‘Where are you off to this time?’ A reasonable question. Easy enough, if you know the answer, as most people would on the night before departure. Not so easy in our case. As usual, we’re giving the impression of just faffing about. I had adumbrated a couple of possible scenarios, essentially dependent on whether we turn right or left at Calais. We once settled that issue by a coin toss while awaiting our turn to disembark in the Tunnel.
On balance, the House Stark motto from Game of Thrones – Winter is Coming – is tipping the balance towards turning right on this occasion. Head South and then Westward, that’s where the sunshine is lurking. Of course, there’s also the matter of our ‘going where the mood takes us’ system which has served us well over so many years, to be considered. Make that so many decades; we’ve never been slaves to any form of pre-ordained planning.
I went to collect some euros from the Post Office. I noticed the cctv camera light blinking as I was watching the notes being counted. Not much point in trying to identify anyone standing at the counter these days with almost every customer wearing a mask. Maybe they mainly focus on seeking out those carrying a sawn off shotgun or a drawstring bag marked ‘Swag.’
We'd arrived to collect our pre ordered euros, but ‘due to Covid’ they hadn’t arrived. We accepted this most convenient of excuses readily enough, worn down by how many times a pandemic has been blamed for all the ills of the world.
‘I’ve got some, just not enough, will that do?’
I nodded, bird in the hand coming to mind. Take what’s on offer. Counting the notes didn’t go well. Three attempts and a different amount on each occasion. I had been counting as well and arrived at an identical amount each time, but the final responsibility wasn’t dependent on me.
‘I’m all thumbs lately,’ the cheerful post office woman remarked. ‘I see you’re getting euros today. Are you going abroad then?’
That was quite a likely conclusion, I thought, but just nodded in reply.
‘Going anywhere nice?’
‘I certainly hope so. We’re just off travelling, see where it takes us.’
Baffled expression. People seem to need an actual destination to process, I’ve found. Our weird system of seemingly aimless wandering engenders mild concern. It also appeared to complicate the task of counting out bank notes as by now we were on fresh start number five.
We finally agreed the notes added up to the same amount I had already mentally agreed upon several times. I took up the offer of an envelope, no charge, in which I could hide my crisp and crinkling cash and thereby attempt to convince the ravenous hordes of footpads lurking outside I only had a plain white envelope secreted about my person and not a sizeable quantity of currency. The ruse worked, I’m delighted to report, as not one of the many masked potential desperados I saw in the street demanded money with menaces.
We eventually set off, but had driven hardly any distance when the ever so helpful information screen warned me I was in imminent danger of death as at least one of the car tyres was losing pressure. I spent £1 on what used to be called ‘free air’ on a garage forecourt, wondering why it seems to be an unbreakable rule that car tyre valves are always located at the bottom of the tyre, no matter how or where you come to a halt. Just once, let me avoid the stooping, groaning and complaining and let at least one tyre valve find itself in an easily accessible position. I called out the desired pressures to Marigold who had the rather less irksome task of checking the gauge attached to the pump. I could tell she was far more interested in watching two squirrels fighting on the grass than watching the gauge. It’s actually rather reassuring to know that despite allowing the tyre pressure to reach stratospheric levels the tyre didn’t actually explode.
Pressures set at correct levels and, more importantly, the new settings saved in the car’s memory bank, we set off again. Twenty-eight minutes gone, distance travelled less than one mile, not the ideal start.
We’d decided to stay overnight in Kent and get an early Channel Tunnel start on the next day. Our overnight hotel was perfect. All we ask is for beds that allow a decent night’s sleep, we don’t require spas, swimming pools or gyms. We were even to be given breakfast as part of the deal.
The receptionist looked at me rather strangely, almost as if she knew me from somewhere, but couldn’t make the connection. I must have missed enlightenment dawning on her expression, but when we arrived at our room number all was explained. 007, of course.
Expecting to be first through the dining room doors at 05.30 it was a bit of a shock to find at least ten diners already there. We had only just time to snaffle a mixed selection of offerings from the wide selection on offer in the buffet – I won’t offend you by describing the bizarre concoctions on our respective trays – when the place erupted. Two tables distant, in this Covid era that means about twenty feet away, a breakfast diner collapsed at the table, falling face first onto his plate. His wife screamed and wouldn’t stop screaming. The receptionist and three other guests dashed over.
As I was setting off to join them in rendering assistance, Marigold pulled me back. ‘There’s plenty of people there,’ she said, ‘what if he’s got covid?’
I went back to my seat. How the world has changed.
It wasn’t a heart attack, wasn’t Covid related either, he’d ‘only’ taken double the dose of his blood pressure pills by accident and ‘came over a bit whoozy’ the efficient receptionist explained on her way back to the desk.
‘Bet he wishes he’d eaten the beans first,’ said Marigold as the stricken victim was led away, his face covered in baked beans and tomato sauce. There’s a lesson there for all of us; always eat the messy bits of breakfast first. You just never know.
