Call of France

A Trilogy of Adventure

The Importance of Sign Language in France.

I can’t help thinking that some of those intercultural misunderstandings that exist between the French and English can be caused by those non-verbal elements which have such an important part to play in our relational communications. For in the face-to-face encounters of daily life, body gestures, facial expressions, non-verbal sounds, even silences are frequently used to accompany, reinforce, or even replace the spoken language.  And a pointed finger, a nod of the head, a frown, a pout or a grunt can send out a more powerful message than the spoken word in that these can be a more spontaneous, direct manifestation of the thoughts, emotions, reactions and intentions which words can frequently hide. And you’ve only got to observe two Gallics engaged in conversation to see that the French have a far more developed non-verbal system of communication than their English neighbours.

In addition, these codes can even take the form of a  sign language much of which is totally incomprehensible to those raised in an Anglo-Saxon culture. When I first came to France the Englishman in me was frequently puzzled by a relatively common gesture which consists in using the finger and thumb of one hand to pluck what appears to be an imaginary hair from the open palm of the other. It had to be explained to me that this was a gesticulatory reference to the expression ‘avoir un poil dans la main’, literally ‘to have a hair in your hand’, meaning ‘to be bone idle’: for someone who is work-shy will never use his hands enough to stop hairs from growing in their palms!

Similarly, I’d bet my bottom euro that the newly-arrived Anglo Saxon would have no idea what is meant when a Frenchman rubs his cheek with the back of his fingers as if using a razor to shave.  This particular sign language simply means that he finds something or someone ‘rasoir’, that’s to say, boring. The origins of the word, apparently, can be traced back to the metaphysical reasoning of the 14th century Franciscan philosopher, Guillaume d’Ockham, whose rule of simplicity maintained that ‘multiples must not be used unless necessary’. In other words, new hypotheses mustn’t be employed when those already stated suffice. The only drawback of this principle, called the ‘rasoir d’Ockham’, is that, once a statement has been shaved of all its unnecessary elements, it becomes boringly abstract.

And some of these body gestures, facial expressions and non-verbal sounds can betray spontaneous feelings which it might be considered impolite to show in less physically demonstrative, more reserved Anglo-Saxon cultures where it is considered more seemly to keep one’s emotions under strict control. Take, for example, the legendary Gallic shrug. Now in my youth the Anglo in me had a typically English love of the game of cricket. One day, during my student year in France, I heard that a cricket match had been organized between some English and Australian students, and that it was to take place on the university playing fields a couple of kilometres away on the outskirts of  town. But when I arrived I couldn’t find the playing fields in question. And so, in my best French, I asked a local – an elderly monsieur wearing a shabby-looking béret – if he could tell us where ‘le match de cricket’ was being played. Without uttering a single word, he looked me incredulously in the eye before proceeding to project shoulders upwards and lower lip downwards in the previously mentioned ‘Gallic shrug’. Though my English part found his reaction typically French and, as such, quaintly amusing, the thought did cross my mind that the message he transmitted (which corresponded to little more than, ‘How on earth do you expect me to know where such a stupid foreign sport is being played?’) would have been barely acceptable, and could even have given offense in an English culture where a polite, friendly, helpful and even apologetic verbal response would have been the rule. Had a similar scenario taken place in an English setting (where a Frenchman had enquired as to the whereabouts of, say, a competition of pétanque), the reply would certainly have been something like, ‘I’m sorry, I’ve got no idea. If I were you I’d ask in the shop over there. They’ll probably know.’

 

 

The Fables of Jean de la Fontaine

Jean de la Fontaine’s more than 240 fables were inspired by those of Aesop and were written between 1668 and 1694.  Most of them stage anthropomorphic characters and contain a self-avowed moral aim, many of which have become French household proverbs.  His fables are generally considered to occupy a deserved place among the masterpieces of French literature. One of the best-known of la Fontaine’s Fables and my own particular favourite is The Cicada and the Ant which praises those traditional, common-sense virtues of working hard and saving for a rainy day – and warns of the dire consequences of not doing so.  Here is my English translation:

 

 The Cicada having sung his song

All summer long

Found himself without a crumb

When the North Wind did come,

Not one small morsel could he find

Of fly or worm of any kind.

