Compassion for British Prime Minister Theresa May and Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson? How is this possible? Paying up in Europe, that’s how. They face Brexit bills, but the exit charges I encountered were preceded by comparable debate, hot air and inconsistent retraction.
All was well at first, wending through Italy in the Fiat 500 we’d hired at Pisa airport for a family trip. The road to Florence had sufficient ruts and pits to justify comparison to British roads, and the GPS was enunciating Italian street names as though it had taken a greedy bite of brioche. Grumbles and giggles, equally satisfying, filled the car.
After 45 minutes, it was time to get on the ‘autostrada’. We needed a ticket to mark our entry point and the ‘biglietto’ sign was displayed above machines which would issue the right documentation. As I pulled up alongside, I realised I didn’t know how to lower the window on the hire car. But the roads were empty so I stopped, opened the door, jumped out and collected the ticket from the machine. No one saw.
‘We must study the manual when we stop for lunch, so I know how to get the window down,’ I said. It was already past midday so lunch was imminent.
Soon, though, the GPS spoke: ‘Take the ramp right towards SomethingItalianSoundingEndingInAnO’.
Panic sat in, pronto. In the five minutes that had elapsed, there had been no lunch stop and therefore no time for manual consulation. We followed the ramp as directed, and found ourselves at more toll booths, where exit fees required to be paid. Queues of cars, five-lanes wide, confronted us.
Evidently Sod’s Law was EU legislation, as our queue started moving fastest, which never happens when you want it to. I had three cars worth of time to finesse the transparency issue. A tight timescale.
First step was to pray the toll booth operative would be chatty (I never pray, but when near Rome…) and the second was to survey potential window-releasing options. In the door panel, beside the driver’s seat, was an array of buttons.
I pressed the closest. The rear window on the opposite side slid down. A misplaced Mistral whipped through the car.
The vehicles in front were being processed through the toll gate quickly. Our European financial deadline was nigh. I bore down down on all the buttons with a splayed palm, causing different pressure to be applied on each. One window plunged like a cataract. Its neighbour glided a few centimetres and settled. The back window went up, hitting the uppermost part of its frame with a clank. As we drew up at the toll booth, I applied a bright smile as though this asymmetric arrival was on-purpose. Who needed uniform-distributed air-conditioning?
My Dad had different sums of money looked out in readiness to pay whatever our autostrada bill turned out to be. The final reckoning was 0.7 of a Euro. A bargain. We were happy to pay, just less able than willing as my window had only journeyed south a wrist-width. Sure, I could have pushed the buttons a second time but what if the window went up? What if the Mistral came back and the ticket fluttered away? What if my wrist got trapped? I fed through the cash, not without anguish, in a scene which seemed to pre-empt a future headline: ‘Brits bruised by Euro payments’.
All this allowed one noise to be heard: the spin of wheels as Italian drivers accelerated off towards other toll gates. Brits in Europe, they were doubtless thinking. They can’t exit anything in style.