Wednesday, July 25, 2007

White Knuckles

Part 1 in semi-regular series detailing Euro Tour 2007 highlights. While guaranteed to be interesting to the Author, it's likely and expected to be less so to Readers like you. All hail the Wankosphere, for it feeds my ego. Let's begin, shall we?

Phase 1 of the adventure was a 4-and-a-half day free-spirited driving tour of Southern England. The general plan for Day 1: land at Heathrow, pickup the car, visit nearby Windsor Castle, then drive to Salisbury for some R&R in a B&B we had booked. The theme here was to keep jet-lag at bay and quickly get ourselves acclimatized to UK time.

The plan generally worked, but not in quite the way we had intended.

Air Canada fulfilled all of our expectations and ensured our flights were late. The culprits, as always, were ominous mechanical issues followed by the tried-and-true 'bad weather in Toronto' gambit. This time, it didn't matter. We were getting into Heathrow at 6:30am anyways, so Air Canada could be late as they liked as far as I was concerned.

After an uneventful flight filled with boring movies, uneatable 'food', and free booze, we arrived at Heathrow (late) and spent almost an hour clearing customs. Because I don't sleep much on airplanes, I had already achieved a Zen-like state of fatigue and the customs lineup took on a slightly psychedelic tinge around the edges.

With some perfunctory questions from a customs dude with frosty-tipped hair, we found our bags, found the Avis shuttle, and - before I could think twice - we were standing in front of a gleaming blue 2007 VW Passat diesel wagon. Good news: it would easily hold our luggage. Bad news: the steering wheel was on the wrong side.

According to Google Maps, Windsor Castle is but a mere 18 minutes from Heathrow. Armed with these instructions, a traditional map, and a GPS, we managed to extend the trip to about 45 minutes. Finding Windsor was easy. Finding the Castle was dumb luck.

Prying my hands of the steering wheel required gentle coaxing. I knew my heart would explode before the end of the day, but my family would not believe me. I wondered how they would get my body back to home soil. I could only imagine the Air Canada screw-ups.

But the sun was shining, the air was warm, and the Castle was the first friend we would make on our journey. It was interesting enough, but not really the sort of place that would inspire awe in Her Majesty's subjects. We saw the changing of the guard, some staterooms, the chapel - but my mind became fixated on the journey ahead.

Soon enough, we decided to head to Salisbury where we would be using Rokeby Guest House as our base for a couple of days. Notwithstanding the valiant efforts of our navigational tools, we could not escape the environs of Windsor. We got lost, got lost again, found ourself back where we started, then did the whole thing over again. For 90 minutes we did this as the muscles in my neck crept ever-close to my earlobes.

This was a trial-by-fire driving lesson in England. I soon got the hang of driving on the left and my tires were hitting the left-hand curb less frequently. It soon became apparent that the mechanics of driving would not be the issue. Navigating would be the problem - and a big one at that since roads tend to Not Be Straight and Not Go Directly Anywhere. Traffic circles were a cute idea, but little-resembled circles. Imagine a highway clover-leaf flattened out and shrunk to fit inside the smallest English village. Now imagine that finding your road inside one of these hairballs is decided by a lottery who's rules are a secret. Now you've got an English traffic circle.

Then came Eton, home of the venerable Eton College. While not on our agenda, we nonetheless found ourselves quite suddenly on its narrow, ancient streets wistfully imagining the circumstances under which the authorities would find our bodies decaying inside a lifeless blue Passat. I made a mental check of the location of our passports. It would make identification easier, I imagined.

That's when we had 'the incident'. The left front tire (or is that tyre) kissed the curb yet again and emitted a rubber-on-stone shriek. As a cabbie would soon point out to us, this had caused the sidewall to develop a plum-sized rupture. Day 1, and I was already having to deal with car repairs. It was Nova Scotia all over again (another story for another day).

Into a gas station for driving directions and a check of the tire. The spare tire was full-sized, so there was no urgent need to locate a garage to buy a new tire. I made the decision to drive on the damaged tire and, if it burst, I'd throw on the spare. Damn the torpedoes.

90 minutes later, we were in Salisbury - 3 hours in total to take a trip that the good people at Google promised would take 1 hour. And the tire - still intact.

The final irony - we got lost 1 block from the B&B because the lovely people who own Rokeby Guest House gave us incorrect directions. Once we sorted this out (with some help from a convenience store clerk), we found the B&B a comfortable oasis in which to encamp. To put things in perspective, a pile of leaves under a tarp would have been equally as comfy for us by this time. We had long ago ceased to be running on fumes. Now it was spite.

The last act of the day before falling into comas would be dinner at a local pub where the people were friendly and the food was better than Air Canada's.

This was Day 1, and I already had an irrational fear of driving blue Passat's. What would the next 4 days bring? The large beer told me to forget about all this for while, and so I did.