Thursday, June 23, 2011

51: La Frete Gaucher , Herne Bay (France/UK)

Week 51 Update:

La Frete Gaucher , Herne Bay

Day 352 to Day 355 (The second last chapter)

It was about this time in the story when we started winding down towards the tail end, or the end of the tale. So I decided against a detailed day by day, blow by blow account in favor of a bit of an overview with highlights thrown in. I mean, there is only so many times I can recount getting up in a 16m2 static caravan, working on my computer, reading books, walking to the village Patisserie for fresh bread, having lunch and drinking cheap French wine before going to bed and doing it all over again. I know it was hard life we had!

Needless to say that the Friday came and went. I did march to the local internet cafe with some excitement, but received no news of the long awaited visa. So I marched back to the camp site with a huge baguette under my arm. I knew we had some pate left and I had most definite plans to binge on Egyptian coffee and French delicacies for the remainder of the day. I think the only person who was more disappointed that I was was my darling wife. It was hard for her to say good bye to her parents and although we knew that we would be able to get to their house before too long, she was ready to end our travels and be comfortable in a permanent structure and soft double bed.

Saturday came and went without much excitement as well. We did go for a walk, but the weather was quite harsh and bitterly cold, so we didn’t linger outside too long. We found the village Laundromat though and managed to stuff all our washing into one 7kg machine. The bizarre thing was that that was pretty much all the clothes we owned. The walls of our small dwelling was starting to feel like they were closing in on us by the late afternoon and we both felt like we needed to do something different the next day!

On the Sunday morning I woke up with a new zest for life. The weekend was almost over and I knew we were only days away from finally being able to leave. The France we were in was pleasant and affordable, but not exactly the France I imagined after seeing many travel magazines discussing the specific part of countryside. It was simply too early in the season to be nice. When the sun was shining it was pleasant enough and I even wore my trusty Rocky sandals during the day. But when the sun was gone, either because it was hiding behind clouds, or behind the planet, it was cold! It was unpleasant and no fun at all!

That Sunday was sunny though and to celebrate the weather and the new state of mind we decided to visit one of the local restaurants for a good old Sunday luncheon. Now I have to admit that I am not a fan of a buffet at all. I don’t really fancy the idea of paying good money and then have to get up and collect my own food. Saying that, on that specific Sunday I was quite keen on the idea. Apart from being able to simply point at things and dishing up myself without a language struggle, I also quite liked the idea of stuffing myself enough so that dinner would be unnecessary. The only problem was that we could not find a single restaurant in town that offered a buffet on that specific Sunday even though they all advertised it in their windows. So instead we settled on a fine looking establishment with an interesting set menu.

It was like total amateurs that we ordered a salad each as starter and a main course of our choice. When the salad arrived my eyes stretched to dinner plate size and even that was not big enough to take in the awesome size of the dish on the table. I forget what it was called, but apart from the usual green and red stuff, it had two slices of crispy bread and two poached eggs on the top. It was delicious! It was also so immense that I was totally stuffed long before I eventually managed to finish my salad and it was too late to cancel the order for the main course. I also forget what the main course was called. I kind of wish I can remember because that was not a great idea! It was fatty lumps of meat of some description that was boiled up in some kind of stew. Catt had Chicken Curry and the chef decided it was a great idea to color the mash purple. I kid you not! Purple mash! The French also had this fantastic habit of applying you with a seemingly bottomless stream of bread rolls at the table. Every time you finish the one that was placed on your plate, the waitress would simply replace it with a fresh one. On that day I decided to see how long the concept would last. I eventually surrendered and asked for the bill. I could simply not face another bread roll!

Every good Sunday luncheon should be followed by a long relaxing walk and that day was no different. The village had an old train track running through it and although most of the actual tracks had been removed, the lane where they were still existed and was maintained as a hiking path. They did leave the milestones in place which gave us an idea of the distance we walked though. When our outbound journey reached seven kilometers, we decided to turn around and we reached the door to our tiny cave after mid afternoon. We were suitably tired at the time so didn’t really mind slumping on the couch again. The usual bottle of wine was consumed and the usual movie was watched on the computer before we eventually dragged our weary bodies off to the bedroom.

