Monday: Staffal – Pont St Martin
We fully accepted that the purchase, unseen, of an unregistered, 30-year-old Belgian army truck in Holland to import into the UK was not likely to be 100% straightforward. With blithe determination and the conviction that ‘there’s always a solution’, we jumped through the many administrative hoops and squared that circle. Yet throughout the build-up to Mark going to collect her, it seemed the gods were trying to tell us something.
C-Day I, the first Collection Date came and went. The Head Honcho of the dealership, Jacaranda, seemed to be permanently on tour in darkest Africa and consequently impossible to contact. Repeated attempts to get The Beast’s chassis VIN number failed. This stalled our attempts to arrange insurance and also left the dealer’s engineer in the dark as to which truck the back-up fuel tank that we had purchased should be fitted. With less than a week to C-Day I, still with no VIN, no insurance and no time to fit a fuel tank, Mark made an executive decision and cancelled all his carefully-laid travel plans to Rotterdam.
As C-Day II : The Sequel approached, Mark re-booked all the trains and buses required to convey him from high in the Italian Alps across France to Rotterdam. Although there were flights from Turin to Rotterdam, going overland was romantic. Travelling by train seemed more sensible and was less environmentally damaging than flying, although it was a decision that would quickly become a cause of deep regret.
A few days prior to his departure, Mark burned his right hand severely when he accidentally grasped a baking tray fresh from the oven. The pain was such that he could only sleep that night with his hand immersed in in a bowl of iced water.
In the news, a story was beginning to break. It concerned some mystery virus from China. There wasn’t much detail other than parts of Northern Italy seemed to be affected, although they were miles from Monte Rosa, where we were spending the winter. Nobody paid it much attention.
The Thursday before C-Day II, I contracted a sniffly cold. With the benefit of hindsight, the symptoms did not resemble those of the-Covid-19-that-no-one-had-really-heard-of-yet and I was well again within three days. My only real concern was that Mark wouldn’t get it. The timing seemed ripe for him to be feeling pooey by the following Tuesday, when he would need to take charge of a 24.5 tonne juggernaut for the first time in years with a raw and blistered right hand.
For the first leg of the journey, I had planned to drive Mark an hour down the mountain to catch his first train from Pont St Martin. The forecast suggested that the weather would be clear in the morning, but predicted heavy snow in the afternoon.
At 07:00 am, we opened the shutters to a blizzard.
While I am familiar with the theory of snow chains and have watched Mark put them on many times, I have never used them in anger myself. The chance of getting stranded in a snow storm half way up a mountain with four dogs in the vehicle seemed a pointless risk to take, so Mark decided to catch the bus from Staffal to Pont. He relented on taking our powder skis home with him; a decision I secretly welcomed, especially when I felt the weight of his other two bags. Putting his back out would be an unwelcome addition to our seemingly never-ending list of hurdles to overcome.
An exhaustive online search yielded no sign of a bus timetable. Our final solution was for Mark to walk down to the bus stop to check the times, although while he did his Scott of the Antarctic thing, I did eventually discover a timetable online, which roughly concurred with the information he brought back.
So, at 10.15am, Mark left to catch the bus that we believed was at 10.40, but might have been at 10.30. I was in tears and Mark’s special, little buddy, Kai, was beside himself with grief. He knew!
Just half an hour later, at 11.45am, Mark called,
“You know the narrow bit on the SR44? The bus is having a stand-off with a 4×4! We’ve been stuck for a full ten minutes of raised voices and gesticulation! The bus won’t reverse on principle and the 4×4 won’t – or more likely – can’t.”
Then, we had telephone silence thrust upon us while things went rapidly downhill.
Pont St Martin – Ivrea – Turin – Paris
Mid-afternoon, I got a garbled call from a mystery number along the lines of, “I can’t stay on long. I’m ringing from a Greek man’s phone. My train is delayed by 110 mins and I will miss my connection in Paris.”
Later, information regarding the bus stand-off confirmed that the queue had piled up and the 4×4 driver refused to move, forcing the bus to reverse up a difficult, winding road between tall buildings. Well done Mr 4×4!
