It’s always the things you don’t expect…

Yesterday’s heavy snow had disturbed me. I’d needed the help of my neighbour to get both up and down the mountain, and the snow was still falling as I went to bed last night. Would we actually make it to the airport tomorrow? Would we be snowbound for our departure?

But this morning, the day dawned clear. The snowplough had cleared the road and, while there was still a bit of snow in patches, it was going to be a manageable drive down the mountain. Doubly so because I’d arranged to drive down right behind my neighbour, secure in the car tracks of his heavy Volvo. It would have been the perfect end to our stay. But I wasn’t actually going to the airport.

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A few days ago, Delphine had arrived at school and promptly thrown up. We’d battled the snow back home and she’d spent the day with a mounting fever. We passed the night badly. Delphine had squirmed beside me in my bed as we waited for the panadol to kick in. It wasn’t looking any better in the morning. Yesterday, as the snow fell more heavily, I took her to the doctor.

“We’re booked on a flight to Australia tomorrow night,” I explained after I’d given the doctor a run down of her symptoms. Do you think we’ll be able to make it?”

“With the medication I’m prescribing, we usually say they can go back to school in 48 hours. So if you start it now, you should probably be able to catch the flight.”

So with script in hand, we slugged through the driving snow, heavy even in the valley, to the pharmacy. As I paid for the multiple bottles, I noticed how much the snow was accumulating even down here in the valley. I knew I’d need help to navigate the top of the mountain road. So I called the man who’s become my knight in shining armour – my neighbour. He came to my aid immediately, and bringing his girlfriend with him to drive my car back up the mountain behind his. The snow continued to fall, but Delphine had started to show some signs of improvement. So I prayed that the forecast for the following day was correct – snow being replaced by clouds – and felt like we were back on the homeward track.

It was 9:30pm. One last check of the email before turning in for an early night ahead of our big day. Email from British Airways (BA):

“Your flight has been cancelled.”

Thus began hours of painful communication.

I tried to call the customer service number for Europe provided in the email. Wrong number. I tried the UK number. Skype wouldn’t ring it. I tried calling the number from my phone. It ran out of credit. I used Skype to call Qantas, with whom we were flying from Heathrow to Sydney. “You need to talk to BA.” I tried to recharge my phone’s credit online. The system froze. I battled through the French language automated over-the-phone recharging system. Success. I finally got through to BA. One and a half hours later and we finally had replacement flights. It was 1.30am. For the last hour of flight negotiations I’d had the still feverish Delphine in my arms who’d been awoken by the sound of my exasperated voice.

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I finally lay down in my bed, exhausted. We wouldn’t be leaving for two more days. I’d written a list of all the cancelation, postponements and extensions I’d need to get onto the following day. I was too wiped out to think any further.

I had just four short hours of sleep before I was up and getting the children ready for school this morning. I looked out with chagrin at the clear day dawning. Just outside my front door, I saw my knight with his shining spade. He was completing his usual morning service of digging a path from our door, up the stairs to the car.

I poked my head out the door: “I’ve got some news…” I explained the whole sorry story. He reassured me that we could stay another day and asked whether I still wanted to follow along behind him to descend into the valley that morning. I nodded and half an hour later was waiting out on the road, engine running, ready for him to take the lead. He tapped on my window.

“I’ve forgotten my jacket,” he said, “I’ll just duck back and get it.”

Five minutes later he appeared again at my window. A big box of French chocolates in his hands. “I thought you might need this.”

My heart turned over. How do people become this kind? I felt so battle wearied from the last few days. This tender offering took away some of the sting.

The heartening helpfulness continued when we arrived at school.

“Oh Nancy,” said Delphine’s teacher, “that’s awful.” “Let me take Delphine all day tomorrow as well and I’ll organise for Silas to go to afterschool care too.”

“Don’t bother booking a hotel,” said another “I can put you up at my house.”

The grinding fatigue was still there as I drove off to get started on my long list of phone calls, but my heart felt a little lighter.