Day 356: (Obviously I have more to say about these days)
Tuesday we decided to take the train into Paris again. “What about Monday” I hear you ask… Well, honestly… Nothing happened on Monday. So Tuesday morning we got up early caught the bus to Disneyland and the train into the city. I was fairly excited because of three things: I wanted to visit Le Louvre, go to the bottom of the Eifel Tower and have some hot chocolate in a small secret shop that Andrew and Lucy told us about. It all seemed like easy enough missions and after Catt and I got totally lost inside a train station we eventually found our way to mission number one.

I took my good old time to walk around the massive and impressive building that housed the museum. The sandstone blocks were glowing golden in the early morning sun and although t=none of the fountains were spouting water (Too early in the season it seemed) the water features were quite impressive. I spent some time photographing the class pyramid over the main entrance and marveled at the engineering it must have taken to erect that structure. It was a perfectly wind still and cloudless morning and the reflections on the water around the base were fantastic! We even spotted a few ducks who decided to use the pond as home while providing quite obvious entertainment to the other few tourists around.

After the tour of the outside we decided to venture inside. We found the actual entrance and a big sign right next to it informing tourists and uninformed idiots like us that the museum was closed on Tuesdays for cleaning. I mean, come on… In Egypt we had Friday/Sunday to deal with. In France we had Sunday/Sunday and then Monday/Sunday to deal with and Saturday not too far behind. But Tuesday/Sunday? Honestly! So mission umber one failed miserably! We were denied access to the building that housed the Mona Lisa as well as some of the finer examples of stolen Egyptian artifacts. Still, it was a beautiful day in Paris and we had the whole extend of the Chanse Lise to stroll along.

Towards the start of it we walked past another famous landmark in Paris: The Luxor Obelisk. The story goes that Muhammad Ali Pasha, the Wali and self-proclaimed Khedive of Egypt, offered the two Luxor obelisks to France in 1829. The first obelisk arrived in Paris on December 21, 1833. Three years later, on October 25, 1836, King Louis-Philippe of France had it placed in the center of Place de la Concorde. The other obelisk remained on location in Egypt. In the 1990s, President Francois Mitterrand, as a symbolic gesture, officially renounced this second obelisk back to the Egyptians... according to Wikipedia that is. My question was: What on earth did the French want with an ancient Egyptian artifact?

Anyway: Our little walk took us up the Chanse Lise and a few hundred meters before we reached the Arc de triomphe we ducked into yet another universally recognizable landmark: McDonalds. Now before you start slating me and shouting abuse, let me explain: Although neither one of us could think of any food source worse that fast food, and more importantly, worse that McDonalds, we had previously established that the pinnacle of unhealthy sustenance had the most reasonable priced coffee, a free place to sit down (Hard to come by in Paris) and free Wi-Fi internet. We were desperately in need of all of those and we even managed to find a place to sit that did not smell of deep fat fryer and week old pickle.

The coffee was predictably standard, but very tasty. The seats comfortable and the free Wi-Fi yielded one very important, very exciting and quite scary email: My passport was back and ready for collection. It was quite surreal to think how that little useless green book evolved into the centre of everything we planned and did over the previous month or so. We gulped at our mugs of coffee until they were finished without saying a word and pretended to take a leisurely walk to the Arc de triomphe. I half heartedly snapped a couple of obligatory photographs but by then Catt had lost all interest in sightseeing, points of interest and all things not concerning jumping into Maggie and driving to England.

We hopped on the first available train to the visa agencies location and skipped down the road to the front door. The fact that the email stated only that my passport was ready for collection and not the result of my application was something that was suppressed far enough in the back of my mind that I managed not to mention it. I was let into the building without delay and it took only five minutes before my name was called and I was ushered to the right counter. The person helping me asked for photo ID and when I jokingly told her that my photo ID (Passport) was inside the envelope she was holding, she did not even blink. So I handed over my driver’s license to satisfy her need to positively identify me as the owner of the documentation. I have to admit that my heart was beating in my throat when the lady finally handed back the envelope. I simply could not wait until I was outside so ripped it open right there at the counter and thumbed to the right page in Mr. Useless Green as I had come to refer to my travel document as. And there it was: A shiny new visitor’s visa granting me 6 months of access to the UK. The smile on my face when I walked out gave the game away and I didn’t really have to say anything to Catt. She knew....

