Travel in Corona Times: How to Cross the North Sea in Six Easy Steps

Lockdown, Day 74. I have lost too many games of Scrabble; I’m having a crack at crossing the channel…

To Contextualise

Like many long-distance couples, my partner and I had been locked down for several months apart — he in Germany and I in the UK. It wasn’t ideal, but it also wasn’t a new experience for us; we’d been doing long-distance since time began, and I was writing a dissertation, so couldn’t remember what the outside world looked like anyway. On some skype call or other, we’d agreed I would move in with him, once his state had the virus under greater control.

By June, restaurants were filling again, and extended family were allowed back into Germany to visit loved ones. I told Valentin, I wouldn’t come for another month, but in truth, I couldn’t lose another game of Scrabble. I would surprise him in time for the 8th June, his birthday.

There was one slight flaw in the plan. Border control required you to be registered at a German address or else have a reason deemed “essential” to guarantee crossing. With these restrictions in place until June 15th, getting there in time looked dubious.

1. Plotting

Asterix bei den Briten. (Rene Goscinny. Albert Uderzo.)

This had not been a spontaneous decision. A two-week, self-implemented quarantine had flown by, coinciding with a period of rigorous, militarised planning. This was the May/June heatwave and family members dotted about the back garden, eating strawberries, and reading the Foreign and Commonwealth Office Admissions Advice on the German Interior Ministry regulations — idyllic days.

My relationship with Valentin is long-term, but as we’re unmarried and (thankfully) unrelated, it falls into the bureaucratic grey-zone.  On research, we were surprised to discover that I had more right to enter the country to tend to a donkey there, than to live in a partner’s residence. Online advice was ominous and clearly targeted towards dissuading idiots from city breaking. After one particularly scheming conversation, it occurred to Mum and I, that we might be audible over the garden fence.

In the neighbouring garden, Judy and Ray sit down for a prawn cocktail.

“Maintain eye contact with whoever’s on duty — the guilty never know where to look.” Comes Dad’s voice.

“…No, no they can’t arrest you for that. They can’t, can they?” My mother, pacing.

Later, down by the shed:

“I’m thinking of a sham marriage. You know, just to get me over the border.”

“I’ve been on the Bundespolizei website again. It says if you’re left-handed and own a didgeridoo that closely resembles George Washington, you’re more likely to be accepted into the country on the grounds of providing an essential service. Now your grandfather’s just been on the internet and…”

And so it went, Judy and Ray concluding that their Happy-Families-playing neighbours were harbouring a fugitive.

Inevitably, I let the cat out of the bag to Valentin, days before I was due to leave. At least he agreed the least stringent checks lay between the Netherlands and Germany. We never did find a didgeridoo…

2. Pretext

By the time we left for Harwich International Port, I knew more about EU border admissions than was every necessary to know. I am prone to obsess and was equipped with an obese folder of documents, residence addresses and reasons for entering the Netherlands. From there, I would traverse the German border by train, operating under the guise of:

“Seasonal farm hand, covering a shortage of staff.” I know, it was badass.

3. Decontamination

Asterix bei den Briten (Rene Goscinny. Albert Uderzo.)

We arrived at the seaport as it was getting dark, the rest of them waiting in the car while I checked in. (I assume we all thought I would be returning shortly with some sort of warrant.)

It was a bizarre feeling, being allowed through security. I set the metal detector off and an officer came to perform a spot check. She stood centimetres from my face, contact now clandestine and wrong after months avoiding people. However, by some miracle, I was not tackled to the ground by a 7-foot colossus in a hazmat suit, as in my dream the night before. She allowed me through, and I boarded with little hassle.

It had been mandatory to book a cabin overnight – something I can’t remember ever having done, preferring:

  1.  The thrill of sitting bolt upright in a plastic chair next to a toddler on the brink of combustion.
  2. The satisfaction of waking with a spine like a u-bend, having saved £24.99.

It was a strange sense of quiet inside this mock hotel room. Everything gleamed in chrome and I was perplexed to discover that what I’d thought was a fire escape, was in fact the door to an en-suite bathroom. It had its own shower, an astounding piece of engineering and completely unnecessary for an overnight crossing.