This is not what I’d meticulously planned. But the gaps between the itinerary and reality have left room for the best of human compassion to shine through. I still wish we were going to be on that flight tonight. But I know that when I look back on my time in Alsace, it will be these memories of being helped in my moments of vulnerability that will make my memories of this time so golden.

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A snow stop to our plans?

A week ago, I was feeling pretty calm about the impending long journey home. Now I’m wondering if we’ll even make it to the start line. Since arriving back in Alsace from our Belgian trip, the count-down to our departure home has begun. It’s been a bit emotional, but until yesterday I was still feeling pretty confident that I could pull off this return journey.

I’ve scheduled on the calendar all the tasks to be done to get us out the door, packed tight into the Peugeot and on our way to the airport to return the car and catch the flight. Tyre exchange booked-in to swap the snow tyres for the originals: check. Children registered for after-school care on departure day: check. Unwanted clothes and toys dropped off at second-hand store and “new” toys purchased there for the aeroplane journey: done. “Merci” cards acquired for writing messages of thanks: in train. I was working my way through the list and thought I had pretty much everything covered.

But what I haven’t counted on is snow. Lots of it.

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It started off as rain on Sunday night, but by yesterday morning a thick blanket of white lay over Geishouse. It was still snowing heavily as I worked my way around the car with the broom. I had the engine running in an attempt to de-ice the front and back windscreens, and the headlights were giving me some illumination in the pre-dawn light. I felt pressure to get down the hill because it was my turn to do the car pooling and I knew there would be two children waiting for me in the car park in Thann in just over half an hour.

The snowplough had just been, but already snow was building on the road outside our chalet.

The snowplough had just been, but already snow was building on the road outside our chalet.

So I welcomed the arrival on the scene of our neighbour, wielding his big snow shovel, come to dig me a path out of the parking spot. The snowplough had just been past and left a mini-wall on each side in its wake that needed to be removed for me to reverse out. I was hopeful the snowplough’s recent passage would clear our way along the mountain road, but with the snowfall so rapid, a fresh cover of white already lay over the street ahead.

The section of road that was my undoing looks so innocuous on a sunny day.

The section of road that was my undoing looks so innocuous on a sunny day.

I went through my plan in my mind. I’d done the maths on revs and gears with my engineer dad. “Get into second gear,” I said to myself “and ensure at least a 18km/hour speed up the hill to get up the incline.” Our chalet is connected to the main route down into the valley by a narrow road that winds itself around the internal cleft in the mountain in which Geishouse is nestled. This road begins with an uphill rise that I’d never really noticed before the first significant snowfalls. I’d had trouble at this spot the previous time it had snowed like this, loosing speed, accelerating at the wrong moment, careening into the banked up snow on the side of the road. I’d managed to free myself but it had been disturbing. So yesterday morning I approached the incline with resolution.

“No! Not again!”

Despite my technically perfect plan, the execution failed. Again I lost speed and the power drained from the engine in that deadening diesel way. I stalled. And try as I might, I could not regain traction on the snowy road. We were stuck. With Delphine whimpering in the backseat, I had to react fast. “OK, Silas,” I said calmly, “You need to run back and get Monsieur. Explain that mama est coincée dans la rue.” I waited. The window wipers rhythmically batting away the snow. The engine revving as I kept on trying to gather forward momentum.

A friendly face appeared at the window:

“Merci Monsieur!” I exclaimed in relief “I don’t know how this happened, again. I stayed in second like everyone said. Would you be able to drive us out?”

“I’m happy to try Madame, but I’m not sure if I’ll be able to succeed either.”

I moved to the passenger seat and let this veteran of decades of mountain living take over behind the wheel.

Putting the car into first, he applied his foot to the accelerator with a fortitude I’d never have dared. We shot forward through the dark. Engine growling. Up, up and up to the flat.

“You just have to give it a bit of juice” he said as he stepped out of the car to let me take over.

We made it down to school to drop off Silas but the journey home with a sick Delphine in the backseat was sobering. Even more snow had fallen and, for the first time, I slid on the main route. The snowplough couldn’t keep up. Even the main route at the top was becoming snow-logged.

