Chapter 10 France
The League of Interchange Teachers had organized a visit to the Royal Chelsea Hospital for old soldiers. Jennifer and Bruce had suggested we stay with them in London, and make a weekend of it. So we made our way with many unintentional circumlocutions, to their house in Wimbledon.
"Sorry we're late. I kept getting lost. I nearly rang you to shout HELP."
"Don't worry. You sit down and talk to Bruce while the girls and I serve dinner."
"How do you like you van?" asked Bruce. "Going OK?"
"Yes. We've had one trip at half term, and went very well. But just on the way tonight the oil light started flashing. I wonder what it is?"
"I'll check it for you in the morning. I've got a can of oil if you need it."
Bruce checked the oil next day and found it full, but suggested that I check again soon, and get the wiring done if necessary. I followed Bruce, who led us to the Commonwealth Institute where there were remarkable exhibitions and displays presented by every country in the Commonwealth. Jenny and Bruce and their family went shopping and we met after lunch at Chelsea.
About twenty teachers and their families gathered to see the famous building designed by Christopher Wren for Charles II. Firstly the attached cemetery, near the huge iron gateway. The departed soldiers didn't have to travel far to their last resting places. Our guide was a sprightly amusing seventy three year old veteran, who had his own tiny private room, and he assured us everything he wanted. When he was no longer fit, he would go to the infirmary and be cared for.
In the dining room they were surrounded by famous original paintings, beautiful wood panelling, colourful insignia and other traditional elegance. Many an old moustached colonel must find this a most fitting way to spend his retirement after years of service to his country. Plenty of opportunity to relive the old battles, and discuss tactics amid a grandeur symbolic of the glory he fought for. Not quite the ideal for those who dream of 'the hills of home', spinning yarns to the younger generation, and fishing on a sunny afternoon.
"Don't forget to check your oil again in a day or two," said Bruce as we left London.
"I'll make a point of it."
This I did during the week when I needed more petrol. The attendant put in a pint and said it was slightly overfull. After that there was no more flashing.
One cold morning on our way to school about a week later, the engine seemed to be taking a long time to warm up. It sounded asthmatic. Suddenly there was an enormous pounding behind us, like a jack hammer. I stopped and rang for road service. What an inconsiderate monster. We had just entered the motorway. The next exit was four miles ahead, and once you are on a motorway there is no turning back. You go forward, even when being towed on the end of a very short rope. It was one of the most alarming driving experiences of my life.
When I had bought the van, sitting behind the wheel had made me feel as if I were driving a tank, because it was so high, There was not even an engine between me and the vehicle in front. Some of the less athletic ladies from the Divorced and Separated Club had difficulty availing themselves of offered lifts. Now I could not even see the tow rope. The AA man was sorry he didn't have a longer rope. He said vans were usually towed by different vehicles. I felt as if I were treading on his heels all the time. He didn't slacken his speed, but kept up a good pace as if trying to get out of my way, but the faster he went, the more persistently I was forced to follow. It was with great relief that we came to a down hill stretch, and he stopped and suggested that I coast down for the next couple of miles, each downhill giving me just enough momentum to take me over the next rise... until we were nearly in Maidstone and the frantic chase began again.
"Sorry if that was a bit hair raising," the AA man apologized. "Here we are at the nearest VW place. That's the best I can do. Sorry."
The service station confirmed the road side diagnosis of 'Big End'.
"We have to put in a new engine. We don't do repairs here. Your engine goes away to be reconditioned and we allow a trade-in on it. The new engine will come to $180."
This was dismaying. But there was nothing to be done except sign up and send back to Australia for some more money from my reserves. The Easter Vacation was near and we had already booked on the Hovercraft to France, a number of other arrangements had been made, maps studied and letters written to our folks in Germany.
"Vienna seems a bit too far, but Salzburg should be within reach," I thought.
"Can we go to the Grossglockner and the Franz Josef Glacier?" Peter wanted to know.
"What's Gross... whatever you said?" asked Jacqueline.
"The highest mountain in Austria," I said. "It would be lovely but the AA book says the road isn't open yet."
"Why isn't it open?"
"The road goes up and up for miles. The mountains are all covered with snow in the winter, and they don't clear them until they're pretty sure of no more heavy falls."
"Can we go there in the summer?" Peter persisted.
"I doubt it because if we go north to Norway, we can't go south and east as well."
"Will we see grandma?"
"Yes, these holidays and in the summer and at Christmas too if we can."
Having disgraced itself, the van now tried to make amends. Previously we had from time to time been humiliated in public, by the automatic choke sticking with the throttle fully open. It sounded like a Hovercraft about to take off. The boys soon learnt to bring it to order by releasing a spring in the engine. This contrary choke had been sentenced to a period of exile, with the engine, to allow for rehabilitation. The new choke was much better behaved. Petrol consumption also improved, for which I was grateful.
We thought petrol was dear in England until we had to buy some in France. I had to keep a very tight budget, but immediately found that the limits were broken. The camping grounds in Paris were very expensive, if well appointed. The Bois de Boulonge is the nearest to the city, and on the map looked closer than it felt when we set out to walk to the Eiffel Tower.
The woods were enchanting in the early spring with tiny pale green leaves appearing on the trees, and birds and other small creatures scattering at our approach. A number of paths crisscrossed the woods, and athletically minded people were cycling along them. One ought to spend at least half a day at leisure in the woods, half-way between suburban Paris and the inner city. We emerged after half an hour on the city side. The Eiffel Tower looked quite close... another half-mile? An hour and a half later we were finally shuffling our weary feet along in the queue for tickets. Tickets to the top were $1 each, no half fares. The first and second stages were proportionally cheaper, but visiting Paris and only going half-way up the Eiffel Tower seemed preposterous. So we postponed sticking to the budget and bought 'four to the top'. The lifts to the first stage were large and took only a few minutes going up the leg of the Tower at a drunken angle. Most of the floor space at this level was taken up by an enormous queue spiralling round to the vertical lift in the centre.
The postcard of how it should look
"If we could get refunds on the tickets I would go back. This will take hours."
Three quarters of an hour later we were ascending again. Upon our eventual arrival at the top, we could see less than from the first stage. Even the Bois de Boulonge was lost in haze.
After our long walk and the long queue crawl, our feet were really objecting, so a water boat up the Seine and back was a grand idea (oh that budget) under many bridges and past some of the famous landmarks. Most of these would have to wait until our next visit. We chose one of the nearer attractions... Les Invalides, now a war museum, and including Napoleon's ornate tomb. We spent the rest of the day there, our pace becoming slower and slower, and our enthusiasm evaporating.
Jacqueline tripped up some stairs, and a voice behind said with a strong American accent, "Pick 'em up there."
"We're absolutely dead," I explained. "Do you by any chance know where the nearest station is, for the Bois de Boulonge?"
"I couldn't tell you exactly." he said thoughtfully.
The children had all collapsed on the steps immediately I had begun to talk.
"I'll tell you what. We go that way. My car is nearby. I'll take you."