Just a little of snow, a couple of inches at most, but still the view was splendid. As I keep reminding myself, A person needs very little to feel happy in a foreign land. Girls were excited, even though it did not look as if the snow would survive the day. Natasha took out her camera and started taking pictures. I went to work in higher spirits. (well, ok, that last statement is crock; the thought of not having to shovel my driveway, while being able to enjoy snow was heart-warming, but, otherwise, I hardly felt any different).
Then, a bunch of unruly kids at a bus stop decided to use me for a snow-throwing practice target. I can proudly report that they missed a lot more shots than they made, but still…
With the snowfall so small, and despite complete absence of any snow-removal operations, the driving was not affected too much. I’ve had worse instances in a completely dry weather. It did, nonetheless, occur to me that should the snowfall be just a bit more intensive, the life may completely stop here…
When I was coming home from work, the snow was all gone. As far as I have heard, that is to be expected most of the time the snow falls on London.
In other news, Natasha did make us a fantastic borsch, which we are happily consuming. Our new Russian friends were at our place us on Monday, and having indicated that they were on a tight schedule, they politely declined to partake in dinner. Love them even more for that
Our social life has been picking up a bit. We went to our next-door neighbors’ for a visit over the weekend, drank wine and talked about nothing and everything. They have three small boys, so while Kimmy was playing with the oldest (still two years her junior), Becky got bored in less than 90 seconds and begged off to go home. Return visit is planned.
Valera and Janna, whom I mention above, are great guys. Their daughter Gabriella is getting to be really good friends with Kimmy. Natasha arranged for a play date the other day, and that helped parents to get together also. Hopefully, we can increase the level of interaction, which is not entirely easy to do giving the work schedules.
By the way, apparently, Gabriella and Kimmy speak Russian to each other in school, and make no secret that they are doing it with the strategic goal of preventing others from understanding what they are saying. Very sly girls!
Natasha now spends two nights a week at the badminton club. She even paid for the membership, to save on session fees. You have to come to at least 40 sessions to start realizing the savings, but who knows, maybe, it will continue to be an outlet for her.
Having never been much of a computer gamer in the past, I somehow got hooked on a brick-breaking game called Ricochet. To be completely honest, hooked is probably too strong a word. I play a few levels every day, never spending more than 15 minutes on it. Still, this is a weird feeling for me. Can’t help thinking that it is a waste of time, can’t help overruling that thought with What’s the harm in 15 minutes? every time. Come to think of it, I should be content that I can easily keep myself from becoming a game-aholic. It’s all in the willpower, people! Or, in choosing a game that produces the same challenge over and over again, albeit with different flavors, – in other words, hardly anything that can sustain excitement…
Becky and I are having an official competition with this game. She is beating me handily.
Bavarian beer is very hard to find in the UK. Belgian is quite ubiquitous, though. I just finished a bottle of Leffe Brune – highly recommend it.
The coldest day of the year so far did not fail to produce commuting problems.
When I arrived at the Lewisham train station on my way home (where I change from Docklands Light Rail to Southeastern commuter rail), the station was enveloped in darkness. Power failure. The trains were passing but not stopping. I had to take a bus instead. Unfortunately, there is no direct route and I have no idea what is the best connecting one. So I hopped on a bus that was going to a place that I could recognize, with the idea of switching to a bus going home there. That process took almost 50 minutes, compared with less than 15 that I normally spend on the last train leg. I have a feeling that the lights at Lewisham had long come back by the time I arrived home, cold and hungry.
The preceding weekend, notwithstanding Kimmy’s hand, was not too bad. We did not spend too much time in the fracture clinic getting her a hard cast. Half an hour wait, maybe, then 30 seconds with a doctor, who asked one question and pointed out the fracture on the x-ray picture on the computer, then a few more minutes waiting, and then a nice technician named Kimberly doing an excellent job in making Kimmy comfortable while applying the cast.
Natasha had located a synchronized skating team for Becky. The team has different levels that train on different days of the weekend. Becky went for tryouts on both Saturday and Sunday, having to get up earlier than on a school day in order to make the practice at 7:30. She was overqualified for the level that practices Saturday, but would be a fit for one of the Sunday’s teams. One small problem. The team is preparing for no less than World Championships in March, and Becky does not make the age cut-off. Simply practicing with the team at this point is probably not a good idea, as their training schedule is way too hectic right now for Becky’s laid-back approach.
