Moving house is rarely plain-sailing, especially when a new country is thrown into the mix. My friend was moving over to France from Scotland and had most things covered apart from the final journey by car. This ought to have been relatively straight forward were it not for two practical matters. Her steering wheel was on the wrong side of the car and she was bringing a small menagerie with her.
As we all know, the French drive on the right hand side of the road, and the British, the left. Motoring with a right-hand drive car in France is perfectly fine until one encounters a péage (toll station) on the autoroute. Unless the lone driver has an exceedingly long left arm it is impossible to reach out of the front passenger window to use the auto payment system. Therefore the driver is required to alight from the vehicle, and walk to the machine in order to make the payment.
This situation usually constitutes an intolerable stoppage for the average French motorist, who delights in a quick-fire session of rabid car horn tooting, just to hurry things along a bit. Piercingly encouraging though this may be, it rarely speeds up the hapless right-hand-sider and usually results in a fumbling or dropping of coins/cards, or when my husband, Jack, is driving – a full-on argument.
The other significant-ish matter was the animals. My friend announced that she would be bringing her pets. This sounded perfectly reasonable until she mentioned the birds. Janet has two canaries. Obviously she couldn’t leave them behind, and pretty little fellows though they are, nobody seemed to want a couple of raucous yellow chirpers who have a tendency to shout from dawn to dusk. Letting Bubble and Squeak loose in the wilds of Scotland was unthinkable, so they had to come too.
With half a house, together with several noisy animals, stuffed into Janet’s car, we decided she needed a co-driver/zoo-keeper for the French leg. That job fell to me. We hatched a cunning plan. Janet would drive the 460-ish miles from Scotland to Portsmouth, in the south of England, where I would meet her. We would take the ferry from there to St. Malo and drive down through the country to her new home in the south-west. I already live in France so this meant I had to go backwards to go forwards.
On the day of our great voyage Jack dropped me off at Toulouse airport for my flight to Heathrow airport in London. En route he began issuing a string of instructions. “Don’t faff around shopping in London, the traffic’ll be awful on a Friday. Get straight down to Portsmouth.”
“Oh of course not, I hadn’t even thought of going shopping.”
“Or the Natural History Museum! If you start lurking in there you’re sure to miss the ferry.”
“And make sure you activate the location finder on your phone so I can track you. I don’t want you getting lost.”
“Rightho, but I don’t think we will. Janet tells me she has a GPS system in her car, a very large map and they do have excellent road signs in France as you know.”
“Yes, but since the pair of you have a constant flow of verbal diarrhoea, the GPS lady won’t be able to get a word in edgeways. Then you’ll forget to look at the map and ignore the signs. You’ll not be concentrating properly and, not for the first time in your joint travel history, you’ll end up lost,” he declared, with a needle-eyed look.
He had me there… “Don’t worry,” I replied, using reassuring tones, “we’ll be perfectly focussed.”
“Oh, and don’t let her drive, I’ve seen the way she attempts a reverse manoeuvre.”
Jack finally ran out of counselling points and we parted with our usual hug and kiss and my pledge to keep in constant touch. An emotional moment though it was, I was returning the next day.
Increasingly, airports are becoming very different places. I walked past the most recent signs of the times, honestly grateful for the renewed emphasis French authorities had placed on securing the safety of travellers. It was all very quiet and tranquil until I reached the check-in queue for British Airways. Mayhem!
I have often wondered why it takes some travellers so long to execute the very simple process of placing their luggage on a conveyor belt, having their documents checked and receiving a boarding card. But it does, and that day was no exception. I joined the queue of already weary people, and soon realised why they were looking so irritated.
A group of four huddled around the check-in desk and seemed to be cemented to the spot. Precious minutes passed as they fiddled with passports and prodded suitcases. Bag tags were issued, completed, ripped up and thrown in the bin, and new ones filled in. Just how hard could be to write down a name and address? It was certainly confounding these passengers. Eventually they managed and we all shuffled forward half a metre. This presented a new challenge.
The family directly in front of me consisted of two adults, one daughter and a screamer. I couldn’t be sure whether it was a little boy or girl, but it certainly had a healthy pair of lungs. The next 15 minutes were tortuous. Tiny howler upset everyone including the check-in staff. Evidently unable to cope with the shrill and continuous assault on their ears their registration rate was reduced from dead-slow to nearly full-stop, thus causing yet more delays to the simplest of procedures. Meanwhile time was getting on.
