Like millions of other people around the world, I have been separated from family members who live abroad.
I managed to visit my parents and brother in France with my partner and young daughter last July but that was the last time. After months of lockdown I have become more and more obsessed with the idea of moving to rural France to be near them – life in the city has become small, boring and claustrophobic, and a huge sadness has engulfed us. For my parents to miss their grandchild growing up is uniquely painful.
The pandemic has forced me to reassess the way I am living and what I want from life, something I know I am not alone in. Searching for property in France became a nightly habit over the winter, and after many conversations with my parents and wife, we decided to seriously explore the idea of relocating. When the “Stanley Johnson loophole” came into play in March 2021 for travel overseas “in connection with the purchase, sale, letting or rental of a residential property”, I decided now would be the time to attempt a visit to France to view some houses.
As we all know, holidays have been banned but visiting an estate agent is clearly stated as a “reasonable excuse”, so I set about arranging some visits to farmhouses and chateaux I’d earmarked over the past few months. I printed out the viewing details and the “Bon Pour Visite” document from my estate agent as evidence for border control. I was anxious about how much I would be grilled over my reason for travel but when I got to the station, Eurostar staff were welcoming and helpful.
I came with an entire dossier of documents for the journey from London to Toulouse via Paris: negative Covid results from PCR tests taken within 72 hours of departure; 12 train tickets for the three of us; the UK government’s “Declaration Form for International Travel” forms; “sworn statements” (déclaration sur l’honneur) that we didn’t have any coronavirus symptoms when entering France; confirmation of PCR test bookings for day seven in France (you have to quarantine until then); and a French curfew exemption because we weren’t going to arrive until 9pm. Plus all the property documentation.
After all that, no one asked us about our reason for travel – the forms were given a cursory glance, although the Covid test results were scrutinised a little longer by the French officer.
The best thing about travelling by Eurostar – apart from the fact that you don’t have the airport rigmarole of removing laptops and liquids at security – is that French immigration is conducted in London; there are no checks in Paris. So we were quickly able to breathe a sigh of relief.
Once in the French capital, we had to take the metro from Gare du Nord to Gare Montparnasse for our connecting train to Toulouse. This was a nightmare for two reasons. One: there are very few lifts and no escalators so it was difficult with luggage and a pushchair. Two: I got violently mugged.
A man ripped off the gold chain I was wearing when I came through the ticket barriers and scratched my neck, leaving me bleeding. Luckily some plain-clothed police witnessed it and managed to arrest him – and return my (now broken) necklace.
We were all very shaken but the officers managed to complete a statement on my behalf instead of requiring me to go to the police station and got us on to our train on time, which felt like a miracle.
I was desperate for a G&T but due to Covid rules there was no catering onboard for the 4.5-hour journey. My parents picked us up in the car – with a hot thermos of English breakfast tea – just after 9pm, and I don’t think I have ever felt so relieved. The preparation and journey was intensely stressful, especially being responsible for a young child throughout.
We have now been out here over a week and had our first property viewing booked for the weekend. We travelled an hour to the nearest clinic for our PCR test last week but, at the time of writing, my results still haven’t come through, meaning I can’t officially stop quarantining.
I have phoned the clinic but no one picks up and no email address is provided. The general link to access test results requires a login that I don’t have. Will I be stuck in limbo forever? What happens if you are waiting for a PCR result to get home and it doesn’t come through?
There are countless hurdles to travel right now, especially to and from an “amber list” country such as France – so if you are going to attempt a trip, make sure it’s worth it.
Pre-departure PCR tests in the UK are £260 for two people (children under 11 are exempt); privatecoronavirustests.com. Day-seven tests in France are €112 at Biomed34 Lab for two people (book online, pay on arrival); doctolib.fr.
Train fares from £699 standard return for three people (Eurostar London-Paris, plus TGV Paris-Toulouse). Visit Eurostar for more details.