We will consider joining the team for the next year possibly, although in all probability it will prevent us from taking weekend trips anywhere.
Let’s see first if there will be any weekend trips to talk about!
By the way, the cost of team membership is much less than what we used to pay in New Jersey, with outfits being paid for by the club without additional expense from the parents. There are fewer competitive trips, which accounts for lower fees, but otherwise, the cost calculation defies explanation, unless the coaches are on some salary and are not being paid out of team member fees.
Saturday weather was not too bad, and we wanted to go to the city in the middle of the day. Becky was really tired, though, and she wanted to take a nap. We figured that at 12 years old, she can stay home on her own, left her to her sleep and went to the British Museum.
The solemn classical building on the outside hides impressive open-space galleries on the inside that contain unparalleled collection of artifacts from ancient and not-so-ancient civilizations. One of the most famous objects, for instance, is the Rosetta Stone that enabled Champollion to decipher Egyptian hieroglyphs. An entire gallery is filled with statues from Greek Parthenon – you probably will not find any remaining at the Parthenon itself…
We picked up an activity backpack for Kimmy and spent over an hour completing all activities in the kit. Many London museums enable kids entertainment this way: A backpack, containing various games, puzzles and implements that can be used in a sort of treasure hunt or interactive learning session. We then spent some time walking around Egyptian and Greco-Roman galleries. It will probably take several more visits to see all of the great stuff in this museum.
On Sunday, we left both kids at home. The concept is truly foreign for an American parent, but is fairly accepted in Europe. Anyone reading this who was born in the former Soviet Union, think back to your own childhood. I bet that at the very early age you started coming home from school while your parents were at work, opened the door with your very own key, heated up your lunch by yourself, and possibly even did the same for a younger sibling. You may then had to get on the bus and travel across town to a piano lesson or a chess section.
And, after all, Becky is 12. We used to employ neighbor girls, who were 12 or 13, as babysitters for Kimmy.
So, anyway, my distant cousin Boris was coming to London for a business trip and we arranged to meet for a dinner. No point in bringing the kids with us. We left the house around 4pm and returned home around 10pm. With the TV and two computers all to themselves, the two young ladies barely noticed our absence.
We drove into the city. Parking is not a problem on a Sunday in a non-heavy-residential part of London. But getting there is a pain. 11 miles took us almost an hour one way. I figure I should not be repeating my earlier rants, especially since this particular trip was not so much about roundabouts as it was about un-synchronized traffic lights every dozen meters or so. But we kept saying that taking a train would surely be faster…
We had a good time and a little bit of time for ourselves was quite welcome, though…
I drove my parents to the airport in the morning, and we are all by ourselves again. Time to get back to work, school and otherwise routine existence.
Time to resume our grand plan of Old World exploration, too. Upon returning from Switzerland, we did a few things with the parents (such as a narrated city bus tour, which Natasha had never taken before, and visiting the Royal Observatory in Greenwich), but otherwise, my mom and dad have done us better, with visits to places we had not gotten to yet, such as the British Museum, the National Gallery and the Tower. Ok, Natasha and I have been to the latter, but not as part of the official programme.
Without further delay, we immediately set off for Trafalgar Square, where for a couple of years now, in early January, London holds the Russian Winter festival.
Forget the snow, it is still a true Russian winter!
The square is cordoned off and surrounded by kiosks and food stands, with signs almost exclusively in Russian. The food is of regular food-stand variety – sausages, kebabs and such – but with a Russian twist. You can get a cup of borsch, a portion of Beef Stroganoff, and kebabs are called шашлыки. The kiosks sell wooden toys and souvenirs (a fair cannot be called Russian unless матрёшки – matryoshkas – are sold in abundance, right?), but mostly they advertise travel to Russia and various UK-based Russian services. We picked up a few brochures, just in case…
There is also a pavilion dedicated to the candidacy of Sochi as the host of Winter Olympics in 2014. Nothing special, but we are told that several Russian sports champions will be around for autograph signing at some point later in the day. We are lukewarm to the idea, but we happen to walk near the pavilion again and literally bump into Евгений Плющенко (Pluschenko). As I am the only one in the family with enough cognitive memory to register the fact, it does not generate much excitement.
