Monday, September 14, 2015

An American Family in Europe, Day 6: Goodbye France, hello England

(Previously: Day 5, the Eiffel Tower)

Our visit to Paris was coming to an end. A taxi (reserved through company G7 about 10 days earlier) showed up at our door right on time to take us to Gare du Nord train station to catch the Eurostar, aka "The Chunnel."

Almost as soon as we set off, our taxi came to a halt behind a truck delivering furniture on a one-lane passageway of Paris. There was no way around, so we sat there. Those narrow streets that seem so charming when you are walking around do not seem so enchanting when you're in a car.

After several minutes, the workmen finished their delivery and moved on. Whew, I thought. And then they stopped again for another delivery.

Our taxi driver just seemed to accept it, and none of the cars behind us were honking their horns. Maybe they didn't have to catch a train. Internally, though, I was ready to boil.

Finally, the delivery van moved on and so did we. We had allowed plenty of time, so there was no crisis. We arrived at the train station, went through passport checks by both French and English authorities and, after a wait, got on board the Eurostar.

Once we left Paris, the landscape turned immediately to farmland as far as the eye could see. The abruptness of this change struck me; there was no gradual transition through less-populated areas, just city ... then farms.

Some people seem to think the Eurostar is some kind of Magical Mystery Train because it goes under the English Channel. I guess they envision the train traveling underwater through a glass tube, with fish and mermaids paddling by.

In truth, we hardly saw any mermaids.

Seriously, now: The Eurostar is just a train that goes through a long, dark tunnel. The tunnel took about 30 minutes for us to pass through, and when we emerged we were in England.

Most passengers on the Eurostar go all the way from Paris to London (or visa versa), but we got off at the first stop in England, Ashford International Station.

Waiting for us at the station was Nick from Enterprise Rental Car, and immediately we could tell the difference between France and England. Nick was friendly and pleasant, and actually smiled! It wasn't an anomaly; we found the British to be much friendlier than the Parisians.

I picked up some pounds at a ATM at the station that was labeled as "free." In fact, the exchange rate was terrible -- 1.676 dollars to the pound at a time when the bank rate was 1.559 -- but I was in too much of a rush to notice.

Nick drove us to the Enterprise office, less than a mile away. Our car wasn't there yet, so we walked to a mall just a block away for lunch. We'd only been in the country for about an hour and there we were strolling through a comfortable mall. My son insisted on Burger King (sigh), but the rest of us got sandwiches at the Costa cafe. I would come to like the availability and quality of simple sandwiches everywhere in England.

We returned to get our rental car, and after various preliminaries, we were ready to go. I got in on the right side -- the "wrong" side, it seemed -- and found myself behind the steering wheel. I plugged in my GPS and -- uh oh -- it didn't seem to work.  I pulled out my printed directions from Google, but it was all very confusing.

If anyone was driving on the streets of England with me that day, I apologize. This American driver had never driven on the left side of the road, and I gotta admit, that first day was rough.

It's not just that you're driving on the left side of the road. That was my focus, of course, and I repeatedly said to myself, "Stay to the left. Stay to the left."  This was particularly important on turns, where it would so easy for instincts to kick in and swing to the wrong side.

But staying on the left side was an obvious point. What I didn't appreciate was staying in the right place in my lane. As an American driver, I'm used to positioning myself in the left half of the lane; that puts the car in the middle of the lane. The opposite is required in Britain, yet I kept subtly sliding the car leftward, pushing my wife, in the passenger seat, onto the shoulder. It was a surprisingly difficult instinct to get over.

(For more, see An American drives in Britain)

Immediately after leaving the Enterprise lot we got lost. I almost hit a parked car. I got honked at. Things were not looking good. Then we got the GPS working and my wife diligently watched our route. Driving in England, we would find, was a two-person operation.

Soon we were headed south on the M20 (the "M" roads are major highways) toward Dover. Outside the city we encountered a long line of commercial trucks parked in the slow lane (we would eventually see that this line went on for some 10 miles). Then our lane came to a complete stop, too.

I asked a driver who had gotten out of his car what was going on and he mentioned something about "Operation Stack." This meant nothing to me, but I was to learn this was a HUGE issue in the UK.

These trucks were trying to get to France (and on to other parts of Europe), but two problems were interfering with the usual operation of the Eurotunnel and ferries: illegal migrants were storming French-side transportation hubs in an attempt to get to the UK, and French ferry workers were staging strikes.

These truck drivers would be stuck there for days, even weeks, but we were only slightly delayed on our way to Dover Castle.

We had to get fuel on our way there, so we pulled off at a station just before Dover. There were two things notable here: First, it was "pump first," then pay, an option that is virtually extinct in the U.S. (We had two more fuel stops in the UK and they were the same. This was just one of many instances I found showing that the British are very trusting. It gladdened my heart.)

Second, was the price. I wasn't yet used to the dollar-pound conversion, and since they use liters not gallons, it was further complicated, but I came to learn that it cost $71 to fill my tank from the one-quarter fill level. Wow.

Eventually we did reach Dover Castle, and after some difficulty finding an available parking space, we headed inside. My wife got us English Heritage Overseas Visitor passes and we started exploring. Dover Castle is a pretty castle high on a hill overlooking the English Channel, and it includes elements of both medieval and World War II history.

We began by taking the tour of tunnels where operations were hidden underground during World War II.  Audio and video elements explained the Dunkirk evacuation that was coordinated from here.

After that, we climbed the hill -- there is a lot of hill here, so plan your visit accordingly -- to see the medieval castle at the top. We've all seen many castles in movies and TV, but this was the first one I've actually visited, and I wasn't disappointed. I liked that it looked like a castle. The spiral staircases led to ramparts to look out across the land, and inside the castle there were various semi-hidden passageways.

I wish we had more time to explore, but we had to get to London to have dinner with our home exchange partners. We raced up the M20, managing to stay on the correct side of the road, made quick stops at our hotel and at a store, then onto the home we would be staying later during our trip.

I had a driving brain-fart during this section. Leaving our hotel parking lot, I absent-mindedly went to the right side of a driveway as I tried to enter the highway. I had to back up when another car tried to enter.

We had an enjoyable dinner with our new friends, and then went back to our hotel for a good night's sleep. In England.

Next: Day 7, Windsor Castle & Stonehenge

The full trip, by day: 

Days 1 and 2, Los Angeles to Paris

Day 3, Paris

Day 4, the Palace of Versailles

Day 5, the Eiffel Tower

Day 6, Goodbye France, hello England

Day 7, Windsor Castle & Stonehenge

Day 8, Bath

Day 9, Doctor Who and Swansea's LC

Day 10, the waterfalls of Wales

Day 11, Blists Hill and Ironbridge

Day 12, Warwick Castle

Day 13, Oxford and Harry Potter Studio Tour

Day 14, this is London

Day 15, British Museum and British Library

Day 16, the Tube goes on strike

Day 17, Greenwich, the Thames and Westminster Abbey

Day 18, the Tower of London

Day 19, heading home  


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