I’m sitting in the hold of DFDS’ finest ferry, and poo is – metaphorically – shooting out.
Not only is this my maiden road trip, but it’s the early hours of the morning, I’m drowsy after four soul-crushing hours sat on a glorified barge, and I have only my eleven year old Sat Nav to guide me to our hotel.
A flurry of movement descends on the weary crew, and the hatch lowers into its resting position, revealing the treacle-like horizon beyond. It’s now my friend and I, a Fiat Punto and our date with destiny – an Ibis Budget in Rouen. Not exactly the Grand Tour, but it’s a start.
The British, without wishing to mention recent political events, have a peculiar relationship with Europe. I’m not talking about the EU, but something incredibly specific. The Continental road trip.
Whenever I mentioned my European plans to people, the first question was always ‘Will you be alright? They drive on the wrong side, you know…’
The second concern is the language barrier. I suppose it has something with us being an island, but I’ve never considered these aspects an issue. Culturally, we are as much European as France, or Italy, Germany or Switzerland. Indeed, if you spot, say, a Dutch plate in Italy, you wouldn’t bat an eyelid. The same cannot be said for a British one.
I might be going off on a tangent, but stay with me. Entirely of its own doing, these queries and concerns gave our little endeavour some extra clout. Namely, would we dispel these questions, or reinforce them? Is Europe-by-car really the great unknown, or were we just being Little Englanders? Time to find out.
The ramp fell into its housing with a reassuring clank, and before so much as an exhalation we were through Border Control and steaming down the French auto-routes, with the Cathedral city of Rouen in our coarse, gritty sights.
Having only driven on South-Eastern UK roads during the two years since I passed my driving test, motoring in a foreign place, no matter what I’ve just alluded to the contrary, was bizarre. Bizarrely normal. With no-one but the occasional HGV to keep us company, we were making beautiful progress.
Driving through the dead of night is always magical, I find, but this was something more. It was like that sensation experienced as a child, when you always felt you could run doubly fast through the darkness as you could through the light.
The Punto, to our dismay, was not equipped with iPod connectivity. As a result, we streamed our tunes through a crappy knock-off Beats Pill speaker, balanced precariously atop the open glove box. Alas, it worked well enough, and we had Paul McCartney and Alex Turner guiding us through this unknown territory in no time.
By the time we reached the Ibis, we were jolly knackered, but gleeful. Here we were, lying back on crunchy bunk beds at three in the morning in a mysterious place. The outer, forgotten district of an inland French city.
My little Brit-plated Punto – which, before I took ownership, was used entirely for two mile trips within Egham – was now in France. It would cover another five countries within a month. That is an average of one thousand miles a week.
How did we manage to survive? That, I assure you, will all become imminently clear…