The Euro-Trip Episodes

1. Writing Off My (Ex-) Girlfriend’s 1st Car

Fact file:

  • Transportation: Peugeot 206 (I)
  • Location: Chartres, France
  • Date: June 2009
  • Injury: Seatbelt bruising to passenger
  • Damage: Write off, relationship
  • Cost: £700
  • Fault: Taxi driver, retractable bollard, France

Story:

As the end of my time at University approached, I began to plan a summer trip to Europe with my girlfriend of 2 years.  It was actually Sarah’s idea and she did the vast majority of the planning and organising as I “studied” hard for my finals.  The trip was originally going to be the two of us driving her car around France, but it quickly blossomed into a 2-month adventure, dipping into Barcelona, Switzerland, Italy and many more European countries.

Me and Sarah in front of Paris' Notre Dame

Me and Sarah in front of Paris’ Notre Dame

We stayed in Bath for a week after my finals to celebrate then spent a few days back home packing and putting the final touches to our plans and preparation.  Before we knew it we were driving Sarah`s beautiful blue Peugeot 206, her first ever car, south to Dover and boarded the ferry to Calais.  We spent a glorious 3 days in Paris, the city of romance, and then visited the palace of Versailles, before continuing onto Chartres, a small French town 60 miles south-west of Paris.

I was driving us through town but we were struggling to find our campsite.  So after a couple of passes we followed a sign for Tourist Information, turning down a side road.  Despite it being a Sunday evening, we thought that perhaps they would have a map on the window or some way of helping us to find our way.  I will take this opportunity to point out that since Sarah`s car was bought in England the driver`s seat is on the right side, whereas French cars are suited to driving on the wrong side of the road by positioning the driver on the left side of the vehicle.

As I drove us slowly along the minor road, we looked either side of the street for the Tourist Information building.  To this day I can picture the layout of the road, with a slope leading to an underground car park on my right and no other obvious course but to continue straight on.  Ahead of us but further along the road was a red people-carrier, also travelling slowly, which paused briefly before proceeding once more.  I continued along the road at my snail`s pace when, all of a sudden, there was a huge bang and the noise of our possessions and food tins crashing forward.  All I could see was white as the airbag exploded in my face.  With the smell of burning in my nostrils and the wailing of the car alarm audible over the ringing in my ears, I recovered from the initial shock to check on Sarah`s condition before getting out of the vehicle to assess the situation.

A few local people stopped to see that we weren’t hurt but many of them did not speak English.  I was utterly bewildered as to what caused the crash but I soon noticed the guilty party.  I began to piece together the series of events when another passer-by approached and managed to communicate with us in English.  He kindly called the police and when they arrived we pushed Sarah’s car up onto the pavement.  What remained was a puddle of oil that had been gushing from the car’s oil sump and the destroyed retractable bollard that had caused the damage.  The bollard could be lifted from it’s concealed below-ground “receiver” but limply collapsed back into the ground – something that at least satisfied me a little.  Upon further research into “retractable bollards” I was pleased to discover that these devices, designed to alter access on streetscapes, can cost up to US$600!

Having managed to give my details to the police in a mixture of English and French, I struggled to explain that I had not driven straight into the bollard.  They must have been puzzled that there was no damage to the front of the vehicle after all.  Imagine the improbability of this situation:

  • The car ahead, as it turns out, was a taxi so pauses at the retractable bollard.
  • It’s number-plate is recognised as a taxi and thus allowed access to the street ahead.  (The driver could possibly have communicated through a speaker system positioned on the left – ie. French driver’s side, but my passenger side – and so would not really be in my field of vision.)
  • The bollard ‘telescopes’ into it’s retracted position below the surface of the road.
  • The taxi driver passes over the retracted bollard, continuing along the road.
  • I continue driving as I approach and begin to pass over the currently hidden bollard.
  • The bollard rises as I am still passing over and connects with the unprotected underbody of Sarah’s car.
  • Catastrophic damage is caused to the sump, leading the insurers to deem repairs to be more costly than the value of the vehicle, ie. a write-off.

So, I have once again done some research to identify the function of a sump – also known as an oil pan.  This detachable bowl is attached below the crankcase and is actually the lowest part of the vehicle’s underbody.  Its low positioning is to enable oil to drain into this reservoir for storage when it is not being used to lubricate and cool the engine.  What perplexes me is how a detachable and seemingly unimportant part of the vehicle can cause sufficient damage to deem the car uneconomically viable for repair.

