Back to France At Long Last

By Bob Lyons

I recently felt able to return to my beloved France, my adopted country. For almost two years I had been anxious about the Covid virus poisoning us all on this planet, the threat of expensive hotel isolation and the concern regarding the bureaucratic paperwork required for travel away from the UK. I constantly heard tales of passengers being prevented from boarding, flights cancelled for them and the need to re-book at their own expense. Things were returning gradually to a new ‘normal’ though and I decided to get my bag packed. I set off for the Dover ferry port for the new ‘next time around’.

Prior to my departure I researched the form filling carefully. I was after all travelling the 20 odd miles over the horizon to the lost city of Calais. France was on the new Amber list of destinations and I needed to have my ‘Plan B’ on standby.

I checked my passport. It needed to be issued not greater than ten years before my departure date and valid for at least 6 months after my date of return. The first tick in the box. P&O ferries, who I was travelling with, wanted what they called an Advance Passenger Information list. This was a legal requirement from the government for them and I supposed it only affected ferry firms. It was simple in my case and I emailed it back to them.

The French government wanted a ‘Sworn Statement’ from me on arrival at check in. I found it on the Internet, printed it off and filled it in by hand. That was easy too but nobody wanted to see it. The French would need proof of my vaccination status. I had obtained a printed form from the NHS indicating my dates of double Covid vaccination in the UK. It seems recently though that the French will also require proof of the third booster jab as well. I shall have had this before my next Francophile adventure.

Health insurance was next on the list. I had received my new EHIC card in the post. This would be valid for the time being whilst the agreement was being discussed with the EU member states so long after Brexit had happened. I also had a document providing proof of medical insurance cover valid until I was eighty years old. I had this as part of my bank account privileges with Lloyds Bank. Into the folder it all went. I did not need to spend my money on a Visa for France as I would be staying for less than ninety days.

My UK driving licence would be valid for a short trip and a standing agreement with the EU nations meant that my existing comprehensive car insurance would suffice. I did not have to cough up for the old ‘Green Card’ any more.  It took me only a few moments to get through check in with my boarding card and I headed at last for the ‘beautiful’ ferry waiting for me in the dock. I was off back to my dearest comfort zone.

I had learnt that I would need to replace the old GB plate on my car with one that said UK. If I didn’t the French police might nick me I was advised. I bought one on the boat going out. The other thing that I would need to prepare prior to my departure from France was a ‘Passenger Locator Form’. The PLF was only required by the UK Government. It was really aimed at non- resident visitors but applied actually to every entrant. This form would take a little longer to complete and was often the hidden trap for returning passengers. It had to be completed less than 48 hours before the departure time from France and had to be delivered over the internet. This would ensure that the UK government was aware of my journey and all the details had been electronically reviewed by the system. The questions were straight forward but needed accurate answers. If anything was amiss there would not be an email reply containing the celebrated QR code. The form would need evidence that on arrival by day 2 in the UK that you had booked and paid for a Lateral Flow Covid Test (about 20 quid per person). I did mine at the local pharmacy in the village close to home. You can do the test yourself if you want and just shove it in the post to the testing lab. Free NHS lateral flow tests are not permitted. The PLF reply would be checked prior to boarding in Calais. If passengers were unable to present this hallowed QR code they potentially could be denied boarding. Passengers not terribly familiar with using the internet on their mobile phones (WiFi required of course) could perhaps get their last night hotel to do it for them and print it off. The hard copy QR code reply was all that check in would need to see. Hang on to it as well as the UK border force might want a sneaky peek at it as well back in Dover.

Anyway, I was off to Calais again. Over the last few years I had been a volunteer at a squalid warehouse for the refugees still stranded in France. Protection organisations provide them with hot daily food and warm clothes that have been donated. I dropped by the warehouse in Calais to see what had been going on. All the faces had changed but the operators were very friendly. My specialisation had always been firewood chopping to provide the refugees with night time heat. It was raining like fury outside and I thought I would return another day to pick up my coal axe again. I left to find my own comfort but pleased to have renewed my association. I took my usual coast road route towards Boulogne then onwards, across country, to Montreuil sur Mer.

I spent six nights in France. I had emailed my chosen hotels twice to book rooms. I had had no reply and wondered if they had gone bust during the pandemic. I visited their reception in Montreuil sur Mer and found them up and running with a brand new car park and sparkling restaurant. They were not especially full but were pleased to see me again from the ‘old days’. I checked in for two nights and paid the much reduced bill.

 love the northern town of Montreuil and have stayed there many times over the last thirty years or more. I knew the hotel owners and they made me very welcome. I tried their smart restaurant too. The food and wine was special. I retired to bed and pondered my excitement of my French return. The next morning I took a sentimental walk round the ancient town ramparts just as I had done so many months before. I was back!

I wanted to eat on the second evening in a familiar pub come café just across the square. It was only a wet Wednesday evening but they told me that they were full. They plainly were with all the local people getting back to their old habits.

After two nights I set off for Arras not so far away. Arras was another of my long lost haunts. It was a bright sunny day again and I sat in the main square with a beer and watched the French life going on around me. The café’s and bars seemed up to full stretch once more. Cosmopolitan French society was back up to full speed.

 I marvelled at the towering pinnacles of the grand buildings around the square and business life seemed at full pelt. The Wellington Barracks on the edge of town was receiving visitors once more. Wellington Barracks was a vast underground series of deep tunnels providing protection for many allied soldiers during the Great War. The idea was to surprise the enemy in their trenches from beneath their feet. The operation was not especially successful and life for the allies, underground in darkness for many months, had been Hellish. The Barracks and tunnels have been preserved as a relic from 1916 and are open to the public.

I spent a further two nights in a Campanile Hotel on the edge of Arras. I had always loved staying in Campanile budget hotels in the past. This poor one was showing great signs of post pandemic fatigue but was still up in business.

The French restaurant and café providers are a bit picky about the rules. Visitors had to always show their vaccination certificate before being able to sit down. Face masks were always required until you were eating or drinking everywhere.

The next day I set off for Hardelot nearby. Hardelot is close to Le Touquet on the coast and there is much to see there. The torrential rain had returned though and the afternoon was miserable. The wide beach in the ferociously windy and wet weather was almost deserted. The nearby castle like mansion was pretty empty and the shiny wooden Shakespeare Theatre amongst the trees did not attract much attention. Anyway, it was October after all and the weather was dreadful and the days were short. I was just pleased to be back in my adopted land.

I returned to Montreuil, spent the last two nights back at my favourite hotel and enjoyed the warmth and comfort and people in familiar circumstances again. I spent twenty minutes or so ‘doing’ my Passenger Location Form on my lap top. I had the hotel WiFi and I got the reply emailed to my smart phone within a few moments presenting the infamous QR code. I had another beer and went to bed. I was returning to Blighty the following afternoon.

That was my return to somewhere so welcoming after the pandemic. The weather had been ghastly but I had rewarded myself. France was still there, I had practiced all the paperwork and picked up my life once more. I am planning my next French visit for the early spring next year. Back in late February I shall be adjusting to the ‘New Normal’. Just like the old days sort of but not quite like it all had been in the past.

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Bob Lyons

Retired airline pilot and European explorer

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