14 Juillet – Bastille Day

"The Storming of the Bastille", Visi...

My daughter and her husband have just set off on their journey to our holiday house by the sea in Brittany, hoping they will find a bed for the night in spite of not having booked anywhere, and although it’s Bastille Day, France’s national holiday, and a weekend. Good luck! I hope they are successful.

Exactly twelve years ago, on Friday, 14 July 2000, I was returning from my holiday in that same little house in Brittany, making good time and expecting to be at a friend’s house in Germany by nightfall. Near Verdun I stopped for lunch and the loo. Somehow, in the toilet, my keys (house and car keys) fell onto the floor and it was only as I was washing my hands that I realised they were missing.

Of course I knew where they had to be and went straight back to the stall, but the ladies’ rest room was crowded with passengers from an Eastern European tourist coach and I had to wait until that particular stall was free. Two young girls came out, didn’t understand me when I asked if they had seen my keys, and hurried off. No sign of the keys – but I am pretty sure those girls had them, taken for my very distinctive key ring. Nevertheless, I searched everywhere thoroughly, and asked if they had been handed in at lost property, but they were gone.

What was I to do? My car was locked with all my luggage in it, including my mobile phone, but luckily I had my purse with cash and credit card. I phoned the breakdown service, and they arrived fairly quickly but my car, a VW Golf, was burglar-proof – the only way in would be to smash a window and even if they had managed to open the door, I still had no way of driving it without the key.

Finally, they loaded the car onto their truck and we drove off to a tiny village in the middle of the woods where they had their garage, in the hope that they might be able to solve my problem there. The village consisted of a few houses, said garage, a church and a hotel. Not a single shop, not even a bakery. It was very pretty and picturesque, with a river and a quaint bridge over it, and the perfect place to spend a tranquil holiday hunting and fishing or painting idyllic scenery.

They gave me a cup of coffee and we assessed the situation. Not only was it France’s national holiday, but it was also the start of the weekend. We tried to phone the VW emergency service for a spare key, but there was no response. Did I have a spare key at home? Yes, but home was about 600 km away in Switzerland. Perhaps my neighbour with a key to the house might be able to send it by courier? I tried phoning her, but she was away. The only other person with a key to my house was my estranged husband, and he was the last person I wanted to ask for help.

Alack and alas, there was no alternative so I swallowed my pride and humbly asked him to get the spare car key and send it immediately. It was already too late to send it by post, and it wouldn’t have arrived before Tuesday if he had, so he tried DHL, FedEx and UPS only to be told that as it was a holiday weekend, it couldn’t be delivered before Monday afternoon. Bastille Day is sacrosanct in France! Panic struck – I needed to be home and in my office by Monday morning.

There was nothing for it: he would have to bring me the key himself. However, he pointed out that as it was such a distance he would have to bring his “partner” with him to share the driving. His “partner” was, of course, the woman he had left me for and with whom he was then living. She had also been a close friend of mine, so this was particularly galling.

By this time it was late afternoon, so my only solution was to go to the small hotel – a very nice, clean hostelry in the traditional French country style – and wait to be rescued from my plight the following day.

Everyone was extremely sympathetic to me. I was stranded with nothing but the casual clothes I was wearing for the trip, so it was impossible to change into something suitable for dining out on a Bastille Day evening. However, I did have a travel toothbrush with integrated toothpaste in my bag, which was a boon, and a lipstick. My room had an en-suite shower so I was able to freshen up to some extent.

I made a few calls from the phone in my room to various people who would be concerned about what had happened to me (all international calls, Germany, Switzerland and the UK, and quite long) and then went down to the bar for a kir. That calmed me down, so I had another one and then a truly delicious 4-course dinner with half a bottle of good local wine, so that by the time I got into bed I had no cares in the world and was able to sleep like a baby.

Next morning at breakfast it seemed that I had only had to tell my story once: the grapevine had passed it on and the whole village knew about me. The hotel bar also served as the local café, the assembly place on a Saturday morning to exchange news and gossip. Several people approached me to express their sympathy, and everyone said more or less the same thing:  “What wonderful, kind friends these people must be, coming all that way just to bring a car key!”

I bit my lip and smiled inwardly at the irony of it. How would they have reacted if I had told them that these “wonderful, kind friends” were my husband and his mistress? Actually, being French, they would probably have shrugged and said, “Et alors?” I didn’t want to get into explanations with strangers, but really it did add a certain piquancy to the situation and I felt a bit mean for not letting them in on the joke. When the hotel manager gave me my bill I noticed she had not charged me for my aperitif nor for the international phone calls. I wanted to pay for these, but she adamantly refused and hoped I would come again under more auspicious circumstances. Maybe one day I will!

Around midday, my rescue team arrived and I was able to recover my car from the garage. At this point my ex-husband suggested that since I didn’t know my way around Strasbourg, it might be a good idea if we travelled in convoy at least as far as Basle. Double irony! But this we did, though I think when SHE was driving she was doing her best to shake me off her tail. Or perhaps I do her an injustice. Eventually, we reached the Franco-Swiss border and they zoomed off, leaving me – much relieved – to find the rest of my way home musing about the events of the last two days. It could have been a dreadful experience, but I had received only kindness from everyone involved.

Strangely enough, a few weeks beforehand a friend had prophesied that my journey would turn out completely differently from what I had planned, but I had forgotten all about that prophecy, as the adventure happened whilst I was homeward bound. Fate or coincidence? Anyway, that was the first and last time that I travelled in France on 14 July. I hope my daughter and son-in-law have an uneventful trip today!


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