I am abroad; out of the UK and in France. My wife and I escaped Bath and then London on Tuesday last week by train, to Lille for one night’s stay with friends, and then by more trains and, finally, a car to our house, 35 km south of Brive-la-Gaillarde*, in south-west France.
Why go to France when the British government is doing its utmost to stop Brits from going abroad and when the French government can’t make up its mind from one month to the next whether it should ban Brits from entering (May) or allow us in, provided we have been double-vaccinated (June)?
One answer is because the British government’s travel policy makes no sense. The number of people catching Covid in the UK is rising fast (15,296 new cases reported on June 25) and nearly all are people who have either not been vaccinated or only recently had their first jab. By contrast, Covid cases in France, like much of the rest of the European Union, are falling fast (1,986 new cases reported on June 25), something which the British mainstream media appears not to want to report. It’s far more likely that an unvaccinated Brit entering France will infect the locals with the Modi Covid variant (sorry; the Delta variant which originated in India) than a double-vaccinated Brit returning to the UK will spread the disease in Britain. Yet it is we double-jabbed Brits who have to quarantine for 10 days on return to the UK and each pay around £300 to private companies for the four Covid tests we are required to take to travel in and out of the country (and around £100 each for a test to be released early from quarantine). According to a British consultant microbiologist, writing in The Times, each of these mandatory tests costs £10-£15 to produce, distribute and process. Who are these companies allowed to make 400% or higher profits? As the same man said: “Profiteering during the World Wars was severely punished under criminal law, … [yet] it is being positively encouraged by our own Government.”
A second reason for going is because we have a house and garden in France which requires our attention. The garden has become a jungle which, in turn, is starting to engulf the house itself. But the main reason why I ignored the British government’s advice is because I was desperate to travel abroad again. It has been nine months since my last foreign trip - a train and plane journey back to the UK from France. Those nine months were the longest period in one country since the first year I spent in Japan in 1990-91. My old passports and diaries show that there was never a year between 1967 and 1990 when I didn’t travel to a different country. And throughout the 1980s my job took me to a different country almost every month, sometimes every week. I’m a travel junkie.
It was the Scottish nomad, Robert Louis Stevenson, author of Treasure Island, Kidnapped and a delightful early travelogue, Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes, who wrote in 1881:”To travel hopefully is a better thing than to arrive”. I agree. My brother recently questioned why anyone needed to travel any more when one had such superb nature and travel documentaries presented on television by people like David Attenborough and Michael Palin. Because, dear bro, while these are hugely informative and entertaining, they are still second-hand. I want to see, hear, touch and smell for myself while I still can. I want to experience the shock of the new or, more commonly these days, the puzzle of the subtle change from the time of my last visit. What’s different and what the same? What confirms my stereotype? What challenges it? And it is when I am travelling inside a country towards my destination that my antennae are most used. Hence the wish to travel by train – much better for the environment and one’s mental well-being than a plane - and to stop off on the way. Take it slowly; travel hopefully.
The foreignness of this latest trip started in the taxi to Bath station. Our driver, a Romanian, told us in flawless English that he’d given up hope of getting to his homeland this year. He and his wife of eleven years were heading to Cornwall. The train to London was a strange experience. In the days when I commuted to my head office in the capital twice a week, a train leaving Bath at 07.13 on a Monday morning in June would have had people standing for the hour it took to get from Swindon to London. Not this one. Half-full at most. Brits really are still working from home (while figures show that car use and the consequential pollution is above pre-Covid levels in both Bath and London).
I was tense as we approached the French immigration booth at St Pancras International station. We had our proof of double vaccination against Covid-19, our attestations promising “on my honour” that we were free of Covid, our Covid antigen test certificates (dated no more than 48 hours before our Eurostar train left the station) and, of course, our passports. The first two were of no interest to the French official. He scanned down my test certificate, frowning as he did so. Could he read English? Then he took my passport and stamped it. I shook my head: “Quel dommage”. I told him it was the first time my passport had been stamped when entering France since I was a boy. “Brexit!” I harrumphed. He looked genuinely sympathetic.
Brits who stop in Lille tend only to do so as a jumping-off point for a tour of the killing fields of World War One – the Western Front. Linger longer in this industrial city and they would find it has many fascinating stories to tell and a few beautiful corners to visit. Our host, an Englishman who recently became a French citizen, took us to Lille’s Palais des Beaux-Arts to see the drawings, pictures and clever trompes l’oeil of one of France most celebrated cartoonists, Lille-born Francois Boucq. He was one of the survivors of the terrorist attack on the Paris office of the satirical magazine, Charlie Hebdo, in 2015 (I can remember standing with neighbours in our village far to the south holding up banners saying Je suis Charlie). His works were distributed throughout the museum, making visitors look anew at some 18th century painting or 19th century sculpture. He played with the museum’s pictures too. A portrait of a bewigged man comes to life and reaches out with a match though a picture of trees to a fire in a painting beyond and is shocked when the trees burn as he draws the lit match towards him. The museum was busy on a Monday afternoon. I don’t think I’ve ever seen so many young people clearly enjoying an art exhibition, certainly not in Britain.
