We get to Victoria Station at 8:35 with no idea which train to get on, no tickets for the train, and no money with which to buy them. "It's over," I tell Anne, "Relax, we have an hour to kill." As we walk across the station, I espy a bank machine to my right, a few dozen feet off and unoccupied. "We might just do this after all," I say, rushing over and pushing buttons frantically. "Go find what track we're on and meet me at the automated ticket counter!" Anne runs off and I finally get my money, then rush over to the vending machine, sorting out correct change as I go. All of a sudden Anne appears on my right. "Track one!" she yells and we manically punch more buttons to get our tickets. There's a time stamp on them, and one reads 8:41 while the other reads 8:42 (our train, recall, leaves at 8:41). "Go!" I yell, "Don't wait for me! Don't look back!" We make a mad dash back across the station, past people and turnstiles, pound the button opening one of the car doors of the train, and pile inside. The train leaves no more than thirty seconds later and we're on our way to Dover!
The occasional filling station and factory do little to mar the beauty of the English landscape, with its towns and country cottages nestled amongst a myriad of gently rolling hills of varying shades of green. I, however, find myself trapped outside a less breathtaking scene: the train's washroom, cylindrical, fully modern and equipped with two buttons reading 'Open' and 'Lock' outside the chamber. Curiously, to close the automatic sliding door one must press Open, and so I spend much of the two hour trip assisting people, nine out of ten of whom cannot figure this peculiarity out. The saddest of the lot, relieved at last to have figured out how to enter the washroom, forget to lock it, and so, because of the nearly constant flow of weak-bladdered souls passing by without checking the Occupied sign, I find myself face-to-face with a whole host of mortified passengers in varied states of undress, as the automatic door swings widely and slowly open to reveal them in all their glory, on their throne.
We arrive in Dover, get whisked onto a Courtesy Bus to the pier (with a gaggle of boisterous but friendly Australians), spend a half hour there eating lunch and then board a ferry (which costs us an astounding three quid apiece; the cheapest thing about Britain is leaving it!). We sit across from a row of gambling machines that beckon to us, especially when some of the locals get in on the action and seem to be winning their weight in coin; ten pounds later we decide games of chance aren't our thing.
When the ferry glides into port, a grating voice blares instructions on how to exit the ship over the loudspeaker, first in French and then in English, in a manner that can only be described as inscrutable. When it finishes, neither Anne nor myself have any idea where, when or how to leave (you’d think I’d have learned how by now, considering the exact same thing happened the last time I did the Dover-Calais crossing—at least this time I didn’t leave my pack with the ferry!). Following other people is useless, since every single other person on that ship drove aboard and so must leave by a different exit wholly inaccessible to us (a clearly marked one, I might add). Eventually, after virtually every other passenger has cleared off, we find ourselves behind another equally befuddled group of stragglers who are ushered off brusquely in French. One day, so help me, I will get it right.
When we enter Calais we find they’re holding a parade (not for us, I am told), and we enjoy another quick but delicious snack of French fries and mayonnaise before hopping on another train (we might have spent more time in town, had we not been informed of a fight going on that had just encompassed the entire downtown area); our plan had been to head up to Amsterdam right away, but it’s Sunday and the best we can do is Lille. Not a bad consolation, it turns out, as Lille is a wonderful and chic little stopover city that lies right on the main route to Amsterdam. They’d have to close all of Belgium down to prevent us from getting there bright and early the next morning, right?