tunnel vision

I come from a big family – I am the eldest of six – a big family that is getting bigger (a niece is pregnant as I write this) and that isn’t even taking account of the USA branch or my UK cousins.

As a stroppy teenager I felt that having anklebiters around when I was getting into boyfriends was the pits. My best friends were a younger sister and an only child and their relatively empty homes seemed oases compared to our crowded one.

But as I grew into middle age I had more and more friends who told me they envied me my ready made support group especially the ones who had lost siblings or had just lost touch over the years. The saddest thing for me was to hear someone say that they no longer spoke to a family member due to some event that had divided them.

We have avoided that despite our brother disappearing to the ‘frozen north’ and a sister going to live in the westernmost county of southern England. Not to mention my retiring to France after spending every available school holiday for the previous fourteen years in the tiny village where my husband and I now live.

After getting married our parents moved from North London to Kent although our town was sucked into the expanding greater London in later years. With two sisters as well as mum still in the county we all travel back when the occasion demands it and for the last ten or so years that has mainly been Christmas. Mum passed in 2021 and covid restrictions meant not all the family could gather to celebrate her life so our traditional family ‘do’ became even more missed as doom virus continued to be the biggest hurdle for travel and one we couldn’t circumvent but we knew that when we could we would… and this last Christmas was when we could. An extra motivation was the visit by the nephew and his family who live in New Zealand so the hall was booked and the plans were begun.

For we expats the logistics have to be sorted out. Over the years we have tried different combinations of routes and channel crossings and thought we had got it just right. But.. we’re getting older and that brings additional issues. Since getting our cataracts done we are happier about the driving but still don’t like doing it in the dark. So timings become more important. Another problem for me in the winter is that the English channel seems to be getting rougher, either global warning or my imagination, but it puts me off the ferries. Having to hang around at the port as boats arrive late due to weather conditions or even bobbing about outside Dover because it’s hard for the ‘driver’ to get us through the harbour entrance. That happened not so long ago and made us two hours late arriving.

I surprised ‘I’m only the chauffeur’ by stating it would have to be the tunnel. After recovering from the shock (I’m claustrophobic and have fretted through tunnels all my life) he went off to compare prices while I checked for hotels around Rambouillet, a town about halfway ‘up’ where we could stop well before it got dark and have a little snooze before looking for a ‘gruffalo bill’ for a steak and chips supper.

Covid fears still loomed large and the French government were recommending getting your latest jab if applicable before the festive season. We sorted out ‘himself’ but I had to wait until mid January for mine, after the statuary six month between boosters. So it was crossing my fingers that we stayed fit I began to wrap presents and make journey preparations.

The date for the ‘do’, dubbed ‘chrimbo limbo’ by the sister who organised it, was the 30th December which meant we’d be travelling back on New Year’s Eve. (To the surprise of friends our blighty trips are invariably quick dashes as we have resident cats to consider.) I went online and discovered it was very easy to book the ‘gruffalo bill’ next to our hotel in Beauvais. Fortunately the menu does extend beyond steak and chips.

It was a relaxing start to the day, much better than getting up at ‘crack of sparrows’ and leaving before it is fully light. We left around ten and took it gently, stopping for coffee at the aire north of Limoges which has changed it name after twenty years. Pourquoi? I wondered. We bought sandwiches and stopped in a later aire with a view and a biting wind close to la Creuse where we had that lovely week last September.

Around Orleans the road was still under reconstruction of lanes and the traffic increased. We swung off for Rambouillet and found the hotel fairly easily. I had had an email about emergency plumbing being necessary and moving us to their sister budget hotel. Was I happy to accept? They offered free breakfast to persuade me. I did accept as it was a good place to stop but warned Mr McGregor to mind his head on the child’s bunk over the top of the bed. He had cracked his head on the metalwork at another hotel in this chain some years before and swore never to sleep in a ‘family’ room again. (I hung a spare sheet over the rail and hoped it would save his forehead!)

Breakfast the next morning was pretty basic so I was pleased we hadn’t had to pay for it. The nerves were beginning as I contemplated the appointment with le Shuttle later in the day. As we drove north of Paris the winds got fiercer and fiercer until every windsock was streaming horizontally. Birds hung in the air going nowhere despite manic flapping of wings. I was beginning to admit to myself the tunnel would be a relief!

As novices we were a bit slow navigating the booking in system at le shuttle terminal. Nobody in the booth, just a screen that asked questions and demanded the card we had used to pay in advance. Fortunately, himself had it to hand. We were offered an earlier train at no extra charge but queued for so long at the two border posts we missed it.

At the second and British border stop the lady smiled and said what a relief it was to have a car with only two people in it! We had noticed how full most of the UK vehicles were, packed with children and, quite often, a dog too.

We still got onto an earlier train than the one we had booked which was good as my nerves were building. As we descended to the platform we were waved into the nearest carriage and up a slope. We had had to follow ‘small and medium cars’ so we were going to be travelling on the top deck.

To my relief it didn’t feel too enclosed. I had been concerned as my only two experiences of le shuttle had been in a camper van and a coach when we travelled in the full height carriages. But my abiding memory had been how smooth the journey had been. Not so this time! Armed with my word game to distract me from my subterranean surroundings I tried hard to write in my answers but the pen skewed across the page as we swayed and wobbled our way to Folkestone.

Only twenty one minutes in the dark I noted as we rattled into daylight again. Watches already put back, we read carefully the running commentary above the dividing shutter and readied ourselves for disembarkation.

Whatever my misgivings I had to admit it had been very slick and well organised. Fingers crossed for the return journey.

With only an hour’s drive to reach our hotel we had time to check-in and go off to find a bank and pick up the first of the items on our UK shopping list.

It was a pink and blue winter evening and Rainham was looking like an advert for an old English village. I spotted some lovely buildings suggesting Georgian origins.

The day was rounded off with a jolly evening with my brother and his family who had also decided to come down a day ahead.

On the morning of the ‘do’ we were able to go over to Hayes to visit my parents grave, the first time for us since my mum had passed. We were married in the village church so a sentimental journey.

It was a quiet moment before the fun and games in the evening with all my extended family, not to mention cuddles with our grandson. Sadly, covid had claimed a few victims including the sister who had organised it all but the kiwis made it.

There was a lot of eating, drinking,chatting, dancing and general silliness…who brought the dinosaur? And the mandatory group photo at the end…

And our traditional ‘sibling’ photo, lined up in age order albeit wobbling about. Due to covid absences a nephew and niece stood in for their mums!

After breakfast with the sons and grandson next morning it was off to the shuttle again, this time feeling more confident about the checking in system but still a tad nervous about the crossing. I reminded myself the weather was still windy and the boats probably bouncing about in mid channel!

Once again we were in time for an earlier train as you are told to arrive at least an hour before so we had. Top deck again but I was ready for the wobbling and completed the puzzle before we ran into the light again. I must have been calmer?

The reception of the B and B hotel at Beauvais opened for the evening just as we arrived and the receptionist gave us a friendly welcome. It was the same at the Buffalo grill where a smiley waitress looked after us beautifully. Such cheeriness despite working on ‘Reveillon’. She got a generous tip from us in response.

An easy drive home the next day although we were tired by the end of it so I assumed that would be the last trip for a while.

But no, an invitation to a UK 80th birthday party in April turned up a few days later and ‘I’m only the chauffeur’ accepted with alacrity….so to make things speedier, it will be the tunnel again. Despite the nerves, I’m a convert. Well, out of season, anyway!

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