“Watch that lorry.” I put my hands over my face. “He’s all over the road!”
“He’s just avoiding the bumps!” Mark replied.
We were grateful for the grip of our hard-won new tyres – this two-lane motorway had a few surprises up its sleeve. The surface looked brand new, but despite the 110kph (70mph) speed limit, the carriageway occasionally morphed into sections of deep hollows and humps the size of sleeping policemen.
A pitfall of our lifestyle that we try to avoid is that every day is a weekend. A wildly weaving H.G.V. was bad enough, but I knew midweek alcohol would be necessary when the air horn of a tanker, holding position on our rear bumper, nearly made me jump out of my skin. Keeping to the speed limit was unacceptably slow, so the tanker pulled out to overtake and blocked the outside lane. At around 80mph, a car impatient to pass zipped up our inside on the hard shoulder, then sliced inches from our nose to scream past the vehicle in front of us.
Romania, Costa Rica and the Philippines were all filled with crazy drivers, but Poland was different. It mixed crazy with aggressive. A toxic combination.
“This is the most stressful country to drive in, EVER!” Mark said.
As we recalled the broad, empty roads, we both agreed, “It’s not France!”
I came late to the innovation of satellite navigation. After a quarter of a century in field sales, covering most of the U.K. and parts of the E.U., I became adept at finding my way. Like a London cabbie who has done ‘The Knowledge’, I knew the major roads, the back routes and the shortcuts. For many years, Mark and I toured Europe in the same manner; using nothing but maps and memory.
This new-fangled electronic invention held no appeal, with its fabled aptitude for stranding the unwary in fields. In addition, I was cautious of over-reliance on technology. A hysterical phone call I received from Anna, one of my trainees, brought this sharply into focus,
“I’m lost! My satnav stopped working. I don’t know where I am!”
From the other end of the country, I pinpointed her location in three questions:
Q1: Last known position? “Newcastle”.
Q2: Last sign? “Scotch Corner.”
Q3: Is it a big road? “Yes.”
A: “BOOM! You’re on the A1 southbound!”
Her navigational ineptitude was most surprising, since she had not left her home county, but her generation never needed to use a map.
Despite these early lessons, Mark and I still slipped inexorably into the technology trap. My birthday satnav stayed shrink-wrapped and boxed for months, until we tested it on a windsurfing weekend to Daymer Bay in Cornwall. We were impressed to find ourselves outside the concealed entrance of our cottage, down a tiny lane. So impressed that we started to rely on it.
We didn’t learn when we spent an hour and twenty euros lost in toll tunnels beneath Paris. We didn’t learn when the signal disappeared in a series of underpasses, forcing a full caravan U-turn in city traffic. We didn’t learn when our Snooper denied the existence of the DN4 in Romania and led us, rig and all, across two cornfields and along a footpath…
Our Tom Tom clearly felt much the same about Polish motorways. For most of the journey, it thought we were in a field. We turned around when we noticed our progress through this mythological meadow was leading us away from our destination.
After tackling the outskirts of Wrocław and 120 flat miles of wheat, it was disheartening to join the A4 motorway and see a sign for Wrocław. We could have saved hours if only we had checked the map… I suspect the satnav felt the same. It was clearly in the dark about some of Poland’s newest infrastructure.
Technology would not get us to our destination, Ojców, Poland’s smallest national park, so Mark pulled over and we went retro. We hadn’t bought an atlas, so scrolling through the satnav, we made a list of towns we needed to pass through en route; Dąbrowa Górnicza, Sławków, Bolesław, Olkusz and our destination, Jerzmanowice. Asking for directions was not an option, since we couldn’t pronounce any of them. As with most sites so far, the satnav had no listing for Camp Nasza Dolina, but we hoped to find it from the address.
Eventually, we hit something familiar; the A1, although we were following signs to Łódź, not Scotch Corner. That would have thrown Anna!
Mark mocked me when I spent ages taking snaps the landscape. I rather liked a set of cooling towers, painted cheerfully with rainbows. He agreed with me that Polish graveyards look like market gardens. There is clearly great reverence for the dead – with every single grave laden with flowers. En route we received a mystery text from our lettings agent that a tenant had given notice, without identifying which. We speculated who it might be. A faint glimmer of hope shimmered through us. Could it be The Problem Property? The one where the neighbours plotted open revolution against the board of the management company, of which Mark and I form one eighth.