The train took us back to the city and the beautiful sunny day. We bypassed the places we had seen earlier that day and got off the train in the vicinity of the greatest Paris landmark: The Eifel Tower. The amazing thing about that tower was that it still managed to hide itself behind the buildings even though it was so high. We knew which direction we had to walk in, but it was only when we got right to the bottom of it that we managed to see it. And what a sight it was! I had seen it once before but it still took my breath away. It remained an incredible thing to behold! We walked around it, had a packed lunch in the park by its base and stared at the hundreds of tourists milling around waiting their turn to ride the elevators to the highest possible point. I wasn’t that interested to part with that amount of money to ride an elevator.

With mission umber two dealt with we decided to go in search of the secret chocolate shop. We knew it was on Isle de Louis, and we knew that was in the river Seine. We knew the Eifel tower’s one side was on the same river and we knew which direction to walk in. So it seemed quite easy. We walked straight to the river and turned right. Within a few minutes a man held out his hand, showing a small golden ring. He asked if we had dropped it and made a show of the fact that the small band could not fit over his large fingers. Even though we said that it did not belong to us he almost insisted that Catt keep it saying that it was our “lucky day”. I couldn’t totally disagree with him, so simply thanked him and continued walking. Four paces later he suddenly asked for “a little something” which I interpreted as good old baksheesh and when I bluntly refused he asked for the ring back. That was fair I though, so we handed it back and bade him farewell. He seemed fairly miffed by our reaction and it took me threatening to call the police before he suddenly disappeared like mist in early morning sunshine. It didn’t really taint my day, but it did show me, once again that no tourist is every safe from scammers in a place where tourists go.

An hour later we were still walking and chatting when a woman suddenly knelt next to Catt. She picked up something shiny, produced a small golden band and said “excuse me madam....” That was about as much as she managed before we shouted “NO” in perfect stereo. We do learn fast!

On the Isle de Louis we walked past the famous Notre Dame. Once again we decided not to actually go into the building. The cue of tourists was miles long and we had hot chocolate to drink! We found a tiny little alley and the right name to the right street a few minutes later. Negotiating the cobbles under foot I realized that it was a woman shopper’s dream lane with quaint shops lining both sides of it. Apart from food boutique type shops selling foie gras and delicate cheeses, I also saw a marionette shop with amazingly impressive and lifelike dolls hanging off hundreds of strings. There was a cold meet shop with the obligatory superbike parked in front of it and a lingerie shop with a Ferrari parked in front. On one corner we saw a cafe with tables and chairs in the sun serving a choice of coffee, wine and beer. It was picture perfect. We had found Paris! Not the touristy Paris of Egyptian Obelisks, monuments and tree lined boulevards, but the real Paris where the non famous affluent frequented their favorite coffee shops, restaurants and shops. We also found the chocolate shop we sought...

It was closed. Apparently, if you are that secret and serve hot chocolate that people talked about that fondly, you could not only have a Sunday off. You could also have a Monday/Sunday through Wednesday/Sunday and be open only Thursday to Saturday. It didn’t feel particularly good to fail so miserably at two of the three missions we had for the day. It did kind of loose most of its importance after getting my passport back though.

On the train ride back I reminisced about the previous time Catt and I were in Paris: Catt and I met in 2000 at a skydiving club in the UK. (Remember this one, it will become important later) When I left the UK in 2002 we broke up and after spending a year apart I missed her so much that I wanted to convince her to move to South Africa. Towards the end of 2003 I was representing South Africa at the World Championships in Skydiving which was held in France, so I begged her to hop on the Eurostar and meet me in Paris for a weekend. She did...