A large stage on the southern edge of the square is, throughout the day, home to performances by Russian pop and folk artists. The program is highlighted by Надежда Бабкина, Гарик Сукачёв and Дима Билан, but there are also a couple of ансамблей песни и пляски as well as the choir of the Danilov monastery in Moscow.
There are several thousand people mingling around the square. At the beginning of the day, many are not even Russian-speaking, attracted by exotic experience, loud music and giveaways (primarily, plastic bags with some logo and probably an advertising leaflet inside – anyone who’d ever gone to the New York Auto-Show in any given April should know the drill).
We arrived early enough in the day, and made our rounds of all the kiosks and pavilions (except, regretfully, the beer one – although the beer was obviously not free, anyway, and I am not paying for Балтика). Becky participated in and won a race on wooden block stilts, Kimmy cheered and some news cameraman (it was a big, professional camera, which is the only reason I say news – I have no specific knowledge which organization he might have been from) recorded her a bit. We then bought some kebabs and listened to Бабкина and her ensemble.
The weather was dry, but overcast and windy. The girls got tired from navigating the crowds, so we made an executive decision to effect a change of scenery and go to the National Gallery, which is right there, overlooking Trafalgar.
The gallery has a very nice collection of European paintings dating back to 13th century. It probably cannot compete with Louvre or Hermitage, but it does boast a nice assemblage, including Rembrandt, van Dyck, many other Dutch and Flemish painters, Raphael, Titian, Boticelli, Claude, Caravaggio, three rooms of Rubens, my favorite Canaletto… There is also Leonardo and Michelangelo, but we could not manage to cover the entire exposition.
I do not know how good the permanent impressionist collection at the gallery is (or whether one exists, to tell the truth), but there is a temporary exhibition through May of this year, that has a number of pieces by each of Monet, Manet, Pisarro, Seurat, Signac, Renoir, Degas, Van Gogh, Picasso, and others (as well as a single Cezanne, on the account of separate Cezanne temporary exhibition that just ended a few days ago). Natasha and I are both impressionist-lovers – we were nothing short of enraptured. Surprisingly (for me, at least), the girls found some delight in Monet’s Water-lily Pond and Seurat’s Bathers as well.
Алекснадр Дольский has a song called Велосипед, which contains the following words: …Вот Синьяка оранжевый мыс… (Here’s Signac’s orange promontory). When I pointed out Signac’s Cape Canaille to Becky, she was quite amazed at the recognition.
We only spent maybe an hour and a half perusing the paintings. Another hour was devoted to drawing, as part of the scheduled children activity. About 30 kids gathered at Murillo’s Self-portrait, listened to a couple of docents talk about the painting and the art of expressing oneself, and then were given the task of drawing a sketch of their own that would follow the themes of the Murillo painting. Becky and Kimmy both had a lot of fun, and Natasha joined in too, especially since no one said that parents were prohibited from participating…
When we exited the gallery, the crowd in the square turned overwhelmingly Russian-speaking and young, well-lubricated with beer and prone to non-stop smoking and loud expressions of exuberance. The performers on stage were some atrocious teenage girls rock-band called Ранетки, followed by an equally talentless – but apparently quite hot these days – группа Токио. We waited for about half-hour for something agreeable, but eventually gave up and went home.
Still, an enjoyable experience.
I have installed Skype and a web-cam on my computer. It is primarily for the purposes of communicating with parents in New Jersey and Rostov. However, we will be more than happy to get on a video-call with anyone who would care.
Anglification of me – I have watched three full soccer games on TV over the last four days.
The curious thing is that I also caught a glimpse of a match between two 4th-tier teams (so-called CocaCola League 2) – on the main sports channel, in primetime. I guess you could watch minor-league baseball on YES, but even they probably would not broadcast a Class A game, to say nothing of ESPN. Here, it’s a common occasion to see lower-division footie games on TV, when the top flight does not have a game on the schedule.
The British obviously know how to show football. Every goal chance or otherwise key play gets plenty of replay from various angles; commentators are knowledgeable, and often fun to listen to; scoreboard takes a very small corner of the screen and is devoid of sponsor ads. At the end of half and the full time, the commentary always includes replay of every single goal. Eminently watchable! Too bad that I do not have high-def here…
I also watched a bit of rugby, which is slightly confusing, but quite exciting. I have not been able to work up the will to invest time in cricket, though.
