The waiting is the hardest part

There are three things I want from a holiday. The first and most important is a complete break from work. The other two things I want to do on holiday are to ride my bike and read my books.

We travel to my wife’s house in France for most of our holidays. During the summer, my wife likes to book at least one week as a holiday within the holiday. This might involve a week in the South of France, or on the Ile d’Yeu, or (this year) in the Alps.

Now, I can generally take or leave these weeks. I’ve written before about the tribulations of the South, and while I love the Vendée region more than any other in France, there are always things that vex me about these holidays, things that add unnecessary stress and make it difficult to relax.

Which brings us to the Alps. I was mildly curious about coming here in the summer, because it’s a part of France I’ve never been. I’ve no interest in winter sports, and to be honest I also have no interest in climbing, rambling, walking, hiking, climbing, paragliding, climbing, or any of the other outdoor activities that people do in the mountains. A person only really has space in their life for one hobby that requires shitloads of specialist equipment. In my case, it’s cycling. In a parallel universe, it might have been golf, or kayaking. And no, I do not dig cycling up Alps.

We came to Chamonix, which is something of a British colony; so much so that you can find actual Yorkshire Tea in the local Supermarket. Usually it’s the tea travesty that is Lipton’s. It’s surprising to hear so many British voices, something I’m not used to in the rarely visited Haute Saône region. But there are also people here from all around Europe: Spain, Italy, Switzerland (for some reason), Germany, Denmark, and so on.

As I noted when it was pouring with rain the other day, people love the outdoors and all you can do in it, but what they really love more than anything is shopping. And Chamonix is a paradise for shoppers, as long as the only thing those shoppers want to buy is a puffy down jacket.

So yeah: mountains. Nice photos, but my knees protest. My ankles protest. My hips protest. But the biggest source of stress, as in so many other hikes of life, is other people.

Oh my god.

Any British person on the continent has encountered the complete absence of queues in France. It’s not that there aren’t things to queue for. It’s not even that people “don’t know how” to queue. They just don’t care. If you stand waiting to board something (a train, a bus, a cable car), and endeavour to provide some personal space for the person in front of you, then someone else will see that space and move into it. Just today, waiting for the Mont Blanc Tramway, a woman brazenly strolled to the front of what would have been the queue, pretended to peruse the ice-cream shop menu, and then just happened to find herself among the first to board.

My daughter gets painfully embarrassed, but I can’t help myself. At another point today, when a sharp-elbowed woman tried to sneak in front of us, I stared her down and when she said, “I was queueing,” I replied, “Après nous,” in as rude a way as I could. I explained to Chloé, these people are being rude with their bodies and counting on the fact that we’re too polite to say anything, so I think it behooves us to say something. I may not have used behooves.

Anyway, once you notice the shitty behaviour surrounding waiting for anything, you can’t un-notice it.

And in the end, this is what drives me potty on holiday. Waiting around. We arrived at the tramway station today and had to wait two hours for a tram to take us up to the Mont Blanc glacier. Spectacular views, both on the way and when you get there, but when we got there, we were told it would be another two hours before we could get a tram down. And, to be honest, there was only about half an hour of anything worth doing up on that mountain, which included paying €4 for a can of Coke.

Anyway: hell is other people. An amazing insight, I’m sure you’ll agree.

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Vicarious Road Trip

Lake Meredith, near Fritch, Texas
Lake Meredith, near Fritch, Texas

Back in my 20s, when I had my first, badly paid, job, I would indulge often in fantasy road trips. One of my favourite reading genres was the drive-across/around-America journal, from Steinbeck’s Travels with Charlie to William Least Heat Moon’s Blue Highways via Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and of course, variously, Kerouac. North America wasn’t my only fantasy. I also pored over the maps and pages of Slow Boats to China and dreamed of booking a ticket on the Orient Express.

In 1983, I did embark on a European road trip, taking the 24-hour ferry to Spain and then motorcycling (as pillion) up from Santander to Rotterdam. It was around 2000km (1200 miles), and it taught me a few things about myself. First of all, my dreams of sea voyages and slow travel were shattered by the immediate sea sickness I experienced on the ferry. Not only could I not sleep in the cabin we’d booked, but I was barely able to stand upright. I spent the crossing horizontal on the deck of the ship. The second thing was that I (specifically my bowels) really don’t like roughing it, so wild camping was most definitely out of my life.

I did eventually meet America, in the summer of 1992, when I spent some weeks at the University of Illinois as part of my first degree. And it was there I learned a few more things about myself that crushed my travel fantasies for good. The first was that I got startlingly homesick, hated being away from my Common European Home. The homesickness had its roots in a hatred of the local food and the hopelessly parochial American media, as well as the dysfunctional relationships within my small group of Nottingham University students. Then there was the humidity, the mosquitoes, and have I mentioned how awful the food was?

The greatest blow was my own inability to have money in sufficient quantity to finance even the most basic road trip. Even if I could stand the food and the weather, even if I didn’t mind roughing it, I couldn’t afford it. Even with an “unlimited” visa stamped in my passport, I was screwed.

And so I flew home. Give me a European street with a European tram and a European bicycle, thank you please.

My oldest daughter is off to Copenhagen in September, to start an MA, and I envy her that excitement and couldn’t be prouder of all she’s achieved so far. Meanwhile, my youngest, 18, is currently in a small state park in middle of the New Mexico desert, on the road trip of a lifetime with a friend she met last year in Germany.