We were staying in a small hotel in the centre of the city and after a slightly awkward afternoon of walking around town not really knowing how to deal with each other’s emotions, we reverted to alcohol to break down the barriers. Our last point of interest that afternoon was in fact the Eifel Tower and we decided to pub crawl back to the hotel. Fairly close to it we asked a restaurant to sell us a bottle of wine but were denied on the grounds that they were closing and were not allowed to sell us a “take-away”. Disappointed and still in the mood to party a little bit we found a nice bar right across the street of our hotel. We both remember it very clearly. I had a black Russian, Catt had a White Russian. We sat on a brown leather sofa and we both used the facilities which were down some stairs behind the bar counter. We both remember walking across the street, entering the hotel and actually having a nightcap in the room.

After another day of walking around Paris we ended up at Moulin Rouge for dinner. We had the same idea for the long road back, but decided to save ourselves for that nice bar across the street from our hotel. We passed the restaurant that would not serve us and without even thinking walked right up to the bar entrance. It was a bank. We were both dumbstruck! We looked across the road to our hotel, and walked half a block up and down the street to make sure we were in the right place. We were. But the nice bar with the brown leather sofa and toilets down straits seemingly evaporated! We spent another two days in the city, re-tracing our steps and trying to remember, but never actually found that bar again. Almost eight years later we walked on the same street, past the same hotel, acknowledging the interesting and massive full circle, but still not able to find that nice bar with the brown leather sofa and the toilets downstairs.

By the time we got back to the camp site we were exhausted! It had been a long, exciting and emotional day of mixed successes. We drank our last bottle of cheap French wine knowing that the next day would bring us one major leap closer to the end our travels.

Day 357:
I suppose I don’t really need to write too much about how we managed to get up early and pack the car with great efficiency before leaving the 16m2 home of the week? Needless to say that we left fairly early. We decided not to tell anyone that we were heading home that day, so there was no deadline to meet. I had set one last mission in France: I wanted to take a photo of us and Maggie in front of the mighty Eifel Tower. I had scoped out the perfect location for such a photograph the previous day and even marked it on the GPS. The only thing left to do was follow the pink line until we got there.

Taking more than an hour to drive to the edge of town I did wonder how the camp site in La Frete Gaucher ever got away with advertising their location as being “Paris”. It didn’t really matter that much though, we were on our way home. It was another perfectly sunny day and the French countryside took on the image of what it was advertised to be. Spring was in the air and judging by the amazing amount of blossoms on the trees, it was there to stay. Entering the city of Paris I expected Cairo or even Dar Es Salaam type traffic, but was pleasantly surprised by the lack of cars on the road. It was after the rush hour, but still fairly early yet we managed a steady pace until we finally stopped Maggie right where I wanted to take the photograph.

Leaving the site I jokingly asked if we had to drive around the Arc de Triomphe and before too long realized that all roads did in fact lead there! I had heard so many horror stories of trying to navigate your way around that sucker that I was visibly shaking when we turned onto the Chanse Lise. There was an out though! There was a tunnel that avoided the massive 11 lane roundabout and heading in the direction we needed to go. The only problem was that it showed a height restriction of 2.3m In a mad panic I asked Catt if we she could remember our height. It was either 2.3m or 2.35m, but I couldn’t recall. With the vision of us getting stuck in the entrance to a tunnel in a manically busy city centre I decided to rather brave the roundabout than risk it. And to be honest, it wasn’t that bad. It took less than a second to establish that the rules of engagement were similar to Nairobi and I simply hung my limp wrist out the window to give me right of way and did exactly what I felt like with total and utter disregard of all traffic rules until I safely made it to the other side. Simple.

The closer we got to Dover, the more excited my darling wife became. Reaching England and marking the end of a very interesting trip was far less important to her than seeing our dogs for the first time in 14 months. She almost convinced me to take the Euro Tunnel rather than a ferry, but at three times the cost I managed to stand my ground and pass the entrance to it. At the ferry port we walked into the first office and asked about the price and availability of the next ferry. We knew from internet shopping that it would be around £38 for us and the car and had the credit card ready to pay. The lady smiled and said: “Next ferry is in 45 minutes and the cost will be £112”. I coughed, then laughed and asked if she perhaps made a mistake. I said that the published price on the internet was almost three times less and even the tunnel was cheaper than the price she quoted. Her answer: Te internet prices were for internet purchases only and you could not book it for the same day. So we could pay the £38, but only if we were prepared to spend another night in France. I did not need to look at Catt to know that suggesting that could be fatal, so I handed over the plastic, grabbed my ankles and braced myself….

