Those of you of an observant bent will notice that Gent, Belgium where I am currently sitting in a café is nowhere near Boulogne, France, which is where the Tour de France has managed to get itself too, unlike me. I’ve been liking Gent but now I am bored and very keen to leave, one way or another, but first I have to get the call from my latest set of new friends. These are the charming husband and wife team at the only honest garage in Gent (Abel Lievens) according to my research (a chat with the tow truck boy). My problem(s) started on Day 2, Sunday, a day when options in Belgium, as in England, are rather limited.
My SatNav doesn’t have enough capacity to have more than one country map on it at a time so I have the France bit, not Belgium. I suppose I could have paid some more and bought Belgium, or at least a map of it, but I was too tight and I’m only going to be here a couple of days right? As I crossed into Belgium the roads and information vanished off the screen leaving just the cursor moving through a big bunch of nothingness. Add your own Belgium joke here if you are so inclined.
Having got lost leaving the town of the shabby hotel, I headed for the nearest motorway, reasoning that as Belgium isn’t that big I’d be able to get to the finish of Stage 1 at Seraing with about an hour or so to spare. Lovely sunny day, music playing, just me and The Beast, I calculated the route in my head. I’d head north to Gent, east towards Brussels and then south towards Charleroi, before turning off for Seraing.
Ah, what’s this on the horizon? Way past Gent, I see the back end of a traffic jam, and pass a sign for roadworks at walking pace. Oh, I see. Filtering three lanes into two. OK. Shouldn’t take too long, at least it’s moving. Now I’m in the works. Crikey, sign says they’re going on for 5K. Never mind. The lane to my right seems to be moving slightly quicker so I start pulling across in front of a coach when Bang! Crunch! Dead stop. All the bloody power’s gone. Well not all the power but the bloody engines dead and won’t re-start. The power steering has lost the power bit and suddenly feels very, very heavy and the brakes don’t seem to have the bite they did when the engine was on.
I’m now at an angle halfway through my nifty lane changing manoeuvre and the coach driver, not totally unreasonably to be fair, is blowing his horn. I make the time honoured hand gesture for ‘I’ve just fucking broken down you fucking fuck wit’. Not entirely sure what that gesture is but I did it anyway. Managing to put The Beast out of its misery, well, into neutral, I coast down an imperceptibly slight slope. Owing to some yet to be revealed ‘reasoning’ of the Belgian motorway network this particular stretch has absolutely no way of getting to the hard shoulder. It’s blocked off as far as the eye can see with massive anti-terrorist style concrete blocks.
The lane to my right seems to be moving slightly quicker so I start pulling across in front of a coach when Bang! Crunch! Dead stop. All the bloody power’s gone.
So, three lanes became two and now, in honour of the Spice Girls reunion, I have made two become one. I couldn’t have broken down in a worst place. Or actually, having plenty of time to think about it over the next few hours, there are much worse places to break down. Just one, off the top of my head. In the fast lane. At night. In the rain. I’m shaking like a leaf. On ringing the AA I discover that contrary to what I believed, I don’t actually have continental breakdown cover, but I’m put through to a nice Irish chap called James who is at the euro assistance centre somewhere in le belle France. He goes through all the safety rigmarole of getting away from the car but staring at the rapidly worsening jam now stationary behind me, I cut him short. It’s unlikely that another vehicle is going to hit me at speed, more likely, if I get out, some Belgian is going to hit me with their fists.
James would like to know where I am. I try to be specific but it’s a bit difficult. If only I could stop babbling ‘in the roadworks’ we might get somewhere. He tells me to use a road side phone for assistance and I go to the nearest which is buried deep inside waist high stinging nettles only to discover that it doesn’t work. Back to The Beast I ring nice James back and he says that he’s going to get the Belgian AA equivalent to ring me. Oh, and I usefully give him the number of the broken emergency box, which is 966. He thanks me and says that that is very useful. I feel pleased and cared for. After a rather long wait a girl called Maria rings and once we’ve established (yet again) that no, I don’t have emergency assistance, she kindly agrees to send a tow truck and cheerily informs me that that will be €130 and yes, the driver does have a card machine.
Owing to some yet to be revealed ‘reasoning’ of the Belgian motorway network this particular stretch has absolutely no way of getting to the hard shoulder. It’s blocked off as far as the eye can see with massive anti-terrorist style concrete blocks.
