I seldom write about travel, and when I do, it’s only about spectacular experiences. I have never written about misadventures that caused so much anxiety and grief that I wonder why we carried on when things started to go wrong. But when you have such an experience that lasted from the time of beginning the journey to the very end, and beyond, I thought on the hindsight, it was an adventure worth remembering, even though we were not that amused when it all happened.
It began when we started our journey to France on a mid-June Monday. We had already moved from our Kent home, so we stayed overnight in Ramsgate. In the morning, as we left for the ferry from Dover, it was a last minute dash because of the roadworks along the way. As we were waiting for the ferry, I realised we forgot to book the European breakdown cover. I made a last minute frantic call to the breakdown provider (I had three covers those days, don’t ask me why and how!) and selected an option that was slightly high priced but provided more cover. To be honest, that was the best last minute call I’ve ever made; if I hadn’t done that, we probably had had to come back without the car. So with the breakdown sorted, we set sail on the way to our destination, Normandy. We planned what we’d do each day, and had a busy schedule ahead but we were sure that we were going to have a great time. Only if we knew what lay ahead of us.
Here, I’d flashback to the week before we started our journey. I was on M25 on my way home and I suddenly felt the car lost all its power. As if it went into a limp mode. The car was only over a year old, so you don’t expect a major fault to develop. The breakdown mechanic couldn’t fix it, but he reset the warning light and asked to start and see if the traction is back. It worked. So I thought it was a freak incident and I must have done something to cause that. The dealer could not have a look in such a short notice, so we decided to carry on with the plans and get the car fixed later.
Coming back to 20th of June, we did the usual. On reaching Calais, a trip to Adinkerke to buy cheap tobacco and Speculoos, a quick trip to Carrefour Mivoix and late lunch at the McDonalds there. With all that done and a cranky terrible two, we headed for belle Normandie. Except that we were running a bit late and looked like we wouldn’t get to the campsite before 8:30 pm. It was a long drive but that never bothered us. Not until the things started to go wrong very quickly. We were approaching Boulogne-sur-mer on A16 where the road goes on an incline. It’s not steep by any means, but the car generally needs to work harder. Whilst on that section, the car lost power again! Second time within a week. I exactly knew what went wrong when the engine warning flashed on the dashboard. It made me panic a bit. A breakdown on a foreign country is a terrifying prospect, let alone that happening on the autoroute meant we’d have to pay highway authority the fees to be towed away from the autoroute. So I decided to carry on driving at 50mph until we reached the next exit. Thankfully it was a country road and I carried on driving for a while before we stopped on the verge. My satnav said it’s a place called Beuvrequin. I remember the place we stopped, with houses on the right and the other side of the road, had vast fields.
After we calmed down our crying daughter, upset that the holiday might not go ahead, I called the breakdown agency. I reported the breakdown and was told that the wait time is about 45 mins. Being parked on the pavement by a country road was not the best of the places, especially getting stares from people who had to go on the grass. A few minutes later, I received a call from the French contact from the breakdown company, telling me that they cannot send assistance because during my application I said we’ll be going to Belgium and then France. So, tow away will have to come from Belgium, and they don’t to towing across borders. Infuriated and anxious, I called the UK number, and after explaining the situation, they said we should get assistance and they will arrange with the French colleagues. Another 15 min later, which is almost an hour since I was told that the assistance is 45 min away, I received another call from the French number saying they are sending breakdown van and it’ll be coming around 5:45 pm. By then, I doubted any garage will be open.
The breakdown truck arrived slightly earlier than we were told. As expected, the mechanic didn’t know a word of English. I thought that would be ideal to practice my French. I probably would have, if I knew all technical terms. I didn’t even know what brakes are called. Anyway, the guy picked the car on his truck and asked us to go in the truck to the garage. I think that was the highlight of the day and my daughter loved travelling in a truck. We went to a garage in Boulogne-sur-mer. He met another colleague who had a computer to connect to the engine management system. They decided that it’s beyond their knowledge and learning that the car was under warranty, they said the work can only be done in an Opel garage. By that time we gave up our hope to get the car fixed that day because it was already nearly 6 pm. The mechanic said he’ll take us to their garage to keep the car overnight and we can arrange the taxi pick-up from the garage. We were offered a replacement car or stay in a hotel and get the car looked at the next morning. I was confident that it’ll just be resetting the alarm and we’ll be able to drive on. So we chose the hotel and waited at the garage. The taxi came around 6:30 pm to take us to the hotel in Boulogne.
