It was in October 1979, that over a foggy winter weekend I drove my bosses, 80% seatless Peugeot 604, crammed to the roof with dress jewellery from an important customer to their European head office in Rantigny France, about 60 km north of Paris.
I was the manager of the Ro-Ro and Deep Sea Export Department for the shipping company based in South West Dublin.
The shipment of urgently required high-end costume jewellery had to be in Rantigny first thing on Monday morning, and would normally have been shipped air freight from Dublin on Saturday via our Air Freight office at the airport, but due to the fog which was expected to prevail all day Saturday and into Sunday, there were no flights leaving Dublin airport.
In a Toolbox talk/ conference call, long before either was conceived of or even possible, between Airfreight, General Management, Managing Director, the shipper and me at my desk, we tossed around various options late on Friday afternoon as me and my two assistance in the export department, waded through the mountains of export paperwork for our usual four or five groupage (mixed consignment) trailers to Britain and the continent leaving over the weekend. Unfortunately the earliest a truck could get to Rantigny would be Monday afternoon, too late for distribution throughout France.
It was decided that, after I had done my share of the paperwork and, liaised with the lads in the warehouse vis-à-vis loading lists, and trailers into which the freight was to be loaded. That one of the girls would come in on Saturday to make sure that all the trailers and relevant piles of paperwork, in A 4 envelopes clearly marked up with thick felt marker, were collected and en route to Dun Laoghaire or Rosslare.
Then I would take the managing directors, almost brand new Peugeot 604 home, remove the passenger and backseat’s and then collect the consignment and drive it to its destination.He had no qualms about trusting his wonderfully big and new car to me. He didn’t want to go himself and neither did anyone else; I was young, not yet twenty-one so what the hell.
The MD, Mr B, took my ten year old, and eminently unsuitable for a long journey to Paris, car home on Friday night, well actually, firstly to the local pub, where everybody went for end of working week drinks. I even dropped in for a few pints when we finished. Great gas was made of the state of my car which was quite a comedown from Mr. B’s Peugeot, and of my coming journey to France.
I even got my float for the trip from our accounts manager in the Pub, seventy-five punts, one hundred and twenty-five sterling pounds and one hundred and fifty punts in French francs. My expenses for the trip totalled about three hundred and fifty Irish punts, which was without doubt, the most money that I had ever had in my pocket, ever up to that time.
Even going on holiday to Ibiza in 1978 I had 75 pounds in traveller’s cheques and 25 pounds in Spanish pesetas.
All the money was for petrol and subsistence, which was fuel and food I guessed.
A friend and I took the seats out of the car early on Saturday morning, and then I drove to the factory in Portarlington to collect, what constituted a pallet load of boxed costume jewellery, which just barely fitted into the available space.
The guys who loaded the car were very helpful, stuffing the boxes into the lovely car, and finally decanting two boxes into a bin liner, which was malleable enough to squeeze into the very last couple of cubic inches available, all the while having a laugh at the lengths we were going to get their consignment to France. They invited me to choose eight pieces of jewellery for myself. It was very nice indeed. Gold or silver plated of course, but with tastefully done pennants on neck chains, ceramic and gold bangle type bracelets, understatedly elegant earring and rings set with Tigers eye, Amethyst and other coloured stones. I gave one each to the girls in my department, four pieces to my then girlfriend who was going to come on the trip with me, but couldn’t because the car was full, and a piece each to my Mam and my sister.
Me, the jewellery and the Peugeot shipped out of Dun Laoghaire on the 6 o’clock ferry to Holyhead on that Saturday evening.
My father had such faith in me that he phoned Mr, B at home to ask him whether he trusted me with his car, he did, and I think that that answer gave Da a bit of a flea in his ear.
In Dun Laoghaire, Holyhead, Dover and Calais I treated myself as if I were a little truck bringing freight to France. I felt like ‘one of the boys’
I had had two cars in my motor vehicle life up to that time. A very nearly clapped out hand-painted red and black elderly Opel Kadett saloon and an intermittently overheating, recently superficially damaged, 1970 Opel Kadett Estate.
