We have been away from our house in France for four and a half months. We were thoroughly entrenched in our UK life but by the time our departure was getting near we were longing to get back there.
This kind of dual existence is both weird and fascinating. Within a day of arriving back in either place we always slip effortlessly into the other pace of life, almost as if we had never been away. Except that it takes a while to open the right drawer or cupboard in the kitchen before we find what we are looking for!
We set off at 3.20am. To travel on the UK motorways during the night is the only way to make sure of getting anywhere within an hour or two of your intended time of arrival. We had gone to bed very early the night before and got up at 2am. It was -3°C outside and the car was covered in a thick layer of ice.
Daisy and Hugo travelled well and the first part of the journey was unusually straightforward, unless you count the two occasions when we had to take evasive action to avoid being killed by lorries swerving into our path, the drivers maybe nodding off, using the phone or just not paying attention. At that time of night the traffic is 90% lorries, the cars and vans not appearing until we got nearer to the M25. The twenty three mile long set of road works that has held us up in Northamptonshire the last few years had disappeared and we arrived at Folkestone in time to get the train one hour earlier than we had booked.
Having spent hours listing every item in the boxes of stuff we brought with us for customs, we were waved through as usual, nobody asking to see any paperwork at any point, even though the car, topbox and trailer were clearly stuffed to bursting. At the French passport control our passports were stamped with barely a glance in our direction, the two occupants of the booth deep in conversation.
We lost fifteen minutes of the hour we gained once on the train due to a "technical problem" (which we think was a door being stuck) but we arrived in France at 10.10am and felt the usual sense of calm and relief as soon as we were on French roads. The journey between Calais and home is long and tedious but rarely anything like as stressful as half that distance on UK roads.
It was not however entirely uneventful! There was the petrol pump that would not accept our French bank card, then the ten minutes wait at a level crossing for a fast train near Yvetôt. This is where we break the journey by leaving the motorways to have a sandwich and a coffee, stretch all our legs (except for Daisy who hides in her cage) and fill the car up with cheap fuel at a supermarket, where we also pick up a bit of shopping.
The next bit of excitement was at a péage where all but two of the booths were closed with a long queue at both of them. It wasn’t until we got near that we saw the customs police (douanes) stopping cars and lorries. I was driving and as we pulled away from the booth a young female officer with a gun suddenly waved her baton that said "STOP" at us, as if she had only just noticed the bulging trailer. I was a bit nervous about stopping suddenly as in the rear view mirror I could see an enormous lorry bearing down on us much too close to the trailer so came slowly to a halt, the young woman trotting along beside us.
After a couple of simple questions she lost interest and waved us on. Which was rather disappointing as I would have loved to show someone our endless lists of towels, books, pots, pans, and my collection of half knitted jumpers as they rummaged through the trailer looking for contraband!
The next incident was when Nick was driving and decided to clean the windscreen. After two sweeps of the wipers one of the blades flew off, making a huge racket as it bounced off the car. Consequently we had to make another detour to find a replacement, in case it started to rain. Predictably, having this time gone to great lengths to pack the trailer in such a way as everything would stay dry, we had had little more than a light shower in the UK and nothing at all on the French side.
Once we left the motorway at St Maure we had that familiar "almost there" feeling but the excitement was not over yet. We were very tired and overshot the turning for the road that bipasses Ligueil. In the middle of the town we got stuck in a lengthy gridlock caused by ridiculously bad driving on the part of several car drivers. The lack of road craft would have seemed hilarious if we were not so tired and desperate to get home! Sounding the horn is no replacement for common sense! However, we made it home by 6pm. To our great relief there was not a single sign of mouse damage or even any droppings anywhere. At least this year we have not had to fork out €1,500 for a new set of covers for our sofas!
It was sunny and 14°C when we arrived and the next day was even better. 20°C in the afternoon - a lovely welcome back to our French home.
And so we have now been back in our French house for almost a whole week. We have fetched the garden furniture out of the barn and Nick has cut the grass, instantly making the place look more like home. We have unloaded the top box and trailer, the unpacking of all the bags and boxes being a long job and still ongoing. The new gates are installed and look wonderful although the electric opening mechanism has not been refitted as it was clearly on its way out and we have yet to get a new one. We have paid the customary visits to most of the DIY shops within a thirty mile radius to acquire blinds for our new velux windows, and other essential bits and pieces for the various jobs left undone last autumn.
But mostly we have just been drinking it all in. Enjoying the immense sense of peace and quiet of living in the countryside, the politeness of the ordinary people in the street, the lack of traffic on the roads and, so noticeable compared with the UK, the lack of potholes and litter. Here we don’t have to dice with death to get out at a junction or swerve all over the place to avoid massive potholes and sunken manholes, turning a blind eye to the unkempt and filthy state of the pavements and grass verges. The country roads in our part of France are looked after really well and in such good condition, even the bad ones we would think quite good by UK standards.
On the way here we passed many a team of road workers, mending, clearing and tidying. My own personal sense of joy in being here makes me feel sad for how things have turned out in the UK. Why are the roads so bad there? I know that everything in France isn’t perfect and there are certainly things about living here that drive us mad but, on the whole, life feels so much better here. Things seem to have gone so badly wrong in the UK, the state of the roads being only one symptom of a general sense of decline and decay. It makes me very sad to think that British people are doomed to put up with all that, there being no sign that it will get better any time soon.