If you’d asked me a couple of years ago, I’d have suggested that my introverted youngest, who is so similar to me she might be a clone, would suffer homesickness, just like her dear old dad. But no. A month on her own in Germany last year, and she seemed to transform into a funny and confident, sociable and sophisticated world traveller.

So she started planning her US road trip, which concerned me. I was afraid it would be too expensive, too dangerous, that she wouldn’t be able to deal with being so far from home, or that the car would overheat in the desert, that she would end up crushed and disappointed when the trip didn’t happen. I suggested the Amtrak option, something involving less driving, more staring out of train windows. Meanwhile, she got up on weekends at 5 a.m. for the best of two years, and saved half of everything she earned. In the end, she not only had the money for the plane tickets, but was able to book accommodation and have gas money too.

Cadillac Ranch, near Amarillo, Texas
Cadillac Ranch, near Amarillo, Texas

A week later, and she’s already in her third time zone, and has sent back extraordinary photographs from an itinerary chosen as much as possible to fit her own nerdy agenda: locations inspired by Bob Dylan, The Band or Bruce Springsteen, or civil war battles, or books (Big Sur, Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee). It’s all the more incredible when you consider that many of her school contemporaries were looking forward to a hedonistic week in Spanish nightclubs and bars.

On the subject of extraordinary photographs: she has a Nikon film camera with her, but the pictures we’re getting back are being taken on an iPhone 7. And what a brilliant bloody camera it is. It’s worth taking a moment to appreciate that. I’m uploading the pictures to my Flickr account, so I can vicariously take the credit for this vicarious road trip.

Loco Motion

Copenhagen: better than here

There have been a few airport trips this week, relating to the kids and their near-future plans. Most of my long-distance driving over the past few years has taken place (a) in the middle of the night; and (b) in France, but this week I’ve seen Britain’s drivers raw in tooth and claw. French drivers have their own issues, but British drivers are awful in unique ways. I blame the class system.

I’m old enough to remember the days before the M25 was a thing, when the North Circular was London’s main péripherique, and when we still called Heathrow London Airport and nobody was used to the idea that Gatwick was also a London Airport. The M25 was an orbital designed by vested interests, and was built with a rat in its foundations. To be effective, this round-London route should only have junctions with other major motorways: nine of them, plus the two ends that meet at the Dartford crossing. But because it was built with 31 junctions, it has always been used by local traffic. Furthermore, because there were so many fucking junctions, as with any ring-road, a process of in-filling took place, with warehouses and shopping centres, and other businesses locating themselves conveniently close and adding to the traffic.

The perceived wisdom is that it has never had enough capacity. Built with 3 lanes per carriageway, it now has 4 for most of its length, and in places there are 5 and even six. Of course, every time the 4 drops down to 3, there’s a pinch point, a bottleneck, and the traffic grinds to a halt. The Highways Agency spent billions installing so-called “smart motorway” technology, and introduced variable speed limits, which are of course largely ignored and stop-start concertina traffic is the norm.

It’s grim down South.

Much of this travesty was carved into areas of outstanding natural beauty, but how people endure living down there, I don’t know. It’s a choking Ballardian dystopia of stress, aggression, and recklessness. It’s no better in the towns just off the motorway than it is on the actual road. And of course, it’s much worse in the summer because there is always more traffic on the road in summer, and more roadworks, and more accidents, and more bombed-out drivers with matchsticks holding their eyes open. Even the road surface of the Southern M25 is a nightmare: slabs of concrete with expansion joints, and a flubber of rubber on the corrugated road that continually feels as if you’ve got a flat tyre.

When the going is clear, Gatwick is just 1 hour and 45 minutes from where I live. On Monday I managed the total journey in about 4 hours, which was not too bad*, adding just half an hour of sitting in slow-moving traffic. On the Thursday leg, however, there were accidents everywhere and the there-and-back journey took 5 hours and 30 minutes. This adds up two two extra hours sitting in a low gear, breathing diesel particulates and observing the terrible behaviour of other road users.

At one point, the driver of a red van got road rage as I pulled into his lane (because the lane I’d been in was becoming an exit); he angrily pursued me, moved into the lane outside me and then drove parallel to me, hoping I suppose to scream through two layers of glass into my face. All the while, he’s more focused on the perceived slight of someone getting in front of him than he was on his own safety and that of others around him. Me? I just pulled in front of him again: he was so intent on intimidating me that he left another gap in front.

Another driver, a woman in a red BMW, got bent out of shape at one point when two lanes were filtering into one. There’s a clear protocol here: merge in turn. Only she didn’t want to, and further down the road, almost pulled recklessly into oncoming traffic because she wanted to take a short cut (?) to the roundabout ahead. Steam, presumably, coming out of her ears. Male, female, van, car, motorbike: people are driving around like maniacs and it’s not safe out there. I mean, do motorcyclists think we see them in our mirrors as they flash between lanes of traffic? You can’t be looking in your side mirror all the time, for fucksake. 

Saw a woman just tonight, driving a car coming towards me and tapping away at the screen of her phone whilst also barely controlling her steering wheel. Hope the kids in the nearby school feel safe.

