December Travel Chaos: Part 2 (The French Odyssey)

A quick recap

If you recall, the plan for our December visit to London was:

  • We (Lisa and I) travel to London on Thursday for the TweetDeck Christmas party
  • Rosie & Molly stay with Claire & Tony in Puy-de-Serre
  • Joe stays with Kevin & Amal, also in Puy-de-Serre
  • We return to France on the Saturday, collect the kids and go home
  • We all return to the UK for Christmas with the family the following Tuesday

And back in A Christmas Party, Some Old Friends and Some Angry Birds, we covered the first couple of days when things were going well. When we were happy. And warm.

So let us continue with our story.

So near, yet so far

We woke on the Saturday after a fantastic few days in London, and headed back to Stansted Airport. There were no problems on the trains, so we arrived in plenty of time. However, given the wintry conditions, we were not surprised to find that our flight was delayed by 30 minutes. Still, this was not a problem. We were heading home to find our kids – we could wait another half an hour. While waiting at the gate, the day’s first few flakes of snow started to fall. Still we remained upbeat, as planes were still taking off and it was really only a few flakes.

Before too long we were boarding the plane and took our seats, excited to be heading home and looking forward to getting back to the children. The snow had started to come down a little faster, but we were moving now, so all was well. We started taxiing down the runway and waited for the pilot to announce “Cabin Crew, seats for takeoff”…. But instead of that announcement followed by the plane shooting off into the sky, we came to a halt. Instantly we knew this was Something Very Bad. The cabin crew started faffing around, while we grew more and more agitated. Then came the announcement we had dreaded. “I’m sorry folks, we have been told by Dublin to return to stand.”

The entire plane groaned in frustration. We had been so close! Just another few seconds and we would have been in the air and on our way back to our kids. But now we were looking at a cancelled flight, and no idea what was going to happen next. This was our worst nightmare.

Having disembarked the plane, we all sadly traipsed back to the airport main concourse, where we joined the queue to speak to the Ryanair sales desk about getting a refund for  our cancelled flight, and rearranging another. When we joined the queue there was already about 300 people waiting in front of us. This was not going to be a quick process.

A long wait and a thoughtless Italian

In the queue directly in front of us was an Italian chap with his young daughter. The man was clearly looking out for his wife, and kept leaving his little girl, no more than 3 or 4 years old, in the queue while he disappeared with his phone clamped to his ear.

The girl was very sweet, and we kept ushering her along when the queue started moving, but the time between her father’s visits was getting longer and longer. Everyone in the vicinity was amazed that the man could leave such a young girl completely on her own for such long periods of time. In the end, the party in front of the girl stopped a passing policewoman and reported the situation. She took the girl to one side and things could well have escalated if the absent father had not returned at that point. After some very stern words from the policewoman, the girl and her father were reunited. Although he didn’t leave her again, the man was still very distracted, and could very easily have lost his daughter again as the queue moved along without her. We were really quite shocked how much disregard he showed for her safety.

Also in the queue near us were a young couple who were heading in our direction. Quite remarkably, they were heading to Fontenay-le-Comte (the nearest large town to where we live in France)! We had a good chat with them and discovered that they were heading back to see relatives who ran a bar on Rue des Loges – it certainly is a small world.

So, we waited in line for what seemed like an eternity, and got basically nowhere. Through phone calls and internet searches, we established that all Ryanair and Easyjet flights were cancelled, with no prospect of  replacement flights for at least another two days. Word eventually filtered through the queue that we were pretty much wasting our time. The staff at the desk were only handing out a printout from the Ryanair website giving instructions to claim a refund and to rebook online. So, we needed a new plan. There was no way we could just sit and wait for goodness-only-knows-how-long for another flight. The kids were waiting for us at home and we were booked on flights to come back again on Tuesday. This was not in The Plan.

