At the beginning of 1997 I bought a new car. It was modest in price and style, but automatic and practical for a woman living in London. It was easy to park, small enough to fit in the narrowest spaces and comfortable to drive: a navy blue Daihatsu Charade that would not attract thieves or envy. I got it at a bargain price because one of my sons worked for a dealership.
It was zippy in traffic, when traffic allowed. British roads are narrower and more congested than American ones, this small island being packed with a population of 63 million. It was economic in fuel consumption and cost of insurance. British petrol is three times the price of American gas, thanks to the added taxes which contribute to new roads and other projects needing funding. The high price of fuel also discourages unnecessary journeys, so the economics are balanced all around.
In March 1997 my husband and I went to France for a few days to check out the holiday cottage scene. We were about to retire but didn’t want to leave our London home which was also a source of income, divided into several apartments let to tourists and businessmen by the week. I fancied living in the country but my husband truly belonged in London for its attractions: the Opera, theater, museums and galleries galore. We thought a little place in France would make an attractive retreat from time to time, and property prices there were unbelievably cheap compared to England. France is five times larger than Britain, with a similar population, so there’s more breathing and road space and an enviable lifestyle of fresh air, better climate, locally grown produce, relaxed pace of life and it’s a beautiful country too. We both spoke French.
We drove his big car via the Channel ferry to the south west region of France and consulted an agent (can you call a man who acts for vendors in the sale of rural properties a realtor? I don’t think so.) He showed us half a dozen properties in varying states of disrepair and we chose the most dilapidated for its unbeatable location-location (in the center of a small village on the top of a hill with magnificent rural views including a distant chateau among trees, surrounded by forests where wild boar and edible fungi were hunted by the locals). Bill was a property developer possessing all the practical skills of building and renovation, who loved a challenge. We bought it with the cards in our wallets.
The Daihatsu remained in west London, parked in the open on our forecourt to a double fronted Victorian brick villa built before garages were necessary. That summer we were back and forth to our French project (still living in a caravan in the garden while the house became inhabitable) and we gradually passed management of the tourist apartments to a family member. By late October when we returned to London for the winter we had moved into a tiny gite (guest cottage) we’d renovated at one end of the property while we developed over three years the larger cottage with three bathrooms, country kitchen and beamed sitting room.
Over the winter I continued to drive the Daihatsu (which started first time even after months of absence). We bought a Renault left hand drive for use in France, switching driving on right and left sides every time we crossed the Channel. Francophiles easily become ambidextrous.
I drove up to Norfolk and Cambridge in the Daihatsu to visit three of my sons. Two still lived locally. Only one was married.
Over the next six years we lived more than half the time in France, while the Daihatsu stayed at home, bothering no one and adding little to its mileage.
On my own again (that was a second marriage) I moved to Cambridgeshire where I bought a small house with garage. The Daihatsu stayed snug in its garage while I visited my youngest son who by now had acquired an American wife and baby and moved to Virginia. They were so welcoming, I decided to build a house in Virginia with my share of the proceeds of the property in France (magnificently restored and reluctantly sold when we divorced). I intended my American house to be a holiday home when I visited in summertime, but it was so unexpectedly beautiful, I decided to stay in Virginia and applied for Residence.
The house in England was sold in 2006 and my oldest son, the only one of five still living in England, drove the Daihatsu to his brother in Ireland via the Irish ferry. By now it was eight years old and hardly worth selling, but to my son it was a useful second car with his young family.
While they were living in Dublin the car was stolen one night from the street outside. Joy riders took it for a reckless spin and crashed it on waste ground, setting fire to the baby seat and contents. It was still worth repairing the car which would have fetched little in compensation. After a while they moved to a small southern country town, drawn to rural surroundings and free to live anywhere as my son was a self-employed IT consultant.
But even in Tipperary the Daihatsu continued its eventful life in the manner of its far-flung and adventurous family. (By now one son and its former owner lived in Virginia, one was in Arizona and yet another lived in Australia.)
Patrick (fortuitously named, now he lived in Ireland) took his four children to the swimming pool where they practiced weekly. He put the car keys in his locker together with his clothes. Returning wet and exercised, the keys had vanished. From the parking lot outside, the Daihatsu was also missing. His heart sank. Apparently an opportunistic thief had followed him into the changing area and helped himself to the keys. Although worth little in itself a replacement car would be an unwelcome expense.
The next day they got a call from the Garda (Irish police). In a routine traffic stop outside of town an alert cop had noticed a known criminal driving the Daihatsu Patrick had reported stolen. When the report reached the policeman he remembered the villain and the police drove to his address, to find the Daihatsu parked outside.
Patrick was overjoyed to get the car back. He really thought he had seen the last of it. That was about five years ago. His oldest daughter will soon be learning to drive.
When I visit my Irish family they still drive me around town with its small parking lots, in my old Daihatsu. They’ve had three big family cars meanwhile. It is now 18 years old and when I rode in it this March it had just passed its annual motor vehicle test yet again. Our family owes a lot more to the Daihatsu than it owes to us and like an old retainer it will be treasured until it dies in peace.