheese - soaking up the view, peace andsolitude as birds twittered and darted around us.Afterwards, I took a brief walk around the shoreline.Along the path were scattered various wood sculptures setin small clearings and at particularly spectacularviewpoints overlooking the lake. Although unusual, theysucceeded in blending in with their surroundings and inadding to the enjoyment of the experience. The walk back to the chairlift was all too quick,although we were keen to rejoin the boys. From all overthe valley we could hear the ubiquitous tinkling of bells aswe slowly returned to the land of mortals. 87
  • 88. Back at the car, sitting in the blazing nearly-summersun, James and Thomas were still clutching their icecream money, arguing over who should go and place theorder with the shopkeeper. Well might you say that theywere in a foreign country and it was understandable, butthe fact was that the shopkeeper spoke perfectly goodEnglish, and the same would have occurred even if we’dbeen on holiday in Australia. C’est la vie! Driving along the banks of Lake Brienz towardsGrindelwald, we turned off the highway to visit the littlevillage of Iselwald. There were no historic buildings, citywalls or other such attractions, but it was neverthelesspicturesque and enjoyable. We parked a little above thetown, and I waited by the “No Unauthorised VehicularEntry” sign (in German) at the entrance to the village,while the family completed the usual ablutions. A carpulled up and an elderly lady leant out. ‘Is it allowed to drive into town?’ she asked, inGerman simple enough for even me to understand. ‘Nein,’ I replied, pointing to the sign. ‘It istverboten.’ – not confident in my grammar, but certain shecould get the gist of it. ‘Danke!’ She smiled cheerily, then put the car intogear and drove in anyway. I was still scratching my headin bewilderment as the others arrived, trying to work outhow she’d mistaken me. We followed a footpath through a couple of paddocks(yes, more wildflowers), past bucolic, masticating cows –their bells echoing throughout the village – to thewaterfront. At times it was impossible to tell where thepublic thoroughfares ended and personal property began,but it didn’t seem to matter. Thomas stopped at afountain in the small square fronting the ferry-stop, andtook a long drink from the cold, clear water. It was awarm, lazy afternoon. A family of swans swanned aroundas the sun sparkled off the lake, and hardly a soul stirredin the sleepy little hamlet. Strolling along the narrow waterfront promenade, wecame across a tiny terrace with a table and a couple of 88
  • 89. chairs set right above the lake – a latched gate signifyingit was private property. ‘A pretty good place for summer dinners,’ said Lindy. 89
  • 90. 12. Grindelwald‘’You see, I have this thing about being on short planks of wood suspended high above a gorge.’ (Excerpt from the James Whitton diaries)After such an incredible day, Grindelwald came as a bit ofa disappointment to Enid. The cloud cover had increasedduring the course of the afternoon, and our bookedaccommodation didn’t look particularly appealing. Takinga gamble, we decided to try the apartment we’d stayed atduring our last visit. When we finally tracked it downthere was relief all round when we discovered that thelarge apartment was, in fact, vacant, and deliriousexcitement from James and Thomas when they found thatthe television received the cartoon channel – in English!Bushwalking with children! Two years previously, Lindyand I had taken the boys on a walk above Grindelwald.We’d caught the chairlift up, up, up to Mannlichen, andthen walked all the way back down. At an estimatedthree-and-a-half hours, the walk was a little ambitious -but it was downhill all the way, and we’d brought a picniclunch to break up the ordeal. The weather was fine andnot too warm, and we all enjoyed the first few hours toour lunch in sun-soaked, wildflower-strewn alpinemeadows. Unfortunately, from there on the walk blew outsomewhat, and as we limped exhaustedly into the carpark five-and-a-half hours after leaving the chairlift, theboys (struggling for breath) swore they would never go onone of our walks again. They’ve maintained that resolve to this very day. I mention this to explain why they were allowed tostay in our apartment while Lindy, Enid and I caught thegondola above Grindelwald in the glorious sunshine earlythe next morning. The mighty peaks of the BerneseOberland sparkled about us as we sat back in andwatched the vista unfold. The Aged Relative’s terror waskept largely in check as long as she didn’t look down - 90
  • 91. although she didn’t like it when we went over the cablesupports. At the top there was a generous covering of snow,still left over from winter. Grindelwald lay far, far belowus, looking like tiny dots of multicoloured paint on a huge,green canvas. Above it and across the valley, the Eiger,Munch and Jungfrau loomed menacingly – their icefieldsand glaciers threatening to sweep down and engulf thevalley at any moment. Accompanied by a continuousstream of oohs and ahhs from the AR, we climbed higherinto ever deepening snow, setting a new record forphotographing – even for us. At one particularly lovelyviewpoint, I heard a familiar accent coming from behindus. ‘Excuse me, are you Australian?’ I asked the coupleas they joined us. They pleaded guilty to the accusation,and we chatted amiably. They were a young coupleworking temporarily in London, and taking everyopportunity to visit the Continent when they could. ‘And you three are just travelling around?’ theyasked. ‘Actually, there’s five of us – we’re here with our twosons as well.’ I replied. They looked around for theabsent children, a little bemused. ‘We left them back in the apartment,’ said Lindy,feeling guilty. The couple looked around at the beautifulday and superb view, and tried not to look disapproving. ‘Watching the cartoon channel,’ I added, thinking itmight explain things a little better. ‘In English,’ said Lindy, digging the hole deeper. Bynow we were in an untenable position, and ourexplanations were making us look even more pathetic. ‘We’d better get going,’ I said abruptly, cutting ourlosses. I could feel their censorious gazes boring into theback of my skull as we tried to put as much distancebetween us as we could.By the time we’d reached the place where the lake wassupposed to be, the snow was several metres thick. ‘Where’s the lake?’ asked Enid. 91
  • 92. ‘Over there, I think,’ I said, pointing over to aparticularly flat area of white. ‘Ah! No reflections today, then.’ Feeling like a cross between Scott of the Antarcticand Nanook of the North, I decided to head across countryfor a better view. Lindy – suggesting that the impressionwas more like an abominable snowman – fished out thevideo and attempted another panoramic sweep. If anymore proof were needed that fate was watching for everyopportunity to torment me, then Lindy captured it as sheswept the camera in my direction. She caught me at theexact moment when I broke through the ice and sank upto my waist - as elegantly as a floundering rhinoceroswading into a vat of ice cream. We had our picnic lunch in the gondola on the wayback to Grindelwald, which doesn’t sound very nice, butwas actually extremely pleasant. Watching the mountainsrising above, the waterfalls roaring beside us, and themeadows passing below – with the occasional tinkling cowor struggling walker – we enjoyed our sandwiches incomparative luxury.One afternoon we went for a short drive to neighbouringLauterbrunnen. The valley looks like someone came alongwith a giant knife and sliced a perfect ‘U’-shaped gash intothe mountains. We spent the entire trip trying to craneour necks out of the car in order to see the waterfallsplunging from the heights above. Somehow, thewildflowers were even more prolific here than inKandersteg, and we ended up stopping about a dozentimes to enjoy the views. One sobering aspect to the valley was the dangersign next to the river. On closer inspection it warned theunwary that the water was so cold, you’d literally die ofshock if you fell in.One day we managed to drag the boys away from thecartoon channel to visit the Grindelwald glacier gorge.About a hundred metres into the walk, we noticed a groupof bungie jumpers high above being coaxed into playingRussian roulette with their lives by a sadistic instructor. 92
  • 93. His current victim was having none of it. I suppose when he’d first contemplated theenterprise, the bungie jumper had thought it would be abit of a lark. Something to tell his grandchildren. Nowthat he looked literally into the abyss and saw the folly ofhis ways, he realised there was a real risk that - if hejumped - he’d never have any grandchildren. The instructor was trying to appeal to the man’smasochistic side, but common sense had locked thisaspect of the man’s personality firmly away in a dungeonsomewhere, making him impervious to any coaxing.Spectators at the bottom were trying their best to helpthe instructor by shouting encouraging phrases, such as: ‘Coward!’ ‘Come on stupid - jump!’ - and so forth, but it served only to strengthen hisresolve. After ten minutes of watching the poor guy tip-toe to the edge in a semi-determined sort of way, thenjump back as he was reminded why his brain was saying‘don’t do it!’, we decided that the entertainment was overand continued on our walk. The track along the Grindelwald glacier gorge is acombination of a path cut into the rock and boardingsuspended from the side of the cliff about ten metresabove the raging river. At times the cliffs just about cometogether and shut out the sky above, and it’s notgenerally recommended for those afraid of heights orsusceptible to claustrophobia. After about five minutes,James and Thomas indicated that they’d had enough.They could hear the cry of the television beckoning like alighthouse to a shipwrecked sailor, and felt that they’dhad their fill of nature. When we returned to the car park, I took one ofthose “funny” photos you sometimes see in people’sholiday snaps – this one specifically being of Enid milkinga plaster cow. As I took the photo, some of the bungie-jumpers walked by, eyebrows raised and a kind ofdisturbed look on their faces. I’m sure I heard one ofthem mumble: ‘Another victim of mad cow disease!’ 93
  • 94. Some of my pleasantest memories of Grindelwald werethe evenings and early mornings spent on our balcony. Itlooked out over flowery meadows directly onto theenormous cliff faces of the Schreckhorn and Wetterhornmountains, which seemed to rise abruptly from the fieldsjust a stone’s throw away. We ate our meals al frescoadmiring this unsurpassed view, watching the shadowsrecede from or climb those enormous cliffs with thesunrise and sunset - the peaceful chatter of birdsproviding a suitably relaxing background. At one stagewe were surprised to hear a cacophony of bells clangingup the road, and looked out the window to see a herd ofcattle meandering along, driven from behind by thecowherd. We concluded that such encumbrances (thebells I mean) must be extremely annoying for the poorbeasts – albeit pleasant to we tourists. 94
  • 95. 13. RootsHeading north through Switzerland, James was sufferingfrom a cold and was given some tablets to make thejourney more comfortable. Unfortunately, his bodyrebelled and we were forced stop by the shore of LakeThun to allow him to recuperate. Later events make us alittle suspicious about the real cause of his upset tummy,but at the time we put it down to a reaction against themedicine. Like many things in life, this setback also providedan opportunity. It was a magnificent sunny morning, andsailing boats bobbed contentedly as we strolled lazilyaround the lakeside parks. The mighty peaks of theBernese Oberland provided an impressive backdrop, andan hour later we all admitted that circumstances mighthave been a lot worse. We clambered into our car and decided to break thelaw. You see, as a consequence of his condition Jameswas extremely sensitive to jerky movements, so it wasnecessary for us to use the motorway in order to providehim with the smoothest trip possible. Unfortunately,Switzerland, rather than having tollways, has a Passsystem – valid for twelve months. As we intended to usethe thing for only a couple of hours, we decided we’d runthe risk of being caught. It was two of the most stressful hours of our holiday. The most frustrating thing was that we really didn’twant to be on the motorway, anyway. Gloriouscountryside stretched in all directions, and all we couldthink about (apart from the fear of being caught without aMotorway Pass) was how nice it would be meanderingthrough that countryside along the quiet back roads. Eventually we reached Basel, on the border betweenSwitzerland, France and Germany, and our anxietyescalated. ‘What if we’re stopped at the frontier?’ I saidanxiously. 95
