In a galaxy far away I once met a man who was working on an exciting revolutionary object to streamline our shopping experience. It was called a bar code and could transmit information through lines, or something, and the man’s name was Asimov, or something.
Fast forward to the early 1990s and a famous school for space engineers in southern France. It’s the end of year presentations, and our speaker is describing an exciting new revolutionary object called a mobile phone.
‘They will be small enough to slip into your pocket! Everyone will have them, even children! We won’t be able to live without them!’
By the time he’d finished most of the audience were rolling in the ailes.
This summer I became a barcode myself. All I had to do to prove my existence was to call up an image on that mobile phone I couldn’t live without and I could step inside the local café and sip a petit noir while the barcodeless were left outside, licking the windows.
Mind you, I was a bit worried about what might be lurking behind that image. To be precise, it was called a QR, not a bar, code and consisted of fuzzy dots instead of lines. I learnt on an age-appropriate site called Science ABC that ‘a QR code holds hundreds of times more information than a barcode.’
I first flashed my dots in public when checking into a hotel. The owner, nervously fiddling with his brand new bar-code reader, eventually managed to dock his gizmo with my gizmo. His eyebrows shot up.
‘Oh là là! ‘He said, eyeing me up and down ‘This is SO indiscreet!’
He gave a wink.
‘Don’t worry! Your secret’s safe with me!’
Mon Dieu, what was on there? The tattoo of Patrick Swayze on my left buttock? The arrest warrant that was out for the library book I never returned when I was at Uni?
I was born and raised a ‘no ID cards!’ Brit . Now I have a passport, a French ID card and (to date) three indiscreet barcodes, some or all of which I need to travel within borders, travel across borders, enter certain buildings or order a croque monsieur at the Café du Commerce. If I worked for the French Health Service, or for certain companies, I would also need them to keep my job. It’s hardly surprising that the ‘pass sanitaire’ (EU vaccine passport) has provoked violent demonstrations in European cities throughout the summer.
In the August blog I extolled the delights of a carefree break in the rural Tarn. A few weeks later, we discovered that travelling further afield has now become a nightmare.
Our freefall down the rabbit hole began in midsummer. I was pining for my UK family, not seen since 2019. In spite of COVID uncertainty we took the plunge and booked a flight to Edinburgh. Too bad if the traffic lights changed and we lost the money. I girded for administrative battle and hit the official websites. And clicked on the links. And hit more links, which led to…more links.
Before I knew it I was back to Page 1, which warned me if I tried to get out of the country WITHOUT THE RIGHT DOCUMENTS I was for it. Headmaster’s study, handcuffs, fines, Devil’s Island… I took a look at some internet travellers forums to see if anyone had managed to pass ‘Go’. Quelle horreur! Some still hadn’t arrived at the bottom of the rabbit hole after months!
‘I wonder how many miles I’ve fallen by this time? ‘(Alice) said…’I must be getting somewhere near the centre of the earth…that would be four thousand miles.’
Others had become so entangled in red tape on the way down they were hanging mummified like the victims of Shelob’s web in Lord of The Rings.
Somehow we managed to hack through the red tape. We were haggard, but poised to go with smartphones, QRs, and 5 kilos of paper backups in case our phones exploded. Then Ryanair sent a message to say our return flight was cancelled. Next came a volley of identical emails saying we had to be at the airport TWO AND A HALF HOURS BEFORE CHECK IN NOT TWO HOURS and that it wasn’t their fault (true).
Fast forward two months.
Blagnac, Toulouse. Eerily quiet at this normally bustling airport. No sign of a check-in desk for Edinburgh. Spot a lady in a tartan scarf frozen in a traveller’s no man’s land pushing a trolley full of plastic document files .
‘Excuse me, are you waiting for the Edinburgh flight?’
After a ten minute filibuster I had learned that she’d a) only had one hour’s sleep b)arrived at the airport at dawn c) had been coming to France for 42 years and had never been so stressed even when she went all round the world to Australia on her own and d) her French friend’s printer had broken under the weight of all the forms he’d had to print out for her.
