Wheaton’s Way

Funny memories of vacations past

My housemate Lynne, and I, were digging through the nooks and crannies of our house over the long weekend (yes, we’re living the dream), and happened upon my journal of a trip that we took to Europe many years ago.

As we have not been able to travel for over a year, thanks to COVID, it was great to relive the memories of that vacation through France, Italy and Switzerland as we read through the pages. That led me to recalling the many times we shared hilarious moments as we tried to navigate our way across countries foreign.

For starters, we have never been able to travel light. I don’t know how anyone does it. We’ve got friends who have visited us from Canada for a fortnight, pulling only a carry-on bag behind them, while we had a huge suitcase each for a three-night staycation at The Ritz-Carlton.

Unless you’ve got a team of porters at your disposal, flying, driving or taking the train with a cartload of luggage in tow is just asking for trouble. In London, we stayed at a bijou hotel near Earl’s Court with a lift so small, I had to cram Lynne in there with all the bags and climb the four flights of stairs alone. All I could see was her little head poking out above the Samsonites as the groaning machinery kicked in and slowly took her heavenward.

When we booked a cruise on the Queen Elizabeth 2, we had two full-size cases and a carry-on each – six bags in total. In our defence, it was 10 days transatlantic, with at least two formal nights. When we arrived at the Southampton train station, the final lift to get us to the ground platform and taxi rank was broken. With flights of stairs in a straight shot between us and our goal, I told Lynne the only thing to do was push our trolleys down the steps, laden with our worldly goods. Of course, I let her go first.

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The moment she went over the precipice, it was clear this was a very bad idea, but there was no turning back. The noise of the back wheels slamming down on every new step was remarkable, particularly when coupled with the smaller front wheels flying free in mid-air, hitting the metal frame at intervals. Lynne had to lean back and brace herself for every jarring drop, as everyone standing on the platform below turned their heads as one towards the direction of the cacophony. Where was I? Laughing helplessly, shoulders shaking over my own bags, unable to provide assistance.

Eventually, a conductor came running up to end Lynne’s misery, and gave us a quieter way to complete our descent.

When we haven’t been vacationing by boat or train, I have always been keen to rent transport. I like it when we can create our own schedule and go where’er the wind takes us.

On that same QE2 cruise, we made a stop in Bermuda. As tourists can’t rent cars there, I decided that we would rent a scooter, despite having no previous experience whatsoever. I even thought it would be a fine idea to choose a double-seater, rather than us each getting our own individual steeds.

Oleander Cycles put me on the two-wheeler, gave me a white helmet for my big head so I looked like a swollen Q-tip, and told me to take it up the road, turn it around, and bring it back, to show that I could manage. In the present cold light of day, I can’t believe I thought this would be a good idea. It also blows my mind that Lynne was willing to sit on it behind me. We were basically flirting with death.

Despite my nearly flying into an active T-junction on this brief test, the rental company signed us up and let us go. Every stoplight was terrifying, but we made it through. It was only later on our 15mph tour – with a line of cars backed up behind us – when I had a panicky moment, and rather than squeezing the brakes, I instinctively put my feet down on the road like the Flintstones, resulting in one of my sandals being ripped off and left in our dust. As I was the driver, I had to have shoes, so the return journey to the cruise port saw my heels sticking out the back of Lynne’s small sneakers while her tootsies went commando.

After making it back into town unscathed, we dismounted our conveyance and tried to engage the stand, bending down at the same time and bashing helmets in the process, while the waist ties of Lynne’s wraparound trousers unravelled, causing the back panel to drop and expose her underwear to other passengers milling around nearby. It was a fitting ending to a very inelegant day.

When we rented a vehicle in France, the agent put the fear of God into us, and we ended up forking out bonkers money for ‘supair’ insurance, which I think covered all but the car being abducted by aliens. With extremely limited French between us, simply working out how the tolls on the autoroutes operated was a complicated experience.

The plan was to make no arrangements in advance. We were just going to breeze along, with maybe a stop at a winery or two, finding hidden gems hither and thither. That idea lasted about a day. With the total time we had to visit the countries we wanted, the only way to complete the journey was to hit the highways, but good. It was hours of motoring between stops and I was the sole driver, so the last thing I wanted was to be going door-to-door at a destination, trying to see if there was room at the inn. We therefore pulled out our handy-dandy Best Western guide with a comprehensive list of all the company’s properties throughout Europe, calling ahead to book accommodation. So much for living off the land and being trailblazers.

When it comes to rental car insurance in the US, I know what my credit card covers, no matter how much the agents try to scare me, but when it comes to renting in foreign countries, I’m a little less confident. Iceland took it to a whole ‘nother level.

You know how they usually bring out a simple diagram of the car you’re renting so they can mark any existing dings in advance of you taking the keys? In Iceland, the car is sitting under a grid worthy of the Battleship game. For example, the right corner of the back bumper is sitting in square H9, while the left is in C9. The driver’s mirror is in G3, and so on. With lots of off-road opportunities in that country, only certain vehicles, like SUVs, are allowed to take them. Unpaved routes abound, which can send a spray of small rocks flying when wheels roll over them, peppering paintwork from C1 to H9. It was enough to turn any tourist into a nervous Nellie, and I curbed my ‘Top Gear’ speeding ways, lest I sank our battleship.

We got a GPS, as the landscape of Iceland is unlike any other I’ve driven, but you had to input the destination names in the local language. After driving the Golden Circle (a popular tourist tour), it took us nearly 15 minutes to correctly type in the name of the cruise port, as the person who’d written it down had terrible handwriting. I’m not even getting into the comedy of errors that occurred when we tried to fill the car with petrol on a lonely road at an unmanned service station. The automated pump kept barking something at us in Icelandic. Another credit card? Wrong amount? You need one of my kidneys? Not a clue.

Yes, we’ve had some interesting travel experiences over the years, and the above is just the tip of the iceberg. I can’t wait to be off exploring again when it’s easy to do so, whenever that will be.

Our 10 suitcases are raring to go.

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