My parents stoically brave the unpleasant weather, and have visited most of the major sights in London, including a couple that we did not get to ourselves yet. The last couple of days they were completely on their own, but armed with travel cards and a good map, they managed to find their way around via public transportation without major mishaps. They even rode a bus smack in the center of the city – a feat that I have yet to attempt.
For all of its regular unreliability, London transportation deserves the props for being quite convenient and easy to use.
The girls started the second semester in school. The school schedule is very different in England from what we used to in America. The year is normally broken into three trimesters: September – December, January – March, April – July. There are two-weeks-long holidays between the trimesters, with about a month and a half holiday during summer. In addition, each trimester is further divided into two parts by a week-long holiday. So the kids were off from Christmas until this Monday, and will be on holiday again in just five weeks. The schedule is pretty much universal across all of state and independent schools, making it six “standard” holiday periods through the year. Large organizations explicitly stay away from scheduling important business activities during those times, as many people take time off to do something with – or, at the very least, provide care for – their kids.
Our trips – the ones that are longer than a weekend, anyway, – are being planned around the same paradigm. You may even notice the time blocked in my Calendar as “school break”. Such blocks will be replaced with specific trips once our plans firm up.
In the meantime, I am off for the last two vacation days of last year. My entire allotment for this year will start dwindling down only in February.
Famous England weather. It is not too cold, just cold enough to be unpleasant, and with wind, dark skies and intermittent rain, it is hard to will oneself to go outside…
We still do, though. My parents arrived for their very first visit to England, and I am using my vacation leftovers from the last year. It would be a waste to spend these days inside the house, so we keep figuring out things to do. Thursday was not too bad, and we drove all the way to Brighton, walked around, had a dinner. We went to Greenwich on Friday, and visited Royal Observatory. On Saturday, the rain started from the early morning and continued throughout the day. We piled into the car – six people cannot fit inside normally, so my dad spent quite some time with Kimmy on his lap, – and drove into London, on a sort of introductory tour. We then decided to forgo the search for parking and subsequent walking under the rain, and instead drove back to our area for a dinner in Blackheath. The rain continued pretty much into Sunday, but we still organized an expedition to the city via public transportation with the explicit purpose of getting onto a tour bus. Becky and I stayed home, on a lame excuse that we start school and work, respectively, early tomorrow morning.
Kimmy still has an off day on Monday, so her, Natasha and my mom and dad will follow up with another outing to the city.
The kids, who have been always deprived of a pet on account of their father, skillfully negotiated acquisition of a fish. In all honesty, I simply could not come up with a good response to “How come we do not have one in England, since we had one in New Jersey?” Sending them out to buy a fish with my father miraculously resulted in two specimens for the price of one. Or, rather, a small tank came with a goldfish included, so they obviously needed to actually buy another fish. Well, who ended up preparing the tank and then transferring the fish in? If you point to the only person who did not care to acquire a fish in the first place, – your faithful narrator, – you are very perceptive…
Our New Jersey aquarium dweller was some kind of a survivor, enduring through spotty care and irregular feeding for several months (we gave it to a neighbor when we were leaving – Becky does occasionally wonder if it is still alive). I have a feeling that European fish will not turn out as lasting…
Several random notes.
For those who care about this stuff, a word of caution about our new camera (Canon PowerShot S3 IS). Shooting in Auto mode under less than perfect lighting conditions produces grainy pictures that no amount of Photoshop retouching can fully repair. If you have read my camera selection treatise, you may rightfully inquire whether making snapshots in fully automated mode was not the whole point. True; when we caught onto this shortcoming several days ago, our first thought was that we had seriously goofed with our choice. However, there are a couple of dozen preset modes for a variety of conditions, which we have not really explored yet. Stay tuned.
One observation that have not found its way in any of my previous posts is the number of eastern Europeans in London. In 2004, the European Union expanded into Eastern Europe, with the likes of Poland, Czech Republic and Hungary, along with Baltic states, joining in. Now, citizenship of any of those countries allows freedom of movement and unencumbered right to work throughout the Union. For some reason, Poles especially flock en masse to the United Kingdom. Everywhere you look, low-skill low-income jobs, such as janitors or fast-food servers, are occupied by Poles. They must still be financially better off here than in Poland, and the local employers surely pay them less than they would Brits.
