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Postcard from France – beyond the grassy knoll

July 25, 2022

It was a sign.

The Creator of All Things, so bothered by souls across the world calling for the apocalypse, the rapture, the destruction of Joe Biden and his luciferian hordes, so busy sending us COVID, presiding over forest fires, massacres in Ukraine and lost baggage at airports, all in pursuit of his unknowable Plan, still managed to find time to warn us in his ineffable way: do not go to France this morning.

But we ignorant sinners ignored him. Which must also have been part of the Plan. Let me explain.

A month ago, we had the bright idea of combining a wedding in the Netherlands with a short trip to our house in France. We would drive, which meant that our bags wouldn’t end up in Timbuktoo. It would also give us the opportunity to haul more stuff to France, where we’re busy decorating in our own fusty image the second home we bought last year.

So on a bright Thursday morning, all packed from the night before, we would make an early start for the channel tunnel, a mere 90 minutes away under normal circumstances. Except that it didn’t happen that way. The Creator spoke. Our car, which normally doesn’t give us a squeak of trouble, erupted in the middle of the night in a frenzy of beeping. An ominous red sign indicating battery failure popped up on the dashboard display. Twice we gave it a ride around the neighbourhood to give it a little charge. Twice it started beeping within minutes. It only stopped when we left it unlocked, which meant that we faced a choice. Unpack our worldly belongings and get some sleep, or leave it unlocked and hope for the best. We chose the latter. It was the right call. The car burglars were busy elsewhere that night.

We then had to decide whether to heed the Creator and stay put, or to head for the channel in the hope that the battery would charge normally. But what if the alternator was knackered? In the end, we decided that breaking down in the middle of France during a heatwave wasn’t a good option. So we called the AA. A very nice chap called Rodney showed up an hour later, and pronounced that the battery was terminally ill. As we frantically called around looking for a replacement, Rodney had a rummage in his van. Bingo! He had just the one. An hour later (because in our German car you have to take the driver seat to bits in order to access the battery) he’d fitted a new one and we were good to go.

By now it was 10am, four hours later than we’d originally planned to take off. Even so, after a nine-hour drive from Calais, we should get to the house by mid-evening. But the Creator was probably laughing at our optimism at this point. We’d reckoned without the Great Getaway – the beginning of the holiday season in which thousands of people who would normally fly heeded official advice to avoid airports like the plague and drive to Europe instead.

So we zipped down the motorway, past lines of stationary trucks snoozing on the other side of the contraflow under the inexplicably-named Operation Brock, which is designed to manage the post-Brexit flow of freight heading for the Dover ferries and the tunnel. We were a tad worried by messages from Eurotunnel telling us that while their service was good, we could expect a five-hour wait for check-in and passports. But then another one said that the wait would be two hours. Doable, we thought, though our ETA in our rural paradise was moving towards midnight or later.

Then shortly before we came to the turn-off for the tunnel, the next Eurotunnel message said six hours delay. Merde! Nonetheless, in for a penny and all that – we persevered.

At the turn-off, everything stopped. The queue was about half a mile long and three lanes wide. I then endured the usual criticism from my co-pilot for being in the wrong lane. But this was normal. I’ve spent the last thirty-eight years of our marriage being in the wrong lane, so nothing new.

In half an hour we were past the point of no return and into the valley of death, alongside hundreds of other cars moving almost imperceptibly towards check-in. After another hour, people were starting to get desperate. Those with bursting bladders ran up a bank to the nearest bushes where they relieved themselves in relative privacy. Well sort of. As one guy dashed for cover, a woman ran out from the same spot like a scalded cat. Goodness knows what lay beyond. The first Glastonbury came to mind.

Eventually, after two hours of self-numbing, and giving fervent thanks that we didn’t have a car full of small children or feuding teenagers who never wanted to come with us in the first place, we made it to check-in, past the British immigration checkpoint, through the French one, where I got my cute little passport stamp (my wife, being an EU citizen didn’t have that privilege) and down to ramp to the waiting Euro-train.

And even though we had a nine-hour drive ahead, possibly made longer by forest fires in the south, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief. Relief to be away from Brexit and all its devilish works. Away from Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss. Away from Boris Johnson in combat gear chucking grenades among Ukrainian trainee soldiers. Away from Mrs Sunak posing in front of Margaret Thatcher’s statue in Grantham and Mistress Straitjacket posing as Mrs T with her prissy white bow-tied blouse. Away from all the other evidence of my country’s tragicomic decline at the hands of the ideologues, fanatics and incompetents.

Not that France is without its own problems. But a nine-hour drive with only one set of roadworks to slow us down makes its own statement, I reckon.

By around 2am we were there. And the next morning, we were off to the local market, where French, British and other nationalities happily shopped together, loading their carrier bags with cheeses, tranches de jambon, shiny red peppers and juicy fat melons. As they always have and hopefully always will.

It seems that we got off relatively lightly. If media reports are to believed, the six-hour delays and more became reality in the two days following our crossing. The Brits blamed the French and vice versa. Straitjacket, in her role as Foreign Secretary, “ordered” the French to provide more immigration officers, and on our side of the channel the usual politicians rolled out their twisted logic to suggest that the aching bladders, missed weddings and overheated cars had nothing to do with Brexit and everything to do with the intransigent French. Oh, I almost forgot: and COVID.

And as the cars raced down the M20 towards the grassy knoll by the tunnel, nobody spared much of a thought for the poor truck drivers stuck in their ten-mile queues. Their plight seems to be the new normal. At what point will hauliers decide that enough is enough? Then we in our island fortress might discover that the price of taking back control is an entirely different kind of normal.

But that’s a future delight. Back in the present, walnuts, apples and pears are growing fatter on our trees. The worst of the heat is gone. Tonight we’ll be at producer’s evening where garlic snails, brochettes and chips cooked in goose fat can be bought. Where we’ll chat with strangers and hopefully meet old friends.

Last night we went to a choral concert in a beautiful church nobody outside the immediate vicinity has ever heard of. It featured works by Purcell, Sibelius, Bartok, Debussy and Saint-Saens. We sat next to a marble plaque honouring the twenty-five men from this tiny village who died in the First World War. They surely would have enjoyed a truly European collection finished off by a couple of American songs. Back in the house, we’ve been revisiting a CD of Russian sacred choral music, achingly beautiful pieces, made all the more poignant by contributions by choirs from Kyiv, Moscow and St Petersburg. Choral music, I’ve always thought, is an instrument of peace.

Neither Britain nor France is paradise. Yet both have so much to offer each other and the world beyond. Our problems are not dissimilar. So it seems a shame that our politicians and media tend to dwell on ancient rivalries rather than shared affinity.

When all the current sound and fury has died down, is it too much to hope that we can resume our pre-Brexit relationship – occasionally prickly but usually appreciative of each other’s virtues, values and glories?

I’m confident that we can, because beneath the attention-seeking babble, my experience tells me that in the street, the market and the home, that relationship has never gone away.

And yes, sentimental old fool that I am, I still believe that we’re stronger together. And I’d be surprised if the Creator didn’t feel that way too.

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