Friday, May 25, 2012

Journey to New Life aka well we wanted an adventure.

Short version of the trip to the new life is:

Paul and myself left the UK on the 21st of March 2011, in separate vehicles both towing.  I had a blow out on the trailer in Germany.   A few miles later the van broke down.  While waiting for repairs/recovery we were robbed.  Help eventually arrived from the UK.   Van returned to UK for repairs, trailer left in storage, in Germany, we continued journey in car towing caravan with as much as we could reasonably carry.  Arrived Lomtsi 29th March totally exhausted and emotional, with no money to complete the house purchase.

Ok that’s the synopsis - you gluttons for punishment out there can read the long (winded) version below.

So the caravan, trailer, car and van are (over)packed, farewells have been said, nothing stopping us now it’s off to Bulgaria to live on minimal money.

Left Ellesmere Port Wednesday afternoon  to get to Dover in time for the 4am ferry to Dunkirk, actually arrived in time for 2am crossing, which was the same price £200.  Managed to get an hours sleep on the ferry and then headed to Adinkirke (Belgium) to get some cheap cigarettes for the journey.

Up until Bruges I’d been towing the caravan with the Audi and Paul had been driving the van with trailer behind, for some forgotten reason we decided it was time to swap the towed vehicles over.  Grabbed another hours sleep here – now you’re possibly beginning to see why it was necessary to stock up on cigarettes and boy did they come in useful when touring Antwerps’ many ring roads.  This was added fun as Paul had forgotten to print out the road by road directions I had spent days working on, including reasonably priced fuel and food stops.  The solution had been to write out the road numbers, junctions and places to aim for and give it to Paul as he was in the lead vehicle.  Just as well we had walkie talkies as relying on memory I ended up navigating from the 2nd vehicle, once it was noticed Paul was missing overhead signs and struggling to change lanes, due to the amount of traffic.  He blames the inconsistency of European road markings.

By the time we got to Wassmunster (near Aachen) the nicotine was losing its effectiveness so we decided to stop for lunch, after realizing we hadn’t eaten in over 18 hours.  Lunch was followed by a much needed, by me, 2 hours sleep and then on the road again.

Just south of Koln the trailer tyre blew out.   Unfortunately because of the terrain all Paul received over the radio was ‘hard shoulder” and didn’t have a clue what was happening.  As I hadn’t had a response over the radio and he hadn’t stopped I sent a text letting him know the wheel was on the rim.   What did people do before mobile phones?   Luckily Paul had pulled into the next lay by and once he was aware of the situation dropped the caravan and returned to try and get the trailer back on the road.   4 hours later I’m off the hard shoulder but we’re not going anyway soon. 

Once Paul was back at the trailer the wheel was removed and trailer pushed onto the grass verge, as the bits we needed to put the spare tyre on were with the caravan, in the next lay by, such is life.  Once the new tyre was on and inflated we found a new problem – soft grass verge + heavy trailer = a long struggle using various ropes and straps to get the trailer off the grass.  We might still be there struggling if not for an Iranian guy who although not dressed for the situation helped us manhandle the trailer into a position we could hook the car up to it.  Problem solved, Bulgaria in a couple of days!!!  Yeah Right.   Spare tyre deflated within 5 miles and we limped into the lay by, at least we had the caravan to sleep in although the amount of stuff in there didn’t make for a spacious sleeping area.  That combined with the busy train track next to the lay by didn’t make for a brilliant nights sleep.

Friday morning …….. New day, sun shining. Let’s get this tyre sorted and get back on the road.   Flagged down a cop car that had stopped to talk to ‘speed trap colleagues’ in the lay by and got directions to where we could get a new tyre.  Drove into Fernthal (nice village) and although the garage in question couldn’t help us the neighbouring business owner spoke great English and directed us to a company called Reifen-Weinz in nearby Rottbize who were fantastic.  Refifen-Weinz supplied and fitted a new inner tube with seal, which they manufactured then and there before charging us a very reasonable €20; the time they spent on the job had us expecting a bill for double that.

After the blow out, and Paul mentioning he’d like to put more air into the tyre, my confidence in towing the trailer wasn’t great so Paul went off with van and trailer me following with car and caravan.   Oh shit, is the van meant to be billowing that much smoke and why is he going so slowly?   The previous day we had been keeping an eye on the vans oil consumption and it had struggled a bit on the longer hills but this looked more serious, especially when Paul radioed that he was pulling into the next services (3 miles) and limped there on the hard shoulder.

Serious decision time!  The chances of the van making it another 1300 miles, with or without the trailer) are remote.  Internet search time, whilst I put out a ‘scream for help’   on Facebook Paul located and contacted a couple of nearby transport companies.   Facebook people, including those I’d never met, sent possible helpful contact numbers and provided moral support, unlike the super efficient German companies who couldn’t be arsed to get back to us.  I also ‘phoned my level-headed sister and asked her to Google nearby companies who could transport van and trailer to Bulgaria.   She’s a star – texted me 3 numbers one of which she’d spoken to and been told they could do the job and were only 20 minutes away from us.   However by the time we received the text it was too late to contact them.

