Abdallah arrived on time at 5:45pm. Bharat, the Indian man, was getting edgy. He had a flight to catch from Rome the next morning and he was in a rush to reach the airport on time. He also preferred to drive in daylight as much as possible.
We all rushed to the car rental parking lot and searched for our car.
It was a blue hatchback Fiat. We all luckily had small carry-on suitcases with us (man was I thankful I made the rare decision to travel light for this trip, otherwise I wouldn’t have heard the end of their complaining about women and their traveling). The car was small, however, so only three of our suitcases fit in the trunk. We placed the third, Abdallah’s, on the middle of the back seat. This proved to be a suitable make-shift headrest for sleeping later on.
Bharat took the driver’s seat and started adjusting his seat. “In Paris, which side of the road do they drive on?” he asked. “The normal side,” I told him. He looked back to me and said, “Well I’m Indian, so that means your normal side is not my normal side.” We decided it would be better for me to do the city driving since I was more used to driving on the right side of the road than he was.
Bharat and I switched seats. I adjusted the seat and mirrors and we were on our way.
Giovanni, the Italian man with us on our trip, had been appointed the trip navigator. While I was busy refunding my train tickets, he had busied himself buying maps asking people at the train station what the best route to Milan would be. By the time we sat in the car, he had a plan.
Giovanni explained to all of us what the plan was.
We’d drive on the A6 towards Macon, France, after which we’d take the A40 to Milan. The trip would be taking us to southern France, passing through the tip of Switzerland, driving through the Mont Blanc tunnel, and then on our way to Milan in Italy. Giovanni calculated the trip would take around 13 hours.
Bharat and I would take turns driving. Bharat preferred day driving. I’d drive us out of the city and then he’d drive for the remaining daylight hours. I’d then drive through much of the night.
Part of the initial plan was to let Abdallah drive as well. That was changed when we were stopped in France early in the trip at a check point. Bharat, who was driving at the time, was asked for his driver’s license and the car registration. We were completely legit so we were told to move along. If Abdallah was driving then, we’d have been in deep trouble since his name wasn’t registered as a driver on our contract. We decided then and there that Abdallah would not drive during this trip.
On the Road
We left Paris’ Gare du Nord train station at 6pm on Monday evening. Getting out of Paris was not difficult and the ride was uneventful. It was rush hour so it took longer than we expected to reach the open road. I drove for perhaps 1 ½ – 2 hours until we were on the open road and reached a rest station where we could stop for bathrooms, food and drink. Bharat then traded the driver’s seat with me. He really wanted to drive while it was still light out. He seemed concerned about his night vision.
I took my seat in back with Giovanni. Abdallah, sitting in front with Bharat, started planning our dinner arrangements. “The south of France is well known for its culinary skills,” he informed us. Would we consider stopping on the way and having a nice dinner, he asked. We might as well make the best of our trip, he encouraged. We were all for stopping and having a nice dinner so we planned on stopping somewhere around 9pm to make sure we found an open restaurant.
In the meantime, we started getting to know each other a bit better. It did not seem important to get to know each other too well. We seemed to know enough: we were all stranded and we wanted to get back home and we’d help each other do that.
Bharat told us while sitting in the driver’s seat that he worked in an American outsourcing company while based out of India. In a later conversation, I learned he had two children, 20 and 18, and that he was 48 years old. Giovanni was a bartender. He had traveled the world working in hotel bars for many years until he eventually decided he wanted to start a business of his own. He was working on setting up a small tapas bar in London and perhaps another in Rome. He was traveling to Milan for a short visit with his girlfriend and would then continue to Rome the next day for some business meetings.
Bharat and Giovanni were both in London when the volcano erupted. They were on the same train I took from London to Paris. They met in line while trying to buy train tickets. They started talking and discovered they were both headed in the same direction. When they found there were no tickets to Italy that evening or the following day, they decided to try to rent a car together and drive. Giovanni doesn’t drive, but they’d split the costs and would keep each other company. I met them only shortly afterwards.
On this leg of the drive, I was on the phone with my brother in the States who was trying to get me a plane ticket out of Europe. The options he was finding were very indirect. Would I consider going from Milan to Bucharest to Athens and then to Cairo? Or perhaps Milan – Rabat – Cairo? As I was doing this, Abdallah suggested he ask his travel agent in Canada to find something for me. Zohra, his travel agent, had landed several options for him depending on where he ended up. He had a confirmed flight from Nice in southern France to Dubai, where he was headed, and he was on several waiting lists out of other European cities, including Milan and Rome.
