Saturday 11 April 2015

A day trip through France

 AS far as my husband Jack is concerned, planning a trip that’s going to last more than one day constitutes both a major project and also a mental trauma. He rants and raves about the irresponsibility of leaving the animals in someone else’s care, and is convinced that they’ll all be dead as doornails by the time we get back. I, on the other hand, just think it’s his way of saying that he’d prefer to stay at home in perfect solitude, to do what he wants, when he wants.

I consider the animal situation quite differently. I do believe that most people are capable of supplying our chickens and game birds with their seed and water, and we take precautions to make sure that the forest animals are provided with ample supplies of maize. Being wild, I'm also confident that they can slum it for a few days by dragging themselves to the nearest stream for water, and substitute their usual luxury diet by nibbling on a couple of acorns or blade of grass or two while we’re away. Poor things. However, Hunter is a different matter altogether.

Hunter is a very old dog whom we found abandoned on the road last year. He has more illnesses than I can list here, including an extremely dicky heart. Nobody knows how old he is, but our vet sagely advised us that he was probably très vieux (very old), and also usée (worn out). Not being a great optimist, he also said that if Hunter travelled with us, he would probably die during our journey which would be inconvenient to deal with when we got to the passport office in Calais. Jack jumped on this and announced it clearly meant we wouldn’t be able to go. But sadly, that was out of the question. We had important appointments in England so, whatever the animal situation, or weather, we had to make tracks. Fortunately my dog-walking pals came to our rescue and immediately offered to take Hunter. For some unknown reason they adore him. Perhaps it’s his lugubrious expression that enchants them. It certainly can’t be his unfortunate penchant for eating turds or his disregard for the proper place to have a wee, i.e. outside. These unsavoury habits may have developed as a result of being kept in a kennel of hunting hounds. I couldn’t say but, judging by the state we found him in, there had clearly been little in the way of food. His traits would be a new revelation for our friends, and might well cause them to modify their opinion of him.

Brutus, our adorable, affectionate, and very sedentary cat, is a different matter altogether. We hate being away from him, but there’s no question that Brutus is not a good traveller. The annual car journey to the vet for his booster injection is about as much as he can cope with. It causes him to emit a constant low mournful yowl the moment he is put in the car, and he trembles all the way there and back. It’s just awful for the poor lad. This means that careful planning and superlative trapping skills are required whenever the dreadful vet date arrives. I’m now convinced that, instead of inserting a microchip with his ID number on it, the vet opened the wrong packet and implanted a Gregorian calendar. Brutus seems to know exactly when we’re about to take him to the vet, and becomes surprisingly elusive in those days running up to his appointment. We eventually do manage to get him into his cat box, but only after a minor scuffle and several indignant meows.

With this knowledge, we couldn’t possibly subject our fat feline to the agonies of travelling in a car for 14 hours, so alternative arrangements had to be made. I called on another friend and organised for him to be fed and watered. However, apart from Jack and me, Brutus hates all humans, even those who are regular visitors. He tolerates the dogs, but only his own terms, and he still energetically hisses at Hunter – a futile exercise since Hunter is deaf and almost blind. Such is my sensitivity about Brutus that I found myself writing out a menu with the precise times when his food should be served. I included the varieties of food he likes, really likes, and LOVES. Not forgetting the special feed dishes he prefers (which must always be clean), failing which he might be put out, and refuse to eat his meal. In spite of his ample girth, I would worry intensely if such a situation arose. Our poor friend charged with the responsibility of dealing with this series of challenges looked quite mystified by the time I’d finished issuing all my instructions. Possibly this level of attention to cat-care is not common in our part of France.

With most of the menagerie sorted out, this just left our other dogs, Aby and Max. Our two young Australian Shepherd dogs are fully chipped and passported, and they would come with us.

