Now that I have frenchified my apparel, there are, I am told, two residual clues to my Anglo-Saxon ancestry. The first is, obviously, my accent charmant. The second is the fact that, each morning, I walk my children to school. We even wear wellie boots and reflective jackets for this activity.
Why does walking less than a kilometre to school mark me out as British? Well, it seems to have something to do with my impermeability (because, bien évidemment it rains all the time in the UK); my insouciance about my bedraggled appearance after a walk along a muddy path; and my courage in the face of cars attempting to break the world speed record as a routine part of the school run.
For the most part, this badge of eccentricity serves me well at the school gate because it has given me a whole series of stock conversations. I have also gained a quite unmerited reputation for being sporty and, as this is the first time in my entire existence that anybody has ever thought this, I bask in the falsely reflected glory.
Unfortunately, alongside the well-wishers, there is also a contingent of people who think that I am a dangerous liability to myself, my children and other parties. When these people catch sight of the wellie-wearers in the road, most of them slow down (reluctantly) until they are only a few dozens of kilometres per hour above the speed limit, do an exaggerated detour around us, gawp unashamedly, and tut through their windscreens. The injustice of this used to bother me, but now I just brush it off. Meanwhile the kids positively relish the excuse to yell out “stupid French wally” in imitation of their maternal grandfather (who will no doubt be pleased to hear that I am getting my comeuppance for having shared this anecdote with them in the first place).
At the epicentre of this contingent is a parent who drives a black Volkswagen, clearly spends a long time chez le coiffeur, and sports a slash of red lipstick. She also has a right foot made of iron: the reason that I don’t know the identity of her child is that it is impossible to catch a glimpse of any passenger when the car is hurtling past at 130 km per hour within a millimetre of my right ear.
On one occasion this unlovely specimen came within a few centimetres of killing my younger daughter. The incident occurred at a junction close to the school where there is a total absence of useful road markings and where local people indulge in a daily contretemps about who has the right of way (it is not unheard of for this debate to be conducted by means of gentle nudges to an opponent’s bumper). On our walk to the school my children and I have to proceed diagonally across this death trap.
Despite my obstinate insistence on walking, I am, frankly, terrified of Lyonnais driving. Thus, on this occasion, as on all others, I approached the junction with trepidation and attacked it in two stages. The first road successfully traversed, I stood with the girls, patiently awaiting a gap in the traffic through which we could mount an attack on the second. The driver of one of a queue of waiting cars on our side of the road smiled at me and indicated that it was ok for us to cross. We proceeded to the middle of the road, where I cautiously poked my head out to look for oncoming traffic. There was nothing in sight.
Then, just as I gave the instruction to step out onto the opposite carriageway, Madame Lipstick came squealing round the corner at insane speed and, having cut up another vehicle, very nearly erased one of my children from this earth. As I stood there reeling, she wound down her window and subjected me to a torrent of invective about my suitability as a mother. I was, it seems, an imbecile, unfit to walk this earth, let alone the route to school, and every day my wilful actions put the general public in severe danger.
One brush with Madame Lipstick was all it took to convince me to change our daily route. Unfortunately, she is the sort of person who likes to terrorise all routes equally. The other morning I was walking down a very wide, quiet road, carefully leaving sufficient space on our left for even a Norbert Dentressangle to pass by unobstructed, when I heard a furious hooting over my left shoulder. I turned round to see Madame, braking frantically (eroded brake pads being an occupational hazard), but managing to honk her horn at the same time. She wound down her window and, as she passed by, spewed out a torrent of invective about my parenting skills. My younger child asked what the noise was all about. “Perhaps she didn’t like our wellies,” replied the elder of the two, drily.
This woman is also one of those who, when they see our car inching blindly out of our portail in the vain hope of being able to spot any vehicle hurtling towards us, rests their elbow on the car horn, keeping it there with a look of vicious indignation on their faces for a good half a kilometre down the road.
I do not pretend that road rage is a uniquely Gallic phenomenon. Nor do I wish to suggest that Madame Lipstick is representative of any nation: she is clearly a troubled soul. However, I have noticed that anger is much nearer the surface here in France than it ever was back in the UK. Much of this is centred on driving, but it crops up in plenty of other contexts too.
Take striking, for example. Taxi drivers are currently grinding Paris to a standstill in their protest about the existence of Uber. Whenever I am confronted with pictures of them looking thoroughly pissed off, I wonder to myself how they manage to sustain such a high level of anger for so long. I think I’d probably feel like going home for a nice warm cup of tea after a couple of hours of shouting, setting things on fire and observing the gloom on the faces of the poor sods who just want to get to work.
It is the same in the workplace. I have a friend whose boss regularly throws his papers into the air, slams doors and storms out of meetings like some overgrown toddler. Whenever my friends brings this up, my mouth drops open in horror. Our French companions, however, have hundreds of stories about colleagues who are prone to do exactly the same thing. Don’t they worry that they will lose their jobs, I question, naïvely? Mais pourquoi ? comes the baffled response: c’est normal.
Perhaps Madame Lipstick feels a lot better when she’s got all of that anger out of her system. Perhaps bosses get better results when they shout and flail. There is no question that striking works. So far, though, getting angry is one of the French traits that I am not rushing to try out. No, for the time being I shall button up and continue to step out in my muddy wellies.