Call of France

A Trilogy of Adventure

Category: Living in France (page 1 of 3)

To Bise or Not to Bise?

An article in my local newspaper informs us that the mayoress of a village in the Isère département recently sent an email to all her staff informing them that she wished to put a stop to that traditional French practice of greeting one another with a cheek-kiss (‘la bise’) each morning on arriving at work. The reasons given?  Firstly the obvious one that it exposes you to the risk of receiving a good dose of somebody else’s germs; but more surprisingly because it reflects male-female inequality. It’s certainly true that ‘faire la bise’ is more a female thing as a man is more likely to shake another male’s hand when he arrives at work – even though things do tend to be changing. For while in the past cheek-kissing between males was confined to close members of the same family (i.e. father and son or brothers) it is now being more and more resorted to by men who are simply colleagues or friends. Though many people found our lady mayor’s decision trifling, even stupid, it does have the merit of opening a discussion on a practice which in France is systematically used as a greeting both outside and inside the place of work.

One reason our mayoress doesn’t seem to have mentioned is the fact that, depending on the number of employees and the number of kisses (usually limited to one on each chop but for cultural, regional or social reasons this can range from one to five) cheek-kissing your work colleagues can take up a significant amount of working time. On arriving at work each morning one of my copains has confessed to spending the first ten minutes going round office and workshop cheek-kissing all the women. But though important to many it can be a tiresome, even unpleasant obligation for some. Is this all that surprising with an act which forces you into such close proximity with others that you can smell their make-up, after-shave and sometimes even their breath? What’s more, wearers of spectacles or sunglasses should be especially careful as their frames have been known to inflict a nasty poke in the eye. And isn’t it a show of familiarity which in many cases doesn’t really exist ? After all a wave of the hand, a smile or a warm handshake could be nearer the mark.

Mind you, the word ‘kiss’ is often a misnomer: for rather than planting your lips on the cheek of the other, the technique usually consists in briefly rubbing your chops together, and at the same time making a kissing movement with your lips. The result is that most of the lip contact is with the surrounding air. However, I do have another copain who believes in firmly planting his lips on the cheeks of women he feels real affection for. The problem is that in France cheek-kissing is such a longstanding tradition that it’s almost become a ritual.  And in the more trendy circles it’s even strongly advised not only to cheek-kiss colleagues but to systematically use the familiar ‘tu’ as well as the first name of the person you greet. And this includes the boss. Mind you, it hasn’t always been so. In the past the upper crust considered it to be not at all chic, very provincial, and only for the plebs.  Nowadays, however, psychologists will tell you that faire la bise is a way of informing others that you recognize him or her both as an individual and a member of your same group.  So, on the whole, refusing to cheek-kiss your workmates would stand a very good chance of being seen as an act of unfriendliness and/or a wish to set yourself apart.

As to the question of male-female inequality it’s true that cheek-kissing tends to belong more to the female domain; and we can always argue that what is female has more negative connotations than what is male. But can we really say that the act in itself is a reflection of inequality? When men don’t cheek-kiss other men or are reluctant to cheek-kiss a woman doesn’t this rather echo a need to delimit what is male from the female ? Isn’t this a distinction which in the non-Muslim world at least is becoming more and more blurred ?


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.’



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.

More French Eating and Drinking Places

Le Bistrot (sometimes spelled ‘bistro’). Though the word is more or less interchangeable with café (especially when it’s not very big), a bistro is a small, informal type of restaurant (originating in Paris but now common in the provinces) serving drinks but, above all, moderately-priced home cooking in a relatively modest setting and available at most times of the day.

Le Bar. In the past the bar was a place (often located in a railway station, hôtel, airport or on a train) where you could have a quick drink, either standing or seated on a stool at the counter from where it was possible to observe the barman at work, or even engage him in conversation. Nowadays a bar usually means a small café with a terrace of some description. And you can usually get some kind of snack there, nowadays frequently in the form of standardized fast food. In this case it can be called a snack-bar or simply un snack. In large towns especially they frequently serve take-away food. A bar can even have a small restaurant attached to it, in which case it goes under the name of ‘bar-restaurant’.