From a certain point, these erstwhile satellites of the great Soviet Union have now attained an upper hand against the citizens of their onetime Big Brother. Russia is gradually becoming more authoritarian again, and while it is still a formidable world power, – thanks to whatever gas-related shenanigans it can pull off, – its common citizens live more or less behind an iron curtain again. Conversely, common citizens of Poland and its like now possess freedoms unimaginable just a generation ago…
And another long-shelved observation. I remember that my first lengthy stay here yielded a reflection on the number of good-looking women in London. That was obviously erroneous, as only an exceptional Englishwoman can be called beautiful and the percentage of foreign beautiful women is probably lower in London than in New York (even though London is a veritable melting pot on par with the Big Apple). Upon careful consideration, I have a pretty good explanation as to why I had that impression in the first place. The explanation is two-pronged.
First, you rarely see obese people in London. For every gorgeous woman that you see in New York, you probably bump into at least two overweight shapeless bodies, no? Absence of such physiques in London makes the entire female population instantly more attractive on average.
The second reason is the dressing up. Women traveling to work here do not have a habit of wearing athletic socks and sneakers and changing into formal attire at the office. It’s high heels all the way. No sweatpants either; in fact, much fewer pants, period. Skirts and dresses abound. I have to admit that it is easy to confuse well-dressed people for beautiful ones. In any case, seeing well-dressed people is much more pleasing to the eye…
On this sexist and also somewhat elitist note, I sign off for the day.
If you have not read the first part of our report, you can do it here. Otherwise, read on.
The first full day in Switzerland met us with springtime-like weather, warm and sunny. Internet reports told of very little snow on lower mountains, and since our family – Becky excepted – is made of mediocre skiers, we decided not to try going to higher skill slopes.
Instead, we went to a spa.
The road took us along the shore of Lake Leman, on a motorway high above it. The skies were blue, the sun was shining, but the lake below us was covered by dense fog. We were literally driving above the fog, which was a pretty cool sight.
Located at the foot of a mountain, the spa is made of a large pool with hot mineral water under open skies, plus several saunas, steam rooms and another pool inside the building. There are different hydro-massage areas in various parts of the main pool, and a strong-current circular enclosure in the middle (hands down the kids’ favorite).
Saturday, warm weather, little snow on the mountains – it all conspired to bring way too many people to this place, for my taste. But the girls were very pleased, and Natasha expressed a desire to spend the rest of her life in that spa…
Relaxed and happy, we drove up the mountain. This drive was even better than the one on the way from France, since we now were truly in the Alps, and each new turn in the road opened fascinating vistas. I have to admit that driving on a mountain road with breathtaking views after a couple of hours in a spa is probably not entirely advisable – keeping focused on the narrow twisting road was a struggle. But the visuals were clearly worth it.
We then took in the skiing resort atmosphere in Villars. Main street, lined with chalets, shops and restaurants, was quite busy (have I mentioned the absence of snow yet?), and we idly partook in aimless strolling around, as well as had a nice lunch at a local restaurant. Very festive and pleasant, crisp air and surrounding views adding to the overall enjoyment. Someday, it would be interesting to spend some time at such a resort, skiing ineptitude be damned.
The snow did not fall on the next day either, and we decided to explore the local environs. Nyon, a sleepy little town less than 20 miles away from Geneva, is located on the shore of the same lake, Leman. It is very picturesque, especially the waterfront, which also provides magnificent views on the Alps (Mont Blanc included) beyond the lake. The town was also probably even sleepier than usual, Sunday and New Year’s Eve being the major reasons, most likely. Barely a car passing by every other minute…
Walking the streets of Nyon, Natasha at one point exclaimed: “Now, this is what I call Europe! And where we live in London – that’s just Queens!”