I knew I’d exhausted my driving ability. I’d need help to go and get Silas. In the end, in my neighbour’s absence, another Geishouse local came to our aid and drove me in our car down the hill. It was enlightening when he too almost stalled on the same part of the road that had been my undoing in the morning. “When it snows like this,” he explained, “everyone finds driving difficult.”

Driving down the main route to pick up Silas.

Driving down the main route to pick up Silas.

I felt both better and worse. It wasn’t just me! But equally, what will happen if it snows like this the day of our departure in just two days time? How will I get us all safely to the bottom of the mountain if I encounter just the same scenario as the frightful morning I’d just experienced.

It snowed for the rest of the day and the night. After his impressive performance saving us that morning, I suppose I shouldn’t have been surprised to see my neighbour pull in at around 8pm. He’d done in the dark and in more snow the drive I hadn’t been willing to attempt in the daylight.

“Bonsoir Madame” he greeted me when I popped my head out the door to give my thanks again for his help that morning. “I wouldn’t try going down the mountain tomorrow. Best to stay at home.”

When I expressed my concerns about my impending departure and fears for getting down the mountain, he responded with his usual “bah,” “I will help you. Please don’t concern yourself, Madame.”

This morning, the day dawned clear. A celestial sky presided over a magical white fairyland. Presented with such uplifting beauty, I feel almost able to share his confidence that my concerns are unnecessary and that all will be well. But I’m keeping a close eye on the weather report, just in case.

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My run-in with the Swiss Gendarme

Last weekend we went on a road trip to visit my cousin and her family who live near Geneva. It’s a little over a 3 hour drive from here “Just the same as from Canberra to Sydney,” I reassured myself.

But the journey did not begin well. After picking up Silas from school, I went to tap the address into the GPS: “aucune adresse trouvée” replied Henriette. Hmmm, I tried several different approaches. Nothing. She refused to recognise the street name. The best we could do was the suburb. So, conscious of the passing time and the plan to arrive for dinner, I decided to get going in the hope that the closer we came to our destination, the more accurate Henriette would become.

Delphine slept at the beginning but at about 1 hour in, the screaming began. I don’t need to go into the causes. Suffice to say it was with frayed nerves that we rolled into the rest station for a toilet stop and another go at finding my cousin’s address in the GPS. Again, nothing. So I tried to call my cousin. The phone system didn’t recognise the number. I tried to text. My darn phone would only send as an iMessage and I didn’t have wi-fi. We trooped into the rest station in the hunt for a public phone. Nothing. The wi-fi promised by the rest stop came up on my phone as “internet not available.” At least the toilets were open.

With rising desperation, I approached the kind-looking lady behind the boulangerie counter. “Is there a public phone around here?” I asked in French “No. Not any more,” she replied. I explained my dilemma. She looked at my two little children and the worn expression on my face. “You can use ours,” she offered. I accepted with deep gratitude, the call went through and I wrote down a bunch of hand-written directions.

Feeling on slightly firmer ground, we marched back to the car and were just buckling on our belts when they appeared. Two blue-uniformed Swiss gendarmes.

“Bonjour. Where are you from?”

Somewhat surprised and a little nervous I explained my complicated origins: from Australia but living in France for a couple of months and now in Switzerland for the weekend to visit my cousin in Geneva.

“Do you realise you have been using the Swiss autoroutes?”

Flash of memory: two and a half years ago, transiting through Switzerland to France, we had had to buy a yearly pass to be able to travel the Swiss autoroutes.

I felt a tide of emotion rise up and over me. I didn’t even try to stop the tear that welled in my eye and started to run down my face.

“I’m terribly sorry,” I stammered “I like to be a law-abiding person, and I’ve just realised what I’ve done.”

I had completely forgotten that in Switzerland you have to buy an annual autoroute pass before travelling on the country’s freeways. Even if just for a couple of days.

“In France you pay as you go.” I explained. “But of course I know that ignorance of the law is no excuse for breaking it.”

