Today, without further ado, I am going to steer (pun intended) this blog away from the main current of events and give you a breather. Instead of doom and gloom here is an amusing true life story about our recent wonderful and never-to-be-repeated holiday of a lifetime. It is a bit more amusing now than it was at the time… and perhaps the funniest part is that we learnt some interesting lessons about life and faith on our long, long drive through France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany, Luxembourg, Belgium and finally back to the UK. Yes, it was quite an adventure – but we realise with hindsight it would all have been totally impossible without a brilliant insurance policy with the AA and a very clever sat nav!
Over a year ago when Martin heard my choir were going on a singing tour to Tuscany by coach, he decided it would be much more romantic if he and I were to drive down to join them in his soft-top Alfa Romeo – take it back to Italy, cruise around with the top down, really look the part… we should have known pride comes before a fall! Having spent £300 having the sports car serviced and checked to ensure it would make the journey, as we drove out of the Tunnel and set off through Pas-de-Calais the Alfa suddenly lost power: everything began to flash and we started to decelerate… There we were at the start of our adventure sitting by the side of the road at 1pm with a hotel bed booked 6 hours drive away. It would have been very easy to panic!
Why does God ‘let’ these things happen? It is a ridiculous thing to ask the One who holds the universe together and probably leaves car mechanics to mere men, but nevertheless it is often a question that comes to mind at such moments! Having gone through the deep questions that followed Sam’s diagnosis, surely something as small as a breakdown shouldn’t faze us? But it is the single straw that can break the camel’s back! Fortunately, despite great foreboding, neither Martin nor I lost our cool or started to blame God or each other… I just reached for my phone and the European breakdown policy!
I was very glad we had prepared for such an eventuality – and amazingly it actually worked. A very nice man on his weekend shift at the AA’s French hub came to the rescue like a very polite knight in shining armour – once the new sat nav had worked out where we actually were. Martin and wife crawled into St Martin au Laert to meet Monsieur Martin from the local Garage Martin: all those co-incidences must have been planned by a naughty angel! It really was a minor miracle on a wet Sunday lunchtime in France when no-one in their right Gallic mind would normally be working. We even managed to have a nice formule dejeuner, and when it became obvious the faulty injector was not going to be fixed on the spot – and we didn’t want to abort all our pre-paid plans – Garage Martin, in this tiny little town, turned out to be the local Europcar rental outlet. The AA paid in advance for us to hire their far more boring and reliable Toyota Yaris for the whole 2 weeks and with only 2 hours delay we were on our way south to Beaune! We left our broken car behind without a backward glance – to collect on the way home.
Of course we felt a bit miffed and sad about the forced change of plan, but looking back Martin’s sporty number would never have made it. We couldn’t have driven with the top down in the heat and on the autoroutes anyway – there would have been endless domestic disagreements about this! – and the Alfa’s soft roof and low body would have been quite frightening in the torrential rain showers we had to negotiate in the next few days. We were humbled but much more comfortable in the generic black vehicle… and safer too: perhaps it was all planned that way 😉 At least we are assured once again that God is able to turn anything out for our good… but it wouldn’t have happened without the insurance policy!
The insurance policy was the first ‘driving lesson’. It was the equivalent to what Jesus called building our house on the rock: when the storm comes the house stays standing, because the foundations are in place, preparations have been made, eventualities thought through in advance and precautionary measures taken. As one of Martin’s favourite quotes – by no less a person than BMW’s design chief Chris Bangle – says, ‘I take notes on life because there will be a test afterwards’. So many of us are not prepared… no wonder the storms knock us flat! It was still an emotionally challenging and frustrating experience to go through, but we had a safety net in the phone number that lead to Daniel in Lyon. In life that safety net, that rock, is ‘not just hearing the words of Jesus but putting them into practise’ (Matthew 7v24) – just as for us on our heart-wrenching journey with Samuel this has meant dogged determination to hold onto faith in Jesus’ word and His ability to redeem: that is all that has held us in and stopped our ‘house’ collapsing. It was a good reminder!
Fast forward two days and we are driving – in the Toyota Yaris, boo hoo 😉 – through the South of France toward Northern Italy: traffic is heavy and we are tired. The rain has been appalling for over 24 hours and we are weary of the long hours of travelling on major roads through cloud and spray. So we head for the coast at Nice for a break… but so does everyone else! Soon we are snarled up in slow moving jams, repeatedly asking Ms Sat Nav for alternative routes… yes, we have discovered this machine can see traffic jams from space! BUT unfortunately we have not yet learned to trust ‘her’: so we keep following our noses, trying our own routes and shortcuts, ignoring or misreading the directions, disbelieving the instructions…
This was crazy – and it happened all day. We lost hours going round in circles because we just didn’t trust the sat nav! How hard is it to drive by faith, not by sight? VERY hard! It was gruelling: my hopes for a scenic ride along the Mediterranean coast road were shattered. It was as much as we could do to get out of San Remo – a choice resort on the Italian side where we stopped for a glimpse of the sea and a drink – and find the main road – through numerous tunnels – to Genoa! After driving up and down the mountain twice passing underneath the road we thought we were trying to reach, alternately saying ‘This must be wrong!’ we found ourselves on an unseen sliproad and heading east. It seemed ‘she’ had known about this other road all along – but at least sat navs can’t be smug…! We got to our bed in Lucca very late that night!
