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Liberation – a ferry crossing away

September 9, 2021

Two of weeks ago, a couple we know took the ferry from the UK to Dublin. When they arrived as passport control, they were asked “have yer had yer jabs?”. The answer was yes, and before they had time to pull out their vaccination certificates, the official waved them past with a cheery “on yer go then!”.

Shortly afterwards, we took the ferry to France. The French immigration officer wasn’t quite as casual. He asked to see certificates, looked at them briefly, and then stamped our passports. It was the first time I can remember the welcoming kerchunk of the passport stamp in forty years of travel to and from our closest neighbour.

From then on, we entered a culture of conformity, at least as far of COVID was concerned, that would have left anti-vaxxers, mask resisters and COVID deniers in the UK and the US jumping up and down like outraged gibbons.

When we reached our usual haunt in Lot-et-Garonne, down in the south, people were wearing masks in the outdoor markets. In every restaurant, whether we were there for a meal or just enjoying a coffee in the outdoors, the staff asked to see our COVID passes sanitaires. No exceptions.

I’m not sure if such compliance is practiced only in the country, or whether the cities behave in a different way. But when you’re used to seeing video clips of vax protesters besieging institutions in the UK, and crazy people in the US coughing over others to make a point about masks, you do wonder about the sanity of those who have politicised the pandemic.

Here in France, you see normal life all around you, but with the sight adjustment of face masks and COVID passes. And it doesn’t seem as though the population is sullenly complying with the instructions of overbearing officialdom. Rather, there seems to be a social consensus that these small restrictions are necessary prerequisites to living a relatively normal life.

That’s fine with me, because “normal life” in rural France is a total joy after eighteen months locked away in my divided and rancorous country. Rush hour is a couple of cars where normally you would pass none. Most of the restaurants are open. The supermarkets still sell the same products. And there’s no sign that the beautiful rivers of the south are about to be polluted by torrents of shitty water – with permission from the government – because there’s a shortage of water treatment chemicals, as is the case in England.

There are also plenty of visitors here, despite the relative absence of Brits. German and Dutch accents abound – not just among the elderly who usually come in September, but spoken by young couples with pre-school kids, all looking for a bit of late summer sun.

The promised sun was very much on offer until yesterday, when the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse made a surprise appearance in the form of a monstrously intense thunderstorm which delivered 90cm of rain within a couple of hours.

The next morning, debris was everywhere. A nearby field hosted a deep lake. The gite next to ours lost power. And here was an extraordinary thing: whereas in England, you might wait for days to get someone over to fix the problem, a team of two electricians showed up a mere four hours after the owner called them out. Truly a miracle.

I don’t think of myself as a naïve Francophile blind to the nation’s own set of problems, about which its own citizens grumble as much as we do about ours. We, the troublesome family next door, will no doubt continue to carp and mock the French for their bureaucracy, their patriotism and protective instincts, not to mention their willingness to man the barricades when the interests of sections of society are threatened.

But how can we claim to be different, with five-hour waits to enter the country, clunky COVID apps and a government whose idea of the truth is to pretend that the abnormal is normal, or that a major problem is a mere temporary anomaly?

Content as I am to live in England despite its multitude of problems, mostly self-inflicted, I have to say that a week or two in France is truly a liberation. I may have taken our neighbour for granted before the pandemic, but I shall never do so again.

From → France, Social, Travel, UK

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