For the Love of Cars

Some people love cars. They romanticise them, taking great pride in shining, dusting, polishing and admiring them. The thought of driving the open roads, engines purring like cats, fills them with glee. They even take photos of them, which they store on their phones as if they were family members.  Well those people are not me! I have no idea what my car is apart from that it’s a Mazda. Am I supposed to know something else about it? Gas cylinders? Tanks? What? Anyone? You see, I have no idea at all! Do I feel shame? No!

This indifference meant I avoided driving for as long as possible but eventually, in my early twenties, I took lessons. I was pretty useless. I could never get my head around the idea of looking in the mirrors – I mean, why look in the mirrors – just look straight ahead, that was my motto! Well, that certainly got me nowhere! Finally, four tests and sixty lessons later I passed!

At 24 I got to put my skills to the test when I went to work for an art director. She bought a car for her penniless artist boyfriend, which she then allowed me to drive during the week. Now this car was a second hand Skoda and really, it should have been CRUSHED. It was ugly, really old, really slow and for some really weird reason you could only feel the pedals if you took your shoes off. As a first time driver I thought that was just me, but no, her enormous 6ft 4in boyfriend also had to take off his huge shoes and use his big, scary, hairy bare feet to feel the pedals. When I drove it taxi drivers routinely chased me, attempting to push me off the roads, their fists clenched, waving violently out of the window “Stop driving!” they would shout. “Get that car off the road!” Yes, insults followed me daily!

My next job was at a photographer’s studio. About a month into the job, my boss asked me to drive to the post office in the Studio’s car. Well, there I was looking for it, going round and round in circles when I got stuck down an alleyway. I left the car and found a truck driver, “Hello kind Sir, do you think you could help me please? I am stuck and I can’t reverse out of this winding alley”. I mean honestly, how had I ever passed my test? It was criminal! Luckily the man helped me without laughter or disdain! I arrived back to work two hours later. “That should have taken you 30 minutes” said my boss, shaking her head in disbelief. No, I wasn’t a natural.

I decided to give driving a rest, which lasted quite happily for another ten years. Then I had my daughter and there was no getting around it, I had to drive. My husband suggested gently that I take some more lessons.  Forty lessons later my instructor told me I was ready to be let loose on the roads of London. “Great!” I cried excitedly “We’re buying a car this weekend, I’ll be driving by Monday!” He leaned over towards me, expression a mixture of doom and desperation “Please, please buy an automatic!”

Twenty years later I can finally say I am happy to drive. I push my way across the five lane motorway here in Chicago every morning on the school run, occasionally shaking my own little clenched fist at other drivers (much to the horror of my kids) and you know what, I feel pretty darn good about it! I can drive! I’m the Queen of the road and I like it!


Pic: Bucktown, Chicago

The Road Trip – London to Madrid

So here we were in the car, driving to Madrid from London to open a new chapter in our lives, car packed to the hilt with as many belongings as we could stuff into it, kids squished into the back between the computer, dog on my lap and the audio books of David Walliams playing on the stereo (his children’s books are really funny).  Each time the story stopped the kids would start bickering, shouting, fighting, pinching, squealing, screaming and generally being the sort of passengers that if they were fee paying, you would pull over and leave on the pavement.

We had had the good sense to decide to break the trip up into manageable instalments. Basically that meant that we stopped in France and Northern Spain along the way, which meant we could rest our weary bodies, walk the dog, stretch our legs and go for a meal and the parents could drink a very large alcoholic beverage (or was it two?) and rest our ears.

In Northern France we spent the night in Rouens in a wonderful hotel and I have to say that I did feel terribly liberated and adventurous!  I rather admired us! Here we were, free, roaming across Europe, only the clothes on our backs and the luggage in our cars, no house, no ties, no beds, no fixed address, just the future beckoning before us – well, you get the picture, I was getting carried away with the romance of it all!

We wandered around the pretty town looking for a place to eat that would take us and our dog Skyla. I was a bit worried they wouldn’t let her in, but no, in France you can take a dog anywhere – I even saw some in McDonalds! The French love their dogs, I mean really, really love them and even for me, who is quite obsessed with her dog, it seemed a little extreme, but I wasn’t complaining, it meant Skyla could go everywhere with us, even to dinner!

We woke up to a beautiful breakfast, French style, our plates filled to the brim with crusty bread and mouth watering freshly baked croissants. The children drank thick, strong hot chocolate in bowls whilst I enjoyed my own tea, brought from England, complementing the perfection (I take my own tea wherever I travel – I’m English- one must!) What a good start I thought, this was definitely a good omen.

We then squeezed back into the car and a number of hours, shouts and David Walliams stories later, we arrived in San Sebastian in Northern Spain. Now, I have to say, San Sebastian is gorgeous. We found a restaurant in the town square and again, Skyla was welcomed without fuss. It was tiny, scruffy and empty, yet we feasted like Kings, eating and eating tapas after tapas, each delicious mouthful competing with the next. This was a sign. We were on the right path, spiritually speaking, we were doing the right thing. I just knew it!

Pic: Our hotel in Rouens, Northern France

Becoming an expat… how it all began

Moving country is not something to be taken lightly. First up, if as me you are a parent, you need to convince the offspring that moving house and country and leaving friends, family and familiarity is a really good idea. I can tell you from experience that this is not easy. It takes an awful lot of cajoling, faith and some excessive amounts of optimism. 

Our first move to Madrid took us two years to plan – yes – two years! It took us all a long time to decide that it was a good idea to break free of London and you know what pushed us, finally, to just say yes – the “Beckham Tax!” Yes, that tax incentive for England’s favourite footballer when Real Madrid were luring him to Spain, is now set in place for all future British expats. This meant that my husband would be on a really low tax bracket for the first six years, so we could actually start to save (who saves in London?) and have, we hoped, a pretty good life. On top of that, Madrid is infinitely cheaper than London and infinitely warmer. You can drive to the beach, the people like kids and the food is delicious!

Actually leaving our lives behind was harder than I thought it would be. The tears when my son Xavier (aged 7 at the time) left his tiny school, hugging each teacher tightly in turn, made my heart hurt. I have to say that it actually felt like torture during those last goodbyes and I did wonder what we were doing.

I decided we should drive to Spain instead of flying. I thought the children would realise how close we were to London if they could physically see how many miles we travelled and how easy it would be to just drive back. I was also worried about my little dog and how she would handle the plane. The idea of a road trip felt exciting and adventurous, rather than just another anonymous two hour plane ride.

As we had no fixed address yet for Madrid,  we found ourselves an air b and b. It looked reasonable but the owner, who was very charming, convinced us that we would be better suited to her other apartment, which was more “arty” and in a “livelier” part of town. Good idea, we thought, it will make our transition more fun until we found a permanent home. 

On the day of departure my father helped my husband load up the car with as many belongings as we could get into it and on top of it. We wouldn’t get our stuff for another two months so we squeezed it all in, – in went the computer, the music system, the dog’s bed, the dog, the kids (only just, it was a very tight squeeze), the clothes (for all weather, just in case), my special pillow, coats, hats, a kettle, tea (of course!) even the roller skates – it all got squeezed and squashed into the car. I really did wonder if it would just sink and give up on the way but off it then trundled, us all packed in like peas in a pod, our hearts a mix of anticipation, anxiety and sorrow. 

These were our first steps to an unwritten future, destination known, destiny unknown.

Pic: Xavier stares out to sea in Northern Spain.