La Brasserie. Larger than a bistrot and mostly located in large towns, a brasserie was originally a place where beer was brewed and consumed (the word also means ‘brewery’). An increasing number are now owned by chain companies. Though they serve all types of alcohol and non-alcoholic beverages, many brasseries still pride themselves on offering a good selection of draught and bottled beers. Their main speciality, however, is food. At one extreme some just serve basic, single dishes (onion soup, cooked meat assortments, seafood, choucroute, etc.) at any time of the day, while the more upmarket brasseries, especially in Paris, can provide quite elaborate, extensive, full-course (and relatively expensive) meals. And in certain cases they can serve both. Advance booking is not normally required.

L’Estaminet. An estaminet is a small, rustic, working-class eating and drinking place, halfway between a bar and a restaurant, serving mainly locally brewed beer and where you can eat simple but copious regional specialities. They’re to be found in Belgium and Northern France and were originally places where men of the same working corps – miners, textile workers, metal workers, sailors (and even smugglers) would go to have a drink, a smoke, play billiards and skittles as well as hold meetings to discuss matters of professional concern. It’s said that trade unionism and the right to strike were born in the estaminet.

Le Bouchon Lyonnais. A small, cosily informal restaurant specific to Lyon and the surrounding region (though you can find the odd one in other large towns), serving regional specialities. On the menu you’ll usually find quenelles de brochet (a kind of pike dumpling served with a sauce) and, above all, pork and tripe specialities such as boudin (black pudding), different types of saucisson (a pork-based salami) pigs’ trotters and les andouillettes (a tripe sausage). Traditionally the food is washed down with the local Beaujolais or Côtes du Rhône wines which can be purchased by the glass.

Le Salon de Thé. Often known under the English name ‘Tea Room’ the salon de thé is an ideal place for the shopper to rest her weary legs (they’re mainly frequented by women) over a cup of tea, coffee or hot chocolate or, if she prefers, a cold soft drink (a tea room is not licensed to sell alcohol). It’s also a golden opportunity to sample some of the cakes and sweets from the huge range of delightful French confectionary. The salon de thé can be an establishment in its own right, especially in large towns, but can also consist of just a few tables and chairs in the corner of the larger confectioner’s shops.




Lateral Queuing

In his permanent quest to prove it is in no way impossible that those who are the last to join a queue can be the first to leave it, the Frenchman has, of course, at his disposal an infinite number of techniques, one of the more widespread of which is the practice of lateral queuing. My French alter has kindly offered to explain.
     Bonjour tout le monde. The aim of lateral queuing (or side queuing as it’s sometimes called) is, above all, psychological in that it is directed towards creating and then exploiting confusion in the minds of other queuers. As the term suggests, the technique consists in casually positioning yourself laterally, as near as possible to the front, rather than tidily behind the last person at the back as the sheep-like English are programmed to do. By doing this, it is hoped that at some time during progression towards the exit, it will be possible to take advantage of the doubt created in the minds of existing queuers as to the exact moment of your arrival in relation to theirs, and sneak in well before your turn. Moreover, in the event of protest on the part of those already queuing (it does occasionally happen), positioning yourself laterally presents the immense advantage, especially when your trolley or basket is heavily laden, of allowing you to justify your action by invoking the pointless expenditure of energy required in pushing it right round to the back. Moreover, the more accomplished side queuer can make the strategy even more convincing by accompanying his explanation with heart-rending sighs of fatigue.
     Another not negligible advantage of the lateral queuing method is that when objections are encountered you may save face by retreating into feigned absent-mindedness, or ignorance as to the exact moment of your arrival at the side of the queue in relation to those already in it. But you can take it from me that, contrary to appearances (in France, things are never what they seem and never seem what they are), this type of master un-queuer is keenly alert – stealthily poised to exploit the slightest inattention. And what beats it all is that, when more stubborn opposition is encountered, you can even obtain a rousing moral victory by withering the remonstrator(s) with a look of lofty disdain, intended to bring it firmly home that there are more important things in life than this type of petty consideration. Obviously, this kind of creative un-queuing can only be effective under the right conditions, i.e. busy airports, supermarkets on Friday or Saturdays evenings, or on the eve of public holidays when the volume of trade is such that queues stretch a long way back.