But in all of this, quite the most bizarre and irrational habit is what happens when there isn’t standing traffic. When the traffic flows, or starts to, some people still just sit in the same lane. Traditionally, this is the middle lane. When the lane count rises to five, however, the lane they’re hogging is the fourth one, and there are often three more or less empty lanes on their inside. So of course then people start overtaking on these inside lanes, which is dangerous but understandable. A moment’s inattention, and everybody is sitting in a jam again.

My oldest daughter was in Copenhagen: a capital city where you see children, where there are ramps for bikes in the underground stations, where there is as much space given to pedestrians and cyclists as there is to cars: sounds like paradise.

*It was still horrible, but everything is relative

You can’t park here: the big electric lie

£72,000 to you

We’re surrounded by liars and charlatans at the moment, so you almost don’t know where to start really. The Guardian has recently changed its style guide, and is now referring to “climate crisis” and “climate breakdown” rather than “climate change”. This seems sensible, as I believe it was someone in the Bush administration who came up with “climate change” as a way of dismissing the anthropogenic nature of global warming, which the Guardian is now calling “global heating”.

Words are important, of course, and maybe the thinking is beginning to be a bit joined up. But not all the way.

Unfortunately, newspapers need to sell advertising, and in order to do that they need to generate clicks. One of the ways the Guardian does this, believe it or not, is to review new cars (and sometimes bicycles) in its Lifestyle section. Now, your traditional image of a Guardian reader is probably a school teacher or sociology professor in a chunky jumper, someone with a cupboard full of different olive oils and some mouldering bags of brown rice.

Recent cars reviewed in the Wheels section of the Guardian include the Citroen C5 Aircross (£23,000, quite reasonable); the Bentley Continental GT (um, £159,000 – that’s an expensive Volkswagen); the Seat Cupra Ateca (£36,000 – another expensive VW); and the Honda CRV (£28,000, no VW parts involved). So three crossover/SUVs and a luxury coupé. And today: The Jaguar I-Pace, £58,000 worth of electric SUV.

Reviews like this aren’t aimed at Dr Chunky Jumper or Professor Brown Rice. They’re designed to garner page views on the interwebs, with comments often disabled because they’re all essentially the same comment anyway.

But there we are: an electric vehicle, in the same class as a Tesla, or the forthcoming expensive offerings from Audi and Mercedes. Electric vehicles for wealthy people. You might see the odd one around, in addition to the smaller and slightly cheaper offerings from Renault, Nissan, and so on.

But here’s what has been vexing me lately. I was imagining a scenario in which I had an electric vehicle with a range of, say, 280 miles, like that Jaguar. So my regular trips to France, a 560-mile journey, could theoretically be managed on two full charges, but it’s not that simple. First of all, is that 280 mile range with a driver and no passengers and no luggage? What about, say, three passengers, and their luggage? What about three passengers and their luggage in December, in the middle of the night? And let’s also take into account the fact that the last 20% of a charge takes much longer than the first 80%, so that most electric car drivers are going to be managing about 200 miles, then needing to stop for 40-60 minutes to top it up to 80%. A Nissan Leaf, by the way, can manage about 150 miles.

Which means my 560-mile drive to France is going to need two lengthy stops at high speed charging stations.

Fine. That would work, in a world in which I am one of the few people wealthy enough to own an EV with a 280-mile range. Because I could, say, drive to the Channel Tunnel, park in a charging bay for an hour before boarding, then stop again around Reims for another boost. Another 40 minute stop just before leaving the motorway network near Langres, and I could probably be home and dry with charge to spare. And we’ve added a couple of hours to an 11-hour journey, bearable: unless you’re the cat.

Act only according to that maxim whereby you can, at the same time, will that it should become a universal law.[1]

What Kant meant by this, if I may, is that you could only consider an action ethical if it would be okay for everybody to do the same thing.

There are around 100,000 electric vehicles on the road in the UK. But there are about 31 million cars (source). If you go to a shopping centre or the channel tunnel terminal or a motorway service station, you might find 6-12 high speed charging bays. To charge that Jaguar up to 80% in 40 minutes, you need a 100kW point. Let’s say that up to 12 Eurotunnel customers can currently be driving one of these high-end cars.

There’s a reason they’re high end: because it would not be okay, and would not be feasible or practical for too many more people to be driving them. This, for me, violates Kant’s categorical imperative.

The National Grid estimates that EVs will generate an additional 18GW of demand by 2050 (source). That’s 18 billion watts. Or 180,000 cars using 100kW charging bays. Obviously, you could have more cars using, say, domestic supply and charging slowly overnight, but those figures don’t seem to suggest that 31 million electric cars will eventually replace the 31 million internal combustion engine cars on the road. And I wonder who’s going to install all the infrastructure, and then how it will be paid for. Because half of UK households have to park their cars on the street.

At the moment, electric car ownership is subsidised by the taxpayer. So those Jaguar I-Pace and Tesla owners get £3,500 off the taxpayer towards their £60,000 cars, and they get convenient charging bays in prime locations: you know, like disabled people do. I don’t know about you, but that gives me a warm feeling inside.

Can you imagine what happens when “the rest of us” want to drive electric? First of all, the welfare-for-the-rich £3,500 subsidy will disappear. Then the price of charging will go up, to pay for the additional infrastructure, and also there will be a queue. Your long journey will involve several 40-minute charging sessions and several 40-minute waits for a free charging bay. The cat/dog/ferret will absolutely love it.

Can you imagine the rage sessions when people who have been waiting 40-minutes for a bay are gazumped by a recent arrival with a Mercedes EQC and an overdeveloped sense of entitlement?

