Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Crossing the Channel

Oddly, this comes to you from the ferry terminal at Portsmouth. I’m sitting in the car waiting to board a ferry to France, surrounded by middle-aged bikers and retirees in their caravans. We’re all extremely early, but since sitting in stationary cars is a way of life for the average English road user we’re all taking it well. It’s a very English crowd around me, and while I’m staring out the window searching eagerly for a premature sign of the continent in the form of a car load of croissant eating, beret wearing Frenchmen, it’s hard to look past the English family in the car next door who are eagerly stuffing their face with crisps and debating whether the Jaffa cakes they’re moving onto for dessert are in fact biscuits or cakes. At the moment the most French thing on this wharf seems to be the car I’m sitting in – the little blue Peugeot is stoked to be returning to its place of birth.

Queues at the ferry terminal in Portsmouth
I’m at the ferry terminal heading to France because we’re off eventing in Normandy at an event called Haras du Pin. I’m flying solo at the moment because while I do the work of a real man and single-handedly wrestle a hatchback onto a ship, Lucy and Bols (that’s my adorable girlfriend and real partner in crime Annabel Armstrong) are hanging out with the truckers at the other end of the docks – no doubt downing a few cans, smoking cigars and spitting all over the place while they wait. They’ve got Tiger and Lucy’s one star horse on the truck, and so the horses can breathe during their Channel crossing when they park on the ferry Bols has to leap out of the cab, stop traffic with one of her meanest looks and drop the tail-gate before some Polish truck-driver sticks his nose deep into Tiger’s personal space.

Hold on, the computer gets thrown aside as men in high-vis coats wave at me frantically. I haven’t been focusing on the high-vis hard enough and because of me some poor retiree is going to see a few seconds less of France. In my panic I ride the clutch like it’s cross-country day at the Olympics and as I lurch through the gates the blue hatchback wonders what he did to deserve a life as a hire car. Through to the security inspection and I’m asked to step out of the car so a lady in high-vis can fulfill her quota of baggage x-raying for the evening. Strangely, while the blue hatchback packed to the roof with bags sits idly by I have to remove my belt and scrounge the change from my pocket so I can walk through a metal detector. As I dress myself again I can only imagine the quality of criminals that are caught by this system.

The view over the ferry terminal from the top deck
Onboard the ferry our cars get squished in like you find in only the best value tins of sardines. I slip out of the car through the narrowest of gaps, careful to remind myself not to put on any weight before the return journey. As soon as I’m onboard a change happens. I take it back about the lack of French people – without the ferry even moving we seem to have landed on the continent. Given that it’s a French ferry I guess this makes sense. I practice my ‘bonjour’ and have to admit that it’s even hard on my ears.

Overnight ferry travel is fun. There’s a party kicking off in the bar upstairs and while we mightn’t have paid a visit on this journey, I can’t make any promises about the trip home. Having avoided the bar we wait an hour in the restaurant before going to check on the horses. Since I wasn’t there when they loaded truck I’m surprised to find the horses jammed in among freight vans and enormous Hungarian lorries. Tiger is one of the world’s more experienced travelers these days and for him hanging out in the hold of a ship is all in a day’s work. As the resident father figure he provides a reassuring presence for Lucy’s young horse, who hasn’t quite mastered the same nonchalant look of worldliness that Tiger has perfected over the last six months.

Down in hold - Bols guards the tail ramp
while Tiger enjoys the cruise
Accommodation for our overnight ferry crossing is in a four berth cabin. Just before we enter Lucy tells a frightful story about opening the door to find your cabin already occcupied with snoring truck drivers. It must be our lucky day because we’ve got it all to ourselves, leaving us only to fall into bed just before midnight.

A tight squeeze for the trucks on the ferry
The rude surprise of the whole trip happens the next morning. It’s 4:45am when the speakers beside my bed start whispering out a few notes of elevator music. Just as your brain is trying to work an elevator ride into your dream a sadistic Frenchman somewhere deep in the bowels of the ship turns up the volume on the music until it reaches into your brain and snaps you into reality. Attempts to ignore the music – a 30 second loop played repeatedly for 15 minutes – are impossible. Everyone on board greets the day with the offensive tones of the flute and harpsichord – an offensive instrument at the best of times – ringing in their ears.

Breakfast is a real taste of France. Croissants are a highlight although the warm UHT milk they tend to serve with cereal in Europe is an unfortunate blight on the culinary scorecard of a country with such a rich food history. We bolt it all down, head our separate ways and here I am, sitting in the driver’s seat of a blue hatchback waiting to drive off a ferry on the wrong side of the road to go eventing in France.

What a strange life.

1 comment:

  1. I've been following your blog from the beginning - it is excellent! :)

    I just want to wish you and Tiger the best of luck at Haras du Pin.