Monday, October 27, 2008

Day Ten: My scariest day of the trip

This one is for those of you who like the long posts!!! The scares got bigger as the day progressed.

As we were breaking camp some new arrivals to the campsite were surveilling us. After a few false starts they asked if we were leaving and if the spot we had chosen was a good one. They kept looking between the car and us.

"You don't speak German" they stated more than asked.


A pause and a look again at the German license plate on the car.

"But, you ARE German" they again stated more than asked.

Chris explained that we had borrowed our German friend's car for the trip and it all made sense to them.

After 2 days of exploring the Engadine valley, and a few wrong turns that took us up and down some rather steep and narrow roads, we decided that the brakes in the car were working fine and that we would not have to visit a St. Moritz mechanic before leaving. We left via the Maloja pass. I tried clipping some Google map with the terrain function for you to appreciate the video game-ness of this situation (there is a grey squiggly line that represents the road we were driving). Perhaps the photo of the GPS trajectory might also be informative. Needless to say, it was an exhilarating, if nerve-wracking time. Chris was in the driver's seat as he was the most experienced in the whole "down-shifting" braking technique. He did great. While my nails were digging into the palms of my hands they never actually broke the skin and I think it is in large part due to Chris's confident driving ability. Although the occasional "This is so much fun, I feel like I'm in a video game" comment did not exactly ease my mind. Even after the crazy crazy pass part, the road kept going down down down. Well, we WERE going from a departure elevation of 2000m (6600ft) down to essentially sea level...

Once in Italy we marvelled at the little villages. It felt like we were in a movie. We passed by Lake Como and decided not to stop at Bellagio despite a high recommendation from colleagues. We just wanted to get to our next camp site and relax. After leaving the Como area we had to climb up some hills and travel a lakeshore road through some rather small villages. The last 2 hours of this drive were easily the scariest driving hours of the whole trip! The speed limit was constantly in flux...120, 90, 50, 30km/hr (75, 55, 30, 20mph) and back up again so we were never really sure what a safe speed was. We were going through centuries old villages with small streets and buildings right up to and overhanging the sides. There didn't look to be enough room for one car, let alone two cars to pass. And then there were the Italian drivers! I had driven right through Torino during the olympics, right downtown. I thought I knew how to handle Italian traffic. Non รจ vero! This was a whole 'nother level!

So we would be inching along at 30km/h (20mph) in the centre of a small town and some oncoming traffic would blow our doors off at 120 (75)! Others would wait patiently to overtake us and then floor it! Then there were the unexpected, single lane tunnels, where we learned the hard way that one was supposed to honk before entering since there was a nice 90-degree bend in the middle of it! Of course there were no signs to tell you this, you were just supposed to know. We had two things working in our favour. One, only half the Italian drivers are speed demons with a death wish. The other half like to drive 30 in a 120 zone, so it was almost like we were locals! Second, as we were reminded in the morning, our license plate was German, so if we were pissing anybody off, and we likely were, they just thought we were Germans. The Italians don't like the Germans anyway.

It was almost comical after we crossed the border back into Switzerland. Sure, the architecture was similar, the geography was the same, but somehow the roads seemed wider and better marked. More Swiss indeed, but still Italian enough that Chris was going crazy trying to follow the traffic through downtown Lugano. The Maloja pass hairpin turns were coming back to haunt us as we made our way through the city. Finally in the outskirts again we ran into another problem. The TomTom directed us to our campsite, but there was no campsite. Needless to say our nerves were fairly shot at this point and I almost cried with relief when I saw the very small, inconspicuous sign with a tent on it pointing down what looked to be a dead-end dirt road. I convinced Chris to follow it and we had arrived!

We found a site again within spitting range of the kids playground. This was to be my reward near the end of the trip. An expensive campground, but with children's programing, a great playground, a wading pool, a swimming pool, a beach...and warm, sunny, Mediterranean weather. Chris and I started wrestling with the tent after I showed the boys to the playground. After packing up in single digit temperatures, we were now trying to put the tent up on a sun-baked, rock-filled site in 30 oC heat. Between the heat and the built-up stress of the travel, neither of us were exactly overflowing with patience or understanding. After a frustrated exchange about the tent I went to check on the boys. I heard Lucas calling for me. While he started explaining his grievance I scanned the area for Michael. My stomach plummeted. He was nowhere.