A new plan

We made some calls. When we left the Dixies the night before they had said to get in touch if there were any difficulties with the journey. So we called Kevin, who got straight on the case, finding us details of trains, buses and even booking us a hotel in London for the night. What a superstar! It seemed that trains were going to be no good. Although the Stansted Express was still running at this point, very few trains south of London were still operating, so our chances of getting out that way were minimal. Kevin had offered for us to take their car and drive it home, but the snow was so back near them that we would never have got there, never mind been able to drive it out again. So, with all flights cancelled, we followed the lead of our Fontenay-bound friends and turned to National Express coaches for a solution.

The queue at the National Express booking office at the airport was huge, with everyone having the same idea, so I grabbed the phone number off a leaflet and called them instead. Luckily we managed to book ourselves onto a coach leaving Victoria first thing in the morning and arriving in Paris around 4pm. From there we could catch a train to Poitiers to pick up the car and get home. Apparently they were unaffected by the snow so far, so we kept our fingers crossed that this would remain the case until tomorrow. With a hotel booked for us by our guardian angel in Ware, we headed off to the train to get back into London and find somewhere to eat and sleep for the night.

Back to where we started

Sadly, this too was not destined to go well. Our train was late. But not “It’s going to be REALLY late” late, where we could have gone and got comfortable somewhere while we waited. Oh no, it was just constantly 40 minutes late. Every minute we waited, the expected arrival time progressed by a minute. So we never had a clue quite when it was going to arrive, if at all.

After three hours of standing on a frozen platform, open to the elements, without food and with just one coffee inside us from the passing refreshment trolley, finally a train arrived. I have never been more glad to see a Stansted Express train in my life! Like eager shoppers at the Boxing Day sales, the crowd swelled toward the train and poured inside. I charged on board, dragging Lisa behind me, determined that we were going to get a seat after standing for the last six hours or so.

Our insistence paid off and we were one of the lucky few who got a seat. People were literally crammed into the train like refugees, their suitcases and bags piled high in the gangway. Although we were packed in like sardines, at least we were warmer and more comfortable than before. However, we were not our of the woods just yet. Although we were on the train, we were not actually going anywhere. It was 6.30pm by now, but we were told that our train had just become the 7pm service – so we had to wait another 30 minutes before we could leave. By this point we had just about given up caring.

Eventually, to much cheering, we pulled out of the station and headed back to London, from where we had started our journey that morning. It was certainly an eventful journey (of course, it was never going to be boring!). After a while, a Scottish guy, clearly with a few too many Special Brews inside him, started kicking off. He was yelling at some poor chap who he claimed was Russian – we have no idea if he was or wasn’t, but the drunk guy was pretty insistent. Given the fact that the train was completely overcrowded, this was really very intimidating. Luckily a couple of American guys pinned him into a tight corner of the train and forced him to calm down, but his ongoing outbursts certainly dampened the Dunkirk Spirit that had developed on the train until that point. Fortunately the Scottish man left the train at the next stop and a calm returned to the carriage once more.

Meanwhile, we were being entertained by a young brother and sister who were travelling with their french grandparents. We started speaking in french, but then realised the kids spoke english, which made life a lot easier. They were both very sweet and the girl didn’t stop talking all through the journey. I think talking to us helped all of us to take out minds off the situation and it was some welcome light relief after a very stressful few hours.

Tom to the rescue

It was while were on this journey that we finally had a stroke of good luck. I had a call from Tom, a colleague from work and a good friend, offering us a place to stay for the night. We didn’t need asking twice. Given the day we were having, the chance of a warm house, a glass of wine, a nice meal and some top company was very welcome. So we jumped off the train at the next stop and made our way to Tom’s house. I say that like it was an easy process – of course it wasn’t. It involved lugging our bags through the snowy London streets and navigating the brand-new East London line, a stretch of the rail network I had never used before. But made it we did, and good old Tom was there at the station to meet us. To say that we were thankful for the hospitality that he and Jessie showed us, would be like saying the Pope is a bit religious. We were so delighted to be safe and actually feeling relaxed for the first time that day. It was a brief few hours of chilled out, relaxing chat, with a big glass of wine and a great homemade curry. Just what we needed and a total lifesaver.

