You are more used to reading my dear wife’s amusing and engaging anecdotes of our life in France. We are sat here chez nous No. 21, in our exceptionally warm house, and probably out of sympathy Tiina has given me permission to break into her site and write my first ever blog.
My beloved spouse has previously regaled you with tales of renovation, of puppy love, of a near-continuous whirlwind of travel, work, art, relationships and history, all bespattered with the plaster dust and sugar soap of our magnum opus. I’m not going to tell you about all that. At least not really.
I hold the reins of the chariot that is our lifestyle. I am the only one with a drivers’ licence. I currently have three vehicles to my name, and have had five at one point, and this extraordinary behaviour needs explanation. Spoiler alert – I am no petrolhead – I choose cars based on how I want to use them. This led me to purchase the very utilitarian Renault Laguna I have in France – I’ve had it 4 years and have doubled the mileage to 280,000, and it has served us well in transporting a tonne of tiles from Arles, getting us across Central Europe to Finland the back way (Switzerland, Luxembourg, Germany, Poland, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia) on our epic road trip to collect local foods for our wedding feast, then returning via Sweden, Denmark, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium. A true workhorse. Vehicle count 1.
As regular vingt-et-uners will know, our home is in Mazamet, yet I work in the UK. If you’ve ever tried to circumvent the traffic queuing at the confluence of the M5 and M6, chances are you have driven past my current workplace in Tipton. About 13 months ago, I decided, as we could afford it, that rather than keep paying for hire cars, I would buy a car to keep in the UK. And I thought I’d spoil myself, by going for a soft-top. Now I should explain something. Whereas my much-loved elder brother has few qualms about spending plenty on achieving the right level of engine throatiness, I work to budgets that are probably a twentieth of his outlay. So I trawled the West Midlands budget car ads and security-fenced compounds, and found Hazy. And fell in love. A beautiful, slightly worn, high mileage Saab 9-3 convertible. Not much money. Sold. Vehicle count 3, of which more later.
One sunny June day last year, I took Hazy on our maiden voyage into beautiful Gloucestershire to a team-building event in a brewery. What could possibly go wrong? We did the worky bit, then had a trip around the brewery, before all jumping into our cars to get to the laser wargaming that had been planned. Top off, early summer sunshine, gorgeous. 20 minutes in to the first war game, having just scored a palpable hit on Rupert (the Boss), I moved forward to establish a better position. One innocuous slip later, and I’m flat on my back, my left ankle at right angle to a severely broken leg. War game over. My dear colleagues, robbed of their chance to shoot each other and not go to jail, went to the pub instead. I was placed in a ketamine-induced trance whilst emergency doctors put my limb pieces broadly into the right place. Hazy stayed put, until returned to the office car park by persons unknown.
Hospital teaches you to be thankful for small mercies – there is always someone worse off than you. Good job it was my left foot, so I could still potentially drive an automatic. After rehab at aforementioned brother’s house, where my only transport was an electric scooter hired to protect my mobility and sanity (still managed to pull a wheelie mind!), my workplace, evidently feeling some manner of guilt over my injury, found me a small Lexus automatic. This was a perfect runabout for a couple of months, but I needed more. That summer we were due to undertake another trip to Finland, and it would have been rude to take the company vehicle on such a jaunt. I once more set about the small ads to find a car capable of lasting 6 months until my leg was fixed, and making the journey from UK to France to Finland and back. Tiny budget, so I went for a high spec wreck – an S-Class Mercedes with all the bells and whistles you could imagine. No name this time, as the emotional connection was non-existent. A good cruiser, less than £1500. Car count peaks at 5. By the way, how can annual insurance premiums for a middle-aged man with a sensible driving history possibly be a third of the value of the car he drives? Disgraceful.
Anyway the Merc served its purpose – plenty of room for my plaster-encased leg, a whole back seat for Rusty and a vast expanse of heated heaven for my tiny wife. Got us to France. Then got us to Finland, with a few engine coolant changes.
And back to the South of France. Finally, as I left Paris, something went in the suspension, and the front end sat down, giving us a profile as tough as the toughest Thunder Road combatants without the flames. We limped up to and across the Channel, where after 100 or so more miles, she died on the side of the M42. Her final days were spent being repatriated to my office car park (growing collection now) before being hauled to hear the final verdict from a Mercedes specialist, who wrote off his bill in exchange for the vehicle for parts. Felt a bit like recycling. At this point I tried to drive my Hazy Lady again, only to find my foot simply wasn’t up to it. A further prognosis of at least 6 months, and probably another operation or two. Back to the ad sites.
This time I needed to work quickly – the courtesy car from my insurers was time-limited to 3 days. A trawl round the used car websites a bit further afield, and I found Festy, a lower mileage Saab 9-5 Automatic, with a few home comforts in Smethwick (the car, not Smethwick). I am insistent on cruise control these days, as the French motorways offer the joyous luxury of low traffic density over really long distances. Seat warmers are a distinct advantage on cold mornings. This was last August, since when we’ve enjoyed a period of relative calm – most things on the car work perfectly, it combines comfort with enough utility to really not have to worry about life too much. She is my 4th Saab, and I have to declare that there is a “hygge” element to our love affair – I look after the car, the car looks after me. Or maybe I’m just becoming a bit more Scandi by dint of a weird osmosis from my Finnish family. Vehicle count 4.
The more observant of you will have noticed that there is a phantom vehicle lurking in the Stygian gloom behind my vehicle counts. Let me introduce Colin.
Another budget purchase, We picked Colin up in Spring 2017, for Tiina to use as additional studio space whilst we were living on a narrowboat. He is the same age as Tiina, considerably larger and in need of substantially more maintenance. He has also beaten my record for the least driven vehicle of any that I have owned. Whereas my one true love convertible Saab has had me sit on her once. Aside from a test-drive, I have never, no never, driven Colin. He is currently being prepared for repatriation to the South West as we will use him! Someday!
After a period of calm, I have had further car-tharses. A dear friend of long standing needed an emergency replacement for her car, and I offered her my Hazy Lady. She too fell in love, so my caramour now sits on her drive overlooking the Mendip Hills. We shall stay in touch, meeting as we do to walk the dogs or drink wine. I’ve also had two further operations – one to remove the diseased metalwork from my lower leg, and a second to replace the internal stiffeners with an exoskeleton designed to adjust and stretch the leg bones whilst they reform and strengthen. It’s like Robocop’s leg without the hydraulics. And I’ve tried to drive with it. And I have. And it hurts. Because although I can drive, getting RoboLeg under the wheel to the far side of the cockpit, requiring Elastagirl-style contortions without the actual superpower, there’s something else. When turning a sharp corner, and without remembering, you catch your fingers between the wheel and the sharp edge of the upper frame sitting just below the knee.
So I’m now on the lookout for a left-hand drive automatic with Headroom and Cruise control – the Laguna’s in intensive care and we’re not sure if she’ll pull through. Vehicle count 3 and rising…..