Emergency in Europe!
Having packed up my life in the UK and waved Goodbye to the removals truck, the only remaining task was to drive my car across the UK, France, the Netherlands and Germany to Copenhagen in Denmark. ‘An easy enough task’, you might think. What could possibly go wrong? Loads of UK residents make the journey every year on their way to sweaty resorts in the South of France or Spain and they make it look easy. Perhaps the clue is that they make the journey on a regular basis and so they know what to expect. They are also British and sweaty, so the French and Spanish police tend to give them a wide berth. Since most British tourists flock south instead of north, the sight of a UK registered vehicle on Danish roads is a rarity. I knew that, when I finally reached Denmark, I would be one of those rarities. Why would I bother about such a trivial issue? The reason is that road tax in Denmark is levied at a rate of 150% of the value of the vehicle!! This rate is a recent reduction on the original 180% road tax. The law was enacted in 1924 to try and limit the number of vehicles on the roads and has stayed in place ever since. The result of this insanely high tax is that Danish citizens lease new cars instead of buying them outright and old second-hand bangers cost the same as new cars in the UK. Foreigners are also discouraged from bringing their own vehicles into the country. Any such vehicle entering the country must be registered by the Danish authorities within 30 days of arrival. When I used the (Danish) online tax calculator to calculate the tax for my own car, I was shocked to see that I would be liable for a bill of £12,000! Twice the amount that I paid for my car second hand in the UK. I was therefore keen to slip into the country undetected in an attempt to lengthen the time until I would be forced to register the car with the authorities. It’s always the case that ridiculous laws run a greater risk of being thwarted by those whom they seek to control than more reasonable laws.
At the outset I should mention that this post may make reference to certain unsavoury topics. I won’t say what these topics are, but one starts with ‘t’ and ends with ‘oilets’ and the other starts with a ‘c’ and ends with ‘offee machine’. If either of these items offends you, then look away now. I will let you know when it’s safe to start reading again… probably in a week or two from now.
Frank made the brave decision to accompany me on the epic road trip despite the offer of a flight back to Copenhagen while I drove across country alone in the car. His decision was born more out of worry about me falling asleep at the wheel than out of any desire to experience my driving, particularly on the German Autobahn.We decided to make the crossing into Europe from Dover to Dunkirk rather than Calais as it cuts down on the time in travelling to Northern Europe and the Scandinavian countries. The 2-hour ferry crossing itself was uneventful, but at the same time relaxing and enjoyable. Sure, we could have opted to be transported to Calais on the channel tunnel train thus saving 90 minutes on the crossing, but when it comes down to it, in the event of a disaster, I fancy my chances at swimming in the North Sea rather than being crushed under it.
I decided against drawing cash in Euro, as I already have a shell-encrusted box full of Euro coins at home. It also occurred to me that it would be a long time before we traveled to greater Europe again. I would regret my decision later that same day. I was persuaded, by the ferry operators, to buy a ‘Driving in Europe’ kit that comprised, amongst other items, some decals to deflect the headlight beams away from oncoming traffic, red warning triangles and a magnetic ‘GB’ sign for the back of the car. I half expected to find a handy 10 Euro note for bribing a police officer, but no such luck. After alighting from the ferry and remembering to drive on the right-hand-side of the road, I went in search of a roadside services where I could pull over to administer the decals to the headlights. It wasn’t too long before signs suggested that a services site was approaching. I took the off-ramp, looking for further clues to the whereabouts of the services , but it seems that the French authorities don’t like to make life too easy for tourists, as we found ourselves in the middle of a residential area being stared at by a bus load of kids on their way to school and none the wiser about how to find the services.site. After consulting my satellite navigation device, I found out that the services was on the opposite side of the motorway going back the way we had come! I feel I should mention yet again that I don’t know how mankind coped before the advent of the GPS/SatNav.