While enjoying our respite with Tom and Jessie, we decided to book our train from Paris to Poitiers, as there were likely to be thousands of stranded people pouring into Paris the next day and we didn’t want to get stuck there too. So, after some wrangling with an uncooperative printer, we managed to book our ticket and print off the required e-voucher. At least that was sorted, we just needed to get to Paris.

Paris, here we come

At 5.30am we were whisked by taxi off to Victoria station to locate our coach. Having clambered over the scattered bodies of people who had clearly slept the night in the coach station, we checked in successfully and waited for our coach. However the first worry of the day came soon after when there was an announcement that all National Express coaches were cancelled. Our hearts sank and we thought that we were going to face another day stuck in London, unable to get back to the kids (who were, incidentally, being very well looked after by our friends, thank goodness. This knowledge, however, didn’t stop us being desperate to get back to them…).  We soon realised that actually we were going to be travelling under the Eurolines banner, which was a slightly different thing and was therefore not affected by the cancellation. Panic over!

Waiting for the coach

While waiting for the coach to arrive, who should we see but the couple from the airport who were trying to get back to Fontenay! They had booked on the same coach as us and had the same plan – get to Paris and then take a train. We offered them a lift with us if they wanted to get the same train from Paris to Poitiers, but they had already booked accommodation in Paris for the night. It was good to see them again though and made it feel a little less painful seeing some familiar faces.

The journey to Folkestone was largely uneventful, thank goodness. The roads were mainly clear, though there was a lot of snow on the verges, and we arrived at the tunnel in good time. We were delayed for an hour, but took this opportunity to stretch our legs and grab some reading material and food from the shops. Before long we were on our way and heading to the tunnel. Just as we thought we were finally going to get out of England, we were pulled in by French customs who boarded the coach and took all our passports. Half an hour later they returned and handed back the passports. Quite what they were doing with them all this time we do not know.

Arriving at the Tunnel

What we do know is that while we were sitting there waiting, about 10 eastern european coaches breezed past unhindered. Something not right there.
Anyway, we eventually made it onto the Eurotunnel train and finally felt like we were getting somewhere. Once we got into France, surely everything would be fine and we could get home to our kids. Of course, that would have been too easy.

Welcome to Calais

The weather in Calais wasn’t great, with a fair bit of snow around, but no worse than we had experienced in England. We left the tunnel behind and were looking forward to a nice easy drive down to Paris, when suddenly we pulled into a petrol station just before joining the autoroute to Calais. Utter, utter disaster. Because of the supposedly-dangerous weather, the police were not allowing us to continue on our journey. We would be taken to a local sports hall where we would spend the night and we could possibly try again in the morning.

This news nearly sparked a riot on the coach. The weather was nothing worse than we had seen on the road to Folkestone, but the police weren’t budging. They had even parked their car across the front of the coach to ensure we couldn’t leave. An air of total depression fell over everyone on board. I pulled out the iPhone and started looking at options. If only we could get to the station at Calais, we could catch a train from there to Paris. Or even to Lille, then on to Nantes from there. We just had to keep moving, to get closer to the children, there was no way we wanted to just stop and wait.

But sadly the police were not going to be swayed. We were to be escorted to the sports hall and that was that. The fact that dozens of other vehicles were zooming past while we were stuck at the side o the road was seemingly immaterial to them, unfortunately. So eventually we pulled out behind our police escort and headed to the sports hall feeling totally dejected. Our low spirits were not raised at all by us being able to see the train station as we drove away from our parking spot. If only we could divert there, we could all get on our way, but it was not to be.

The Red Cross? Really?