All of which leads me to the conclusion that this electric car revolution is not going to be a thing. Unless you can afford a £58,000 car.

Night traveler

I’m not keen on catching sight of my fellow travelers on the channel tunnel. I don’t like to see people in their road clothes, their scuffs, their baggies, their trackies, their onesies. Their pyjamas. I think you should have standards when it comes to presenting yourself in public. And that bombed out roadtrip look upsets me: it reminds me that many other road users are as tired as I am, that we’re all reacting 30% more slowly. You see people parked beneath the signs saying “double-decker” and “single-decker”, trying to work out what it all means. Coming out of a service station that serves both directions on the autoroute and slamming on the brakes: wait, which way?

At the beginning of my continental driving career, back when I could do the whole twelve hour drive and not get out of the car with seized knees and swollen ankles, I tried to arrange crossings so that we could maximise daylight. Like many, I’m not keen on driving at night. My night vision is poor, and I am very afraid of falling asleep at the wheel. We’d cross around six, then make the 6½ hour drive (8 hours with breaks) across France with the sun mostly in the sky. Now the kids are older, or now the kids don’t even come with us sometimes, we sometimes do the drive with just a single, short, stop. It’s brutal, cruel, inhuman. Even worse, we now tend to do it overnight. This came about mainly because we bought Frequent Traveler tickets, and if you want to avoid the surcharge, you end up getting on a train at two o’clock in the morning.

My anxiety before these trips is now almost overwhelming. A hollow feeling in my chest before setting out; a feeling that I don’t even want to go; continual flashbacks to those moments when things have gone wrong. I was especially worried this time that it would rain and I would experience those moments of blind terror when trying to overtake trucks throwing up tsunamis of spray.

The other reason for these night crossings, the channel tunnel shuttle gradually got more and more popular. If you travel at peak times, you encounter long waits, gridlocked access roads, jammed up car parks, interminable waits for passport control.

We were early adopters of the tunnel. It was more expensive than the ferry, but much quicker, and (dealmaker) there was no seasickness on my part. But in those early days, before the rolling stock looked shagged out and before the toilets were totally borked, it was relatively quiet, feeling almost exclusive (except we were there). Then two or three things happened to change that.

The first is pure guesswork, but I suspect the price of the train and the price of the ferry converged. There were a few shaky years for the Tunnel, when the company was being bailed out by banks, when they got aggressive with the fare prices. These days? Not so much, I think, but a lot of people, once they’ve tried it, don’t want to go back.

The second thing that happened was an enormous increase in the number of Eastern Europeans using the service. When you are driving all the way back to Poland to visit relatives at Christmas, then the time-saving presented by the Eurotunnel is significant. I suppose there are equal numbers of people who choose the ferry precisely because you get a couple of hours to shut your eyes? Anyway, there were noticeably more Eastern Europeans on the service once those countries joined the EU, especially if you happened to be in the single-decker train with the vans and the coaches.

The third thing was that, after the initial honeymoon period, traveling with the budget airlines became intolerable for many. We took Easyjet to Basel or the South a couple of times ourselves, to save on the driving. But it’s so horrible, and got worse, which is before you get to the horrorshow of Ryanair, and I think a lot of people opted to drive rather than face the ritual humiliation of those buses in the sky. That accounts for the mix of people you started to see at the increasingly crowded terminal.

There was hardly anybody there. No Eastern Europeans, especially. No skiers.

All of which is a longwinded way of saying that, for the past several years, the channel tunnel terminal has been busy almost round-the-clock. You walk into the building at midnight and it’s crowded, and there are cars snaking around the nightmare of a car park, queueing, often too early and out of turn, for passport control.

Until this time, that is. In what I can only assume is a Brexit-related development, we crossed today from a very quiet terminal, passing straight onto a train with no delays, no waiting, no frustration. There was hardly anybody there. No Eastern Europeans, especially. No skiers.

And the first hundred kilometres on the autoroute were similarly quiet. We passed through the night on cruise control, only rarely overtaking a truck. I sometimes saw a car’s headlights carving through the darkness off in the countryside. It wasn’t until we passed the junction with the A2 from Belgium that we started to see other cars in significant numbers: Belgian cars. Very few Brits. We saw a couple of coachloads of school trippers at the one service station we stopped at, but that was it. So, this time, there I saw nobody in a onesie, no kids in pyjamas. It was a ghost terminal.

Anecdotally, a lot of people seem to have been told it would be unwise to travel at this time. The perfect storm of strikes and gilets jaunes and Brexit, it seems. Perhaps some thought that if they left the UK this weekend, they’d be refused entry after April 12. Who knows? Fear, uncertainty, and doubt stalk the land.

Car bore: 80

I’ll start by saying that I don’t really mind the new 80 kph speed limit. I’m rational enough to know that in terms of journey time and arrival time, taking into account 50 kph villages, acceleration and deceleration, tractors, lorries, the timid and the hesitant, it’s not going to make much difference. We’re not travelling interstellar distances. But the limit “lacks public support”, according to the media. Ask damn fool questions and you get damn fool answers.

FRANCE-ROAD-SECURITYI’ve been trained by my commute, along a so-called A road with a 50 mph speed limit, to feel that speed is perfectly fine. Plus, you don’t use much fuel at that speed, do you?