It wasn’t until the last few days of the trip that we reaped the benefit of this particular ‘driving lesson’ – trust the sat nav. There are a lot of tunnels under mountains on the borders of Italy – nasty, dark things, often shrouded in cloud. You don’t know what you might find in there, and once in there is no way out except forward! I know this from bitter experience being stuck in one in Genoa for 3 hours in December 2005! I wrote about it before in 20:20 vision. On our way home at the end of July we were driving north through Switzerland toward the Gotthard Tunnel, the main route under the Alps – 3rd longest tunnel in the world at around 10 miles long – when suddenly the sat nav told us to turn off! Despite complaining, this time we actually did what it said…
We were on a small road, driving through a village, parallel with the dual carriageway: Martin was all for turning back because ‘she’ had made an obvious mistake. But then we glimpsed the A2 below – completely blocked! We found out later the tunnel was closed and the delay was over 3 hours… apparently the St. Gotthard tunnel is a motorway tunnel with one lane per direction, but without a central reservation, so any accidents or incidents cause mayhem in both directions – and we saw plenty of evidence of that later. Our prescient sat nav had stopped us getting stuck in that jam for many hours… and instead we had a hair-raising and awesome drive over St Gotthard’s Pass! It was another occasion we were glad not to be in the Alfa! As we drove up, up, up, unbelievably UP to the top we just couldn’t get over our lucky escape – and the gradient and hairpin bends! As we drove down, down, down, negotiating the winding mountain roads was even harder, with numerous other cars and bicycles going both ways – it was like being on a roller-coaster or in a dream. The point was we had acted in faith… we had had to stretch beyond knowledge and previous experience to find ourselves on a whole new path: it was a scary ride, especially for Martin who was driving, but SO much better than being stuck in the tunnel below! TRUST THE SAT NAV: there is a reason it is telling you to go another way!
Just like the wise men being warned in a dream not to go back to Herod with news of the Christ child, just like the ‘voice behind you when you turn to the right or the left’ (Isaiah 30v21) our satellite navigation system was able to warn us of things we couldn’t see. On this occasion at least ‘she’ really did know better! It may only be a whisper or a nudge, that still, small voice of the heart, but when we ignore it we can end up bogged down or worse – and miss the best opportunities and adventures that we didn’t even know were there!
At risk of writing the longest blog post of all time I will finish with what happened when we went back to collect the Alfa. As if we hadn’t had enough car drama, there was more to come! Happily breezing into St Martin au Laert on Sunday 31st en route to our Shuttle crossing we were greeted with “Votre voiture n’est pas ici”. OH! Our car was in fact locked in the Alfa Romeo garage in the next town – where it had been taken to be fixed – which was, of course, closed on Sundays!
What do you do when there is nothing you can do? This was the 3rd driving lesson. We went to look at the car (over the fence) and tried all the phone numbers we could find – to no avail. Even the AA couldn’t magic our car out of the compound. It was a complete breakdown in communication and their fault, so the best they could do was pay for us to keep the hire car for another day and they would book us into a hotel. We wanted to get home – the Mail article had come out that morning… but there was nothing we could do. So – instead of the M25 we got an extra day’s holiday in France! It was a hot and sunny day (still no covertible, boo hoo!) and we didn’t know Pas de Calais countryside was so beautiful: to soothe our shattered nerves the now trusted sat nav found a fabulous place for lunch after which we drove to the seaside at Le Touquet, ending the day in an amazing jewel of a town in an extraordinary hotel – rundown and totally unique, with a friendly alcoholic proprietor, the AA must not have visited it for years… but we wouldn’t have missed it for anything! How strange that the place next door was called St Martin again too…
When you are not in control you just have to kick back and enjoy the ride! When you are not in control you have to let your Insurer plan your route and just roll with it: it is surprising what good can come 🙂 And even if it doesn’t it’s not the end of the world. And even if it is, it doesn’t matter… It did us good to be away from the media and intensity of responses that Sunday: the emails still came through, but we were once removed and protected by the fairytale quality of what we had fallen into, like Alice down the hole… I’m late, I’m late! Oh no, it appears I am right on time after all!
Next day we did get through the Tunnel and back to British shores: it was 1st August by now and we were more than ready for home. But it took all day, visiting Becca in Brighton en route, and then the car began to overheat as we journeyed north: just as many others were suffering in the heat of the day, we had to pull over on the hard shoulder of the M25 – just by junction 8 where we used to live, actually! But we have become so patient and trusting through all our driving trials it was like water off a duck’s back this time! As you can see we even enjoyed some holiday memories by the motorway until we were rescued ‘to a safe place’ and then the beloved AA managed to fix the radiator cap so we could get back to Loughborough: we were only 3 hours late…
Perseverance forms maturity so we must be pretty grown up by now. We can’t even blame the notorious Alfa Romeo brand, as both the Spider’s faults were judged minor by our mechanic the next day… strange but true. So I guess we just got home at the right time and will have to trust the divine Sat Nav and our Heavenly Insurance about that! No we are not in control – but I know Someone Who IS!