Starving, he went to see his ant neighbour

To tell him he was at death’s door

And begging him for a grain or two

So he might survive all winter through

Until the coming of the spring.

‘By August I’ll pay back everything,’

Said he, ‘interest and principal, both,

Upon my insect oath.’

Now the ant may have a fault or two

But lend is what he will not do.

‘What did you do last summer?’

Asked he of this would-be borrower.

‘Why, night and day, you surely won’t mind,

I sang to comers of all kind.’

‘You sang? I’m glad you had that chance:

Well now you can run off and dance!’

Parking By Ear

When it comes to parking at the roadside an Englishman might be forgiven for thinking that, in a country such as France where mathematical Cartesian logic is held in the highest esteem, a suitable parking space is considered to be one whose length exceeds that of one’s car. He would be hopelessly wrong. For that same desire to maintain the closest contact with fellow drivers on the highway can assume an even more intimate dimension when it comes to parking in town. For here the French driver shows a remarkable ability to defy the laws of elementary arithmetic by introducing himself into spaces which the length of his car should not normally allow. How does he do it? Apart from the fact that it’s a relatively common sight to see a car parked obliquely with one wheel reposing firmly on the pavement, drivers have developed a more drastic technique which, for the moment at least, would be unthinkable to the Anglo-Saxon mind. The method, that of parking by ear, consists in diving head first into the smallest space, and then with eyes tightly shut, proceeding to create enough room for vehicle by systematically shunting the one to the front and rear.

In England, on the other hand, when it comes to street parking that same respectful distance is scrupulously applied as between vehicles on the move. The English driver will, therefore, usually leave a minimum margin of at least six feet (three in front and three behind) so that the driver of the car parked in front or behind may extricate his vehicle without undue manoeuvring.

It must have been the Frenchman in me  who was driving that day when I parked in the street of a large English town. Having left a foot between our vehicle and the one in front, he switched off the engine, and was just extracting key from ignition when its driver happened to appear. After gazing dubitatively at the dozen or so inches he’d been granted he stormed up, rapped loudly on the driver’s window and, even before my  Frenchie had got it fully down, began castigating him in the strongest terms for parking ‘too bloody close,’ and ‘not giving a damn about other road users!’ It goes without saying that in France remonstrances of this nature would have been met with general stupefaction.

 

French Traffic Lights – When Amber and Red Have a Shade of Green

One might be justified in thinking that the French driver’s aspirations to covering the distance between departure and arrival in a time more commonly associated with the Monaco Grand Prix could be seriously compromised by a set of humble traffic lights. In reality, as my Englishman has had ample opportunity to observe, this is only marginally the case. For the French conducteur has at his disposal a number of tactics aimed at reducing this type of enforced pit stop to the barest minimum. Nowhere is this more evident than when the lights change to amber.

Now, for obvious reasons of safety, traffic lights, both in England and France, are programmed not to change directly from green to red. A brief intermediate phase, signalled by amber, warns the approaching motorist that red is about to follow. In England, where limits are sharply defined, things could not be clearer: amber is amber, so when this colour appears the driver brings his vehicle to an obedient halt. In France, where boundaries are generally viewed in a hazier light, amber takes on a perceptible shade of green.

Sooner or later, however, even the French motorist – albeit with rage in his heart – must resign himself to halting at red. Now the Englishman will generally take advantage of this type of obligatory stop to meditate on the more mundane aspects of his daily existence: if it doesn’t rain on Sunday I’ll give the lawn a trim; it’ll be more than my life’s worth if I forget the wife’s birthday next Tuesday, etc., etc. And when the light changes to green he’ll slip into gear, ease off the handbrake and resume his journey at the same leisurely pace. On the contrary, the French driver is on the starting grid of a Formula One Grand Prix. He waits with car in gear and handbrake off, eyes fixed intently on the lights ahead so as to be able to blast off the very instant they change to green.

