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  • Writer's pictureGethin Thomas

Customs Barrier

Originally published on Photoblog by Gethin Thomas NOVEMBER. 16, 2020

[103-365] 16th. November 2020- I saw this in a second hand shop window display this morning. I do like the additional promotional sticker added by the shop owner who obviously has a bit of a sense of humour.

I am old enough to remember border posts in mainland Europe and it is interesting now that we have left the EU that even France is thinking of reintroducing them, the Schengen Area having patently failed as far as our security is concerned.

It always used to be a great novelty for us driving around the border areas between Belgium France and Germany to travel along deserted country tracks to zig zag over the borders to go through as many checkpoints as you could. Sometimes the border was just a small phone box sized kiosk in a field, quite often with nobody in attendance.

Where there were borders there were different rules. I remember staying in France one winter not long before the single currency was due to come in. The border was already gone. The hotel was deserted between Christmas and New Year, we were the only guests, the streets were deserted. We walked a short distance down the hill to discover massive stores completely out of keeping with the tiny village. They were what you would expect in a major city. There were virtually no customers. The goods on offer were a strange mix, from memory a lot of leather goods.

This was a left behind shopping destination which people would have travelled to to buy goods cheaper than at home. Intertwined into it's reason for being there and it's approaching demise, were rules of some sort which evolve into anomalies like this shopping destination.

We had a similar experience staying in a border town in Northern Portugal where the deserted and fairly shabby town had the most enormous mega store, again with a strange mix of goods, from memory huge quantities of cotton goods, bedding and towels at rock bottom prices. Again this was miles from any large city but right on the border.

The deserted hotel in France had a restaurant and the heating was switched off. The owner assured us we would be able to eat in the restaurant but we weren't too hopeful. The restaurant was beautifully laid out and there were just the two of us and the owner. He brought a little menu with about three choices of each course. I speak some French and am not too bad at a menu but here I made what could have been a grave error. All was in French and this was pre internet so no surreptitious Googling possible. I spotted Ris de Veaux and felt sure that I would enjoy rice and veal. But I didn't get rice and veal, in fact there was no rice at all. I got some sort of meat in a creamy sauce, so I tasted it and it was good so I ate it all. Later I retrieved our small dictionary as I was intrigued to know what I had just eaten. Ris de Veaux turned out to be offal, specifically sweetbreads or Thymus Gland if you are dissecting something in the lab. But this was a good lesson in life, because they were delicious and I certainly would not have ordered Thymus Gland. It was a lesson that paid off many years later in Japan where we ate many delicious things with no name, that with a name we would likely have had trouble ordering.

The hotel in Portugal was also an experience. Again we were the only guests and the owner was a two hundred year old woman about four feet tall, all dressed in widow's weeds. We ate in her restaurant and this time I have no memory of the food other than she brought it out herself and took what seemed like a lifetime to cross the restaurant while carrying it.

Widow's weeds is a strange term, which like widow's weeds you don't see used much anymore. Black clothes worn by a widow in mourning. (from the Old English "Waed" meaning "garment") I think it is still a common sight in Southern Europe though.

The real theatre was the hotel itself which was ancient and in severe disrepair. There was actually a lift/elevator which in itself was incredible. This lift can best be described as resembling an antique tea chest dangling on a rope. It did not appear to be in any sort of track and swung freely in the lift shaft with the gap between the floor and the lift varying according to the swing. In addition the level of the hotel floor in relation to the lift floor varied alarmingly as you stepped in and out of it. After two big dinners and returning to our rooms I think we measured the largest variation. After that we deemed it safer to use the grand staircase instead. The door to our room was no less remarkable than the lift as it had splits in the wooden panels about a half inch or 1 cm wide enabling you to wave to passers by in the corridor as you emerged from the shower. Had there been any guests to wave to.

On leaving the next morning to enter Spain we soon found ourselves caught up in a terrorist check by the Spanish police. An ETA bomb had been detonated the day before and they were being very thorough, emptying cars at gunpoint with stingers placed across the road. When they got to us they seemed very disinterested and waved us straight through.

So I suppose if borders do return we have more interesting travels ahead of us at the very least. If we ever travel again.

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