High life

I went to hell and back to meet my new granddaughter

6 June 2020

9:00 AM

6 June 2020

9:00 AM

Wolfsegg, Austria

I have finally understood what’s wrong with the modern world: motorways. These dehumanising slabs of asphalt covering our continents are Prometheus-like chains that lure us into non-stop movement and uniformity. But before you start screaming that you’ve been isolated for months and would give up a night with Jennifer Lawrence to roar down a highway, let me explain.

It all began when Alexandra and I decided to visit my daughter and the new baby in Austria. It was my idea to drive there, the Swiss-German-Austrian borders having opened that very day. When the wife suggested a chauffeur, I said no. When the son assured me that I’d get lost, I threatened financial repercussions that I can no longer enforce. I then recounted stories of travels past that ended happily.

Back in 1956, the South African tennis player Abe Segal, the Bermudan female champ Heather Brewer and yours truly took off from London to Germany by car. Abe was the driver — he had reached the quarter-finals at Wimbledon that year — while I sat in the back behind the two lovebirds. Driving around the French countryside in those days was like reaching match point. We kept stopping in quaint, leaf-covered inns that just happened to be on our way. The food was simple but terrific, the wine superior. The innkeepers may have been gruff at times, but some of them had daughters with large breasts. Abe and Heather were wonderful to travel with because they got me out of a couple of jams while crisscrossing France, Germany and Switzerland. Roads followed the contours of the land. They were narrow and tree-lined, dotted with cream-coloured houses and surrounded by green hills and fields. Traffic was non-existent, and auberges, with auberge owners and their daughters, were everywhere. I know you might think I’m exaggerating, and 60 years on perhaps I am embellishing a bit.

Anyway, Heather studied the map, Abe did the driving, and I sat dreaming about the tennis victories I would achieve and the girls those wins would attract. I was 19 years old and it was summer. The adventure ended in Baden-Baden in September.

Does this sound like a time-travel fantasy? Well, yes and no. The trip actually finished after Baden-Baden, in Linz, with me playing terrible tennis and behaving even more badly off court. I left rather hastily to cross the ocean and return to university. But never mind about that, I tell my son, what all this means is that I can find Wolfsegg with my eyes closed and driving in reverse. The wife agreed and off we set last week, early in the morning on a brilliant day. We headed east, Alexandra doing the heavy lifting of driving.

But then a terrible thing appeared: GPS, or something similar. A gadget in Alexandra’s mobile, which she attached next to the steering wheel, produced a pretentious-sounding English-accented female voice that started to boss us around. We were going towards Bern, then on to Zurich, Winterthur, Innsbruck and so on, always heading east, so I told Alexandra to shut this bitch up and trust my vast experience. Nothing doing. As we approached Zurich, the voice became almost belligerent. Turn here, turn there, go north, now southeast and rubbish like that. We began to go around in circles.

I tried to convince the driver that I’m a great navigator, and that had I been born before Americo Vespucci, the US would now be called Takiland, but to no avail. She followed the social climber’s orders to the letter, so we continued to go round in circles. I instantly recognised where we were going wrong, but you know how women are, especially nowadays: they doubt men’s opinions at times. Swiss motorways have been being resurfaced since time immemorial. I remember well when there were very few motorways in good old Helvetia, and one could cross the country in two hours. Now that the place is one big motorway, it takes that long just to cross Zurich from west to east. Roadworks had turned the annoying English voice on the contraption into forked tongue.

Finally I took the proverbial bull by the horns and turned the bloody machine off. Back in the good old days, I told the wife, we went from point to point and never got lost. St. Gallen, then on to onion-domed Austria, then Innsbruck, Salzburg, and so on. I remembered playing veterans’ tennis around 30 years ago and driving towards Vienna blinded by a blazing setting sun. Then the penny dropped: Vienna was due east and I was driving my super-duper Porsche like a madman but obviously going in the opposite direction. ‘The sun sets in the west,’ I told my doubles partner Niko. ‘We’re going away from the place.’ Duh!

So, instead of a pleasant seven- or eight-hour trip with stops in picturesque Austrian inns, this turned into a 12-hour marathon with poor Alexandra driving because I can’t see after a certain hour. There were no inns, and definitely no innkeepers’ daughters. Only large impersonal petrol stations manned by — and this was a revelation —extremely nice Slavs who not only pumped petrol into our car, but also opened up lavatory facilities without charge that had been closed for months. (Good tipping helps.)

By the time we arrived at my son-in-law’s schloss, even I, who had done no driving, felt a little zombie-like. But I slept like a top, and woke up to a tiny, tiny baby asleep in her mother’s arms, and a very blond little boy making funny noises that sounded almost like papou, the Greek word for grandfather.

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