Dear Chartres, you are badly designed.

The absence last week was caused by me hopping over to France to visit my aunt and uncle, who are living the dream on a vineyard near Toulouse. My aunt has recently gone vegan, which meant that I spent last week as a semi-vegan. I could say vegetarian, but I only had fish once and I barely ate any cheese (I am a cheese-fiend normally so this is a Big Deal) and besides, I actually consumed a wheatgrass smoothie with soya milk which I’m fairly sure is the standard qualification required for veganism.

We also went skiing on the Wednesday, which was extremely fun because it involved snow and extremely terrifying because I’ve never skied before…

Amazingly, I picked it up pretty quickly and only fell over once (I’m not counting the two times when I fell off the button lift in a crumpled heap and rolled around like a beached whale until I figured out how to extract my skis from my arse). Of course, my pride was completely put to shame by the sight of my six year old cousin skiing down the blue runs at an eyewatering speed and my eight year old cousin heading off to tackle the red runs with my brother.

It’s becoming a recurring pattern for me to come home from my aunt and uncle’s house with various exercise-related muscle pains…

Also, it’s a theme that I either go there with a cold or I come home with a cold. In this case, I went there with the remains of a cold and came back with a minor lymph infection which is presenting itself as an insanely painful lump in my right armpit. Queen of attractive ailments, me.

Speaking of coming home, the journey back was…eventful. We’d taken my car (the Invisible Fiat Punto) in order to give me some driving experience on the French roads, which was a white-knuckled thrill-ride as we kept the speed to around 80mph which still isn’t breaking French speed limits. My car handled this amazingly well, only really struggling on the hills and not, as I had been having horrible thoughts about, losing all four wheels at once and exploding with a high-pitched engine whine.

The only problem with my car is that, being an older model (2001), it’s not quite as economical as the Citroën, which is the usual car of choice for when we’re going to France for a short trip. Of course, my Fiat is nowhere near as bad as the Land Rover, but the Land Rover only comes with us when Dad’s there too, and he has a map of every fuel station in France in his head, plus the mental capacity to calculate the exact points at which we will need to refuel, accounting for traffic, random diversions and the need to take a twenty mile detour because we can’t find a McDonald’s.

Anyway, my Fiat was probably doing about 35mpg, which isn’t bad but did mean that we had to refuel several times because the fuel tank is smaller and one way, the trip is 770 miles. The upshot of this is that we ended up in Chartres at 10pm with a train to catch 300km ahead of us and a fuel gauge pointing on Absolutely Empty, Completely Parched, There’s A Desert In My Fuel Tank.

I hereby propose that the saying ‘needle in a haystack’ be changed to ‘fuel station in Chartres’.

After getting lost on the ring road around Chartres, we made it through one of the outer suburbs (in which we were also lost) before finding an E. LeClerc in a particularly abandoned part of town. Being France, most fuel stations are unmanned. This one was, too.

It didn’t take Visa cards.

We accosted a poor man attempting to fill up his car and established that the next service station was less than a mile away. So we set off, with the fuel gauge demanding food and found the next service station.

It was closed.

My mother then took off to the other side of Chartres, muttering furiously about how bloody towns this size should be crammed with bloody service stations and most bloody places didn’t even require you to leave the bloody motorway, etc, etc. I attempted to call my father (built in map of France, remember) and couldn’t get through.

Eventually I did get through, at which point he established that we couldn’t reach any of the motorway service stations and opened up Google maps to look for fuel stations in the centre of Chartres.

Google Maps had decided to upgrade, and insisted on taking him on a tour of all it’s new, improved, world beating features before declaring that it couldn’t do service stations in Chartres because Chartres wasn’t in England and therefore the location was ‘invalid’.

At this point my mother pulled into a layby on an industrial estate and we had dinner while establishing where we were, where we needed to go and how we needed to get there. My mother made it quite clear that she understood the instructions my father was giving her, we set off and promptly realised we were lost again. We called my father  and I explained the situation.

There then followed a slightly blurry twenty minutes in which we careered through the streets of Chartres centre-ville while I said things like “we’re going down a straight road, the cathedral’s on our left, we’ve just crossed a river, I think, but it might have been the train tracks” to my father and my father responded with “one street name, that’s all I’m asking! Can you please give me a street name?!

The names of streets in France are printed in ridiculously small letters and on walls at such an angle that it’s only possible to see them for a fleeting second while you’re directly in the centre of junctions. Matters were not helped by being stuck behind a car whose occupants felt the need to double-check their brakes at every green light.

Eventually, my mother said something along the lines of “bugger that for a game of soldiers” (only more succinctly) and screeched to a halt next to an understandably startled pedestrian. He directed us to another fuel station, mere minutes away. Third time lucky, this one was open, accepted Visas and was only let down by the fact that it was nigh-impossible to find because it happened to be behind a supermarket, as far from the road as it was possible to get.

My car has a 45 litre tank. We had to put in 44.8 litres.


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