Nika and Lenya, whom we were staying with, have a very nice apartment on the top floor of a seven-story building, with sweeping views towards mountains and surrounding areas. Several times during our stay, one of us would stand on the balcony or at a window, enthralled by the landscape…
New Year night came. Nika prepared a fantastic banquet. As we were watching Russian television all night long, we first celebrated the arrival of 2007 at 10 o’clock, when it struck midnight in Moscow. We then proceeded to celebrate the New Year in Ukrainian time zone (Nika is originally from L’viv) at 11, in Switzerland at 12, and in London at 1. The last one was already subdued, on the account of the amount of consumed alcohol and general tiredness. My joking suggestion about waiting to celebrate the Eastern time zone New Year (at 6am local time) was quickly dismissed and we retired to bed around 3.
It was quite different – after so many years of largely staying away from it – to watch Russian television non-stop for several hours. The shows were all pretty well staged, but we definitely had a recognition problem (both regarding young performers whom we have never seen before and some old ones who had gone overboard with plastic surgery). Plus, the shows morphed into one another, and the same performers kept popping up in all of them. I can swear that Задорнов was even wearing the same suit twice…
The New Year day started with driving rain, which lasted through early afternoon. Skiing was completely out. It’s a shame to spend several days in Switzerland in winter and never ski! Oh, well, there is always next time, I guess.
As soon as the sun peeked out from behind the clouds, we drove to Geneva and spent a brief time in the old city center. It is quite attractive and enjoyable, with many nice buildings and quaint streets. Somehow, on the first of January, it was overrun with Russian-speaking excursions. The tourists kept throwing curious glances in our direction, upon hearing our mix of Russian and English in communicating with the kids.
Later, we followed Nika and Lenya to their friends, who live in Geneva proper. Cool guys. We very much enjoyed getting to meet them. The man of the house is a wine connoisseur, and while my qualifications in the field are markedly modest, at least I freely express my enjoyment at tasting a good wine, and that was an immediate ice-breaker. We will surely make an effort to cultivate this new friendship…
The morning of our departure came… with a snowfall!! Would you believe that? Becky was especially crestfallen, but what can you do!? It was a whole different adventure to drive the mountain portion of our trip back in the heavy snow – one area where my car is definitely lacking is traction in snow – but we went very slow, avoided getting stuck, and eventually crossed into France (nobody stopped us this time either), where the snow turned into heavy rain. I was still able to maintain 80 m/h all the way back to Calais, and we arrived at the train terminal with plenty of time to spare.
British authorities were checking all passports before train boarding, which caused a small hold-up when I pulled up to the window. It surely looks as if not too many American citizens use the Channel train daily.
Well, we’re back! We had a great time, despite having driven more than a thousand miles overall, and entered new year on a high note. Hope you all did the same! (I don’t mean driving)
Our sortie to Switzerland ended up being quite a successful expedition (with the unfortunate exception of skiing, which will be discussed later). The driving trip is not for everyone, being 518 miles long (the longest we have done before was 486 miles from New Jersey to Mont Tremblant), but we managed. The food, the wine, the vistas, the excursions were all to our pleasure. Spending time with old friends and making new ones was, to steal a line from a commercial, priceless.
The first leg of this trip – and any future trip that we want to undertake on the continent in our own car – was the 65-mile drive to the Channel Tunnel. The major street that I walk across every day on my way to the train station, gradually morphs into a highway and then into a full-blown motorway that leads straight to our destination. I literally have to exit my driveway to the left, then make a single right turn at the traffic light and then drive straight without turning in order to get there… That is truly the only remarkable thing about that leg.
But the next leg – using the train – is quite interesting. You drive onto the carriage on one side of the Channel and drive off on the other. For reservations made in advance – which is strongly recommended – the check-in procedure takes less than a minute at a drive-thru kiosk. If you time it right, you can then proceed straight to boarding, which requires queuing, stops and general slow movement, but is overall quite painless. Once you are inside the carriage, it takes certain time for attendants to close the doors, etc., but the train leaves and arrives on schedule. The actual train trip is 35 minutes. Opening the doors takes few more minutes, and then you are on a highway leading to wherever your heart desires…
From the arrival at check-in until the time you disembark there may be as little as an hour and 15 minutes. For our very first use of it, we planned to arrive at check-in with additional 30 minutes buffer, which gave us an opportunity to check out the passenger terminal, which provides quite the same amenities as an airport one, sans the hassle of security checks.