On arrival at the sports hall, we started to feel like we were unwitting victims of a terrible disaster. A man climbed aboard the coach and declared, “Welcome to Calais. You are now under the control of the French Red Cross. We have food, drink and blankets for you and beds for the night. We will look after you…”. Now you might think we would be relieved at this, and indeed we would have been if we had not been desperate to get back to our kids. Such great care would have been very welcome if we were just travelling for fun and not on a race against time. As it was, this was the last thing we wanted. But, not really knowing at this point what was going to happen, we disembarked the coach and shuffled into the sports hall rather dazed and confused.

Once inside, the stresses of the day started to take their toll. We both started to break down a little and making the phone call to the kids to tell then what had happened was a very difficult thing to do. When speaking to Rosie I told her that we were being treated like we had been in an earthquake. She hadn’t heard me properly and proceeded to tell everyone that we had been in an earthquake. After some very worried phone calls, we managed to persuade everyone that we were safe and well and hadn’t actually been victims of a natural disaster, just the over-efficiency o the French authorities!

Seeing Lisa in some distress, one of the Red Cross people came over and offered us somewhere quiet to go and lie down. They were very considerate and we couldn’t have asked for better treatment, but we explained that we really only wanted to get home to our kids. He said he understood and that he would see what he could do to help. a short while later he returned to explain that he had spoken to a man with a taxi firm and he would take us to the station at Calais, from where we could catch a train into Paris and from there to home. We were delighted to be offered a way out. There had been a couple of shuttle buses going to the station earlier on, but the weather was now very bad and our man told us that ours would be the last taxi to leave before the weather closed in.

So we were suddenly feeling a lot more positive, but we now had a different problem. We had, as instructed, left our suitcases on the coach. Having been out into the car park I could find neither our coach nor our driver anywhere. After some 15 minutes of searching, I finally tracked him down. Luckily he was already on his way to find the coach and retrieve a bag for another man, so I tagged along too. The coach was inexplicably parked about 25 minutes up the road, so the walk there through the snow was far from ideal. But we made it through and I dragged our bags back. Good job I did as well, as the driver then refused to go and fetch any more bags after that, so everyone else was definitely stranded.

Time for a new plan

Given the delays on trains heading into Paris, we changed our plan of attack. We would try to get from Calais to Lille, then from Lille we could catch a train to Nantes. We rang our good friend Curtis, who had offered his assistance, and he was an absolute hero. He said that of course he would pick us up from Nantes and take us home, no matter what time of the day or night, and then would take us back to Poitiers in the morning to retrieve the car. We were so, so grateful, and this wonderful news really lifted our spirits – we could finally see an end in sight.

After a while our taxi came and we escaped our well-meaning imprisonment. Upon arrival at the station, we were quite surprised not to see huge crowds of people. One of the reasons we were given for not being allowed to go to the station in the first place was that apparently there were huge crowds there, and all the trains were cancelled. No such crowds at Calais Ville station. It was about 5pm when we arrived and had to wait about 2 hours, but eventually a train came and took us to Lille. After facing the prospect of spending maybe the next two days in Calais only just a few hours ago, the sense of relief to be leaving was immense even more so as the weather was now really closing in around us.

A long time in Lille

Having arrived in Lille, we discovered that our connecting train departed from the other station in Lille. It wasn’t too far to walk, only 10 minutes, but the weather was terrible, with temperatures of about -10 and a strong icy wind stinging our faces. Although that 10-minute walk nearly gave us frostbite, we kept moving, confident that we were getting closer and closer to home. The departure board at Lille Europe station was a sea of delays and cancellations, though the Nantes train wasn’t yet being displayed, so we had no idea of it’s status. When eventually it appeared on the board, our positive attitude took another knock – delayed by three hours.

Waiting at Lille

Ah well, we thought, at least we’re near civilisation. This is a station, there are cafés and bars. We can sit and have a meal while we’re waiting…

If only it were so simple! Everything was closing. We found a bar that was packed – so many people were stranded this night and the station, like most I would imagine, was full of travellers all just trying to keep warm while they waited for a way home. So did this result in longer opening or “special measures’? Not on your nelly. We had just managed to buy a glass of wine each and a small tub of Pringles, the only food they had in the entire bar, when the staff started closing up around us. That was that, we were thrown back out onto the frozen platform to wait for the next two hours.The only consolation was the vertical patio heaters they had on the platform, which provided a tiny amount of heat to help keep the cold from totally killing us off.