Totally unrelated to the vehicle saga whilst at Fernthal services we saw a flock of
Storks, we joked they were on their way to Bulgaria, unlike us at this stage.

Despite the fact that Fernthal services do nice coffee we needed to accept that a solution wasn’t going to be found today.  Fernthal services have a motel attached that although not cheap (€80) offered us the chance to charge our phones and laptops, have a shower and a good nights sleep.

Saturday.  Left England 2 and a half days ago and only part way through Germany.  Just as well we had a good nights sleep and shower as this morning is spent waiting for people to get back to us.  At least German autobahn services don’t charge for parking up for more than 2 hours, and although they do charge 70 cents to use the toilet you get a 50 cent voucher to use against purchases.

The company my sister found for us aren’t interested once they find out we are not stuck on the autobahn and need transporting to Bulgaria.  Another Germany company ( have a weird idea of time as despite saying the could do the job never managed to phone us back with price and time, after 3 attempts to get that information we gave up on them.  A British guy, in Bulgaria, had seen my message on Facebook and been trying to contact a Bulgarian he knew with a suitable vehicle, however that option fell through as the Bulgarian was already on a job which would take 3 days.

Good things about today?   I’m not on my own, even if Paul is as helpless, at the moment, as I am, and family and friends text messages are making me smile.

Service station staff contacted ADAC (German AA equivalent) for me, after I asked if they knew of any vehicle transport companies.   Whilst the service station staff were helpful ADAC were anything but, turned up with a vehicle that might just have taken the van but definitely not long, or strong, enough for the trailer and offered to take the van and trailer to a secure compound for €300 but that’s all they could/would do.

Realised after I’d ran out of internet time (time limited at German services) that I’d fucked up, although I’d put an appeal for help on Facebook I’d forgotten that Paul was a member of a Volkswagen and a Truckers forum.   We might have had more success asking for help there, oh well, such is life.

Decided to take van down to the garage we’d initially been to for a tyre, on Monday, and either get them to repair it or allow us (Paul with my hindrance) to work on it in their workshop.   If they want to do the work themselves, possibly leave van with them and ask English speaking guy next door if we can leave either the trailer or caravan there until we return to pick up repaired van.

As not sure how long we will be stuck here decided motel an unaffordable luxury so spending night in caravan, on services.

Might be Sunday but Fuck, Bollocks, Shitting Hell, and Bugger.   This is more adventure than wanted!!!!!!!!!

Paul got out of the bed first and made a joke about being robbed as he couldn’t find his jeans, I know he’s male but how can you lose anything in a 2 berth caravan????    Went over to show him where he’d dropped them – oh shit my laptop bag has gone!!  Phoned police who when they turned up weren’t very helpful to say the least – did we really need a lecture at that time about having been parked at services longer than was acceptable, after all it’s not a campsite.   I made a phone call saying I needed help – the fact that I made the call and who I made it too are both decisions that were out of character for me, but I wasn’t thinking, I was acting on instinct.  I was scared – not about what had happened directly but how was I going to get out of this mess and what implications did it have for the future.

We now had a broken down van with no keys (in Pauls jeans pocket), no money or credit cards, no internet access, no balance of payment to complete house purchase (yes I was silly enough to be carrying it in cash) even if we could get to Bulgaria and the police were indicating we should vacate the services.  A lot of crying, swearing and tyre kicking went on.

Paul supported me during my worst times but when he thought I was strong enough to cope for a while he also had his moments of despair.  At some point he ‘phoned his brother letting him know what had happened and saying we needed help from the families.

I’m typing this up over a month later, from notes made in diary closer to the time, and it still makes me cry (with gratitude)  remembering how those who love us worked to get us safe and achieve ‘the dream’.  Tim, Paul’s brother was shutting his business and driving over to either repair the van or transport it back to the UK for repairs. Which he would do along with Pauls other brothers (all Volkswagen specialists).  Tim was also bringing some cash with him to enable us to continue on our journey, I don’t know how they managed to transfer money on a Sunday but thanks to Mum, Vikki & Sharon we would get to Bulgaria. 

It wasn’t just our families who gave us help though.  A German trucker (trucks can’t travel on Sundays in Germany) stopped for a talk and when he found out what happened suggested it wasn’t uncommon for thieves to put gas into vehicles in order to rob them.  More than that he distracted us from the problems when he saw one of us getting down and did his best to keep our spirits high.  He was also useful for arguing our case with the transport police when they wanted us to move off the services, we eventually were told that we could stay another couple of nights until help arrived.  We were parked next to a Turkish truck who although speaking no English, or German, when we started seeing if we could get the van running got out his toolbox and indicated that we should help ourselves to anything that we needed.

Paul had already rigged up a ‘toilet’ for wees in the caravan which we emptied on the verge in the morning but I really needed to use a ‘proper’ toilet but it would cost us 70 cents and we had less than 3 Euros.  It had to be spent but later when one of the transport police us €5 for showers it didn’t matter how much I wanted a shower I wasn’t spending what limited money we had on luxuries.   That view didn’t change when I found €30  and £50 in the pocket of a dirty pair of jeans.

