Clocks forward, clocks back, lose an hour then gain it again somewhere over the English Channel. Up at the crack of dawn with suitcases piled into Graham’s car which then overheats, grinding to a halt on the autoroute somewhere above Monaco. Frantic telephone calls to Guy whose enormous 4×4 sweeps us up from the roadside to get us to the airport on time.
Arrive dazed in a cold, damp Britain then drive to Yeovil to re-unite with our three sons but it’s another early start the next day to return our airport hire car. Colder than ever now (we have gone rapidly from a balmy spring in Italy to the wet and windy five degrees of a prolonged English winter) we struggle to cope with the time changes, the driving on the left and the very Englishness of an Indian restaurant meal.
Once again the complexities of our travel arrangements baffle our friends but we are used to this by now. What we hadn’t expected was to feel like alien invaders in the familiar landscape of south east Britain where the language is one we understand but don’t expect to hear and the customs often seem strangely pointless. We are back in the land of green lawns and nodding daffodils where narrow hedges border narrower lanes and bare trees scrape the sky. It all takes our breath away; we gape like tourists.
We board a train without ‘composting’ the ticket (when we first came upon this term in France we thought it might be a green initiative to re-cycle the paper from which the ticket is made) and we cross roads crowded with cars that look over-inflated, too large for the inhabitants who drive them and far larger than those most Italians drive. We re-encounter the grey suit still favoured by commuting office workers yet search in vain for the extravagant fur coats so favoured by Italian women. Soft Mediterranean brogue shoes have been replaced by the deck shoe and the trainer and once again we can buy a sweatshirt without some meaningless English phrase like ‘Yatching Fitness’ emblazoned on it. And where is the breakfast cereal, ‘Teddy’s Hit’, when you need it?
Finally as we re-acquaint ourselves with the windy dampness of the air we must also get used to the absence of church bells, here ringing only to summon the faithful to Sunday prayers and silent in the early hours of the morning for fear of disturbing the Englishman’s sleep.
We have returned to a country that is both familiar and strange, comforting because of what we recognise as commonplace yet full of strange sights and odd behaviours that we now know are uniquely British.