The given day

One of the happy side-effects of becoming a bloggeuse is the number of people who get in touch after they have just moved to France. A fortnight ago I spoke to one such person. Her two young children were due to start school five days after we spoke. She was beginning to feel a little bit uneasy about this, which was perfectly understandable given that a) the only conversation she’d had on the subject (some months earlier) had taken the form of a vague reassurance from the maire that everything would be fine; b) nobody had made it clear whether or not the younger of the two children was eligible for, or expected at, school; and c) there had been no letter, e-mail or text telling her when the school term would begin.

Happily, despite the fact that I live several hundred miles away from the commune in question and, indeed, had never even heard of it before, I was able to answer most of the questions. Yes, I said, because the younger child had been born in 2014, she would be expected at school. Term would begin on lundi 4 septembre. I knew this to be true because the school in question is a state primary school, and such things are governed by edicts from central government, no doubt from the great hand of Emmanuel Macron himself.

About the precise time and location I was less certain (Macron is presumably disinclined to micromanage). I was unable to specify what, if any, school supplies would be needed by each child (though I knew there would be a list). Nor, because of a recent and controversial change in the law, was I able to say whether or not there would be school on Wednesdays. However, all was not lost because the very next day was vendredi 1 septembre, and I did know that, on that particular day, the teachers in question would be found on the school premises, and could therefore be approached for all the answers that I had been unable supply. How did I know this? Well, everyone knows that la rentrée des profs happens on the working day before la rentrée des élèves … don’t they?

Not only do all pupils go back to school on the same day, they all have the same Tann’s bags, too.

When we first put the kids into French school, I found the lack of basic information available bewildering, and read into it a certain degree of hostility towards interlopers. It turns out that I was just being paranoid. Nobody communicates with you about the bare essentials because they are, quite simply, une évidence. When, at the start of our second year, I tried to engage another mother at the school gate in a little bit of cheerful griping about the fact that I had resorted to guessing when the kids needed to show up on the first day, I failed miserably. She looked at me as if I was a bit dim: mais comment tu ne le savais pas ? she asked. Well, nobody told me. Mais tout le monde le sait !

She was right. Tout le monde does indeed sait. This knowledge is not genetic, as I had at first wildly imagined, or even cultural: it’s laid down by central government, or at the very least by the mairie, and, having remained largely unchanged since Napoléon, can be considered to be immutable.

In some ways this monolithic system renders matters much simpler. This August I spent several hours telephoning and e-mailing people to try to arrange our children’s extra-curricular activities for the coming year. The responses, when the people concerned were not on holiday or at lunch, were mildly derisive. Je vous prie, Madame, de vous rendre au forum des associations. OK, fine, but when is this forum? The first Saturday after la rentrée, Madame, comme d’habitude. (Oh yes, silly me.)

The simplicity of having a single day on which people across the entire land can sign up for clubs is, like everything in France, a double-edged sword. Yes, it is convenient for you to know when and where to go without having to ask. However, suggesting to everyone that they do the same thing at the same time and in the same place is ultimately helpful to nobody except the organisers.

Imagine the terrifying consequences of a failed registration for Karate Kid.

The annual forum des associations is home to queueing on an epic scale. If you are English, the sight of perfumed ladies casually wafting into the line in which you have been waiting with only a mild air of martyrdom for twenty minutes is likely to send your blood pressure soaring. When you eventually get to the desk, you need to make sure you have your entire dossier at the ready, otherwise your application for your offspring to do karaté will be sunk for want of a single passport photo, a certificat médical or a stamped-addressed envelope (smiley though those people in jolly t-shirts at the desk may seem, they are ruthlessly unforgiving when it comes to dossiers). And whilst being turned away may not seem so terrible, when you are aware that there are only a limited number of available spaces, that the perfumed lady has taken 75% of them, and that registrations are for the entire year, well… failure doesn’t bear thinking about.

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#AllAboutFrance is back on the Lou Messugo blog. To find out more about French ways why not peruse the other blogs on there?

 

Your number’s up

Here’s the thing. Back in early March, we went on a skiing holiday. Well, Eadred and the girls skied, whilst I wept at the top of the slopes. Anyway, we were à la montagne, and I provided enough of a sideshow to ensure that Eadred was frequently distracted and, during one such lapse, dropped his wallet somewhere in the vast expanse of neige. Neige being neige, by the time we realised what had happened, the wallet was forever lost. It’s not the first time that I have proved to be an expensive hobby for Eadred.

Mislaying your wallet is a tedious occurrence wherever in the world it happens. In the UK, however, a combination of native pragmatism and (relatively) straightforward administrative practices mean that the contents of the wallet can be fairly readily cancelled and replaced. No, I wouldn’t lose my wallet on purpose in the UK, but neither would its loss make it into my top ten worst moments of the year.

Eadred, on the other hand, lives in la belle France. Here in the land of cheese-munchers, losing your wallet is about as cataclysmic as it gets. Whereas in the UK you might consider leaving the house with just a cash card, a few stamps and a tenner in your purse, here your portefeuille is expected to contain ze kitchen sink at all times so that, when an armed policeman asks for your car insurance papers at a randomised roadblock, or when a florist demands to see your carte d’identité before you can collect a parcel containing name labels for your children, you are able to oblige.

