Chunnel's Churn: Berets in London And Pickles in Paris

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

AS high-tech Eurostar trains today begin shuttling between Britain and Europe, people aboard may be tempted to believe advertisements proclaiming that, thanks to the Channel Tunnel, ``Now nothing comes between London and Paris.''

But the claim will raise a horse-laugh from anyone who knows anything about relations across the narrow stretch of water that has divided the British from their Continental neighbors since the Ice Age.

In a curious way, the Chunnel reflects the problems the British have in adjusting to the idea that, actually, they are Europeans. The reservations are held in surprisingly high places.

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When in the early 1980s former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher first proposed an undersea fixed link between Britain and France, the Prince of Wales told her the idea should be put to a referendum. He explained that the advent of the Chunnel would mean Britain was no longer an island, and to the heir to the throne that was a matter of deep regret.

The Iron Lady ignored the royal complaint, but Prince Charles is not the only Englishman to believe that somehow the French, with their black berets, culinary tastes, and preference for their own language, are in a different - and not necessarily better - league from the British.

In the mid-1970s, a senior British government minister who frequently had to travel to Brussels would astonish his Continental counterparts by arriving with a lunch pail crammed with cheese and pickle sandwiches. He politely explained - in English - that he could not stand ``European'' food.

Today's British long-distance truck drivers seem to agree. They like the idea of being whisked along with their vehicles aboard a train at speeds of up to 186 miles per hour. But given a foretaste of the breakfasts Eurostar planned to serve on the London-Paris journey, the truckies were quick to criticize.

Coffee and croissants were no substitute, they said, for eggs, bacon, sausages, and fried bread washed down with lashing of tea you can stand your spoon up in. Eurostar had to rewrite its menus. A spokesman says the truckies' breakfasts are now ``greasier, in line with English tastes.''

Even the gleaming bullet-nosed trains are beset by Anglo-Saxon qualms about venturing into Europe. Queen Elizabeth II and President Francois Mitterrand officially opened the Chunnel last May. Ever since, technical glitches have hampered attempts to get the service up and running regularly.

In September, it was signaling problems and leaks in the Chunnel's steel-and-concrete casing. Last month a Eurostar train crammed with VIPs for a test run to Paris broke down before it left London's Waterloo Station.

Eurostar officials say the British will take the Chunnel to their hearts once the advantages of getting to Paris in three hours sink in. At present, however, old prejudices appear to prevail.

Last month the market analysts, Mintel, polled a sample of Brits about their traveling preferences. Three out of four said they never expected to use the Chunnel.

The first fare-paying Eurostar passengers are taking the trip against the backdrop of yet another of the numerous quarrels that have soured relations between Britain and its European partners since Britain joined the European Community 22 years ago.

The European Commission is demanding that London increase its annual contributions to the Brussels budget, but a group of Conservative members of Parliament is threatening to kill the bill Prime Minister John Major needs to authorize the higher dues.

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