What I learned from a flat battery

“Adversity introduces us to ourselves.” 

Max BrooksDevolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre

There is something about how we deal with unexpected adversity that can tell us a lot about ourselves, if we care to reflect on it. Today was one such day.

Saturday – 9:40 am

I turned the ignition key, only to be greeted by the tell-tale dying groan. Wishfully, I turned it again. Click! The battery was dead and we only had twenty minutes before we had to be at the clinic for the PCR test.

Without a word, we started the walk down the hill in what had, only a moment before, been a beautiful frosty and sunny morning. As we passed by the school, I thought of asking whether any of the vehicles were free to borrow. Fortunately, the Elementary School car was available, and we gladly hopped in and headed down the Via Civra* to the valley and the clinic below.

In a different time and place, this would have been a minor inconvenience, after all, I have experienced many flat batteries in the past. However, this was here and now, and the implications of where I was started to take hold.

It was Saturday morning. My car insurance, which is limited because of the resident permit I currently hold, did not include roadside assistance. Furthermore, any of the garages that might have been open would close at noon and wouldn’t open again until Monday. Besides, there was no way to get the car to them. This would not have mattered so much if we didn’t have to head off at 3:30am on Monday for the two and a half hour drive to Zurich airport.

10:05 am. At the clinic.

I took out my phone and started searching online, feverishly, for information about the battery I needed. Tick, tick.

10:45 am. Jumbo, a local store akin to Walmart

I looked at the neat array of batterie on the shelves. German – they were labeled in German. 12v 72Ah 680A were the specifications I had scribbled on a piece of paper, but what size do I buy? Typically, when buying auto parts, there is a reference guide organised by vehicle make and model. There was none. Asking for assistance didn’t help either. All we encountered was a rolling of the eyes when we said we didn’t speak Italian, and a suggestion, in gesture and a few words we could understand, to go take a photo and measure the dimensions of the battery in question before returning.

11:30 am Back at the parking lot where I had left the car outside for three cold nights.

I was upset with myself for leaving the car out. I know how fickle batteries can be. Dwelling on this wasn’t helpful, however, and so I opened the doors and hood and started searching for the battery. I couldn’t find it and turned to the car manual – more German, but German with pictures. Who would have thought to look under the passenger footwell? There it was snuggly and tightly hidden away from any photo-op and safe from any way to measure its dimensions. I had to remove it from its hidey-hole – but with what tools? I had no tools here, so it was back to the school to see what we could dig up from the cupboards and shelves we had access to.

12:00 am The garages are closed

The pliers we had bought back with us sufficed to remove the cables from the terminals and, with some light emerging, I grabbed hold of the battery handles and pulled. No movement. I heaved again, and again. It wouldn’t budge. I had no idea why. With no-one to ask, it was back to the apartment and YouTube. That black plastic bracket, the one with the two bolts way down in the bottom, well out of reach of anything other than a socket and an extension bar. That had to come out. But what socket? I have no sockets. What size socket???

Collect yourself.

There was no way to remove the battery and get its specifications and dimensions to take back to the store. The search for a roadside battery replacement service was fruitless, even using an online translator. I could not find any stores that sold car batteries that were open on a Saturday afternoon. All I could muster was whatever information I could clean from the online merchants – make, model, year, search, flash – Voraussichtliche Lieferung Dienstag, 21.12.2021

There was no choice but to head back to Jumbo with whatever I had and see what eventuated.

1:00 pm Walking into Jumbo

By this time, I was clearly agitated. If we couldn’t find what we needed, now, I had no idea of what we would do. The loaned car had to be returned soon, the colleagues who knew the language and the place and might have been able to help had left for the winter break, and there was no way I could successfully communicate over the phone.

Down to the parti automobili aisle and there, on the third shelf from the top, in the middle of the display, there seemed to be a battery that matched what I had found from my online search. Take it! Now for the socket. How do you say “where can I find the sockets” in Italian? Dove posso trovare i soccetti? I think not. I know not, now. I was asking for where I could find the rescued.

Walk, scan, keep the eyes open. Darn this battery is heavy.

1:10 pm Socket Set

It is relatively straightforward when shopping with a clear intent, in a familiar place, to find what you want. It isn’t quite so when you are unsure of exactly what you need and you have to rely on pictures and guesswork. Do I buy an extension bar, a ratchet, and a 13mm socket? It looked like it was a 13mm bolt. But what if it wasn’t? Do I buy a socket set just in case? Which socket set? Is the extension bar long enough? What if I get the wrong things? I can’t keep vacillating. I have to choose something. Keep going.

1:35 pm Flustered

It was just as we were approaching the T-intersection near Agra, at the top the backroad, that I said to Elizabeth that I was keenly aware of being extremely flustered.

“You never get flustered,” was her reply.

1:50 pm Emerging from the footwell

It didn’t take much to extract the old battery, replace it with the new one, and start the car. Maybe five minutes in all. That was it. Just five minutes, 215 Francs, and some resilience, and all the frustrations of the event were behind in time. The battery had been replaced, I knew where to dispose the old one legally, the car was going, and we could attend to our other errands.

I was relieved that we had resolved what really could have been a tricky situation. Elizabeth wouldn’t have to catch the trains to the airport (or rent a hirecar). Moreover, I wouldn’t, with two children to care for alone for ten days in a pandemic, have try and work out, carless and language poor, how to repair the vehicle. All was good. We would be able to get out, head to the crags, food stores, hills, and ski fields. Except…

…for the remainder of the day and some of the night, I kept going back to the events of the day and my awareness of the ineptness I felt. I thought back to those first few days in Korea, over twenty years ago now, where I landed twenty kilometres from the DMZ border, where nothing, nothing was in a script I recognised, no-one spoke English, and how, then, it was different. Then, it was an adventure, the steps of a journey into the unknown. Now it is something else.

Now, being here, it is trying to make a life. Now, it is, as best as we can, working to find the ways to live what actually exists, to be a part of what is here. And it bothers me that, yesterday, I felt so far away from being able to do this. It bothers me, not because it was difficult, but because I realised how, when once I could have called a close friend and waited for their help to arrive, that isn’t something I have here. It bothers me because it heightened the recognition of how little I know, how much room there is for error, and how this could lead to withdrawing into the bubble of familiar and safe.

Perhaps adversity is too strong a word for what we faced yesterday. Nevertheless, whatever word is appropriate, what I saw is that unless I get out there, with all of the risks that it might entail, I cannot hope to be a part of what is here. I am thankful for this, and I am grateful for the calm that Elizabeth brought as she stood with me the whole time.

New battery – Switzerland, 2021

*The Via Civra is a very narrow, steep and twisty “road” that links the top of the hill with the commercial centre in the valley. It is renown for collisions.

Published by Athan Rodostianos

Educator, world traveller, dreamer. The world is there and open. Live it, love it, breathe it share your experiences, be kind, be good.

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