In other words, we live in a system under which not only do you kiss goodbye to ze kitchen sink when you lose your wallet, you also face being fined by gendarmes at will, or confronting the wrath of your child’s maîtresse when the contents of your child’s three compulsory school pencil cases remain unnamed. Zut alors.

By far the worst aspect of Eadred’s buried portefeuille was the missing permis de conduire. When a person first moves to France, they attack the administrative process with energy. “It can’t possibly be that bad,” they say to themselves during the honeymoon period when their stiff upper lip is still intact. After six months of waiting for their carte vitale to come through, however; after having signed a 30-page bail on a rented property; had three meetings just to open one bank account; and spent four hours queueing in the préfecture to register the ownership of one’s bagnol, even the most enthusiastic new arrival loses their will to live. And so it came to pass that Eadred gave up before he had exchanged his UK (EU) driving licence for a French (EU) one as he was supposed to have done. Oups.

Ordinarily, if you lose your permis de conduire, you apply to the relevant authority for a replacement. The trouble for Eadred was that the relevant authority in his case was still the DVLA in the UK. But without a valid UK residential address, the DVLA is unable to issue a replacement licence. Which left Eadred with only one option: applying to the préfecture for a French replacement. The problem was that, however stoically Eadred tackled the mountains of paper required to achieve anything official in France, he had no physical UK permis to exchange for a French one as the relevant protocol required. It was in his portefeuille, which was in the neige.

Cue an appointment at the préfecture to beg. Several months and one police stop fine later (fonctionnaires, apparently, do not use the téléphone and only answer e-mails when it takes their fancy to do so), he had a timed appointment and had compiled his dossier (with everything on the exhaustive list of things they ask for and many things they do not, as is traditional).

Eadred in rare selfie with the ticket announcement board in the préfecture

The great day arrived, Eadred turned up, and was issued with a ticket number. The time for his appointment came and went. After an hour, he went up and politely enquired whether that it was normal that a timed appointment should be running an hour late. His ticket and credentials were inspected. Oui, his name was on the list. Oui, madame had known that he was in the waiting room, at the allotted time. But non, the ticket number that they had issued him with was incorrect, so non, he would just have to go away and make anuzzer rendez-vous, presumably some months in the future.

Fortunately, if three and a half years in France teach you anything, it is that non is just an opening gambit. On no account should you succumb to your British instincts of taking no for an answer. Instead, Eadred took the sensible step of digging his heels in and, eventually, madame grudgingly conceded that she might be able to spare a second of her time for him.

The happy and most astonishing part of this tale is that the préfecture does in fact have a protocol for dealing with the replacement of lost European driving licences. If Eadred had thought that this would be straightforward, however, he was much mistaken. Madame at the préfecture told him that he needed to go to the commissariat de police to make a declaration of loss of the old licence before he could be furnished with a replacement. The commissariat, however, told him that, non, it was the gendarmerie he needed. The gendarmerie, however, told him that, non, it was the préfecture that issued such declarations. We think that it is indeed the préfecture that does it but that, in order to do it, he first needs to produce a preliminary piece of papier from the commissariat. This is all deduction, mind. None of the aforementioned officials have yet furnished him with any such explanation.

And of course then it is not at all clear whether, even if his deductions are correct, and even if he manages to elicit the required papier from the commissariat, the same single person at the préfecture will be able to issue both the declaration and the licence, or whether two separate people will have to do it at two separate appointments, each of which will require months of forward planning, hours of waiting and the correct ticket.

 

I shall keep you posted on whether Eadred successfully obtains a new licence before Brexit kicks in…

 

***

To read blog posts on France less cynical than these ones, or to book a slice of French Riviera heaven, you can do no better than the monthly linky on the Lou Messsugo blog called #AllAboutFrance

To read blog posts about all sorts of things try the #PoCoLo Friday linky.

A family affair

Last week I popped into the village to run a few errands. Well, it should have been a pop, but in the event it was more of a crawl. My own children still at school, I had forgotten that many French private schools are allergique to the concept of any schooling in the month of juillet, and thus had broken up for the summer a few days earlier. Consequently the local commerces were rather busier than I had anticipated, and our delightful local librarie was completely clogged up with jeunes enfants, who were taking even longer than usual to purchase armfuls of BDs and the odd handspinner because they were accompanied not by frazzled mothers but by doting grandparents. Indeed, it seemed that I was the only shopper between the ages of 21 and 60 that day.
I was similarly taken aback when, a few days later, I collected a good friend from Part-Dieu station in the centre of town. It was 1pm on a weekday and, whilst I had not expected a deserted concourse at that time, I was not prepared for the seething mass of humanity that I encountered. Twice I tried to battle my way towards the arrivals board, and twice I was mown down by a crocodile of jeunes and enfants wearing yellow caps.Was this a school trip? No: closer inspection revealed that they were accompanied by adults wearing T-shirts bearing the legend JUNIOR & Cie. This turns out to be the arm of the SNCF that deals with travel for unaccompanied minors. As I warily threaded my way through the noisy hoardes, I counted as many as six more such groups.
The start of French school holidays, you see, signals the cranking up of that ever-popular national childcare provider, at all other times of year known as la famille. Every conversation I have had with French friends about summer holiday plans has gone something like this:
Friend: What are you doing pendant les vacances?
Moi: We’re going away for three whole weeks for the first time ever [awaits gasp of astonishment and admiration].
Friend [after said gasp has failed to materialise]: Oui, mais qu’est-ce que tu fais pour le reste ?
 