I would, nevertheless, be the first to admit that the more sedate behaviour of the English driver should not be attributed solely to his phlegmatic temperament and innate respect of the rule. The difference in colour sequence between French and English lights has certainly a part to play, too. For in England, traffic lights are set to change from red to amber and then to green, thereby providing the driver with a few precious seconds to slip his vehicle into gear, release the handbrake, and move gently away. In France les feux tricolores are programmed to change directly from red to green, so a much greater effort of concentration is necessary for the driver to get his car off to the required racing start.

Though the French driver shows consummate skill in scraping through traffic lights, even when amber has assumed a ripe tone of red, the same cannot be said of all. For occasionally he is delayed by those less colour blind than himself. In cases like this, he spends his waiting time coldly meditating revenge, and if the imbécile in front is absent-minded enough not to crush accelerator to floor the instant green appears, a prolonged blast of horn will teach him to keep his mind on things.

     It is, however, temporary traffic lights which provide those conditions enabling the Frenchman to demonstrate his inborn skills to the full. Now, in France, as in England, major road works on busy highways usually make it necessary to implement a one-way traffic system. This is regulated by a set of temporary, moveable lights positioned at each end of the road works, and designed to enable motorists coming from either direction to avail themselves in turn of the usable half of the road. And in order to prevent cars meeting face to face in the middle, lights are programmed so that when they change to red at one end they change to green at the other only after a sufficient lapse of time has been allowed to enable oncoming traffic to clear.

In England things are again of child-like simplicity: the lights turn to red, the motorist brings his car to a gentle halt, patiently waits for green, and then continues imperturbably on his way. In France, where things are never simple, the system provides the motorist with a heaven-sent opportunity to shave a few more seconds off his moyenne: for when red appears, not only will any self-respecting Gallic blithely carry on, but the more audacious will even overtake a column of those who now consider it more judicious to stop. Moreover, since major road works are often located well outside towns, temporary lights of this nature present the additional advantage of rarely being the object of police surveillance. It might be thought that at some time or other the inevitable is bound to happen, and the miscreant motorist meets on-coming traffic in the middle. In reality, this is rarely the case. For the French driver has acquired a sixth sense of timing, honed to such an incredibly fine degree, that he usually scrapes through at the other end a fraction of a second before the lights change to green. On the rare occasions when he does make a slight miscalculation and comes face to face with oncoming traffic, the driver in his right indicates what he thinks of the driver in his wrong by that well-known screwing movement of forefinger applied to temple. It goes without saying that this in no way prevents the in-their-rights from joining the ranks of the in-their-wrongs at the next set of temporary lights.

The English driver might be tempted to think that such behaviour can only lead to scenes of indescribable chaos. But this would be to underestimate the impressive effectiveness of le Système D which is applied to the full by one and all: for, as if by magic, the disorder quickly sorts itself out, and the same cycle begins all over again.

Parking Neatly.

Any successful transition from engine propulsion to that obtained by foot involves, of course, finding a suitable place to deposit one’s car. In busy English towns the density of traffic, stringent parking regulations and a general lack of space can make this a daunting task. And though town centre car parks are usually provided, these require payment of a not inconsiderable fee, together with a scrupulous respect of the length of time paid for. What’s more, English car parks are frequently under the surveillance of sadistically-inclined attendants (often women) who gain fiendish pleasure from issuing the stiffest of fines for the slightest deviation. And in the event of serious transgression, they have at their disposal a form of dissuasion, almost unknown in France,  of such redoubtable efficiency that the very mention of it is enough to strike terror in the heart of the most intrepid driver: for the offending car will be mercilessly clapped in the steely grip of the wheel clamp, release from whose clutches can only be obtained by payment of an extortionist fine.

What’s more, once he has found a vacant space, the English motorist is required to deposit his vehicle tidily within. For it is frequently brought to his notice that he who leaves his car with wheels straddling, or even just touching the delimitations will expose himself to a punitive fine.  While in France a certain tolerance is reserved for this type of minor transgression, it goes without saying that in a country which prides itself on having produced an Iron Lady, sanctions are applied as unbendingly as the parking space lines themselves.