In the end, after much shivering and “never again”ing, our train arrived at around 11pm. Poor Curtis, it would be about 3am when we arrived in Nantes, but he was an absolute star. The journey to Nantes passed without any real problems. We slept a lot of the way, totally exhausted, frozen to the core and just aching to be back in our own bed.

Curtis, our saviour

True to his word, Curtis was there at Nantes waiting for us with hot tea, blankets and food. We really are so indebted to him for his assistance, which was way beyond the call of duty. In fact all our friends had been outstanding in their support. Kevin and Amal and Claire and Tony had been superb in looking after the kids for us and the extended stay was no bother to them at all. Everyone on Facebook and Twitter were pouring out their best wishes or us as we kept everyone updated on our progress. It was a very humbling experience for us all to see the reaction to our plight, and we felt very, very lucky to have such amazing friends.

And so, eventually, after having left our London hotel almost 48 hours earlier, we finally arrived home safe and sound at 5am and collapsed into bed.  The journey, like this post, had been truly epic. So many ups and downs, twists and turns, that we had lost track of where we were and what we were doing. But one instinct kept pulling us through, and that was the need to get home to be with our kids. And the reunion with them the next morning was very special indeed.

The end…almost

As a postscript to all this, you will recall that our car was still parked at Poitiers. So, as promised, Curtis came by later on to take me back to the airport to retrieve it. The only difficulty being that I couldn’t find the car park ticket. This was very unlike me, as I am normally very organised about such things and store all tickets and receipts safely in my wallet. but this one ticket was definitely not there. I eventually managed to recall that for some reason I had left it in the back pocket of my jeans. The very jeans that Claire had taken earlier that day, along with a load more dirty clothes from our trip, to help us get caught up on the washing. So yes, you guessed it. The ticket had been though the washing machine.

“It’s ok,” said Claire, “the magnetic strip is still on one piece.”

I assumed this meant that it was still attached to a piece o the ticket. I was wrong! On the way to the airport we called at Claire’s and she handed me an envelope containing what can only be described as a few flakes of card, plus the magnetic strip. this was going to be fun…

Anyway, we took the pieces along to the airport and the man there listened to my sob story about what had happened. Luckily he took pity on me and issued a new ticket, allowing me to take the car and head home again.

And so ends the tale of our nightmare journey home. Our French Odyssey.

Thanks once again to our guardian angels who helped us along the way –  Kevin, Tom, Jessie, Curtis, Kevin, Amal, Claire, Tony and everyone else who helped guide us home to safety. We couldn’t have done it without them all and we will always be grateful or what they did for us.

Although we always know we had the best family and friends, it is often only when you are really at your lowest that you realise it.

And for us now, there is no doubt.

Chasing the sunshine on Ile de Re

Sunday morning was a dull grey affair, with the sun only just breaking through at lunchtime. We were resigned to an afternoon in the cinema (“17 Again” with Zac Effron – in French!…Whoopee!) until we got the call from Kevin –  “We’re on Ile de Re and it’s sunny!”

So, never ones to pass up the opportunity for an afternoon on the beach, we threw some things in a bag and scooted off to our favourite island.

The closer we got to La Rochelle, the cloudier it became.

By the time we reached the bridge to the island, it was pouring down. Pedestrians and cyclists alike were taking shelter under trees and cafe parasols.

A call to Kevin established that where they were, in St Martin de Re, was indeed sunny and dry – obviously a small patch of sunshine in the midst of a sky full of  black clouds. So we headed for the town with the beautiful harbour, where we would find the fabled ice cream shop, subject of many a “you have to try this…” conversation with the Dixies.

