The Art of Conversation; Grandma’s Advice on the Maintenance of Marital Bliss & Cracking Codes (You WILL see what I did there..!)
Mark and I are ‘differently organised’.
It caused a last-minute panic.
“I can’t find the lead for the Sat Nav!”
I like to keep related things together; like Sat Nav and Sat Nav lead. Mark likes to keep related things together; like leads. Hundreds of them. Wound together like spaghetti in a homogenous and undifferentiated mass. Squirming and intertwined like a scary nest of vipers. And all buried somewhere in the back of a fully loaded van..!
It was departure day from our 3-month stay in Gressoney. We had a long drive ahead; from the Alps to the UK. It was not your dream beginning.
Crisis over! Solved by an empty and re-load of the van. We were ready for the off.
“What are the details of tonight’s hotel?” he asked “I don’t know. It’s written in the diary.”
“Where’s the diary…?” Crisis resumed…
An Artist’s Impression of us trying to hit the road!
They say that “A journey of 1000 miles starts with a single step.” That is not strictly true. For us, our journey of 1000 miles (from Italy to the UK) started with two reloads!
Astonishingly, in spite of this MEGA faff, we still hit the road more-or-less on schedule at 09:30.
Monte Rosa’s last smile was a clear, cornflower-blue sky pierced by St Anna, rising like a 4000ft bride, shyly sporting the full skirts of an immense, virginal-white wedding dress.
But the mountains’ palette was changing. Stark, winter white on the backdrop of cobalt blue was giving way to a wave of bright Alpine green; creeping up the valley.
As we descended, we passed a fresh bank of primroses. Blossom trees danced and waved farewell from the gardens of the stone houses. Tiny crystals of mica shone gold in the fish-scale roof tiles, now that they had shed their blankets of snow.
The valley looked as though a 3-year old had got exuberantly out control with a set of dayglo felt-tipped pens and had started to colour in everything that had previously been white. To underline the change, a carpet of pink camellia petals flew up around the van like confetti as we wound down the hairpins, dropping out of the mountains and into Pont St Martin, whose dramatic hilltop fortresses were softening into Spring.
Away from the treacherous mountain roads, we eased up to an 80mph cruise on the Autoroute. Other than on skis, we realised that this was the fastest we had travelled for 3 months!
By midday, we were enjoying a coffee under the Aiguille du Midi, watching the tiny dot of the cable car rise steeply to the jagged peak. The menacing glaciers of Mont Blanc glistened impenetrably in the sunlight, like a shining breastplate on the mountain. A few miles on, we saw the sign for Le Pont Percée; a mountain with a hole in it up ahead. Mark spotted the actual hole, but I couldn’t see it. “That’s a shame” he teased “because it’s the BEST thing I have EVER SEEN IN MY LIFE!”
So it was going to be like that.
One of the things that attracted me to Mark was a knowledge of codes which actually surpassed my own. I thought that I was quite unique. Having managed a sales area from Plymouth to Hull, I have a spectacularly comprehensive knowledge of UK postcodes and telephone dialling codes and, for no reason other than sheer fascination, car registration codes. As a Logistics Manager, Mark delivered. He brought Scottish postcodes, country codes and IATA 3-letter airport codes into this marriage. I love him for it. It helps to atone for the sarcasm, at any rate!
My Grandma, born in the early 1900’s, once spoke to me sagely about how to create a successful marriage; “All that ‘business’ might take up an hour.” She said. “What are you going to do for the other 23 hours in the day?”
We answered the 23-hour question as Big Blue ate up the miles. Along the Autoroute, we observed a vast cornucopia of international number plates. By the time we reached The Services Poulet de Bresse, (advertised by a giant, wire chicken) we had been through the country codes of all the EU countries, from Austria (A) to Turkey (TR). (I know Turkey’s not, strictly, but my criteria for entry are more relaxed than the EU’s. Political instability and human rights abuses aside, Turkey’s IN because we saw a Turkish lorry -and alphabetically, TR is the closest we got to Z.)
It was obviously all getting a bit hysterical by then, so I threw a curve ball to thoroughly test Mark’s expertise. “What is the country code for B’diddly Boing Oda Idaho?” He didn’t know. It was when I cleverly postulated that “It must be BD!” that he got started on postcodes…
“BD is Bradford. What is the postcode for Birmingham?” “B”. We shot through the postcodes for towns beginning with B. To keep things interesting, he changed format with the letter C. “What is CA?” “Carlisle.” “What is CB?” “Cambridge” Oh my. How the time flew!
So much so that I confidently stated that there was nowhere answering to the postcode CR. This turned out to be a little embarrassing. CR is, of course, Croydon. Not memorable to most people, but Croydon is the place where I joined the club ‘Spice’, which changed my life. It is where I set up my own business. Had my own office. And lived for several years… (An interesting fact; CDQ is the 3-letter code for Croydon Airport, Australia. You may not know but the UK’s Croydon Airport has its place in aviation history. Amy Johnson, Charles Lindbergh and Winston Churchill all flew from Croydon. Before Heathrow, Croydon was the UK’s main international airport!)
