There’s something about waking up and knowing that you’re finally going to get home after almost a week’s delay that puts a spring in your step. Our flights back to England (mine to Heathrow, my travel companions to Manchester) were booked for late afternoon and we were only a couple of hours away from the airport. The day was bright and clear and we could afford a bit of sight-seeing so we headed into the city centre to stock up on medicines for 2-year old Lennart and to have a look around.
We parked up close to the cathedral and I was surprisingly moved by the monuments to Joan of Arc. It was a quiet day and we wandered around the streets of the historic city centre thinking that, just like San Sebastian where we’d stayed the previous night, this was the sort of place that would be lovely to visit if you weren’t trying to get home with a sick baby and an Icelandic volcano to contend with.
After about an hour wandering around, we went back to the car and started our journey. We followed the signs to the motorway and everything was going fine right up to the point when a large truck decided to back into us at the entrance to the payage.
To be fair, it wasn’t entirely his fault. I can only guess (since he was too big to see round) that a car in front of him panicked and decided not to join the toll road and started backing up. He couldn’t see us tucked a couple of meters behind the back of his wagon and as his reversing lights came on we could all see exactly what was about to happen and he headed straight back at us. The crunch was not too bad, probably because the hand brake was off and we leapt out quickly, worried that he might not have even realised he’d hit us. The last thing we wanted was him to drive off without realising, leaving us with a damaged rental car.
The truck was Portuguese. The driver was Ukrainian. I was the driver and British. My passengers were German. We were in France. It was a recipe for a joke about cross cultural misunderstandings. In Germany if you have an accident – any accident – on the roads you have to call the police so my colleague Dominik went off to find the toll booth staff and ask them to call the police. They thought he was massively over-reacting but he’s tall and broad and they decided not to argue with him. The truck driver gave me some paperwork – a sort of Euro-standard accident report form. I tried to explain to him that I couldn’t fill out (and certainly wouldn’t sign) something written in a language I couldn’t read. I got out my phone and rang a Portuguese colleague (some readers may recall this whole saga started in Portugal) and put him on the phone to the driver.
Dominik had run off and put up his reflective triangle and was standing in the road trying to make sure that the trucks thundering towards his wife and baby hit him first. Marita was in the back of the car fretting over whether Lennart might or might not have a whiplash injury. I was wondering just what else could possibly go wrong. The driver handed back my phone and I spoke to the Portuguese colleague. He told me that we really ought to make a film of our Volcanic road-trip but he doubted that anybody would believe it was true. Whilst we waited for the police I sent texts to a few colleagues "Hey, guess what? We just got hit by a truck". At least we had the satisfaction of knowing how much amusement our road trip was giving colleagues and friends.
Eventually a police car arrived and an ultra-cool blonde pony-tailed policewoman and her colleague stepped out. In a rush of very garbled bad French with lots of hand gestures I attempted to explain what happened. She looked at me through her mirrored sun-glasses and said in perfect English "You didn’t need to call me. All you do is fill out the paperwork". She then told me what to write and where, told us it was no problem that we had called her but not to worry next time it happened. We hoped there wouldn’t be a next time but the way our luck was running, we couldn’t be sure. With papers exchanged and lots of photographs taken of what happened, we and the Ukrainian driver (who managed an "I’m really sorry" before he went) were back on the road and heading to the airport.
Whilst we’d been waiting for the police Dominik had rung the nice Avis lady in San Sebastian. By this stage we hated everyone in the company except her. He politely asked if you could ask her a couple of questions. The first was "Is it OK to take the car back to the airport instead of Calais" to which she said it was no problem at all, and the second was "We’ve just had an accident – what do we have to do?" I could imagine her telling her colleagues "Do you remember those mad foreigners from 2 days ago? They just got hit by a truck".
Two hours later we arrived at the airport and dropped off the car. Dominik got stung for another €800 of charges for the damage (he’d not booked the right type of CDW unfortunately and is still fighting 5 months later to get the money back on our accident where we clearly weren’t at fault). We then headed off to find our flights.
Once I got back to Heathrow I still had a few more steps to go through before I could head home. My car was at Luton Airport on the other side of London and I had to take a coach round the M25 to go and collect it. My car was in the short stay car park where I’d left it about 11 days earlier after pre-booking just 4 days of parking. Fortunately whilst we’d been out of the country a public outcry and a Facebook campaign had forced the car parks to not impose punitive charges to those caught up in the ash trouble. The car park did attempt to charge me something strange like £8 until I reminded them that I’d had an email that morning saying there would be no charges. Grudgingly they let me go on my way and about 3 hours later, just before midnight on day 3 of my journey, I was finally home. It took me another 4 months to go back to Portugal but I was flying again within a fortnight.
Despite all the traumas, the extreme costs, the sick child and hysterical mother, the car crash, the late night Paediatric A&E visit, I still really enjoyed our adventure. I just don’t want to do it again in a hurry.