My first proper grown-up job (actually the only proper grown-up job I’ve ever had, when I come to think about it) involved commuting from Southsea round the top of Portsmoth harbour and down into Gosport. In theory the trip should take half an hour, but I discovered in short order that if I wanted to guarantee timely arrival I was going to have to allow at least an hour and probably longer. All of which meant I had to spend 10 hours of my life every week sitting at traffic lights, looking at the arse-end of buses, breathing exhaust fumes and usually listening to Chris Rea’s ‘Road to Hell’ on the radio, which was appropriate if nothing else.
This isn’t even excessive (thought it was a serious shock to a student used to a 20 minute walk to get to a 10:00 lecture) – there are people out there commuting all the way into London from places like Portsmouth, which must eat up a good two hours by the time they’ve got to the station in the first place, caught the train and then transported themselves to the office at the other end. That’s four hours a day they’re never going to see again. It’s no wonder people spend vast fortunes on Pret a Vomir sandwiches and Starbucks double caffeine skinny mocha frappucinos with added lard – I’m surprised they find a second in which to get dressed in the morning, let alone eat anything.
In theory the rail commute should be better than spending four hours a day behind the wheel of a car – you can at least attempt to deny the soul-destroying futility of it all by reading Ulysses or crocheting a useful dog blanket, and you can sneer at other people’s taste in garden furniture as you go through the suburbs. On the other hand, you’re just as likely not to get a seat and end up spending the journey sardined into the space between two carriages with a bunch of people who ate garlic baked beans the previous evening.
The commuting experience improved beyond measure in a later temping job which didn’t require me to own a car and left me free to cycle across town and hop on the ferry across the harbour mouth. This still involved getting up at birdsqueak in the morning and could be a tad chilly in November, but the exercise was infinitely preferable to sitting in a traffic jam with Chris Rea on the A27, and the harbour offers much more interesing things to look at than the rear end of the 13A on its way down Goldsmith Avenue.
Commuting up and down an alp used to be an activity undertaken twice a year along with several cows, a flock of sheep and children under five tied to the family mule. These days we do it daily, but omit the livestock, if only because getting a flock of sheep into the telecabine poses logistical problems.
By the time I’ve driven to Venosc, got the cabin up to 2Alpes and then walked the entire length of resort to the ticket office right at the other end (management evidently thinks I’m a lazy porker who needs some exercise but is too polite to say so) the trip probably takes about the same length of time as the old tour of the harbour on the A27, but the difference is that I get paid a mileage allowance of 6€ a day to do it. This doesn’t take very much of the sting out of getting out of bed in the dark in January into an outside-the-duvet temperature barely above zero, mind you.
In winter, the journey frequently turns into a cross-country obstacle course designed to keep the commuter alert and on the ball. Getting the car onto the road in the first place is a challenge when the snow comes half way up the doors. Once out there and on the way you may well discover that the road to Venosc hasn’t been ploughed yet, leaving you to blaze a trail through a metre of fresh powder in your trusty Twingo – all of this accomplished entirely without snowchains, since no-one seems to make any small enough. Not that I’m about to get involved in fitting chains in a metre of snow at seven in the morning anyway – sod that for a game of soldiers.
Doing the snowplough’s job for it isn’t too bad as long as you can keep up a reasonable amount of momentum, but it becomes interesting when you discover that the temperature plummeted like a lemming after last night’s sleet, and the snow (which offers some traction) has fallen on top of a sheet of ice (which doesn’t). One of my colleagues nearly ended up in the river that morning.
As if the regular hazards weren’t enough, there are always a few wildcard elements waiting to ambush the intrepid commuter. I can tell you from experience that hitting a wild boar will do your car no good whatsoever. It will also cause you to question the sanity of all your friends, none of whom will think that there might be any practical difficulties involved in getting 200kg of possibly only slightly stunned and in which case certainly enraged wild boar into the back of your car and thence to the butcher.
If the wildlife fails to scupper your chances of getting to work on time you can usually guarantee to find a few tourists messing with snowchains in the middle of the road, Belgian coach drivers panicking because they’ve never seen a bend before and aren’t sure what to do with a steering wheel, and various ditched, jack-knifed or just plain stuck delivery lorries.
On negotiating these further obstacles, you may quite possibly find that half the mountain has fallen on the road, which is cheating, if you ask me. I got half way home sometime in March only to find the road strewn with boulders bigger than the car and the police lining up vehicles in groups of six and scooting them through as fast as possible because the rest of it was likely to come down at any minute. Nothing like a spot of Russian Roulette to enliven that dull journey home.
So there might not be much opportunity to read Ulysses and catch up with my crochet, but the business of getting to work is a whole lot livelier than it ever was in Blighty. I may have to investigate the possibilities of home working while I’m still in one piece.