I finally made it to the desk, presented my cabin-safe squashy bag and was off to security to face my next challenge. Some years ago I had a car accident which left me with several broken bones and these were repaired with bits of metal in my legs. They enable my legs to operate very nicely but when I walk through a security machine all hell is let loose. Without fail I set off the scanner sirens and I’m instantly surrounded by armed security officers, though usually they’re brandishing their wands, not their guns. Today was no exception.
I was parked to one side and told to wait to be searched. Yet again I was losing time. The lady at the front of the ‘being searched’ queue was in the throes of being told to remove her belt, bracelets and enormous hooped earrings. This was causing practical problems because she couldn’t get them out and the security guard wasn’t allowed to touch them. Just as I was on the point of hauling them out for her she managed all by herself and walked back through the scanner. Once again she set it off.
Variously frustrated, we all studied this woman, who had very little else to remove, trying to work out where the missing metal was. Finally it was located. In a moment of inspired revelation she remembered that she’d left a couple of euros in a hidden pocket – what a relief. Fortunately things went much more smoothly for me. I was frisked, wanded and dabbed for gunpowder and set back on my way.
The next challenge at Toulouse airport is passport control. This usually morphs into a scrum because the now-late passengers are all rushing to catch their flights. It’s a survival of the fittest situation here. Elbows are sharpened, bags become shields and ones toes are normally trodden on as we stampede towards the booths. Breathlessly I joined the sweaty throng and fought my way to the departure gate just as the last passengers were boarding my flight. Phew!
With the first leg of my journey successfully completed I sent a text to Janet to see how far she had got. ‘Gretna Green’ was the response. Although I’m not precisely sure where that is, it sounded suitably south of Scotland so she must be making good progress. I sank back in my seat only to have my nerves shattered by an announcement made by the pilot.
“Good afternoon everybody. Although our flight was on time I regret to inform you that it is now unavoidably delayed. One of our passengers has slipped on the ramp and broken their leg. (Audible ‘tuts’.) She’s now off to hospital but we have to find her baggage and remove it from the hold. This could take a little time. (Sympathetic sighs evolved into despondent groans.) I apologise for this inconvenience but we’ll dig it out as soon as possible.”
Some while later we took off. While the flight went to plan, inevitably, because of our delayed departure, we were left hanging around above Heathrow airport for 20 minutes while a new slot was found for us. Not to worry, I kept telling myself, I’ve left lots of time of time to get to Portsmouth, I hope…
Friday afternoons in any major city are often busy and London is no exception. I was lucky enough to be picked up by a friend at the airport and as we drove towards the centre of town we realised that my ambition to shop and make the ferry check-in time of 6.30pm was likely to be doomed. The traffic was already dead slow and was quickly getting worse. I swallowed my disappointment at a retail therapy or pop into my favourite museum opportunity lost, and instead we cruised through Kensington, past Harrods and got back on the road that would take us to the south coast.
Meanwhile poor Janet was battling with her own traffic problems in the Midlands. I gave her quick progress call. “How are things going?”
“What a shame, what’s happened?”
“I’m still north of Manchester stuck in roadworks. I’ve got over 260 miles to go, I’m never going to make it at this rate.” she wailed.
“Look, don’t worry. We’re making good time here, I’ll alert the staff at the ferry check-in, I’m sure they’ll be fine. Anyway, how are the animals doing?”
“The bloody cat howled for the first two hours. The dog’s fine and I’ve no idea whether the canaries are dead or alive.”
“Oh dear, poor Jake (the cat), he must be terrified.”
“Poor Jake? What are you talking about? My nerves are shattered here – poor me more like it!”
It was clear to me that Janet was somewhat rattled. This is never an easy state of affairs. A mercifully bad phone signal came to my aid and I rapidly rang off. But now we had a travel predicament. Even if she made it past the roadworks fairly soon she would then hit weekend rush hour in each of the cities she had to bypass on the way down. With the best will in the world it was unlikely that she’d make it in time.
I considered the possibilities. Drive over to Folkestone and take one of the regular Channel Tunnel transporter trains to Calais? Or, wait for a later ferry crossing at Portsmouth? That was a distinct possibility. I could find out about that but it might risk losing our original ticket money. The final option was the good old sweet talk routine. The obvious choice! The check-in time was very early so I felt sure I could persuade an appropriate official to allow us a little flexibility.