This was brought home to the French part of me when, during a recent holiday in England, I decided to do some shopping in a nearby town. After cruising round the main car park for at least a quarter of an hour I finally spotted someone pulling out of a parking space. Quickly depositing my car in it, I proceeded to buy a ticket, duly stuck it behind the windscreen and set off for a stroll round the shops. On coming back (well within the time paid for), I couldn’t help noticing a slip of paper tucked behind a windscreen wiper. Imagine my Frenchie’s stupefaction on discovering it was notification of a fine, applied, it was explained, ‘for not parking within the designated parking area’. Though it was true that viewed from a certain angle one of the front tyres could possibly have been perceived as overlapping one line by half an inch, I keenly felt the injustice of a sanction which imposed a penalty for such a minimal fault. So, on seeing the car park attendant not far away (she was grimly writing out another fine), I walked up to her and explained my point of view. My words couldn’t have fallen on deafer ears. It must have been my Frenchman who at this point decided to change tactics: in a laudable attempt to apply le Système D, he affirmed that the car in the adjoining space had been parked so badly that he’d had no option but to leave his with a tyre touching the line. She remained unmoved. Pointing to a nearby car, one wheel of which could also possibly have been perceived as dangerously approaching  one of the lines he angrily enquired why she hadn’t given him a fine too. With a stiffly polite ‘Thank you very much’ she proceeded to write one out.

 

 

Driving in France: Parking

In England, in both public and private areas, the disabled driver is provided with specific, conveniently-placed parking spaces which he may only occupy when proof of disability in the form of an official pass, complete with photo, is clearly displayed behind the windscreen. Though in France parking is regulated in public places, and policemen or traffic wardens are on constant prowl, this is never the case in private supermarket car parks where the police have little jurisdiction, if any at all, and parking attendants together with wheel clamping are practically unknown. Parking spaces for the disabled do exist (often in pairs or more) but, generally speaking, no proof of disability is required; and understandably , in a country whose citoyens are one of the least public-minded on our planet, the only attempts to dissuade the able-bodied driver from parking in them is to colour the space in blue, paint a stylized wheelchair on it, and accompany the whole by the conscience-pricking appeal: ‘Prenez ma place prenez mon handicap’ – Take my space take my disability. Needless to say, the Englishman in me  (here my Frenchie seems to be totally blind) frequently observes perfectly valid motorists (and sometimes even les flics) not only parking their vehicles in this type of space, but doing so with wheels unashamedly straddling the dividing line between.

Is it that same Marxist syndrome which drives the ‘have nots’ to seek revenge on the ‘haves?’ Do driving schools in France consider this aspect of driving management beneath their notice? Or can we simply put it down to a lack of proper care and attention? Whatever the case, the French driver reserves his most vicious parking conduct for nice, expensive-looking cars in stationary configuration – usually in supermarket car parks, and especially when deposited there in brand-new, unsullied form. It is my personal experience that a parked vehicle answering these criteria has little chance of keeping virginity intact very much beyond half an hour. During the neigh-on 45 years of my residence in France I have been fortunate enough to possess nine brand new cars, all of which, incredible as this may sound, have suffered varying degrees of damage in just a few weeks after purchase.

Now, only a couple of months ago, I became the proud owner of another new car. It was my  Brit who hit on the idea of attempting to extend the duration of its pristine state beyond that of its predecessors by systematically parking as far away from other vehicles as a car park area would allow. This strategy – the effectiveness of which he was beginning to congratulate himself on – worked perfectly for six weeks, until that day when I came out of a supermarket, only to note with much dismay that a dent had appeared in the rear bumper. Mystified (the nearest car was parked some 20 yards away), I  proceeded to closer examination, and could only conclude that the damage was more in line with the trajectory of a hand-pushed shopping trolley than that of the combustion-propelled car bumper. At the suggestion of my Froggie I’ve now decided that since I can’t beat ’em I’ll join ’em; so now, when I go to a supermarket not only do I park as close as possible to new-looking cars but throw my door open with such vigour that a dent will be automatically inflicted. And you know what?  I’m actually getting to enjoy it – especially when it’s a more expensive car than mine!