Jack made his usual pre-voyage engineer-type preparations by stripping out the car and making it battle-ready. The rear seats were removed, bungees placed strategically on newly discovered hooks and his tool box was placed in the footwell. This immensely large, oily lump is a constant travel companion of ours. I’d prefer to be without it, but it has come in useful on previous occasions, so I decided not to complain about my reduced space allowance. I, in turn, took the dogs to the vet to have their pre-travel check and make sure that their passports passed muster. We’ve had problems with the Eurotunnel Pet Passport officials in the past, and I can tell you that after 12 hours of hard slog at the wheel, it’s no joke being told that we are not allowed to continue because of a mistake in the documentation. With this in mind I, and two vets, scrutinised both passports to make sure that every detail was perfectly correct. As luck would have it, Dr. Puiffe, with a triumphant whoop stabbed an offending open space on a page. He had found a carefully concealed omission. With some level of gravity he announced that we had failed to fill in the box which should have Aby’s name on it. What a lifesaver! This was certainly good practice for our interview with the officials in Calais. I carefully scribed her three-letter name, and left with our dogs covered in anti-bug chemicals and belching gently with the after-effects of their special worming tablet.

We got up nice and early on the day of our departure. We’d packed the night before so all that was needed was to pop in a couple of fresh snacks, load the dogs, and off we’d go. I gave Brutus a last squeeze, a dewy-eyed glance, and left him snuggled up and purring in his usual spot on the bed.

The first unanticipated challenge came from the dogs. They normally associate being in the car with a trip to their doggy pals, so from the moment the engine was switched on, they howled like banshees. Jack tolerated this for about, ooh, 30 seconds before snapping, “For crying out loud sort your bloody dogs out would you? If they carry on like this much longer we’re going back home!”

Strange how at times like this the miscreant animal in question instantly becomes my sole property, but on this occasion I chose not to remind him of the rules concerning joint ownership. Happily all it took was a couple of curt words, and Max settled down to a snooze. Aby, on the other hand was completely confused. The poor girl sat erect, trembling slightly, and looked pensively out of the window for her canine mates.

We commenced our journey and mercifully hadn’t gone far when the most awful thought occurred to me. I realised that I’d forgotten my kindle. There are some situations in life where one must throw all caution to the wind and do the right thing. My dreadful discovery presented one of them.
“Darling we have to go back home.”
“Ah good, you’ve finally seen sense.”
“No! Not to abandon the trip! I’ve forgotten my kindle.”
“I don’t believe it!”
“I know, me neither. I think it was because I was so worried about leaving Brutus and…”
“That wasn’t what I meant. You seriously don’t mean that we have to go all the way back just because you haven’t brought your kindle?”
“Well yes, of course.”
“For crying out loud woman, can’t you read a magazine or something?”
“Oh darling I can’t possibly be without my kindle for five nights. No, sorry, we’ll just have to go back and get it.”

So with many grumps and moans from the driver, about the agonies of being married to a forgetful woman, we drove back to the house. I sprinted in to collect my cherished possession, and took care to give Brutus another squeeze on my way back out.

We were heading towards Calais and the Eurotunnel. Normally we would take the central route which entails using part of the périphérique (beltway) in Paris, but we decided against it this time. This was because the French have introduced a new and intriguing challenge to reduce usage on this busy road system. Although Jack was totally clued-up as usual, I didn’t know what was going on, so read up on it. Normally in situations like this the French bureaucrats are the cause of the complications, but not this time. It seems that noxious smog was to blame. Still confused, I read an article published by the Guardian newspaper. It reported:

“Emergency measures introduced in Paris to halve the number of vehicles on the roads after noxious smog descended on the French capital have been hailed as a success…”

Police said these measures had reduced traffic jams in and around Paris by up to 40% and already 2,800 drivers had been stopped and given on-the-spot fines of €22 (£16) for flouting the regulations. What a brilliant coup for the French exchequer, I thought, but why so many offenders? Were the rules complicated, or were they just being French? I read on to discover it might be a bit of both. It seems that only “clean” cars, or those with the correct number plates (even on even days, odd on others), or vehicles carrying more than three people have been permitted to enter Paris and its 22 surrounding areas. Vehicles were also ordered to travel at a maximum 20kph in the city. To manage all this, the article reported:

“An estimated 750 police officers were dispatched from 5.30am onwards to about 100 busy roads and junctions to hand out fines to those who ignored the measures.”