When I saw the announcement earlier this year, that for safety reasons, the French government were introducing this 80kph speed limit, I was as skeptical as anyone. As I said then, speeding is just one of the terrible habits of French drivers, and the scofflaws who ignore 90 kph will continue to ignore 80 kph. Maybe the fines will be bigger though.

One problem I foresaw was signage. I kept mentioning it to my French other half and she just shrugged it off and said it wouldn’t be an issue.

There aren’t that many 90 kph signs in the country, but they do exist, and they’re more common than the British equivalent of 60 mph. But the French really do have a problem with signage because of the complicated nature of the new law. You’re restricted to 80 kph on two-lane roads where there is no barrier in between the lanes. Fine, if barriers weren’t a thing, but they are. Quite a lot of roads introduce a barrier, or a third lane, for the odd stretch, to enable overtaking of tractors and slow lorries, or to discourage any overtaking at all, even by idiots who ignore road markings. For the three-lane stretches, the speed limit reverts to 90 kph but only in the direction of the two lanes. So the same stretch of road has two speed limits, depending on which way you’re going. And then if the two lanes swap over, so do the speed limits.

Does this seem overly complicated to you? It does to me, and I’m paying attention.

Driving from Haute Saône into Haut Rhin, I noticed that the former department had bothered to signpost these stretches, but that the latter had just removed all the signs that used to be there, leaving you unsure.

Perhaps the real problem with 80 is that there is still a 70, which is the French equivalent of the British 40 mph (it’s actually around 45 mph). In other words, there’s a 6 mph difference between the safety limit on bendy bits or in places that aren’t villages, and the maximum allowed on a two lane road. Does 6 mph seem worth it?

I feel like the logical step is to reduce 70 kph to 65, giving us 15 kph increments. But can you imagine the outcry from the people who are currently ignoring 70 and will then have to ignore 65? Also, they’d have to install a lot of signs. The other move would be to do away with the 70, which I can’t see them doing.

How is it working in practice? Well, I think I’ve been tailgated (even) more often than usual, which is about what you’d expect. But speeding is still anti-social and therefore immoral, and I am still a cyclist, so.

April in Paris

April 2018 Paris - 12My wife was running the Paris Marathon, so we were in Paris (and environs) for the weekend. Our place in France is about 5 hours drive from Paris, but B has a cousin who lives in the ‘burbs, and they very generously put us up for the weekend, and ferried us to and from the RER station, so we could catch the train without worrying about parking etc.

The RER was more or less unaffected by the national strikes affecting the SNCF network, so there was no issue getting into town. The RER is a regional network of commuter trains, something like the DLR, I guess, though the trains are long double deckers, so you’re less likely to spend a whole journey on your feet than you are in England.

Saturday was the day for picking up the race number and after we’d done that, we had a bit of a walk around. I didn’t want to queue for anything, or pay for anything, so we did just that, apart from at lunchtime, when I overpaid for an undercooked gluten-free pizza at a restaurant that offered that speciality. (There are a lot of pizza restaurants in Paris, by the way.)

The first spot I was keen to see was the Île de la Cité, for the simple reason that it’s a key location in my favourite Tim Powers novel, Declare. I didn’t have an epiphany, though, so we had a look at the queue to get into Notre Dame Cathedral (these kind of places always make me think of Don DeLillo’s Most Photographed Barn in America* in White Noise) and then crossed the Pont Notre Dame (bloke playing an accordion? Check), passed the Hotel de Ville and walked to look at the Pompidou centre.

It was quiet at first, but as the day wore on, the streets and cafés became a lot more crowded. We’ve always been early morning people, quite out of synch with French habits. It was clear that, even on a Saturday, people didn’t rock into town until lunchtime (even then, sitting down for lunch later than in rural France), and then set out for serious sightseeing and shopping in the afternoon.

I won’t complain too much about the undercooked pizza: it’s by no means the first such I’ve eaten in France, so can’t solely be blamed on the glutard crust, which does typically require a longer cooking time. My other half had a salad that she enjoyed, and at least they did Vezelay gf beer.

After lunch, we wandered around the left bank’s narrow streets, stopping for a Coke when the amount of walking we were doing threatened to ruin the methodical Marathon preparations. 

When we visited Berlin, my phone recorded 60,000 steps for the 3-day stay, and Paris wasn’t quite that extreme. By Saturday’s end, I’d walked 10km, had done nearly 16,000 steps. Given that B does about 1.5 for each one of mine, she was on 24,000. These prosaic details are what such visits are built upon. You either stand around in queues, sit around underground, or put in the miles. I always put in the miles.

Which is what I did on Sunday, with about 5 hours to kill while B ran the race. I checked in on her at 26km (near the Jardin des Tuileries), and then timed my arrival at the finish to coincide with hers. She took it easy, enjoyed the views, and suffered a lot less than she did for the London run last year.

Meanwhile, I walked from the Arc de Triomphe to the Paris Opera, and then down to Les Halles shopping centre. The streets were eerily quiet: a lot of the traffic had been cut off by the street closures, and I guess a lot of people were avoiding the area anyway. By the afternoon, Paris was back to its horn honking, impatient, irrational self as far as traffic was concerned. But I had the pleasure of crossing nearly deserted streets against the lights and enjoying the city as it ought to look more of the time. I’m a big proponent of banning motor vehicles from city centres altogether. There were bikes for hire all over the place, including those Chinese ones that just get left anywhere. I was tempted to download the app and use one, but I felt more confident navigating on foot, and didn’t want some dodgy bicycle hire company having access to my bank account.

