23 December, 2009

The Joys of Winter

Unless you've been living under a rock or have cut yourself off from all forms of media, you have probably heard about the big freeze hitting northern Europe at the moment.

So, you have read about all the transport troubles & accidents that have occurred?
Let me tell you my story - a real-life tale of winter...

The story started with a car. Daddy Sin offered to sell me his old car for a really good price. I eagerly accepted the offer - MY FIRST CAR!
Only problems were that a) the car was in France and b) I can't drive (have a licence, but haven't driven since i passed my test 12 years ago...) There was K & his car, but we needed another driver & Joe, our flatmate, very kindly agreed to be the second driver.
Then we discussed the travel plans. We had two options; stay Saturday night chez Parental Sins or do a day-trip on Saturday (about an 8-hour return trip).
We decided to take the second option (which was to be probably the biggest mistake of the day)

Travel plans sorted, we could relax, driver - check, car - check, plan - check!
But then on Friday night it started to snow. And snow. And snow some more. It was the first day that snow had actually stuck in south Stuttgart. Went to bed nervous that we would be snowed in & unable to drive to France.

Saturday morning, i opened the curtains with trepidation. Luckily, there it hadn't snowed much more & there was only about 5cm on the ground & the main road had been cleared.
So, off to the car, K's aged VW Golf. This car has been dying a slow & painful death, but has been soldiering on. Saturday though was too cold & Golf decided that, no, he didn't want to start.
No amount of cajoling could persuade Golf to start - too cold, too tired & too snowy. Personally, I don't blame Golf for not wanting to start. At this point the temperature was -8C.

Luckily, we had the keys for another flatmate's car, so we decided to use that car instead.
And yes, Saab decided that, yes, he would go to France. And so off we set.
But it was cold. And despite being a Swedish car, Saab didn't like the icy spray off the road, which stuck to the windscreen, froze & left frozen sludge & impossible to see through. This meant stopping every few km to pour anti-freeze over it or, once the anti-freeze had run out, cleaning it manually. This resulted in our 4-hour journey taking just over 6 hours.

But we got there. And had a lovely dinner.
Pretty soon after dinner, we left in order to get back to Germany. Daddy Sin did suggest again that we stay the night in France, but we all had decided on our plan to return to Germany. Again, this was a decision that we would regret...

We left my parents place around 8:30, aiming to be back in Stuttgart around 1am.
we set off with no problems & the first couple of hours were uneventful & stress-free. By this time, the roads were pretty empty, so there wasn't any spray to stick to Saab's windscreen. Also, the temperature had dropped to below -10C, so everything was solid.
Motorway was empty, everything was great. Looked like we were going to have a smooth drive home. But NO! Nothing can be that simple.

Daddy Sin had warned us earlier that day that my new car, Renault, had summer diesel in it, which had froze earlier that day. However, he's left Renault running for a few hours to warm everything up & topped the tank up with winter diesel & it seemed to be OK. And yes, Renault WAS fine for the first 3 hours. But then, while Joe was driving, the engine just stopped. We pulled over to the hard shoulder & he tried to start Renault again. No. So Joe & K swapped cars, the logic being that as K is an engineer maybe he would have some magic trick to get the car working.
Meanwhile, Joe took Saab to the nearest exit to stop safely (also, at some point during the day, Saab's indicators decided not to work - not a great idea to be parked on the hard shoulder at night with no hazards)
K tried to get everything going, but to no avail. Renault completely refused to start. By this point the temperature was -18C.
So, we were stuck on the motorway, in the middle of nowhere in France with no power in freezing conditions. Not only that, when had swapped cars, he left his wallet & coat in Saab. Not fun.
Called my dad & he gave me the insurance phone number (thank god for insurance and especially AXA insurance). Called AXA and luckily they had someone who spoke English. He explained, that while they could support us, they couldn't organise a tow-truck on the motorway, as the police are in charge of that. But once we off the motorway, he explained i should call him back & then he could help me out.
So i had to call 112 (the continental Europe emergency number) Called there, where no one spoke English & explained what happened in my broken french. Got given a number for the local gendarmes (that's french for police, that is...) In a side point, found it a bit discomforting that the emergency services didn't speak any English. Luckily, as i discovered that night, my french isn't as bad as i thought it was, so i could explain what was happening. But imagine if you're some stuck tourist? You'd be completely screwed.