This same lateral queuing technique is particularly effective when queuing for a  ski-lift . In these circumstances successful application is considerably facilitated by the nature of the sport which requires participants to wear appendages extending some distance ahead of and behind feet, thereby rendering conventional rectilinear queuing totally impractical (ten skiers aligned with skis attached would probably occupy a distance which could accommodate 50 ski-less queuers). As a result, ski-lift queuing automatically generates lateral bunching which provides even the most inexperienced un-queuer with a multitude of opportunities to improve his technique. And so much do queues  of this kind make speedy advancement a matter of such elementary simplicity that they provide the perfect training ground for our French youngsters to begin their un-queuing apprenticeship. Moreover, it is interesting to note that, in spite of my English brother’s attempts to make us believe his compatriots are at all times respectful queuers, English skiers – no doubt working off the accumulated frustrations occasioned by the uncompromising rigidity of queuing at home – are, along with their skis, letting their sense of fair play slip. And such is the enthusiasm shown that I have every reason to believe they will take full advantage of the lessons and experience it has been our privilege to provide them with in order to implement the same lateral queuing techniques on returning home.

The Art of Un-Queuing

A Roundabout Notion of Linearity?

Though the word ‘queue’ is shared by both English and French, nothing embodies more the gaping chasm that exists between the two peoples than their attitudes to, and behaviour in this mundane line: for its configuration differs so much in outward appearance and inner workings that, for the Englishman in me, it is doing the term a grave injustic to use it to describe the loose bunching and jockeying for position which goes under this same name on the Gallic side of the Channel.

Military-Style Alignement

     The English approach to queuing is of child-like simplicity, being based exclusively on the principle of military-style, single-file alignment in strict accordance with the rule of ‘First In, First Out.’ As a result, the Englishman is prepared to spend a not inconsiderable amount of time patiently waiting his turn – provided, of course, that others do the same. For when other queuers show the same scrupulous respect for the rule he will relax and, amazingly, even enjoy himself.

A Fascinating Diversion

     For example, my own Englishman will while away time spent in a supermarket line by honing his skills of empirical deduction through a fascinating diversion which consists in determining the occupation of fellow queuers by the articles reposing in their trolley. And at the time of writing, he has identified, with a high degree of probability, an alcoholic bee-keeper, a sweet-toothed house-husband, and a transvestite hooker with bunions.

Unbounded Fury

     However, the slightest deviation from the implacable rule of queuing which states that the first to join shall be the first to leave will unleash unbounded fury on the part of the English – so much so that very few allowances are made. I’m reminded of an incident some time ago when my poor mother who, in her mid-eighties and only partially sighted, mistakenly joined a queue in the middle. In spite of   her age and infirmity, that stony-hearted English queuing law was applied in all its relentless rigour, and she was sternly enjoined to ‘get to the back!’  

Freudian Complexity

    The Gallic attitude to Queuing, on the other hand, is of Freudian complexity. After close observation of his French alter my English part is tempted to think that when a Frenchman appends himself to that shapeless formation which in France masquerades under the name ‘queue’ (in spite of Cartesian precedent when it comes to queuing the French have a roundabout conception of linearity), he is seized by feelings of depersonalization and a resulting loss of self-esteem. Thus, the only way for him to re-find his identity and self respect is to accept the challenge which consists in proving to himself that he has enough personal resources to minimize to a maximum time spent in the line.

Every Man for Himself

     Nevertheless, far be it for my Englishman to suggest that the rule of ‘First Come First Served’ is unknown to the French, and that the Gallic is not aware that un-queueing – necessarily to the detriment of others – can be contrary to accepted standards of fair play. The importance he attaches to le Système D is such, however, that he simply has a far less degree of conviction than the English queuer. And so, though he may well be piqued on observing that another has jumped the queue before him, his annoyance (which may even be tinged with grudging admiration), results less from the fact that the offender has infringed the sacrosanct Anglo-Saxon rule than that he has proved himself ‘beaucoup plus malin’, much smarter, in finding a way round it. As a result, whenever the opportunity presents itself, the non-rule of ‘Every Man for Himself’ is applied.      

Lateral Queuing

    In this respect my Frenchie is especially proud of one instance last year when I went along to our local supermarket to do some last minute Noël shopping. As in England, French supermarkets are very busy places at Christmas time, and my local supermarket is no exception. After completing my purchases, I wheeled my heavily-laden trolley towards check-out (in reality, it was my wily Frenchie who positioned himself so that my Englishman did most of the pushing). Now check-out at this supermarket consists of three cash desks, only two of which were, for some reason or other, in operation at that precise moment. And such was the afflux of shoppers that two long queues snaked back some twenty metres or more between the shelves. It goes without saying that my Englishman was on the point of walking right round and dutifully joining one of the queues from the back. But my Frenchie would have none of it, and positioned me laterally at the front, just by the side of the unstaffed check-out. And then, as he had certainly anticipated, a third check-out girl quickly appeared and proceeded to open up this cash desk. All I had to do (in fact, it was my Frenchie who took complete control) was push my trolley smartly over and empty its contents onto the conveyor belt. So, I was checked out first, well before those sheep who, in some cases, had joined their queue as long as twenty minutes before me!  