Moi: [Launches into tedious explanation in dubious French of our patchwork of work and childcare arrangements.] Et toi ?
Friend: Ah well, Clothilde et Gaston will go to zer grandmuzzer’s ‘ouse for one week, and zen to ze ocean wiz ‘er for anozzer week, zen zey will go to ze ozzer grandmuzzer’s ‘ouse while Jean-Chrisophe et moi go to ‘ave a romantic break. Zen we ‘ave ze family ‘oliday, zen zer cousine will come to our ‘ouse and look after zem while we go to work.
Moi: [speechless].
Despite a growing number of reports that British grandparents are increasingly shouldering the burden of caring for their grandchildren, I would struggle to identify a single British friend who routinely relied upon their own parents to look after their children for anything longer than a couple of days at a time during school holidays. In my own family such an idea would be outlandish, not because my parents don’t love the kids, nor because they would be unwilling or incapable of caring for them for any length of time, but, well, because we’re all terrified by the prospect of committing that unspeakable crime of taking each other for granted. My parents are, after all, retired, and what is tending to my offspring other than work? I don’t want to do it, so why should they…? I don’t wish to suggest that my family is in any way unusual in this respect: culturally, using one’s parents as a form of unpaid extended holiday childcare is just not quite cricket.
The other barrier is, of course, transport. “By the time I have got the kids to Norfolk and traveled back, a whole day has passed,” says one UK friend, “if you count the reverse journey, that’s two days out of my meagre holiday allowance, so I might as well find a solution closer to home”.
This is, of course, where JUNIOR & Cie comes in. Whereas most of my UK friends would be appalled at the very notion of their child travelling further than a few metres down the street without them, this is something that French kids do all the time. With two months of holiday in summer to fill, it is perhaps no wonder that an entire industry designed to transport unaccompanied children to destinations throughout France, and indeed across the globe, has sprung up.
And so it came to pass that, after three years of enviously eyeing the carefree lives of our French friends, last March we decided that enough was enough. Being blessed with at least part of a family that had Gallic blood pumping through its veins, we finally plucked up the courage to enquire whether Eadred‘s father and his wife would kindly take the children for us over Easter weekend. Mais oui, came the enthusiastic response, and so, with some trepidation, we booked two seats for unaccompanied minors on an Air France flight to Toulouse.
Children with luggage labels about to embark on solo flight
Before the grand flight took place, I worried and flapped. I needn’t have bothered. Our children’s departure turned out to be part of a mass transit of the under-16s: some being smothered by parental affection as they departed, and others being received into grandparental arms as they arrived. At the kids’ gate in Lyon airport there were literally hundreds of children wearing pochettes round their necks, including six others on the flight to Toulouse alone. The stay itself was a big hit, too. The girls came back bursting with tales of adventures, and of how much more exciting it was to see papy et mamie without us.
Et les grandparents ? I almost didn’t want to know how they had found it in case they were exhausted, or felt that we had taken them for granted. Mais pourquoi ? they asked, genuinely astonished. Ce n’est pas du travaille. C’est la famille.

Enterprising spirit

He has been hailed around the world as the President who will, enfin, rescue the French economy from mounting unemployment and ballooning costs for employers. In many parts of France, however, Emmanuel Macron’s plan to modernise and streamline labour laws have provided the perfect excuse for a good old grève (happily, the timing has the advantage of extending the vacances d’été).

Last night, with mild hyperbole, Le Front Social urged all Lyonnais to join their manifestation against Macron’s plan de destruction sociale massive. Tempting though it was in the 33º heat to join a load of angry French people protesting against, amongst other things, extending potential Sunday opening hours, I managed to resist the urge to install my bales of hay in the public streets.

Back in the UK I tended to read the small print whenever anyone seeking election talked about tax breaks for innovation and enterprise. Don’t get me wrong: I’m all for a bit of get up and go, but frequently such talk is used to bring in concessions for the sort of “entrepreneurs” who have already attracted billions to them rather than for your average painter-decorator, or indeed freelance journalist, who is struggling to pay their bills each month.

France, however, is a totally different bouillore de poisson. Anyone with half a brain can see that the system here is not set up to favour small-scale endeavours. Charges are so high that employing someone on a permanent contract here costs the employer double what they pay their employee in salary. If you happen to be rolling in it, like l’Etat, or BNP Paribas, tant pis, but if you are a small business, you have to think hard before taking anyone on. No surprise then that young people are struggling to get even a CDD (short-term contract), let alone a CDI (permanent contract).

From the outside, this all seems insane. I think it’s insane, and my family benefits enormously from it, Eadred being one of those lucky people whose CDI entitles him to over 40 days off each year, not to mention help with his transport costs, childcare vouchers and chèques de vacances which we can spend on, well, vacances: all at his employer’s expense.