Zohra replied to us by Abdallah’s email with many options. I could travel to Dubai and then on to Cairo, for example. I could be placed on a waiting list on a direct flight from Rome to Cairo for the next day. She kept feeding us with options and we asked her to try more.
Bharat told us he was catching a flight to Amman from Rome and from there to Delhi. So we asked Zohra to try to find out if there were any places on that flight as well and then make reservations for me on one of the many flights that leave from Amman to Cairo.
A Fancy Dinner
At 9pm we decided to exit the A6 and head towards a small French town for dinner. That’s when we were stopped at the check point. We made use of the stop and asked the kind policeman for directions to a nice restaurant. He recommended one to us that was about 6 km down the road.
The restaurant was beautiful. It was everything you’d imagine in a small French restaurant. It had candles on the tables, white tablecloths, semi-rectangular curtained windows, and cute French waiters.
This was my chance to charge my mobile phone battery so I could continue updating my Twitter and Facebook friends with the progress of my journey. The cute French waiter took it from me and connected it to an electrical outlet near the restaurant’s entrance.
I checked out the menu. We had been given English menus but I still didn’t understand the food. I never have understood fancy food. It makes absolutely no sense to me in any language. I quickly closed the menu and decided I’d ask the cute French waiter to tell me what I should eat.
Abdallah, who had suggested we stop and eat fancy food, knew exactly what he was doing. “Give me a glass of your best local wine,” he demanded. “Your very best local wine,” he emphasized. He then went on to order escargot, duck, and a dessert, the name of which completely eludes me.
I asked the cute French waiter what kinds of fish they had. He recommended the trout. I asked him if he could make sure it was not cooked with alcohol. He promised he would.
Giovanni also ordered the trout. And Bharat ordered a large dish of something or other en Français. Bharat would not drink wine because he was driving and he did not want to fall asleep. Giovanni only wanted some water. I asked for lemon juice. What I got was concentrated lemon. It was the most bitter lemon juice I had ever had. It came with a large jar of sugar. I poured and poured and poured sugar into it to break the juice’s bitterness. It did not. It was impossible. I ended up drinking a few sips of it and kept the rest of my fluid needs for the dinner to tap water.
At dinner, Zohra got back to us. While I was still on a waiting list on the direct flight from Rome to Cairo, she was able to find a confirmed reservation for me on Bharat’s flight out of Rome to Amman the next day at 3pm and then from Amman to Cairo. If I took this option, I’d be in Cairo at 9pm the following evening. I called her, gave her my credit card information, and bought the Rome-Amman-Cairo ticket immediately. She sent the e-ticket only moments later to my email. I finally had a plan!
Driving Through the Night
Bharat continued to drive for about an hour. We then stopped for gas and I took the driver’s seat. While I was gearing up for the drive, our navigator Giovanni had been
asking people at the gas station about the road to Italy to make sure we were on the right track. While doing that, he bumped into a man traveling to Nice in southern France. Giovanni immediately thought it would be an opportunity for Abdallah. We were trying to calculate where we’d need to drop off Abdallah should he decide to go with the option of traveling to Dubai from Nice. Abdallah was on the phone constantly trying to figure out how to get to Nice from a variety of cities. One idea was he’d come to Milan with us and then rent a car to Nice from there. Other ideas involved trains from various French cities. This man seemed to solve the problem for us. Initially, he agreed to take Abdallah with him to Nice. He then went into the gas station to pay for his car gas. By the time he came back, he had changed his plan and said he’d only take Abdallah to a main city in France that was close and on his way. It seems the man understandably found himself in the odd situation of being asked to take a stranger with an odd accent somewhere. Abdallah seemed happy to be taken anywhere he could get a train to Nice. We said our goodbyes and he was off with yet another stranger. I took a picture of the stranger’s car license plates just in case. (Yes, I realize I was also off into the unknown with two strangers, but somehow I felt safe with them. I did not know Bharat and Giovanni, but I felt I knew them. I did not feel I knew the man who was taking Abdallah to Nice.)
We were again on our way. I drove for perhaps four or five hours. We went through southern France and made an exit onto the A40. We could see the lights of Geneva to our left and the shadows of the Alps all around us in the pitch black night. It was actually quite a shame. We were all on an amazing road trip through Europe and we couldn’t see a thing.
