Expat Story: Repatriating Noah’s Ark
Writer Robert Bullock tells the tale of repatriating his dogs, cats, chickens, turkeys and one hot-tempered duck from France to the United Kingdom.
They say that moving house is one of the most stressful things in life; it runs a close third to divorce and bereavement. Moving to a new country can be really stressful, but the stress of this is tempered with the prospect of finding a fantastic house for a pittance and the idyllic idea of living the dream of an endless holiday.
But the thing about any dream is that you wake up, it might take a while, but waking is inevitable. After seven years of living in France, my wife and I woke up. My wife desperately wanted to move back to England, we had new grandchildren, my writing career had gone as far as it could in France, and our money had run out.
But because we had accumulated a lot of rescued animals whilst living in France, there was a lot of careful planning and preparation needed.
First, of all our dogs and cats had to have rabies jabs, gestation periods and blood tests just to get back into Blighty. And you can imagine when you have four dogs and nine cats, some of them distinctly uncooperative, that’s a lot of veins to get blood out of!
Who in their right mind would remove a zoo? Well, we found a great couple in the next village to help us move our “zoo”. They were originally from Lancashire, and they were brilliant. In fact, Dave never stopped cracking jokes.
Even if it was 4:30 a.m., freezing cold, black as pitch and you were about to commence a twelve hour drive, Dave would be ready with the one-liners.
For our move Dave and Jan brought two vans, one for our furniture and one for our chickens, turkeys, duck and cats; and my wife and I took the dogs in our car. Jan drove the poulty van, the chickens, turkeys and duck were happy in their specially-constructed, spacious, well stocked pens -- so much so that the chickens were happily laying eggs. Jan was not so thrilled; she’s allergic to even the smell of eggs.
Our first journey began Friday. Armed with our ferry tickets, pet passports and a letter from our vet stating our birds were healthy and flu free, we locked up the house, bid farewell to our village and set off on an eight-hour drive to Le Havre.
The drive was slow, but in the end we got there tired and happy. But as we waited to board the boat, a worried-looking port official came rushing over beckoning us into the ferry office. He said the UK Customs, in the form of DEFRA (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs), would let us, our dogs and cats into Britain...but not our birds. We would have to leave them in France.
For us, it was the end of the world.
We argued with UK officials on the phone for seven solid hours. We went to a local vet who provided us with another long and more formal looking certificate to say our birds were fit to enter the UK. We even thought of bribery, but we didn’t have any money!
Yet under no circumstances would the UK officials allow us to enter the country with our birds, just in case they had bird flu.
As one French lady said at the time: “The UK has bird flu, not France!” But according to Customs we didn’t have the right forms for the birds, and we had not used the right system of form filling.
...And you thought France was bureaucratic!
What to do?
Reluctantly we had to leave the port because it had to shut for the night, and we found refuge in a local McDonalds where we shared tears of desperation.
Eventually, after speaking with Dover again, I decided that the only option was to go back to the Deux Sevres, call the British Consulate in Bordeaux, go to the in Ministry of Agriculture offices in Niort, and get the right forms on the right system. We had no choice but to play by Dover’s rules!
The Morning after the night before!
We drove through the night back to the Deux Sevres. Thankfully I had kept a key to the sold house, we had left a lot of furniture for the buyers, and thankfully our completion date was a week hence. Birds and nest boxes were put back in barns, dogs and cats fed and watered, and beds were crawled into.
The sun was streaming into the bedroom at eleven when I awoke, only to find my wife had already been on the phone half of the night. She had dragged the British Vice Consul in Bordeaux out of her bed on the phone, and had rung just about everyone on the planet. Everyone got their collective thinking caps on for us.
By Monday we had found out exactly what to do. Rendezvous were arranged, and ferry bookings were changed.
On Wednesday morning we set off yet again at 4.30 a.m. in the freezing cold, in the dark,
with our furniture, our dogs and cats, and with our birds who were now on Dover’s
As we approached Le Havre our stress levels were off the meter. Everyone concerned was having heart palpitations as we drew up to the docks. Even Dave had stopped joking; things were that serious.
But as we arrived at the terminal the ladies in the kiosks rushed out to greet, hug and kiss us, and the duty manager rushed out to tell us all was okay and we could sail. Our tickets were even upgraded!
Do you want to see what we’ve got in the back of here, mate?
As we drove off the boat in England the Portsmouth Port officials saw us coming.
Jan wound down her window and shouted to one man, “Do you want to see what we’ve got in the back of here, mate? There are some cats, chickens, turkeys and a bad tempered duck!”
“Is it the Bullock party?” he replied grinning from ear to ear.
“Yes,” she replied.
“No thanks, love! Just drive through!”
So, don’t believe anyone who tells you any differently: Repatriation is the most stressful thing you can do in life...especially when you’re moving a farmyard load of animals between countries!
/ ExpaticaRobert Bullock is a British children's writer. He lived in the Poitou Charente area of South West France for seven years. His first book is Noah Ramsbottom and the Cave Elves. His second book Sam Marsh the Viking King was released at the end of 2009. His website is www.ninnylizard.com.