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More Système D

By-Passing le Code de la Route

You know, I just don’t seem to be able to get it through my English alter’s thicker part of our skull that life is too short not to take advantage of every single moment, and that precious time can be wasted blindly following the rule. Once again le Système D can be of precious assistance. Take, for example, le Code de la Route. During the time we were together, Priscille lived with her parents in a small mountain village some five kilomètres from the town where we lived and which could only be reached by a twisting mountainroad. Journey time could, however, be reduced by turning left off this main road and following another route – a steep, narrow, but relatively straight lane leading directly into the village centre. So narrow was this lane that a one-way system had always operated to the advantage of the coming-downers, the going-uppers being officially informed they must take the longer route by a large No Entry sign located at the intersection. It goes without saying that when our Englishman was at the wheel the words ‘No Entry’ constituted a barrier as impenetrable as Priscille’s virtue and, as my Frenchman never failed to remind him, we stupidly lost up to five minutes following the longer main road to the village instead of taking the short-cut.
      Things really came to a head when a section of the main road between the short-cut intersection and the village was partially blocked by a landslide, and a one-way system, regulated by temporary traffic lights, was implemented . When he was at the wheel, not only did my English part continue to take the same route, but he actually waited when the lights were red, frequently wasting precious time. What I could never get into his bird-sized part of our brain was that, even if we took the short-cut, the limited number of inhabitants, the remote location of the village, as well as the time of day (usually we called on Priscille and her parents in the evening after dinner) weighed the law of probability heavily in favour of us not meeting a going-downer on our way up.
      Of course, much to our Englishman’s extreme discomfort, whenever my Frenchie was in control, we always took the shorter way up. This choice always revealed itself to be right, except on one occasion when we had to stop and pull in to one side to let a coming-downer through. He, of course, in true French fashion, left us in no doubt as to his opinion on the matter by lowering his window, sticking his head out and bellowing, ‘Ca ne va pas la tête, non?’ However, this allusion to the softness of our brain  was due less to the fact that we’d infringed the rule than the slight personal inconvenience he’d been caused: for this certainly didn’t prevent him from taking the same short-cut himself when he became a going-upper on his way back.
     Sooner or later, of course, life’s journey leads us on a collision course with those officially appointed to make sure rules and regulations are respected. It must not be imagined that because a French policeman is clad in blue, a heart of gold doesn’t beat beneath. What my French half doesn’t seem to be able to get through to our rosbif is that, with the help of le Système D, this type of encounter is far from obliging you to resign yourself to the worst. During the short time Priscille and ourself were together (the poor girl soon realized she couldn’t cope with an English and Frenchman rolled into one), whenever my Froggy was driving and we were stopped by les flics for exceeding the speed limit, he’d given her strict instructions to pretend to give us a resounding telling-off (towards the end I suspected she wasn’t acting at all). At the same time, our Anglo didn’t have to force himself to impart a typically English, sheepish expression to our face. In nine cases out of ten the policeman was unable to conceal his amusement and let us off with just a warning! C’est ça, le Système D!

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Who’s Afraid of Officialdom?