“And now, I’m sorry for being so emotional” I was starting to lose it a bit by now “But this has been such a tough trip: my daughter’s been screaming for half an hour, we can’t find my cousin’s address in this stupid GPS and my mobile just won’t work here.”

His facial expression started to soften as he watched this woman – probably almost twice his age – fall apart in front of him.

“OK. I can see it was an honest mistake. So I won’t charge you the 200 Swiss franc fine. But you do need to buy a pass just inside the rest stop here. We’ll go help you do that and then we’ll see what we can do about that GPS.”

Back in we went: me, my two children and our Swiss gendarme guard. Under their watchful, but kindly eye, I duly bought my autoroute pass. We returned to the car, where he affixed it in the centre of the windscreen and then sat down in the passenger seat to poke around at the GPS with me. His partner started trying to find the address on her phone. No luck there either. It’s when I spied the street name finally pop up on his phone that I saw the problem. There was a preposition “du” in the version we had but not in the google map street name. Once I tapped in the name without this errant “du,” Henriette became compliant.

It had taken one Australian and two Swiss Gendarmes to solve the problem. They sent us off with a friendly wave and good wishes for a pleasant stay in Switzerland.

From an encounter that had begun with official displeasure at presumed free-riding, we had ended as a convivial band of problem solvers with the joint mission of getting this waylaid family of Australians back on route.

Contrition on my part: comprehension and compassion on theirs. If only all tangles could be resolved so satisfyingly.

Finally in Switzerland, we did indeed enjoy a pleasant stay.

Finally in Switzerland, we did indeed enjoy a pleasant stay.

First impressions

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I drove past it once, twice before the photos in my mind and the reality before me merged. There it was, the stairway tucked just below the level of the road. I parked the car, turned off the ignition with relief and sent up a quick prayer for safe arrival. We’d done it! And 1.5 hours earlier than I’d predicted.

It was also 1.5 hours earlier than I’d informed my hosts, and they were still readying the chalet for our arrival. We exchanged apologies between expressions of delight at finally meeting.

Our host ushered us into our new home: sunny, charming, homey and a koughloff on the table. We were truly in Alsace. I’d expected a tiny chocolate box of a chalet, but instead, I discovered a small cottage fit for a little family. Separate kitchen equipped with everything needed for a long stay, combined living and dining with a view right out over the valley. Then a curved stairway upstairs to a delightful find – a landing area with a wooden chest full of toys. The children rejoiced. I did too as I wandered into my bedroom and took in the view: a village clinging to the side of a hill, graced with a church spire and behind it, the “grand ballon” mountain with its dusting of snow. The children’s bedroom was gorgeous too. Tucked under the eaves with a large ceiling window and children’s pictures on the walls. We were home.

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I felt the full warmth of an Alsace welcome as our enthusiastic host shared a little of her native region with us. Seeing us begin to droop, she solicitously asked whether we had had lunch. I’d forgotten my plan to buy something at the airport, and explained I intended to go back down into the valley to buy supplies.

“No, but you’ve only just arrived. Do the children like pasta? I’ll bring some. And then you can write a list and I’ll send someone down to do the shopping for you later.”

I was beginning to feel truly blessed. And then Delphine lost it.

She collapsed into the inevitable tantrum that I’d just been holding off for so long. Our host diplomatically left and I sat with Delphine as she cried out all the tension of 30 hours of change, challenge and sleep deprivation.

Once the tirade had passed, we lunched on koughloff and tea, and then stepped out in the fading autumn sunshine to explore our new home.

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Back along our street, down to a little gully with a shrine to Jesus and Mary, across a grassy path and up to the church where we chatted with a volunteer gardener in the old presbytery garden. Then up to the local school and Mairie, and follow the road around back home.

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I’d taken a gamble that this little hamlet in the hills would be the right place. But I hadn’t been sure. There’d been previous experiences where a perfect-looking place had not turned out to be a home for a happy holiday. But this time, if felt good. Immediately.

I’m trying to keep my expectations in check, but it’s hard not to feel that our time here might be a trip to remember for all the right reasons.

