Part one – roof up
As a schoolgirl, September for me always brought with it a mixture of feelings. Joy, at the thought of using my new pencil case, sporadic slivers of excitement at the idea of fresh beginnings and the unknown, but predominantly, trepidation. New school year, new lessons, new teacher. Eeek! At primary school one of the first tasks in those scary start of term days, aside from designing my name label for my tidy-tray, was to write about “what I did in the summer holidays”. Perhaps this assignment demonstrated the kindness and understanding of the teacher. In setting this predictable piece of work, which became familiar to each child over the years, nerves were soothed and overwrought imaginings of lessons too tricky to attempt, calmed. Maybe the teacher truly enjoyed reading the tales of their new charges and the insights into the home lives of their pupils. Then again… a straightforward writing exercise, involving minimal teacher planning, was probably the ideal way to ease oneself back into the teachery role following the summer break. Momentary respite as children chewed thoughtfully on their pencils, oblivious to the grown up at the front silently testing themselves on the names of the thirty new faces before them.
My summer holiday story this year centres around a road trip through France and Italy. An invitation to play with an English symphony orchestra on their tour to Tuscany was just too tempting an opportunity to resist, especially when the programme included Rach two. [In case you are unfamiliar with ‘Rach two‘ I refer to Rachmaninov’s second symphony. It is a very delicious, emotive piece of music, full of good tunes and well worth a listen.] And so it came to pass that a lady writer, and her chap, packed their violins and concert outfits, along with flip flops and shorts, into a middle aged convertible car and, armed with maps galore and gold standard breakdown cover, set off on an adventure.
I had envisaged a roof down, sunglasses on, scenario, with me as Audrey Hepburn. It transpired that this fantasy had to wait for better weather, in Italy. The unrelenting rain to Folkestone, then through northern France and to Chamonix, meant the closest I came to Audrey was the very rainy wet cat scene in Breakfast at Tiffany’s. The rain did stop briefly at the terminal as we waited in line, biding our time, willing the light to turn green and allow our car to move ever nearer the sea. And the Belgian Hells Angels, Harleys at rest, attention seeking exhaust sounds silenced, were able to remove helmets without risk of drowning.
Rain would have done little to alter our cars-eye view. Looking past my toes resting on the dash board, I could see the car in front. Their view? the car in front. Their view? the car in front. Apparently this was the queue for a train that could fit whole cars and lorries inside it, with tracks under the sea that delivered car parks of strangers to an entirely different country. We could have been queuing for anything, the destination was invisible. Like queuing for a world renowned roller coaster where the queue is so long that you can’t actually see the ride. The only clue that we were near the sea was the shouting out of noisy seagulls, swooping in the grey cloudy sky. The only clue that the omnipotent green light had appeared, was the Mexican wave effect of keys being turned and engines revving back into life.
And then I saw it, the roller coaster itself. We waited in another queue at the top of a steep slope, looking down on the ugliest train I had ever seen. Not a pointy nosed, sleek affair, but an unwelcoming double decker shed like thing, reminiscent of something out of a Cold War film set in a hard Russian winter. There was surely no way that our car would fit inside that train, we were way bigger than it was, from up on the hill. And then…ah…so that’s how it worked, the cars shrank as they descended the steep road. By the time they reached the train level they fitted. Just.
A railway under the sea is an amazing feat of engineering, though I didn’t allow my brain to dwell on the fascinating facts whilst travelling through it. My school girl self would certainly have included a list of these in her “what I did in the summer holidays” story, if the Channel Tunnel had been invented then… Thirty five minutes and a completed word puzzle later, a bodiless voice was reminding us to drive on the right upon disembarking.
Out into daylight once more, it was immediately apparent that there was still no cause for roof down, sunglasses on. Our excitement was not dampened though. Sucking on our Fox’s Glacier Fruits we checked the map and drove forth, on the right. Next stop, palatial French manor house and a glass of fizz.