"Lucas, where is Michael?" trying not to panic.

"I don't know, but blah blah blah" Can't concentrate on poor first born child.

"Lucas I'm sorry, I can't listen right now. DO YOU KNOW WHERE MICHAEL WENT?"

"No, but, blah blah blah" Panic setting in but good now.

"Lucas I am really sorry, but it is very important for me to find Michael right now! Stay here, don't move!"

Shit, shit, shit. There is a pool! There is a beach! Why did I leave them unattended? Argh!!! I ran to the wading pool and scanned it more out of panic than reason. Michael really doesn't like pools, was the only thought saving me from actually going crazy. I ran to the big pool, lifeguard present, no sign of Michael. There was a big aquarium at the check-in office that Michael (to this day) wouldn't stop talking about....right next to a very busy parking lot. I decided it was a more likely destination than the beach and start running towards the entrance of the campground, scanning and listening (over the loud thumping of my heart) all the way.

I spied him crying and running away from where I was, I sped up, and he turned a corner. Several other campers looked at him worriedly and then spied me running after him. Their expressions were supportive and kind. They felt accusatory and judgmental. I caught up with the little devil and hugged him tightly all the way back to our campsite. That, my folks, was the scariest moment of my life to date. I can't believe how upset I am getting typing about it a whole 2 months later! Of course I am rather hormonal right now...

Once the tent was more or less up we changed into our swim suits and went down to look at the lake. As was (thank God!) his habit, Michael had to be coaxed in and wouldn't go past his knees. Lucas and Chris explored a little further out. It was the second time we were able to go swimming on our summer camping trip. Lugano is supposed to be a slice of the Mediterranean in Switzerland and I tried to relax and soak up the atmosphere. Unfortunately the atmosphere was getting very cloudy very quickly and the 30 degree heat of the afternoon was quickly dropping.

While getting ready for dinner we saw the camp train go by. Every evening between 5 and 6 an electric train with several open carriages toured the campsite with the children. Lucas and Michael love trains. I took them over to where the boarding was supposed to take place and saw already a pretty large crowd. When the train arrived it was quickly apparent that there wouldn't be room for us. Disappointed, I reassured them that we would get on next time. We were the only ones left at the departure point after all. We waited the 5-10 minutes and the train was back in sight. A crush of children also appeared but I was going to make sure the boys got on. I thought I was going to make sure the boys got on. These were some very pushy kids. I loudly complained that some of the children pushed past my kids and I loudly assured my children that they would be able to get on next time. I loudly said that although SOME kids are NOT very nice, they would get their turn next time. I loudly thanked them for being so very patient. Some of the moms looked at me a bit apologetically. For those who do not know me, I can be a titch passive aggressive.

As we waited again I started to panic that maybe the train was on its last run. I was so angry and frustrated that my boys were just brushed aside and at my inability to be pushy like the rest of these people. Okay, with hindsight, I'm sure it was a good example for them on how to be polite and play fair....but at that moment in time I did not want to be polite. When the train arrived again I grabbed on to the first car. There was a child there who did not want to get out. I looked quickly at the rapidly filling seats and realized it was this car or wait again. I forced the child out. I told him he had had his turn and now it was time for other kids to have a turn. I got in and pulled my boys in with me. I was filled with an odd combination of pride and guilt as we bounced along the campground.

We decided to eat at the onsite restaurant. The waiter did not speak English, but he did speak French with a rather strong Italian accent. It was enough for us to be able to communicate. For the first time we were able to watch some of the Olympics on a screen above the bar. My numbers obsessed child was delighted with the swimming competition: lane numbers, record numbers, heat numbers, time elapsed numbers. Ever since the EuroFootball Cup he has also been obsessed with flags and called out any that he recognized.

The rain started just before dinner. Lightly and off and on. By the time we hit the sack it was coming down more steadily. The sun baked ground was not absorbing the water very well and some sections under the tent felt more like a mudbath than solid ground. Thankfully the leaking was kept to a minimum and not in the sleeping quarters at all. The rain kept going, and the thunder and lightening joined in, all night long.

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