I was intrigued by this information. To begin with I wasn’t too sure what a ‘clean’ car was. But I feared that with our lake-loving dogs, ours might never qualify. The fact of having an ‘uneven number plate’ also gave cause for concern. I then briefly considered whether two humans and two dogs might count as three occupants. I couldn’t be at all sure about that one. But with the smog problem being so severe that, according to the Guardian:

“It nearly obscured the Eiffel Tower, and caused Paris to be labelled as the most polluted city in the world, even worse than Shanghai.”

Obviously something had to be done. And apparently it worked. With a combined effort from the police fines, and motorists who understood the number plate challenge, the clouds apparently disappeared. The article ended with a happy comment from someone living in the city:

“ ‘Goodness, it’s calm this morning. What a difference.’ said Rosa, a concierge sweeping the front of a building near Boulevard Saint-Martin. ‘I can breathe,’ she added.”  

Always handy to be able to breathe.

The upshot of this was that, even though we would not normally go into the centre, Jack had already declared Paris to be ‘off-limits’ and our route would follow the west side of the country via Bordeaux.

Our first few hours of driving were uneventful. As usual Jack entertained himself by using his mechanical engineering skills and prodding all buttons in reach, checking plastic casings, and slewing the car from side to side on the road to make sure the vehicle tracking was in order. The weather was miserable with dull grey clouds covering the skies, and a mist of fine rain which dampened the lush spring meadows. There was barely a soul about, though, and fewer still on the autoroute. This cheered Jack up immensely, although he took care to remind me on several occasions, that we should savour this period of peaceful motoring, because it would assuredly all go downhill the moment we set tyre on English soil. And it did.

Jack then set the cruise control system to fix our speed and, with no possibility of further conversation in the offing, I decided to try and grab a nap. I reclined my seat (only a little way because the metal cask full of spanners directly behind prevented much movement), and nestled into my beanbag pillow. The next few days in England were going to be action packed, so now was the time to relax and make mental lists of the things that needed to be done. My nap didn’t last long.

It seemed like only seconds had passed when I was jarred awake by much shouting and swearing from Jack.

“Bloody hell! It’s just like being in England.”
“Whatever is the matter?” I asked glancing nervously back at the dogs to make sure they hadn’t been too frightened by the commotion. Aby was still looking out of the window for her friends and Max had now woken up and was looking for someone to lick.
“Can you believe it?” continued Jack. “I’ve been flashed by a blasted speed camera!” he fumed staring accusingly at me, then added “I mean, what’s their point? There isn’t a bloody soul on the road, but now we’re going to contribute even more to the French fiscal deficit with a speeding fine. It all started with the Dutch. That’s where the Gatsometer first appeared. Then, of course, it was us in the UK that seized the opportunity to turn it into a million pound revenue opportunity. But, who would believe that the French would follow suit, and submit themselves to this level of civil indignity. Do you remember the good old days when we’d be driving down the autoroute at 150kph, and get overtaken by one of those little corrugated iron Citroen vans?”
“They haven’t followed suit darling. There are nowhere near as many cameras here.”
“That’s true I suppose. Later today we’ll be on the M25 with all sorts of electronics telling us what the new speed limit is, despite the fact there’s not a hope in hell of achieving anything resembling that speed.”
“And also darling, they normally have massive signs here about 300 metres before the camera.”
“Yes they do. But this time they’ve been sneaky. When the sign says automatique, it means a permanent camera. When it says frequent, it means hand-held cameras in police cars. The sign back then said frequent, so I was looking for a policeman.”

This was in danger of turning into a political rant. We still had a very long way to go – it definitely needed to be nipped in the bud.
“Hang on a minute darling, I thought you’d set the autopilot system. Presumably you set it at a sensible level. Are you sure it was our car that was flashed by the speed camera?” The desired effect was instant.
“Ah, well, yes I did. But there weren’t any other cars on the road, so I thought we’d make up a bit of time by getting a move on. I hadn’t bargained on there being a sneaky and misleading sign to trap me. Anyway, you’ve snored your way past Bordeaux, and we’re well on the way to Poitiers, so how about handing me something to eat.”