And for a while, once united with the folks from La Rochelle, we were indeed in a little bubble of sunshine. We ordered huge ice creams from the famous shop, which were delicious as promised. Some said I obviously have a big mouth, as mine was the only ice cream to not melt and run all down my hand. I prefer to think that it was my superior ice-cream-licking skills that prevented me from losing any of my white chocolate and “crumble” flavoured heaven from my italian-style cornet.

I allowed myself a little smugness🙂

Sadly, our ice-cream-fuelled frivolity was not to last much longer as the wind whipped up and the clouds surrounded us. So, we jumped in the cars and headed off in the direction of the last remaining patch of blue sky towards Les Portes en Re.

Once there we took a stroll along the beach, a stone/shingle combination with lots of seaweed, that Sylvie had great fun popping underfoot. Kevin, ever the hunter-gatherer, decided he was going to attempt to catch some fish, so we split up with Molly and I laughing at accompanying Kevin, and the others exploring the beach-side forest.

Unsurprisingly the fish were outwitting Kevin once again, though it wasn’t his fault, or course :)  But it was a very pleasant day, with the small patch of blue sky having expanded into a vast cloudless swathe of blue as far as the eye could see.

As the sun started to dip we headed back to the cars, not taking with us anything vaguely resembling a fish (unless you count the rubber “bait” in Kevin’s fishing box-of-tricks….), but certainly taking some happy memories of another great day out.

With the summer setting in, we look forward to many more such days. This is why we love it here and why we will always will.

Great weather, beautiful places, special friends and happy times.

Who could want anything more?

A bit of a wind problem

Last night was an interesting night.

We had been alerted by our friend Peter in the morning to a violent storm heading our way. Taking his good advice, we tucked all the garden furniture away safely in the garage and waited for the onslaught. By lunchtime it was really raining cats and dogs and the wind was whipping up.

Here it comes, we thought…..wrongly.

The winds we had in the morning were nothing compared to what was to come.

We closed all the shutters by 6.30, lit a fire and made sure all the hatches were suitably battened down. And by 8pm it hit us. A wind so fierce it seriously felt like the roof was going to lift off and the windows would be blown in. It was battering the shutters and in our bedroom we could still feel the breeze coming through. (Note to self: replacement windows required soon!)

There is a wire hanging loose from a pole outside next-door’s house which I am sure was sparking like a live electricity cable – very scary.

The lights were flickering and the power went off briefly. Checking Twitter [here] I could see many of our friends across the country starting to experience the same conditions. Thankfully no-one seemed to be in any danger.

The worst part of the evening came when the wind was so strong it was blowing the smoke from the fire back  into the room. This really freaked us all out. I quickly grabbed the remaining log from the fire and threw it outside, where it fizzled away harmlessly in the angry wind. Thankfully this stopped the smoke and we could all start to breathe again!

Eventually we decided we may as well go to bed. All the kids were tucked up watching films in bed and so we tucked ourselves in too, expecting a rather disturbed night. But as it turned out we slept pretty well (well,  I did,so was blissfully unaware of anyone else’s problems🙂 )

In the morning I walked the perimeter of the house, checking for damage and, rather surprisingly,  there was none to speak of. The satelite dish had clearly been blown  a little out of alignment as we were unable to get anything at all on the TV (panic!!). A quick  trip up the ladder this afternoon soon fixed that.  But, as expected, the trampoline did not fare too well. As it did the last time, the wind managed to lift it up and flip it over several times, dumping it unceremoniously upside-down on the field. This just goes to show how strong the wind is, as it normally takes 3 of us to just shuffle the trampoline along a little so we can cut the grass! I don’t know  how many more tumbles it can take, but I’m hopeful that I can keep it going for a bit longer yet!

Tonight is, thankfully, a quieter night,  with the wind still blowing and bitingly cold, but not at all as bad as last night. We hope that we won’t have a storm like that for a long time to come.