|Source: British Comedy Club
For any non-UK readers, or any UK readers not of a certain age, say, my adopted - and adapted - moniker in the title of "Harriet Worth" is explained here.
So...nine months on from my last (very chilly!) trip to my house in the "not quite the Dordogne", I made it back there this month, albeit not without incident.
It started with a horrible journey down to Newhaven, to which I had - rather ironically, looking back - switched as my departure point at short notice to avoid the much publicised queues and traffic jams around the Eurotunnel at Folkestone. A drive that should have taken three and a half hours took seven and a quarter; I had only allowed six and a quarter, which should have been ample, but wasn't. There were vehicle fires on both the M40 and the M25 causing stationary traffic for hours at a time. Somewhere around the turn off for Heathrow I accepted my fate, namely that I was not going to get to the coast in time for the embarcation deadline. At that moment, a text came in, purporting to be from my phone company, with the alarming news:
"You have reached your spend cap limit so you will not be able to use any out of allowance services in the UK or make calls, send texts or access data when you roam abroad."
I thought on balance that it must be a scam, because I rarely use the allowances I have, but because it seemed to know I was going abroad - or trying to, at least! - I can't pretend it didn't put the wind up me, hard on the heels of my dawning realisation that I was going to miss the boat.
And I did miss it...I've never missed a ferry - or a plane - in 35 years of solo overseas travel. But there's always a first time. I had to wait five and a quarter hours for the next sailing, and pay a supplement of £33.50 to change my ticket. This was now a night crossing, so no sleep... At five o'clock I was driving off the ramp of the ship into the port of Dieppe when I realised that my French bank card was missing, which was in a wallet along with my driving licence, both of which are not things you want to lose. I did have other cards on me, but not ones linked to my French account with euros in it.
When I reached the French Customs checkpoint I asked the lady if they could have a look on the ship for the wallet, and she told me to go to the harbour office and sort it out with them. I parked up outside the building, which was of course thoroughly shut because it was five in the morning. Then, leaving the car where it was, I set off back to the Customs booth but got lost and managed to wander into a compound which turned out to be some highly restricted, highly secure area that you are not supposed to enter. But in I blundered, whereupon an electric gate clanked shut behind me, and I realised I was locked in. There was no alarm bell, no little intercom thing, so I stood there in the dark in this holding pen surrounded by high fences and gates, and thought: "Oh no! How am I going to get out of this?"
|Photo of the offending zone taken on the way home - in daylight!
Eventually a border guard drove up in a van and unlocked the gate. He was not pleased to find me there and said sternly: "Do you realise you could go to prison for this?" This area was indeed completely off limits - no idea why, as it was just a bit of concrete, though with hindsight I wonder if it might have been some kind of international no man's land. Hmm, it looks like I am not the first person to be found in a ZAR (zone d'acces restreint). Anyway, I was profusely apologetic: I explained that I had taken a wrong turn and was trying to get back to the Customs area, and in the pitch black hadn't seen the no entry signs. He repeated his warning: "Well, you could go to prison for that!", before asking what I was doing there in the first place. I told him about the lost driving licence and how I was trying to find someone who could communicate with the ship. To which he replied: "Ah, but you won't be allowed to drive in France without a licence", conjuring up visions of my being put straight back on the ferry and being stuck in gridlock on the M25 again...not a happy prospect.
Then in an access of empathy the guard said he would drive me in convoy to the police station to discuss the driving licence problem, as the place was very hard to find. Having done so he waited for me to park in the spot he designated. Meaning I had to do a parallel park maneouvre right there in front of him. I am absolutely rubbish at parallel parking, never mind at night, and thought: "Well, regardless of whether I do or don't have a driving licence, they could ban me from driving in France purely on the basis on my parking!" It took me a couple of go's, but to my great surprise I managed the manoeuvre and went into the police station while the guard went back to his post, and said he would notify the ship of my loss.
Alone in the station, whose intimidation factor was somewhat mitigated by its being one of the few light sources in Dieppe at that time of night, I suddenly remembered that I did in fact have an old paper plus photo ID version of my driving licence, which was at the back of my travel folder. I brought it out, and conceded that it wasn't up-to-date like the one I had lost, and had the wrong address on it, but it was "the long version", really trying to big up length over recency. To my relief the policeman was satisfied with that and declared me free to travel, and I also cancelled my bank card while I was there by phoning the bank's "lost and stolen" helpline.
At six o'clock I finally set off, and drove the 400 miles south in one go, rather than breaking my journey overnight as I usually do, had I caught the earlier ferry. It took eight and a half hours, stopping quite a few times. Also, for the last hundred miles or so I had to drive with one eye shut, owing to the sudden onset of acute light sensitivity (photophobia) and double vision, which I think may have been eyestrain from all the driving over the two days, compounded by the stress of recent events. It is really uncomfortable driving with one eye, if you have ever tried it, especially over that distance. Plus my Satnav packed up about half way down France(!) - the screen just froze - and thank goodness it wasn't anywhere near Paris, which is the wiggly bit I could not have managed on my own - but luckily I knew the way from where it did stop working. I think the device may have frozen because it overheated, if that is not a contradiction in terms.
Having arrived at the house I spent much of the first few days cleaning, once again removing leaves and impudent lianas of wisteria that were climbing up the inside of the shutters, escorting enormous spiders out of the house, dusting cobwebs, and sweeping up the particular cocktail of particulates my house seems to shed in between visits: white powdered plaster, red brick dust, and black miscellaneous "crud", which had mysteriously formed a light patina over many of the surfaces. I also weeded the entire perimeter of the house (aka the street). In the course of all this cleaning and "gardening" I clocked a new gutter leak, a widespread infestation of woodworm (of which more in the next post), two rotted beams, a kink in the shower hose strangling the flow of water to a few drops - it clearly needs the plumbing equivalent of a stent - a dripping tap, a dropped door that scraped across the floor, and one with a very stiff bolt. Then the cat I befriended last summer came into the house and immediately sprayed on the sofa(!), though luckily the throw that was over it caught the brunt of his proprietorial gesture. To cap it all, the washing machine on the wall of the supermarket where I was about to wash it the following morning swallowed my money, and I got cut off in mid-sentence from the technical helpline because of network issues caused by an electrical storm.
|Wisteria from INSIDE my bedroom!
So there you have it: how I was nearly arrested twice in as many minutes for separate offences at a time when I am not normally up, never mind breaking the law. Based on those first few days alone, I could best describe the trip as "character building", but I am a firm - veering to occasionally wobbly - believer in the motto: "A change (and a setback or three) is as good as a rest".
More adventures - and relatively light-hearted mishaps! - to come...