It goes without saying that this strong Gallic relish for clunking into immobilized vehicles is not just limited to those deposited in parking areas. It is also manifest, albeit in far more lethal form, on the motorway hard shoulder. For here the motorist who has been unlucky enough to be driven to this type of enforced parking through breakdown or puncture, can count on a survival time not greatly exceeding that of a Tommy stepping out of his trench during the Battle of the Somme. Since average life expectancy on this narrow strip of no-man’s land is calculated at no more than 20 minutes, it is vital (and this I cannot emphasize enough) that the English motorist should first switch on his warning lights, invite his passengers to get out (on the opposite side to the flow of traffic), and take immediate shelter behind the safety barriers. He should then don his compulsory fluorescent jacket, place his warning triangle at a suitable distance (though this is not obligatory if, in doing so, his life would be endangered) walk carefully to the nearest emergency phone (they’re at most 2 000 metres apart and signalled by signs every 500 metres). There he must press a button which will put him in contact with the gendarmerie. Give them details of the vehicle – make, colour, direction and position (distance posts are located every 100 metres) as well as the nature of the breakdown. They’ll inform a breakdown service which should arrive in 30 to 45 minutes. Then, he must walk back and join the others behind the safety barriers.  That is, assuming he’s still alive to do so.

 

Driving in France – Never Trust Appearances

Driving in France can be a unique experience.  For one thing  my  English readers may be surprised to learn that a recent report suggests that one in ten French motorists is not in possession of a driving licence. As my English alter so often reminds me, what matters for the French driver is that he knows he can drive, and that whether he can drive or not is nobody’s business but his own. Moreover, driving in France at night soon brings to light of day the fact that a surprising number of vehicles have defective headlights (i.e. badly adjusted, or in need of bulb replacement). It must again be understood that what is important for the Frenchman is that he can see where he’s going, and that where he’s going is nobody’s business but his own. Similar conclusions can also be drawn with regard to traffic indicators. Now in England all cars are fitted with direction indicators, the purpose of which is, of course, to inform other motorists of their drivers’ intention to deviate from a straight line. In France cars also have indicators. These are almost totally superfluous to needs. For what is important to the French driver is that he knows where he’s going, and where he’s going is nobody’s business but his own.

It would, nevertheless, be wrong to assume that the Gallic never uses his traffic indicators. But what is more normal in a land where everybody does the opposite to what is expected that, though he rarely signals his intention to turn right or left, he sometimes does so when he means to go straight on? An indication of this was provided the other morning when I left home, drove down the side street where I live, stopped at the halt sign at the end, and patiently waited for a gap to appear in the traffic. Finally, everything was clear on the right. On looking to the left, my Englishman (it was he who was driving) observed a small van approaching some 50 yards away with right indicator winking. Now, he might have been forgiven for thinking that, when a vehicle is approaching with right winker on, it’s safe to assume its driver is signalling his intention to turn right. So out he pulled. The screech of brakes and prolonged honking of horn which followed proved my Anglo had made a horribly mistake. Though the van driver managed to stop just in time to avoid a collision his fury was great, and was accompanied by the usual screwing action of forefinger applied to temple. My Englishman could only surmise that, shortly before, circumstances had obliged the driver (perhaps there had been a police car behind him) to signal his intention to change directions. But so unaccustomed was he to using his indicator that he was simply unaware it hadn’t automatically cancelled itself. Proof that my experience was not uncommon is provided by the fact that the great majority of French motorists wait until a vehicle actually begins turning before pulling out in front.

