I think, therefore I am

Back in May I launched a belated campaign to replace my UK driving licence with a French one. I blame my uncharacteristic procrastination on bureaucratic fatigue, aggravated by having witnessed Eadred’s tribulations upon attempting this particular démarche.

It just so happens that, between Eadred’s attempt and my own, France had shifted from one administrative ice age to the next, meaning that the transfer of my European licence could now be effectué-d sur ligne. Youpi I hear you say. Well, not quite. The first démarche (there are always several) may have been sur ligne, but the subsequent ones required me to print out a chunky dossier and send it off in a specific pre-paid envelope to a conventional boîte aux lettres somewhere.

It took me about a week to summon the energy to complete this tortuous process, but the envelope was duly posted. Since then there has been a resounding silence. As I have now grown weary of carrying my passport around as a form of identity whenever I have a package to collect from the floriste, I decided to investigate the fate of my hapless dossier.

Since we are in the âge de glace de l’internet de la cinquième République, I decided to try to obtain the necessary information by glaring at my computer screen. The service-publique.fr (a misnomer if ever there was one) website helpfully took me through a 625-stage identification process for accessing an account which would track my application for me.

When I finally clicked through to the relevant section of the website, I was informed that I had aucune application on record. Not to worry, I told myself – Britishly – I would simply locate the contact page and find the details for a person who could resolve the issue for me.

Pah. I spent the next hour merrily clicking through FAQs which told me variously that the state of my application would be indicated on my tableau de bord; that it could take between 12 weeks and six months for an application to be processed; and that I could e-mail them with any queries. I duly sent off an e-mail (or mél, as they called it). Within five seconds (quelle vitesse !) I had received a response telling me that I could now effectue my demande sur ligne and that therefore no further action on their part would be necessary. Gritting my teeth, I sent off a new mél under a different heading. Again, the rapid response, this time telling me that all the information would available on my tableau du bord and that, therefore, they considered that there was nothing further for them to do.

If you are feeling concerned for my blood pressure, please rassure-toi. Having lived here for nearly five years, I have mastered a certain French insouciance, and, in the manner of an over-fond parent, have even come up with a perfectly reasonable explanation for all such setbacks.

This is how the rationale goes (bear with me). France has lived through the Enlightenment (if any non-French readers are labouring under the impression that their ancestors, also, had lived through this experience, they should think again. Being enlightened involves the guillotine. Point. Any country that did not bloodily behead half its citizens is lost in the gloom of pre-logic). This momentous historical transition means that, whereas beforehand everything was barbarism, everything that France has done since is irreducibly rational (lesson one: reason is born of murderous brutaility). And, since reason is the beating heart of the patrie, then every act must be preceded, or indeed replaced, by thought (lesson two: the unenlightened act: the enlightened think). Lesson two can be extrapolated any number of times. Before a French child learns a musical instrument, for example they will do two years of tedious solfège (lesson three: the unenlightened play, the enlightened think about playing, etc).

From this fundamentalist philosophy springs an entirely theoretical realm, linked to, but independent from and dominant over, the realm of everyday life in which we actually live. A French citizen is two people: on the one hand a paper version defined by their bulletin scolaire, their carte d’identité and their tax status; on the other, the living, breathing human you might meet on the street, who may bear no resemblance whatsoever to their administrative alter-ego. This does not matter one jot.

Thus, if you apply for a job, the law says you will not be discriminated against: for this reason you do not declare your ethnicity, and nowhere are ethnicity statistics collected. No matter if your employer quietly discriminates against you on the basis of the photograph which you are obliged to stick to your application or indeed because of your ethnic-sounding name. In theory there is no discrimination on grounds of race, so there is no discrimination. When taking the test to obtain a motorbike licence, what matters is memorizing how many times you have to circle each bollard and in what order, not your level of proficiency in actually maneuvering the bike, évidemment. The rules say that every meal contains meat, and that one does not drink wine without eating a meal, so a vegetarian consuming wine, well, it’s, it’s… impossible.

Presumably this is why I was cheerfully informed by one woman, recently, that we’d be better off conversing in English as she was per-h-fectly floo-ent. She ‘ad a certifi-Kate. I, on the other hand, have no such document attesting to my French abilities. Zis iz why, I presume, heeven when I speak ze Frunch wiz no herrors, nobodeee will hever hunderstand me…

Citizens of nowhere

Today I took the first step towards obtaining French nationality: I registered and paid for an officially-approved French-language test. Youppppppeeeeeeeeeeeee….

… or not. I am told that it could take quatre mois for my exam date to come through and only once I have sat the test and waited for the results (assuming that I am successful) can I register for a rendez-vous at my local PIMMS (if you think this sounds like a refreshing alcoholic beverage you could not be further from the truth). The wait for such an appointment currently stands at neuf mois. From the day on which I attend the RDV (calculators at the ready, this still potentially 13 months away) and on condition that my dossier is in order—with some documents in triplicate, others singular, some original, others in photocopy, some in colour, others en noir-et-blanc, some stapled, and others not—the remainder of the process will take at least two further years.

