jeudi 22 mai 2008

I Survived Operation Stack, Phase II

Forgive my relative inactivity lately, but I’ve been literally on the road.

I’ve spent most of this week away on a business trip: attending an event in England. Not in London (so don’t be offended if I didn’t call you) but in some tiny little village out in the middle of the proverbial bush. (It's more like flower filled springtime meadows than actual bush, but you catch my drift).

Since we had to carry a lot of heavy equipment back and forth, it was decided that my colleague and I should rent a minivan and drive there and back. ROADTRIP!!! Excellent! I felt like I was a college student all over again. Of course, in the great road trip tradition, my colleague and I stopped at an overpriced highway service area and stocked up on all sorts of greasy, salty and generally unhealthy road trip munchies. And Red Bull, of course. A roadtrip isn’t a roadtrip without Red Bull. They actually don’t have Red Bull in France, they have something called “Dark Dog” instead. To paraphrase Crocodile Dundee, you can drink it but it tastes like shit. It does what it needs to do, however, which is keep me awake above the din of the bad music they play on provincial radio stations (I'm happy to report that the 80's are alive and well in Northern France and the English home counties. Austria and Germany, you're not alone!)

Being in England made me realize just what a snob France has turned me into. First thing was the food: I was turning my nose up at some of the microwaved stodge I was being fed (though I admit that I stocked up on yummy English bacon, farmhouse cheddar, Maynard’s wine gums and my secret guilty pleasure: Walker’s prawn cocktail crisps). The portions, too, were a little shocking. Much larger than the ones in France. I’m sure I must have added a few inches to my waistline this week. I can’t image what it will be like to go back to the USA. Cheesecake Factory would probably send me into fits right now. You could feed a French family for a week on a starter from that place.

The results of large portions can be seen, too. I was aghast at the number of overweight people in England. Seriously overweight. Remember, this wasn’t London, it was the provinces. The womenfolk seem fatter, on average, than the men. I think the only thin women I saw during the trip were the hotel’s Eastern European gästarbeiters, who compensate for their good looks with straight-outta-the-Soviet-Bloc surliness and indifference. Even asking for my coffee in Polish the fifth time around didn’t do the trick.

Ok, I know I’m no Adonis, but come on. Whenever you hear a Brit mocking Americans for being fat and eating junk food, rest assured that it’s the pot calling the kettle black.

The most interesting part of the trip, however, was the return journey. I was afraid we’d get stuck in traffic on the M25 (London’s equivalent of the Capital Beltway) but it was all smooth sailing until we got to the M20 headed towards the Channel Tunnel. About 30 miles out of Dover, the motorway turned into (quite literally) a parking lot. At one exit, only trucks were being allowed to stay on the motorway, while all car traffic was being diverted onto the local side roads. It was bumper to bumper on the winding country lanes of South Kent.

The radio was abuzz with news of a strike by French fishermen who had blockaded all the channel ports, keeping all the cross-channel ferries from sailing and causing gridlock in Kent. They repeatedly made it clear that all this botheration (it’s really, really bad out there. Stay at home if you can) was the fault of those dastardly frogs and their bolshy fishermen. At one point I was seriously afraid that our car’s French number plates would provoke some kind of primitive mob justice from all the frustrated motorists stuck on the road behind us.

Then suddenly, the radio DJ’s stopped mentioning the French fishermen and started blaming the traffic on “Operation Stack: Phase II”. None of them bothered explaining what this might be, but every radio station traffic update was going on about “Operation Stack, Phase II” causing “traffic chaos” all across the region. My colleague and I reached the conclusion that this term didn’t need to be explained because everybody in the world (or at least South Kent) except ourselves was already familiar with Operation Stack: Phase II. I was still harbouring a fear that this was some secret code for “Operation hunt down the Frenchies and club them to death like baby seals”.

I began to contemplate the great potential that Operation Stack : Phase II offered as a generic, cover-all excuse. I figured if Maki ever asks me why I didn’t vacuum or take out the garbage: sorry, it’s on account of Operation Stack: Phase II. Why didn’t I complete my assignments at work? Operation Stack: Phase II. Why didn’t I pay my taxes this year? Operation Stack: Phase II. Very hush-hush, you understand: on Her Majesty’s secret service and all that. Need-to-know basis. I could explain, but then I'd have to kill you.

Finally, a kindly radio DJ took pity on us and unveiled the mystery. It had everything to do with the striking French fishermen. Operation Stack is apparently the name given to the process of dealing with road traffic during Channel port closures. In order to avoid all the continent-bound trucks from clogging the ports, a segment of the M20 is closed off to traffic and turned into a giant truck parking lot. Traffic is diverted onto secondary roads for a few miles and then allowed back on the motorway. That way thousands of trucks can wait for their cross-channel ferries without wreaking havoc on the local traffic in Dover, Folkestone, etc. Apparently during long strikes or inclement weather, the trucks can sit there for weeks.

So we’ve already seen that the French deal with the uncertainties of life in their country by resorting to sorcery. The Brits, on the other hand, seem to have this shit down to a science. Cool as cucumbers, those Brits. You have to wonder, though, if there's any equivalent to Operation Stack in France. What do all the Britain-bound trucks do? I'm guessing probably not. That's probably just one of those things: strikes in France cause all kinds of problems in Britain while in France everybody just gets on with their business and hardly notices. The truck drivers probably go find some cafe somewhere and shrug their shoulders. It's kind of like the difference between snow in DC and snow in Chicago. DC gets an inch and shuts down. In Chicago nobody notices.

I still feel somewhat relieved to have survived intact, however. Let me tell you, the atmosphere on some of those roads on Wednesday night was tense, and we were getting some seriously evil looks from the other motorists. There's thousands of years of tribal hatred spanning the English Channel, going back at least as far as William the Conqueror. I don't want to be the spark that rekindles the fire.

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