So even mostly seatless and crammed full of cartons of jewellery, a 1978 Peugeot 604 was as serious step up in luxury for me, as my Opel Kadett station wagon was a step down for my boss.
Given the standard of my motor vehicles to date, I had considered it prudent not to go on any motoring holidays in Britain or Europe, in fact, I had done some motoring around Ireland, without really understanding the risks of breakdown that I took.
Some of our drivers were on that Saturday evening ferry, the real drivers in trucks, so I inquired of them as to the whereabouts of France?
They advised me, as I was driving a car as opposed to a truck, to take the Snowdonia route, A 55 off Anglesey island, then the A 5 through Shrewsbury and on to Telford and then motorway to the M25 which wasn’t built yet, just north of London. Clockwise around the capital, literally drive by the front of Canterbury Cathedral, and keep following the signs for Dover until I get there. Then a P&O ferry to Calais on Sunday evening, and the Autoroute south towards Paris to Rantigny.
I was so afraid of theft that I never even stopped for coffee let alone sleep all down through England. I filled the tank in Holyhead and I filled it a second time in a service station on the A something or other, which would one day become the M25, where I could see the car at all times.
On the ferry to Calais, I was one of only a few diners, it was a rough crossing and quite a few of the passengers were ill. I didn’t sleep throughout the entire journey from Dun Laoghaire and I only ate on the two ferries.
I will put it down to fatigue, but when I went to the car deck in Calais to drive off the ferry I let myself into the wrong Bronze colored Peugeot 604 and started it before I realized that the steering wheel was on the wrong side, there was no jewellery and all the seats were in place. I turned it off and got out very quickly.
When I found my car everything was intact, so I got in and as I was waved forward by the crewmen, I tried to start the car several times before he ran down urgently, to tell me that the engine was already running and that I should just drive off.
It was late Sunday and I hadn’t slept since Friday night. I was actually beginning to wonder had I taken too much on, I so desperately wanted to sleep.
According to the Shell map which I bought on the ferry, the most direct route to Rantigny was via the A 16 in the direction of Paris.
The fog was thick on the road south, I was seriously struggling to stay awake and find my way to Rantigny at the same time, so to say that the combination of fatigue and road conditions was treacherous, would be a huge understatement.
I had fog lights and hazard flashers on this car, complete novelties for me, so I used them both as I crawled south, chain-smoking and almost hanging out my window with the cold breeze washing over my face, keeping me awake.
At one stage a white car passed me going very fast, way too fast for the conditions, and about twenty minutes later I passed him. His car was in a field and he was standing on the side of the road trying to flag down a passing motorist. I was so stressed and single-minded about the job that I didn’t stop. I justified my lack of humanity by convincing myself, that surely the next vehicle from the ferry will stop. I’m really sorry Mr. Frenchman, but I had a job to do and you were travelling way too fast anyway. I’m sure he cursed me.
After several hours of white knuckle driving, my A road brought me straight to my destination, well to the city of Rantigny and amazingly I found the Zone Industriale very quickly. It was 4 AM so I sat outside the factory gates and slept until they opened at eight.
The plant manager, who knew all about the efforts made on his behalf by me and my company, came to meet me and provided coffee and Danish pastries in their canteen.
I wondered why our Nescafe instant coffee didn’t taste anything near as good as even coffee from a vending machine in France. I believe that it was at that time that I acquired my taste for what fine coffee should taste like.
I got rid of my valuable freight just after 8AM that Monday morning.
With my empty car, I metaphorically felt like one of the crew of the American WW2, Memphis Belle, B-17 Flying Fortress, having successfully unloaded their bombs on target on their final mission, they had done their duty for Uncle Sam and were now “flying for themselves.”
I was now ‘driving’ for myself.
It was 8 AM I was 60 km north of St Denis, I had a nice car, without 80% of its seating admittedly.
I had money for fuel and food, even though I had only eaten a Danish pastry, a mixed grill and steak and chips since leaving Dublin on Saturday evening.
To paraphrase Elwood blues from the movie the blues Bros, I had a full tank of gas, a full pack of cigarettes, it was 67 km to Paris, it wasn’t quite night time and I wasn’t quite wearing sunglasses, but I “Hit it” anyway.