 

 

Driving in France – A Strange Encounter

It is yet one more French paradox that a people who taught our world the principles of international diplomacy, and who attach such vital importance to the rules of polite behaviour and restrained elegance of speech should be given to such gross excesses of conduct and language once their derrière comes into contact with a driving seat. And so diametrically opposed is driving in France to that encountered in England that the English motorist who takes the plunge to cross the Channel for the very first time, and compares the speeds at which the French drive with the limits publicly displayed could be forgiven for thinking that their Minister of Transport, considering the English have enough on their plate keeping right (which for them is wrong), and in a laudable attempt not to overface them with too much metric system as a starter, has thoughtfully served up speed limits in mph, and that 50 is really 80 km/h, 70 is 105 km/h, 90 is 145 km/h and 130 corresponds to 210 km/h.

The English are convinced that a plane travels considerably faster than a car. The French do their best to prove the opposite. When an Englishman sets off on a drive of 200 miles, well … he sets off on a drive of 200 miles. When a Frenchman sets off on a drive of 300 kilometres he launches himself on a desperate race against the clock where traffic lights, halt signs, roundabouts, pedestrian crossings, the pedestrians on them, other drivers, les flics are so many obstacles placed in his way to stop him from reducing his journey time at a speed more associated with jet propulsion than the combustion engine. And if you ask an English motorist after his 200 mile drive whether he had a good trip he’ll most likely reply: ‘Oh yes, it was marvellous. We took the highways and byways and stopped a couple of times for a cuppa. The scenery was wonderful.’ Put the same question to a French driver, and he’ll proudly declare: ‘Ah oui, j’ai mis deux heures seulement. Ca fait une moyenne de 150 km/h!’ – ‘Oh yes, it only took me two hours! That’s an average journey speed of 150km/h!’

For it’s a measure of the vital importance he attaches to systematically reducing time between departure and arrival at a speed normally associated with an inter-continental ballistic missile that the Frenchman who struggles to divide twelve by three is able to calculate in less than the blink of an eye, and to three decimal points his ‘moyenne’ – the result of dividing the distance he has covered by the time he has taken to do it in.

Proof that driving in France is not quite the same experience as that enjoyed in England was quickly brought home that very first time I took myself over to the Continent. As this was well before I grew into the Frenglishman I now am a 100% Englishman was at the wheel.  Driving his Mini off the ferry at Calais, he set a nice, gentle course for Paris. A minute later, a configuration of alternating black and white stripes painted on the road some fifty yards ahead gave him every reason to believe he was about to have his first encounter with a passage piéton, a pedestrian crossing. His assumption seemed to be reinforced by the presence of a bent, elderly lady clutching a walking stick standing on the pavement beside it.

Now, this young Englishman couldn’t have been faulted for thinking that a passage piéton in France has much the same function as a pedestrian crossing in England: namely that of providing the muscle-propelled with a clearly designated strip by which to reach the opposite side of the road in conditions offering enough protection against the engine-propelled as to ensure arrival in very much the same physical and mental state as departure. He could also have been excused for thinking that, when a bent old lady clutching a stick is seen standing beside one, not only might it be imagined that she wishes to cross to the other side, but the rules of elementary courtesy require a motorist to do his best to help her do so. So he brought his vehicle to a gentle stop and with a smile beckoned her to cross.

Now, had this scene taken place in England, the elderly lady’s reaction would have been both predictable and polite: she would certainly have returned his smile, and with a wave of thanks slowly made her way across. He would have waited patiently and, once she was safely over, he would have happily continued his way.

It quickly became apparent that this was not England. Oddly, the bent old lady refused to budge one inch. And even more strangely, his friendly smile was met by a hostile glower. It was as if somewhere she was saying, ‘You don’t think I’m going to fall for that one at my age, do you?’ And his growing suspicion  all was not quite right received sonorous confirmation a split second later when a deafening screech of tyres, followed by an ill-mannered blast of horn, prompted him to look into his rear-view mirror. Reflected in it was the furious face of a Frenchman executing a gesture I have now become all too familiar with: a disagreeable screwing movement of forefinger applied to temple indicating that the person it was directed at needed to tighten up on a thing or two.