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The Epic Journey

I’m writing this at the other end of the journey. Yes, we made it! But already the memory of those epic 30 hours is starting to fade as I melt into the seductive embrace of Alsace in autumn. So I’m going to dash this one down quickly – raw and unedited.

Departure day dawned with a last minute collywobble. I’d presumed that we’d be clearing customs and immigration in Sydney. After all, we only had 1 hour of transit in Perth. But, au contraire. When I called to double check with Qantas, we were indeed flying out of the domestic terminal. This meant that on arrival into Perth, we had to alight from the aeroplane, work our way through customs, immigration and security, then find our way to the gate – all in less than 1 hour. It didn’t seem possible. But as the unhelpful customer service representative told me on the phone “you chose that option” and “if it’s a flight combination on our website, then it should probably be possible.”

I felt all my careful planning crumbling. A tear stole down my cheek. But I wasn’t going to give up. I asked to speak to the representative’s manager, had a very reassuring conversation with her, and gratefully received her promise to seat us towards the front of the plane and have ground staff speed our passage.

I pushed the upcoming transit sprint from my mind, got dressed and got on with it.

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I’d dreaded the farewell from Robert. But when the time came, I was so focused on the job at hand and keeping two skipping children in my orbit, that the sting was less piercing. We sailed through domestic security and onto our first flight, tear-free and in good spirits.

It was a tight fit: three across and a big backpack full of tricks. But I was so glad that I had every single item. With no TV and only me, I needed it all. We did playdough, we puzzled, we read, we stickered, we looked for Wally, we discovered little toys in pouches, we Uno-ed. We did the lot. And this was only the first 4.5 hours. In fact, worryingly, this was the first fivehours. With strong headwinds, we were half an hour behind. Our 1-hour transit challenge had been reduced to a half-hour mission. A night in Perth was looking likely. How could we get through it all in just 30 minutes? I felt fatalistic.

Even when we were let off first from the plane, I wasn’t hopeful. But then I saw the deserted security and immigration area, and just beyond it, a queue of passengers boarding. Our flight was the last out of Perth. It had to be ours. Spirits rose.

Ensconced in our seats, the elation of having made it onto the London flight wiped away the fear of the upcoming 17.5 hours. And as it turns out, this flight was the easiest. With the wonders of television, my entertainment services were no longer needed and I could finally relax. The only distraction was headphones that were not three-year old friendly and kept falling off Delphine’s head. We’ll buy child-size ones with an airline jack for the return journey.

But apart from this, my preparations had been working well to ease the journey so far. So I should have known there would be a red herring. A risk that came out of the blue. But how could I have foreseen that I would lose my bra?

I’d brought along pyjamas for us all. We’d changed into them for our fitful 4 hours sleep. The problem became clear when I went to change back into my clothes. Where was my bra, which I had discretely stored in a cloth bag? I looked everywhere – through all our backpacks, in the overhead locker, under and around the seats. Nothing. Then, cringing slightly, I asked each of our three, male flight attendants if they had seen it. No luck. I started to despair. And wandered back to my seat, trying to spy it along the aisle. A fellow passenger turned to me and asked if I was looking for something. “This is somewhat embarrassing to confess,” I said, “but I’ve lost my bra.” “Ah, so it’s you who’s missing it”, she said, and handed me the bag. I returned to the bathroom to dress with great relief.

As we landed into Heathrow, a wonderful dawning realisation– “we’re well-over halfway now, I’m doing it, and it’s not horrendous.” Heathrow was big and our transit required a bus and a train, but it was all straight-forward. But Delphine’s exhaustion was now evident. She was getting close to losing it at the smallest provocation and it was taking all my creativity to avoid the impending massive tantrum. Thankfully, I had one last trick in the bag. Fruit roll-ups. A steady supply got us onto our third and final aeroplane, through the flight and mollified a wait in our new car (brown – none of us had correctly guessed the colour) while I wrestled the bags into the boot and fitted Delphine’s car seat.

