Chapter 12 Round Trip
High in the Bavarian Alps, we came upon a frozen lake a few yards from the road. It was surrounded by pebbly beaches and snow trimmed pine trees.
"Stop a minute, Mum," cried the children.
I pulled off the quiet narrow road as far as possible, and out they scrambled, while I poured hot water from the thermos for coffee. At meal times, or whenever hot water was available, I filled the thermos, so as to be prepared every time there was a break in the activity.
"Don't go on the ice, it might not be solid," I warned.
They gathered pebbles and skimmed them half way to the other shore, with excited shouts. Jacqueline danced around like a gazelle. The boys put their energy into their competition. Three children and their echoes dispelled the silence, but the remote tranquility remained undisturbed. Peaceful and unpolluted... but just around the corner we were back on the highway in holiday traffic.
Clouds gathered, and the postcard days were gone. We drove down the Arlberg Pass, along the road, which we had failed to ascend a week before, back to Bonndorf.
"Well?" said Uncle Willi.
"We got to Munich and Salzburg and Innsbruck. We had two absolutely perfect days in the mountains, and it would have been worth going for that alone."
"Trust you," and he patted my shoulder and shook his head. "It hasn't stopped raining here. Mutti hasn't been well. This weather doesn't suit her."
We visited her briefly. She was very vague, and incoherent. Vati was busy. He kept everything in immaculate order. It was a courtesy visit, before we left Germany.
Uncle Willi told us about a very old carved wooden bridge over the Rhein. We spent all our German money on petrol on the German side, then drove slowly across to Switzerland, feeling that it was somewhat improper to cross other than on horseback or on foot. The Swiss officials shared our view; at least they took exception to our balding tyres. When I gaped, one official sent for another, who took my passport, and indicated that I was not welcome in his country. No use trying to explain that I was just crossing a corner on my way home, that we were not climbing any mountains or travelling any treacherous roads where the amount of tread may be vital. I had to turn around, collect my passport, and drive back over the bridge, my tail between my legs.
At Basle they were not so particular, or they were too busy. We entered without further humiliation, spent the remainder of our Swiss money on groceries and petrol, and departed for Paris.
The next morning I had to wait for the banks to open to get French money to pay the six Francs fees in the quiet little town. For $5 I got 55 FR, which left me only one more travellers cheque worth of $5.
At the enormous parking area at Versailles, I counted what was left of the 55FR and decided we could not go into the palace. It was getting late and the children were getting blase about magnificent buildings. The gardens were a different matter.
The children ran around to stretch their legs, and I tried to encourage them to do it unobtrusively.
Within the grounds, in a formal, symmetrical arrangement, were dozens of statues and fountains among the trees. Walks led from one to another. At the far end was a large artificial canal where people enjoyed boating activities.
When we turned, it was a long way back to the palace.
"Can you imagine all the grand ladies in their long dresses?" I asked as we walked along the broad avenue leading straight back to the distant palace.
We had to resist the temptation to buy anything more than a postcard. However a normal size card did not do justice to the experience, so we indulged in an outsize card, which depicted the appropriate dress of the period.
"This is really a suburb of Paris, and it's just on peak hour so watch carefully for road signs. We'll go to the Bois de Boulonge because we know more or less where it is."
At the familiar camping ground I cashed my last cheque and got only 53FR. The fees were 10FR. In the morning we left early and found a parking place in the city, on the Isle of France.
"This is lucky," I commented. "We can park here for three hours for 2.50FR."
Notre Dame, the markets and the Louvre museum were nearby, all impossible to neglect when in Paris. Peter got lost in the Louvre, and I hoped that he would remember where the van was, and what time to return. Jacqueline's teacher had told her to be sure and see the Mona Lisa, and she took this instruction seriously; she talked of nothing else that day. So Peter followed the many directions, apparently put up for the benefit of guides who were tired of answering the same question hundreds of times a day. He found the crowd of young artists who had permission to paint copies of Mona Lisa in varying degrees of similarity, the crowd of curious onlookers, and the crowd of people interested in the original. Peter waited unperturbed.
"I knew you would come here sooner or later," he said.
"We could easily have missed you," I said as we walked back to the van on the island. "Would you have been able to find the right bridge back?"
"This looks like it."
"That takes you across to the other bank of the river."
At the van an attendant presented me with a bill for 7.50FR
"That can't be right. 2.50FR," I said in my inadequate French looking at my watch.
"2.50FR for each hour up to three hours," he explained.
Our money was vanishing. On the road, I gave a garage attendant all my French money, a handful of coins and notes, and crossed my fingers that this would buy enough petrol to bring us to Boulonge. It did, although I had visions all the way of being pushed onto the ferry. In England I bought $1 worth of petrol which was enough to get us home. My purse was empty, my petrol tank nearly so. That was a little too close for comfort. (I did have AA vouchers for an emergency).
A pile of letters lay on the floor at the front door. I sorted out the airmail envelopes, and noticed that there were two from my sister-in-law. That was strange. Two letters in three weeks. The letter I opened told me of my grandmother's death in Sydney. She was ninety six and had enjoyed a good life, but when we were leaving I thought she has lived so long, she will live another year until we return... the second letter, which was really the first, told about her illness, which had only lasted a few days... a bowel blockage... the doctor's diagnosis that an operation was necessary... Grandma's refusal to go through that at her age.... her lapse into unconsciousness.
Another letter from home was from a cousin in Canberra, whose twenty-year-old daughter would be leaving for England in a couple of weeks. What should she bring, and how did I find conditions?
I would sit down after tea and write that Margaret should stay with us while looking for something more permanent. One of the children would have to sleep on the lounge; Jacqueline would have to share my wardrobe.
"What's for dinner?" was more important to Peter.
"I haven't got much," I said looking in the cupboard. "There's a can of soup, some rice, cornflour, plain flour and cocoa. That's all for tonight and tomorrow."
We ate boiled rice, blancmange, and plain scones, unbuttered.