It had been the best and worst of seasons, as Dickens might have described it – one lacking in snow and beset with Land Rover problems from its outset. Morzine had seen a brutally cold January and tropical temperatures in March – but I’d had some fabulous skiing experiences in the Dolomites and Laax.
Winter 2017 had also seen a particularly eclectic mix of people stay at Chalet Framboise: Old friends and new, some entertaining, some irritating, some flawed and some fascinating – all ripe for literary assassination. The season had produced some good material for the final instalment of the Skiing with Demons trilogy (publication date unknown).
There was a lot to reflect on whilst driving north. I’d undertaken Wine Run 7, as my northerly migration is known, alone. One last twist in the season’s tail meant I was without my co-driver, and chief medical officer.
We had been hanging around in Morzine, waiting for a Land Rover part, but Debbie had run out of holiday and had flown back to the UK. There was one day left before I too had to vacate Chalet Framboise. The couriers website, claimed the part (a rear prop shaft) would be delivered before 6pm that day, but I wasn’t confident.
Getting parts delivered to France is tricky. They arrive in Morzine with impressive rapidity, but the last mile to the chalet is always the hardest relying as it does, on the French postal system.
Knowing that French postmen simple cough outside your door and immediately conclude that no one is home, I’d literally waited by my door all day. At 3pm I started to panic. The prospect of driving Landie home with no drive to the rear wheels was daunting. I checked the tracking website again and to my horror the package status had changed to “Failed delivery – returned to depot.”
Livid, I jumped in Landie and nursed her down to the Post office, to protest. There was a queue. The official behind the desk did what all officials do when there is a queue – he proceeded slowly. I watched as a young English couple in front of me had handed over their failed delivery note. He then asked them for identification. The parcel was addressed to their dad. They had his passport and his surname, and I assumed they were not trying to collect gold ingots for his pre-Brexit stash, but there was no way he was going to give them the parcel.
After their sheepish retreat, and still with a little steam coming out of my ears, I stepped up to the desk. Having just heard him eloquently dismiss my predecessors in their mother tongue I made a rookie mistake – I started the encounter in English. “You tried to deliver a parcel today, I was in all day, I believe it is back here?” I said, knowing full well it had never left the building. Sensing my frustration his reply was, “Speak French.”
Realising what I’d done, I apologised and tried again in Franglais. I gave him the tracking number and he typed it into his computer, then gave me the French equivalent of ‘the computer says no’. I showed him the email proving “Le carton, was dans la maison” “Maybe we will deliver it tomorrow?” – he said, accidentally reverting to English.
I explained that I had to leave “La house of raspberries de matin” and that I had voted to Remain. He turned back to his computer and with out typing anything, decided it was worth looking in the store room.
After a while and presumably a quick espresso, he returned holding what could only be a prop shaft. He placed it behind him and started the paperwork – in France the paperwork often takes longer than the job it pertains to, but at least I could see the object of my desire.
I couldn’t prove I lived at the chalet, they hadn’t left a failed delivery card, because they had only pretended to deliver it. Added to this the first name on my passport didn’t match that of the recipient on the package – he wasn’t happy. I thought about leaning over, grabbing the prop shaft and doing a runner but decide instead to state my intention not to leave the building without it. I asked him what time the post office shut and where was the best place for me to sleep – it did the trick.
After successfully installing the new prop shaft, my arms were covered in grease and my fingernails impregnated with oil. I felt very manly and had a strange desire to eat a Yorkie Bar (do they still make those?)
The next morning I set off at 5:30am with a full moon and the stars illuminating my way. A deer and a fox, were the only traffic I encountered as I wound Landie down the mountain to Cluses and joined the motorway.
Once on the motorway, the prospect of being imprisoned with my thoughts for 16 hours was daunting. Having done the journey 6 times before, the navigation was easy – west, past Geneva then turn north towards Dijon. I was also familiar with the psychological way markers.
Dijon seemingly takes forever to reach and there is an overriding feeling of foreboding, as every new rattle and squeak Landie makes is a harbinger of doom. Once Dijon is captured the cities of Troyes, Reims and Saint-Quentin seem to fall easily. Passing Reims is always poignant for me having spent a night in its hospital. Finally, when the first sign to Calais appears the smell of diesel fumes are diluted with a whiff of success.
I stopped for fuel just after Dijon and noticed something leaking out of my left rear hub. It wouldn’t be a proper Wine Run without Landie leaving a trail of some kind of liquid, I thought. I took no action, other than to drive faster in order to get to the ferry before whatever was leaking ran out.
During the journey, for distraction, I tried to recall all the people who had visited me that year. Like the snow, my regulars had been a bit thin on the ground. A new type of guest, ‘my readers’ had filled the ranks. Many had come to visit the crime scene of Skiing with Demons and to meet the central protagonist. They had made me feel like an attraction at a freak show. I wondered if they had been disappointed? I was no longer the party animal of Morzine and was now a recluse, hiding in a remote chalet on its outskirts and seldom seen in its bars.
I also pontificated on whether this would be my last Wine Run. Landie had caused me a lot of stress that winter. Even when she had been running well the anxiety of not knowing where and when she would break down next had been crippling and even though I’d replaced most of her parts my confidence in her was at an all time low. The problem was I knew my collection of new parts were held together by the same rusting chassis and idiosyncratic design.
Perhaps I could return to Zine without Landie? But it wouldn’t be the same without her. She had become part of my persona and was often a source of misguided pride. I wouldn’t be “Chalet Chris” if I drove around in a Toyota Yaris – the world’s most reliable car. I concluded that :
“You can take the man out of a Defender, but you can’t take the Defender out of the man.”
Once Calais fell, I pulled into the EU citizens queue at the ferry port. I wondered if post-Brexit there could be three lines: one for non-EU citizens, one for EU citizens and one for Remainers?
The ferry was full of the usual suspects: parties of annoying school kids, lorry drivers, Eastern European migrant workers and those too fat or too frightened to fly.
I hid in the boats posh restaurant.
As the white cliffs of Dover loomed, the next psychological part of the journey began. The cliffs reminded me that the English section of the journey home, is actually the hardest. The traffic, the road works and physical fatigue make it the most painful. Despite the comfort of being within the reach of the AA’s home relay service – the last 150 miles are always the longest.
Finally Sutton Coldfield was in sight and the prospect of a canine welcome lifted my soul. Only dogs know how to do a welcome home. It took me 15mins to get past Oscar before I could embrace Debbie. She felt guilty that I’d had to drive home alone. But alone had been better – the forced solitude had given me time to think. Landie had been my decompression chamber as I transitioned from my winter environment to my summer one.
I’d promised to do a lot of things that summer – mostly “sort my life out.” I’d been through the best and worst of times, but now it was time to make good on those promises and not just hibernate until winter came around.
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