Luckily I’d put some food stuffs in the caravan so we had coffee and that night we cooked up some pasta before stirring cheese and tinned tuna through it – not brilliant but hot, filling and free. 

3am Paul woke up to find me sitting on the side of the bed in tears looking out the window.  I’d been watching the car, van and trailer for hours and was knackered but paranoia wasn’t going to let me sleep, he forced me into bed and held me to stop me getting up – it worked I fell asleep.

Monday was a good day, help was on the way in the form of Pauls brother and a friend.  Harry, a local military vehicle dealer, was willing to store the trailer if the van couldn’t be repaired and needed returning to UK.   Surprisingly the fact that Paul told me what COULD have happened when I had the blowout was also good – it didn’t happen and I brought the vehicle to a safe/controlled stop – WOW pleased I didn’t know the worst before the blowout.

We went to a nearby village but they had no bureau de change so we ended up in Linz, on the Rhine.  A lovely city that we wouldn’t have seen if bad things hadn’t happened, the banks were closed for lunch so we decided to be extravagant a buy a coffee so we could spend a pleasant half hour or so people watching and relaxing. 

On the way back to Fernthal stopped at an Aldi for bread, water and cooked meats – food for the next couple of days.  We also received a text informing us that Thunderbird 7 (aka Tim and Danny) was at Dover.

Thunderbird 7 arrived just after 9am, Tuesday, and after Virgil and Brains had been supplied with coffee rescue planning began.  Paul and I had already left the trailer with Harry the day before, now we needed to go back to him to ask if he could store more stuff as we needed to remove some wait from the van.  What a lovely man – he located a container we could use to keep stuff dry.  After few hours locating essentials in the van and redistributing items between car, caravan and storage the boys disappeared for a ‘short’ time (about an hour) to have a tour, and lust over, Harrys stock of military vehicles.

We were back on the road by 1pm.  Paul and I in the car towing the caravan on our way to Bulgaria whilst Tim and Danny were heading back to the UK – Tims van towing my van on a trailer.   Don’t know about Thunderbird 7 but I just wanted to get the F… out of Germany.

Spent Tuesday evening in the caravan on an Austrian services car park, after indulging in a purchased hot meal.

Managed to visit 3 countries on Wednesday – through Austria, Hungary and into Romania.   Austrian scenery was a bit disappointing, as was passing massive hopping malls and remembering I had no credit cards (*_*).  I would have liked to spend a bit more time in Hungary, the scenery was everything and more than we expected from Austria.

Romania, last country before home.  Entering Romania by road is not an experience for the feint hearted, we acknowledged all the civilians who were shouting at us to stop and kept on moving.   Romania has some beautiful scenery and villages but we had been advised more than once not to stop there.   Not stopping is all well and good but when you are too tired to drive and lane merging involves the slow lane entering the fast lane sometimes you have no option.   After wasting nearly an hour at Sibiu trying to find a hotel with secure parking we ended up pulling into a lay by near some services which were well lit.  Unfortunately Pauls ability to grab a 15 minute power nap and continue going wasn’t going to be enough and he needed at least 7 hours sleep.  I wasn’t comfortable, after Germany, to sleep in the caravan so spent the night catnapping in the car front seat.

For those of you who want to drive across Romania some points to bear in mind:

a)      Try to do as much as you can in daylight, it really is a beautiful country;

b)      Have some planned stopping points, it’s a big country;

c)      Romanian truck drivers are evil, they will force you off the road rather than let a slower vehicle in front of them;

d)     The ruts can be so deep that if towing the car can sometimes be forced off track.

e)       It wasn’t as dangerous to stop as we’d been told.

With hindsight I’m surprised at the relief I felt entering Bulgaria Thursday afternoon.   Yes, we’d arrived but with less than half our possessions and an uncertain reception as the house purchase couldn’t be completed the following day as planned.  My brother-out-law had offered to loan me the money to complete the house purchase so as long as Hristo and Tanchi accepted the delay I would get my Bulgarian dream.  Andy and Sheleen were brilliant, they’d been fielding questions from the house vendors about why we hadn’t arrived and greeted us will just the right mix of hugs (Andy) and fatefulness/indifference (Shelley).  Hristo, house vendor, was at the car before we’d even got out, with hugs and invites to stay with him and Tanchi.  It might have been rude but at that stage I did not want to stay with people I couldn’t communicate with fully, I needed familiarity and a hot shower.  Again Andy and Sheleen came to the rescue, when we asked about putting the caravan on one of their fields we were offered a bedroom, which we declined – we were imposing enough already.  However we both accepted the offer of the use of their bathroom and the ‘safe’ environment.

We were knackered, both physically and emotionally, but we’d arrived in Bulgaria safely.  If we’d woken during the robbery the ending could have been different, as it could with the distance we had covered whilst tired.   As they say “All’s well that ends well” but this wasn’t the end – it’s the start of a new life.

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