  • 96. ‘We won’t,’ said Lindy. ‘This is the year of the Euro –a combined, frontier-less Europe. We haven’t seen aborder post all trip.’ ‘But what if this is different. They’ll see straightaway that we don’t have a Pass, and that’ll be that - therest of the holiday spent in chokey!’ ‘Stop worrying.’ We inched through the city, along overpasses,underpasses, crossovers and detours, until we finallyapproached the border. We all wore our broadest, mostinnocent smiles as we passed the guards, then hit theaccelerator as they waved us through. Seconds later wewere safe – back in France at last!We were heading for Alsace, which Enid had been lookingforward to all holiday. You see, her ancestors came fromAlsace, and we were on our way to visit some of the smalltourist towns of the area, as well as the home of one ofthose ancestors in a place called Gerstheim. ‘Can you feel the pull of your roots yet?’ I asked aswe passed the vine-clad hillsides. She didn’t reply, but Icould tell by the faraway look in her eyes and thecontented smile that she did. The only drawback to herfeeling entirely at home was the fact that she couldn’tspeak the language! We stopped briefly at gorgeous Eguisheim. Thevillage is very small, and the hanging baskets were likelittle explosions of colour in the narrow streets. There wasone particularly pretty corner where the half-timbered-lined street split into two around a high gabled, almosttriangular house. We took photographs of every possiblecombination of the Whittons-plus-one, and then made ourassault on the food shops. We replenished our supplieswith quiche Lorraines, Alsatian ham, pate, grapes,baguettes, the usual assortment of patisserie treats, and– of course – chicken. A few kilometres down the roundwe found a nice picnic spot – confirming (if confirmationwere needed) that we were back in France. The sun wasshining brightly, the aroma from the still-warm quicheswas intoxicating, and the surrounding grape-vined hillsprovided the perfect accompaniment to the meal. 96
  • 97. We spent the afternoon absorbing the sunshine, andenjoying little walled villages, countless bubblingfountains, acres of neatly planted grape vines, stork’s-nest-topped roofs, hilltop castles, and flower-bedeckedhouses and streets. That evening we took our food (we’daccumulated quite a lot of it by now) to the park acrossthe road from our hotel, seated ourselves at a table underthe shade of a tree (kindly shared with us by a local lady),and enjoyed one of the nicest picnics of the holiday. Later, Lindy, Enid and I took a stroll around thetown. The colourful facades, geranium-clad fountains,and maze of streets and secret courtyards were evenmore enchanting in the magic of early evening. The dayhad been a wonderful welcome to Alsace, and Enid wasexcited with the prospect of visiting Gerstheim tomorrow.After some superlative navigating by your’s truly, wearrived in Gerstheim early the next day. It was abeautiful, quiet, sunny Sunday, and Enid’s anticipationwas like that of a schoolgirl at Christmas. After taking aphoto of her and Lindy standing next to the town sign (incase there was any controversy later that she’d actuallybeen there, or had gone to the wrong town or something)we parked the car and placed our footsteps in those of theAR’s forefathers. So far, so good. The next bit of the visit has to be censored.Nevertheless, I’ve been authorised to provide thefollowing account. As Enid danced about like Julie Andrews in TheSound of Music, Lindy suddenly needed to go to the toilet– urgently. And it was not one of those simple jobs, if youget my meaning. It required urgent and private attention.As I followed Enid with the video camera – tyring not tomiss a second of this momentous occasion - Lindydisappeared into the distance trying to find someone inthe deserted streets able to point her in the direction ofthat most blessed of buildings – the public toilet. At last she found a stray body and – legs pressedtogether and hands desperately trying to stem thegrowing tide – she asked for directions. 97
  • 98. ‘Ou est les toilettes publique, s’il vous plait?’ ‘Behind the town hall,’ came the reply – or words tothat effect. Muttering a prayer of thanksgiving, Lindywaddled uncomfortably in the direction of Mecca. There is no greater torture known to man (orwoman) than a locked public toilet. The secured gate leered at her mockingly. Sherattled it a few times – but (curiously) it stayed locked.She yelled at it. She withdrew her prayer of thanksgiving.The gate was unmoved. At last she had to admit defeat.With relief just metres away, she was turned back like apilgrim at the gates of Jerusalem. Now she had no choice. It was time to get back to nature. Enid had been exploring a little church nearby, withinquiet, secluded grounds. This seclusion now drew Lindylike a bee to a flower. She stole surreptitiously into thegarden and discovered a short flight of steps leading downto a sort of neglected underground storeroom. The detailsfrom here on have never been shared with the broaderpopulace, but suffice it to say that Lindy hopes that thelittle neglected nook remains neglected for quite sometime. Back at the car, we waited impatiently as Enid left nostreet unexplored, nor stranger un-accosted. She proudlyboasted to anyone who’d listen (and even those thatwouldn’t): ‘Je suis un Helm!’ (Helm being the name of herancestor) – which I hadn’t the heart to tell her probablytranslated to something like ‘I am a hat.’ Regardless,Lindy had had enough. Nature had called and she’dresponded as best she could, but it hadn’t been enough.Apparently there was still a little work left undone, andshe was ready to leave toilet-less Gerstheim in order topursue this mission. She had tasted of its fruits and foundit wanting. She felt that her forefathers had abandonedher. She’d left a little part of herself there for posterity –and that was going to have to do. ‘Germany, here wecome!’ was her cry. I could tell Enid regretted having left stones unturnedand doors un-knocked as we sped out of town, but Lindyin that mood is not to be gainsaid. Once she’s convinced 98
  • 99. that it’s time to leave, then a place is as good as left. Wewaved goodbye as we sped over the Rhine and intoGermany. I could hear the little town of Gerstheim letting out acollective sigh of relief in our wake. 99
  • 100. 14. Of Impromptu Choirs, Oom-pah Bands, and Lederhosen‘If you’re visiting lakes in Europe, don’t expect them all to be great. Some might have had strange, weird things happen to them – like almost all the water disappearing!’ (Excerpt from the James Whitton diaries).We meandered east through the hills and woods of theBlack Forest, and the fields and meadows of the SwabianAlps under a cobalt, cloudless sky. At a tiny hamlet calledSteinhausen we visited the baroque pilgrimage and parishchurch of Saints Peter and Paul. After a brief look around,I went to get a coffee, leaving the two ladies to have a bitof a browse (the boys had stayed in the car). Secondslater Lindy came across the road to the café. ‘What’s up?’ I asked. ‘A choir’s started singing – you should come andhave a listen.’ ‘Damn. I’ve just ordered a coffee!’ I said, lookingruefully at the departing waitress. ‘I’ll wait for your coffee,’ she offered, proving thatlove was still alive. ‘Thanks – I’ll be back in a couple of minutes.’ Givingher a grateful peck on the cheek, I went to have a look. Inside there was an all male a capella choir (Iwondered if they were doing the rounds of Germanchurches and testing the acoustics, or something), andthey sounded great. I took a seat next to Enid, thinkingthat they were just performing the one song – but theykept going. As the performance progressed, I felt more and moreguilty that Lindy was missing out. I could have left at anytime, but it was if I was hypnotised. Yes, I know. It wasdisgraceful. After about a quarter of an hour the choirfinished, and I was left with some apologising. I found Lindy sitting next to a cold cup of coffee. 100
  • 101. The Bavarian Alps stood resplendent with their icing-sugarcoated peaks marching along the southern horizon as weapproached Fussen later that afternoon. A couple ofsmall, turquoise lakes beckoned enticingly as we drovethrough the early summer heat, and I suddenly had aninspired thought (it happens sometimes). ‘How about a picnic dinner by the lake tonight,followed by a paddleboat ride?’ ‘Do they have a lake there, Dad?’ asked Thomas. ‘Yep.’ ‘And paddle boats?’ ‘Bound to, if there’s a lake.’ Everyone becameexcited at the prospect and – whilst they didn’t physicallypat me on the back – I could tell they wanted to. After arriving at our enormous apartment andsettling in, we gathered the food and headed off withvisions of sparkling waters reflecting majestic peaks andgrassy lawns stretching gently down to an alluringforeshore. But the lake was empty. Well, when I say empty, I exaggerate. Way out inthe middle of the enormous, muddy ditch was a smallpond in which several ducks were fighting for space.Sludge stretched for miles in all directions. I could feelseveral pairs of eyes burning holes in the back of myneck. I turned with a smile: ‘McDonald’s anyone?’ Well, my suggestion placated die kinder, but Lindyand Enid were far from satisfied. We went back to ourhotel, and Lindy and I took a stroll through town to lookfor a likely restaurant. Soon we found ourselves standingon a bridge watching the water rush beneath us. Therewas a lot of water. It was a big river. ‘Where does it go to, then?’ I asked suddenly. Lindylooked confused. ‘What do you mean?’ ‘This river - where does it go to?’ I repeated. Lindylooked as if she thought I was being deliberately stupid. ‘Where does it go? Where do you think it goes?’ ‘The lake,’ I replied. 101
  • 102. ‘Exactly! It goes to the…’ and then it hit her. ‘Butthe lake’s empty!’ We looked down at the engorged riverand frowned. ‘Where’s it go to, then?’ asked Lindy at last.In the end we decided that the best looking deal in townwas being offered in the restaurant of our own hotel, andconsequently booked five places. Frankly I must admitthat – whilst being a fan of the country in many respects –I’m not usually very big on German cuisine. It uses toomany parts of an animal (particularly pigs) that are betterleft for compost for my liking. However, having prefacedmy remarks accordingly, I must admit that dinner thatevening was far and away the best meal of the whole trip. We had roast pork with dumplings and apple sauce,sauerkraut, artichoke hearts in a light batter, a deliciousgoulash, pork medallions in a rich plum sauce, and applestrudel. Father was in trouble again for the size of hisbeer – but I explained that it was a German custom, andthat it’d be considered rude to have ordered anythingsmaller. Unfortunately - I added - children were expectedto be restrained when ordering soft drinks. The meal was well complemented by our friendly,attentive hosts – although I could have done without theold gentleman’s faded, well-worn lederhosen, and aconstant view of his knobbly knees and varicose veins.The next morning dawned bright and sunny once again. Iasked everyone how they slept, and Enid admitted tobeing disturbed all night by the castle clock chiming thequarter hours, and the trains passing by her window. ‘Trains?’ I looked out the window. Below was anarrow cobblestone street, and behind the buildingsopposite rose the hill upon which the castle stood. Ilooked puzzlingly at the AR. ‘They must run through the hill,’ she said, a littlebemused. We patted her hand sympathetically andagreed that it must be the case, then went down tobreakfast. 102
  • 103. 103
  • 104. 15. Lakes, More Lakes - Then the Car Breaks!As we tootled through the Bavarian countryside thatmorning, the Alps stretched majestically from horizon tohorizon, the fields and meadows were green andluxuriant, and the cows were amongst the happiest andmost contented I’ve ever seen. Remember the strawberries I mentioned in France?Well, we encountered them in their thousands in Bavaria.Lindy and Enid insist that they weren’t as good as theirFrench counterparts, but I’m not so sure. Mind you, Iadmit to being biased because of the Erdbeeren (which isGerman for strawberry) Stalls. Strewn throughout thecountryside like bird droppings in an aviary are thesegiant, plaster strawberries, which open miraculously everysummer to dispense their sun drenched, delicious tastingproduce. The stall owners all seem to wear red and whitelaced sleeved Gingham dresses – presumably in keepingwith an image of quaintness. I’m afraid it was beyond ourmeagre abilities to resist stopping whenever our suppliesran low - and our supplies seemed to run low about everyfive kilometres. That afternoon we picnicked on strawberries androast chicken (yes, the chicken had reappeared as well)on the sandy shore of a small, forest-encircled lake nearReit im Winkl. Lindy, Tom and Enid couldn’t resist thegreen, enticing water, and cavorted gaily amongst thetrout and other fish. As Granny went behind a bush tochange into her bathers, Trevor played the clown andpretended to film her. What I didn’t know was that Lindyhad left the video camera running from an earlier session. This video is now available for sale to those over 18years of age. At Konigsee - in the far south-east corner ofGermany and just a stone’s throw from Austria - wedecided to hire a rowing boat for something a bit different.We drifted under the huge, looming cliffs, each of ushaving a go at trying to row the thing in somethingresembling a straight line. Despite our best efforts, our 104
  • 105. wake resembled the trail of a sidewinder snake trying towin a prize for the biggest zig-zags. Later, Enid and I went for a cruise up the lake to thelittle onion-domed, clover-leafed Saint Bartholoma church.On the way, the boat stopped in the middle of nowhereand the ticket collector pulled out – of all things – atrumpet. We looked perplexed. ‘Echo wall,’ he explained briefly, then began to play.I’ve heard plenty of echoes in my time, but this wassomething else. The man played a duet with himself, theecho so perfect that we could have sworn there wassomeone posted on the cliff face faking it. The boat back from Saint Bartholoma was crowdedand uncomfortable, and our reception when we got backto the car icy. ‘I thought the boat trip only took half an hour?’ saidLindy. ‘Each way,’ I explained. ‘That’s not what you told me,’ she snapped. In fact,it was what I had told her, but the look in her eyeswarned me that it was best that I leave the discussion foranother time. The clouds began rolling in for the first time in aweek, and we could tell a storm was brewing. Wereached our farm house apartment in Bicheln just beforethe heavens opened, and began winding down after a longday’s travelling. You’d be hard pressed to find Bicheln on any map, letalone a guidebook. It’s so small that there are no signseither directing you to the village or even welcoming youwhen you arrive! If I said that it consisted of half a dozenfarms clustered together, I’d be exaggerating – therewere only five. We were all very happy to be stayingthere for a relaxing couple of days. But the real attraction for Thomas was the kitten. Tom – and he’d never admit this – is a sucker forcats. We have our own at home, but she’s not verycompanionable. Perhaps it’s because we called her Fluffy(no, really – I’m not making it up). When we’re onholiday, Tom seeks out the species at every opportunity, 105
