Lost rags

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.

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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.

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Knowing me, knowing you

The internet was a God-send for the Brits. It revolutionised daily life. Instead of having to telephone the people who, for example, supplied our utilities, we discovered that we were able to use online booking forms; type in the feedback that we would never have dared to deliver in person; and fire off e-mails to our lettings agent during coffee breaks. Thus, at a stroke, IT released us from the minefield that is conversation with people we don’t know well, and made us appear ten times more modern and efficient.

Despite boasting that it invented the bizarre precursor to the world-wide-web that is Minitel, France drags its heels when confronted with the internet revolution. It is slowly becoming possible to book things via the internet, but, even so, the entire system is still designed to ensure that you have to come face-to-face with a real person at some point. I always feel my heart sink when I click the button to “book” that ticket, only to discover that I have to print out the confirmation screen and take it to a human being, who will give me the ticket in person.

computer says no

E-mail is also surprisingly rare outside the world of work. Much to my burning shame, having registered as self-employed under the French system, I recently fell victim to a classic scam. An insurance broker cold-called me and somehow managed to convince me that, against my will, he was obliged to visit me at home. To cut a long story short, my execrable French, my sense of exhaustion, my British politeness, and my desire to get this person out of my house all combined in toxic fashion to compel me to sign a document, which, it later turned out, was a contract committing me to extortionate and unnecessary insurance payments for the period of a year.

When confronted with the magnitude of my error, my first thought was to send a brief but firm e-mail both to the broker and the insurance company, politely explaining what had happened and requesting a cancellation. In the UK, whether or not the insurance company eventually rolled over, this would have triggered an e-mail correspondence, possibly escalating to an exchange of paper letters (oo-er).

In France, the response came in the form of an aggressive telephone call from the broker. Sensing that I wanted to rob him of his commission, he went on for hours, getting progressively ruder and more bullying, and talking to me as if I were an idiot child, doubtless because of my mangled pronunciation of key words intended to convey both my intellect and indignation.

When I got off the telephone I was shaking. Shameful though it is to admit, I could only in part attribute the shaking to the broker’s aggression and the frustrations of operating in a second language. What had upset me far more than either of these things was the fact that the man had responded to my e-mail by picking up the telephone. This was clearly not how things should be done. If I didn’t want to talk to anyone in person, I should not have to do so, should I?

There is, of course, an endearing side to the French insistence on direct contact. Take buying a house, for example. In the UK, a buyer may never meet the seller of a property, and quite often they will not meet the conveyancer who acts on their behalf. Identification, enquiries, contracts, signatures: all of this is done by e-mail and letter, with perhaps one short telephone call at some point.

In France, the entire process of buying a house relies on face-to-face contact. At the heart of the transaction are two lengthy meetings, for which buyers, sellers, estate agents and notaires for both sides gather together to read through the contract of sale, line-by-line, lingering fondly over such details as the salary of the buyer and the wedding contract of the seller. If you want to negotiate a reduction in price, there is no chance of doing so cruelly, by e-mail, at the eleventh hour. Oh no: you would have to look the seller in the eye and give it to them straight (so as a Brit, you have no chance).

Neither, in the first instance, can you recruit your agent or your notaire via your desktop. Such people still have a very limited online presence in France and often you will find that the details on their websites, if they exist, are out of date. No, the only feasible way to proceed is for you to ask around. You will be given recommendations and will soon realise that everyone involved in the purchase is connected to you in some way: it will be your friend who brokers your mortgage; your neighbour who is the agent; a parent from your child’s class who acts as your notaire; and a string of friends of friends who commit to doing renovations on the property once you have bought it.

house

Once the transaction is completed, these people will not pass out of your lives. You will invite the notaire and his family round for lunch; the agent will knock on your window as she walks past, and pop in for a cup of coffee in your new home; and the seller of your house will call round with Christmas presents for your children. It may even come to pass that other parents at the school gate know more about how the transaction is proceeding than you do at any given moment.

Though, doubtless, this approach has its disadvantages (imagine, for example, cringing during a meeting with a builder to discuss replacing a beetroot bathroom suite in your new home in front of the existing owners who lovingly installed that very same suite), they are wholly outweighed by the sense of belonging that it engenders. By the time that you sign on the dotted line, you will have acquired not only somewhere to live, but also a fresh supply of people whom you can invite round to amuse yourself with their reaction to such British delicacies as toast and marmite, mince pies, and tea (brewed in the pot) with milk.

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For information on the house-buying process in France, see here if you live in France: http://www.expatica.com/fr/housing/buying

and consult those in charge if you live in the UK: https://www.gov.uk/guidance/how-to-buy-property-in-france

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This week I am lucky enough to be featured in the #newbieshowcase as part of #PoCoLo : http://www.morganprince.com/2016/01/post-comment-love-newbie-showcase-15th-17th-january-2016.html Why not visit Morgan’s blog and have a look at all the other blog posts in the linky?

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