From the map, it was clear: there was no avoiding the vast conurbation that is Rotterdam. Circumnavigating a major foreign city holds multiple pitfalls for the stranger, but – all credit to whoever is responsible in the Netherlands for keeping drivers on the straight and not-so-narrow – the signs and the road markings are big enough, early enough, and unambiguous enough to minimise the risk of error.
The only other foreign city to come close in the quality of its signing in my – considerable – experience of driving abroad is Houston in Texas, where, as someone who had never been near the city before, I was able to steer my hire car to the airport from the opposite side of town without deviation, repetition or even hesitation.
What distinguishes the signing on the motorways around these cities is not just that the notices are big and clear, but that they anticipate what you might be looking for next – that your destination might, say, be Amsterdam, even though it's actually on a different numbered road – provide early warning of where you should exit, and a realistic representation of the road layout to expect.
What made Rotterdam such an especially joyous surprise was the navigational chaos that reigns on the Belgian side of the border. Even if you are on a motorway, trying to stay on the motorway and travelling in what would appear to be a straight line from A to B, you can – as I have repeatedly proved – get hopelessly lost. This time, I managed to find myself almost in central Bruges. Doubtless, if I'd been trying to visit Bruges, reaching the inner ring-road would have taken all day and much peregrination. Maybe the Belgian state has shares in satnav systems, or maybe it just doesn't want visitors in cars. If so, I offer my congratulations. It's doing a splendid job. If neither, perhaps they could call in some help from their neighbours to the north.
Back to chlorinated ice cubes
Having escaped, finally, from the Belgian road network, I found a little clutch of irritants awaiting my return. Heathrow has been allowed to extend its concentrated use of both runways – more noise, no doubt, for those of us living under the central London flight path. The local M&S has dispensed with its small trolleys, so either you lug around a basket or find a pound coin and push a behemoth vehicle, only to discover that trolley-pushers have no choice but to use the – iniquitous – self-checkouts
Who thinks these rules up? Worst of all was a labyrinthine document from Thames Water about its so-called super-sewer which, it appears, is being re-routed in such a way as to threaten the borehole beneath our block of flats. Did I want to comment? You bet I did. My macro objection is that we residents sank an eco-friendly borehole to exploit an existing spring; this incurred an initial cost, but now reduces our water charges. How about some compensation – in perpetuity? The micro-objection is that our spring water makes ice cubes that don't chlorinate my G&T.