I don’t suppose we were the only ones to be shocked by the speed and ferocity that the Coronavirus spread through the world. We woke up one morning less than a week ago and realised that we would need to head north quickly as Spain and France began to report a frightening increase in the number of cases each morning. We had only just left Spain and got into France when we heard that Spain was about to declare a state of emergency. Catalonia, the last region we had just visited was about to lock down, followed rapidly by the whole country.
Before we realised what was going to happen we stopped at Castelnaudary on the banks of the Canal du Midi for a couple of nights and visited the vet because the dogs both had intestinal hurry. A thorough examination and a course of antibiotics for them both with some dog probiotics was provided and they wished us well on our onward journey. It was cold and wet there and we began to hanker for the warmth of Spain. Moving on we returned to one of our favourite aires – Moissac between the Canal de Deux Mers and the Tarn river.
Here you pay 7.50€ a night for a smart pitch, all services and proximity to the exquisitely pretty town. We wandered there on the first afternoon to look for a laundrette. This is one of those things we do in Moissac, always hopeful that on this visit we’ll find one. It’s never worked before but we keep trying…. and we were right to. This time we hit on the idea of asking at Tourist Information but first we had to find it.
We thought we remembered where it was but when we got to the square where the Abbey stands it was no longer there. As we looked around with our mouths open a very pleasant French lady approached and asked if she could help. I asked her if she could speak English and she laughed and gesticulated the smallest possible size between her fingers “Tres, tres, tres peu” she replied. So we said “Office de Tourisme” and she pointed upwards and gave some directions that we couldn’t follow. I looked in the corner of the square in the vague direction she was pointing and saw some stairs. “L’escaliers?” I dragged up from the recesses of my mind and she clapped her hands in delight and said “Oui!” I laughed and said “Un mot Francais!” as it was the only word I’d managed to say and she went off laughing to herself as she waved us goodbye. I cannot explain why this is, but these small encounters, when we make connections with another person who we will most likely never meet again, really make our day. Kindness and warmth is often underrated – it can make such a difference when you’re a stranger and even when you’re not.
It was on our second evening in Moissac that we watched the BBC news and realised that the virus had been declared a pandemic and that Europe had become its epicentre. Our minds were made up – it was time to go home. We phoned the ferry company, arranged to change our crossing and started to head north. The overall distance we needed to travel was 500 miles and we needed to find a vet en route to check and countersign the dogs’ passports.
I could list the places we stopped for the night along the way but it wouldn’t be very interesting. This was a journey intended to get us home as quickly and efficiently as possible. Driving a motorhome and a trailer isn’t an ideal combination for long distance travel. We tend to lumber along a bit and we haven’t trained ourselves to travel long distances in one day, being of the ‘let’s stop here and look around’ type of travellers. So it took us a couple of days to get to a place near enough the port to find a vet. Using the invaluable Google Maps that will let you search for a type of business in an area, we hit upon a place that had both a vet and a place to stay overnight. Then things got surreal.
I called the vet’s office first thing in the morning and asked the person who answered if she spoke English. She didn’t. So I painstakingly asked her in painfully bad French if we could see the vet for our dogs’ pet passports before crossing to the UK. She told me that the vet wasn’t available that morning but we could come in the afternoon at 2 p.m. I asked her to confirm the time and she repeated it in English. “Parfait!” I said and we set about getting there in good time.
On arrival at the vets the receptionist, wearing a surgical mask, asked us what we wanted. I replied in French that we had phoned that morning. She said “No you didn’t” … or at least that was what it sounded like to us. Just to be clear, understanding a native French speaker, talking at speed whilst wearing a surgical mask is very, very difficult. Until that moment I hadn’t realised how much we rely on the mouth shapes a person makes when they’re speaking to make sense of what they are saying. We were a bit stunned by this response but she shuffled some papers on her desk to point out to us that no message had been left. Just as we were wondering what to do, the vet appeared. He asked us to follow him into his consulting room and demanded to know what time we had called. Of course this was said in French and we were fully expecting him to examine the dogs and stamp their passports so it’s possible that we might have stood there with our mouths hanging open for a few seconds. He repeated the question and this time we got it. I told him it was nine a.m. and he checked his answering machine and looked at us suspiciously. All hope of explaining that I had spoken to a real live person not a machine left me at that point. Had I called the wrong vet’s practice? Eventually he fired some more French at us and I lost patience and said “Can you not speak even a little English?” which, I’m ashamed to say, was the kind of behaviour Brits abroad are famous for. He relented then and invited us to put Boo on the table. He then did a perfunctory health check, administered the required worming treatment and stamped the passports. Taking us to the desk he asked the receptionist to give us the bill. 75€ lighter we left with mixed feelings and a distinct but unpleasant smell lingering in our nostrils. Shirley pointed out that he might spend some of his 75€ on some effective deodorant. However, the task was done, although we felt a bit stung by the whole experience. Normally we go to the vet’s practice in Neufchatel en Bray where we are treated with kindness, respect and efficiency. These are not normal times and we reminded ourselves that everyone is stressed. We resolved to put the experience and the town behind us and go to find an overnight stop en route to the port.