  • 106. pretending all the while not to be the slightest bitinterested. ‘Oh, what do you know - there’s a cat. Well, if youinsist on being patted, I suppose I can spare a minute -just don’t get any ideas that I might be enjoying it!’ – justabout sums up his attitude. The kitten at our farmhouse in Bicheln kept theyoungest Whitton occupied for hours on end. When calledfor tea, there’d be a sort of a blur, followed by a gulpingsound, then another blur, and he was gone – back outsidewith the kitten.The following morning Lindy, Tom and I went for a shorttrip into Austria, and spent the day by a small lake northof Salzburg. It was still overcast, but warm, so we hired apaddleboat and had our lunch drifting in the middle of thelake watching the sailboats and slowly rotating scenery.Eventually the sun came out and we were tempted intothe water for a swim, followed by a game of table tennison the public facilities near the beach. The latter was aninteresting experience as the table was made of roughcement, and the ball bounced at odd angles at every shot.Why would anyone design a table tennis table that way?It’s another mystery. Thomas was later heard to admit that this was hisfavourite day of the vacation.The tiny road into Bicheln continued on past the smallhamlet, swung around the hill behind us, and continuedup through the fields of pasture and barley. It enticed theadventurous to explore – which I did late in the afternoonof our last day. As I climbed, Salzburg became visiblejust fifteen kilometres away (as the crow flies) – its spiresand domes beckoning in the bright, late afternoonsunshine. I passed through a small copse of oak andbeech, and came to a turn off which led down to an evensmaller settlement (three farmhouses clustered together).Continuing up the hill, I came to a crest where there wasa dilapidated old house with chickens and cows wanderingabout inside, and the mountains of the Bavarian Alpsdominating the southern horizon. A little further on, I 106
  • 107. entered a largish sort of forest, with various signs ofwoodcutting – tied kindling, stacks of firewood left out todry over summer, and so on. A couple of walkers greetedme with a friendly ‘gruss gott’, and I sat down to enjoythe solitude, listen to the birds, and contemplate life.The Austrian Lakes were supposed to have been one ofthe highlights of our trip. The idea was to take a quickdetour into Salzburg, where we’d enjoy the luxury of acarriage ride to give our feet a break, then on to theSalzkammergut. Our night’s accommodation was bookedin a town close to the Austrian border in the CzechRepublic – so it was a pretty full day we had planned. Salzburg is one of my favourite cities, but it wascuriously uninspiring that morning. For a start, wecouldn’t find a single, usually-ubiquitous fiacre (an open-air carriage). After about a quarter of an hour, Thomasand I went looking for the tourist bureau to enquire intothe mystery. ‘They should be all over the place,’ we were assured.Then, as we left and were returning to where we’d left therest of the family, I spotted him. Thomas went off tocollect the others and I collared the guy. We climbedaboard excitedly (I know it sounds a little kitsch, but itseemed a real treat at the time) and sat back to enjoy thepassing scenery. It was awful. For a start, the damned driver insisted on rabbitingon pointlessly. We tried to follow what he was saying, butquickly discovered that it was either unintelligible, oruninteresting, or both. He’d point vaguely to the left andmumble something like: ‘Building.’, then point to the right and mumble: ‘Bigbuilding.’, then back to the left and: ‘Bigger building that’sold.’ and so forth. The annoying thing was that we feltobliged to concentrate on what the fellow was saying andtried to seem interested by making appropriate replies,like: ‘Yes, it is big, isn’t it,’ or ‘It certainly looks old.’.Once I made the mistake of asking a question. The fellowmumbled on for about 5 minutes, and I didn’t understand 107
  • 108. a word he said. When he eventually stopped thecontraption, we jumped off with some little urgency,wishing to get as far away from our tormentor as we couldin the shortest amount of time possible. Unfortunately, inmy haste I caught the leg of my shorts on a hook orsomething, and ripped them almost to the waist. It wasan unceremonious end to our Salzburg sojourn. Then we got lost on the way out. Have you ever noticed how some cities are verygenerous with their signage on the way in, but leave youto your own devices on the way out? We found Salzburgto be just such a place. Of signs to the castle andcathedral there were plenty – but of an exit there wasnone. Eventually – having taken gradually greater andgreater concentric rings away from the town centre – westumbled upon the motorway, and heaved a sigh of relief. ‘Well, that’s today’s disaster out of the way, anyway,’said Lindy. Such naivety is pathetic rather than amusing. We turned off the highway at Mondsee and stoppedto fill up the car. Suddenly, my nose began twitching. Ilooked around and saw – a rotisserie chicken van!Without even being aware that I’d opened the door, Ifound myself standing by the vehicle with my tonguelolling out and a glazed look in my eyes. With shakingfingers I made my purchase and, clutching it lovingly tomy chest, returned to the car with a kind of idiotic smileplaying on my face. Today’s picnic promised to bespecial. As we glided slowly down the road beside the lake,the sun came out, the temperature rose and the watersparkled invitingly. It was going to be a glorious daypaddling in the lakes, slurping ice cream and picnicking ongrassy banks watching the swans. Then the car spluttered. A slight frown creased our foreheads, but the hiccupwas only brief and we were soon running smoothly oncemore. Out of the corner of my eye I could see that Lindyhad become thoughtful, and wondered what was thematter. After a few minutes we turned away frombeautiful Mondsee and headed into the forest separating it 108
  • 109. from Wolfgangersee – a matter of only ten kilometresaway. We were halfway between the two lakes, in themiddle of the forest, when the car lurched and stopped.The passengers were silent. Lindy grew bright red andturned a guilty face in our direction. ‘I think I accidentally filled the car with petrol insteadof diesel,’ she stammered. There was a stunned silence. ‘I wondered why you were using the petrol bowser,’came a cheery voice from the back seat. ‘But I presumedyou knew what you were doing,’ said the AR. I looked atLindy long and hard, and thought of all the wonderfultimes we’d had together over the years. I thought of ourtwo innocent children sitting in the back. I weighed thenegatives and the positives. Slowly – reluctantly – I madeup my mind: I wouldn’t kill her. After all, who’s fault wasit about the lost credit card? ‘What do we do?’ I asked calmly. ‘I’ll call Renault to see if this is covered underinsurance,’ she said decisively – relieved to be still alive.Moments later: ‘Hello, Renault? I’ve leased a car from you andaccidentally filled it with petrol instead of diesel. Nowwe’re stuck in the middle of a forest in Austria, and werewondering whether I was covered by insurance?’ We heldour collective breaths as Lindy stood patiently with thephone pressed to her ear. The reply seemed to be takinga long time. ‘What’s he saying?’ I asked, eventually. ‘Nothing,’ ‘Nothing?’ ‘No. He hasnt stopped laughing yet.’ When the operator eventually regained control ofhimself, he advised that the fault and problem was ours,but was able to point us in the right direction. ‘Just dial this toll free number,’ he said. The thing is, if we’d been stranded on one of thelakes it wouldn’t have mattered so much. We would havefeasted, romped and swum happily until the car was fixed,and all would have been reasonably hunky-dory. The factthat we were stuck in the middle of a forest exactly 109
  • 110. equidistant between two lakes betrayed evidence – yetagain - of meticulous planning. It then took three hoursfor the tow-truck to come. As it arrived we cheered as ifwelcoming Royalty. ‘You’ve got some trouble with your car, I think?’ saidthe driver. He was a young, pleasant looking fellow with achatty, outgoing manner. ‘We put petrol in it instead of diesel,’ said Lindy. Ournew friend pursed his lips and shook his head. ‘But it’s a new car! Who did this thing?’ I’m afraidwe all took a step backwards and pointed at Lindy. ‘Whydid you do this? It only takes diesel, you know. You can’tput petrol in it!’ I wondered if he’d attended some sort oftow-truck driver training school to attain this degree ofinsight, or whether it was an instinctive gift. After eventually quenching his curiosity, he squashedus all into the front cabin of his truck, and headed off tothe nearest garage. It was a tight squeeze, and welooked like so many Garfields splayed up against hiswindowpanes as he began assessing our situation outloud. ‘You might have to get a new motor. For a Renault,that’s many hundreds of euros. Or maybe they can flushout the petrol – that’s possible. But probably a new motorI think. That would take many weeks – it would have tocome from France, you know. Renault is Frenchcompany.’ Just as I was seriously contemplating openingthe truck door and ending my misery there and then, wecame over a rise and gazed upon the sparkling bluewaters of Wolfgangersee spread out below us. ‘This may not be so bad, after all,’ I thought as I letgo of the door handle. If we were lucky and there was nodamage to the car engine, we could have a relaxingafternoon by the lake – riding on the paddleboats andeating ice cream, perhaps. We might even knock ourbookings on the head and stay here for a couple of days.I think I might have even smiled. Then we turned away from the lake to a garagestuck in the middle of nowhere. 110
  • 111. There was more doubling over with laughter,smacking of knees, pursing of lips, and shaking of headsas the tow-truck driver explained our predicament to theRenault mechanic, and when he eventually left we feltsomewhat abandoned. The mechanic hardlyacknowledged our existence, let alone explained what washappening. For an hour we wandered back and forth inthe dusty driveway – hungry, thirsty, frustrated, anddying for a toilet. We asked several times: ‘How long?’ pointing to our watch to indicate ourmeaning, but our enquiries were met with a shrug. Wepresumed that the man spoke no English and wasuncomfortable talking to us, and made allowances for hislack of communication. Eventually the car was drivenback out into the yard and the mechanic approached us todeclare the verdict. ‘You were very lucky. I was able to siphon out thepetrol before any damage was done to the motor.Otherwise you’d have been liable to pay for areplacement.’ he said. In perfect English.The plus side of such catastrophes is that little thingsafterwards are savoured with much greater appreciation.Feeling totally stressed and miserable, we left the garageat about three-thirty, with a two hour drive and a trickyborder crossing to negotiate before we reached our night’sdestination. In a moment of inspiration, and despite theordeal ahead of us, Lindy said: ‘Let’s go down to the lake for an ice cream. Itdoesn’t matter if we’re a bit late to our hotel – it’s bookedanyway.’ Her initiative salvaged something from the day. Weturned off the road leading back to the motorway, andtook the short detour to Saint Gilgen on the shores ofWolfgangersee. We parked under the trees and wanderedaround the lakeside promenade to the ice cream shops,then sat out on one of the piers, with our feet dangling inthe cool, refreshing water. The forest-clad hills andmountains surrounding us shimmered in the reflections of 111
  • 112. the lake, and that half hour of paradise almost made theprevious four hours pale out of memory. It was with extreme reluctance that we eventuallytore ourselves away, mindful that we still had to get to theCzech border and negotiate customs. It had been amemorable day in Austria, and we hoped and prayed thatwe had survived our last disaster of the holiday. 112
  • 113. 16. Crossing the Czech Point ‘If you are going to go to a maze, make sure that you know it really is a maze. You don’t want to spend a long time walking to it and find it’s just a long, winding corridor.’ (Excerpt from the James Whitton diaries).It was about 6pm when we pulled up behind a long line oflorries and began hunting for passports and visas at theCzech border. Time passed. There was no movement.Every now and then a car would speed past in the emptylane, and we presumed they were Czech nationalsreturning home. ‘Lucky buggars.’ ‘Just be patient,’ said Lindy. Five minutes passed and we still hadn’t moved.Several more cars whizzed by. ‘You don’t think….’ began Lindy. ‘Think what?’ ‘Never mind.’ Another ten minutes passed. ‘Um…we’re not stuck in a “trucks only” lane, are we?’asked Lindy. I had a sinking feeling in the pit of mystomach. Stepping out of the car, I looked down thelength of the queue. Trucks stretched to the horizon –and not one car (besides us). ‘Could be,’ I said as I got back in. We pulled out anddrove cautiously along the empty lane, watchingexpectantly for the inevitable line of traffic. There wasnone. We’d waited unnecessarily for twenty minuteswhile border control officers picked their noses or filedtheir nails, waiting for customers to break the monotonyof their evening. It wasn’t the greatest of introductions to the CzechRepublic, that day. We went backwards and forwardswith a variety of forms, before eventually being wavedthrough. Then, when we went looking for somewhere tochange money, we found that they all charged a bomb for 113