“If it is, this could be our best chance to sell it! We can put it on the market now. If it doesn’t sell, we can move in at the end of this trip. After Brexit, we will only be able to spend ninety days in the E.U. If we don’t rent it out while we go skiing, we only lose a few months’ rent, but it gives us ten months to get rid of it! If it still doesn’t go, we could stay there when we get back for our ninety days out of Schengen.”
This thought raised our hopes; would they be dashed?
“Luck rarely runs our way…” I lamented, although Mark disagreed. He remains convinced that our bad luck is all good luck in disguise.
We stopped for lunch and supplies at an immense out-of-town Carrefours. Once again, I failed to order KFC. Then, I was overcharged for a sandwich and two lattes, but lacked the language skills and will to argue! Like a superhero, Mark swooped in to do the shopping and save me from further linguistic stress and humiliation. For the size of the supermarket, he reported it had very little stock, although he returned with a few treasures; a new mobile phone to replace our ancient, overheating Blackberry, plus a bottle of… wait for it… Fairy washing-up liquid.
We travel light, but carry two essential British home comforts unobtainable abroad. I’m talking tea – specifically PG Tips – and Fairy. After taking our new truck, The Beast, to the U.K. in February, Mark flew back to Italy with extra PG Tips, but my Fairy had run out months ago. My joy at being re-united with longer-lasting bubbles far outweighed the adverse impact of my procurement problems.
In fact, my entire mood was lifting. Following an out-of-kilter month on the road, I was beginning to find my stride with travelling. As a teenager, I witnessed a battery chicken escape from captivity while being moved. Given its first taste of freedom, you might think it would flee. Instead, it stood transfixed; overwhelmed by the enormity of the farmyard and paralysed by the vastness of the world beyond. I suppose this reaction is unsurprising, when you consider that the space allocated to each intensively-farmed bird is slightly smaller than an A4 sheet of paper. A lifetime spent crammed in a cage with eight to ten companions, too cramped to extend her wings, had eradicated every trace of instinct. This made the great outdoors a very scary place indeed.
We had spent eight months in a tiny mountain village in Italy, far longer than we’d stayed anywhere in the last five years. Coming out of lockdown reminded me of the hen. Freedom felt unfamiliar. My world had expanded, but I had felt at a loss what to do with it.
After miles of flat wheat fields and industry, the scenery changed to limestone stacks and ravines. Bartek, our host at Camp Naszna Dolina, was a dude. With a tanned face and short black hair, his greeting from behind mirrored sports sunglasses was laconic and deadpan. The site was an open field and his attitude to our pups was as cool as his shades.
“Park down the end. There is electricity there and you can let the dogs run free.”
After such a long and stressful day, it was music to our ears. Our poor puppies had been so patient. We had driven only two hundred miles, but between the supermarket stop and navigation issues, we had all been in the van for nine hours.
We celebrated our arrival with an excellent bottle of wine, selected by Mark.
As sommeliers, selecting unknown wines from unfamiliar grape varieties, Mark and I operate different systems. I base my choices on the daftness of the name. Trust me, I’m not taken in by anything contrived, such as Goats do Roam, Ein Zwei Dry or Planet of the Grapes. I sit on the fence with Bastardo, a legitimate vintage whose delightful double entendre has been hijacked by hipster marketeers for ‘whackaging’ (‘whacky packaging’) purposes. However, genuine marques like Lamberti (obviously), Torrette or Palava all make my giggle grade.
Mark simply works on the principle that you get what you pay for and allocates an appropriate budget. Without doubt, Mark’s system is superior, although his selection of Springer wine spanned the divide of both the budget and silly-scale systems!
The wine helped us through an interesting evening.
Impassive in his shades and staring straight ahead, Bartek passed by a few times riding his sit-on mower. Each time, an avalanche of needle-sharp grass cuttings rained in through Caravan Kismet’s large picture windows. Between cloudbursts of clippings, we put The Problem Property on the market (HURRAH!) and attempted to set up the replacement phone.
The things you have to do while Living the Dream!
Purchasing gadgets abroad is a trap we’ve fallen into before. Mark’s HP laptop was a bargain, bought online in Monte Rosa. It took him months to work out the Italian keyboard, and I still find it almost impossible to use. Of course, the firmware on the new mobile was in Polish, with an instruction manual in a comprehensive array of Eastern European languages.
I am pleased to report that, just prior to the point of being launched at the wall, the handset switched to English!
Join us next time as we not only explore the tiny gem that is Ojców National Park, but learn how to pronounce it correctly! Please follow my blog to get regular updates delivered into your inbox.
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