What Never to Say to Security at the Channel Tunnel..

The Control Technique certificate, an annual and rather tedious necessity for the average Frenchman holds for us a somewhat elusive quality. Driving as I do an ancient, unrecognised Japanese import about France means that I am easily recognised by my friends but has the somewhat inconvenient issue of having to take it across the Channel annually to put it through its MOT.

While it is possible to gain a ‘Certificate de Conformité gris’  and imatriculate unusual cars at the Prefecture – it had become a delicate balance between whether the cost of realigning the headlights to that of a left-hand drive will be cost-effective based on its remaining lifespan. So it was that I found myself turning out of the gate last thursday, having shed a crowd of French teenage boys in the aftermath of my 14 year old’s birthday sleepover, and heading for Calais.

It took only twenty metres to discover that the gearbox had just failed, and thankfully ‘husband à l’etranger’ was with me, and with him – where there’s a will, there’s a way! To add to the challenge, last thursday was a bank holiday which, unlike in the UK means that everything is closed. We managed to limp the car to the nearby service station and discovered that the oily patch in our parking-space in the courtyard was in fact the contents of our ‘Boite de Vitesse’ (gear-box)

Thankfully we discovered that once we had purchased a suitable funnel and a bottle of ‘Huile de Transmission’ (gear-box oil) the car actually engaged in gear and moved. Stopping to refill the gearbox every 80km we made it to the check-in at the Channel Tunnel.

For the first time in our experience, the queue for check-in was so lengthy that we managed to miss our check-in time and were relegated to a train some four and a half hours later. Not to be outdone, we made our usual manoeuvre of trying to make a bolt for it past the security to the embarkation lanes by holding our ‘G’ hanger upside down and back to front whilst all the other cars were sporting ‘X’s and ‘Y’s. We were not successful.

Having failed to convince the security that the fault of our delay lay with the enormous queue the other side of the ‘check-in’ and in a desperate attempt to catch an earlier train I piped up, smiling sweetly..

‘Monsieur, C’est très important que nous prendrons le prochain train car nous avons un rendez-vous chez une garage en Angleterre. Nous avons une fuite d’huile’

(Its very important that we take the next train because we have an appointment at the garage in England. We have an oil leak)

whereupon Monsieur Le Securité replied, also smiling sweetly but firmly –

‘Madame –

Si vous avez une fuite d’huile, vous n’allez pas prendre ce train, ni le train en quatre heures et demie, ni aucun autre train, aujourd’hui, demain, ni aucun autre jour.’

(‘Madam – If you have an oil leak, you are not going to be taking this train, nor the train in 4 and a half hours, nor any other train, not today, tomorrow nor any other day!’)

So there you have it, along side telling security you have a weapon in the car, drive with LPG or have an Ash sapling, where you will inevitably be delayed whilst the offending article is removed and yourself interrogated, this is probably the worst thing that you can say to a Channel Tunnel security guard.

As luck would have it, the depannage (breakdown) lorry driver who was sent to deal with us had a smile that reached past his lips to a sparkle in his eye. Having minimized the damaging statement to the fact that the leak was really tiny (honest!) and that it didn’t leak at all when the vehicle was stationary (difficult to uphold since we had been stopped over a puddle and as one knows, oil likes to freely disperse itself into an ENORMOUS slick in water), the depannage engineer rang through to the train to request instant passage on the next train –

…possibly because he appreciated that we spoke the language – although the children cringing in the back would hasten to differ.

…Possibly because he’d never seen a car like it and didn’t want to tackle its unknown engine on a bank holiday.

…Possibly because he was just a very nice man.

We were on the next train out!


8. Octobre – control technique – MOT’s

I realised, with a futile annoyance that I should have MOT’d the car before we had left England! Considering that having my car immatriculated “French style” would be straightforward, I decided to take the bull by the horns and approach Toyota in Paris for some general advice. Rather than attempting a phone call which would demonstrate huge omissions in my vocabulary, I went for the safer option of an email. Now, my written French is reasonably passable, so I sent off my request and waited. Paris was quick to reply. To pass first base I needed a “Certificate de Conformité”, which they assured me was straightforward. It was a matter of filling in a form with the chassis number, registration plate, model, fuel type and so on. Once this stage was passed I would be required to put the car in for a Control Tecnique – France’s version of a MOT and obtain a Carte Gris. The most complicated part of the process would be to have my headlights realigned to comply with France’s Volet Gauche (Left hand drive).

