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Alexander Chancellor: I found the key to holiday happiness in a car park

10 August 2013

9:00 AM

10 August 2013

9:00 AM

While sitting beside a pool under a blistering Tuscan sun, I’ve been reading an article in Corriere della Sera about how to make the most of a summer holiday. The paper says that it isn’t enough to do what I have been doing — sweat, swim, sweat again, swim again, and then eat and drink too much — because this leaves you feeling gloomy when the holiday is over. Strongest in your memory, it claims, will be the last few days of the holiday, which are the most depressing ones because you are starting to dread the resumption of the usual drudgery at home. The answer, it says, is for your holiday to include at least one exciting and emotional event that will stick in the mind and give you something positive to remember it by. The trouble is that when the temperature rises to 40 degrees Celsius, as it has done here, you aren’t in the mood to do anything exciting. Even sightseeing is out of the question.

But I did have to drive an hour to Florence the other day to pick up somebody from the airport, and this turned out to be on the exciting side. First of all, perhaps because of the heat, I became confused about the directions and got lost in the northern suburbs of Florence amid which the little airport discreetly lurks. Then, when I finally got to the airport and picked up my guest, I found myself unable to leave it. The machine at the car park exit consumed my parking ticket but then rejected my credit card, with the result that the barrier didn’t lift and I had no ticket any more to explain my presence there. As hooting traffic built up behind me, I attempted to reverse my car out of the way but it mounted an unseen barrier behind me on which it came to rest, its back wheels several inches from the ground.


The situation is desperate. It’s 9.30 p.m. and it’s getting dark. I am stranded in the car park of a foreign airport without any means of escape, my car immobilised on top of a barrier. Where might I find a crane to lift it off? How long would it take? How much would it cost? But at this point my tragic tale turns into one of hope and joy and inspiration, the stuff of which happy holiday memories are made.

Let’s go back to my getting lost in those northern suburbs of Florence, a dreary maze of roundabouts and one-way streets. I stop and get out of my car, seeking help. A man is getting into his own car nearby, and I ask him if he can tell me the way to the airport. ‘It would be easier if you just followed me,’ he says; and after ten minutes sticking to his tail, I find myself at the airport entrance. With a cheery wave, the man is on his way. Now this may not have been much of a detour for him. He may, for all I know, live close to the airport. But he has all the same performed an act of great kindness. As such, however, it pales before what is yet to come.

Now I am, with a hot and tired guest from London, trapped in an airport car park with no hope or prospect of escape. I am staring blankly at my car atop its barrier when I become aware that five or six men with friendly expressions are approaching from a taxi rank behind me. They are taxi drivers who have taken stock of my predicament and decided to come to my aid. ‘Get in,’ says their leader. ‘Start the engine and put it into gear, and we will get you off.’ And so they do, lifting the back of my heavy car so that I can drive off the barrier to freedom. Before I even have time to thank them, they are ambling back to their taxi rank to resume the wait for customers.

A day or two later, I leave my mobile phone and my wallet with everything in it on a fruit stall in a village market, and there are villagers who care so much that they seem ready to spend the rest of the day looking for them. I assume fatalistically that they have been stolen, but they are in due course recovered, and the rejoicing in the village is worthy of the birth of a royal baby. This will have been a good holiday.


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