Toy Story 5

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.

Saab 9-3 Cabriolet. Dream car

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. 

Rusty and his daddy taking a nap in the merc

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. 

Campervan, Camping Car
Colin the Camper

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…..

NORTH STATE – The Great Northern Road Trip vol 2

Coucou!

Greetings from Finland. It’s been over two weeks since we arrived and I’ve got so much to tell you guys! About Rusty and how much he loves to roam my country, James and his ability to pick up our difficult language, the antics of my bonkers/brilliant family… and most of all – the continuation of our epic road trip.

camping joy

My mum had borrowed my uncle’s motorhome and on the day of our arrival, as soon as we had finished our brunch, it was time to head out, towards the North, all six of us: my mum, Vesa her partner, my younger sister Tanja in addition to the two of us and the dog. James has been to Finland quite a few times now, but had never been to the Arctic Circle and frankly, neither had I. As luck would have it, our journey was going to take us much further – deep into Lapland and the wilderness. I could hardly contain my excitement!

The plan was to cross the lake country and head towards the Eastern border. First we would see Olavinlinna castle and meet up with some friends of my ma, after which we would proceed Northbound, all the way to Savukoski some 600 kilometres further up the country. There we would stay in a traditional wooden cabin in the wilderness and slowly make our way back down South. As James was still in recovery we wanted to take it easy, stopping every once in a while to soak in the scenery, eat, and chill. It was agreed my mum and Vesa would do the driving as me and my sister held no licence and James was unable to operate a non-automatic vehicle. It took a few hours to get used to the sway of the motorhome on the byways and B-roads, but an emergency beer stabilised the matters faster than expected.

The scenery through Saimaa was so beautiful I could hardly breathe. We were bouncing on these squiggly little lanes sprawling high atop of sand dunes between a couple of hundred lakes and I had never been so optimistic about a holiday in my life. Once my mum stopped for a fag, I let Rusty out to have a run in the woods. He scurried up to the waterline and came back wet and happy. The non-drivers among us had a few more drinks as the night was drawing in – the beer was French, and we had Finnish charcuterie for tea.

Not a bad first night in a camper!

The second day we were all woken up before six when my mum started driving towards the civilisation, it was cold and she needed the loo. My breakfast came in a form of porridge at a roadside café – the rest opted for filled croissants an hour later and in a flash, we were back on the road, not stopping before Olavinlinna – an ancient fortress on water and an important military base of the Middle Ages guarding the border between Finland and Russia. James was not quite on his feet yet, but managed to have a little look of the castle walls and the surrounding park while I raided the gift shop. Unfortunately the fort itself was closed for visitors due to a private event… not that anyone besides from myself and James would have been too keen on taking the tour anyway.

kuutti statue at olavinlinna

olavinlinna castle in Finland and Saimaa lake boat

And we had a date with my mum’s friends in Kitee, a rural town where Marimekko used to sew their clothes. This family runs a small dairy farm just outside of town and offered us freshly baked rhubarb and sour cream tart, a sort of national delicacy and thick slices of oven baked pancake. We were kindly presented the usage of their summer cabin for the night, but decided to grunt on, eventually overnighting on a lovely campsite called Hyvärilä Holiday and Youth Centre with a beautiful modern Sauna and plenty of room for Rusty to roam.

red earth paint

I am not going to lie, travelling with family can be a bitch – trying to find a place to overnight was a lot more difficult this time around than anyone would have expected and tempers were running high. I quickly lost confidence in asserting my own opinion on anything after being ignored and overruled time after time, whereas James found all communication increasingly frustrating as I was too upset to translate the finer points of the squabbling that was going on. I think Tanja too was finding it all a bit much and only crawled down from her bed as we reached the campsite. After a soothing Sauna and a shower, my mum whipped us up an omelette each, accompanied by more charcuterie, crispy bacon and cherry tomatoes. Clean and fresh, belly full of good food, the quarrelling of the day was just a bad memory when we settled in our beds.