I figured that I deserved a McDonald’s breakfast and at least a look at the three big things that I knew were worth seeing in Paris, the Eiffel Tower, the Arc de Triomphe, and Notre Dame Cathedral.
That was the first time I had even been close to the great city. In fact it was the first time that I’d been close to London, Canterbury, France, anywhere actually, except for a sort of a business trip to a place called Howden in Yorkshire, when I was a kid in my first job, and the package holiday to Ibiza.
What’s more, I had found my way down through England from Holyhead and then from Calais to Rantigny without really having a clue as to where I was going, so I was reasonably confident that I could manage to find those three major tourist attractions, and then my way home.
I stopped at McDonald’s in Senlis, I would have preferred a full Irish breakfast but McDonald’s were the ones with the signs on the road, all I had to do was follow them right to the big yellow M.
According to my map, St Denis was the next big place due south of where I was, and which I thought was very, very close to Paris. I had hatched a plan of sorts as I sat eating my two egg -Mac muffins with bacon and drinking real coffee, nothing like the swill they served in their branch in Dublin.
The reason for my ‘reasoning’ was the books on medieval history that I had studied in school.
One of the major protagonists, Louis; Abbé Suger of St Denis a man of towering intellect and ambition who wanted his cathedral to be the pre-eminent monument to God in France.
I felt sure that if St Denis wasn’t actually in Paris it was very close, so I decided to drive there, park the car safely and take a cab to Notre Dame.
I drove south to St Denis, I was a bit giddy from lack of sleep, but I knew I was near Notre Dame because I overshot and ended up in the higgledy-piggledyness of what I consider to be a medieval city.
En-route I saw my second Gothic cathedral of the trip, only from the car mind you, and over the roofs of houses, but it looked magnificent towering there over Senlis in its medieval Majesty. It looked like the pictures I had seen of Notre-Dame.
I parked my boss’s precious Peugeot 604 on some street in Paris where other cars without obvious tickets or clamps were parked. I wrote the name of the street and the area code down, and I caught a taxi.
My association with the cathedral without ever having been there was a close one, I felt like I almost had a stake in it somehow, I suppose like every European, places like Notre Dame, Chartres, Florence Rome, and even Dublin with its St Patrick’s and Christ Church Cathedral’s belong to Western culture.
For me Notre Dame had a special place, I had done a project for a six-year art class and my resultant knowledge of the French style or Gothic architecture went a long way I am sure, to getting me an A+ in my leaving cert.
The taxi pulled up right outside Notre Dame and I went in, spent fifteen minutes looking at the Rose window, marvelling at the vaulted ceiling and the light from the many windows in the nave at both ends.
Having satiated myself on Gothic architecture, I got my second taxi right outside, I hadn’t even time for a cigarette while I waited, but he let me smoke in the cab because he was smoking too.
He knew exactly where to bring me from my written directions so I was reunited with the car in about 15 minutes. The taxi driver had as much English as I had French, so between us he managed to give me some directions to the Eiffel Tower and the Arc de Triomphe.
If I understood correctly I should follow the river’s left bank until I saw the Eiffel Tower opposite and then turn right across the river and ‘et voila l’Arc de Triomphe’, so I launched myself into the Parisian traffic and after about 15 minutes along the river, I saw the Eiffel Tower loom up on the right and as I got closer I jockeyed for position to turn right to see the other ‘must see monument’ but it wasn’t there. Twice I went back down and around again, all the time moving to the right, in my right-hand drive car, and each time the Arc de Triomphe continued not to be there.
I was quite happy with my view of the Eiffel Tower and I decided to give the Arc de Triomphe one more go, and if it wasn’t there again, I’d give up.
The third time I could not wriggle myself across four or five lanes of traffic in time, so I gave up and allowed myself to be drawn with the flow past the Eiffel Tower with no idea of where I was going. Then I saw a sign for Champs-Élysées on my left so I turned and ‘voila l’Arc de Triomphe’ just as promised. I had mixed up gauche (left) and droit (right).