Recently, however, I have had more personal reasons for wanting a President who is prepared to tackle the system. Some of the work I do here is freelance and, to work freelance, I had to set up my own company (cue labyrinthine paperwork). Once it had been established, I had to start to pay my cotisations. Everyone with a job in France pays these prélèvements sociaux, the major part of which go towards healthcare costs. And so I jolly well should too, I said to myself, when the issue first reared its head.

The trouble is that, whereas if you are employed by someone else, you pay 20% of your income in such charges, if you are self-employed, the percentage that you pay is much higher. This is presumably because you do not have, behind you, an employer who is quietly matching what they pay you in charges paid to the State. It’s quite difficult to work out how much I have to pay out for the privilege of employing myself because – évidemment – the money goes to no fewer than four separate entities, all of which have different payment terms. On the basis of our last tax return, however, I worked out that last year I paid out about 40% of what I earnt in charges. Double what I pay when I am employed by someone else.

Oh! Did I forget to mention that this 40% levy was before income tax? Although everyone pays their social charges, only 46% of French workers pay income tax. Unfortunately, because tax is paid per family rather than per individual, and because Eadred has his aforementioned cushy CDI, this includes us. As well it should, I thought…

Except that, gulp, all this makes the fiscal régime rather punitive as far as my freelance endeavours are concerned. I earn about 750€ this way each month, for about five full day’s work. That’s 18.75€ gross per hour. Deduct the 40% that goes out to the RSI, Urssaf, Cipav, and in Taxe foncière des entreprises (ground rent on the space in which you work), and I am already down to 450€, or 11.25€ per hour (before tax). Deduct the further 30% that we will pay in income tax at the end of the year, and I am down to 315€. Do the maths and I am paid 7.88€ per hour net. Less than half of the amount I started out with.

So yes, although I am very keen to pay my dues, I am all for the abolition of the RSI; the streamlining of the agencies to whom entrepreneurs pay their charges; and the proportionality of charges on the self-employed. And no, thank you very much, I do not wish to manifeste against any Président of any stripe who is willing to try to sort this mess out…

Step by step

Many of the friends I have made since moving to France have the good fortune not to work. Despite this, when I see them, they are usually a bit speed, and sometimes quite stressée. Don’t get me wrong: I number amongst those who find doing the laundry and providing delightfully home-cooked meals to suit the tastes of every member of the family more wearing than working full time, but nonetheless, initially I experienced a certain degree of bafflement about this phenomenon.

The reasons why my friends are stressée are diverse, but invariably involve démarches somewhere along the way. Literally translated, a démarche is a step in a process: if you are faire-ing your démarches you are carrying out the necessary steps to achieve whatever it is that you want to achieve.

In the UK, there are some situations which involve a series of stressful démarches: take buying a house for example, or filling out the 80-page application form for permanent residency. Mostly, however, life’s little administrative processes are tedious rather than taxing. The prospect of buying a new Oyster card, registering for a TV licence, or paying my council tax hardly fills me with enthusiasm, but a simple click of a button, a phone call, or one irritating queue later, and it’s done. None of this would provide any justification for pleading burn-out to one’s friends at the school gate.

Before moving to France, I had heard that administration was more burdensome here. In my ignorance, however, I had assumed that the difficulties were exaggerated and that a bit of grit and determination would see us over any hurdles placed in our way. Even having undergone the tortuous processes necessary to register a car in our name, obtain our social security numbers, and sign a rental agreement, I continued to labour under the impression that the complexity of these démarches were merely a symptom of our recent arrival in France and that, once we had got ourselves established, we could wave goodbye to the hassle.

It was a routine appointment with the doctor that finally shattered my illusions. The Curly One had been showing symptoms of a mild urinary infection so, after having tried all the usual remedies, eventually I took her to visit the GP, where it was announced that a urine sample was required.

In the UK, under such circumstances the patient would be given a little plastic tube and told to remove themselves to the toilet to produce a sample. The doctor would then either dipstick it on the spot, or send it off for laboratory testing. In the latter case, the lab would contact both you and the doctor with the results once they were ready, and you could make a further appointment if necessary. Not so much a series of démarches, then, as a slightly undignified but mercifully brief and totally free interaction.

Back in France, I was given a prescription for a urine test. Noting my confusion, the GP explained that I was to take this to the nearest laboratoire, where the test would be carried out. Consultation ended, I was asked for my Carte Vitale and paid the 23€ fee that would later be reimbursed by the State and our health insurer, but for the moment came out of our bank account.

The next step was finding our nearest laboratoire, which was a bit tricky as not all such establishments have an internet presence. Fortunately any French person worth their sel has their neck tested for chills regularly enough that they have this sort of information at their fingertips, and a friend was able to come to my rescue. Not wanting to get anything wrong, I telephoned ahead, and was glad I had done so, for not only did the laboratoire have distinctly French opening (or should I say closing) hours, but my enquiry about whether or not they provided a pot to piss in was met with barely suppressed horror. Non, Madame, I was told: if I did not ‘ave one at ‘ome, the pharmacie could provide me with a flacon.

