Call of France

A Trilogy of Adventure

Month: December 2017

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.

 

 

 

The Doggy Bag

When you eat in a restaurant in the U.K. or the U.S. you probably wouldn’t think twice about asking the waiter for a doggy bag or box so you can take that nice piece of steak you couldn’t quite finish home for Rover, or even for yourself. In France, however, the doggy bag is still not quite the done thing – so much so that if you asked for one in a restaurant you might come in for some strange looks from the person serving you, and a good deal of mockery (behind your back) from other diners. But, as a result of the present European year of fight against waste, all this could be about to change.

For while most French still tend to make fun of the doggy bag, in a world where resources are increasingly limited some restaurants, companies and internet sites are now doing their best to promote this Anglo-Saxon invention as a means of combating waste. And in France where, according to a study conducted in 2011, each person throws away on average 21% of food bought (that’s 90 kg of food per year), 8% of which hasn’t even been removed from its packaging, this kind of waste is coming in for more and more criticism. And it’s the restaurants which seem to be taking the lead. According to a recent survey which questioned 2,700 restaurants in the Rhône-Alpes region restaurant owners’ greatest fear is that their customers will become ill after eating left-overs which have not been kept in the best of conditions at home. In this respect, however, they can rest assured as, legally speaking, restaurants can no longer be held responsible for a dish which was started in their restaurant and then taken away in a doggy bag. A total of 31% of the establishments questioned already offer or are thinking of offering a box or bag which customers can use to take uneaten food home. And 86% of them feel that, since the customer has paid for the entire meal, he’s entitled to take the left-overs away. It’s also a good preparation for 2016 when restaurants will be legally obliged to limit organic waste.

What’s more, some young entrepreneurs see this as a market opening, and are doing their best to make the doggy bag or box more attractive. This is certainly the case with the Trop bon pour gaspiller (Too Good to Waste) project launched by Laurent and Rabaïa Calvayrac. ‘We’ve lived in North America where the practice is very common,’ says Rabaïa. ‘When we came back to France we decided to try to make it more popular by improving the quality of the box. We think this is very important.’ As a result they’ve produced a luxury doggy bag – a rigid, recyclable, bio-degradable box suitable for both microwave and normal ovens (up to 180°C), and made in France. The problem is that, in spite of its qualities, only small quantities (5,000) will be produced to begin with. And the cost price will be around 1€, a bit too expensive to hope for massive success, even though those restaurants who have shown interest say they’re willing to make an effort as far as the price is concerned. In addition, Rest-o-Resto, a Grenoble-based company, is compiling an online directory of restaurants which offer a doggy bag or box. At present it has 130 addresses from 11 towns. And the numbers are expanding. ‘The reactions we get vary from one restaurant to another,’ admits Alexandre Teodosio. ‘Some owners are very enthusiastic, while for others it’s unthinkable that a meal should end up in a bag or box.’ The company is in the process of developing a box which will be less upmarket than the Trop bon pour gaspiller one. France’s Belgian neighbours, on the other hand, have adopted a different approach to making the doggy bag more acceptable. This involves finding not only a suitable French name but – since most left-overs are taken home for human consumption – one less associated with a canine. It doesn’t seem to be an easy task, however, as their site has just launched a Facebook consultation page inviting people to come up with their suggestions. Among these can be found RestopackRestrobon (Restes trop bons pour être jetés = left-overs too good to be thrown away), or even Gaspipa.

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