I knew I’d need the loo at some point and also that France is extremely reluctant to provide decent public toilets, so my day revolved around arranging a couple of expensive pees. This started with the withdrawal of some cash, which was quite an operation. My wallet was zipped into one of the two rucksacks I was carrying, and I didn’t want to faff around with it while I was at the cashpoint itself, so I did all that down the street and across the road, and then wandered over to withdraw the money. The majority of people around at this time seemed to be shambling wrecks, people who looked through bins and talked to themselves, or yelled incoherently at passers by. This is not to say that Paris has more of a homeless problem than anywhere else. In fact, you can see more street people on a visit to Belfort than I did in Paris.

Two €10 notes weren’t going to get me a wee, so I then had to make change. Once I reached Les Halles, I found the target toilets: 50¢ entry, but nice and clean. Around the corner was a Starbucks, so I went and got myself a big Americano. What was I thinking, going to a Starbucks, underground, in the city of a million cafés? Well. No reason. But I sometimes can’t be doing with the faff of table service, and since I was on my own, I wasn’t obliged to. Also, shipmates, as bad as Starbucks coffee is, the French can’t make a decent espresso either, so let’s not pretend those pavement coffees are worth having. And, no, I didn’t want to sit on my own at a corner café. Instead of meeting an intriguing woman in that romantic setting, I was more likely to be approached by a dreadlocked homeless person.

Having filled up on the Americano, I pissed it away for 50¢, which felt like money well spent.

I then walked down the Seine to kilometre 26, waved at my wife, and then wandered into the Tuileries, waved at the Louvre pyramid, and found a place to sit down to eat some lunch.

I probably went for the second pee too early. But I needed to get across to the Avenue Foch for the fucking finish, so I paid 80¢ for the privilege of pissing near the Place de la Concorde. And set off along the Seine again. The closest I got to the Eiffel Tower was the Palais de Tokyo, from where I set off up the hill and down again to the crowded finish line.

I was there about 20 minutes before my other half. The grass was damp, so I sat on her pre-race jumper, which I’d had permission to throw away if it became too burdensome.

Sunday step total: 21,428

Saturday: 15,994

Total: 37,422

Total spent to pee: €1.30

Sights seen: lots.

Seine-side joggers who were visibly irritated by the presence of Marathon crowds: 3.

*Nobody sees the barn.

Prenez-le à la limite

 

My wife drew my attention to this news, which I missed when the Guardian covered it a month ago. In short: from 1 July 2018, the speed limit on a two-lane French N- or D- road is being lowered from 90kph to 80. This is a reaction to an increase in road deaths in 2016, and a steady rise since the historic low of 2013.

90kph is 55 mph, which (if you stick to it) already feels slow compared to the British equivalent of 60mph. On the other hand, I’ve always admired the rationality of French speed limits, which rise in 20kph increments, from the town-centre pedestrian friendly 30kph (which most people ignore) to the standard 50, then 70 for built up areas on open roads and 90 for two-laners in the open country side. Hit a dual carriageway, and you get 110kph or 130kph on a motorway in fine weather.

Throwing in a new 80kph limit feels wrong, for a lot of reasons. I think that most of the avoidable accidents come down to the bizarre habits of French motorists.

Statistics show that 32% of the 3500 road deaths in 2016 were caused by excessive speed. That’s the way the Guardian article reads, anyway, although it’s ambiguous enough to suggest that we’re talking about a smaller subset of 32% of the 55% of deaths that occur on N- and D- roads. Which is more like 18% of the total. And the French government says that the lower limit could save up to 400 deaths per year, which is an even smaller percentage.

I’m no defender of speeding: it’s irrational and anti-social, and generally the marker of an ignorant or nasty person who feels no empathy. If you’ve ever lived anywhere where motorists regularly pass your windows doing inappropriate speeds, you ought to be mindful when passing other people’s windows. Think of the children, and the pets, and the grown ups, too. Speeding not only destroys lives, it damages infrastructure. You get more potholes in heavy breaking and acceleration zones, and on bends, where the mechanical grip of tyres tears at the road surface.

We’re talking here not about speeding through villages or towns but open road speeding, which is another matter. I’ve been driving in France for long enough and regularly enough to know a number of bad habits of French motorists, including but not restricted to speed. While speed is always a factor in a road traffic accident (how could it not be?), the insanely bad judgement of many motorists is to blame for most of them. These bad judgements include:

  1. Following too closely (tailgating)
  2. Driving in the middle of the road
  3. Dangerous overtaking – usually from a position of (1)
  4. Drink-driving
  5. Mobile phone use
  6. Speeding
  7. Not knowing how to signal at roundabouts

(1) is a habit I’ve been observing for nearly 25 years. They do it to intimidate, often, especially on motorways, especially on those mad “black weekends” when everybody in France is driving to the South (or back to the North). But they also do it thoughtlessly, or because they don’t understand that thing about dropping back from the slow lorry in order to see past it in order to overtake it safely and give yourself more room to accelerate. To achieve (3), your typical French driver will follow excessively closely, then swing blindly out into the opposite carriageway and hit the gas.