We didn’t use the facilities at that services, as it was too early in the journey. However, it was an hour later that the we felt the need to answer the call of nature and pulled into a roadside services. This one was more accessible to the motorway. We headed for the Gents WC only to find a mercenary turnstile system demanding 50 Cents before we would be allowed to pass through into the promised land…..well promised toilet anyway. To be fair, I had seen this system being used in Swizerland on a previous holiday, so it wasn’t new to me, but still a shock, as I hadn’t anticipated it and we had no Euro coins at all. To make matters worse, there wasn’t even a cash machine where we could stuff our wallets with the currency. It’s interesting how the mind starts to concoct inventive solutions when desperation sets in, but the only solution I could think of in the moment was to jump over the turnstile while hoping there were no CCTV cameras in the vicinity. Once the more crazy ideas had been set aside, logic kicked in and it occurred to me that there must have been other travelers in a similar predicament. What did they do? There must be a way of relieving oneself without having to venture out into the woods behind the services. It was then that I hit upon the idea of asking the cashier in the shop using my chief negotiating skills of pleading and crying. After she had looked me up and down for a minute with her best icy stare through milk-bottle thick spectacles, she said, in a Belgian accent: “One Euro”. And that was it. I paid, using my card and she gave us two metal coins that closely resembled the 50 cent coin, but without any detail.
We deposited our coins proudly in the turnstile and practically skipped into what we expected would be a luxurious restroom experience. What we hadn’t bargained for was the dirty toilets, smeared hand basins and mirrors and even some hazard tape across one basin with a sign that I can only assume said ‘Do not use’. It had probably been smashed by another frustrated tourist who, having paid his 50 cents to the turnstile, had been similarly disappointed with the facilities and happened to have a hammer with him at the time. So disillusionment set in. I browsed around the shop for unusual European junk food as one does on a road trip in Europe, but Frank decided that he wanted to use one of the smart chrome-plated touch-screen coffee machines that were located on a counter as we exited the restroom. I can see the logic of this tactic. Fill them up again so that they have to pay another 50 cents before long. “How difficult would it be to use an automated coffee machine?” you might think and whatever your answer, you would be wrong, because it was nigh on impossible to use these machines. After selecting ‘Latte’ from the main screen, we were presented with optional extras on the next screen. Bypassing this screen led us to another screen were the images of different sized cups suggested that we should choose the size of coffee we desired. Frank chose the ‘small’ cup, which led us onto the next screen that looked like we were heading towards the payment. We had been issued with vouchers along with our toilet coins that apparently entitled us to 50 cents off any purchase in the shop. So we decided to be clever and scanned the coupon on the coffee machine scanner. This seemed to be accepted, but the screen jumped back to cup size. This time there was no small size on offer, only large. Confusion set in. ‘Perhaps the voucher forces us to take a large coffee’, I suggested, so we selected the large size and then tried to pay. Nothing we could do to the machine would allow us to pay, although we were sure we had selected all the right options. We spent at least ten minutes going backwards and forwards through the options, starting again and so on. To add insult to injury, we had to stand and watch a local driver breeze in, punch a few times on the screen of the coffee machine next to us and see his hot beverage pour effortlessly into the waiting cup. The thought crossed my mind to grab his coffee and shout: “Run, Frank!!” and then leg it out of the shop before he could catch us, but since he looked like a French bare-knuckle boxer, crooked nose and all, I decided against such foolishness. In a desperate move, I swiped my bank card through the card reader of the coffee machine and was given the message that I now had €10 credit!! It’s all very well to have the credit, but we weren’t even able to use it! So now I was €10 down and no wiser as to how to generate a coffee from the sodding coffee machine. It must have been 20 minutes later that we finally devised a series of moves that produced a beverage. Granted, it wasn’t the one we had wanted originally, but any beverage would do at that stage.
The rest of the 2-day journey wasn’t much better where roadside services were concerned. At every one I had to try and explain to the hapless cashier of the establishment that I had no Euro coins and no way to get any. No legal way, that is. At one services, the dear lady took pity on us and just gave us the key to the disabled and baby changing restroom. 50 Cents saved. Score! That was in Germany, but the facilities weren’t much better. The situation improved drastically on crossing the border into Denmark where services are clearly indicated, accessible and have clean toilets that are FREE TO USE!
Let this be a lesson to all of us.
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