The hotel was pleasant and it was located close to Boulogne city centre. We walked down to a square called Place Dalton and had a nice dinner, trying to forget the headache we’re about to have the following day. The following day we had nothing to do but wait for the updates from the breakdown company. So we were just cooped up in the room. About 9 am we received a call saying that the breakdown garage will take the car to the nearest Opel garage. I thought it would be done in minutes, so our hopes of having our holiday soared high again. But that state of euphoria didn’t last long as a follow up at 11 am confirmed that the car was still in the garage. The agent said she’ll call me back shortly. When she did, it was even worse news. Opel garage was fully booked and they wouldn’t be able to fix it before Wednesday or even Thursday. At that point, we thought we’d had enough and started thinking of cancelling the holiday and go back home. As a last ditch attempt, we demanded a replacement car. After waiting another 10 minutes for a callback, we were told that our only chance was if we left the hotel immediately because the car hire place they use will be shut from 12 pm. It was already getting towards 11:30 am. So we picked all our tonnes of luggage, waiting for the taxi. Then the taxi dropped us at the wrong place, which meant we had to drag all our luggage and a toddler across a busy junction without crossings. When we arrived at the Enterprise Cars office, there was only one employee, waiting for us. It took another half an hour to get sorted. But in the end, we had our car.
I wish our story could end here, but it wasn’t unfortunately. Our understanding of the breakdown cover was that we get the hire car until the time we are ready to return to Boulogne on our way back. On Wednesday afternoon, as we’re exploring the American war memorial in Colleville-sur-mer, I received a call from the breakdown company that our car was fixed and they want the hire car back. Shouting or swearing is normally my cup of tea, but if I lost my temper that day, I’d expect people would have sympathised with me. I kept my calm but said that they are expecting me to make a 600 km journey because they screwed up a breakdown repair. It also seemed like the day of our return, Saturday, is only for the Car buyers at the Opel garage and the repairs department is shut. I was told very sternly to go back on Friday to which I refused, agreeing to pay the difference for an additional day of car hire. Half an hour later, I received another call that the garage had been very understanding and made a very rare exception of opening the repair garage on Saturday.
With the good news that the car was fixed and that we can get on with rest of the holiday, we felt relaxed then and enjoyed the rest of the days. Except the fact that Normandy is where it rains most in France and it rained really bad the week we went there. Unlike previous caravan holidays, we opted for tent that time, and the floor was filled with water because of the leaks in the floor sheet. We spent most of our stay in the tents mopping the floor, wet feet, soaked trainers and a damp tent. Despite this little inconvenience, I felt the time in Normandy was much more enriching than in Paris. Just when we were about to enjoy the holiday, having lost nearly two days, it was over and it was time to come home.
We started with plenty of time in hand, thinking of collecting the car early so we could go to the cheap wine store in Calais. We got to the Enterprise Car place at about 12. But then we realised that they are shut in Saturdays and we needed to drop the keys at a hotel opposite the car hire place, past the big junction. Les Gens de Mer — the hotel looked quite nice as we browsed the lobby and menu while we waited for the taxi. The taxi arrived late, and we were on our way to the Opel garage near Outreau where our car was getting repaired. When we got there, the manager said everything was done and they are getting the car ready. It did surprise me a bit because the car was ready on Thursday. We waited nearly 45 minutes before we were given the keys. We were at the last minute rush again, trying to get cheap fuel from Carrefour and head for the ferry. That was the beginning of another nightmare journey.
As we headed back to Calais, I noticed that the tyre pressure warning sign came on. I was not too worried at the beginning, because sometimes if one tyre had less pressure than the others, the sign came on. But as we went closer to Calais, I started to get more and more worried as the pressure kept on dropping. When the other tyres read 38 psi, the fourth tyre was at 25 psi. There must have been a leak, I thought. But where would that have happened? The car has always been at the breakdown garage or at the Opel garage. Did they just find out and handed me a car with a leak? Surely they can’t be that unscrupulous! But everything signed that way.
So we went back to Carrefour, filled the tank and put some air in the faulty tyre thinking it might have some problem that’s going to fix itself. When we boarded the ferry, I left the car with 35 psi on the tyre and hoping that it should stay like that when we reached the UK. 90 minutes later when we came down to the deck, I couldn’t believe my eyes. The tyre was completely flat. And we had landed as well, so we didn’t have any time to change the tyre. It was a Saturday afternoon and most of the garages would have been shut by 4 pm.
