One is the magic number

Not all those who wander are lost.

JRR Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings


I love travelling with M. For me a huge part of the enjoyment of any trip is in the anticipation of it – the booking of the flights and hotels, the research about things I’d like to see when I get there, the studying of the phrases I know I’ll never have the confidence to actually utter out loud – and in the reminiscence about the trip when I get home. And expectation and rumination are double the fun when you’re indulging in them with someone else who will be/was there. When M and I are travelling à deux, the fact that we can rely on each other to share the practical stuff enables us to relax and open our eyes and our minds to serendipity, the miraculous and the unexpected.

But sometimes (and I don’t think M will mind me saying this…) there’s nothing quite so invigorating as getting out there and seeing a bit of the world on your own.

I was reminded of this as I stood at the Europcar office at Bilbao Airport last night, having just arrived from Geneva.

Erm, the car you booked online is very, very small, said the woman at the counter. Are you sure you wouldn’t like something bigger for six euros extra per day?

No thanks, I answered. It’s just me and one piece of luggage so a small car is fine. (When I’m travelling with M this cost-saving measure doesn’t work – it brings a tear to the eye to watch a six-foot-six man trying to fold himself into the smallest of Spanish SEATs.) This was a solo adventure and a little car would be the perfect compact companion.

When I got out to the car I saw that not only was it as tiny as advertised, it was also a manual, something I hadn’t encountered in a while and have rarely experienced in a left-hand-drive vehicle. But after a few stern self-administered enjoinders to remember to use the clutch, I set the GPS for my destination in Logrono and (once I’d stopped bunny-hopping and found my way out of the car park), hit the highway.

It’s not a long drive from Bilbao to Logrono – a couple of hours at the outside – but I enjoyed every second of the drive, with the red-roofed houses flashing by, the car chugging, revs high and in second gear, through the hairpin turns into the mountains, and the churches sitting majestically on the landscape.

When I got to the hotel and asked about parking for the next few days, the receptionist asked what kind of car I was driving. Why? I wondered. Is there some sort of quality threshold below which they won’t stoop? I mumbled something about driving a SEAT and the receptionist said, Oh, that’s OK then – it will fit in the lift. Not something I’d expected – having to drive the car into an elevator and wind the window down to press the button marked -2 – but then that’s what travelling is all about, isn’t it? Dealing with the unexpected?

Another thing I hadn’t expected was that I’d get lost this morning on the 20-minute walk from my hotel – close to the apartment we stayed in last time we were here – to the office where I had an appointment, which I’d visited a couple of times before. It was supposed to be a 20-minute walk but I left the hotel early, determined to take some photos along the way. (M is infinitely patient with my obsession with taking photographs but I still always feel guilty about inducing chronic boredom in a companion.) I ambled out of the hotel thinking that I was bound to recognise things along the way. When after 20 minutes I’d recognised absolutely nothing I thought I’d better start taking the need for navigation seriously. I consulted a map – not a forte of mine and a task I’m always happier to delegate – and was shocked to see just how far I’d managed to stray off the necessary path. But after that I concentrated and thumbed the map like a pro, and the sense of achievement I felt when I got to where I was going was something that only those with similar topographical disorientation will appreciate.

When I was ushered into the waiting room and instructed to take a seat (not a SEAT – that was yesterday), I noticed that the French band Nouvelle Vague’s cover of Echo and the Bunnymen’s brilliant The Killing Moon was playing. I love Nouvelle Vague and it was a perfect soundtrack for my mood but I knew that if M had been there he’d have struggled to stay in his (lower-case) seat, so unbearable does he find pared-down bossa nova beats on classic songs. Without him sitting beside me dissing the music, I was free to listen without prejudice (something that I can’t necessarily do, I must admit, when I listen to the man who coined that phrase), and await my appointment with a sense of calm satisfaction.

I wish M could be here – I really do and he knows it’s true – but since he has no choice but to be at work while I’m here in Spain I have no choice but to get on with the tasks of going it alone and getting some enjoyment out of it. And who knows what sort of Nouvelle Vague I’ll ride with the Spanish Touring Car Company tomorrow…

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