[Or so I thought when I originally wrote this.  I have since discussed the damage that would have been caused with my mechanic:

“So the sump while this, as you put it, simply houses your oil it is also the bottom casing for your engine and is where the crank runs!  This is the part that your pistons are attached to – the main part of the engine basically.  So in essence, as the engine was running and the bollard has come through the sump it will have definitely connected with the crank which would have been spinning at approx. 1000rpm – so not only bending and snapping it, it would have stopped it suddenly causing pistons to hit valves and caused all kinds of havoc.  So the reason for the write-off will have been due to the fact it would need a new engine. x”

Note that Anthony, as a friend, has put me in my place but left an all important ‘x’ to make me feel better about my idiocy!]

Sadly that was eventually considered to be the case.  But what added extra strain to the situation, and consequently to my relationship with Sarah, were the delays and uncertainty about the vehicle’s condition.  The impact was obviously sufficient to set off the airbag but we hoped that the damage was repairable.  After a couple of days waiting in Chartres for news on the repairs, our insurer, the AA (Automobile Association not Alcoholics Anonymous), offered us a replacement vehicle.  We decided to continue our journey further South through France but we proceeded tentatively, unsure whether we would soon need to return.  Eventually we received confirmation that the vehicle had been deemed a write-off and continued with our journey for as long as the replacement car was provided, lasting around 4 weeks.

Another benefit gained from our European breakdown cover was having two nights in an expensive hotel paid for.  The police had called an ambulance to the scene of the accident to assess our injuries.  Due to the bruising caused by the seatbelt upon impact, they recommended that Sarah be taken to hospital for a chest scan.  I quickly gathered our essentials: clothes, documents and any valuable possessions from the car and it’s roof-box; then we managed to contact our insurers at the hospital.  Fortunately, Sarah’s injury was only minor and we took a taxi to the hotel, where I tried to make her as comfortable as possible to make amends for this colossal setback.

Continuing on our journey through France, we visited the fairytale city of Carcassonne.

Continuing on our journey through France, we visited the fairytale city of Carcassonne.

We actually managed to have a fantastic time and when the replacement vehicle period was up we detoured through Switzerland to return to Chartres.  We received an additional free night in a different fancy hotel courtesy of the AA, then collected our remaining possessions from the roof-box on Sarah’s terminal car.  From here we transported ourselves home in a series of provided rental cars.

Back in the UK I pressured Sarah into buying a replacement vehicle, where I footed the bill of around £700, the difference between her original car’s valuation cheque and the replacement Peugeot 206’s price-tag.  After my graduation we set off once again for another European expedition, which we referred to as ‘Euro Trip 2’.  Probably the greatest benefit gained from this incident was the extension of our trip from the intended 2-month adventure to a lengthy 10 weeks of total travel around 12 European countries.  Needless to say I returned penniless (but richer as a person from my experiences)!

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I should end by clarifying that while my relationship did not benefit from this incident, Sarah did appreciate that it was not entirely my fault.  There were many many contributing factors for the relationship coming to an end months later.  It is safe to say, however, that writing off your girlfriend’s beloved first car is going to put a strain on your relationship!

2. Speeding in Croatia: Was it a bribe?

Fact file:

  • Transportation: Peugeot 206 (II)
  • Location: Croatia
  • Date: August 2009
  • Injury: None
  • Damage: None
  • Cost: 500Kn (£56)
  • Fault: Caravans, Croatian Motorways Ltd, Croatian police officers, my parents

Story:

As Sarah and I continued the second edition of our ‘Euro Trip’, we travelled from Venice to Croatia’s spectacular Plitvice Lakes National Park.  On a beautiful sunny day I drove ‘Taz’, Sarah’s second Peugeot 206, along a beautiful Croatian coastal road with nothing to spoil the journey…except caravans!  Top Gear enthusiasts will appreciate the hatred motorists can harbour towards these slow and selfish modes of transport.  Since the single-lane road wound along the contours of the coast it was difficult to safely complete an overtaking manoeuvre, which tainted the pleasure of the beautiful drive.  (I think it’s fair to say that it is my parents’ fault for my tendency to grow impatient!)

And so it was with great relief that we arrived at our turning to cut inland for our intended destination.  With the open road ahead of us, and no caravans to hinder our progress, I put my foot down and we hurtled along the road.  No sooner had I reached a satisfying speed than I shot past a parked police car complete with an officer holding aloft a speed gun.  I was immediately waved to pull over and I resisted the temptation to accelerate away!

When I pulled over a policewoman approached my window and informed me that I was breaking the speed limit.  Feeling slightly nervy about pushing my luck with foreign police, I agreed to pay an on-the-spot fine of 500 Kuna and be on my way.  My recollection of the discussion with these police officers is a little hazy but I seem to remember handing over my passport or driving licence at one stage.  To this day I am not sure if the Croatian vehicle stamp in my passport is from the border crossing or if it marks my speeding penalty! 

Let’s go down under for Overseas Transport Misdemeanour #3

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