During our short drive through the tip of Switzerland, I could swear I got a ticket for speeding. Suddenly a flash of light in the dark night temporarily blinded me. I remembered that was how speeders were caught in some countries; by having their pictures taken. I looked at the speed limit. Indeed, the speed limit where I was currently driving had changed from 130km/hour to 90km/hour. I was still driving at 130km. I told Bharat. He promised he’d send me the bill if indeed we got a ticket. He chuckled and tried to go back to sleep.
Eventually we reached the shadow of Mont Blanc, the highest mountain in Western Europe. A 12- kilometer tunnel passes through Mont Blanc, connecting its French and
Italian sides. The tunnel opens to one direction of cars at a time, while the cars on the opposite end wait for their turn. We arrived at 2:43am. The tunnel was opening for the cars traveling in our direction at 2:45am. We were very lucky. We entered the long tunnel and drove slowly according the tunnel speed limit. After a few minutes, we emerged at the other end and it was so exciting to see road signs written in Italian. We had made it to Italy!
To Pee or Not to Pee
For those of you who have followed by blogs, you are probably wondering by now why I have not mentioned peeing. I will not disappoint those loyal readers.
Just before we reached the Mont Blanc tunnel, I started feeling a need for a bathroom. All along the road in France there were rest stops every few kilometers. I decided I’d continue to drive till the end of the Mont Blanc tunnel and then stop at the next rest stop. At least this way I’d feel that we made a major accomplishment by reaching Italy and it could thus be a victory pee.
But after we got through the Mont Blanc tunnel, what happened was quite different from what I expected. We kept driving through tunnel after tunnel after tunnel. They seemed endless. We were on a winding two-way road through the Italian Alps in the dark of night passing through endless mountain tunnels and there was not a rest stop in sight!
As I drove through the winding tunnels, I checked if the tunnels themselves might perhaps have emergency bathrooms at their emergency stops. They didn’t. As we emerged from each tunnel, I’d check the side of the road to see if there might be a suitable place for me to stop and pee without being exposed to the lights of cars driving along the road. There wasn’t. I was stuck! My bladder was overloading and there was no relief in sight.
Eventually I saw a sign that said there was a gas station in 20 km. I immediately went into Kilimanjaro mode. If I could hike to the summit of Africa’s highest mountain, I could certainly hold my bladder for another 20 kilometers, I tried to convince myself. So for the next agonizing 20 km I talked myself out of peeing in the driver’s seat. Bharat wouldn’t be able to drive if that happened, I told myself. I’d have a heck of a time washing up afterwards and storing my wet clothes in my small suitcase. And, of course, there was always the issue of making a fool of myself in front of two strangers by peeing in my pants. Perhaps if they were friends they’d understand. But I had only just met them!
Bharat was made aware of my situation, though. I had to tell somebody! Giovanni was fast asleep. Bharat, our worrier, was awake because he did not want to leave me driving without someone making sure I stayed awake. So once we did reach the gas station, he jumped out of the car, held the door open for me, and allowed me to run to the bathroom while he and Giovanni took care of the car and our things.
Let me just tell you it was not the victory pee I had hoped for. I was long past feeling victorious by then and all I wanted was to avoid mishap. Mishap was, fortunately, avoided.
The Road to Milan
Bharat took over the driving. According to our estimates, we should be in Milan in two or three more hours. Giovanni stayed in the front seat with Bharat to keep him awake. I lay down in the back seat and went to sleep. Every now and then I’d come out of my sleep and hear Giovanni and Bharat talking. I have no recollection as to what they were talking about. But perhaps after an hour of sleep Giovanni woke me up and said we need your help, Nadia. Bharat was tired and needed me to drive the rest of the way. We stopped at a gas station and switched places. Bharat took the back seat and tried to get some sleep.
We drove for another 1 ½ hours. Dawn had approached and more cars were appearing on the roads. Giovanni and I had our eyes peeled for Linate Airport signs, which was
where we were supposed to drop off the car in Milan. We followed the signs and reached the airport at 7am Monday morning.
I checked our mileage. In exactly 13 hours we had driven a total of 957.6 kilometers. There was no victory pee, but we all certainly felt victorious. We returned the car to the travel agent and Giovanni let out a woohoo! We were all jubilant.
We decided to take a taxi from the airport to the train station in Milan. We’d let Giovanni off at his girlfriend’s apartment and Bharat and I would continue to the train station. It was sad leaving Giovanni behind but we were also very happy for him. He was home and safe.