At 3 am on Thursday morning the alarm on my phone roused us to start ‘Operation Kitchen Collection.’ I’m really not bad at getting up early in the morning (just don’t ask me to stay awake after 9:30 pm!), which is just as well as we were booked on the 8:15am ferry from Caen to Portsmouth. We needed to be at the port an hour before sailing and allowing two and half hours journey time to Caen, plus contingency in case of problems with the Gilets Jaunes, Yellow-Vest protesters, we reckoned we needed an early start.
In mid-November Colin and I had spent a weekend in Caen to see a jazz concert. As the concert was Friday night and we weren’t planning to leave Caen again until Sunday, we weren’t too worried by the prospect of the nationwide demonstrations against hikes in fuel prices, planned for Saturday. Caen city centre had been totally deserted on Saturday as the blockades on all main roads had meant the public either couldn’t get in or refused to travel, in support of the movement’s demands.
As we started our journey home that Sunday, the protests had clearly continued overnight and we were soon stopped by a group of Gilets Jaunes, who were ‘filtering’ the traffic by making vehicles wait for 10 minutes before allowing a few at a time to continue on their way ( at least, as far as the next road-block). It was all very good-natured, and we chatted with them as we waited. Even then, we witnessed one French driver who, clearly not intending to be kept waiting, attempted to drive through the makeshift barrier (a supermarket trolley, strategically placed in the middle of the road), only to be stopped by several protesters running alongside the car, banging on the roof.
Days of protests had turned into weeks and we’d been following the TV news as the demonstrations and blockades intensified, with some nasty scenes, damage to roads and motorway toll stations, and long queues of traffic across France. Hence, we thought it wise to allow ourselves some extra time to get the ferry!
As it happened, this time we saw no protesters at all, although scorched road surfaces and smouldering tyres showed where blockades had been.
The following morning, in Bristol, we picked up the hire van and set off in convoy, up the M5 to Dudley. When we arrived at the depot I was very happy that they had laid on two strapping lads to load the furniture and appliances into the van for us.
One was quite an athlete! Ignoring the tail lift on the van, again and again he leapt into the back of the van with fully constructed and fitted kitchen cabinets on his shoulder, swinging himself gracefully over the piled furniture and over the enormous puddles that covered the car park after the recent storms to repeat the process until everything was loaded and ready to go.
An uneventful return journey to Bristol, an evening with friends and a good night’s sleep followed, before another early morning start to catch the ferry back to France. We were due to arrive home in France around 5pm, leaving time to unload the van, have a shower and dinner before doing the next crossing back to England on Sunday.
You know when things are going just TOO well? It was about 2 pm, with the ferry an hour out from Caen and we were sitting in the cafeteria, having just finished lunch, gazing out at the heaving grey waves merging into the grey mist which in turn merged into the glowering grey sky. It had been a relaxing if very ‘bumpy’ (as Colin likes to call it) crossing. A message over the PA system announced that our arrival in Caen-Ouistreham port would be 50 minutes later than scheduled. Inconvenient – yes, but not a disaster, and given the weather conditions, not unexpected.
Quarter of an hour later the nice French crew member announced that ‘due to a technical problem’ we would no longer be able to dock in Ouistreham but would have to divert to Cherbourg. Our new ETA was now 7pm!
We had already passed the Cherbourg peninsular so the ship was having to turn around and go back out into the Channel to make its way along the coast to Cherbourg, through the raging storm.
There were very few passengers on board and we were provided with free cinema tickets and a hot dinner as the ferry battled its way back to port. A fellow passenger, who apparently was a marine engineer, informed us that he’d realised that the boat had lost an engine some time ago, so he was not surprised (Cherbourg being where the maintenance shipyard is). No one moaned or complained (not even the Spanish truck drivers, who were blissfully unaware of the situation for sometime, there not having been a spanish translation of the original announcements) and the rest of the voyage was completed in good spirits, despite several revised ETAs.
We finally disembarked at 8.30pm. Cherbourg port was empty –the passport control and customs staff had all gone home – so at least no more hold-ups there.
Not so lucky with the blockades this time. Once out of the port we were flagged down by Gilets Jaunes, (Come on, guys. You’ve made your point!), who invited us to wait for ‘deux minutes’. We were already hours late, I said, so a couple more minutes wouldn’t make much difference. We chatted about our stricken ferry, and how we were due to return to England the next day. Just as well we weren’t due to leave from Cherbourg, the Gilets Jaunes said, as they were intending to blockade the port tomorrow! I asked them how the Paris demonstrations had gone that day, after the riots of the previous weekend and they bemoaned the hijacking of the protest by right-wing activists. They were just ordinary people trying to make their voices heard they said and told us about how an American driver in a big 4×4 had charged through their roadblock earlier that day, scattering protesters -he’d been chased down and arrested by the police! Finally we were able to set off home –only now, we had a 4 hour drive home instead of the usual 2 from Caen-Ouistreham, on unfamiliar back-roads in lashing rain and gale-force winds. (Thanks, Storm Deirdre)
We finally pulled up outside the mill a few minutes before 1 am on Sunday morning!
Luckily, I had booked the afternoon ferry crossing on Sunday, intending to have a bit of a lie-in on Sunday morning after our busy few days. No lie-in for us now! A few hours sleep then up early to unload the van. And had anyone been watching, they wouldn’t have seen us leaping and swinging about, I can assure you! The worktops nearly finished us – they weighed a ton! We had originally intended to ask our neighbour for assistance with these if they proved too much, but next-doors were still in the Land of Nod after a ‘switching on of the Christmas illuminations’ party the night before. It had still been going strong when we got back in the early hours.
We dropped the last cabinet in the living room, locked up and jumped into the van with a full 10 minutes to spare before our scheduled departure time.
After a somewhat hairy drive back to Caen, (with Colin struggling to keep the now unladen, very skittish box van in a straight line and with all 4 wheels on the tarmac in high winds), we got back to Bristol around midnight without further incident.
The guy at the van hire company asked all about our adventures, when we returned the vehicle the next morning, and said we had made his week. Good to know someone had enjoyed it! Just one more, final trip back to France – and then the real fun starts.