There were 11 things that could go drastically wrong, I calculated, spread evenly along my planned voyage from London to Germany. But it had been three long months since I’d last seen my German fiance, Julius, and the stars had aligned in such a way that made it our last chance to get married and indeed spend any time together before the UK’s work-from-home edict ended and we’d be living and employed in the wrong countries again.
The aim was for me to drive via the Eurotunnel and through France, with my giant German Shepherd, Bear, in my tiny Fiat 500, Mario, through multiple checks requiring seven separate documents, all within the 48-hour window of taking my Covid test in central London.
The 11 things that could go drastically wrong were as follows:
My test, taken in London, would be positive, in the absence of any symptoms
The result (assuming negative), promised by the next day at 6pm, wouldn’t come back in time for me to get out of the UK
Eurotunnel would suspend its services, and my ticket would be cancelled
Bear wouldn’t be allowed into the EU, because of Brexit-related complications
The UK border force wouldn’t let me out, despite my having a legal reason to leave
France, still in a state of semi-lockdown, would close to British travellers again
The French would let me in, but I’d have to stay there and quarantine for 10 days, rather than be granted transit
I’d get through France, but the Germans wouldn’t let me in on account of my paperwork being wrong
The paperwork would be fine, but my Covid test might have by this point expired
Mario would break down, and I’d be in trouble, because of Brexit-related complications
Worse, my ineptitude at driving on the wrong side of the road would result in Mario’s crash, and my death
If you’d presented me with this list, prior to early 2020 and without context, I would have assumed the world had broken into nuclear warfare. The Brexit faff wouldn’t have surprised me, of course, nor would the risks associated with my bad driving. But eight of those classified risks were coronavirus-related.
In practice, despite my arriving at Folkestone with a ring binder-full of documentation, I was pleasantly stunned by the lack of interrogation that followed.
The lead-up, on the other hand, was laborious. First – as will no doubt continue to prove infuriating for British travellers this summer – the PCR test required to enter most countries, Germany included, must have been taken no longer than 48 hours before you reach the border clerk. Most test providers you’ll find on the Government-approved list ‘aim’ to offer results ‘within’ 48 hours. Which is playing with fire. And you can forget mail-in options. Same-day results require you to find and make the pilgrimage to a clinic which provides them (few and far between), and pay upwards of £200 for the privilege.
I settled for the well-reviewed Corona Test Centre, which has five clinics in London and also provides a reassuring 'fit-to-fly' certificate, which is signed by a doctor. For £145, my results were guaranteed within 24 hours. The staff were highly polite and energetic, the test took mere moments, and my all-clear certificate was emailed to me seven hours later at 11pm the same day.
To break up my driving, I made the journey to Folkestone on Saturday night, so as to get the 9am Eurotunnel the next morning, staying at the pet-friendly Holiday Inn Express ideally located eight minutes from the terminal. Upon check-in, I was required to sign a form stating I was travelling for essential work (I wasn’t) or to attend a funeral (nope). In the absence of a ‘foreign marriage’ option, I was asked instead to tick the box which said something along the lines of ‘homeless, nowhere else to stay’. Which was, I suppose, momentarily true.
The staff, again, were almost unfeasibly cheerful given it was approaching midnight and the hotel was a barren ghost town.
The same was true of checking in at Eurotunnel the next morning; first Bear at the pet reception, where he was the only dog (thankfully, given he hates other dogs). In a stroke of luck, as I had realised in the earlier planning stages, Bear is a rescue who was born in Poland and thus has an EU passport for life. No Brexit-related hurdles at which to fall here.
Then onto the English border police booth, where (once again) an exceptionally friendly officer made no attempt to catch me out; merely checked my proof of a legal reason to travel (a signed letter from Julius swearing that we were betrothed, which to be honest could easily been forged) and my negative test, before waving me through with a smile.
I was expecting a tricky conversation with the French border official, given the greyer than grey area surrounding the declaration form that foreign arrivals have to sign. On it, you must swear to enter self-isolation for 10 days and then take a negative test to be fit for release. Even for cross-country transit? I called the embassy, I called Eurostar, I Googled relentlessly. All said I ‘should’ be OK without having to quarantine if I was just driving through. Only time would tell.
There was no conversation, as it transpired, let alone a tricky one. The agent didn’t even need to see my negative test, nor did he ask for my arrival declaration form. A cursory check of my passport, and I was through.
Off I went, from Calais, guided by Google Maps down the traffic-free A6 ‘Autoroute du Soleil’, periodically paying tolls but otherwise uninterrupted as I drove further south into warmer air, past vivid fields of daisy and rapeseed, until six hours later I realised I was already in Germany, and had been for an unknown quantity of time.
There were no obvious ‘Willkommen in Deutschland’ signs, and certainly no border checks. No-one to check my nearly expired test. No one to review the exemption certificate we’d painstakingly acquired from the German police weeks earlier. In summary: a blissful anticlimax.
Julius met me at Karlsruhe, a city in southwestern Germany, with a bouquet of roses and took over the wheel (on the wrong side of the car) as we continued down to Munich, where he is a helicopter pilot and I’ll be working remotely until we satisfy the next, non Covid-related bureaucracy challenge: marriage.
At 9.30pm, 14 hours after we first embarked on our drive, Bear and I had made it, delirious with relief and exhaustion, harbouring a pile of hard-won, untouched paperwork; with an encouraging glimpse of what it might be like to drive through Europe once normality has returned.