Thus I set out for the pharmacie, which did indeed provide me with the necessary receptacle. Back home I then persuaded my seven-year-old to wee into a jar. In all fairness, this part of the process would have been no easier in the UK than it was in France, so I shall spare you the details.

Urine duly extracted, I followed the strict instructions to rush the sample into the laboratoire tout de suite. I was asked for the prescription and my Carte Vitale, which I produced, but also for an attestation from my mutuelle, which I did not. Having failed this particular test of which random pieces of paper to take with you to any particular place, I had to pay 9€, and was issued with a facture, which I could later use to request a refund from my insurer (in writing of course, and probably in triplicate). I was then given a little card and told to come back 48 hours’ later for the results. After that I would have to make a further appointment with the GP, taking the results with me for her to analyse.

As it happens, when I turned up to collect the results, I was told, rather sternly, that the Curly One had not followed ze instructions for weeing in ze pot correctly, and that there was a risk of sample contamination. I would therefore need to go back to my doctor so that the whole process could begin again. Because I am a cruel and profoundly lazy parent, I decided that I did not want to know about the bacteria in my daughter’s urine enough to face a second instalment of the five-trip, three-fee process, and would opt for swilling water down her throat instead.

*****

Apologies for a more prolonged absence than usual from my blog. I was busy with my démarches …

Everyone is created equal

Before I moved to France, I took the liberté, égalité, fraternité motto somewhat for granted. Lovely aspirations, I thought: who would not agree with them? Now that France is in fully-blown election fever, however, I have had cause to note that the égalité part, at least, is not merely a soundbite for a long-forgotten manifesto, but an obsession that permeates every aspect of French public life.

In the centre of our village, there are a series of metal panels onto which posters can be pasted. For most of the time the peuple ignore the affichage libre signs instructing them where they can stick their notices (so to speak) and compete riotously with each other to plaster their adverts closest to the middle of the only section where they have no right to do so. A few weeks ago, these metal panels suddenly multiplied. Within minutes, they had been slathered with François Fillon posters.

Then, one day, everything was taken down and stern notices went up telling people to refrain from further campaigning. The panels remained naked for about 24 hours whereupon, one morning, they sprouted numerals, from 1 to 11, to each of which a single poster promoting one of the 11 presidential hopefuls was assigned. Since then good citizens of St Cyr have obediently left the panels well alone.

It took me a while to work out that this unusually orderly bout of affichage was a symptom of the literal-minded French obsession with égalité. If all the candidates are given the same surface area on which to advertise, the State can say that they are equal.

It is not just posters that are singled out for the equality treatment. The live presidential debate broadcast across French television screens in early April allocated precisely 18 minutes of speaking time to each of the 11 candidates. In other words, it didn’t matter whether you had a great deal or nothing at all to say on any particular issue, or indeed whether or not anyone wanted to listen, you would be able to express your views for precisely the same amount of time as everyone else.

The debate is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to égalité in French political broadcasting. France Télévision and Radio France are, it transpires, required to give equal time to all of the candidates in all of their broadcasting — quite a feat of coordination across their many networks and channels. I listened to an interview with one of the officials in charge of this policy during which, the interviewer, quite reasonably, asked what the state intended to do about social media. The official responded that ça fait déjà beaucoup de travail de surveiller les antennes. Throwing social media into the equation would require more resources than were available. Well quite. Not to mention the blatantly North Korean note that such an initiative would strike…

On the one hand, it is touching that France continues to strive so earnestly for égalité in politics despite the obvious futility of such an endeavour in the internet age. On the other, it is symptomatic of one of the nation’s most intractable ideological blind spots.

Running provides an instructive metaphor here. In a sprint, officials can do their best to make racing conditions fair: they can make sure that everyone runs the same distance, starting at precisely the same time; and without the help of any detectable drugs. What the linesmen cannot do, however, is create equality. If they could, then Eadred would stand a chance against Usain Bolt. The fact remains, however, that Usain Bolt and Eadred are not equal in running, or in anything else for that matter. That is the point of a race: to root out the inequalities, and celebrate them.

In politics, as in sport, the State can make conditions fair (although arguably much less comprehensively than is possible under sprint conditions), but they cannot make the candidates equal. By allocating everyone a single panel for their poster and 18 minutes of speaking time, they will not give them all an equal chance of winning. Some will have more money backing them; some more notoriety to thrust them forwards; and some will simply be willing to engage in bare-faced corruption. Others may be female, from an ethnic minority, ugly, impoverished or just championing a difficult cause. Whatever it is, there will always be some candidates that have an advantage over the others.

In the centre of Lyon, not all citizens think political posters should be treated equally.

Does this matter? The inequalities in any system certainly have an impact, for better or for worse (take Donald Trump, for example). If you can’t bring yourself to care about whether or not all politicians are created equal, you probably can care about kids in school. It is the same mule-headed muddling of the concepts of fairness and equality that has led to the creation of an education system where no special considerations are shown to children with dyslexia, or autism, or indeed just those who have a practical rather than an intellectual brain. Well, says the State, we gave zem la même scolarité, ils peuvent se débrouiller, non ?

Fine, though I’m not sure that liberté, sink or swim, fraternité will catch on as a national motto.