  • 114. the privilege, and were housed in the most depressing,run-down, communist-era buildings imaginable.Nevertheless, in less than half an hour we’d passedthrough customs and had changed enough money for usto feel satisfactorily cashed-up for the next couple ofdays, at least. We drove off into the countryside and noticed animmediate difference. On one side of the border - bucolicbeauty. On the other - scrubby wasteland. This was notthe Bohemia of my dreams. After passing the fourthgroup of roadside prostitutes, we were wondering whywe’d torn ourselves away from the Salzkammergut lakesthat afternoon. As we eventually passed through the drab outskirtsof Cesky Krumlov, we were all in the most miserable ofspirits. I pulled out my map and prepared to navigate ourway to the hotel. Soon we came to an “Authorised EntryOnly” sign blocking our way to the centre of town. Weturned down a dusty, dingy street to a dusty, dingy carpark surrounded by dusty, dingy buildings, and thetemptation to turn around and head back to Austriabecame almost irresistible. ‘Now what do we do?’ growled Lindy. Somehow –don’t ask me how – I was feeling as if it was all my fault. ‘You wait here. I’ll go and find the hotel,’ I said.‘And if it’s a dump, we’re going back to Austria.’ I swear that smoke was curling from my ears as Istomped up into town. The buildings about me weredilapidated and ugly, and all I could think about was how Iwas going to tell the hotel to shove their room when I sawwhat a dump it was. It had not been a good day, and itwas going to take a lot to turn it around. As I neared the centre of town - a study in petulance– I gradually became aware of a subtle change. I lookedaround at some of the pastel-coloured facades andthought; ‘Not bad.’ – but the effect was very muchsuperficial. Then I passed under a sort of paintedarchway, and my attitude began to change rapidly. Bythe time I’d descended to the bridge over the youthfulMoldau River, I was a transformed man. Above meloomed the huge castle complex, dominated by an 114
  • 115. enormous, bizarrely painted watchtower. Along the riverwere colourful, renaissance facades and medieval churchtowers, and the cobble-stoned street leading from thebridge into the historic town centre was like somethingout of a movie-set. Our hotel was located very close to the bridge, andwas full of character from the outside. The friendly hotelassistant showed me our rooms – I was still determined tocut up rough if they were no good – and they weresuperb. I believe I may have actually skipped a trifle as Imade my way back to the others. They were waiting likehounds impatient for the go ahead to rip apart the hare. Iscoffed at their pessimism! ‘The town is one of the most beautiful I’ve everseen,’ I said. ‘The hotel is terrific, and apparently it’sokay for us to drive into town. There’s a parking placereserved outside the hotel.’ My reassurances easedtensions a little, but I could still see a healthy scepticismexisted amongst the populace. ‘Just get me to the hotel,’ said Lindy. ‘And it hadbetter have a bathroom!’ By the time we’d parked the carand settled into our rooms about ten minutes later, therelief was almost palpable. After a brief shower - and despite my weariness fromthe day’s ordeals - I was enticed back into the magicalstreets of the town. I exhausted an entire roll of film thatevening, fascinated by the countless medieval,renaissance and baroque houses, palaces and churches.Lindy joined me as the sun set, and we had the mostromantic of strolls through the various courtyards andalong the banks of the Moldau, before dragging our wearylegs back to the hotel. We stopped briefly in the bar toshare a cup of coffee and hot chocolate – and found thatthey didn’t dispense the latter. Feeling that breakfast thenext morning was likely to be a rather Spartan affair (theavailability of hot chocolate being the universal gauge forsuch things), we climbed the three flights of stairs to ourrooms. After saying good night to Enid, James andThomas in their room across the hall, we sat by the littledormer window in our room and gazed out at the floodlit 115
  • 116. castle across the river and the lamp-lit, cobble-stonedlane below. It was spectacular. That day had seen us swing backwards and forwardsfrom the depths of misery to the heights of ecstasy. I wasemotionally as well as physically exhausted, and slept likethe dead.As it turned out, the breakfast was great. Very much inthe style of German breakfasts, there were boiled eggs,rolls, jams, meats, sausage, cheeses, fresh coffee, juice,yoghurt, cereals and fresh milk. After eating our fill, webrazenly prepared a packed lunch from what was left, andpaid the pittance of a bill – thoroughly satisfied with thevalue and quality of our accommodation. Then all five of us did the rounds of the towntogether. In the quiet of early morning, watching thechildren heading off to school and enjoying the streetsdevoid of photo-spoiling parked cars, the town was – ifanything – even better than I remembered. As a side note, we came across one museumproclaiming an exhibition of Tasmaniana (I’m still not surewhat it was they were exhibiting, but I think it hadsomething to do with photography). Intrigued, weentered the open, welcoming doors. ‘No. Closed,’ said the young man behind thecounter. I looked around at all the Welcome and Opensigns with some bemusement, then back to the youngman. ‘Sorry, closed,’ he repeated. By now I wasdesperate. Revealing what I thought was my trump card,I puffed out my chest and announced – as pompously as Icould: ‘But I’m from Tasmania!’ I could actually feel myfamily cringe behind me, and the young man wasstrangely unmoved. ‘Sorry, closed,’ he said, totally disinterested in myheritage.Before leaving Australia, an acquaintance found out thatwe were intending to visit the Czech Republic. 116
  • 117. ‘You’ll love Prague.’ he promised. ‘But spend sometime in the small towns and countryside as well. It’sreally cheap and there are some terrific undiscoveredtreasures.’ Based on our experience in Cesky Krumlov, Iwas inclined to believe him. We left that morning lookingforward to all the discoveries we were going to make enroute to Prague. But it was miserable. We couldn’t find anything of interest. I’d expected tostumble upon quaint little Bohemian town after quaintlittle Bohemian town - but we didn’t find one. Wetravelled along the main road. Nothing. We turned offonto back roads. Nothing. Not only were the towns totallydevoid of even the most cursory interest, but thecountryside was empty and depressing as well. It wasalmost surreal to travel on roads without any other cars(except in the villages and towns), and to pass throughfields without any livestock. And road signs? Forget it.Eventually we arrived in Kutna Hora, which, whilst not aCesky Krumlov, certainly had its charms. The bizarrecathedral – which looks like a sort of medieval circus tent– was particularly interesting, and the town went someway towards making up for the disappointments of themorning. But we left for Prague feeling that, whilst we’dmade a valiant effort to discover the other, secret andunderrated Czech Republic, we had somehow missed it.Later trips were to confirm that it certainly did exist – youjust had to know where to look. We were a little anxious about negotiating our wayaround a large city like Prague. It was to be by far thebiggest we were to visit that holiday, and we had theadded challenge of trying to find our accommodation, aswell as the dreaded parking. I’d organised for David – theowner – to meet us at the apartment around 4pm, so wehad the pressure of time just to keep things interesting.As we got nearer I examined every map I could find toensure that we were prepared for all eventualities. Gradually the traffic increased and the suburbsbegan, and soon we were hurled into the maelstrom ofPrague’s peak hour. I checked the map desperately,trying to find a street name that I could recognise, and 117
  • 118. eventually I found it. Moments later I’d identified a crossstreet, pinpointed our exact location, and planned a routethat would take us around the one-way and dead endstreets to our destination. Trembling, I began counting down the intersectionsto busy Wenceslas Square, where the tricky part began. Ihad it all sussed – no need to panic, I told myself. Threeintersections – two intersections… ‘After the next intersection,’ I announced. ‘Gostraight ahead through Wenceslas Square, then first onyou right.’ The traffic slowed a little, and then we werethere. ‘Okay, now straight ahead.’ I said triumphantly. Except the road was blocked off. By a tank. ‘What’s a tank doing there?’ I screamed. ‘Which way do I go?’ said Lindy. ‘I mean – a tank! Not a barrier, not a sign – but atank!’ ‘Which way, Trevor?’ ‘If it had been a…’ ‘WHICH WAY?’ My mate for life was not beingunreasonable, but I’d totally lost it and was temporarily ofuse to neither man nor beast. ‘Um…left?’ I said, eventually pulling myself together.Unfortunately, by now we’d gone right and were beingdragged along by the traffic like a ping-pong ball over awaterfall. Utterly confused, Lindy continued with the flow,screaming for me to give her directions. Still mutteringinanely about tanks, I worked desperately to find anotherroute. When I eventually found an alternative, I had noidea where we were. ‘Call David and ask for directions.’ said the AR. ‘But….’ ‘Go on. We can’t just keep driving around in circles,’said Lindy. Their combined strength was too great. I wastoo weak to withstand their onslaught, and took theproffered phone and began dialling. I had spotted theflaw in their plan, and wondered why they hadn’t. ‘Hello – David?’ ‘Trevor! Are you nearly here?’ 118
  • 119. ‘Not exactly. We’re lost. Can you give medirections?’ ‘Certainly. Where are you?’ And here – if you followme – was the crux of the matter. ‘I don’t know. Like I said, we’re lost.’ ‘Well I can’t very tell you how to get here, if I don’tknow where you are,’ he explained reasonably. I knewthat. I had always known that. I wanted to tell him itwas those damn silly women’s idea that I call him, butknew it would be a fatal mistake. You see, when I’ve got my act together, I’m not abad navigator. I knew that once I’d found a street nameor landmark, I could pinpoint us once again on the mapand get us where we were going without too muchdifficulty. The drawback was that we kept moving – anecessity in peak hour traffic – and that all the bloodystreet names were in Czech (most unreasonable!). Andall the time I wasn’t sure whether we were getting closeror further away from the apartment. Eventually, I stumbled upon a name I recognised andwas able to locate our position on the map. ‘Take the next right,’ I said triumphantly. Weapproached the intersection, and the “No Right Turn” sign– inevitable though it was - nearly ended things for me.But we were on the right track and, after what seemedhours but was actually only about 30 minutes, we werestanding with our bags outside our apartment – stressed,but all in one piece (well, five pieces). But where was David? I called him again, confident that - this time – I couldtell him exactly where we were. ‘Trevor? Where are you?’ he said, soundingdesperate. ‘I’m here,’ I said unhelpfully. ‘Outside theapartment.’ From the end of the street I saw a little headholding a phone to its ear peer around the corner –followed by a waving hand. David was American, but nice. He’d settled inPrague after the fall of Communism, had bought up all thereal estate he could afford, and had been here ever since- raking in the money like leaves on an autumn day. He 119
  • 120. shook our hands warmly, and showed us into our homefor the next few days. The apartment was in one of those turn-of-the-century Secessionist buildings, with ceilings high enoughto generate their own weather patterns and attractivemouldings on every window, door, and archway. It wasfurnished with what looked to me like antiques – wastedon run-of-the-mill tourists, I felt – and fitted out with amicrowave, dishwasher, washing machine, and dryer (notantiques). And he had enough tourist information to keepyou well fed and entertained for a month! Enid even hadher own bedroom.One curiosity about the area was the guard across theroad. He’d accosted us briefly when we were standingoutside the apartment waiting for David, asking if weneeded any help. We watched him for two days from ourapartment window, and he appeared to be standing guardover an empty office block. No one came or went, andthe foyer of the building seemed to be totally empty.Strange though the circumstance was, it made us feelsecure – particularly as David had gone to great pains towarn us about pickpockets. From his description, it hardlyseemed safe to step outside.It started raining the moment we hit Prague, and didn’tstop for two days. I awoke on the first morning to thepitter-pattering of raindrops on the cobblestones, andimmediately felt depressed. I’d been so looking forwardto Prague, but was not prepared to get saturated while Idid my sightseeing. As we waited for the deluge to subside, Lindy and Iwent to do some shopping at the nearby supermarket. Itwas well stocked – a far cry from when we’d last visitedduring the Communist era – but the cashier appeared tobe one of those solid, dour women who longed for thegood old days when cashiers were Queens of their ownlittle kingdoms, and tourists were Capitalist scum whowere considered fair game under a just and right-thinkingregime. She added up our items with reluctance, and was 120
