Will the French ever forgive us?

Pre-pandemic, I would drive to and from my OH’s house in France six times a year. In recent times, we’ve been using late night crossings and driving through the night. This has generally been a little less stressful than crossing during the day— or delay, as it might as well be called.

I’m a little out of practice making this journey, although I’ve been keeping up with my insomnia, so being awake in the middle of the night is no real challenge. This time, in a bold experiment, we decided to cross in my new car-shaped car. This is not something we’ll do often, as my OH prefers her brick-shaped car. But I was looking forward to the journey because I nerdishly wanted to see if we could make it on one tank of fuel: the car-shaped car being more economical than the brick-shaped one, even though they both have (more or less) the same engine.

But the problem these days, even crossing in the middle of the night, is that the French are punishing us for Brexit. As anyone who has made this crossing regularly knows, passing through French passport control used to be a non-event. Often, there was nobody in the booths; even when there was, they would wave you straight through. Since Brexit, though, they’ve taken to checking every passport. Add this to the thorough checking the British have been doing since 2005 (no Schengen Zone for us), and we’ve got ourselves a capacity problem.

Hence the overnight crossing habit. Peak times have become unbearable. Big holidays, like this Whitsun half-term, can still be a bit slammed, but it’s usually a bit quieter in the night.

Little did I know that there was a football match on. I have no understanding of what would drive someone to want to put themselves through this experience in order to watch tiny people kick a tiny ball around a distant pitch rather than just watch it on TV, but fanatics gonna fanatic, I suppose.

I was pre-warned in the sense that I saw the headlines about the Port of Dover being gridlocked, and I read about the 21 planes that left Liverpool airport, but how many more might there be at midnight in Folkstone? This of course, is on top of the closure of motorway lanes necessitated by so-called Operation Brock (Operation Brexit, as it should be properly called).

So the queuing began just off the M20, as we sat waiting to move forward to check-in. We were surrounded by the usual massive SUVs, but also a high number of Transit vans and mini-buses, one of which disgorged a dozen or so speci-men (of bullet-headed, over muscled or beer gutted British manhood) to piss at the side of the road. It’s a rookie mistake to drink anything when you’re likely to be sitting in a queue of cars for any length of time, let alone huge quantities of lager. One particular chap emerged three times from the same van in the space of 40 minutes. Cystitis?

Needless to say, forty minutes was barely scratching the surface of this Hell in the South. The authorities were allowing a few vehicles at a time through check-in, in order to manage traffic flow on the other side. So it took us a couple of hours to get through. One of the pains of check-in is that – first of all – two lanes of traffic turn into 8 or 10 check-in lanes; and then these 8-10 check-in lanes turn into one lane of traffic to get to the car park.

So it took another 40 minutes or so to reach the terminal car park. Nobody was really parking, however. They were just driving round the car park in order to join the queue for passport and customs control. We did have to park, however, because we had the cat with us, bless him. So, we got to pee in a toilet like civilised people, drink a swift coffee, and then join the queue again.

This took a while. We were up to four hours in total when we eventually reached the queue for boarding. I was taking everything in what stride I have left. Sure, the French are now checking passports as thoroughly as the British, and are even trolling us by building additional border control lanes – another five or six, over the six they already had. But not opening them, of course. But then we get to the part that, no matter how much of a talking to I get or give myself, always stresses me to the max.

All we are doing is sitting in a lane, in a car, waiting for the barrier to lift at the end, so we can go round and board a train. We have been here (literally) a hundred times. And a hundred times, people wind me up.

Having done this a hundred times, I know that the time between turning off the engine in the boarding line and the lifting of the barrier can vary between 60 seconds to 60 minutes plus. So you just don’t know. You just don’t know whether you’ll be waiting a minute or over an hour. So here’s what you shouldn’t do:

  1. Leave your car
  2. Fall asleep
  3. Leave your car then fall asleep
  4. Fall asleep then leave your car

Listen: we’re all tired, we’ve all driven a long way. We’ve all, at various points, had children (or cats) in the car with us. We all want to shut our eyes and sleep. BUT: if we needed to pee, you know what we did. We PARKED at the TERMINAL and used the TOILET in the TERMINAL. And then we got back in our car and joined the queue.

So I sat there for an hour. And I watched them, doing all of the above, and more. The performative male stretching and walking about. (If you were really the old hand you’re pretending to be, you would know that the barrier could literally lift at any moment*.) The kids running around even while cars were driving into lanes at inappropriate speeds around them. (Imagine the paperwork if one of them got killed.) The trips to the toilet. (There were toilets in the terminal, you cunt.) The rummaging in the boot. (If you thought you might need it on the journey, don’t put it in the fucking boot.)

The deadbeat French dad in front of me had three small children with him. He came out to rummage in his chaotically packed boot three times, clearly looking for something. Took his children for an endless toilet visit. Came back, rummaged in his boot three more times, each time closing it as if it were the last time. Then he opened it again, retrieved a plastic can of oil, and opened his bonnet to perform an oil change service while his children played musical seats in the car. And then?

Then he got into the car and fell asleep.

So that when the distant barrier lifted and I could see all the cars in front of him go through it, he didn’t move.

I drove around him, but not before a cheeky Skoda driver in the next lane along took the opportunity to sneak across and ahead. (This is unnecessary, by the way — the trains are long and there is plenty of room.)

Having got all that off my chest, I’m pleased to report that I made it to Auxelles with over 200km of range after an 800+km drive. As it turned out, because FIVE HOURS of the night was wasted at the terminal, I didn’t get to drive much in full darkness, but I did enjoy the clever headlights and the pretty interior lighting. And for the first time, I got my dream, which has always been to be able to push a button or throw a switch to adjust the headlights for driving on the wrong side of the road. Sure, it was in a menu within the infotainment system, but still. Right hand driving? Check the box, et voila. I appreciate this more than I can say, so I now forgive all stupidly bright adaptive LED headlights for being stupidly bright.

As for every other human being on the planet: you are not forgiven. Stay in your vehicle.

*Yes, the matrix sign might say something about when boarding will commence. But sometimes, they discover a bit of room on a train that’s about to leave, and they’ll count 5, 10 cars through the barrier to fill it to capacity. I’ve shared a spare spot in a carriage with a coach before now.


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