Meanwhile others had rolled up, all pushing their own trolleys full of plastic folders. An impromptu crisis cell was formed and documents compared. A man with a beard took charge.
‘Right, have you all got…’
1.Smartphone with QR showing EU vaccine passport? (Tartan lady didn’t have a smart phone. Collective gasp of horror. She feebly waved some crumpled papers.)
2.Smart phone with QR code of obligatory PCR test taken in the three days prior to departure? (Tartan lady got out her hankie.)
The Beard read out from the official instructions:
‘Does the information on the QR code match with the EXACT names as shown on your travel documents? If not you…’
Oh dear. My turn for the Naughty Step. The PCR test taken before departure showed my name as it appears on my UK passport. However, the EU vaccine passport QR code delivered by the French Social Security Administration back in June was in my maiden name (because they are French and that’s the way they do it). Politically correct British passports don’ t have maiden names on them. Ergo, I had also brought
-birth certificate bearing maiden name
-marriage certificate (two in my case), bearing various other names
-document bearing hyphenated maiden and married names certifying I pay property taxes in France, thus an upstanding citizen
– EU residency card (necessary to get back into France) bearing maiden and married names
– French driving licence, showing maiden name and ancient photo of bearer looking like startled fly head grafted onto human neck.
I also had a lucky rabbit’s foot but wasn’t sure it would get through Security.
Our Leader continued. ‘Do those returning to France, have the two-page ‘Sworn Statement’ to be filled in on day of departure saying they do not have COVID, have not been in contact with anyone who has COVID, do not have any of the following 12 symptoms?’
‘Right. Finally…’ (deep shuddering breath) ‘has everyone got (gasp gulp) their PLF????? ‘
The dreaded PLF (Passenger Locator Form) had been the subject of much on-line angoisse. Its numerous questions can only be answered 48 hours before travelling – a nightmare for control freaks/those who live in rural areas with dodgy internet connexions. We were now in another book, The Pilgrim’s Progress. Designed by John Bunyan’s love-child, the PLF is a virtual Slough of Despond intended to weed out the faint-hearted on their way to Palace Beautiful. One section is vitally important – the bit where pilgrims must enter the 12 digit reference number for the Day 2 COVID test they must take after arrival. (Any readers who have not fallen into a coma by now will realise that means TWO COVID tests within a period of five days, three in our case, actually because we were so nervous we took a home test in France the day before we went to the Pharmacie for the real one.)
I had discovered at the last minute that the Day Two test for Scotland is different for the Day Two test for England – there is only one approved provider charging £68 per test. Suck it up. I also discovered I had to provide an address in Scotland to which the Royal Mail could deliver the £68 tests. The instructions said:
‘Each test must be ordered for each travellers home address. You are not allowed to order tests to be delivered to your address for people who are not normally resident at your address’.
In the softening up queue at the airport, several passengers are now sobbing. Fortunately It is in situations like this natural leaders emerge. Within minutes we had all vowed to follow The Beard in affirmative action. If they didn’t let us on the flight we’d damned well glue ourselves to the tarmac. (The Beard hadn’t told us how to reach said tarmac from Departures Hall/ how to attain recumbent posture on it for those with dodgy hips/where the Superglue was)
Reader, we did it. Somehow our bedraggled little group made it without Superglue. We kept waving to each other and giving a thumbs up each time we got past another hurdle – check in security, customs, arrivals.
Our troubles were over, weren’t they?
Er no, as it turned out. But I will spare those who have got up to here and are hoping this is where they meet the four virgins of Palace Beautiful. I will draw a merciful veil over our attempts to register, and post off, the obligatory Day Two test, the hours spent, the kilometres trudged up and down the dozen Difficulty Hills in Edinburgh looking for a Priority PostBox.
No it isn’t you dumbell!
Instead I will post the photo of Inspector Rebus’s Oxford Bar, where on arrival we were able to have a drink sans QR code, and gear up for a great week of fun and frolics with the family. Yippee 😉
A code-less drink at Inspector Rebus’s favourite watering hole