Life in the fast lane

In a recent edition of Late Night Woman’s Hour, business woman Hilary Devey was asked whether she followed her instinct in her professional life. She described walking away from a deal with someone after he had revealed that he frequently drove from Brussels to Paris despite being banned from behind the wheel for drunk driving: at this, her instincts told her that the man was untrustworthy.

Don’t get me wrong: I’m with Hilary. I, too, would have turned down the deal. Given that the meeting took place in Paris, however, in her place I would have been neither shocked nor surprised. Since moving to France, I have lost count of the number of times I have seen someone get behind the wheel after several glasses of wine (although it does not excuse the behaviour, British readers should remember that a French glass of wine is a mere 125 ml compared to its bucket-sized UK equivalent). No doubt the man in question made his disclosure so openly because he did not think there was anything particularly unusual about it. If Hilary were to rule out doing business with anyone who had a string of driving infractions to their name, she would never do business in the hexagone again.

The French don’t let a drink get between them and their car

Eadred and I consider ourselves to be scrupulously law-abiding citizens. Our children are the sort of annoying progeny who, having heard us drone on about respecting public spaces, loudly voice their disapproval of people who drop litter or tag walls. Since our brushes with Madame Lipstick, they have added speeding to the list of antisocial behaviours about which they are generally appalled. They have even been known to wind down the back windows of the car and yell disparagingly at drivers striving for the speed of light, mais vous êtes en retard pour la fin du monde ou quoi ?

Of late we have had to admit that our self-righteousness is starting to lose its sheen as the result of a number of speeding tickets, which are beginning to drop into our boîte aux lettres with sickening regularity. They turn up despite earnest attempts to remain within the speed limit at all times.

The fines are uniformly exasperating, doled out for doing a speed of 56 km/h in a 50 zone, or 117 km/h in a 110 zone. “Well,” my formerly upright British self would have tutted at these protestations, “speeding is speeding. It’s a fair cop. You only have yourself to blame”. Oui et non responds the lax Gallic half of my brain. The panneau announcing the 50 zone, for example, was erected precisely 20 metres before the camera which caught me frantically braking in response. The 110 zone was on a section of motorway that alternated between limits of 130, 110 and 90 km/h with bewildering frequency and no discernible logic. One momentary lapse of concentration on the side of the road (when arguably you should looking straight ahead) and you’re liable for a ticket.

The first speeding ticket to arrive (mine, incidentally) prompted much hand-wringing. “We have each been driving for nearly 20 years,” wailed Eadred “and we had clean licenses until we came to France”. I made repeated trips to the filing cabinet to fawn nostalgically over the virgin expanses of my paper licence, soon to be sullied by my first-ever point. I felt it as a great stain on my character. Now that we have received a combined total of five such missives, however, our response is markedly different: oh putain I muttered at the last one, casting it aside in frustration. I have become so acclimatised to my illegality on the road that I have even downloaded a fine-paying app onto my mobile phone. Eadred had to report to the Mairie just this morning with paperwork to appease the police who had stopped him for speeding last week. Whereas three years’ ago he would have been appalled at this brush with the law, now he is principally irritated by its inconvenience.

A screen that pops up on my phone all too often

Speeding is, you see, a French national pastime, but then so is the creation of zones in which the speed limit varies unpredictably. It’s like a vast game of one-upmanship. Where can we hide zis new spiiid limite panneau ? chuckle the authorities as they daily shift the speed zones around on a completely random basis. ‘Ow fast can I goh wizzout getting cotte ? say the drivers, rubbing their hands with glee. At work I have heard colleagues boasting about the number of points they have on their licence, and reminiscing about the happy time they have spent on the special stage you can pay to attend so that the points are taken away. When I attempted to join the discussion, my musings were waved away on the basis that my three points were too meagre to count as a meaningful contribution.

As with school and tax, it seems that the rules of the road proliferate for the sheer pleasure of seeing them broken. Whether we like it or not, for the first time in our straight-laced existence, Eadred and I are being forced to acclimatise to life outside the cadre.

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Thank you to all of you who pointed me towards the excellent post by France Says on speed cameras in France. She expresses the view that many cameras are simply cashpoints for the State and has given me some excellent new French terminology to boot. The post is well worth a visit, as indeed are all her posts, if you want to read more about speeding in France…

Good day to you

Greeting a friend in France is simple. You say bonjour, fix your face into a cross between a pout and a pucker, and lean in for the bise. In Lyon, one air kiss on each side suffices, but so long as you are alert, you can quickly loom in for more if this seems to be required. The only time when you abandon this ritual is when one of you has a grippe resulting from a cold neck, when you confine yourselves to the verbal part of the greeting to avoid contamination.

So long as you are fairly familiar with someone, this protocol will hold true, even if you are, for example, arriving late for a music rehearsal. In such circumstances, there is no notion of skulking quietly in at the back. Indeed you risk offending everyone if, before even getting your violoncelle out of its case, you fail to do a quick tour of the players, who will stop playing at even the most crucial of junctures to return your bise.

At work the rules have been modified slightly, presumably to avoid the awkwardness of imposing a kiss on someone you manage, or leaning in to embrace a boss who has just told you that your entire annual output was null. Although nobody would complain if you did the bise with a colleague who was also a friend, it is not expected. By contrast, whereas in London my cheery “good morning” was frequently greeted with a combination of perplexity and resentment, neglecting to say bonjour to absolutely everyone in your French office when you first arrive is close to a sackable offence.