 

Please, Monsieur le Gendarme

In his indefatigable pursuit of ‘la moyenne’ not only can the French driver show considerable ingenuity, even daring, in covering the distance between departure and arrival in a time normally associated with jet propulsion but he is not lacking in imaginative prowess when it comes to supplying messieurs  les gendarmes with explanations designed to justify his transgressions. My Englishman has noted the following examples:

 

Driving Is No Picnic

When stopped by the gendarmes for driving through a village well above the legal limit late one sweltering August Sunday morning, this motorist pleaded indulgence by explaining that his excessive speed was due to the fact that he and family were heading for a local picnic spot, and he didn’t want the food and drink in the boot to get too warm!

 

Between Two Stools

After stopping a motorist for driving without his seatbelt, two patrolling gendarmes were intrigued by the fact that the offender only lowered his window a couple of inches or so to answer their questions. So they asked him to open the door. Imagine their astonishment on seeing that he was sitting on … a kitchen stool! The motorist explained that he was on his way to buy a new driver and passenger seat in a neighbouring town, and he’d thought it would be more practical if he fitted them on the spot.

 

Mother-In-Law Trouble

After the breathalyzer had revealed he was well over the limit this motorist had no hesitation in laying the blame on … his mother-in-law! Apparently, he and his wife were just driving home after Sunday lunch with his in-laws, and that infuriating mother-in-law of his had insisted on serving up an ice-cream dessert copiously laced with rum. ‘I mean, I could hardly refuse to eat it, could I?’ he pleaded.

 

Moo Cow!

The breathalyzer test had indicated that this motorist was well over the limit, so the gendarmes asked him to get out of his car. Then, suddenly, to their utter stupefaction, he dropped face down onto the grass verge and began executing a series of press-ups. What amazed them even more was that every time his face came near the ground he ate a mouthful of grass. When asked the reason for this bovine-like behaviour, he explained he’d been told that eating grass lowered your blood alcohol level.

 

A Hair of the Dog That Bit You

Stopped by the gendarmes for exceeding the speed limit by 30 km/h this driver explained that he was in a big hurry. When asked the reasons for such haste his reply was that he was on his way to a nearby town where he was to appear in court on a charge of … speeding!

 

A Flea in Your Ear

After being accused of using his mobile phone while driving, this motorist told the gendarmes they were mistaken … he’d only been scratching his ear! Confronted with evidence to the contrary he finally admitted it was true. Suddenly, putting his hand to one ear he started grimacing with pain. When asked what the matter was, he informed them he suffered from chronic ear-ache, and that the waves from his cell phone helped to soothe the pain.

 

A Quick Bite

Had he been exceeding the speed limit or the length of time a trucker is legally allowed to drive? This we’ll never know. For the method one lorry driver resorted to in order to stop the gendarmes from examining his cardboard control disc was simply to fold it up, stuff it in his mouth and eat it.

 

Ghost Driver

After driving for some five kilometres along a motorway in the wrong direction, narrowly missing a lorry and colliding with another car, this driver finally brought his car to a halt on the hard shoulder. But when the gendarmes arrived they found him sitting innocently in the front passenger seat. ‘The driver’s just run off!’ he explained. The police even used a tracker dog in the resulting search … until the ‘passenger’ finally admitted he’d been the one at the wheel. The breathalyzer test he then took revealed an alcohol/blood level of 244 mg of alcohol per 1000 ml of blood (almost five times above the French legal limit of 50 mg).

 

 

 

 

 

A Land Where the Customer is Always Wrong?

Though I’ve never regretted my decision some 45 years ago to come and live in France (I’m enough convinced this must be some kind of record to be willing to offer a bottle of champagne to anyone who can claim more) there are one or two things that still grate. Apart from the taxation levels, the strikes, the street demonstrations, queue-jumping, tail-gating, le système D, and a mentality which enables a people to see nothing wrong with the most radical projects for reform, provided  they’re for others, I’ve never really come to terms with a stubborn Gallic insistance that the customer is always wrong. Though I must confess to a certain literary licence, the following incidents are just two of the many that really happened to me.