After a night of partial sleep, having had next to no sleep the night before, my mum woke me up at the crack of dawn, by giving me a ring, consequently waking up the whole camper. She was somewhere with the dog and needed me there right away. I was shattered and angry and more than a little bit cold, but she said there was something worth seeing for, waiting for me in the crisp morning dew.

early morning at the lake

So I threw on a shirt and went, not because I believed her, but to avoid another day’s bickering.

And I really do feel quite bad for being so patronising at first. What awaited me out there was the most breath-taking display, a glimpse of pure heaven that could have not waited.

I walked up to the nearby lake, right up to the waterline to meet my mum who was waiting for me with Rusty at the pier. The morning was silent, dead quiet in fact, and the sun was just beginning its trek across the pale sky. The night had been near freezing and the lake was shrouded in mist – something that happens when the water is warmer than the air. Tied onto the side of the jetty was a row-boat, brand new and decorated in carvings of acorns and oak leaves. It smelled of fresh wood, smoke and tar. The atmosphere was solemn and exquisite and full of expectation for the day to come and I will carry the mark of that early morning with me to my grave. I tried to tell her how much it meant to be there with her, but my mother simply shrugged it off. “You like taking pretty pictures and this felt like your sort of thing,” she replied.

my dog at the pier in Finland

lake and a pier in Finland

At the camper, the preparations for the day ahead were in full swing: the magic of the early dawn had evaporated with the morning mist and it was time to move ahead. I slept away my cold as the camper rolled on and did not get up until we stopped to pick up sustenance from a passing supermarket ahead of making the final trek for the cabin in Savukoski. The closer we got to the given address of this summer house, the smaller the roads grew, eventually reducing to a dirt track with tufts of grass between two tire marks. You know you are fully and utterly in the wilderness when the power lines terminate.

We had passed that point some time ago now.

It was late afternoon when the camper jerked to a halt and we all climbed out stretching our limbs, Rusty first and James last on his poorly leg and crutches. We were in a clearing surrounded by thick forest, by a slow moving river. It was trying to rain and there were ants absolutely everywhere. And not just any ants, those big biting bastards that aggressively climbed up your legs as soon as you dared to stand still for a split second. There was no running water to speak of, what you needed to wash yourself had to be carried up a steep set of steps from the river below, no electricity and an outhouse to do your business in.

steep steps leading up to a summer cabin

edf

With the exception of Vesa who, despite of looking like a true man of the woods, prefers the comforts of a town or a city, we all loved it unconditionally.

We merrily set out to carry water for the Sauna and lit fires around the house to banish the cold and the damp. Somewhere along the way my mum managed to murder an ant queen by lighting up the barbecue, and the angry ant minions pretty much confined us to the cabin for the rest of the evening. Not that anyone minded – by now the summerhouse was lovely and warm. Rusty had found himself an old ball and looked the happiest I have ever seen him, roaming free in the nearby woods and rolling in shrubs of blueberry and lingonberry.

As we slept, the temperature dropped below freezing. I woke up shivering cold just as it started to rain. James and I had opted for staying in the camper that might have been somewhat colder than the cabin, but at least we were finally alone. It was the morning of my 28th birthday.

Later, he stayed behind making puzzles when I took Tanja out canoeing. The river was cold, shallow and the water calm, allowing us to sit back and take in the glory of the wilderness. With that I mean… talk sisterly shit and drink beer. We had tried leaving Rusty behind in the cabin, but he must have slipped out of the door and followed us back to the river, swimming to a nearby island and crying out after us. We paddled over and the silly hound blatantly refused to get in the canoe, cutting the trip a bit short, but perhaps for the better as the rain was picking up again.

That night we ate spaghetti with basil and home-grown tomatoes that had travelled with us from France. My mum was heating up the Sauna while James had moved on to another puzzle, now with the picture of my childhood hero, an ice hockey player called Teemu Selänne, when I headed off to do a bit of running. It seemed like the perfect birthday treat, a bit of alone time, come hell or high water.  I managed to get lost in the very limited selection of paths out of the forest before making it out on to the open road. Feeling like an idiot for having to return to the cabin twice for instructions, I was running a lot faster than my usual pace, resulting in a new record time. Also, this was the first time I finished a 5km run without passing another living soul.