France is, of course, not alone in making naturalisation difficile. There are also perfectly good arguments for any country to challenge would-be citizens to jump through a series of hoops before clasping them into one’s bosom. Nonetheless, I find myself prey to a lingering suspicion that the trial by bureaucracy for which I have just enrolled is as much about the French love affair with paper as it is about immigration policy.

The children are not yet home from school, and already today I have accumulated three examples that tend to confirm my suspicion:

Case-in-point 1

Having reached the ripe old age of 10, The Reader will be progressing from école primaire to collège next year. Although she will remain in the same establishment, a dossier d’inscription is required to make this happen (I am still feeling fortunate that we have got this far. The fiche de préférences on which we were required to provide the name of her chosen school was so impenetrable that we had to ask French friends for help: they in turn confided that they had rung up the maître de classe for advice).

Filling out the dossier went as it usually does. With a healthy dose of good cheer and determination, I set about noting The Reader’s nom, prénom, date de naissance, contact details, and other little nuggets of information in all of the several locations where each one was required. After about 45 minutes of this, in the middle of the fiche sanitaire, I became really quite bad-tempered and handed the whole thing over to Eadred, who dutifully continued filling out our GP’s car registration number and our neighbour’s grandma’s star sign, and scanning in copies of my grade 1 piano certificate.

An officious note accompanying said dossier informed me that I was reminded (I had never been informed) that it was to be delivered, in person, to the secretariat de collège, who would be awaiting my arrival in a certain room on 25 June. I duly rendered myself to the appointed place at the beginning of the day, only to be presented with a lengthy queue (a loose term because there is no English word that adequately describes a turbulent mass of people who may or may not have been waiting their turn) of morose-looking parents, all nervously checking their dossiers (rappelez-vous que tout dossier incomplet sera rejeté !).

The queue

Fortunately, The Reader’s dossier passed muster, and I was away after a mere 90 minutes, wondering to myself how much France’s national productivity dips on collège inscription days.

Case-in-point 2

My spirits were momentarily lifted upon my return home by the appearance of an envelope bearing the inscription améli. You may recall that my social security regime had inexplicably been changed without my consent, and I had been attempting to get the error reversed (which would take au moins dix semaines, madame). Malheureusement, I had aggravated my plight by subsequently losing my carte vitale. This meant that, when I received the letter informing me that my correct social security status had been restored, I could not simply take my carte vitale to the pharmacie to have its details updated. I would, instead, have to register online, via ameli.fr, for a new card.

With this advice ringing in my ears, and naïvely hopeful of a swift resolution, I had hastened to ameli.fr, and put in my login details. There I encountered the next hurdle: when I had been deregistered from the main social security regime, my ameli account had been closed. It would be necessary, therefore, to re-register. C’était un petit peu sciant mais, quand même… I gritted my teeth and went through the registration process. After giving the site a potted history of my entire life, I finally reached the confirmation page, and (drum roll) I was shown a notice that told me that, in order to confirm my account, a letter would be sent to me, by post, within two weeks. Upon receipt of said missive, I would have ten days in which to enter the code contained therein into the website, validating my account, and enabling me to order my new carte vitale.

Now perhaps you can understand why the ameli envelope caused me to fall into such raptures. With trembling digits, I went to the site and entered the code, and was finally – ah the relief – allowed to create a login. From there, and after sending and receiving a confirmation e-mail, and clicking on the link it contained, I navigated to the menu, where I pressed  the button entitled commande une carte vitale. The computer buffered… My heart beat faster and faster…

… and non. My dossier is currently subject to étude, and I am advised to log back on in about two weeks, when it may be possible to order a new carte vitale. In the meantime I will try not to develop an ingrowing toenail or any other semi-fatal disorder.

Case-in-point 3

This blog post is nearly as long as The Reader’s dossier de collège, so I will be brief. Even after the antics described above, this lunchtime I was foolishly taken in by an advert telling me that I could register online for a holiday activity for the kids. I went to the site in question, filled out pages and pages of information and paid actual money only to receive an instruction to print out the whole caboodle, along with proof of payment, and take it, in person, to the centre d’activités in order to activer l’inscription.

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Remind me why I was so keen to obtain citizenship of this Kafka-esque country?

 

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Give Way

I have been silent for a while. This is mostly because I have been busy, but also because I try, in each new blog post, to tackle a slightly different subject and, well, let’s just say that France is a country very averse to change…

As the nation plunged into yet another national rail strike (Air France workers went en grève, too, for good measure), I thought idly about writing about it, then wondered whether there was anything really new to say. Yes, this time it was Emmanuel Macron rather than François Hollande facing down the fearsome syndicats, but really it was still all about the cheminots, and I’d already written about them.