At least the delay on the bus served to give Mark a few extra minutes in the warm, before sitting at the train station in Pont St Martin for an hour in the rain. His vigil was brightened by a pleasant Nigerian chap, although the subject of conversation – the sad and deteriorating situation of corruption and terrorism in Nigeria – was less uplifting.
The train to Ivrea, a single stop, should have been straightforward, but when the gods are set against you, all bets are off. When it finally arrived, Mark boarded the train, but nothing happened. After about ten minutes, everyone disembarked and had to run across the platform to board another.
In Turin, with ninety minutes to kill before the connection to Paris, he went for a coffee and cake. Even this was anything but simple. Although Torino Porta Susa station is massive, it was devoid of any refreshment opportunities. Eventually, armed with directions, he found sustenance somewhere amid the labyrinth of side streets.
Back at Porta Susa, thirty minutes before the Paris train was due to leave, a scan of the departures board yielded no clues. Eventually, a platform came up, showing a 30-minute delay. Mark plonked next to a French African chap who spoke no English. As they communicated in sign language, the train delays got longer; 60-minutes, then 80, 90, 110 and finally, 135.
By now, Mark was cold and miserable once again – and in no doubt that the connection in Paris was a lost cause. On top of that, he had no phone connection. This is where the nice Greek chap, who lived and worked between Paris and Turin came in. He loaned Mark his phone to call me. Ευχαριστώ – Efcharistó. Thanks, you wonderful stranger!
Late in the afternoon, our fellow seasonal nomad, Graham, kindly rang me to make sure that I wasn’t marooned somewhere on a snowy hairpin. Graham and his wife Caroline had offered to drop Mark off at the station in Pont, since they had planned a pre-snow supermarket sweep. We declined on the basis that by driving Mark down, I would gain an extra hour with my beloved. In view of the raging blizzard, they too had wisely aborted their trip to Pont. They understood perfectly well why Mark had opted to take the bus.
That evening, my best friend called to say that, due to peer pressure, she couldn’t see Mark while he was back in the UK, because he’d been in Northern Italy and was Public Enemy Number 1. I explained that we were up a mountain at 1,800m and a full county-and-a-half away from the virus outbreak in Lombardy. I relayed that in its entire 1,200 square miles, the Aosta valley had zero confirmed Covid-19 cases. But the UK media circus had begun. Emotive stories of a Chinese zombie, flesh-eating virus were whipping the British public into a hysteria of panic buying and the unfathomable stock piling of toilet rolls.
I completely understood that she had been put in an impossible situation, but I could not help feeling upset, alone and abandoned. I sought solace in a bracing nip of single malt.
Tuesday: Paris – Brussels – Rotterdam
Six minutes past midnight – I got a call from Paris.
Mark had finally arrived at Gare de Lyon. This is my favourite Parisian station, because I like to think it’s named after Richard I. (It always pleases me to refer to the Coeur de Lyon as ‘Gare de Lyon!’)
Having missed his train connection, an internet search confirmed that Mark’s best hope of making the C-Day II rendezvous was a coach from Paris via Brussels to Rotterdam. It involved a nocturnal Parisian city crossing to the bus station, so I immediately launched into a frenzy of dread that he would be attacked by a knife-wielding robber. When I voiced my concerns as to whether he made it to Caroline the following morning, she did remind me,
“How tall is Mark?”
“Exactly. It would need to be a brave robber…”
It was lovely to hear Mark’s voice. He assured me that he would catch up with lost sleep on the overnight bus to Brussels. I kept to myself the secondary worry, about him taking command of a 24T truck while sleep-deprived, following his transportation ordeal.
Mark rang in the morning from Brussels. Although he had taken my advice and had opted for a half-hour taxi ride across Paris from Gare de Lyon, he rather wished he hadn’t. He arrived to find a bus stop. No café; no seats; no shelter; no nothing. With the bus due to depart at 02:30am, he killed the intervening two hours by wandering the streets in the freezing cold.
“It makes you really empathise with the homeless. Just the sense of having nowhere to go is awful, but being stuck outdoors in the bitter cold, even for a couple of hours, is brutal.”