Once I returned back to the cottage I was met with the rest of the gang who, apart from James enjoying a glass of Henry Weston’s finest, was clutching a full pint of rose wine. I too drew myself some cider and took to the Sauna. This one had a traditional wood burning stove with a small boiler sitting atop its stones. In a modern Sauna you tend to have a shower at hand, but here you got your washing water by mixing the near boiling water heated up on the stove with the river cold stuff. Welcome to Finland – the non-tourist edition! As James was unable to descend the steep steps down to the river, Tanja joined me for a swim, but in the end I was the only one to make the full dip. The water was so cold it made my lungs tighten and the extremities of our bodies tingle and burn. Unusually, the river was deep at the shore side only, becoming shallower towards the middle and allowing you to walk the last steps to a small sandy verge sticking out from the water. I was completely naked, besides a pair of ill-fitting swimming slippers, in the cool evening breeze. If given a choice there and then, I would have happily stayed under those stars, on that sandy isle bank in the middle of nowhere until the rest of eternity.

I returned to the sauna out of breath, cold skin steaming in the hot air. We sat there, James and I, in the humid heat, surrounded by flickering candles and thought of ourselves very lucky.

Morning started slowly. It was hardly surprising as few members of our wee holiday party had a bit too much to drink and nobody seemed too keen on leaving. Rusty had loved it there, roaming the wilderness like he was born of it and claiming the forest as his own. But there was no other way around it: Tanja needed to be back in the city and my mum was determined to get her as close to home as possible. She took on the cleaning of the cabin as the rest of us awkwardly packed up and shuffled our feet, trying to stay out of her way and avoiding the biting ants.

Not a particularly pleasant end to an otherwise relaxing getaway, I thought.

James and I were under the impression we were to take the longer but faster route on the motorway heading down south, but somehow ended up bouncing down dirt tracks regardless, blindly and unyieldingly following the navigation app. I really could not see the sense behind this mindless rush to get to South just to get one person home-ish, passing monuments, lovely old villages and sights without a thought to spare. We hardly stopped to wee and had our tea at a traffic stop somewhere just on the Southern side of the Arctic Circle. Looked like my mum was determined to get to Toijala even if it killed her.

I was feeling down and disappointed, James confused and tired. In fact, we were all tired, especially the drivers Vesa and mum. We arrived in our destination close to three o’clock at night and had a short sleep before joining my uncle’s family for breakfast. They invited us for a barbecue including home-smoked salmon and a Sauna, after which we slept in the camper for another night before heading back to Forssa the next day. I cannot stress how lovely it was to relax with my extended family after the gruelling drive. My poor mum was barely able to see having stared at the road non-stop for over 14 hours and clearly needed that day off.

And frankly, without a little pause spent enjoying each other’s company again after all that mindless rushing, we probably would not be in speaking terms. But such is holidaymaking with family, I guess.

We saw so much of the country I love, almost too much for a short five day trip, but I am already yearning to get back on the road. Although, this time just the three of us: James, Rusty and I. Not that I hated going on an adventure with my mum and the gang either – it’s just that it has made me realise we have very different priorities when it comes to holidaymaking. I would have wanted to see more of the towns we drove through, the museums, galleries, parks and nature and not spend as much time on the road. At times it felt almost cruel to pass something interesting and not stop at least for a tiny peek. I know my mother was only trying to show us as much of the country as she could squeeze into a few short days and I really appreciate that. We all came back exhausted, but made some lovely memories along the way.

fields of gold

The million dollar question remains: would I go and hop on a camper with my mum and hit the road again? The answer is a sincere maybe – but only if we were to plan it a bit better, set more boundaries and discuss more about our expectations for the holiday. I appreciate my own space and my own company perhaps a bit more than the average person and that can make me a wee bit difficult to deal with sometimes. You do not need to have identical needs and likes to travel together, but ideally you are aware each individual’s expectations before heading head first into the unknown. I always knew there was going to be conflict when you shove five people into one tiny motorhome. There were no hard feelings at the end of our journey, but we all walked away needing a bit of alone time for sure.

