Saturday, 20 August 2016

Emergency Fray Bentos

Laura has decided to stay in London over the summer working in a sushi restaurant. However this week she needed to come home to attend a hospital check-up. Since most of her clothes are still here she began angling for a lift back to Plumstead with her kiosk sized case. We took this as an excuse to book a ferry and head off to France for a couple of days, arranging to drop Laura at Dartford station on our way to Dover, but agreeing to deposit her belongings at her London house on the way back in two weeks time. When we planned the trip last month we felt escape from the prevailing post-Brexit lunacy would do us both good, though in fact over the past fortnight the efforts of team GB at Rio has lifted the national mood somewhat. All that being said, if you have got to the point of where the most exciting thing in your life is the prospect of the forthcoming woman's hockey semi-final or discovering to your surprise that you do understand the finer points of the Omnium's arcane scoring system, then the chances are your existence has become so utterly mundane that it's time for a change. 

In order to persuade ourselves that this unplanned trip abroad was affordable despite the plummeting value of sterling we sought the cheapest crossing available, which happened to be Dover to Dunkirk using a DFDS late evening crossing. Since we were landing in Dunkirk we decided to visit Jackie, my sister-in-law, who lives near Bavay, a small town a few miles from the Belgian border. We may be somewhat depressed following the referendum, but the impact of the vote is much more serious for British nationals living in the EU, especially those, like Jackie, who own a business there. So, after over three decades of life in France, with a partner and two kids who are French citizens, Jackie has the papers to apply for French citizenship herself as she is anxious about her financial status when post Brexit she is no longer protected by EU law. For all the debates about the million or so EU citizens working in the UK, little concern was expressed about the impact on the two million British people living abroad. They simply become another group who lost out, and the question still remains, who actually benefits from this cockeyed decision? 

Oh dear, what was I saying about Wiggo Jason, Laura and Mo lifting the spirits? Not for long, it's definitely time to put some cold grey water between ourselves and dear old Blighty, especially as as last week we consumed our last bottle of continental bought wine, and now have been forced to stand in Morrison's wine aisle muttering, "How much, for x#*@x!" 

Driving the moho in one go from Buxton to France is new territory for us. Usually we stop overnight somewhere, either near Oxford, or at the free aire at Canterbury Park and Ride. Dover is only about 200 miles from home, so arriving in good time for the 8pm sailing should have been easy, even factoring in the message from DFDS that additional security checks by the French required that we arrive ninety minutes prior to departure. However, inevitably we set off later than planned, the M1 was packed and slow. At least we kept going until junction 26 of the dreaded M25 where an accident that seemed to exist only in the imagination of the smart motorway sign controllers brought us to a dead stop for 40 minutes. The result, we arrived to drop- off Laura at Dartford station at exactly 5pm. just in time to become snarled-up in the outer London rush hour. Still, by twenty past six we had arrived at Dover docks as instructed. 

After seven hours..Dover!
We joined a short queue at the French border control wondering what kind of enhanced security screening were we about to be subjected to? Sniffer dogs? A thorough search of Maisy's nooks and crannies for hidden jihadists or an ISIS bomb making manual? In some trepidation we rolled up to the booth, Gill proffered our open passports, Monsieur l' Immigration wafted his hand, twitched his head towards the dock, and raised his left eyebrow with laconic Gallic nonchalance that only a bored French official can muster. We speculated that it could be the intricacy of this latter facial contortion that constituted the enhanced security regime. 

No 'operation stack' today

So now we were lined-up behind three motorhomes in lane 37 with a 90 minute wait before loading. It only took a couple of minutes to ascertain that the nearby terminal was not capable of providing an acceptable evening meal; no way were going to eat at Burger King no matter how peckish we were feeling. Briefly we considered having a macchiato at Costa then opted to buy a small carton of milk at W H Smith's on the basis that brewing- up in the van was cheaper.

an uninspiring choice of eateries
While in Smith's we were presented with a mystery. Between the snacks and last minute emergency purchase shelves (razors, suncream, tampons, paracetamol) was a pyramidal stack of HP Sauce bottles. I realise that the company has developed somewhat from being simply a newsagents and morphed into a kind of convenience store; even so, its move to become a stockist of overrated British condiments did seem a little odd, especially in the small outlet at Dover East docks. 