Later that night we watched the news and were stunned to hear that President Macron was going to shut the whole country down the next morning at twelve noon GMT. After that time no-one was to be on the roads. With a sinking feeling that must have been echoed by every other foreign national in France trying to get home, we went to bed intent on getting up early and driving as fast as was safe to the port. Nothing is simple in a motorhome with two dogs on board, so it takes us a while each morning to get ready for the journey. I walked in the woods with the dogs while Shirley got the van ready for take off, turning seats, putting anything that would ricochet around the van on the bed and getting Boo’s daily medication ready. It had rained overnight and I returned with two wet and muddy dogs to add even more of a challenge to our already strained psychological health. Immediately the floor was slippery with filthy mud and the dogs’ blankets were splattered. There was nothing we could do so once again we accepted it with a sigh. Before long we were flying up the motorway surrounded by the niff of wet dog. We stopped for diesel and paid motorway prices but we were on a mission. The budget had to take a back seat. About an hour and a half before we got to the port we were astonished to get a call from our friend Mary to say that she was already there, even though she had stayed well south of us the night before. Our admiration for her courage is huge. She was travelling alone in an increasingly nightmarish situation and had set off at 5.00 a.m. and driven through the dark of the pre-dawn morning to get to the port before 11.00 a.m. We pulled in an hour and a half later to hear that they were taking names for a standby list of those who weren’t booked on that night’s ferry. We added ours and settled down to wait. Almost five hours later a bunch of exhausted travellers were gathered in the ticket office waiting to hear our fate. Names were called and the lucky few were checked in and told to make their way to the ship. Mary’s name was called and we wished her well as she left us. Before long they came to speak to the remaining handful of waiting motorhomers, telling us that there was no room for us on that evening’s sailing and inviting us park up for the night in the safety of the port. Their final instruction was to return at 4.30 a.m. to find out if we were on the next sailing.
It’s at times like this when the true meaning of a harbour becomes a reality. Outside the port we were at risk of being stopped and questioned by police – even fined if they decided we were contravening regulations, we weren’t sure if there was any room in the local motorhome aires and we felt a long way from home. Here in the port of Dieppe we had a safe environment, it is lit up overnight and level so that we could sleep without worry or discomfort. CCTV cameras everywhere kept us safe and we were treated with kindness by every single member of staff. The poor woman who had been on the ticket desk all afternoon was almost in tears. Exhausted and frustrated with a wobble in her voice she still managed to complete her day, hours later than she should and answer numerous questions patiently. She truly deserves some sort of recognition for all that she did that day.
So it’s finally our last day in France. Our booking for this evening is secure. We’re at the front of the queue for boarding and we are all checked in.
We’ve walked to the shops in this pretty harbour town, an adventure in itself as anyone out in the street has to carry a permit. We got ours from the office in the port and filled it in and signed it before setting off.
I know it isn’t Sunday Bunday but it is our last day in France so we bought Religieuse cakes to have with our coffee and baguettes for our picnic on the boat. Next we went in search of a grocery store – almost all shops are closed here so this involved walking through deserted streets until we saw one with fruit and veg outside. Shirley held onto the dogs while I went in to buy a couple of things. The man behind the counter was in the mood for a chat so he launched into English with about as much skill as I speak French. In the end we settled on him speaking English and me speaking French with a lot of laughter. He started pointing to the things he was selling and asking me the English word for them. Eventually, when I paid the bill, I told him that the English lesson was free of charge and he laughed some more as I left him. He was a lovely, smiley, friendly man of Arab descent and once again my day was brightened by that small connection.
Returning to the van in bright sunshine we felt a little sad. How long will it be before we can come back and enjoy sitting in a coffee shop or order the Menu du Jour? For now though our hearts are set for home and we will get there as soon as we can.
Thank you everyone for following us on our latest trip and stay safe and well wherever you are.
Margaret & Shirley