With ticket in hand we joined the long cue for immigration. We eventually reached the front with only fifteen minutes to spare. On the French side they briefly noticed Catt’s passport before thoroughly investigating mine. They then had to restart their computer system before being able to scan it and establish that I was who I said I was and that my visa for France was valid. Seriously man! I was LEAVING!!!! With five minutes to spare we reached the UK immigration side and after almost not noticing Catt’s passport the ….. (Left black for censorship reasons) thumbed through mine three times before saying “Have you ever been the UK before?” Mmm. I was fairly certain that he had really paged through my passport multiple times and he just had to notice the three previous UK visas in there. One of them was even to allow me to get married in the UK. He then proceeded in interrogating me about my intentions in the UK. He wanted to know where I was staying, how long I was staying and what my plans were when I was there. I could have sworn all those questions were answered in my application that took 10 days to complete, but I kept my cool and calmly answered him every time. He even forced me to lie to him when he insisted on a specific date that I was planning to leave the country. Once I did that, he stamped my papers and let us through…. 7 minutes after the ferry sailed. Catt was…. Well, miffed….

It wasn’t all that bad. There was in fact another ferry an hour later and we had a full thermos of hot water in the car. So we parked in our cue and I brewed some tea. Catt didn’t speak much and I swore I could see her face change color as she worked through the events in her mind. When it was time to board we parked Maggie on the deck and ventured upstairs. I was impressed! It was only my second time on a car ferry (Alexandria – Venice being the first) and the first time crossing the English Channel. The seas were totally calm and the boat didn’t even really feel like it was moving. They sold the usual “duty free” crap at the usual over inflated prices and caught the usual idiots spending their hard earned money because they thought it was cheaper than the usual shop where they came from. Catt and I sat at a table marveling at the people around us and as England came into view we got a sudden jolt from reality telling us that we would see it all in a totally different light to the last time we were there.

Even though we were an hour later than we had planned we still decided to try and get the last page of our Carnet stamped by customs while we were in the port of Dover. We drove off the ferry expecting to see a customs office, but saw nothing of the sort. When we finally did find an official he directed us to a totally different part of the town called the “western dock” It took some time to find and I actually had to stand on the running board to reach the ticket dispenser to the car park. It was obviously a place big trucks went to get their customs clearance. We parked in between two massive delivery vehicles, walked into a small office and asked the question: “Can you stamp this page of our carnet?” At first the man was totally confused insisting that we did not need a carnet for the UK but after I explained that it was simply to prove that the vehicle was not in Egypt any more, he agreed to ask his superiors. That only took about two minutes and as he smiled broadly when he returned I was convinced that he was the man to help us. Indeed he was! In fact, instead of walking outside to inspect the car, the engine number and the VIN number, he looked through the window, assumed that the 4x4 was the vehicle in question and stamped the papers. As simple as that. With a “Thanks mate” I managed to contain my laugh while walking out, starting Maggie up and driving off being a little confused about driving on the left (right, or correct) side of the road for the first time since…. You guessed it…. Kenya.

40 minutes later we stopped right in front of No 4 Dence Park. Home to Pete and Anne Hardesty and lodgings to our much loved and much missed Golden Retriever dogs. We half expected a hero’s welcome but as we were not expected that day at all no one came to the road when we stopped. We snuck up to the front door and rang the bell expecting the familiar barks and fond hellos from the parents, but heard nothing. They were not home! In a sneaky attempt to find out where they were Catt send her mom a text proposing a Skype date but before she could answer we saw them coming around the far corner, soaking wet dogs by their side. Annie had a little laugh and Pete shouted a greeting from a house or two away but it was the reaction of the dogs I was looking for most.