Now I’ve got that all out the way I feel rather self-conscious watching the traffic inching past. I sit on the concrete barrier and smoke a cigarette, but feel that could appear to be too insouciant given the amount of trouble I’m causing so I get back in the car but it’s too hot so I get out again. It’s a bit late perhaps, but maybe I should check the oil and water? I haven’t done it before because it was raining last week and the engine looks bloody complicated but it gives me something to do. Yep, oil and water all fine. So it’s not my fault then! Buoyed by this I have another cigarette. People are driving past, shaking their fists and blowing their horns now. They never cease to amaze me. ‘I know what I’ll do today. I’ll go to the motorway and breakdown in the roadworks. That should make a nice day out. Might even take some sandwiches and a flask.’
Luckily The Beast has tinted windows so if I open the rear door and the front door and crouch between them on the barrier no-one can see me. Maybe I should leave the bonnet up? Make it look a bit more ‘official’? Christ this is boring. I’ve got 12 bottles of Chardonnay in the back. Maybe I could anesthetise myself? Perhaps not, as somewhere deep in the distance I hear the wail of emergency sirens. Fire? Ambulance? No, much more likely to be the police heading my way. I wonder how long they will take to get here. That jam must be awful long by now and they, like me, can’t use the hard shoulder. They don’t sound like they are getting any nearer…
Here they are. How best to approach this? They don’t look very pleased. One’s a white haired Walter Matthau type and the other is in his late 30’s. I try an apologetic grin but they totally ignore me whilst placing cones back down the motorway then Walter Matthau drives off leaving me with late 30’s who’s talking/listening to his radio. Nice looking chap really. His kind, but sad eyes stare off into the middle distance. Or at a bloody big traffic jam. Very shabby unpolished boots though, more like shoes, and his shirt and trousers don’t fit well and look a bit too acrylic for my taste. Nice gun though.
“Run out of petrol?” he says suddenly, trying to catch me out. “I’ve called a tow truck” I stammer as a way of apology. “You don’t have to” he says flintily, “That’s our job. We are responsible for what goes on along the motorway.” Then he walks off. Not far obviously as there’s nowhere really to go, but far enough to dissuade further conversation. Then it starts to rain. Big fat heavy soft slow summer plops. “You ought to get back in your car” he says. “Do you want to too?” I ask. “No” he replies. Shame. I could have talked to him about his kind but sad eyes…
Still no sign of the two tow trucks that have been ordered. Maybe I should call Maria and cancel one? Maybe not as we don’t know which is going to arrive first. I know how these things work, either one could be coming from miles away. Anyway, ‘Kind But Sad Eyes’ is no doubt working his early learning centre radio thing so I’ll leave it to him. It’s best that way.
Then it starts to rain. Big fat heavy soft slow summer plops. “You ought to get back in your car” he says. “Do you want to too?” I ask. “No” he replies.
Now what’s happening? He did ask me just now if I had a towrope with me. I don’t of course. It’s at home and is actually quite a big sturdy thing, but what with all the palaver of the French ‘catch out the tourists’ laws I was too busy stocking up with hi-vis jackets, warning triangles and packs of self administering breathalyser’sto remember it. He’s flagging down traffic. A van pulls in front of The Beast. Good executive decision! Sod waiting for the tow trucks, let’s clear this motorway right now, right here!
The van is black with a Hell’s Angels sticker on the back door, but the driver, shaven-headed and alternative in that way only northern Europeans can be, is smiley. And he has a towrope and is keen to help, albeit only after being ordered to do so by ‘Kind But Sad Eyes’. And he also has a gun on his belt. Is this a Belgian thing I’m not aware of? Doesn’t seem to faze ‘Kind But Sad Eyes’ though. ‘Smiley Shaven Head’ asks me if my brakes work when the engine is off to which I reply with certainty that I’m not entirely sure so he asks me not drive into the back of his Hell’s Angel van when he stops. I ask him to be gentle. I mean drive gently. And we’re off.