Walking through central Lille afterwards I was struck too by how many couples, old as well as young, were holding hands. Has Covid made the French even more tactile?
While in Lille we got a call from a neighbour in Vayrac, our French village. Hugues had been into our house to turn on the electricity and water prior to our arrival. He had gone back in to check that everything was alright, discovered a burst pipe was flooding the basement and turned the water off. He wouldn’t be able to find a plumber himself because he was committed to cycling all day (Hugues, 68, never does less than 100km a day when cycling; he retired from the railways aged 55 on an excellent pension because all SNCF workers today are considered to have as body-wrecking a career as the coal-shovelling stokers in the steam engines of yesteryear).
So, next morning at just past 08.00 my wife rang our usual plumber while we waited to catch an Intercité train from Paris’ Austerlitz station. He was working in Brive all day but suggested she rang two plumbers in the next- door village. She did, left a message and got a response within ten minutes: “Give me a ring when you get to your house (implication: you're ringing me from Paris; how do you know you'll be here by 15.00 today?) and I'll be with you around 5 or 6.” We arrived at 15.00, rang him, he came at 18.00 and the pipe was replaced within fifteen minutes. I don't think we'd get the same reaction from plumbers in Bath.
It took 4 hours and 26 minutes by train to cover the 420 km from Paris to Brive. This is not one of the Train à Grande Vitesse lines (we took a TGV from Lille to Paris – 200 km in 1 hour) but is still a lot more comfortable than its British equivalent. We were in first class. Why not when the fares are only about 15% more than second class and the cost for two people is £72.10? The train was 100% full, everyone obediently masked-up ("obligatoire vacciné ou non", the announcer warned us at each stop); those side-by-side were certainly not a metre apart but why should they be if masked?
The French are back to using their railways and metros as they did pre-Covid. And over-employment still seems the norm: three smartly-uniformed Sûreté ferroviaire (rail police) swanned past at various times, the female looking particularly soignée if a trifle bored. What do they do other than walk up and down trains? The wi-fi has been upgraded since I did this route in September, enabling me to work online and check facts for this article. Want a drink? Scan your phone over the QR code on the window beside you and see what the passing trolley can offer you. But don’t buy the food. It’s improved over the past eight years; from disgusting to just edible. Do what the French do and bring your own food (and wine).
We have been in Vayrac a week now. Small changes are more noticeable after nine months absence; even more so for my wife. When she was last here we were kissing and hand-shaking friends and neighbours at the village’s 2019 Breton-style Christmas market (and picking up a vile cold as a result). Not so at the village’s food markets this time. The decision is not two kisses or three but fist-thump or elbow-bump.
Some things never change. There in the market on Saturday were a family of self-absorbed, unmasked Parisians talking loudly to each other (“but what will we get for the plane?”) pushing their way to the front of the invisible queue and failing to stand away from the stalls once their picky buying-routine was over. And now that our near-neighbour (another Hugues) is no longer village mayor, the dog merde lining the side of his and our street is twice what it was.
The big news though may allow me to fulfil my dream of being able to travel English door to French door on foot and by train. We got little sleep on our second night here. We would have got none for five nights if we had come a week earlier as originally planned. Our house is just 400 metres from the single-track railway which heads east up the Dordogne valley into the mountains of the Auvergne. When we bought the house in 2013 a train stopped twice a day at Vayrac’s tiny station. Villagers could and did commute to and from Brive. Then it was decided by some far-away bureaucrat that the train should stop just once. Its custom vanished and so it was decided, probably by the same jobsworth, that there being no demand, no train should stop. Two years ago there was a rethink: President Macron, no less, decreed that rural communities needed to be served by the state-owned railways if they were to survive. Covid has backed him up. Our ex-mayor, now an estate agent, told us at the weekend that demand for houses in this area has soared. How are these new immigrants to be encouraged to get around other than by environmentally-bad car? By train, of course. So, that missed sleep? The train track is being renewed at night. Last week it was the turn of that friendly plumber to get no sleep as the track-laying machinery reached his village and its station. Ex-railwayman Hugues is thrilled. He’d been saying for years that closing the village station (he was born next to it) was short-sighted lunacy. And soon, it may be possible once we have learned to live with Covid and whatever pandemic comes next, for me to leave our house in the UK and walk along the canal towpath down to Bath’s railway station, spend a long day taking four trains and two metros to the station in Vayrac and walk up to our house in France. I’m hopeful.
*Translated by some as Brive the Courageous but by my bilingual wife as Brive the Ballsy. Brivistes claim that this label was earned by the women of the town when they successfully saw off the English laying siege to Brive during the Hundred Years War by hurling unripe melons from the walls on to the heads of their attackers.