Called the local police, who again didn't speak English, and they gave me the number for the depannage (breakdown service in French. I think i doubled my french vocabulary this weekend!!)

And so, on phone call number 4, i was finally through to the Depannage. He asked all the usual questions; name, car model & registration, what happened, where are we, etc. The 'where are we' was a bit of a challenge though, it was dark, we were in the middle of nowhere. I could tell him we were on the A4 heading towards Strasbourg. But where on the A4? Absolutely NO idea.
Luckily though, motorways are prepared for this kind of thing. Have you ever noticed the km markers? In France, they're in the centre of the motorway (not at the side, as K discovered while he was running around in -18C trying to find it) They are every 200m, so the Deppanage can find the broken down car with relative ease. He said he would be there in about 45 minutes; an hour later he arrived. We had never been so happy to see those flashing orange lights.
At this point, Joe was still waiting for us. I explained to the Depannage dude that our friend was waiting & could we stop there. He, not being very impressed with working in minus temperatures on a Saturday night, said, no, he wasn't going that way. This was because Depannage trucks can use secret exits off the motorway. And he had to pick up another car (a french couple who also had frozen fuel)

Finally, we get to the garage, dump our car(s), then head over the Depannage office. There, i called AXA once again & explained what had happened. The nice AXA man told me that they would provide a hotel & taxi to it & even organise everything. About 30 minutes later, the taxi arrived and took us to a Novotel about 20 minuteas away. When we got to the hotel, it was after 2am, but the staff were there. And the girl working in the bar, explained that the bar was usually closed at that time, but she thought that we probably needed a drink, so had stayed open for us. So we had a couple of beers.
And then went up to our nice clean room, had a shower to warm up & then crashed.

Next day was Sunday. And lovely AXA had also organised breakfast for us. FREE! Woohoo!
After breakfast, I called AXA to see what was happening. They said i should call the garage, but I explained that my french wasn't good enough, so the nice AXA man called on my behalf.
A while later, he called back with the bad (but not completely unexpected) news - the garage is closed on Sundays. we would have to wait until Monday, at the earliest, for the car to be ready. Luckily, the insurance covered up to 2 nights at the hotel. So, there we were having a mini-Hotel California experience; K had no coat, so going outside was not an option. Besides that, we had very limited money - all we had was my Xmas present money from my dad!
Luckily, this money was enough for lunch, dinner & a couple of beers.

And so Monday morning rolled around.
Once again, I called AXA. They, once again, called the garage. And AXA called back to tell us to wait until the afternoon. After 1pm, i called AXA again. An hour later, they called back. The car was READY! And AXA would organise & cover the taxi back to the garage. they wouldn't, however, cover any repairing fees.
Headed over to the garage, and the garage lady confirmed that, yes, the diesel had jelified (hopefully that's a real word...) But we weren't the only ones - lots of cars had had the same problem on Saturday (which turned out to be the only night that was that cold!!!) And when i asked how much it was, she said it was free! I guess all they had to do was warm the car up - they didn't to do anything mechanical or replace any parts; just de-jelify the diesel.

And then we were on our way & i am very happy to report that the last 2 hours were completely uneventful.
In the end, our day-trip to France took 3 days, but we had a free weekend away in a nice hotel & what could have been a complete and utter nightmare actually ended up OK due to the nice helpful AXA people, the friendly Novotel staff & the garage people. And i would like to thank my parents for making me go to French school when i was 7 because if i had had no French it would have been so much worse and WAY more difficult.

And while all this was going on, Sister Sin was stuck in London waiting for the Eurostar service to restart. Hopefully she has got to France now...


epoq said...

I wish I could say France were only a hop, skip and a jump away from myself.

What scary entrance into the whole situation. Good for the comparatively happy ending, though =)

MissSin said...

Epoq - thanks for the comment! Living in Europe is great; everything is pretty much a hop & a skip away. Lucky me ;)