The thing about having a big old car with a diesel fuel tank the size of an elephant is that it never seems to need filling up. This is good for economic motoring, but bad for human bladders, well mine anyway. Before long I knew a pit stop was necessary, so I used the dogs as an excuse to stop somewhere convenient. Max was asleep with one eye open, and poor Aby was still sitting bolt upright staring out of the window, trembling every now and again. This supported my theory admirably. Jack moaned at the proposition, but saw the sense in avoiding a water-logged car, and pulled into the next available aire. Unlike the busy service stations, these are more of a rural stopover, particularly favoured by the motorhome community, sleepy truck drivers, and dog owners. Amenities are usually limited, but toilets are always provided. Unfortunately our stop coincided with a deterioration in the weather. It was pouring.

With the dogs’ needs at the forefront of my mind I jumped out, donned my jacket and hat, and splashed to the rear of the car. Luckily they already had their collars on and all I needed to do was to attach the extendable leads. Now, I should have been prepared for what came next, but it simply hadn’t occurred to me. The dogs had apparently decided that the moment had finally arrived – they were going for a country walk! Such was their state of excitement that it took ages to secure the clips. Unfortunately, in the melee, I hadn’t engaged the brake system on the extendable leads so when I opened the door they exploded out of the back and shot off towards the bank. Terrified of letting go, I clung on for dear life as the leads maxed-out to their full length. This caused me to look like an eccentric water-skier as I was towed up the hill by our extremely excited dogs, who were now hell-bent on out-racing one another. This could only end in tears.

I accept that my handling of the situation may not have constituted a perfect demonstration in dog obedience. Equally, I felt Jack’s comments about controlling the ‘bloody animals before you get impaled on a twig’ from the comfort of the car park, were uncalled for. Fortunately though, there was a soft, dense hedge that subdued our exuberant animals, and provided a nice cushioned bumper for me. They then spent one or two moments scuffling around while I collected myself. Regrettably, Aby then saw a car pull in. Being of an extremely sociable variety, both dogs abruptly stopped what they were doing, and before I could issue a command, whizzed off back down the bank to perform a canine ‘meet and greet’. I’d barely caught my breath let alone connected the blasted brakes on the extendable leads before I was propelled back down after them, ploughing a furrow with my heels as I fought to regain control of the unruly mutts. I finally reeled them in, apologised to the car owners for the possibly unwanted licks, and poured the dogs back into the car. With calm restored, I then scurried off to the dames to use the facilities, and repair my wounded pride. As we set off I had to endure Jack’s usual musings about the ineptitude of my dog-control tactics, and I decided, on this occasion, it would be fruitless to respond with any form of brilliant defence. Largely because there wasn’t one.

With Jack still at the wheel we continued past Poitiers and through Tours, which stands on the lower reaches of the river Loire. This is known as the ‘Garden of France’ (Le Jardin de la France) because of the many parks located within the city. Well worth a visit, that’s for sure, but not for us, and possibly for anyone on that day. The wind was blowing a gale, and rain was now lashing down as we passed over the magnificent river which made this, usually beautiful, view very difficult to see at all.

The fuel indicator eventually hiccupped and dropped a fraction, enough for Jack to decide we needed to fill-up. He fought the buffeting car into a service station and we performed a speedy re-fuel and refreshment stop. It was my turn to take the wheel. We headed towards Le Mans, today most famed for the sports motorcar endurance race, 24 Hours of Le Mans. This area between Tours and Rouen is liberally peppered with wind turbines. Looking like toy windmills for giants. They line the autoroute in garish metallic clumps, providing a visual clue about the prevailing weather conditions. I’m not sure whether I like them or not but I certainly couldn’t spend time deliberating that small point. The weather was getting much worse now. The windscreen wipers swept our screen in vain, and the car was rocked from side to side by vicious gusts. In fact the conditions were so poor that they caused Jack to comment, “Honestly it’s impossible to get even a wink of sleep with you at the wheel, can you try and keep the car on the road please?”  But I think he knew that it was seriously tough going so, instead of dozing, he fiddled with the Satnav controls, pretending to adjust our onward route towards Calais.

