Money was tight so we worked out that the cheapest way to get to Calais was to catch the Larne to Stranraer ferry even though that required a drive of 200 km in the wrong direction. Clearly we were time-rich if cash-poor. We stopped in London to visit the Italian State Tourist Board to pick up some maps and found that they had just started a cunning plan to encourage motorists to visit their country. You could obtain heavily subsidised petrol vouchers if you bought them with a currency other than Lire in a place other than Italy and they would redeem unused vouchers less a 30% handling fee when you returned home. The back of an envelope was quickly mobilised and we bought just enough vouchers to take us the length of Italy and back.
France was great but Italy was marvellous: it was hot and the air smelt of pine-trees; we swam in the luke-warm sea; bread and olives cost half nothing, the cheese wasn’t red (or indeed white) cheddar and the wine was red (or indeed white) and plentiful. The conference went well and so, mission accomplished, we headed north and for home.
Now here’s a funny thing; the nearer we got to the border the more anxious the people at petrol stations were to talk to us although, for all we understood, they might have been discussing Wittgenstein or the World Cup. We stopped several times so as to maximise the amount of cheap Italian petrol we had on board when we hit France and had to start paying ready money for it. At the end of a long day, it was nearly dark, the border was in sight, and high in that alpine pass was the Last Chance Café and Garage. We hadn’t eaten properly since breakfast having long since spent the last of our Lire but we were still in credit for petrol. When she saw the plates on the car, the lady who operated the pump addressed us in English because she’d once been a Welsh girl from Pontypridd who had married the chip-shop and followed him home to Piedmont. She shed light on the earnest but opaque conversations that we’d induced in her competitors back down the road because she offered to buy, for cash, any spare petrol vouchers we might have, as she could turn a modest profit on them through the State Tourist Board. She also suggested that we might like to walk up to the café and spend some of that cash because, late as it was, she had a tureen of minestrone made hot and thick according to her mother-in-law’s recipe, and if the child didn’t fancy that then she’d sort out something else for him.
Found money is all very well but found soup trumps it in spades. As you hear, I’m still talking about that soup more than half a lifetime later.