I was duly dropped off at Portsmouth ferry port nice and early. I made a beeline for the check-in desk which was manned by a very pleasant young man. I’ll admit that when I explained the situation I may have erred on the animal-drama side of things a tad, but he couldn’t have been nicer. He assured me that late check-ins were permitted, especially where animals were concerned, and that I should keep him informed. With all that settled I sat down and had a cuppa.
Two hours later and Janet still hadn’t showed. I didn’t like to bother her but we only had five minutes to the standard check-in time so I needed a progress report. After several failed attempts I managed to speak to her on a severely crackly line and was horrified by her spat response of “70 miles to go”. I repeated this to make sure I’d understood correctly but the line went dead. This news made our chances of making the ferry sailing very slim indeed. I returned to the check-in desk and was in the middle of confessing my friend’s latest travel woes when a text came through from Janet. It was extremely easy to understand.
7 miles to go, not 70!
I assured the lovely young man that she would arrive imminently and dashed outside into the darkness to see the silhouette of a white car with a large roof box sailing around the carpark, heading towards the wrong ferry. I couldn’t shout from my position so grabbed my phone and called her again to give her directions.
Guiding Janet in wasn’t the easiest of jobs and reminded me of Jack’s sage instructions about her prowess as a driver. It seems that the very large anchors decorating either side of the check-in door were posing a problem, although quite why I had no idea. They were on the pavement and, ideally, she was going to pull in on the road. She finally managed to avoid them, came to a stop and thrust a bundle of travel documents into my hand. Within moments we were booked in and heading off towards the ferry. What a relief!
It’s fair to say that at this stage my friend was in a bit of a fluster. I couldn’t blame her, she’d had an awful journey and was exhausted, but I do know that she’d not to be messed with when in this kind of mood. Fortunately there were very few cars in our line so we decided to pull up just before we reached the security area and let Spike, the dog, out for a wee and check the animals. Janet decided that this should be my job and turning to me said, “Look, I’ll stay in the car in case we have to move it and you check the animals. Hurry up now, we’ll have to board any moment.”
“Okay, fine. Hang on I’ll check the birds first… Erm, how many did you say you had?”
“Ah yes, but I can only see one. Hang on it’s so dark I can barely see. There’s a great big fat one sitting on a perch and, ah, oh dear – the other one’s the bottom of the cage!”
“Is it upside down?”
“No, right side up I think. Cor, it’s tiny isn’t it?”
“It’s alright then, and yes it is. Just get on with it will you, I’ve been driving for 11 hours, I need a gin and tonic.”
“Okay, okay. The good news is the cat’s fine, poor lad mewing like that…”
“Blimey, you’re grumpy this evening. Right, oh deeear, the bad news is that there’s a big wet patch on Spike’s bed.”
“Nope, only kidding.”
Before Janet had an opportunity to lambast me with further abuse I grabbed a lead and Spike and we trotted over to a grassy patch where he could relieve himself in peace before the final stage, which was security checks.
Janet and I may think we are tall, we certainly talk it at times, but in fact we’re fairly close to the ground. The security guard lady allocated to us was even closer. Nevertheless, with important wand in hand and a belt full of interesting, serious-looking accoutrements, it was clear that diminutive height would not present a problem to this feisty lady.
Her first error of judgement was to march up to the car and stick her head in the window. She was now nose-to-nose with Janet. This immediately caused Janet to recoil with a scowl and shriek “Oh!” Spike started growling, a canary began trilling and I cleared my throat with operatic efficiency in an effort to drown out the evensong. (I had no idea that canaries sang their heads off in the pitch black.)
Our fearless guard was obviously used to this kind of reaction and didn’t even flinch. Adopting a wonderfully officious manner she said, “Evening, madam, open your top box please.”
“No,” came the snapped reply from my grumpy pal. I couldn’t help thinking that this wasn’t her best response.
The officer persevered. “But I need to see in it.”
“You’re welcome to open it if you want but I’m not getting out there to do it for you, I can’t reach.”
The lady looked at Janet, and Janet looked back, the personification of a person about to explode – it’s the beetroot face, a dead giveaway.
With admirable determination the officer had another go. “But this is a security check madam and I can’t do it, you have to,” she gamely insisted.
“I realise that and we want to drive onto the ferry. Do you have a step ladder?”
Now this was slightly more helpful but it did flummox our lady.
“No, madam, we do not.”
“I see. Well in that case I don’t know how you’re going to be able to inspect it. However, as I said you are welcome to have a go but it is very full with clothes so please replace them when they fall out.”