A few minutes later, having stuck my head inside the bonnet, I completed the form with chassis number and all other required information and sent it off to the very pleasant man in Paris. This was the point at which our relationship faltered – I promptly received an email back politely requesting that I gave the complete chassis number, as he had only received 12 digits from me. Somewhat bemused I stuck my head once more under the bonnet, but the 12 digits remained 12. From this point onwards the helpful man dug his heels in. All French cars have 16 digits, and mine would have to have the required number or it would not be recognised!

A quick call to our trusty garage in the UK clarified matters, it appeared that because my car was a Japanese import it was missing the vital four digits. Rather than being a Japanese car built for the UK market, it was a Japanese car built for Japan and imported privately once three years old. I had reached a dead end in the simplest part of the Immatriculation process. There was nothing for it but to drive it back to the UK, a month after I had left and MOT it, English style with the distinct possibility that this would be a yearly visit!

We have since discovered that having a non-french, i.e not a Renault or Citroen, car in France is a very bad idea since parts are also hugely expensive and mechanics are also not so familiar with the model to complete repairs quickly. I have also discovered that there is also a  recognised system for applying for “grey imports” which applies to my car – but I have yet to get it done. The form looks oenerous and I have yet to muster any enthusiasm to get on with it.

The children have continued to go to school without complaint! Of them all, the most optimistic has been Rory. The French children appear to have been welcoming and friendly, shaking hands, faisant les bises (kissing cheeks) and offering sweets. Rory has also been fortunate, being the sole child with an English speaking student in his class. However the good humour disguises the true nature of their emotions which are on a knife edge. There was an occasion where Rory’s classes finished an hour early at the end of the day and students were permitted to leave school early, so long as their pass card had the right code printed on it, or a parent was there to collect. Arriving early, I was forced to move the car to a proper parking space. In the meantime the students came to the gate and the Surveillant gave the nod to those whose passes were in order. Unfortunately Rory arrived at the gate in those vital minutes when I was parking the car, and was refused leave and sent to Etude. I waited the hour having unsuccessfully located him but my guilt levels ran high as I received him an hour later deeply upset and frustrated at his inability to explain that I would be outside. Such small events were to be such huge triggers for emotion.

Similarly Anabel had her mobile phone confiscated for being used in school, despite the fact that she was texting me for translation of a task she had been set. I had to explain to the very unaccommodating member of staff, that at present their mobile phone’s were a life-line to enable them to communicate and that perhaps for the first month or two a certain leniency could be accommodated since none of the staff seemed to be able to speak English in case of difficulty.

As Rory’s birthday approached, a huge fair was constructed on the quay-side of the River Seine. Lasting almost a month, the lights glittered, and the smell of the fair tantalised the children for weeks, until we suggested a birthday trip by way of a celebration. So we roared around on rollercoasters and spun in teacups under a warm evening sky, a great compromise instead of a party as we waited for our children’s friendships to establish.

Finding the cost of living prohibitively more expensive than the UK,  the need for registration with the Caisse Allocation Familiale and  Assurance Medicale were all the more urgent. With some outstanding costs still to cover thanks to the move  we were feeling the  drain on our resources. We took a two pronged attack, one contacting the London and Rouen offices to clarify the allowance situation for overseas moves  for which there seemed to be divergent views, and the second to visit the Caisse Familiale to find out what was causing such a delay with our registration. The former attack seemed to be inconclusive, the latter produced results. The Caisse Familiale, once contacted revealed that three of our birth certificates were of the short format, and unacceptable. We contacted the Office of Births, Deaths and Marriages in the UK and ordered 3 long version certificates, and believing our work completed, sat back and waited!