Back at the van, over a coffee, we mused about the HP conundrum. It seemed most unlikely that that even the most go-ahead Smiths trainee manager would stock brown sauce speculatively, just on the off-chance that Europe bound holidaymakers might be struck while speeding southwards on the M20 with a growing realisation that inexplicably, due to the confusion of last minute packing, one of life's little essentials (HP Sauce) had been left behind on the kitchen worktop. No, this could not be the product of savvy market analysis, but must be the result of consumer demand. Quite clearly the scenario outlined above must occur more often than we think, and after front seat scenes of marital discord, blame games, and huffed silence, humiliated spouses sidle-up to the Smith's counter and enquire somewhat sheepishly if the stationers stock HP sauce. Market forces inevitably ensure that if the question is posed regularly enough then magically the sauce will appear on sale. 

There was still three-quarter of an hour till loading and having accounted in depth for the economics of HP Sauce supply at UK port outlets we turned our attention to the sociological aspects of this phenomena. Exactly what kind of person would feel the need to fortify themselves against the vagaries of continental travel by purchasing brown sauce? In fact, this proved to be a much easier question, for back in April we had met such a couple in a restaurant in Pisa. We had just flown in from the UK, collected the moho from secure storage and headed to the city's sosta to sort out the van. With no food in stock we had little option but to eat out at the nearby pizzeria. It was a pretty basic place with tables squashed next to each other. 

The couple next to us were English and staying in the sosta too, so we fell into conversation. Thinking back, I don't think we introduced ourselves, so for the sake of simplicity let's call them Gavin and Hilda. They looked like they were called that, and although they were not wearing matching Fair Isle pullovers, it was something you suspected their younger selves may well have embraced. It was their first visit to Italy and they were mightily nervous. Gastronomically it appeared that pizza was pushing the boat out a bit and in case Italian supermarkets stocked nothing to their taste they announced proudly that they had packed a dozen tinned Fray Bentos steak pies 'in case of an emergency'. The conversation quickly moved on to safer topics. They outlined the finer points of purchasing leisure batteries and how twin beds are the way to go when you get to 'our age'. I found it difficult to concentrate, for at the back of my I found myself pondering was there any emergency I could envisage where we might be tempted to tuck into a Fray Bentos tinned pie. The conclusion - never, not even if the apocalypse dawned, the Earth was faced with imminent destruction from a giant asteroid or we were struck by a famine of Biblical proportions, no, not a tinned meat pie. 

However, back to Gavin and Hilda, now there's a couple who would never leave the HP Sauce behind, but at least if the unthinkable occurred, they can rest easy in tucked-up in their twin beds happy in the knowledge that W H Smith's at Dover docks has anticipated their awkward predicament. 

With a cackle of static the port Tannoy.woke-up. Boarding commenced. Men in hard hats and hi-res appeared, muttered into walkie-talkies and waved their arms. Soon we were safely aboard and installed at a cafe table with a great sea view. 

Loading - hooray!
This was our first trip with DFDS. The ships are more modern, better designed and have a pleasanter ambience than P&O. Sadly the food on board is no better. I know it was a late sailing but that is no excuse to serve tired looking salads wrapped in plastic or elderly looking unappetising mains. We opted for the curry. The rice was ok, and the sauce, but the piece of chicken was tough and rubbery. Not good at all. 

In the cafeteria

...with a sea view.

Quite stylish for a cross channel ferry...
It was well past eleven by the time we disembarked and almost midnight when we arrived at the aire in Bergues. It was almost full and unlit. Thankfully someone hopped out of their van and loaned Gill a torch to help me reverse into the corner spot. We were not exactly level, but it was now over twelve hours since we left home. Really we should have slept like the dead. Sadly the effects of DFDS rubber chicken on the digestive system rendered sleep impossible. As I lay awake a thought struck me, 'You know what might have been perfect while we waited at the dockside at Dover? That's right, a nice Fray Bentos steak pie, with a dollop of HP.......zzzzzzz'.


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