‘Kind But Sad Eye’s elects to sit in with ‘Smiley Shaven Head’ (shame). They’re probably talking about each other’s weapons. I have no idea where we’re going as ‘Kind But Sad Eyes’ didn’t bother telling me. Hope it’s a service station - I’m gasping and haven’t eaten since the mouldy cheese and bread at shabby hotel this morning. Blimey, these roadworks are long. I’ve got one hand on the handbrake and my foot trembling over the brake pedal in case we stop. The roadworks are still going on. I relax my trembling brake foot. We’re not going to stop in the roadworks now are we? That would defeat the whole point of the exercise. Amusingly as cars overtake and recognize the cause of all their woes; a black ‘Hell’s Angels’ Transit towing The Beast; they can’t help but yell, shout, hoot their horns and gesticulate rudely. Not knowing of course that ‘Kind But Sad Eyes’ is in the van. And along with ‘Smiley Shaven Head’, he’s armed. Bet he doesn’t get that lack of respect in his squad car….
We stop! And I haven’t run into the back of ‘Smiley Shaven Head’. Thank God for that. We’re on a junction by a bridge but at least there is a hard shoulder and no traffic inching past gesticulating. ‘Smiley Shaven Head’ smiles and drives off leaving me with ‘Kind But Sad Eyes’ who seems to be thawing a bit. Maybe he had nice time up front with ‘Smiley Shaven Head’. Or maybe he likes the way I treat him with respect, unlike those other rotters.
I ask him how bad the traffic jam is. “Pfft… Very bad.” “Very bad?” “Yes.” “How long is it?” “All the way back to Gent.” “How far’s that?” “Maybe 20, 30 kilometres.” “How long is it usually?” “1 kilometre.” “Oh.”
Walter Matthau turns up smirking all over his face. Don’t know what’s cheered him up. Probably ‘Kind But Sad Eyes’ told him that people were being nasty to him.
At last the tow truck… More new friends! Young guy in his early 20’s with girlfriend. Why not? It’s Sunday afternoon. The Beast gets winched onto the truck and ‘Kind But Sad Eyes’ and ‘Young Guy’ exchange paperwork while I look on redundantly. It’s now time to say goodbye to Walter Matthau and ‘Kind But Sad Eyes’. I have a feeling that I will never see them again and that makes me sad. ‘Kind But Sad Eyes’ reaches out to shake my hand and I grasp his but he does one of those funny ‘eep-‘op’ ones and I don’t so we are left clasping one another awkwardly which is a bit embarrassing. Walter Matthau is still smirking, but at least shakes my hand normally. Au revoir! Bon Chance! Or the equivalent in Flemish. We leave as friends. We will never forget one another - ever.
‘Young Guy’ orders his girlfriend onto the truck cab bed thing (handy) to allow me the privilege of the passenger seat. “Do you have emergency assistance?” Christ, not that bloody question again. “No”. “OK, I ring my boss”.
A short while later. “OK, you have two choices. 1. We take your car to our depot and you get a hotel. Or 2; We take you to the train station and you go home.” I’ll go with option 1 please. Rather charmingly they ask where I’d like to stay, in the centre or somewhere cheaper on the outskirts. I tell them that if I stayed on the outskirts I’d be very likely to kill myself. I got this point across by miming putting a revolver in my mouth and pulling the trigger. Must have been all that time spent with ‘Kind But Sad Eyes’ and ‘Smiley Shaven Head’.
I look up to see that we are heading in the opposite direction to the traffic jam I’ve caused. Completely static. Not moving for miles. People are out of their cars and lounging on the barriers. “Christ, that’s bad” I say. “Yeah”, ‘Young Guy’ says. “It’s been on the news”.
Au revoir! Bon Chance! Or the equivalent in Flemish. We leave as friends. We will never forget one another - ever.
Much later I ring my girlfriend to see how her day has been. And explain mine. From the stylish comfort of our flat, she can see where I broke down using the Google Maps Traffic update which still has the stretch of road marked with red and black: Green is good, yellow is slow, red is bad and black is really, really bad. It’s black, black, black. And this was hours later. “Bad, and very, very bad”. She searches online for hotels, and gives me directions to a former monastery.
“But I was on the news…!”
Meanwhile in the TDF ‘Slovak wunderkind’ Sagan bagged a couple of stages in his obvious quest for Green and ‘little munchkin legs’ Cavendish bagged one. Unfortunately the rest has passed me by a bit owing to my ‘crisis’.
Oh, and Bradley Wiggins was born in Gent. So there.
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