Having mastered the art of saying bonjour in the office and in social situations, one might think that I could move on to more complicated aspects of French conversation. But no: I still have a long way to go before I can be confident of passing l’art de la culture française : module 1.

From time to time, you see, Eadred and I employ people to do jobs that other couples can manage for themselves, things like planting une haie to hide the giant cat litter that is the roof of our neighbour’s new house. Despite the fact that I am now very well acquainted with the artisans who do this sort of work for us, the moment when they arrive each time remains supremely uncomfortable because, after three years of practice, I still don’t know quite how to behave.

The first time an artisan, a femme de ménage, or your child’s violin teacher comes round is straightforward enough: you don’t know them at all, so you shake their hand, and you remain firmly in vouvoye-ing territory throughout the interview. On the second occasion, I am still comfortable shaking hands, and unless they suggest tutoye-ing me, I vouvoye with only minimal discomfort.

The violin has not brought familiarity

The problem is that, whereas by the third or fourth meeting, my French friends will have segued seamlessly into familiar forms of address, lost the handshake, and be kissing cheeks left right and centre (well, perhaps just left and right), I am stuck pumping hands and trying hard to avoid calling anyone anything at all in the desperate hope that I won’t have to choose between tu and vous.

When I am not paralysed with shame, I am amused by the reactions I get to my predicament. The prof de violon has obviously given me up as a hopelessly stiff example of the genre Anglo-Saxon, and proffers his hand before I can muster the courage to pucker up (which I nonetheless continue to rehearse doing each week before his knock at the door). The ouvrier who did three months of renovations on our house before we moved in, and much more since, took matters into his own hands after a year, and came in for a bise. I was relieved that he had taken the initiative, but that did not stop his office manager calling me afterwards to check that my British sensibilities had not been offended.

The only cure I have ever found for my profound discomfort at such moments is to think back to a moment at the school gate in London when a lovely English friend of mine welcomed a new French parent to the school with a bear hug. Over my friend’s shoulder, the French woman’s expression was, frankly, terrified, and her posture resembled nothing so much as that of a plank. It took a few weeks, but eventually she started hugging us all back. I still wonder from time to time whether she mistook the hug for the direct cultural equivalent of the bise and started hugging bewildered brickies and football coaches. A very small, shamefully vengeful, part of me hopes so.

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Since writing my original post, Diane at Oui in France referred me to her blog post on faire-ing la bise. In it she links to a hilarious YouTube video by British comedian Paul Taylor, in which he goes through the various confusing issues associated with kissing in France. If you are offended by gros mots, you may wince a little, but it really is an excellent way to understand my anxst about the simple act of greeting someone.

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The name of the game

When we arrived in France, our eldest was plunged into a class called CP, which is where, aged 6-7, French children learn to read from scratch in a single year. Fancying ourselves as we did, Eadred and I thought steering a small child around le chat s’est assis sur le tapis would be a cinch. All such illusions were shattered a mere week later when the Reader came home with a syllabic dictée of “e” sounds to learn: be, bé, bè… We took turns in testing her, reading out a sound and asking her to write it down. “It doesn’t sound like it does when the maîtresse tests us,” she managed, politely.

The same phenomenon arose in the “ou” week. Vou, vu, vue, we attempted for all of five seconds until the withering look on the Reader’s face stopped us in our tracks. Other crowds were tougher than our daughter. We lived on the route de Saint Romain, you see, and no matter what I did with my mouth, this was always noted down as the rue de Saint Romain, or once, when I had managed to get my voice to drop the requisite number of pitches to form the ou correctly, the croute de Saint Romain.

The arrival of our younger daughter, the Curly One, in CP this year marked something of a watershed for us. Whereas with the Reader all our “e” sounds had converged in the middle, this time round our be comes with sufficient pout, and our with sufficient insouciance, to differentiate them. Similarly our vou is sufficiently deep and our vu sufficiently reedy to suggest that perhaps, just perhaps, the syllables we are uttering belong to the French language.

We may feel smug for having finally disentangled our French vowel sounds, but (nearly) correct pronunciation brings its own dilemmas. These begin even upon being introduced. The vowel sounds in my name, you see, do not appear anywhere in the lexicon of syllables all French people have learnt in CP. Believe me, I have tried to find my place, but with an E (be) I become Uhrmily; with an É () it is Aehmily; and with an È (bè), Airmily. That is before you have even thought about the “i” in the middle, which becomes something like an ihhy, or the “y” on the end, which frankly does not even exist.

I tried, for a while, to translate myself entirely, and become Émilie, but this jarred. My name is Emily, not Aehmihhyleeh (pronounced with a whistle of breath through the teeth). Similarly I find myself unable to call Eadred “Polle”, or to introduce my mum as “Susanne”. A very good friend called Nicola persists in the completely unreasonable use of her Christian name despite being told almost daily that this makes her a man and thus, presumably, that she should call herself something different.

