It is 7.30am and I am standing on the deck of the Brittany Ferries ship ‘Cap Finistere’ as she sails across the Bay of Biscay from Bilbao to Portsmouth. The sea is like a mill pond, black and sluggish below the grey skies of early morning. There is an orange glow on the horizon that hints at a rising sun but for the moment the overwhelming impression is of an almost monotone landscape in shades of grey and black. As always, great expanses of water makes me feel very small and insignificant.
One paragraph into this blog and I note two things. It is normal to use the term ‘sailing ’on ferries, but it is misleading as there are no sails. And secondly, with no land in sight, I shouldn’t call it a landscape. Perhaps seascape is a better word, but it somehow sounds odd.
The ship works on English time, even though we are still eleven hours away from Portsmouth, but unfortunately our bodies are still on French time, an hour behind. So whilst we have woken at our normal time of 7am, on board it is 6am and the cafés and restaurants are shut – no chance of a cup of tea. We bought our own tea bags, milk and even mugs in a rare feat of organisation, assuming that our cabin, the cheapest we could get at 120€ for a night, would have a kettle. It doesn’t.
The other passengers are all sensibly still in their beds. We have the ship almost to ourselves as we wander through various cafés, a restaurant, the nightclub bar, a duty-free shop, a spa and the dog-walking area. We can hear clanging and banging behind closed doors in the kitchens and catch sight of the occasional crew-member wielding an antiseptic sprayer in the public areas. We can tell where he’s been cleaning even if we can’t see him, as he leaves a slightly perfumed smell lingering in the air behind him.
It is a huge relief to be here because travelling is no longer a simple process. The days of grabbing your passport and jumping on a ferry or a plane are long gone. In this Covid era you need QR codes. I don’t even know what QR stands for but I am beginning to develop a dislike for them. We need one to prove to the English government that we have been double-vaccinated in the appropriate manner, another to confirm that we have taken a French Covid test and that it was negative. We need yet another code to prove we have pre-paid for a second Covid test to be taken within two days of arriving in England. We are also required to fill in four pages of a PLF, or Passenger Locator Form if you prefer the full version. Michael saves everything onto an App on the phone whilst I get the printer out and put together a file with hard copies. You know where you are with paper. It won’t let you down if the signal disappears just when you need it.
The process of trying to understand which type of test and when to take it has been confusing thanks to conflicting information but it culminated in a trip to our local French pharmacy for a lateral flow test taken the day before we departed. The test was done outside, in a small blue gazebo tucked against the side of a building opposite the pharmacy. Inside was a table stacked with a supply of plastic gloves, disinfectant and boxes of tests. A white plastic garden chair was placed next to the table for ‘the patient’ to sit upon and, as the gazebo was open-sided, we could all watch how each person reacted to their ordeal. There was a small queue of people waiting, mostly Brits going back home.
‘Is this your first time?’ asked a woman with a Scottish lilt.
She grimaced, or at least I think she did. Reading facial expressions is difficult under a mask.
‘Try and relax. Breath through your mouth rather than your nose, otherwise it really makes your eyes water.’
She went in before me with the air of someone who had been through this experience many times, and made it look like no big deal. And then it was my turn. I sat down on the plastic chair, breathing deeply and calmly in a yogic fashion. I could do this. The pharmacist implementing the test advanced towards me, holding what looked like a very long cotton bud and I could feel my back pressing into the chair. And then she was in, the cotton bud swab moving up my left nostril, going boldly where no man – or woman – has gone before and, frankly, I hope never goes again. I had heard that the swab only needed to go in two inches, but nobody had told her this and she went in at least four to five inches. Strangely, and for some reason I can’t begin to explain, I felt my left leg lifting up and could, out of the corner of my watering eyes, see my foot waggling about furiously. It hit the ground again briefly but was up in the air again as soon as she started rummaging around in my other nostril.
Michael came up to me after he had his test, which sadly I couldn’t witness as I was in another queue waiting for the results.
‘What was with the leg?’ he asked.
‘I have no idea. It just did it.’
He gave me one of those ‘She’s not with me looks’ and stood behind me in the queue. Fifteen minutes after the test each person received their results, the relief evident on their faces. Then it was back into the pharmacy for all paperwork to be entered online and QR codes to be sorted out.
For anyone who has yet to have the pleasure of a Covid test, it’s probably not as bad as it sounds. It is certainly uncomfortable, depending on how enthusiastic the tester is with the swab, but not overly painful and only last a couple of seconds. But it does feel invasive and wrong, as if this is a part of your body that should be left alone. Just remember to relax and try and keep both feet on the ground and you’ll be doing better than I did!
We boarded the ferry the following day, passports and all our new paperwork at the ready, but the guy at the Brittany Ferries check-in did no more than cast a cursory eye over it. He only looked at the first page of the PLF so I could have said I was Donald Duck on page two and he would have been none the wiser. Leaving the ferry in Portsmouth, we were only required to show our passports, nothing else.
Now we’ve been through the process once, it will be easier in the future. Unless things change again.
To end on a much happier note, the frustrations and uncertainties of physically getting into England were instantly forgotten as we pulled up outside Michael’s parents house and saw their faces after such a long, long absence. Now we have nothing to do but enjoy each other’s company. It’s hard to find anything positive to say about being kept apart for so long, but it does make you appreciate and savour every moment.
Next week we head off to our beloved Wales and begin to inflict ourselves upon all our friends, starting with a three-day camping trip in Pembrokeshire. If the weather is kind I should have some good photos for the next blog.