An elderly woman sat all by herself at a table right in the corner of the room. She’d been muttering, apparently to herself, for quite a while and I resolved to stay well clear, but as we rose to leave I saw she was talking to an equally elderly dog perched on a chair. She wasn’t actually stroking the dog, merely resting her hand on its head in the manner of someone testing a radiator for warmth while chatting away, but the dog seemed happy just to be noticed.
We arrived at the Tunnel and were sent off to join the queue for boarding. The U.K. passport check was fairly perfunctory, as was the examination of our vaccination status which I’d taken such care to present in as efficient a manner as possible.
The French-staffed booth twenty yards ahead was a very different matter. The official seated in his little office examined our brand new, unblemished passports with great suspicion. I suppose he thought they had been printed out on our kitchen table. Eventually and with an admirable flourish he ink stamped them to prove we were on our way to his country and waved us away.
Ten seconds later another official dashed out and ushered us to the dreaded inspection area. ‘Are you travelling with anything dangerous in your vehicle?’ I wisely decided to avoid any mention of Marigold, this was not the place for flippancy. Our door handles and steering wheel were swabbed, Marigold developing an uncontrollable fit of the giggles for reasons never revealed didn’t seem to be helpful and it was only after conferring with the rest of the posse for several minutes that we were allowed to proceed.
‘Loading complete’ the sign said, but we drove through the coned chicanes at great speed and a weary looking man reluctantly opened the door he’d just slammed shut and allowed us on board. Face masks are compulsory indoors in France and in crowded areas, outdoors as well. So far we haven’t seen even a single person flouting the rules. No mask, no admittance signs are everywhere and in the motorway services aires admittance to restaurants is possible only to mask wearing customers able to show proof of vaccination or a recent negative test for Covid. As triple-jabbed Brits we feel much safer here.
We decided to turn right on leaving the Tunnel, thereby choosing France rather than Belgium, Holland or Germany. The weather was a bit nippy so we thought heading towards the warmer bits of Europe would be the best idea. Almost immediately Marigold said, ‘what a shame, I really fancied going to Germany.’
As we had just joined a busy motorway it was somewhat of a moot point, but we had agreed (again) that heading towards the best chance of winter sunshine was the best idea by the time the first available opportunity to change direction arrived.
‘Not Paris, though,’ Marigold insisted. We’ve driven through the middle of Los Angeles, Rome, London, Marrakesh and many other notorious traffic hazards, but for some reason it’s always Paris that gets Marigold agitated. We agreed Paris was best avoided and set out on our usual bypass route through Rouen.
I always feel a bit sorry for Rouen. It sits astride the River Seine, just like Paris, has a Cathedral of Our Lady ( Notre Dame) which in many ways outshines its Parisian namesake as its spire is the highest in France. (151 metres, if you’re one of those people who simply must know all the details) and boasts dozens of pavement cafes and swish restaurants. Despite these attributes, given a choice between Paris, the City of Light, and Rouen nobody would ever pick Rouen for a romantic getaway.
We once spent an evening in Rouen at a restaurant alongside a group of complete strangers who were all representing Norwich, one of several cities ‘twinned’ with Rouen. On hearing another English accent they insisted we join their party. I like Norwich as a city, but it isn’t clearly evident what brought about this particular ‘twinning’ as the two cities appear to have so little in common.
This was most certainly the case with one of the female delegates who viewed everything ‘French’ with deep suspicion. Marigold often references this unfortunate woman if she’s drinking gin and tonic. The conversation in question was along these lines: ‘What are these bits in my glass?’
‘They’re juniper berries, Madame.’
‘Well, I asked for a gin and tonic, not a glass full of berries. Remove them at once.’
The waiter took away the offending glass and returned a few moments later with berries removed, but still had to withstand the customer’s tirade of disapproval for making unwanted additions to her desired order. The waiter’s patience was remarkable. It was the first of many occasions I realised I’m not cut out to be a drinks waiter. My forbearance levels are nowhere near the required standard.
Our route on this occasion took us alongside the left bank of the Seine where even on a bright sunny day, which wasn’t remotely the case on our visit, meant we were viewing Rouen at its least attractive. A dirty, industrial zone with dense traffic on the road and factory chimneys belching black smoke across the railroad tracks doesn’t do much to persuade a visitor to look closer for the hidden gems of the city.
After three hundred or so miles had gone by I was flagging and took a unilateral decision to seek out a hotel. Marigold agreed wholeheartedly* when I suggested the brightly lit interior of a Hotel Campanile would be just the place to organise a good night’s sleep.
*This ‘wholehearted agreement’ was to be rescinded very shortly.
‘Only 45 euros, that’s only about 40 quid,’ I said, triumphantly, as I returned to the car. ‘For a Campanile, that’s a steal.’
We soon found out there are many reasons for a hotel to be charging rather less than the norm. Mostly relating to cleanliness, space, standard of fixtures and fittings, the non availability of the promised Internet access, a heater that blew out only frigid air when the outside temperature was minus three, the list goes on and on.
Of course, we found each successive low point hugely amusing, but, as has often been remarked by others, we are rather strange people. The tray of sweets left for guests at the reception desk to help themselves was some sort of compensation. At least we won’t starve.