  • 121. not averse to indicating what she thought about some ofour indulgent, decadent Western purchases with aneloquent squint of her nose or shake of the head. It’s a sad consequence of democratisation that thesetreasures of a bygone age are fast disappearing. We returned to the apartment with the celestialsprinklers still in operation, and I began to get edgy.Soon the rain slowed to a light sprinkle and I decided I’dbrave the elements rather than bear the torture ofwasting our only full day in Prague. I donned theraincoat, packed my umbrella and lunch, and stepped outinto the world… The boys aren’t very keen on cities. Whilst I wasconfident Prague would have plenty to keep everyone elseinterested, I worked hard to find something that wouldmake them happy. Flicking through various guidebooksback in Australia, I eventually thought that I’d found it – amirror maze. James and Thomas have always enjoyedmazes, so a mirror maze would not only satisfy thatinterest, but offer something different into the bargain.So, while I did my sightseeing-of-a-hundred-churches bit(which no-one else was interested in), Lindy and Enid tookthe boys across the river to the Petrin Maze. Wanting to see something of Prague themselves,they decided to walk from our apartment to theirdestination. The boys were not pleased. They hadn’trealised that part of the deal involved serious exercise,and complained long and loud. They protested at everydetour and every hill, and it was with some relief whenthe goal was finally in sight. Before I go on, I must explain that we had this littlecompetition going. You know, points for spotting things(fishermen, fountains, gondolas, and so forth), and theone who finished the maze first got five points – and withthis day being bonus points day for mazes, it was worth awhopping ten points to the lucky winner! As Lindy begannegotiations with the money, Thomas flew into theentrance like a ferret down a rabbit warren. Then flew out the other side. 121
  • 122. Lindy hadn’t even finished paying for the tickets!James stepped out seconds later, and the women couldtell that all was not well in Wonderland. ‘It’s just a single corridor with mirrors,’ he growled.‘We came all this way just for a single corridor withmirrors!’ Then it began to rain. Looking back in hindsight, I actually don’t begrudgethe rain. Whilst it was inconvenient at the time, just alittle over a month later the Moldau River broke its banksand most of old Prague was flooded. At one stage therewas a serious threat of the historic Charles Bridge beingwashed away. Like I said, it could have been much worse for us.I found Prague a very different city from the one I’dvisited twelve years earlier – and I don’t mean just in theobvious ways. The advertising, souvenir shops andrenovated facades were anticipated, but (supermarketcashiers aside) the attitude to service was not. Officialsand attendants at the various historical sites andmonuments couldn’t have been more helpful. I visited the peculiar looking Church of the Crusadersnear the Charles Bridge, for example, and the ticketsalesman went to great lengths to explain that my ticketallowed me access to the church’s little museum. I didn’twant to visit the place, but that’s beside the point. Afterreceiving such devoted attention, I felt I couldn’t declinethe offer – so I followed his directions to the old crypt,which was reached by going outside and descending thestairs beside the church, then passing through abasement restaurant (no, seriously!). When I got there, the attendant looked like he’d seenhis first tourist in months. He was all over me. Heexplained - in broken English – the history of themuseum, it’s main exhibits, and gave me a laminatedguide to take with me on my tour. ‘Please – if you have any questions, don’t be afraidto ask!’ he beseeched, desperate for the chance to showoff his knowledge (as well as being a little lonely, Isuspect). 122
  • 123. Three minutes later I’d finished my visit and sidledup to him. His eyes lit up and he smiled expectantly. ‘You….you have a question?’ he asked – hardlybelieving his luck. ‘Yes. Where are the toilets?’That night Lindy and I explored that beautiful, romanticcity on our own. The rain had stopped temporarily and weenjoyed the quiet of Prague with a minimum of crowds.We got lost in the various courtyards, squares and lanesof the old town, admired the countless floodlit towers andspires, and just enjoyed being out without theencumbrance of a camera. As we turned up our street at around 9pm, the clack-clacking footsteps of the street’s mysterious guard pacinghis strange beat reassured us that we could go to sleepsafe in the knowledge that our neighbourhood was secure. 123
  • 124. 17. German Karaoke ‘Don’t expect little village church festivals to be little village church festivals.’ (Excerpt from the James Whitton diaries)The journey west through the Czech Republic in thepouring rain was even more uninspiring than the journeynorth to Prague. We crossed the border into Germanyabout mid morning, and the countryside became moreinteresting almost immediately – as did the weather. Ourspirits began to pick up, and the car stories became lessEdgar Allan Poe-like, and more akin to Lewis Carroll. Then we saw the tanks. At first there were just the two of them, then a fewkilometres down the road there were a few more – thenan entire convoy. We were only about twenty kilometresfrom the Czech border, and there were no turn-offs alongthe way. ‘Where are they going?’ I wondered out loud. ‘Germany’s invading the Czech Republic,’ said Jamesexcitedly. ‘Don’t be ridiculous,’ I said. ‘Yeah – like they’ve never done that before,’responded the eldest son sarcastically. ‘What, they’re invading with a dozen tanks?’ ‘The Czech Republic’s a pretty poor country; theywouldn’t have much of an army. That tank we saw inPrague’s probably the only one they’ve got. I bet if wewatched the news tonight, that would be the headline –“Germany Invades Neighbour”’.We had a pleasant picnic on a rise overlooking acres offreshly ploughed fields and almost-ready-to-be-harvestedbarley, with a few copses of forest dotting the countrysideand the hills of Franconia punctuating the horizon. Earlythat afternoon we arrived at the tiny village of Voordebach(bigger than Bicheln – but not much) and our bookedaccommodation for the next two nights. 124
  • 125. The Gasthaus was pleasant, without being great –although Enid did score another room by herself. Therewas a common kitchen downstairs, and the most peculiarlooking garden ornaments I’ve ever seen. They consistedof a big coloured bauble sitting atop a long spike, whichwas stuck in the ground and stood about a metre and ahalf high. ‘What are they?’ I asked our host as we unloaded thecar. ‘They decorate the garden.’ he replied proudly – iferroneously. I was too polite to tell him that they didn’twork, and looked the most frightful, incongruouseyesores. I just smiled and nodded. In his defence, Imust say that these things were common throughout thearea, and must have been all the rage. ‘Vive la difference!’ say I. ‘By the way,’ our host added as an afterthought,‘tonight there will be a church fete. You are all welcometo come, if you wish.’ I was almost excited at theprospect. ‘It’s just a fete,’ said Lindy later. ‘But it won’t be like those boring things at home,’ Iassured her – instantly becoming an expert in suchmatters. ‘There’ll be folk dancing, and traditional dress,and traditional music – you know, with fiddles andshawms and hurdy-gurdies and things. It might be fun.’ ‘You go if you want to,’ said Killjoy. ‘I’m going tohave an early night.’Now, as I mentioned, the village of Voordebach was verysmall. I would have said no more than a hundred peoplepopulated the place (including the pets). But as wereturned from dinner in nearby Pottentstein early thatevening, there seemed to be twice that numberassembled in the marquee in the paddock below ourGasthaus - and it was growing. By 8pm the place resembled Woodstock. And they weren’t wearing quaint, traditionalcostumes. And there was no folk dancing. And there wasno traditional-instrument, neo-renaissance band playingfolk music. 125
  • 126. But there was a karaoke machine. A very loud karaoke machine. The mother of all karaoke machines, in fact. And the more these denizens of Sodom andGomorrah guzzled from the vast vats that had beentrucked in for their satanic orgy, the more popular did thatmother of karaoke machines become. Clearly, the dearold population of Voorderbach had been bred over thecenturies as reliable stayers. Not for them the fate of aquick skin-full, followed shortly after by blessed oblivion.These people had been training for weeks – months –years! – for this night. You know, it’s not so bad if you can share suchmisery as I suffered with loved ones. But as I paced thebalcony outside our bedroom at 3am that morning,listening to the contented snores within and the frenziedracket without, I must have been the loneliest, mostisolated sod on the planet! I suppose Lindy was just paying me back. Iremember many years ago when we were on ourhoneymoon, staying at a hotel on the Rhine near Koblenz.I was awoken by the sound of a fierce fight between theowner and his wife, and became concerned that it mightturn violent. I shook Lindy awake. ‘What’s the matter,’ she said through bleary eyes. ‘The fighting – can’t you hear it?’ ‘I was asleep!’ ‘Yes, I know. But can you hear it now?’ She cockedan ear – followed by an eyebrow. ‘Now that you mention it, I do. Boy, it’s prettyserious isn’t it? Trevor? Trevor?’ Unfortunately, by thenI was fast asleep. Just because she sat up for the rest ofthe night in a state of abject terror, she’s never forgivenme. I call it petty. Meanwhile – back in Voorderbach - was it myimagination, or did I recognise those two tone-deaf voicessinging (and I use the term very loosely) “Ninety-nineLuftballoons” for the twentieth time running? Wasit?…could it be?…..surely not! I’m positive it was Carole and Monsieur Masoni! 126
  • 127. I realise now that Satan had taken over the village ofVoorderbach. He’d captured the souls of the populace andturned them into the living dead. I know this, because Ihad become one of them by the morning. My eyes werebloodshot and vacant; the colour had drained from mybody, and the only thing I could mutter was a low groanthat seemed to emanate from the very bowels of theearth. The children jumped back in terror when they firstcaught sight of me. We tried to contact our hosts to tell them that wewouldn’t be accepting their kind hospitality for anothernight after all, and can you believe they had the audacityto be at church?! For a start, it seemed almostblasphemous after their blood-curdling efforts of theprevious night, but – more astonishing still – when didthese people sleep? I scribbled a note saying something like my mother-in-law’s hip was bad and she was having trouble with thestairs (why change a story if it works?) and we fled thatinspiration-for-a-Stephen-King-novel as quickly as our carcould carry us.In fact, the day turned out to be very pleasant. I tookTom and James with me for a walk around medievalRegensburg, freeing Lindy and Enid to enjoy their owncompany and paying them back for the numerous timesthey’d done the same for me. From my own perspective,I welcomed the opportunity to spend some time ‘bonding’– man to man - with the boys. They’re always betterbehaved for me, anyway (no doubt thanks to the constantbeatings) and I’m convinced that the ice creams played norole in their good behaviour – despite Lindy’s contentions! That night we ended up staying in the beautiful (iflargely reconstructed) medieval town of Rothenburg. Thesun had come out during the course of the day, and theearly evening was now sunny and warm. The half-timbered facades glowed under the strong sunlight, andwe enjoyed just walking around. That evening wasmagical as we explored the churches, streets and squaresin the solitude of late evening. The little streets and 127
  • 128. medieval towers took on an air of mystery at night, withthe echoes of our own footfalls on the cobblestonesadding to the atmosphere. At one stage we came across a pigeon sitting on thebonnet of a car. The owner gestured for us to watch ashe climbed in and started the engine. The bird didn’tbudge an inch as the car took off and did a circuit of thesquare. Eventually the man honked his horn and theanimal flew away, then the car sped off into the night – itsdriver shaking with laughter. 128