In a free-market economy a sacrosanct commercial rule states that the supplier should do his best to satisfy the requirements of his customer as obligingly and efficiently as possible, and that the latter’s preferences should always have priority over his own. What is less surprising that in the land of the exception this rule should be subject to individual interpretation? For that yawning gap which exists in France between what should be and what is, was again brought home one Saturday morning when the need to ensure another week’s survival obliged me to pay a visit to my local supermarket.

As the items on my shopping list far exceeded the carrying capacity of a hand-held basket, I made my way to the trolley storage area. Being in possession of neither the one-euro coin nor the plastic substitute counter necessary to unshackle a trolley from its neighbour, I stepped inside.  There was nobody at the information desk so I headed towards the nearest checkout where a rather sour-looking lady seemed to be doing her best to let everyone know she was engaged in a job beneath her. Just as she was opening her till, I politely asked if she could let me have a one  euro coin for the two fifty cent ones I held in my hand.

‘Ah non!’ she snapped.

‘Mais pourquoi, madame?’ I enquired.

‘Because I need all the change I’ve got!’

Mustering all my self-control, I appealed to the lady to reconsider her decision by pointing out that, since I was a customer, and a regular one at that, she might think about placing my requirements before her own. It fell as seed on desert ground. In a final attempt to kindle a spark of commercial awareness, I proceeded to point to the banner hanging just above our heads, proclaiming in bold capital letters that CHEZ NOUS LE CLIENT EST ROI, ‘Here The Customer Is King’. Her shoulders projected themselves upwards while her lower lip stretched itself downwards in what is commonly termed ‘a Gallic shrug’. I could muzzle the bulldog in me no longer. Abandoning all restraint, I angrily declared that if I was not the recipient of the required coin within the next ten seconds, the arguments I had presented would be brought directly to the ears of her boss. It was with undisguised bad grace that she complied.

After finally unshackling my trolley, I got down to the business of shopping. Having a typically English sweet tooth, I made straight for the biscuit shelves where a young lady was engaged in erecting a tall pyramid-like structure – presumably as part of a promotional display – composed of packets of the chocolate-coated biscuits I’m especially partial to. Bringing my trolley to a halt next to her, I was just about to grab a couple when she called out in a tone of barely-concealed irritation, ‘Mind you don’t knock them all down. You know, it won’t be me who’ll put ’em all back up again!’

It was my Frenchman who got me to bite my tongue by whispering that après tout she was only doing her job, and that it would be better if I got out of her way; and since it was Saturday why didn’t I treat myself to some delicious mountain-cured ham as a starter for dinner that evening? It would go down well with a glass or two of light, dry Riesling. So off I took myself to the cooked meat counter.

Now the charcuterie counter at my local supermarket displays a mouth-watering variety of cooked meats: jambons, pâtés, pâtés en croûte, saucissons, terrines and saucisses, to name just a few. It could only have been my Frenchie who slyly whispered in my ear that the young girl assistant was just as mouthwatering as the wares she was serving. But when I requested half a dozen slices of my ham, cut thin, she gave a shake of her pretty little head, and with a charming smile proceeded to ask if I would do her a favour. Could I possibly accept the same … in pre-packed form? She’d just spent a quarter of an hour stripping and cleaning the cutting machine and didn’t want to have to begin again. It was certainly my English half who prompted me to enquire whether the supermarket closing time was seven o’clock or a quarter to.

‘Oui, vous avez raison, Monsieur,’ she replied with an even sweeter smile, ‘mais, vous voyez, I’m meeting my boyfriend at half past seven. Since I need at least half an hour to get home and change, I cleaned the machine in advance so I can leave dead on seven. I’m sure you’ll understand!’  I meekly settled for a wedge of modest pâté de campagne which she cut with a carving knife.

Now don’t get me wrong. I’m still extremely fond of France and the French and I’d be heart-broken if ever we had to part.  What’s more, in the final analysis the good things about living here far outweigh the bad. And I’ve even managed to convince myself that the downsides are part of the overall charm.

 

 

 

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