Except the dog.

He needs constant fuss just like always. More is more.

But what I am trying to say is, do not let the fear of conflict stop you from experiencing new things. What’s the fun in a predictably comfortable existence? Think of Rusty who found and conquered a new forest, or the mist over a lake stretching for miles and miles. Next summer my ma is coming over to spend some time in France and I am going to have to improve my hosting game quite a bit to award her with the same sense of wonder this weird and fantastic road trip evoked in me.

Untill next time my lovelies – safe travels!

North State - The Great Northern Road Trip vol 1

NORTH STATE – The Great Northern Road Trip vol 1

Bonjour!

And greetings from Finland – my homeland.  This one is going to be the short but sweet story of our most recent road trip and spoiler alert: we made it in one piece.

route from Mazamet, France to Forssa, Finland

But oh boy was it a journey!

And not the first time we grunted it either – James has driven us to Finland once before.  That time, almost two years ago now, we took the longer route via Berlin, Olsztyn in Poland and the Baltic Countries, arriving in Helsinki two weeks before getting married near my old hometown on the New Year’s Eve.  That one set up a pretty high standard for all road trips to come!

The Scandinavian way is notably shorter, however, and as we are travelling with our dog Rusty, opting for the easier distance was a no-brainer.  He has never been to Finland before and we really wanted to take our little man on a holiday with us, even if it meant a gruelling drive across Europe.

I do not drive at all so it was up to James to get us to Finland safely.  Easier said than done, really, especially as he had broken his leg rather badly just seven weeks ago.  My dearest hubby did a smashing job though, sorting us out with an automatic vehicle, an ancient S-class Mercedes that turned out to be a fantastically comfortable ride despite of some operational issues, and by buying the pupper a sturdy travel harness.  Our Rusty is the most placid dog to ever travel in a car and would hardly need a harness to strap him down, but as they say… safety first!

sunrise in denmark

We took short brakes by the motorway to get some sleep and a spot of fodder here and there preferring to get to Finland as fast as possible.  In just a short weekend James had driven over two thousand kilometres and we arrived to the ferry port of Stockholm with time to spare.  Rusty had loved nothing more than snuggling up between us every night, even stealing my seat completely at one point, but I and James were pretty keen on getting some z’s on the proper beds on the boat.  Unfortunately, it was not going to be all smooth sailing…

When we arrived in out cabin on the boat taking us from Stockholm to Turku overnight, James’ leg was not looking good at all.  The on-board medics recommended an urgent visit to the nearest emergency room as soon as the ship had docked in the morning as he was clearly in a need of urgent care.  Although they let us drove our car out of the ferry ourselves, things were starting to feel pretty hairy.  To sum it all up, we were both scared the long drive had put James’ recovery in serious jeopardy.

Fortunately, there is a happy ending – the medical personnel in Turku hospital was fantastic in diagnosing and treating my most precious guy, and able to send us on our way within four hours from arrival.

rusty in his travelling harness

And this is where the first part of our road trip ends, in Forssa, at the breakfast table of my Mother who was anxious to receive us and had cooked for an army as usual.  Rusty is over the moon to be in Finland too, he loves his forests and lakes and there are plenty of both here.  Where he is enjoying running around like a headless chicken, surrounded by wilderness and its new smells, James and I are looking forward to a gentle, relaxing holiday – preferably without any further complications!

Finnish landscape

James always says Finland is like real life Center Parcs: everybody lives in a little wooden cottage in the forest and drinks are dirt expensive.  As a Finn, I can concur.  We have this whole theme park of a country to explore and I can’t wait to get started!

Until next time, au revoir!