  • 129. 18. Taking the Waters in “Bad” Towns - and Taking the Piss in Worse TownsIt was with serious difficulty that we dragged ourselvesaway from Rothenburg the next morning, feeling thatwe’d only just scratched the surface. We headed westthrough glorious, green, undulating countryside infreezing conditions (it was only twelve degrees) until wereached the outskirts of the town of Bad Wimpfen. Wefound a nice looking picnic area in the fields beneath thetown, and decided to try our luck (who knew when we’dfind another?). The wind blew straight off the arcticicecap and soon Lindy and I were the only two left tryingto pretend that conditions were at all tolerable.Eventually, even we gave it up and dashed for the relativecomfort of the car – our fingers and noses numb andfrostbitten. Thank goodness it was summer! Bad Wimpfen beckons with its bristling medievaltowers and rooftops strung out along a ridge above theRiver Neckar, and from within it’s a maze of geranium-hung half-timbered houses, small squares and passages.For our short visit, the sun had come out, the wind haddropped, and the place was totally devoid of tourists(apart from us – who don’t count). Even the boysenjoyed walking around and exploring the town.At this stage of our holiday, everyone was getting prettytired, and we were hoping for another nice place thatevening so that we could relax, wind down, and prepareourselves for the last stage of the journey. I must admitthat - for some reason - I was feeling a little pessimisticas we drew closer to our destination. The miracle was that we ever found the place. Thedirections we had were vague - and in German - and thelocation was a single farmhouse far from the main touristroute. I was just starting to get worried when Irecognised its sign ahead. I could hardly believe my eyes. ‘That’s it,’ I cried as we cruised on past the entrance.Lindy slammed on the brakes, and we turned around to 129
  • 130. see what we were in for. We parked the car next to thehuge farmhouse, which also served as something called a“natural-hotel” (were they all nudists?). It took a fewminutes for someone to reply to my knocks, and I couldsee four faces pressed anxiously and impatiently againstthe car windows as I waited on the doorstep. At last avoice hailed me from above. ‘Guten abend,’ said a middle-aged, pleasant lookingwoman, sticking her head out of the second storeywindow. ‘Guten abend,’ I replied. ‘Ich bin Herr Whitton.’ ‘Ein minuten,’ said the head before disappearinginside. I waited. The family waited. I could tell theywere getting restless. Lindy threw me a dirty look. Enidthrew me a dirty look. Lindy frowned and shrugged, as ifto say ‘What’s happening?’. I smiled irritatingly, andeveryone’s frown deepened. At last our host appeared. ‘I speak not good English,’ she admitted, shaking myhand warmly. ‘Ich sprachen deutsch nicht gut, also,’ I replied. Wehit it off like pork and apple sauce. We chatted happily fora few minutes – her in broken English, me in appallingGerman – and she introduced herself as our host. Justwhen I thought the family were going to have apoplexy inthe car (they could have been polite and joined us, Ithought) Cornelia offered to show me to our apartment.As we walked back along the driveway (carefully avoidingthe cow pats), I waved for Lindy to follow. She showed us to a beautiful, recently constructedlittle wooden chalet, with kitchen, bathroom and sittingroom downstairs, and two bedrooms and a balconyupstairs. It was just what we needed. We thanked ourhost warmly, and Lindy and I went off to do someshopping at the nearby supermarket while the othersunpacked and made themselves comfortable. As we said our Walton’s-family goodnights later thatevening, I suffered the ignominy of climbing into bed andhaving it collapse from under me. Lifting the mattress,we found that the slats on the base were pretty weak, anddecided that the best place for me was on the floor. 130
  • 131. I went to sleep promising myself to go on a diet assoon as I got home.Bruhl - home to one of northern Europe’s most beautifulbaroque palaces and site of a brief visit by the travellingWhittons-plus-one. The nightmare began as we approached and thesigns began redirecting us around the town. Soon theyseemed to lose interest and gave up entirely. Eventually,we travelled right around the outskirts and entered fromexactly the opposite side from which we’d approached.Strike number one. Then we travelled through town to within a couple ofkilometres of where we’d started, and followed the signsto the palace parking area. This ended up being locatednext to the train station and, with Cologne not twentykilometres away, the place was – not surprisingly – full.Strike number two. We then drove right around the complex to theshopping precinct, and began looking for a car parkbetween the palace and the shops. After muchnavigating, reversing and manoeuvring, we finally cameacross someone backing out of a space right next towhere we wanted to go. As we waited courteously for thedriver to vacate his spot, the car behind us squeezed pastand began to pull into the precious site – like gasoccupying a vacuum. Strike number three and I’d hadenough. Oblivious to Lindy’s protestations, a primordial urgehad come over me. For thousands of years my ancestorshad been driven by an instinct to protect their parkingspaces, and I was powerless to resist. I jumped out ofthe car, knuckles dragging along the ground and steamingmad. Language was no barrier – I simply let him have itin English. I’m quite certain that – although he may nothave been able to quote me word for word – thegentleman in question got the general drift of myconversation. There were the natural references to thequestion of his parentage, polite enquiries as to the natureof his education, and some sound advise as to the mostappropriate location for his automobile. 131
  • 132. I returned to the car and a silent reception. I expectthey were all trying to memorise my speech for futureuse.Eventually we parked the car and walked the kilometre ortwo to this most elusive of palaces. It took us a goodfifteen minutes to find the front door, and I was in a raremood by the time we reached the ticket office. ‘The next tour will be in half an hour,’ said the ladycarelessly. I bridled. ‘Half an hour?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Do you have to take a tour?’ I asked. ‘Yes. In German,’ she replied cheerily. Lindy andEnid could read the signs – they backed away carefullytowards the door. ‘In German,’ I said, with ominous calm. ‘But for a few extra Euros you can have this nicepamphlet in English,’ she smiled. By now there was nomistaking the signs – to any who knew me. I didn’treturn her smile. ‘Can you take photos?’ I asked – knowing the answeralready, but wanting to make sure that I was fullyjustified when I tore the place apart. The ticket-ladylooked shocked. ‘Photos? Of course not!’ I won’t offend you with the details of what followed –I realise there could be children reading this. Suffice it tosay that a few minutes later Enid and Lindy were draggingme out the door, foam dripping from my mouth and thesmell of unshed blood in my nostrils. I don’t expect to ever be offered the key to the cityby the Mayor and Burghers of Bruhl! 132
  • 133. 19. Low in the Low CountriesThe afternoon was spent hurtling through pouring rainalong the motorway towards the Netherlands. In thedistance, the glowering smoke stacks and industry of theRohr valley stood silhouetted against the rain and cloudslike something out of a gothic horror movie, and I think Ican speak for us all when I say that our spirits pretty low. No, now that I think about it, that’s a lie. In theback of the car came the happy clicking of Gameboys, asJames and Thomas played their recent purchases fromBruhl. ‘That was a nice town,’ said James. ‘Yes – a pity we couldn’t have stayed longer,’ saidThomas. Now I knew how Americans felt about BenedictArnold. Gradually, as the rain eased, the industrial areasabated, and the Dutch countryside grew more and morebucolic, our moods improved and we turned off the franticmotorway to begin searching for the farmhouse that wasto be our next two night’s accommodation. By the time we’d found the road leading to ourdestination, we were almost happy again. Well, I sayroad – but it wasn’t anything of the sort. When I tell youthat it had a sign advising against bikes passing eachother, you’ll get an idea of what I’m talking about. And itwas supposed to be two-way! Our hosts’ house was set in fields amongst criss-crossing canals and a garden that was (literally) a touristattraction in itself. The owners were very friendly andrelaxed, and – all in all – it promised to be a wonderfulcouple of days ahead of us. Then someone – I’m not surewho, it may even have been me – had an idea. ‘Let’s go to Gouda for tea.’ In the main square of Gouda is an Italian restaurantthat serves the worst minestrone soup in Europe. Did Isay Europe? I meant the world. The Galaxy. TheUniverse. The place should have been displaying awards!At first I thought it was simply the muck dished up from 133
  • 134. the washing-up water – but I soon discovered that thesecret of its awfulness was much more complex than that.I dare not dwell on how they achieved such depths ofaccomplishment, but its effect was as impressive as it wasdevastating. We just had enough time to wander thecanal-lined streets of the town and return home to bedbefore the cataclysm descended. All that night and the next day I struggled to purgemy body of every ounce of solids and liquids not essentialto keeping me alive. And such an undertaking wasn’tpossible for a single outlet – I soon discovered that allresources had to be called into action for this operation,and began spraying liquid like a fire engine at a parade.Needless to say, the following day was ruined. Of greaterconcern, however, was the threat of someone else in ourparty coming down with the contagion, either before or(worse) during our flight home in two day’s time. Fortunately, I was satisfactorily recovered by thetime we were due to leave, and, as we headed intoBelgium, the sun emerged for the first time in days andthe weather became milder. As we negotiated thenarrow, traffic-light-absent streets of Ghent, it becamepositively warm. Never the easiest of cities to drive around in, thatday Ghent offered the added challenge of market day.The national football team had also just won one of itsWorld Cup matches, and there were countless drunkenrevellers in red and yellow fool’s caps (appropriatelyenough) staggering along the footpaths and streets,generously sharing their joy with the rest of humanity.Lindy had to swerve the car several times, but still didn’tmanage to hit any of them. We wandered through the Friday market, which – bya curious twist of logic – is held in the Friday MarketSquare, before heading off to the picturesque Graslei areaby one of the city’s canals. Enid, Lindy and Tom decidedthat the boat tours looked an attractive option, and I wasamazed when James said he’d prefer to come with me tovisit the Cathedral of Saint Bavo and see Van Eyck’s‘Adoration of the Lamb’. It was only as we headed into 134
  • 135. the main square that I realised why – he had rememberedthe nearby location of McDonalds’ from a previous visit!The afternoon produced a mixed bag. From Ghent it wasbut a short drive to our evening’s destination in Bruges,but the challenge wasn’t so much getting there, as findingour hotel. You see, the city’s attraction is it’s medievalbuildings and streets – and you don’t get that byproviding long, broad avenues and generousthoroughfares. And maps aren’t a whole lot of use,either. My marriage was sorely tested that day. ‘Turn left at the next intersection,’ said I at onestage. ‘”No left turn.”’ read Lindy from the street sign. ‘Oh.’ ‘Well, where do I go now?’ ‘Um, next left.’ But by the time there was a nextleft, the road had swung around and we were heading inthe wrong direction. ‘Better make it right,’ I corrected. ‘Well – which is it? Right or left?’ ‘I told you – right,’ I said, trying to sound confident.After five minutes of random turns, Lindy stopped the car– stressed and looking for a victim. ‘Where are we?’ she demanded. ‘Bruges,’ I replied unhelpfully. She snatched themap from me and began perusing it. The thing lookedlike a dozen spiders had got to work to try and design theworld’s most complex web. After a minute she tossed itback to me. ‘Where are we on the map?’ she asked. ‘Um….here,’ I said, waving my finger vaguely over anarea close to our hotel. ‘Ask someone,’ she snapped. ‘But…’ ‘Ask someone,’ she repeated with ominous calm. Iheaded for the nearest pedestrian. It was lucky that shespoke English. It was unlucky that I disagreed with herdirections. No way was I going to go back to the car andadmit that she’d told me which way to go, but that I knewa better way. So I lied. 135
  • 136. ‘Well?’ ‘Turn left up ahead.’ You’ll never guess whathappened next. When we got to the intersection, therewas a sign saying “No Left Turn”. They all turned to lookat me like piranha eyeing a drowning lamb. ‘Or right,’ Isaid, with a forced smile. When we finally found our bed and breakfast, therewas some considerable difficulty in finding a parkingplace. This was because there were none – despite thepromises of the website printout I was clutching. Lindydropped me off outside and waited as I knocked on thedoor. ‘There’s parking nearby - do you have a map?’replied our unsmiling hostess to my enquiries. I breatheda sigh of relief. ‘I sure do,’ I said, handing her the document inquestion. ‘Turn left here, drive to the end of this road, thenturn right and left again,’ she explained. I looked at themap in disbelief. This gave a whole new meaning to theword “nearby”. Feeling not a little peeved, we droppedEnid, the boys and our luggage, and I began directingLindy to the promised parking space. ‘We could have parked in Ghent – it would have beencloser,’ she grumbled. As we stomped back through the streets to rejoin therest of the family, we began to prepare ourselves for whatlay ahead. It was to be our last night in Europe (or so wethought!), and we weren’t going to tolerate being stuck ina dump – and the evidence so far indicated that all thepromises on the website might not necessarily turn out tobe entirely accurate. Well, as it turned out the rooms were better thanBonnieux – but not by much. Lindy and I took one look atthe transparent shower in the middle of the room, thelumpy beds and peeling wallpaper, and scowled. ‘What do we do now?’ asked Lindy, almost at the endof her tether. I puffed out my chest and hardened myjaw. ‘I’ll find us somewhere else.’ 136