I’ve observed (2) with puzzlement for the same period of time. Because I’m driving a right-hand-drive car, I can of course judge my position relative to the verge/shoulder more easily. But French drivers seem to have a phobia about being close to the verge and instead drive everywhere in the middle of the road, with two wheels on the white line or even in the opposite carriageway. Points (1), (2), and (3) together are why huge stretches of road heading towards the Dordogne have been fitted with fixed bollards down the middle of the road (many of which, of course, have been mown down). They will even remain on the wrong side of the road when taking a blind bend at speed. I have long adopted a passive approach, where I am prepared to take evasive action at all times. It’s a wonderful life.

It’s also astonishing, in 2018, how blasé French people still are about drink driving. This is the country, of course, where it’s compulsory to have two self-test breathalysers in your vehicle, but that doesn’t stop people. They still act surprised when I refuse a drink because I’m driving. And the fact that so many French people still take two hours for lunch means that two o’clock in the afternoon is prime time for being shitfaced on the road.

But speed, (6), the disease of motorists everywhere, is as big a problem in France as it is in the UK. Frankly, until all of us deal with our attitude to speed, our righteous outrage over the American gun problem is pure hypocrisy. People are so affronted if you slow down to the speed limit when you hit the village. I had one lorry driver, a couple of trips ago, try to overtake me – in a village – on a hill, just because I was still doing 50kph and he wanted to prove something (I guess?). You end up being tailgated by a possibly drunk truck driver who really wants to make a point, like being in Duel.

So will slowing the already-ignored 90 limit to 80 make a difference? Who knows. There are already many stretches of 70kph limit for zig-zag sections or junctions, and unless there’s a camera, they’re generally ignored. There’s a bridge near our place in France where an Argentinian general died in the river on a bend in the road, and in spite of the enormous marble memorial that marks the spot, people still end up in the river there, including a truck driver recently, which prompted the introduction of a 50kph limit (which was subsequently raised to 70 when people ignored it – logical).

Me? I’m busy calculating the impact on our journey time. The truth is, that over an 11-hour, 600-mile drive this new limit won’t make much difference. It’s in the day-to-day shorter journeys that it will have an impact, and even then, you’re talking about one or two minutes on a 20-minute drive, aren’t you? Maybe it will make cycling more pleasant, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

It’s the irrationality of speeding that gets me in the end. The insistence on doing it as if you have a right to do it, and wilfully ignoring the reality of what happens when you do it. We’ve all been there: you overtake the slow lorry and go screaming up the road, only to encounter another slow lorry a few km ahead. And then the slow lorry you overtook is behind you, in your rear-view mirror, reminding you of the futility of your manoeuvre. You can do that three or four times, and you don’t really get anywhere any faster, but you do stress yourself out.

But when you’re looking for your freedom, nobody seems to care, do they?

Tyresome

s-l300Following the Catastrophic Pothole Incident, I have been paranoid about the car and the tyres and the wheels and the suspension. The Touran vibrates at speed. I was especially aware of this on the continued motorway journey home, but wasn’t sure if the vibration was being caused by the roofbox and the high winds. You never know.

I don’t use the car much in the UK, but when I went out shopping in it, I was still convinced that it was vibrating, so I took it to the tyre place in MK to be checked out. Two of the alloy wheels, they told me, were borked, both beyond repair, one of them, “Like a 50p piece.”

“Yeah, he said it had been vibrating.”

“Well, it would.”

I happen to have a set of VW 16″ alloys that I took off the Polo, because driving a car with low profile tyres on these roads is a mug’s game. But they were just the wrong size. So.

I wanted a benchmark for replacements. Ebay has sets of 4 – used – for around £200, but caveat emptor and all that: I could be replacing damaged wheels with damaged wheels, and that’s if I found the right size. I phoned the local VW garage. Volkswagen’s price for replacement OEM rims? £480.

For a set of 4? you ask.

No.

For just two replacements, then? you ask.

No. That’s the price for each wheel. So to replace the two damaged wheels, the best part of £1000. VW do offer after-sales rims, starting at £130 each. Or steel wheels, starting at £80 — plus, they would want to gouge you for £40 for a branded wheel trim. Or hubcap, as we used to call them. You know, those things you see lying in the grass at the side of the road.

£40 for a set of four wheel trims? you ask.

No. That’s the price for each one. Making a steel wheel plus trim cost more or less the same as an alloy.

Anyway, I was just benchmarking. A quick internet search turned up a set of steel rims for £133, so that’s what I’m getting.

£133 for each wheel? you ask.

No. That’s for a set of four.

I’ve never understood the fetish for alloy rims. You can’t see them when you’re sitting in the car. Sure, they’re probably not as precisely engineered as alloys, but I don’t think it’s really much of an issue. But it’s the last days of the Roman empire, isn’t it? They continue to sell pups and we continue to buy. Have you seen the state of Teslas? They look like they’ve been bolted together by blindfolded chimps wearing mittens. Their stark interiors look as inviting as a building site portaloo, and the giant touch displays look like someone threw a cheap television at a Model T’s dashboard. As for the leather seats: have you heard about the DFS Sale?

Volkswagen’s price gouging is no worse than any other manufacturer, I suppose, though I’m still bitter about the extortionate amount they want for replacing the old 30-pin iPhone adapter with the Lightning equivalent. I read last week that BMW are trying to charge people £80 a year for Apple Carplay, which Apple supply to manufacturers free of any fees, so good luck with that. And in the days of Google Maps, the fact that built-in sat nav can cost up to £2000 is a joke. The latest hilarity is the premium they charge for fitting a £5 Qi charging mat to a modern vehicle.