In the course of our everyday life officialdom frequently places in our path a host of petty rules and regulations which, as my Frenchie frequently observes, you Anglo-Saxons resignedly accept as insurmountable hurdles. You just don’t seem to realize it only takes a modicum of resourceful and audacity – the very essence of the Système D – to reduce them to mere stiles to be hopped over with ease. Nothing illustrates this better than that masterpiece of bold inventiveness my French part is especially proud of, which got us round a little snag we had with the la Poste, the Post Office, last year. I’ll leave it to him to relate.
The other Saturday morning, on getting back home from our weekly shopping, we found reposing in our letterbox an official post office form, duly completed by the postman, informing us that he’d called at precisely 10.50 a.m. with a lettre recommendée avec accusé de reception, a registered letter whose receipt had to be acknowledged by the signature of the recipient. However, in view of our absence, post office rules and regulations had obliged him to take it back to the main post office where it would be available for collection the following Monday morning from eight o’clock onwards (the main post office in the town where we live closes for the weekend at noon on Saturdays). Now past experience has taught us that this sort of missive, often arising from official sources, can, like tap water in foreign climes, be the prelude to a messy business. Being a born worrier, our English half began to fret so much about what it could contain that this threatened to spoil our weekend.
     ‘Well, we’re going to have to wait until Monday morning to know what it’s all about!’ he muttered with resignation.
      ‘Pas du tout, mon pauvre!’ I retorted. ‘Leave it to me. On va se débrouiller!’ It didn’t take me long to concoct a way of getting round all this. Here’s what I did:
     Picking up the phone, I called the main post office and asked to speak to Monsieur le Receveur, the Post Office Manager. Once I’d been put through I began by politely explaining that I had in my hand a post office form which the postman had deposited in our letterbox, informing us that he’d called at precisely 10.50 a.m. that morning with a registered letter which, in view of our absence, he’d been obliged to take back to the post office.
     Monsieur le Receveur replied – not, I noted, without a trace of irritation – that he didn’t really understand why I was calling, as it was certainly indicated on the post office form that the registered letter would be available for collection on Monday from 8 o’clock onwards.
     ‘In addition,’ he added, ‘the postman was simply following post office rules and regulations.’
     ‘Do post office rules and regulations stipulate,’ I asked, ‘that before taking the registered letter back to the post office, the postman should first use all reasonable means to ascertain whether the addressee is, in fact, at home?’
Monsieur le Receveur confirmed that official post office rules and regulations did, in fact, require the postman to first use all reasonable means to ascertain whether or not the addressee was, in fact, at home.
     ‘And does using all reasonable means include ringing the doorbell or applying knuckles to the door?’ I then enquired.
     ‘En effet,’ Monsieur le Receveur replied, ‘official post office rules and regulations are to be interpreted in that sense.’
     ‘And is it your honest opinion we can be absolutely sure the postman acted in full accordance with post office rules and régulations?’ I continued.
     ‘Since all postmen have received strict instructions in this respect, monsieur, I have no reason to believe that he did not act in full accordance with post office rules and regulations.’
     ‘But don’t you think that, since I’ve not put a foot out all morning, some doubt might be cast on whether the postman really acted in full accordance with post office rules and regulations?’
     ‘Might I be justified in thinking,’ the post office manager retorted, ‘that when the postman rang the doorbell, you were engaged in some form of sonorous household activity – vacuum cleaning, for instance – which prevented you from hearing him? But whatever the case may be, you’ll only have to wait until eight o’clock on Monday morning,’ he went on, ‘so I don’t really see where the problem is. And since I’m a busy man, would you please forgive me for abridging this conver…’
     ‘On the contrary,’ I interrupted (and here I showed all my inborn inventive genius), ‘there is a very real problem. You see, I was expecting this registered letter. It contains vital information, determining whether or not I take the six o’clock T.G.V., the High Speed Train, on Monday morning for an important nine o’clock business meeting in Paris. And since I’ve spent all morning quietly reading the newspaper, the only explanation for me not now being in possession of the letter in question would seem to be due to the fact that the postman, for reasons known only to him, did not act in accordance with post office rules and regulations.’ I paused for a moment to let my words sink in.  
     ‘But, whatever the cause may be,’ I continued, ‘there’s absolutely no question of me letting the matter rest here. If I don’t obtain satisfaction, I’m going to lodge an official complaint. So what do you suggest we do about it?’
     After a long and heavy silence, it was, I must confess, with some relief that I heard him pronounce those magic words I was waiting to hear:
     ‘Bon. Exceptionnellement, on va se débrouiller! Voici ce qu’on va faire.’
     He then proposed the very solution I had in mind. Though, normally, it would have been out of the question, in view of these exceptional circumstances, he was prepared to bend the rule. Since it was now going on for midday and the post office would be closing shortly, if we presented ourself at his private flat located to the rear of the building, and identified ourself by giving three sharp raps on the door, he would personally remit the letter to us. This, of course, we did.     Everything went without a hitch, the contents of the registered letter weren’t half as bad as our Englishman had thought, and we had an excellent weekend. C’est ça, le Système D. En France, on se débrouille!