Aliens in a foreign land

All of this is, of course, my problem. I cannot expect the entire French language to shift its foundations just because a family of disgruntled English-speakers has decided to set up shop in Lyon. I am, however, surprised by the complete lack of lip-service paid by the French to the pronunciation of proper nouns in other languages, and indeed by the tacit assumption that all non-French pronunciations are somehow incorrect and to be disregarded.

In the UK, Eadred and I were frequently amused by the BBC’s very earnest approach to the correct pronunciation of foreign words. “Afghunisthun” Ritula Shah would say. Other presenters would break off from their stream of undulating English to produce a perfectly pouting “Ollonde”, and Angela Merkel would always have her hard “g” instead of the soft “j” of her English equivalent. I am sure the BBC frequently gets it wrong, or just not quite right, but, well, at least its journalists are trying in their own small way to overturn centuries of imperial complacency.

No time is wasted learning how to pronounce foreign names correctly in the corridors of French broadcasters, however. The British PM is Thérès-a Mai, and the German Chancellor’s “g” loses its guttural edge. Reports come in from Londres and Douvres, and across the Atlantic Donalde Trhhoomp is busy passing executive orders.

Perhaps yet more flagrant is the French tendency to re-spell names for their own convenience. One of my orchestras is playing a piece of music by hitherto unheard of composer Aaron Copelan and I am daily amused by the fact that, in France, the Russian President is styled as Vladimir Poutine, which makes him sound rather cute. Mind you, if they kept to the correct spelling of the latter, he would be known as Vladimir Fuck, which one might imagine could be construed as undiplomatic.

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A qualified success

The last time that I visited my coiffeur— let’s call him M. Ciseaux—I was not in search of un nouveau re-looking so much as a further iteration of my Frunch ‘airdoo, which helps me to blend in around these parts. M. Ciseaux begged to differ. Almost as soon as I crossed the threshold, his lip had begun to curl in distaste. Self-consciously, I slunk across the floor and settled myself in front of the mirror. He lifted up tufts of my hair, looking at them with such undisguised horror that I began to question whether perhaps I had acquired some poux, or had only dreamed that I had taken a shower the night before. After a dramatic pause, during which I wished to evaporate, he asked, mais qui, QUI, a fait cette espèce de coupe ?

Busted! Or, as they say here, prise la main dans le sac. It is perfectly true that, just two months previously, in seeking out household economies I had decided to try out one of my two local coiffeurs, both of whom are cheaper M. Ciseaux. The result was not delightful, but neither was it upsetting, and though I had decided that perhaps I might not go back, I had got through eight weeks without giving the matter much more thought. Now that M. Ciseaux had a sharp implement next to my head, however, the matter assumed a greater importance.

It took but a minute for me to confess to my crime. Doubtless my disloyalty stung a bit, but M. Ciseaux seemed far more concerned by two other issues. Firstly, there was the question of how I had managed to survive eight weeks in un tel état catastrophique (answer: just fine, although now I was beginning to worry that I had been walking around looking like Worzel Gummidge). Secondly, it was utterly incompréhensible to him how anyone could possibly have got their diplôme if they went round cutting hair in such an incompétent manner.

At this point I compounded my original error by remarking blithely that there were diplômes and diplômes, and that not everyone could be as doué as M. Ciseaux. I have heard tell that flattery gets you everywhere. Well, not chez le coiffeur, as it turns out. A diplôme, you see, is a diplôme is a diplôme is a diplôme. It is the État Français, no less, which awards professional qualifications, and one would very much doubt that the Président of the République, follicly-challenged though he may be, would dish out hairdressing qualifications to any old sheep-shearer who showed up.

When I made my flippant remark, I had temporarily forgotten that all who wish to succeed at French life must defer to, and live within, a cadre. It all begins when French children rentrent dans le cadre at school, and progresses through coche-ing administrative cases, to its apotheosis which comes with the attainment of a profession: the ultimate cadre, which, whether you are a surgeon, a charpentier, or a leader of men, requires you to be diplômé d’État in a highly specific and prescribed manner.

It is easy enough to forget this overriding need for a specific diplôme for whatever job you do when you are a blundering étrangère. In the UK it remains true that a music degree from a good university can see you through a successful career managing domestic water supply, being a diplomat, or marketing bleach. Here in France your music degree will earn you the right to be… drum roll please… a music teacher. Oh, only if first you sit a number of ferocious academic exams, for without a CRPE, trusting you near even a single pupil would be pure madness. With a CRPE, whether or not you have any aptitude for teaching (about this the CPRE s’en fiche), you are qualified to teach them in their droves. It’s all in the piece of papier, you see.

Me, having blown up lots of balloons, for which I am not qualified, sporting a haircut from someone who was qualified to provide it.

… which all explains why, each time I tell my French friends that I have taken on a new work project, their eyebrows shoot skywards. I freelance for two different media organisations here, having worked only in the public sector in the UK. For me it is a chance to use existing skills in a new context, and to acquire different ones, and I relish my good fortune in having been afforded the opportunity to do so. For some of my French friends my switching trades like this is nothing less than systemic vandalism.

That said, however gung ho about my lack of relevant diplôme I may be, after my latest appointment with M. Ciseaux, I can tell you that I will never, ever, try my hand at being a coiffeuse.

 

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