For some mysterious reason, much of the autoroute here was reduced to one lane. Plastic cones, mostly in place, others having been blown to non-sensible places, identified the permitted zones for motorists. But there was no other evidence of activity or works. Luckily there were very few other motorists on the road, so our progress wasn’t hampered beyond a reduced speed limit, which I adhered to with great smugness. I was concentrating so hard on missing the chicane of misplaced cones, that I hadn’t realised that Satnav lady was taking us off our normal route through Rouen. Suddenly I was directed onto what can only be described as an elderly ‘B’ road. This took us along the banks of what I suppose must be the river Seine. On my left I could just spot a sad looking river cruise boat valiantly fighting its way through the waves, with windows tightly shut but no sign of passengers. To our left we were both surprised by what we saw. It looked like we had driven into a village in Switzerland. The houses, rather like our road, were tiny and looked just like chalets with sloping roofs and wood cladding. Interesting as this all was, we were on a mission and I was getting concerned that we might be heading in the wrong direction.  Jack occupied himself by stabbing more buttons on the Satnav system, and accidentally shutting it down altogether on one or two occasions. But he decided that actually all was well. We eventually emerged from our mystery tour, and re-connected with our customary route through the outskirts of Rouen. We’ve never visited this city, but the glimpses one gets of the magnificent cathedral from the bypass, cause me to put it on our list of ‘must-visit’ locations.

We’d been on the road for nearly ten hours now, and the signs for the Eurotunnel came as a welcome sight. We drove into the precincts of the pet passport office. Weather conditions had been upgraded to ‘appalling’ and tensions were rising, as they always do, when we arrive here. Jack did nothing to calm my administrative nerves. “Right, let’s hope you and your vet pals haven’t messed up the documents this time. I’ll bring in the dogs while you start conning the officials into letting us on that train – which, by the way, is about to leave.” I fumbled around for the dogs’ passports and assorted papers, and forged through the driving wind and rain that lashed the carpark, hanging on to everything for grim death in case an indispensable sheet of information was whipped from my hand and lost forever.

Luckily we were the only customers in the pet passport office and our documents were taken by a nice efficient-looking officer. As she was thumbing conscientiously through each page the door was thrown open and in burst a dripping wet Jack looking as thunderous as the weather, with our two bouncing beauties. The girl then handed over the microchip scanner, which happily bleeped at the right times on the dogs’ necks, which was a great relief to everyone concerned. Now it could officially be confirmed that we had in fact driven through France with the correct dogs. She replaced her wand in its nice box on the counter. I genuinely thought we were home and dry when she cried, “Aha, a problem with your papers I am afraid madame.” I couldn’t even look at Jack. I was terrified. It really couldn’t be possible, could it? The thought of, once again, being prevented from boarding the train because of a paperwork mistake, was just too much to contemplate. There was an audible groan behind me followed by a bang. Jack had left the building.

“Um what’s the problem?” I quailed.
“I am afraid that you have not written in the date when the microchip was implanted madame. This is against the rules. Do you have the original certificate? This will give you the date. If you do not have it, then I am sorry, but I cannot let you through.”  Thank goodness for my satchel! Fortunately where travel with our pets is concerned I carry around a satchel-full of their documents. I stuffed my hand in and produced a wad of likely looking certificates. “Bravo madame, here it is, now there is no problem” said the angelic officer with a smile, “but the box in the passport must be filled.” I could have fainted with relief.
“Oh lovely, that’s super. Could you fill it in for me please, I don’t have a pen with me.”
“Oh non madame, this is forbidden, you must complete the form yourself. Here, you may use my pen.”  
“It’s just the date, right?”
“Yes, just the date madame.”
Choosing not to question the special nature of my date filling-in capabilities compared to hers, I thanked my lucky stars that this was the only problem. The deed was done and we were waved off by those lovely, lovely, officials and onto the train.

That was it. We had made it unscathed through France. We just had the final leg in England to go, which we reckoned would take a further three hours, or five depending on the traffic, which was an absolute certainty acc
ording to my pessimistic driver.

The dogs were fascinated by the train, but otherwise fine. Even Aby had stopped trembling. Jack settled back in the seat, grabbed a beanbag cushion and announced that he was going to have a well-earned nap. “And remind me” he added, “never to allow you to drive in breezy conditions again. You’re a complete death trap!” With that he was soon snoring.  I sat back, thrilled to have passed the pet passport challenge and was just about to join Jack in a nap when I had a sudden moment of tension. Poor Brutus! What if his food dish hadn’t been washed?

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