I begged Mark to stop at CZ, which is not a postcode, but the country code for The Czech Republic. I figured that it was time to change the subject.
We passed a lorry that said “Nous aimons la verre” “We Love Glass” I translated. “Did you know that glass is a supercooled fluid?” I asked. “I think I did…” “Ha! You’ve forgotten!” After 18 years of marriage, most topics of conversation have been fairly well explored. In our case, those topics do extend to encompass fluid dynamics (and other random subjects, usually heralded by his heart sinking as I utter the words “An interesting fact…”) Mark was obviously in need of a refresher.
“Medieval panes of glass are thicker at the bottom because glass is a fluid that flows down over time. What is a thixotropic fluid?” “Tomato ketchup.” “You REMEMBERED that one! Define a thixotropic fluid?” “Tomato ketchup!” “No – what are the PROPERTIES of a thixotropic fluid?”
He mumbled something about viscosity. Over to me “It’s when you have to apply shock to make it flow – like you have to bang the bottom of a sauce bottle or shake it to make the sauce come out.”
“Or squeeze it” he replied.
“That’s not strictly true. Jif Lemon isn’t thixotropic and you can squeeze that.”
“But it still makes it come out of the bottle”
“But it’s not thixotropic!”
“But that’s not my point. I am NOT making a point about it being thixotropic. My point is that if you squeeze it, it still comes out of the bottle!”
I warned you that it was going to be like that!
I had to concede the point. My Grandma also once told me that sometimes, the best way to win is to forget to keep score…
We stopped for 40 minutes at the Aire Pont Val de Saône for the dogs to stretch their legs in a beautiful, shady wood, carpeted with daisies and wood anemones. With Rosie and Kai chasing the ball through fallen leaves, Ruby got an unexpected variant of The Leaf Kicking Game, chasing and snapping at their trails of flying leaves. While we can’t be sure, we believe that this interlude may subsequently have come back to haunt us…
As we continued our drive, we passed a Swiss car and realised that we’d forgotten to name the country code for Switzerland. We understand that Spain’s ‘E’ is derived from España and Germany’s ‘D’ comes from Deutschland; but CH – “What does that stand for?”
We cogitated for a short time then decided it must be CHocolate. That got us started! “The triangles in Toblerones are more widely spaced these days. That means less chocolate in the Toblerone!” We continued on right through the contraction of the Curly Wurly, miniaturisation of Mars bars – and WHAT ABOUT WAGON WHEELS? C’mon. They used to be HUGE!
They say that when travelling, it is not the destination that matters, but the journey. That has got to be because of the conversation.
And so, we returned to civilisation, if you can call it that. We stayed in a budget hotel on an industrial estate in Troyes, on the junction of the D610 and D619. We were surrounded by vast, furniture warehouses, a Leclerc supermarket the size of Berkshire (which was still open at 19:50) and we could see both a McDonald’s AND a Burger King opposite.
We were struggling to adapt. We were used to a single shop the size of a telephone box which was hardly ever open and when it was, it never had what you wanted in stock. This was generally beneficial, since you needed a bank loan to buy a pack of frozen peas. The budget hotel charged us €4 per dog! The going rate for a tiny pack of frozen peas in Gressoney!
We had bathed the dogs yesterday. They all smelt of almond shampoo. Except our little malodorous minx Lani, who has somehow managed to assume the aroma of a sweaty trainer while doing nothing more than sitting in the van.
It was a lovely, warm evening, so we decided to push the boat out, treat ourselves and dine out. We sat in the sunshine outside McDonald’s and, as we were admiring the industrial estate, we were approached by a family. Our newly shampooed pups clearly maintained their appeal. I heard the words “Veux” (want) and “Chien” (dog). Having not quite understood, I started a guessing game.
“Do you want to stroke the dogs?” The look of horror registered on the childrens’ faces answered that one.
The man pointed at Lani. “You want the dog?” Furious head shaking…
The penny dropped. “You want to GIVE me a dog?!!!!” Clearly, they thought that since we had four, we might not notice another one. I had to explain that we were travelling to England tomorrow and that the dogs needed passports. The dog was not with them, which was lucky. A dog in need of rescue. There is no doubt that I would have wavered…
I know you get a free toy with a McDonald’s Happy Meal, but honestly, I have never been offered a free dog.
“On the road – you must be brave and tireless… On the road – you can listen to the wireless…” This quote is taken from Not The Nine O’Clock News song “I Like Trucking.” Rowan Atkinson, better known as Mr Bean, first came to prominence as part of the cast of ‘Not’!
We should maybe follow their advice; listen to the wireless – and just not talk!
And if you want to recall just how big Wagon Wheels really were, click here to let French and Saunders help you to remember!
Join us next time when we quit talking – then for the aftermath of the Autumn leaves and how it led to us being evicted!