So, the increasingly shitting looking Touran will look a tiny bit shittier, and my unalloyed disdain for motor manufacturers endures.

Lens me your ears

comaprison imageInternational lens crafters Hoya now offer a special type of glass for night driving called EnRoute. Gimmick, I hear you cry, and yet you will have noticed, as have I, how much harder driving at night is in the era of LED and halogen headlights. Talk about your law of unintended consequences. The big selling point of LEDs and halogens has always been that brighter, stronger pool of light in front of your car at night, which is bound to make night driving easier, right?

I find it hard to believe that anybody now finds it easier to drive at night. You could accuse me of getting older, sure, but my difficulties with night vision probably stabilised about 20 years ago. What causes me to utter the words Jesus Christ  or Jesus Fucking Christ multiple times when driving at night are the eye-searingly bright headlamps coming the other way. Doesn’t matter if you have the fanciest £1000 option Christmas tree lights on your car, you too are being blinded regularly – especially on dark, undulating, winding country roads.

I’ve often complained about the absence of cats’ eyes from French roads. Driving at night over there in wet conditions often involves moments where the white lines disappear completely, and you have no idea where the road is. I had a couple of truly hairy motorway moments this summer in thunderstorms, one of which was in broad daylight, and my problem with disappearing roads dates back at least 20 years.

But the journey we completed yesterday, 21 hours after we set out (on what is normally a 9–10 hour drive), may have been the worst yet.

I’m kicking myself for a series of poor decisions to start with. Poor decision number one was that I booked a 9 a.m. crossing — because getting through passport control (my greatest stressor) is dead easy at that time, but it meant leaving home around midnight. ‘Around midnight’, when my wife is involved, always ends up being ‘Around 11 p.m.’, which is when we set out. As usual, I checked Google Maps for the best route, and what I think of as ‘the Northern route’ was marked as one minute faster.

In other words, nothing in it, but on the basis of that single minute I chose to take the Northern route. A key advantage of this route is that more of the first two hours of the journey are on dual carriageways, whereas both of the two Southern routes involve two hour stretches on N or D roads, passing through multiple villages. Another advantage of the Northern Route is that it is mainly on N roads, so there are fewer motorway tolls to pay, which in these financially straitened times, might be important to me.

The N57 follows the Moselle valley, and winds and undulates considerably more than a motorway, and is not as well marked or lit, and the road surface is more variable than a motorway. I only ever seem to drive on it in the worst weather, so I don’t have good memories. What I was thankful for, given that we were setting out at the arse end of a bank holiday (it was still New Year’s Day when we set out), there were no lorries, and therefore much less spray than there would otherwise have been.

So the journey North was okay. By the time we turned westwards on the N4, lorries were starting to appear again. Still, I felt like we were going to reach Reims within about 4 hours, which is making pretty decent time. And we were within an hour of Reims, approaching Saint Dizier, when disaster struck.

A decision not made was to continue a little further than Nancy to Metz, where I could have joined the A4 autoroute, and travelled across to Reims that way instead. How much time would have been in that? Google wasn’t saying. Anyway, compared to the A4, the N4 is a piece of shit: a patchy, badly lit dual carriageway with invisible white lines, and — it turns out — massive (and notorious) pot holes.

The pot hole we hit at 70 mph — and it was that, around 110 kph, the speed limit, on cruise control — was so deep and so wide that it felt like driving into a brick wall. I had literally just been thinking, as I so often do, about how bad it would be to get a flat tyre in our shitty VW Touran diesel with its shitty — and expensive — “tyre repair kit”, which is what you get instead of a proper spare wheel. I had been thinking about the inconvenience and inevitable difficulties of a flat tyre at two o’clock in the morning in the middle of nowhere, France, when we hit the pot hole. There was a brief moment of almost hope that no damage had been done before the rear tyres — both of them — completely deflated.

So even if we’d had a spare, we were fucked.

Luckily, I pay over £200 a year for international driving cover through the AA, so we were covered.

But it was dark, and windy, and cold, and we were on an N road, not a motorway. There was no hard shoulder, so we were pulled into the side on a dual carriageway, and the lorries kept thundering past, some of them so close they weren’t even all the way into the outside lane. I made everyone, including the cat, step over the barrier and away from the car, and we stood there wrapped in blankets for an hour while we waited for the tow truck and a taxi.

What great service. I mean, after the one-hour wait, it was terrific. We were taken to an Ibis hotel (basic, but modern and clean) and the car was towed to a garage, where two new tyres were fitted by noon the following day. We weren’t covered for the tyres (which aren’t included under “parts”, apparently), but the tow, the labour, and the taxi journey(s) and the hotel rooms were covered. As much as I’ve resented shelling out for this cover that we’ve never before needed, I was so glad to have it. And if it hadn’t been for the cat freaking out all night long, I’d have had a good night’s sleep on a comfortable bed in the Ibis.

The pothole was locally famous. The tow truck guy had picked up someone with exactly the same problem at the same spot two days before. And both taxi drivers were aware of it, too. I expect it’s that pothole that keeps the Saint Dizier local economy afloat.

Anyway, here’s my message to car manufacturers. Your LED headlights are a fucking blight on society, and your absent spare wheels are an absurd swindle to match your lies about ‘clean diesel’.