Now I made a faux pas at that moment. I had the option to come off the ferry and get the tyre changed with the spare tyre. We could have then driven home because our spare tyre is a full spec one and there is no speed restriction. Silly me, I didn’t remember that at the moment of madness when I thought if I take too long changing the tyre, and something else is wrong, I might lose the last chance to get home that night. So I decided to drive on to the next open garage, which was Kwik-fit. As I drove on the alloy wheel, the sharp and annoying screeching deafened our ears despite the windows were up. I was worried that there will be damage to the wheel as well but it was a relief that there wasn’t.
Kwik-fit changed the tyre straight away and we also got another tyre which was getting towards the legal limit. After that, we hit the road, hoping to get some dinner at Bluewater or Lakeside, places that we used to visit often but missed a lot when we moved. After a filling dinner, with our daughter falling asleep in the car, we finally felt that after all this, the holiday is coming to an end. But there are more twist in the tale that one can imagine. Just because everything had to go wrong on that trip, as we were on M6 nearing Coventry, my daughter woke up and started crying. We didn’t want to stop, being so close at home, and as I tried to accelerate harder, BANG! The engine warning light came back on and the car won’t speed beyond 50 mph. The sting in the tail that was waiting for us before we reached home. So all that fuss at the Opel garage, did they do sod all apart from puncture the tyre? Nevertheless, my daughter’s incessant crying made me carry on rather than stop and ask for another breakdown. I just pushed the pedal down and used the downward slopes on the road to speed up and use the momentum to drive the car at a higher speed as the road became flat or went up. Without much difficulty, we reached home, bringing a close to the worst travel experiences we ever had.
Like many stories have an epilogue to the end, the tale of our misfortunes does not end there. I had to take many days off as I was unable to commute to work while getting the car fixed. Back then, I was doing a commute of 300 miles! During next few days, the car was repaired, and the fault reappeared almost immediately at times. In the end, it took a call to their grievance line to report the issue to get the technical team involved, who sorted the problem. One of those days when the car was broken down, I had to hire a car to go to a meeting in London. There, as I was trying to get on the Hammersmith bridge, I was caught at the box junction and was fined £70. Now the car belonging to the hire company, they received the fine notice first. By the time I received it, I couldn’t appeal online, so I had to send it over email. I then got the email address wrong and was then facing a court action since the first notice was received much earlier and the normal 2 weeks response window had gone. This dragged on until November. So nearly 5 months after that week in June, we put an end to the dreadful journey, but before that end, I had to pay out the final amount which had since doubled.
So, there we are, our story ends here. Terrible experience to sum it up. And I believe we won’t forget it very soon. Yet, the good memories will last longer. Visit to Utah, Omaha and Juno beaches, our daughter’s excited walk in the sand, the American war memorial and its deafening silence at Colleville-Sur-mer, the Bayeux tapestry, Caen, beautiful village of Beauvron-en-auge, riviera of the north Deauville and Trouville-Sur-mer, surreal grace of Lisieux abbey, sunrise over the trees at our site in the middle of nowhere at Château Le Brévedent, the quaint villages Le Pin and Blangy-le-château near our campsite, the bridge at Le Havre — the memories are countless and one day, if not already, they will outweigh the dreadful experience about the journey.
Just as I finished this with a positive spin, I remembered to add one last note about our holiday from hell. The year this happened was 2016, and I guess we all know what happened that year between 20th and 25th June. Yes, Brexit. That happened while we were on this holiday as well. Before we left, we were all confident that it was just a paper exercise to finish off UKIP, and in fact felt smug to see the smiles disappear from the leavers’ faces. On 24th when the results came out, we were going to Trouville-sur-mer. The entire day was spent in disbelief, then frustration and then anger, as all the lies started to surface. Brexit was the pinnacle of the catastrophes that week and I believe it was symbolised by everything that went wrong with the car. It was a nightmare, getting a simple thing done took forever, service on both sides of the border was equally appalling, and above all, since it happened, things were never the same. You live in fear that things will go wrong again, and so it did. The car proved my premonitions, and Brexit will go the same way. I think there will be a time in future where all good and terrible memories will fade away, and we will remember the journey just as our own Brexit disaster. I think that should say it all.