This was turning into a Mexican standoff. I shrank back in my seat, hoping against hope that the canaries weren’t about to cheer us up with a stirring chorus of Jerusalem. That, together with my friend’s tone, would surely result in a total-car strip search.
Our officer pondered Janet’s offer for a moment then had a refreshingly new idea. “Right, we’ll have a look under the bonnet instead then please, madam.”
Phew, that was a relief, at least they could both reach that.
After a few moments fumbling (Janet obviously hadn’t been troubled with the need to open her car bonnet before) she found a lever. The petrol flap magically opened. Would the officer care to inspect the petrol cap? No? Didn’t think so. Right, another lever was eventually located and up popped the bonnet. Janet and our stalwart officer both studiously examined the engine parts, which were declared safe.
The final part of our check was to have the rear of the car examined. This contained the dog, the cat, the canaries and a great deal of miscellaneous luggage. Spike was already less than impressed by the sight of a stranger rummaging around his car, but managed to reduce his growls to a throaty hum. Jake the cat looked bored and luckily the canaries seemed to have gone to sleep. We were confirmed safe to continue our travels and waved on to board the ferry.
Our overnight voyage was blissfully peaceful. All animals were fed and bedded down comfortably, and we dined and relaxed, and then slept well in our hobbit-sized cabin. Ideal for us.
We were roused the next morning by gentle music coming from somewhere in the cabin followed by several announcements. We grabbed a quick breakfast and rushed back to the car, apprehensive about our animals – but we needn’t have been. Spike was thrilled to see us, his little tail wagging madly. Jake was watchful and looking decidedly as thought he’d prefer to be somewhere else and even the canaries were still alive. Bienvenue en France! We were good to go!
Our journey down through the country was easy, uneventful and crowned with the bluest skies and warm autumn sunshine. Jack tracked us all the way. He called every now and again to make sure we were still on the correct side of the road and to confirm that we were travelling in the right direction. Where would I be without my faithful Jack?
We decided to refuel and eat at a service station with a grassy area so Spike could have a run. We pulled into an ideal place, bought a couple of large sandwiches and opened up the car doors so everyone could have a proper breath of French fresh air. The canaries immediately began singing their heads off and preening. Jake assumed an Oscar Wildesque look by draping himself across his cat bed and sniffing the air in a purrfectly languid fashion. That left Spike who bounded out of the car excitedly and started dashing around, examining his surroundings.
We were all in heaven, that is, until Spike found an open storm drain. We politely waited until a fellow traveller had finished peeing in the gentle flow before allowing Spike to potter around in the clear water up stream. Thinking we were in a safe spot we munched happily on our lunch, relaxing for 10 minutes in the sun.
Unfortunately something caught Spike’s attention; he galloped off back to the drain. To our horror we watched as he disappeared into a large cement pipe that was partially concealed by dense brambles. Dropping my lunch I yelled, “Spike – get back here! Janet, call him, there might be ragondan in there.”
“Spike, Spike, come!” she bellowed at the pipe. Then turned back to me, “What are ragondan anyway?”
“You know, they’re also called coypu, or nutria – animals that look like a cross between a big water rat and a beaver.”
“Oh no, they’re massive! SPIKE!”
This caused a reaction from the assembled picnickers, but nothing immediate from the drain. We were in the process of berating ourselves for being so careless and working out a rescue plan when a small brown nose poked out of the pipe. Spike had returned and was completely unscathed. That’s inquisitive Jack Russells for you – speaking of which, at that moment an SMS appeared on my screen. It was from another Jack:
You’ve not moved for 25 minutes. Are you OK?
After explaining to Jack that neither the car’s fuel tank, our stomachs, or the dog’s bladder were capable of hanging on for more than 100 km, we resumed our journey, driving down through the country watching the terrain change and the temperature rise. Seaside flatlands exchanged places with rolling hills. Triffid-like windmills lined our route to be replaced with vineyards. We played games, trying to work out the wording on the tourist information signposts. Janet’s response to one in particular reminded me that she’d need to begin French lessons very quickly. Then finally we were on familiar territory, just a few kilometres from home.
We pulled off the country lane into Janet’s new driveway. Her house is only a short distance from ours. It was a typically gorgeous October evening and Jack was there too, fiddling with something technical. We piled out of the car and let Spike run in the enclosed garden. The canaries hollered in excitement at coming to a place that was definitely warmer than Scotland and even Jake deigned to look interested. It had been a long journey, my friend had done incredibly well to manage so much of it all by herself and we hope she’ll be as happy as we are in our little corner of France.