It had been more than a year since we had seen them and in that time they had lived with two different families: One in France for six months to avoid quarantine and one in the UK for almost eight months. That did not matter too much though. Phoenix had her ears pulled right back against her neck and peeped and squeaked like she did when she was excited to see us. Savanna was manically energetic and jumped up and down barking as was her thing to do and their reaction was no different to what we would have expected after being away from them for a weekend. It was a thing of utter joy to see them reunited with Catt and to see her relief at obviously being remembered by them.

That night no one slept in the house! Catt didn’t sleep because she was too excited about being with the dogs. The dogs didn’t sleep because they were too excited about the fact that we were back. I didn’t sleep because Catt didn’t sleep and Pete and Anne didn’t sleep because the dogs kept barking in excitement every time Catt went down to see them. It didn’t really matter though. Every time I opened my eyes and looked at the ceiling instead of canvas I took a great deep breath realizing that we had managed to realize a dream that started 5 years earlier. We had managed to drive a car from the southern tip of Africa to the UK!

Day 358:
Apart from the day starting long before the sun had any inclination of rising, it was a fairly relaxing day. We still got up early and took our beloved dogs for a long walk along the Kent coast line. The only time they were not absolutely glued to our sides was when they went into the freezing cold water for a swim. For us it was both exciting and a little scary to experience the micro changes in their personalities. We had expected the up-rooting of their normality would have some impact and to be fair, it wasn’t as big or as bad as I had feared it would be.

Back at No 4 we felt our way around our new environment. I opened the garage to find it filled to the absolute brim with our household contents we had shipped over when we left. I couldn’t believe it! We had spent a year living in relative comfort with no more packing space than a single car, but I was staring at a 6 x 3 x 2 meter space full of our stuff. What was it all for? I promptly turned around, went back into the house and made some more coffee.

Over a hot mug of the good stuff Catt and I discussed the fate of our worldly positions and decided to unpack, sort out, throw away and repack every single box with our names on it. We decided to do that as quickly as possible for the simple reason that we were unemotional about it and our minimalistic existence was still fresh in our minds.

And so the mission began: Armed with a carpet knife and a strategically placed desert rug I hacked open box after box after box. We often found ourselves laughing out loud but for totally opposite reasons. On the one hand we could not believe the amount of absolute crap we paid a fortune for to ship half way across the world. On the other hand we could simply not comprehend how any removals company could actually manage to waste that much space and pack so terribly! I wish I could say that I was joking when writing about the fact that we found a consignment of dirty dishes packed into a box. I am not even talking about dusty or slightly oily even. I am talking full blown dirt with the occasional rotten and moldy one year old food bits stuck to the tongs! Apart from that we found absolutely no logical order of packing. The toaster, which used to live in our kitchen, was in the same box as a mountain of coat hangers that was thrown in to waste maximum space and some inkjet printer ink. At one point I found a wrapped up item which baffled me senseless. I started taking layer after layer of brown packing paper off and eventually found a party popper compass the size of a one pound coin. It was expertly protected by a cubic foot of paper and probably cost us a hundred times more than its value to ship. Nice…

At the time of packing the removals company managed to exceed their estimate, which their expert gave us, by 300%. When I queried this I received a nice email from the warehouse manager stating that they re-inspected the packing and found it to be done in the promised space saving way. He further stated that the only way to reduce the volume was to re-pack absolutely everything. I agreed that they could do that without me present, but never heard from them again. So for all future re-locators, be warned! Biddulphs International is NOT the way forward and paying a so called expert to pack your things is a fairly stupid idea.

By the time the sun was going down we inspected our handiwork and found that only a third of the volume contained the things we were planning on keeping. Another third was a pile of things we were getting rid of and another third was totally unnecessary packaging. Don’t get me wrong, we still repackaged everything we sorted and packed into a sensible order into boxes. The packaging we threw away was just excess.

It was still fairly new and strange to be able to spend a whole evening inside a house. It was total luxury to spread out in a decent sized room after dinner and utter decadence to walk into a 5 x 5 meter bedroom with queen size bed in it. Deep and peaceful sleep came easy…

If I had to do it again:
It was a difficult and frustrating week with a delightful and happy ending. I would have loved to be able to stay in the centre or Paris for the week but it was simply not worth the expense. I think we did as well as we possibly could and apart from boredom, the week was deemed a success.