  • 137. ‘But how will you find rooms for five people in Brugesat short notice in the middle of June?’ ‘Dunno,’ I replied confidently. With grimdetermination, I stomped out of the room, down thestairs, and out onto the street below. Then, when I wassure no one was looking, I slumped against the nearestwall and sobbed like a baby. It was then that the miracle occurred. I can’t say for sure, now – it being a long time sincethe incident occurred – but I seem to recall a star sittingover the hotel across the street, beckoning me like theWise Men to Bethlehem. I crossed in a kind of daze. Ientered the building. It was nice, I noticed. Welcoming,clean and comfortable. Surely such a nice hotel would befully booked? I approached the receptionist anxiously. ‘Excuse me. Do you have any rooms available fortonight?’ ‘I’m sorry sir,’ she replied – my faint hopes fading.‘We only have one room free tonight – but that’s for fivepeople.’ I must admit that I’ve never heard of a hotel havinga room for five people – which made this incident evenmore miraculous than it already was. I asked if I couldsee this phenomenon – not wanting to look a gift horse inthe mouth, you understand, but nevertheless needing tomake sure we weren’t being sold another lemon. I have never seen a more wonderful sight in my life.Within ten minutes we’d vacated Chez Dump and wereensconced in our new room. I’d successfully progressedfrom zero to hero, and stood in the middle of the roomwith my hands on my hips like Superman after rescuingthe planet. Lindy sidled up to me, batted her eyebrows,and whispered: ‘My man!’I spent the afternoon walking the magical old streets ofBruges and visiting the museums, before rejoining thefamily for dinner. Afterwards, I went for another strollwith Lindy and Enid in the quiet evening – exploring thecanals, lanes and courtyards of the town, sans crowds. 137
  • 138. The night was dominated by a dramaticthunderstorm, which must have been a portent of thingsto come. We all slept fairly badly, and, in the morningJames declined breakfast in favour of more sleep. Hemissed one of the best breakfasts of the whole trip – witheverything from bacon and eggs to fresh rolls andpatisserie treats as far as the eye could see. Thomaswould have still been there slurping hot chocolate if wehadn’t dragged him away, but at last the time had cometo pack our belongings and begin our trek to the car. When we got there, James started vomiting. You can’t imagine the misery we felt that day, driving300 kilometres to Paris in order to catch our flight, withJames throwing up every inch of the way. First there wasthe guilt we felt because the motion of the car made himsick, and then there were the hours spent lying in thepark at the town of Senlis (because it was preferable tokilling 8 hours at Charles de Gaulle airport until our planeleft). And lastly there was the anxiety we felt over thehealth of the number one son, not to mention theprospect of pouring him onto a twenty-four hour flightback to Australia. It was truly awful. When we finally arrived at the airport and ditched thecar, it was obvious that something had to be done andthat James couldn’t board the plane the way he was.Lindy and I sought out the airport Medical Centre andwaited anxiously as the doctor examined our little boy.Eventually he looked up cheerfully. ‘I’m afraid I won’t be able to allow him to fly. Isuspect he has appendicitis!’ he announced triumphantly. Lindy and I walked back to the others with headsbowed and features drawn. ‘Appendicitis? But any fool can see it’s gastro,’ saidthe Aged Relative helpfully. ‘Anyway, he can’t fly in this condition,’ said themother of the Wounded Little Soldier. ‘And at least we’recovered by travel insurance.’ There ensued a serious discussion as to who shouldremain with James and who should escort Tom and Enidback to Australia. It quickly became apparent that, 138
  • 139. whichever way we looked at it, Lindy’s hospitalbackground (she’s a radiographer) was an advantage notto be dismissed lightly. She drew the short straw.Twenty minutes later, I’d bundled my wife and eldest soninto a taxi, and was on my way to seat allocation withTom and Enid. I was feeling pretty frail and vulnerable asI stepped up to the ticketing counter. Believe it or not, fate still had one, devastating cardleft to deal us. ‘One of your tickets is missing, sir,’ said the flightattendant. ‘But it’s not a problem.’ I sighed with relief. ‘Thank God for that! You wouldn’t believe the dayI’ve had.’ ‘It’ll only cost you forty euros for a replacement,’ shesmiled. My jaw dropped. My eyes popped. I gasped likea fish out of water. ‘But I don’t have forty euros!’ I croaked. ‘I’ve justgiven the last of our money to my wife, who has to takemy son to hospital!’ After a couple of minute’sunproductive debate, I asked to see the Supervisor. Icould tell she was a bureaucratic prig the moment I seteyes on her. ‘I’m sorry. If you don’t have the money, your soncan’t fly,’ she said (it was Tom’s ticket that was missing).I explained my very peculiar circumstances, but the Naziwas unbending. I pointed out that it must have been theairline’s fault when removing the previous leg’s ticket –and she asked me to prove it! I begged – but the fascistwas unmoved. I threatened – and the glint in her eyewarned me that this was what she’d been wanting allalong. I asked if I could be invoiced for the price of theticket so that I could pay when I got home – but mytormentor merely chuckled at the naivety of such ascheme. She tried telling me that it was the law thatrequired the airline to charge me for a replacement ticket,and repeatedly insisted that it was not possible for thecharge to be waived. In the end (after forty-five minutes of bargaining,pleading and negotiating) I got her to goose-step over to 139
  • 140. the telephone, call someone more senior at the airline,and at least ask if a waiver was possible. When she came back ten minutes later expecting meto thank her for securing a waiver after all – I wanted topunch her in the nose! To this day I can’t conceive of amind so strictly regimented and bureaucratic that it wouldcallously put me through what that woman put methrough, without the slightest interest in helping me find asolution until I had badgered her into it. May she die a lonely old woman in a nursing home atBournemouth (there, I’ve given you a hint which airlineshe belonged to!).When we finally climbed onto our plane late that night, Iwas emotionally devastated. I hated the entire world andjust wanted my problems to be all over and done with. There were fireworks over the River Seine as we tookoff above Paris and banked south-east towards home. 140
  • 141. 20. ‘Appendix’ ‘Don’t get appendicitis!’ (Excerpt from the James Whitton diaries)Earlier, I’d left Lindy about second in line on the taxi rankas I went back to rejoin the others. She’d thought that,as it was only ten minutes from the airport, she could justabout get James to the hospital, have the surgeon givehim the once over, and still have time to catch thehomeward flight with the rest of the family. After all, itwas only 7pm and the flight didn’t leave until 11. Howlong could it take for the doctor to diagnose gastro, giveJames a shot and send them on their way? Warning bells should have begun ringing when theygot to the front of the line. They were in a rush -unfortunately, the taxi driver wasn’t. He looked perplexedas Lindy cried: ‘l’hopital, vite, vite.’ ‘Non. Non. N’est pas possible,’ he replied doggedly.Repeating the request didn’t seem to get them anywhere,as it just didn’t seem to fit in conveniently with thedriver’s afternoon schedule. He had a date in Paris andwasn’t going to be sidetracked by flippant, self-indulgenttrips to any hospital! He kept looking behind them in thequeue for a more lucrative fare, as Lindy became moreand more desperate. She cried and shouted, gesticulatingwildly to the other people in the queue. Eventually thetaxi supervisor took an interest and came over. ‘Is there a problem?’ ‘He refuses to take my fare!’ said Lindy – still fuming. ‘Is this true?’ she asked the driver. There followedan explanation in French which Lindy couldn’t understand,but probably ran along the lines of: ‘I’ve got children to feed! I can’t waste my time onminiscule fares.’ But the supervisor was singularlyunmoved by his protests. No doubt because she was amother herself and felt a stronger bond with her gender 141
  • 142. than her nationality, she began feasting on his entrails –figuratively speaking. The conversation was an animated one, and full ofinterest for those whiling away their time in the queue.The advantage leant first one way, then the other. In theend the female of the species prevailed (as they usuallydo), and the reluctant man bundled the unwantedpassengers into his vehicle. They shot out of the airportat a 100kph – the driver hell bent on getting to theirdestination in as few nanoseconds as possible so he couldget back for one of those desirable Paris fares. James looked greener and greener as they careenedaround the corners, and the little group arrived at thehospital just in time for the taxi driver - though a little tooearly for the unfortunate emergency receptionist. WhileLindy was wondering how to say ‘my son has beendiagnosed with appendicitis, but I think it’s gastroenteritisand we’re scheduled to be flying home in a few hourstime, so could you please fetch the doctor quickly so wecan settle this misunderstanding as soon as possible’ - inFrench, James decided to substitute her words with ademonstration. It was a rather drab counter, and he wasable to provide it with a little colour. The distraught mother and the receptionist lookeddown at the spreading, green mess in horror. Suddenly,there was more action than an Arnold Schwarzeneggermovie, and James was ushered through the doors andonto a trolley in seconds. Feeling more optimistic than ever with the speed ofevents, Lindy began making plans for the trip home laterthat night. She should have known that getting onto atrolley is just the first step in a long drawn out process. She waited. And waited. And waited. Time passed and the deadline for departureapproached like a runaway train towards a level crossing.It was curious, really. From one perspective, it waspassing too slowly, and from another too quickly. Peoplewith heads swathed in bandages, wrists in slings and 142
  • 143. blood dripping from gaping wounds carried on long Frenchconversations around them. Finally, someone appeared and wheeled James awayinto a nearby cubicle. As Lindy came in behind him, adoctor who looked like he was fresh out of high schoolappeared. After squeezing a pimple or two, he devotedhis attention to the note written earlier by the airportdoctor. By this stage of the holiday, Lindy was heartilysick of people who pursed their lips and shook their heads– but it didn’t deter the young Doctor. ‘Appendicitis,’ he mumbled, nodding his head sagely.I suppose he was trying to show that he knew both amedical term and a word of English. ‘Appendicitis,’ said Lindy, shaking her head andstruggling to explain herself. ‘Gastro,’ she added, noddingand rubbing her tummy. The fool man promptly lookedconcerned. ‘You’re feeling sick?’ he asked (in French). ‘Not me, you fool – him! said the increasinglyfrustrated mother. ‘Non, non. Appendicitis,’ said the Doctor, thinking hewas being reassuring. Throwing her hands in the air,Lindy placed their fate in the hands of the Gods and tooka seat. They took James’ blood pressure, a specimen ofurine, and a blood sample - and then sauntered off to x-ray. Lindy explained to the radiographer that she was abrother-(or sister)-in-profession, but he was singularlyunimpressed – she wasn’t allowed in the room. It wasastonishing, given that the man spoke no English andJames couldn’t understand French. To not take advantageof a mother who knew what was expected and couldinterpret for a worried child was beyond belief. After a lot of trips back and forth along corridors andup and down lifts, it was 10pm and obvious that theyweren’t going to make the plane. Lindy decided it wastime to ring the fortunate father on the mobile and let himknow where things stood. I guess by now you can guess what happened.Inexplicably, the hospital’s public telephone wouldn’taccept Lindy’s credit card. Anyone else’s – yes. Lindy’s, 143
  • 144. no. The receptionist was polite but unable to help withher impassioned pleas for a phone book or the directoryassistance number. ‘Mon homme – par avion d’Australie,’ she explainedin clear, concise French. ‘C’est tres important!’ she added– feeling this would clinch the matter. Unfortunately, theonly response she got was a bewildered; ‘Comment?’ and (oh no, not again!) ‘Desolee.’English didn’t work, French didn’t work - perhaps theinternational language of women might? As Lindy begancrying, a mother from the waiting room patted her on theback and offered her a pack of tissues. Perhaps thisshamed the receptionist into making a greater effort, and– astonishingly - she found herself talking to me withinminutes. ‘Hello?’ said a trembling voice on the other end of thephone. (I’d just been daydreaming about garrottingairline officials). ‘We’re stuck here,’ said Lindy. ‘They still haven’tconfirmed whether it’s appendicitis or not. I’ll call youtomorrow at home and let you know what the prognosisis. I expect we’ll be home in a day or two.’ It was to be nearly two weeks before we saw eachother again!At eleven thirty, James and Lindy were at last ensconcedin their hospital room. Having been reassured that thesurgeon would come in the morning, they settled down tosleep as best they could. An hour later a nurse arrivedcarrying a mysterious bottle with a curious looking nozzle. ‘Pour la derrière,’ she explained. Lindy waswondering how to break the news to a bewildered James,when the nurse placed the abominable instrument in herhands. ‘Au revoir – bon chance!’ she twittered happily,and then left the room. Have you noticed throughout the course of mynarrative how people delighted in giving us bad news? Ican’t recall a single incident where someone didn’taccompany this information with a light laugh, smile, orfriendly slap on the back. Thank God they’re not allfuneral directors! 144