I saw the Louvre loom up to my right then disappear in my rear-view mirror, and I had maybe a minutes view of the Arc de Triomphe before I was filtered away on an underpass taking me somewhere.
At that point, I gave up on my cultural tour of Paris and looked for anything going Nord to the coast.
I did all right, I saw the three things that I wanted to see and I got to go into Notre Dame, it was time to go home.
By some miracle, I found the same road that I had come down, on the north of St Denis so I retraced my steps through Senlis and Rantigny back to Calais. The man from my journey down in the fog, and his car were gone, so he had been rescued. I shouldn’t have been driving I was so tired.
I slept for the three-hour crossing to Dover then as soon as I got on the motorway north of London pulled in the first services, had a meal, covered myself with my coat and crashed out in the car for four hours.
When I woke up, I felt a little better so I went into the services, washed my face, brushed my teeth and had the all-day British breakfast.
To my horror, it included tinned tomatoes and beans, but I quickly stopped the lady from ladling them onto my plate, she looked at me quizzically.
Even the lousy motorway services coffee perked me up a little. Why does coffee taste so good on the continent?
I was beginning to smell like a driver. The girls in the office used to call it ‘stewy’ but even though I hadn’t actually eaten any stew, I was beginning to understand why they called it so. The aroma was a combination of cigarette smoke and all-day breakfasts I think.
I really should have checked into a motel, slept in a bed and cleaned up properly. I still had lots of money left.
What was I thinking? I had left home with a toothbrush, a coat and the clothes that I stood up in; I am absolutely horrified thinking back on it.
It was the middle of the night on Monday when I hit the road again. My map told me that I could follow the motorway all the way up to North Wales, so instead of going on the A roads through Snowdonia, I stayed on the motorway where I could pull in for fuel food or a nap as I needed to.
As it happened I did stop once more for fuel and food, and by the time I made it to North Wales the sun was coming up behind me.
So as I drove through Bangor and Prestatyn, even though I was dog tired the scenery along that rugged coast was impressive.
There was nobody I could telephone at that stupid o’ clock, to book me on a ferry, so I decided to go it alone and see if I could catch the eight AM Sealink to Dun Laoghaire.
I did my best but as I came into Holyhead I saw the ferry depart, so I booked myself on that evenings sailing at eight PM.
I had a twelve-hour wait, so I had yet another great British breakfast, without beans and tomatoes this time; got into line in first position, put my seat back and fell into the deepest sleep imaginable.
I woke suddenly to someone banging on the roof, and a Sealink guy yelling at me to get moving, it was dark, so without even raising the back of the seat I started the car and drove straight ahead down towards a freighter carrying containers, I think.
I could just make out the black unlit hulk of it, darker against the evening sky. I had slept from around 11 AM until they began loading the ferry at 6:30 PM.
He ran after me slapping at the window, telling me to go the right way. He seemed very angry or maybe it was just that I awoke in a panic.
More steak and chips awaited on board after which a nap and then another full breakfast.
I got back to Dublin on Wednesday morning at 0 6 o’clock AM
After a shower, a change of clothes and retrieval of the car seats at home I went into work where I was greeted with incredulity.
“How did you manage to do that?” They had expected me to stay in Paris, in a hotel and stay in a motel on the way back up through England. That had never occurred to me, to be honest.
I left the Peugeot with the guys in the warehouse to reinstate the seats and I took my place at my desk.
it was fun watching my old crock of a car arrive for work, I had never seen it arrive for work before, and to be honest it looked no better or worse than the thousands of other crocks on Ireland’s roads at the time. Mr. B’s lovely car was back in its reserved parking spot, so he was very pleased no doubt, to see it in one piece.
I was told to charge the exporter all costs plus fifty percent as agreed.
I was delighted, on many levels. I had seen Paris; I was the sole protagonist in a great adventure, I had succeeded, my department made a lot of money for the company.
My company was delighted also, and our customer was delighted and amazed that a freight company would go to such lengths for the customer.
When I left the company in 1985, the relationship between R and A still basked, in the afterglow of that foggy weekend.