We actually were randomly selected for a security check before boarding the train. An agent waved us into a separate lane, another one asked Natasha and me to step out of the car. He then requested that I open the trunk and pop the hood. While the former is easy to do, the latter was an adventure in itself. How the hell am I supposed to know how to pop the hood in my car?!?! After a couple of minutes, my hands looked like they belonged to a mechanic, and the security guys had to open the hood themselves anyway… What were they checking is beyond me, but they surely were swearing under their breaths at the misfortune of drawing such an inept customer…
Nobody checked our passports, though.
Soon we were on French soil.
While sitting on the train, we read in a booklet about all the driving regulations that are enforced in France and most of the European Union. They include having a sticker that identifies the country that your car is registered in (unless your license plates themselves identify it), carrying a reflective vest for when you occasion to walk along the highway, possessing a first aid kit and an emergency reflective triangle to place 50 meters behind your car to warn oncoming traffic if the car is disabled, and a bunch of other nonsense. Being the law-abiding person that I am, I figured I could do with buying a GB sticker and headlight adjustments (which are nothing more than a pair of thick stickers which, when positioned properly, negate the difference in headlight strength for right-hand versus left-hand driving). We always have a first aid kit. No vest or triangle, though.
Driving on French motorways is subject to considerable tolls, which plays an important role in regulating the volumes. In other words, there is nary a congestion, even on two-lane roads. Slower traffic keeps right, speedy cars zip away on the left. Actually, unless you clearly are the fastest car among all, you are supposed to switch lanes to the left only when passing another car, and then immediately move to the right again, so that somebody can then pass you if they are faster. The rule is adhered to with commendable zeal by almost all drivers (and I noticed similar approach in Italy, Spain, Germany – wherever I’ve driven on the continent). Interestingly, I have noticed similar attitude in Britain (where left and right are obviously reversed), but not to the same degree…
By the way, switching to driving on the right again was not very hard, but driving on the right with a right-side steering wheel proved to be inconvenient on several occasions…
The motorway speed limit in France is 130 km/h, which translates roughly into 80 m/h, which is close to the upper limit of what my poor Vauxhall can do. Or so I thought for a while. The car needs some time to warm up to high speeds, and even on a British highway, with no speed limit sign in sight, I rarely exceed 70. I started similarly in France, but very soon became bothered by the distinction of being the slowest vehicle on the road. So I raised the stakes all the way to the speed limit and did my best impersonating a considerate French motorist, switching lanes and all. Eventually, I even worked up the nerve to try 90, and the car handled it quite well. I was still unable to attain the fastest distinction – too many damn BMWs leaving me in the dust…
We drove through Calais, Picardie, Champagne, Bourgogne… Another curious distinction of French motorways is the multitude of large signs announcing nearby sights in pictures as well as by names. However, we were unable to discern where the actual sights were; next exit, maybe, but there is never a clear direction. The signs were a fun distraction for the kids – just reading the French names aloud is a fun distraction for everyone, I must say. And when we passed one announcing Bethune Monastery early in our trip, we felt obliged to break into Пора-пора-порадуемся на своём веку…
Some of the sights along the way are fairly obvious, though, such as a castle on top of a high hill or the Reims Cathedral (which you can only catch a glimpse of from the highway). Otherwise, hills, fields, villages accompanied our progress throughout first half of the way. The scenery then changed to a more woodsy one. The temperature constantly hovered around 0°C. Then suddenly, we entered a snowy kingdom, with trees covered all in white. The change was quite startling – we practically followed around a bend in the road, and there it was. Beautiful too, although the movement got slower as fog descended.
The last 60 miles required us to leave the motorway and drive along narrow mountain roads. No snow on the roads, but still a fairly tedious exercise, with a wall on one side, a drop on another and regular 180° turns. Kids had fun, as on a roller-coaster. Fantastic views along the way!
Somewhere along that last segment, we passed Swiss border. Twice. The customs house sort of straddles the intersection of two roads, and with no one stopping us, I kept driving straight ahead. After a few moments, the navigation system complained, made me make a few turns and brought me back to the same border crossing. I realized that the road I’ve taken did not actually cross the broder. Still, no one expressed an interest in checking us out. I drove by and continued on the correct road this time.
Less than 12 hours after setting out from our London house, we were pressing the button of our friends’ apartment in Nyon.
to be continued…