We’d just got on the Eurotunnel train when the news came through that the government had u-turned on their decision not to require quarantine for returning double vaxxers from France.
If it had been left up to me, I’d have given up on this trip long ago: the universe doesn’t want you to go. But my wife hasn’t seen her family or friends in a year, and she had a house sitting there empty. Last summer, when travel was nowhere near as fraught as it is now, we arrived to find at least three wasp nests around the property, which is before you get to the waist-high grass and other neglected items.
This time, the major issue was that the boiler had stopped working. It’s flaky at the best of times, regularly requiring a reset to shut off the loud beeps, and with nobody here, somebody decided the best thing to do was to unplug it. So this Heath Robinson affair, which looks like an industrial boiler sploodged into a domestic setting, was turning on, but no hot water was reaching the taps. At some point, the water leaving its tank in pipes was around 84ºC, probably not recommended, but it wasn’t getting as far as the tap.
Enter my engineering genius brother-in-law, who is always busy (currently putting up insulation in his new house build – not his first time at building his own house) but brought his tools around and… well, would you know what to do with an engineer’s stethoscope? And another question: how many pumps does your home boiler have? In England, I reckon ours has just the one. Water–boiler-pump. Right?
This weird French thing has three. One pumps the water from the boiler to the water tank; the next from the water tank to the taps. And the third pumps water around the central heating. Anyway, two out of three pumps weren’t working, their electric motors seized. How did we know? Stethoscope. You could hear the first spinning away, the second silent, apart from the distant sound of the first (which is right next to it), and the third was making an electrical transformer noise, the motor trying to spin, but failing.
Water drained from system, screwdriver in, pump turned manually, et voila. Fixed by the man who builds nuclear electricity generators for a living, with a stethoscope and a screwdriver. Then he went back to installing the plasterboard insulation in his new garage, which is bigger than our house in the UK. The reason he’s doing this and not the building firm he hired to put the shell of the house up is that he is such a perfectionist that he would not tolerate walls that were less than perfect.
(See if you can spot which “loft space” is ours)
The house is currently in the state that boggles the mind, with flexible hoses everywhere carrying the electrical wiring across the floors, soon to be covered with the underfloor heating system, and positions fro furniture, television, appliances, marked out with spray paint. So of course the sockets with built-in USB are going to come up by the piece of furniture that will serve as the phone-charging table. And so on. The heating and ventilation system will be super efficient, served by a so-called “Canadian Well”, which will bring air from under the ground into the house, instead of the freezing air of winter or the broiling summer heat. With 40cm of thermal insulation in the ceiling and even insulation under the roof tiles, even the loft (also bigger than our house in the UK) won’t get hot in the summer. And it has to be big enough to house some of his vintage motorcycle collection: the ones he doesn’t use.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, apart from the non-functional boiler, we suspect some mice have made their way from the woodpile in the barn through to the back of the kitchen cupboard where they’ve been having a party. So while my brother-in-law wires in the USB sockets for his family’s phones, we’re trying to cover the holes of the Rodent Superhighway.
It was a long drive, a fraught and epic journey, with enough anxiety to make me feel sick, but I’m glad we’re here.
A word about MyHealthCheck private PCR testing: fucking useless. Testing under the rules, 72 hours before travel, posting off in the Royal Mail Tracked 24 envelope, and we received the results, in one of our cases, about 96 hours later. Tracking the parcel was interesting: mine was received twice at the Royal Mail distribution centre, 24 hours apart.
Plan B was a pit stop lateral flow test in Southend on the way down to the Channel Tunnel. Friendly Maja in the hairdressers there emailed our travel certificates – all in one convenient message – inside an hour, while we were still on the way to Folkestone. All of which got us under the wire just before the change in France’s status, but I’m going to forget all about that for a few weeks.
One last thing: thanks to Brexit, my passport was stamped for the first time in Europe since I went to (then non-EU) Spain in 1983. Welcome to the future. Cheers.