Customary Delays

Horrid journey home from France last night. The phrase “filthy weather” was coined for such nights as this. We set off at around 4 pm, and it was already raining. The problem with driving in France in the dark and wet, as I have said before, is that the cat’s eye never made it across the channel. The ‘luminous’ paint they use on the roads disappears on such filthy nights, and I was honestly relying for most of the journey on the car’s built-in lane assist system.

The first couple of hours across country to Langres were okay. The cat was quiet, though he always starts fussing when he detects deceleration. We stopped at the McDonald’s in Langres to eat. It was around 6 pm. The women’s toilet was flooded, and the urinal in the men’s toilet was blocked. The food was cold – all of it – the drinks were half measures, and the fries were obviously left over from the lunchtime rush. Freezing cold and rubbery in texture. My younger daughter, who has decided to go veggie, had an egg mcmuffin – the one with just the egg and cheese, because the veggie burger had not reached that corner of France. You don’t expect miracles from McDonald’s, but this was particularly bad.

Then it was time for the motorway and its invisible lanes. I did the next 4½ hours with just the one stop, and we arrived at the Calais terminal around midnight. Pet control: fine. Check-in: fine. Then we were given the runaround by yet another new road layout designed to take you through a maze of cones and barriers in order to filter your arrival at passport control. It didn’t appear to be very busy, though there were a surprising number of British number plates, considering only French citizens/spouses are allowed to travel to France at this time. Anyway — French passport control: fine.

British passport control: JESUS FUCKING CHRIST.

There were three lanes open, and surprisingly long queues at each, notwithstanding the labyrinthine approach. And we sat and sat in this queue for 45 minutes. Inevitably, both the other queues moved faster than ours. Sod’s law, and all that, nothing to be done about it, and no particular reason for it. But it was distressing to be sitting there sometimes, between single car-length moves forward, for a good ten minutes.

Except it turned out there was a reason. It was because the woman manning our particular lane was gassing. Gossiping. Chatting. When we were close enough to see her at work, we saw the following:

  1. She takes the three passports from the passenger window of the car in front and closed the window of the booth.
  2. Then she turns around and has a – I kid you not – five minute, very animated conversation with the two people standing behind her (a man and a woman). Arms were waving around.
  3. Occasionally, she would turn around and look as if she was going to check the passports with the UV scanner or whatever it is they use.
  4. But no, she would turn back and continue her conversation. Was it an argument? She seemed quite fervent.
  5. That particular conversation came to an end when the other woman left the booth and walked away.
  6. She then turned to the business at hand, scanned the first two passports.
  7. But then turned around again and continued her discussion with the man who remained behind her.
  8. She then turned back to check the passports but seemed to have forgotten where she was, so she did all three again.
  9. Then she opened her little window and leaned out, asking the people in the car to show their faces.
  10. She then visually scanned each passport and checked them agains the faces.
  11. Finally, she returned them to the passenger, and the car in front drove forward.
  12. Now it was our turn.

All this time, we were assuming that she was in some kind of dispute, heated discussion, something that couldn’t wait. But guess what? Just before she closed the window on us so she couldn’t be overheard, we did hear a snippet: “And I wasn’t sure what kind of discount I’d get.”

Yes. While people queued in her lane for FORTY-FIVE MINUTES and cars stretched all the way back to French passport control, she was chatting – animatedly – about shopping discounts.

As my wife pointed out, it’s the sort of thing you would expect from the French, who have made a national identity out of a calculated lack of urgency.

It’s all part of the punishment for daring to go abroad.


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