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Le Système D?

 What is le Système D?

It is yet one more measure of the vast differences exisiting between two nations – geographically divided by just a narrow stretch of shallow brine but, mentally, deep oceans apart – that what is a veritable institution on one side of the Channel, is totally unknown on the other. So, for the benefit of our Anglo-Saxon readers the Froggy in me will begin with a brief explanation of the etymology of the term ‘le Système D’, followed by a definition, along with some examples of its modus operandi in daily life.
My non-French-speaking Anglophone readers will certainly have realized that, in regard to the word système, the two languages converge so closely that deleting the grave accent and the last letter leave us with an English word meaning ‘a scheme, or plan of procedure’. But it’s the capitalized fourth letter of the alphabet which imparts that same French flavour to the expression as garlic does to a roast leg of lamb when pushed in near to the bone: for this ‘D’ represents the initial letter of the commonly-used reflexive verb se débrouiller, literally meaning ‘to disentangle’ or to ‘extricate oneself.’
You unimaginative, sheep-like, stick-to-the-rule Anglo-Saxons tend to adopt a submissive attitude towards those relatively minor obstacles which everyday life, at some moment or other, inevitably places in our path. These little problems may be of a practical nature, can be caused by rules and regulations, or by those officially appointed to make sure they are applied. In contrast, the more creative, individualistic Frenchman has developed what is termed ‘le Système D’ – an implicit, institutionalized anti-code, perhaps not always perfectly licit, but never more than marginally detrimental to others, which relies on the ingenuity and resourcefulness of each to improvise an immediate solution. De plus, ‘être débrouillard’ is a positively-perceived trait, an attribute it is considered desirable to possess when confronted with life’s daily hassles and, as such, a quality which French parents encourage in their offspring.
In its most rudimentary form, le Système D consists in improvising a practical solution to a concrete problem by adapting any material at hand. Let me illustrate this by two examples. A few summers ago, I spent a couple of weeks’ holiday on the Côte d’Azur. Now, in view of the long journey ahead and the likelihood of encountering dense traffic on the way, I decided to set off well before dawn. However, while loading up my car of that time, an old 2CV, I realized I’d forgotten to remove the many insects that had come to a sticky end on the windscreen over the previous days.
‘I’ll go and get the window spray,’ my Englishman said.  On coming back I directed the nozzle towards the glass and applied my right forefinger to the button. Nothing happened.
‘The bloody thing’s U.S.,’ he muttered in dismay. ‘What the heck are we going to do?’
‘Ne t’en fais pas, mon vieux !’ my Frenchie replied. ‘On va se débrouiller!’ – ‘Don’t worry, old chap ! We’ll sort something out!’
Being a bit slow-on-the-uptake, what my English part didn’t realize was that the same, even better results can be obtained, totally free of charge, simply by using a few sheets of newspaper, a drop of water, and a bit of elbow grease. Soak the newspaper in the water, rub away and squashed insects disappear like magic!
‘Elémentaire, mon cher Watson!’
On another occasion, a rather more serious problem enabled me to come up with a more daringly imaginative application. I was driving along with Priscille, my girl friend of that time, when a red warning light started flashing on the dashboard of that same old 2CV. Of course, I pulled up immediately, jumped out and proceeded to lift up the bonnet. It didn’t take long to see where the problem lay. The fan belt had chosen that moment to come apart. Now, as my more mechanically-minded readers will know, this type of breakdown, while not being a disaster in itself, would have made any further attempt at motorized advancement liable to seriously compromise the future health of the engine. So, I had to find a makeshift solution to get me as far as the nearest garage.
‘Oh, shit!’ said my Anglo. ‘We’re stranded. What the hell are we going to do?’
‘Ne t’en fais pas, mon vieux!’ my Froggy replied without the slightest hesitation. ‘Il n’y a pas de problème. On va se débrouiller.’
Needless to say, he’d already found a solution. Now, the armour of Priscille’s virtue constituted an impenetrable shield against every conceivable type of incursion, whatever form it came in, whatever direction it came from, and whatever part it was aimed at, and I had to use all my charm to get her to divest herself of her tights (after all, weren’t we in a tight spot?). But the rest was plain sailing. After twisting them into a rope, I knotted them round the pulleys of the dynamo, and hey presto! two minutes later I was breezing along again. C’est ça, le Système D!


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