I closed the door behind me and enjoyed a full minute of relief. Sadly, this was cut short by the internal doomsayer who began to catalogue the bacteria I’d come into contact with, in the 15-minute walk from the waiting room to the ferry:

“3 doorknobs, two lift buttons, the security belt and tray, the glove of the officer who held your suitcase, the tv remote, the phone screen, your jacket…”

It was midnight. Wearily, I looked at the gloves and mask, then back at myself in the mirror. Browbeaten by the irritating little gnome in my head, I began an aggressive sterilisation of the environment.

Inevitably, the scene descends into a black and white slapstick comedy as I realise, I have been cleaning items before replacing them on “non-sanitised” ground. An hour and a half later, crazed and frazzled from an infinite and mind-bending cycle of disinfecting, I now have sanitiser in my own hair (and only half on purpose), finally getting changed by hopping about like a leper in Life of Brian, before launching myself from the shower to bed in an attempt to avoid contaminating bare feet. I sink into the mattress, slightly taken back at my own ridiculousness. I wait in the dark for the 5am tannoy.

4. Border Crossing

The next morning was border control day. I disembarked and followed my fellow passengers, whose musical footwear made it clear they were residents returning home. I felt conspicuously British, standing in the passport check line with a hot cross bun and the back catalogue of Germany’s border control policies. A young man called me forward and I heard Dad’s voice say, “try not to blink too much”, as I stood, looking him in the eye with, what I later recalled was, psychotic intensity. He took my passport, wordlessly punched what could only have been two keys into his computer and without a second glance, waved me through.

Although disappointed not to have called him out for line three, article 37 of my Coronavirus admissions printout, I was across the border.

5. Public Transport

Travel through the Netherlands was eye-opening. I had gone from an apocalyptic land of stasis and twitching curtains, to a parallel dimension, as if the tram towards the Hague had jolted us forward along the timeline. Cinemas were open alongside the road and streets busy with morning custom.

In the background, the pandemic hovered like an understudy. Masks are obligatory on public transport and give the same eerie half-impression of those you meet at a distance. And yet, life had returned in some small, meaningful way to the Netherlands. As we shot past the hordes of commuting cyclists, the overhead speakers began to play Queen’s “Bicycle Race.” Truly, the best three minutes, three seconds of my life.

Regrettably, eating on public transport remains a minefield for the neurotic. On the train to Düsseldorf, I observed the behaviour of fellow passengers further down the carriage, in the hope of gaining some tipoffs. After half an hour, I was rewarded by an elderly woman’s ability to fit an entire XL Starbucks muffin, up, under her mask and hold it there with the elastic like an equine feedbag. This eating arrangement requires jugular dexterity. (I imagine she trained with an oral version of Kerplunk or Pop-up Pirate.)

The Advantages: Hands-free, multitask-friendly.

The Disadvantages: Socially questionable, the appearance of a horse eating a corn-on-the-cob.

In the end, I went with “The Dyson” – a technique requiring one’s food to be crushable (works well with biscuits or anything you’ve sat on, en-route.) Pouting, you simply hover over the deconstructed edible and inhale.

6. Spotting Your Loved One

Asterix bei den Briten (Rene Goscinny. Albert Uderzo.)

Supposedly, the easy part. I hadn’t seen my partner for two and a half months, but was quietly confident, I could pick him out of a crowd.

After 24 hours of travel, I had arrived at Munich HBF.

I walked down the platform, looking absently about, as some poor sod yelled my name repeatedly. The trouble is, everyone starts to look the same, when you put on a black anorak and a hospital mask.

I took an investigative approach.

“It’s so good to see you,” I shout at a middle-aged woman, shielding her granddaughter.

In the end, Valentin performed nothing short of cabaret to draw my attention away from an elderly gentleman, who I’m still convinced, had the right head. On retrospect, I would recommend flags.

We walked home side by side, two metres apart. I had the longest shower of my life, and then hesitantly, as if unsure he was real, wished him happy birthday.


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