A small crowd joined him; a young Argentinian couple en route to their next adventure after living in Denmark for a year; a nice girl from Cameroon; a couple from Lille (a stop en route to Brussels); and another bonus Argentinian. Ten minutes late, at 02:40am, the coach arrived. It was packed, ensuring a very uncomfortable, six-hour, red-eye crossing of France into Belgium.
My next update came from aboard the bus from Brussels to Rotterdam. It had been delayed. At least it had phone-charging facilities – and the company was familiar. Mark was joined by the 25-year-old chap who had sat next to him on the coach from Paris. He was from Italy, working in Brussels and planning to study for a degree in Agriculture. His Mum hailed from Martinique and his Dad from Burkina Fasso. Mark worried that his conversation had been boring, grumbling about Brexit and the lack of kindness in the world, although the chap also complained about the racism in Italy; evidently not a trait unique to Little Britain.
I emailed the folks at Jacaranda to say that Mark would arrive with them around 1pm. My off-the-scale worry was that our 30-year-old Beast might not even start, never mind be roadworthy.
I bailed out of spending the morning skiing with Graham. My own night had been horrible and not just due to my concerns about Mark. When I took the pups out for their final pee poo, Kai had become hysterical. He had started screaming almost as soon as he got outside and ran straight back to me, shrieking and shaking. I checked him over and ascertained that he wasn’t injured. I calmed him down and left him safe in the downstairs foyer, while I went back out to collect the other three dogs. Following Kai’s little episode, they had started up a symphony of barking. I was mortified; it was 10.30pm, so a little bit too late to treat the neighbours to a Cavapoo cacophony.
While I was outside, Kai started screeching again and it echoed all around the tiled foyer. I rushed back inside to find absolutely no sign of him. It was my turn to get hysterical. In a blind panic, I started screaming myself,
“Where’s my dog? WHERE’S MY DOG?! WHAT HAVE YOU DONE WITH MY DOG?”
I thought I had heard voices and that some unsympathetic fellow resident had taken him as a punishment for the racket. Every dog in the village roams free and, although we are the only people who ever pick up poo, frequently piles of cacca unconnected to The Fab Four, all abuse regarding dog shit is aimed in our direction. Or, should I say, aimed in my direction, since Mark is six-foot-six and it’s always easier to pick on the woman.
Somehow, Kai had got past a heavy, metal door and into the stairwell, where he was caterwauling like a banshee. He was clearly terrified, but there was no-one else in sight. I picked him up and cuddled him. Once again, he was trembling uncontrollably. I somehow managed to collect the other dogs and led everyone back towards the sanctuary of our apartment.
A tired and worried-looking Luisa, the apartment block’s housekeeper, was waiting for me at the top of the stairs. I apologised profusely for the noise. Even though she was the one who would be forced to field any complaints about the commotion, she said it was no problem. Luisa adores the pups; The Fab Four and her little dog, Lampo (‘Lightning’) are best buddies. Most days, The Fab Four have to have their dinner reduced due to the many boxes of treats with which Luisa plies them several times a day. Luisa’s only concern was Kai.
I had absolutely no idea what had scared Kai so much. Our recent discovery of Monte Rosa’s resident wolves lurked in the back of my mind, but Lupine stalking seemed unlikely on the periphery of a busy ski village. Certainly, there are foxes around, who contribute lavishly to the shit problem because ironically, one of the cacca complainants puts out food for them, but they are quite shy and solitary. I couldn’t imagine a lone volpe taking on a baying pack of Cavapoos.
I told Luisa that I thought that perhaps, Kai was just paura del buio – afraid of the dark.
All in all, it was not a very relaxing evening all round. Whisky was once again called for – and during the night, Rosie woke me three times to go outside.
But at 12.30pm on Tuesday I got the call. Mark had reached Rotterdam!
It had taken twenty-six hours – and no matter how short, not one, single leg of the journey had gone to plan. So much for the romance of overland travel and letting the train take the strain.
Now, our only remaining concerns were that The Beast was mechanically unimpaired, that the temporary Austrian plates that included insurance had been delivered – and that Mark could remember how to drive a truck.
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