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And then the most fearful moment of all. I took a deep breath and turned the key in the ignition. Driving was terrifying. I couldn’t gauge the width of my car extending to the right of me. I drove at least 20 km below the speed limit on most roads. But my route-memorisation paid off. We didn’t miss a turn. And then there was a treat to finish. Turning off the main route along the valley floor, we followed the winding road up towards our mountain village. It was like a stroll through an autumnal garden; gently curving bends bordered on each side by a forest in full autumn-glory.

Lulled a little by the beauty, I was brought upright again behind the wheel when we arrived into our village. Tiny, steep roads greeted me and gave a last frisson of excitement as we arrived at our final destination. 1.5 hours earlier than I’d predicted in my careful calculations.

We’d done it! All 30-odd hours of it. Silas and Delphine had been remarkable. Bouncing along on so little sleep and so much change. I felt relieved to be able to reward them with the beauty of this place and the charm of our chalet. But more on that in the next blog post.

Getting Peugeot Perfect

A nervous grin.

A nervous grin.

It’s two days away from D(eparture) Day, and I’m over my second thought jitters. But in their place is a more imminent concern.

In fact, I’m scared. And what scares me is getting behind the wheel on the left-hand side of my new car, driving away on the right side of the road and navigating my way out of the labyrinthine airport maze and out onto the freeway.

I’ve never driven in France. I’ve never even driven on the right hand side of the road. So I’ve been preparing for my maiden voyage with nervous dedication.

First step, get familiar with the car. I’m using a handy holiday lease-rental scheme called Drive Away where technically you buy a new car, which you lease for the period required and then sell back to the company. But in reality, it’s simply like renting a new car. I’ve never owned a brand new car. So that’s the plus side. The down side is unfamiliarity: left-hand drive, using a gear-stick with my right hand, unfamiliar clutch, window wipers and indicators on different sides. I know I’m doomed to be turning right with the wipers for the first month.

To handle the mounting tension, I decide I need to meet a cousin of the car I’ll be encountering in a daze of jet-lag at the airport. So a few weeks ago, we made our way to the local Peugeot dealer for me and the children to sit in the car and start to make friends. This was a good move.

Practising being focused driving in France.

Practising being focused driving in France.

I discovered that the Peugeot 2008 is a cosy car. We all felt at home and yet our three suitcases fit in the boot. I learned a little of the car’s personality: distinctive handbrake, low steering wheel to view dash across the top, easily accessible child-seat anchor points – easier than our Forester even! For the other critical points I need to master before driving away, I plan to find the car manual online so I know how to operate cruise control, pair my phone for child-amusing music and launch the GPS.

The most light-hearted part of our familiarisation exercise is trying to guess our new car’s colour. I’m hoping for red. Same colour as the Alsace logo.

Next step is to map the route. A fellow France travelling friend recommends I check out the Michelin route planning website – Via Michelin. It’s a find. Not only does it provide step-by-step instructions about direction and route numbers, it also provides details on what the signs will say that point to the route you need to take.

Monsieur Michelin advises that I’ve got three challenging intersections to master. I’ve printed them out in zoomed in detail, looked at the Google Street View version and attempted to commit them to memory. Apart from then swallowing the paper 007-style, that’s as far as I can go in preparing for the drive.

Then it’s onto reorienting my whole driver’s perspective. For all of my over 20 years driving, I’ve been doing it on the left. Now it’s time to make a change. I’ve had a few good tips:

“As the driver, you’re always on the midline. So drive along keeping the centre dividing line along your left shoulder.”

“Follow the car in front to keep right” (as long as they’re going the same place as you I presume)

“The thing to watch out for is turning left. Make sure you return to the right.”

And then the other little trick – roundabouts. I’m a Canberran, so I know about roundabouts. What I don’t know is how to do them anti-clockwise.

But I’ve got a theme song to keep me sane. And thanks to Bob Marley, it goes likes this:

Don’t worry, about a thing,
’Cause every little thing, is gonna be all right.
[or in my case: ‘Cause, all you gotta do, is stay on the right]

This will be my mantra. And you’ll know if it’s worked if I post a future blog next week. That’s because this is the last one I’ll be writing before boarding the aeroplane on Thursday and getting this adventure underway.

Wish me luck!