  • 145. Lindy looked at the apparatus, then at James, thenback to the apparatus. What were the options? Did hereally need it? Was death truly the worst scenario, or wasthere something that could trump it? Having weighed thepros and cons carefully, she said; ‘Just roll over and think of me as a nurse, not yourmother’. ‘Forget it.’ ‘It has to be done!’ ‘Says you.’ ‘And the doctor.’ ‘It won’t happen! Get over it – move on – come toterms with your disappointment!’The next morning’s visit with the surgeon was aninteresting experience. For a start, the concept ofinformed consent before a medical procedure appeared tobe a mere technicality. After a quick check of the notes, aswift prod in the abdomen, and a muffled cry from James,the surgeon announced ‘Appendix. Operation. Later.’ -and promptly disappeared amongst a cloud of white-coated students. It was left to Lindy to explain pre-operativeprocedures as best she could. ‘Do they give me something before the operation?’asked James, shakily. ‘Don’t worry. They’ll give you a needle beforehand.’His face fell. ‘A needle?’ After this less than reassured response,Lindy made the decision to lie about the matter of post-operative pain.Against all expectations, James survived the operation.Surviving recovery proved to be another matter, however- particularly when he was presented with “the bottle”. ‘What’s this for?’ ‘Um, you know.’ ‘No.’ ‘Going to the, um, toilet,’ said Lindy, casting hergaze out the window. There was a tense silence. ‘It’s not going to happen.’ he said at last. 145
  • 146. Meanwhile the rest of us had arrived home. I telephonedLindy the moment I walked through the door. ‘We’re home! How’s James? How are you?’ ‘James is recovering from the operation. I’m okay.’ ‘Operation?’ ‘Appendix.’ ‘Not gastro, then?’ ‘Nope.’ ‘Can I do anything this end?’ ‘Well, there’s some insurance matters to get clearedup…’ Oh no! Not more battles with the bureaucracy? Ireeled. When will this nightmare be over? Later – like,the next day – I plucked up the courage and energy tobegin doing battle with the insurance people over amultitude of different issues, snags and hitches.Back in Paris, Lindy had discovered that patients weresupposed to bring their own towels. After much pleading,she did manage to secure something resembling a largehandkerchief, which was supposed to serve both motherand son. It quickly became clear that some shopping wouldhave to be done soon, since they’d arrived at the hospitalarmed only with two backpacks equipped for the flighthome. James had his laptop for entertainment, but hadcarefully deleted all games in order to create enoughmemory to load a new game – which he hadn’t had anopportunity to buy. Now what he craved was electronicentertainment. Clothes – towel – toothpaste: all thesewere frivolous indulgences! So, leaving James to his own devices for a few hours,Lindy made her way into the nearby town. She tried toask directions to a shop where she could buy pyjamas,and thought she understood the reply. After a few blocksshe realised her mistake – but it was too late and too hotto start all over again (the temperature had climbed intothe mid thirties). She found a small dress shop (women have built inradars for this kind of thing) and decided to try on a top.There were a few clothes in the plus model sizes, so she 146
  • 147. took a selection into the change room and emerged with alittle white number just perfect for a hospital stay. ‘Cette blouson s’il vous plait,’ she said as she handedthe assistant the top. ‘Visitez-vous notre ville madame?’ he asked politelyas he wrapped up the article. ‘Oui, mon garcon est dans l’hopital avec leappendicitis. Mon homme est dans Australie.’ Perhaps the assistant felt sympathy for her, as hethen tried to give her two dresses as well, insisting therewas no charge. As you can imagine, she wasn’t greeted with muchenthusiasm on her return to the hospital. ‘What did you get?’ said the suffering lad. ‘A couple of nice blouses,’ said Lindy, pulling theoffending items out of her bag. ‘What do you think?’ I’m sure the reader can imagine perfectly well whatJames thought. Lindy says she’s never heard him speakso eloquently. To make amends and stem the tide ofabuse, she investigated the possibility of renting a TV.Feeling her luck might be starting to change, she wasassured that there was a TV available for hire, and thatthere was even a cartoon channel in English. Of course, it wasn’t to be. The channel didn’t show cartoons in any languageand the only English speaking channel was CNN News!Over the next twelve days they became the best informedpeople on the planet in respect to current affairs and theSoccer World Cup. They watched the “breaking news”,the “just–broke-yesterday” news, the “I’ve–been-around-for-a–week” news, and all those human interest fillersuntil they could have sat an advanced test on the subject.The second day after the operation was a stifling thirty-nine degrees. The hospital didn’t seem to have any airconditioning, there were no fans, and James vomited non-stop. Lindy spent the whole day trying to get someone togive him a shot. ‘Oui,’ said the nurse reassuringly as she left theroom. After thirty minutes, Lindy realised that she musthave just been pretending to understand her. 147
  • 148. Later that day a nurse’s aid came to take Lindy toAdministration in order to sort out the insurancepaperwork. As she trailed after her along the corridorssomething snapped at last and the tears quietly ran downher face. When they reached their destination the clericalassistant looked at her quizzically. ‘Why are you crying?’ ‘Why am I crying? Because I don’t understand thedoctors, no-one has told me the results of the operation,James is still vomiting, and I can’t make the nursesunderstand that he needs an anti-emetic shot.’Mademoiselle Savon was very sympathetic. ‘I understand it’s difficult for you. We have manyforeigners here because we’re so close to the airport. If Ican interpret for you with the doctors, just ring me.’ Thenthere was a hurried discussion with the nurse’s aid.‘James is fine. The nurse says it’s normal after theoperation and she will organise the injection when you getback.’ She went on to organise insurance papers, get thephone in the room connected so Lindy could call homeeasily, and reassured her that all would be well.The next day James had improved dramatically, asdemonstrated by the reaction of the complaint-o-meter.With this development, Lindy’s problems became moremanageable - but James’ had just begun. His main issuewas having a mother who was concerned aboutappearances. You know, those unreasonable things likewashing hair, changing clothes and cleaning teeth. As soon as he was able, Lindy made him startwalking. Of course it felt like someone had stapled hischest to his knees the first time he stood up, and itbecame harder to refuse the kind offers of the play leaderfor James to come to the Playroom and use theequipment. James couldn’t see the problem. ‘Just say no,’ was his sage advice. ‘Don’t forget that it was this woman who got you theEnglish movie to watch,’ Lindy reminded him. ‘“Lady and the Tramp” do you mean? Ha!’ ‘What about the Simpsons, then?’ 148
  • 149. ‘Well……..Okay - as long as I can come back to theroom when I want to.’ They were back in the room before you could boil anegg (the gooey kind!).But the greatest trial – leaving vomiting, appendicitis andlack of entertainment far behind in its wake - wasVeronique. One day Lindy was accosted on one of her walks by a15-year-old girl handing her a note. ‘Excuse me.’ - it read. ‘I am very boring. Could Icome and visit you?’ What could she say? James was theonly other teenager in the ward, and this girl wasobviously lonely. James was awesome. Nothing would make him somuch as acknowledge the girl’s presence. The closest hecame to communication was the odd grunt, as Veroniqueand Lindy muddled along desperately. Apparently, thegirl had some kind of heart disease and her family couldonly visit every other day. It was real soap-opera stuff,and – if this had been fiction – she and James would havehit it off and begun a friendship that would haveblossomed and grown across the miles and years. After she left, James forbade his mother to invite herin again. He’s a worry! 149
  • 150. 21. In ParisThe days dragged on and James slowly recuperated. Theywatched CNN, washed their hair and clothes, watchedCNN, rang home, watched CNN, rang the insurance peopleto fix up the Paris hotel, and watched CNN. Between allthis, they watched CNN. Lindy tried to prise a release date from the nurses,and eventually got a promise that, as soon as James hadused his bowels, they could depart. The nurse helped outwith a small fizzy drink and - voila! - thirty minutes laterthey got the all clear (so to speak), and were on theirway!I neglected to mention that they’d been having difficultieswith the credit card again (yes – it’s all true – every wordof it!). Inexplicably (there’s that word again) Lindy wasunable to get a cash advance from the local bank – theirexplanations less plausible than those emails you getoffering you a million dollars from a deposed formerAfrican leader. On top of this, the pizza place gave it thethumbs down as well. So, there they were with just eighty dollars, all set tokick up their heels in Paris. The insurance helped a little by organising (aftermuch head-bashing) for a prepaid car from the hospital tothe hotel (whose booking also took much head-bashing).Of course, the address provided by them to the taxi driverwas wrong – as was the phone number when he tried tocall them to get the correct address. Eventually – andyou’re never quite sure afterwards how these thingshappen - they arrived in one piece at a lovely little hotelwith a lovely little room. Bonding is all very well but the twin beds wereseparated by inches and the bathroom was so tiny thatyou could only wash one limb at a time. But at least theywere out of the hospital, so they made the most of thingsby settling into bed and turning on the TV. It was CNN. 150
  • 151. For the next few days, Paris was bathed in glorioussunshine. James was able to manage more than a walkaround the block, and he and Lindy began to make themost of things. A typical day started with a morning walk,followed by a long lunchtime rest, and ended with a shortevening walk to a café for dinner. Oh, and a little CNNbefore sleep. Although it wasn’t quite the wonderful holiday theinsurance man seemed to think they were having, itwasn’t too awful - and their last two days were filled withfrequent trips to the English cinema. In one day theywatched three movies! Then, just when they thought nothing else couldpossibly go wrong, the wheels began to wobble. On the day they were due to leave the hotel, Lindyrang the insurance man to ask what time the car wouldpick them up for the airport that evening. ‘Tomorrow, you mean,’ he replied. Lindy’s jawdropped and she struggled for breath. ‘No, tonight,’ she assured him. ‘No. I have your details here on the screen. Youaren’t due to fly out until tomorrow evening.’ ‘Then how long have you booked our hotel room?’ –alarm bells ringing! ‘Just a minute, Ill just bring up…..Yes, here we are.Oh! Yes, I see. We didn’t book you in for tonight, didwe?’ What was it we’d done, do you think? Slaughteredinnocent babies in a previous life? Desecrated a SacredCow? Tortured a fly? It’s hard to imagine what couldhave prompted the sort of character-building experienceswe’d endured, but surely the punishment exceeded thecrime? I can only hope that it served some practicalpurpose, the benefits of which we’ll all enjoy at some laterdate.By now, nothing came as a surprised. And so Lindy wasfairly calm when the attendant at the check-in thefollowing night wished her a pleasant one month stopoverin Singapore. ‘I beg your pardon?’ 151
  • 152. ‘Singapore is lovely. I expect you’ll want to do lotsof shopping. Where are you staying?’ ‘We’re not. We’re flying straight on to Australia.’Again that infuriating, winsome grin to accompany the badnews, as the woman replied: ‘No, not according to this. You’re staying a month inSingapore.’ ‘Listen lady – I don’t care what it takes, but we’regetting on that plane to Australia – even if you have toupgrade us to first class to do it! Do you understand?’ Trembling as she disappeared behind the counterdoor, the attendant returned a few minutes later sayingthere had been new tickets left by the Insurance Companyand all was well. I think the name must have rung a bellsomewhere, and they knew better than to mess with aWhitton. 152
  • 153. 21. EpilogueTwelve days after we’d been parted, the family wasreunited once again. The homecoming was a tearful andhappy one, and James had a story he could dine out onfor the rest of his life. Unflappable Enid was raving about her holiday fromthe moment she got off the plane, and felt that all ourtrials and tribulations had given character to the trip.Lindy and I took a couple of weeks to get over thegrieving process, then gradually came around to the Enidview. Thomas and James have told us they’ve been ontheir last holiday to Europe, but - in the words of thatgreat intellectual and philosopher James Bond – never saynever! THE END 153
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