SNCF workers go en grève so regularly that their managers have designed and proudly advertise an app for your telephone that will tell you whether or not your train is one of the five TGVs out of every six that will be cancelled on strike days. Bim-bom-bah goes the airy SNCF jingle as they encourage you to use the app with cheer enough to make you wonder whether, by tapping its icon, you might actually be able to reinstate your train…

The organisers of an annual trip to London by pupils at a Lyon secondary school did not find the app all that helpful when it told them that the TGV due to transport the party to a connecting Eurostar would not be running. They telephoned the SNCF for help. These were school children, they explained. Their Eurostar tickets and hotel rooms had been pre-paid: surely there was something the national rail operator could do for them? Beh, il faut arriver à la gare à 6h et négocier pour des places dans le train qui va partir à 7h25, they were told, helpfully. Having no other option, this is what they did. Of course, their negotations were fruitless and they went home instead of to London.

Meanwhile, the country’s esteemed leader went to a primary school to give a discours about how he would not give in to the strike, as so many of his predecessors have done. The SNCF was in need of reform if it was to compete in Europe. He would stand firm. Somewhere during the hour-long speech (pity the small children), he even noted that his grandfather had been a cheminot and that he felt their pain.

The story of the strike may attract wall-to-wall media coverage, but it’s hard to see what the poor newsreaders find to say about it day-in, day-out as the situation remains exactly the same as it was on day one. It could be summarized in four short sentences: SNCF workers oppose all reform on a thin-end-of-the-wedge basis. The government wants reform. Both sides announce that they will not accept anything other than victoire à cent pour cent. Stalemate.

I encountered a metaphor for this dismally unchanging situation the other day as I was driving to collect the kids from their holiday club. Halfway down the hill on which we live is a little square on which various streets converge, some of them so narrow that they are one-way only, others narrowed by the cars littered carelessly along them on either side. We have to pass through Place Lasalle to get to any sort of main thoroughfare, and so I headed that way.

As I arrived I saw that my path was blocked by a shiny quatre quatre facing in the direction I wanted to go, and towing a remorque. Facing this, and bumper-to-bumper with it, was a much smaller car. Neither was budging. No other vehicle would be able to get through until one of them did.

I dared take a photo, but didn’t want to get too close…

Warily, I surveyed the situation. You never know when the driver of a car will turn out to be a Madame Lipstick, so I am always reluctant to make the first move. After, maybe, deux minutes, the male driver of the 4×4 got out and sauntered over to my car. I wound down the window. Elles refusent de bouger, he said, indicating the two women smoking and laughing in the front of the other car: moi, je ne peux pas reculer car il y a la remorque. It was true. He would not be able to reverse with the trailer attached.

Undoubtedly the man had irritated them, but perhaps they would reason with me, I thought to myself, temporarily forgetting that I was no longer in the land of ACAS, tea and “terribly sorry”. I walked over to the other car. The two twenty-somethings didn’t need to wind down the windows as they were already hanging out of them, fags in hand. Before I could even begin my remonstrance, they battered me with an onslaught of excuses. The driver of the 4×4 was con. He had insulté-d them. There was no way they would budge when it was sa faute, etc etc. Summoning my deepest reserves of Gallic insouciance, I told them that I m’en fiche-d whose fault it was. That, as Monsieur Quatre quatre clearly could not recule, and I needed to cherche mes enfants, wasn’t the most pragmatic solution for them to reverse (as it certainly wasn’t anyone else’s fault)? … Pretty s’il vous plait

…They laughed at me. The driver of the 4×4 shrugged in a je vous l’avais dit sort of way. Cars built up behind the two women, and two vehicles appeared behind me. Nobody moved a muscle at the source of the blockage.

So, I did the equivalent what all reasoning SNCF passengers do every day: I executed a twenty-three point turn and inched back past the cars lined up behind me, then went the long-way round to the main road. Five minutes later, as I drove past the exit I should have used, I saw that the queue was mounting…

Doctor’s orders

A few weeks ago, I went to our local pharmacie to pick up a prescription to treat a persistent cough suffered by the Curly One. My heart sank as soon as I caught sight of the person who would be “serving” me I this endeavour. Most of the women who staff this particular establishment are delightful and can offer advice on anything from nits to la peste, but this one employee has a face like a hatchet, and I always leave her company feeling both culpable and weak for having succumbed to a maladie.

(My relationship with this particular pharmacienne was doomed from the moment when, having braved my British reserve and looked up the French for “thrush” in the dictionary, I asked Madame Féroce whether she could sell me any sort of cream to deal with that type of situation. I was informed that non, such items were not available sans ordonnance. Not wanting to have to re-use my newfound vocabulary in front of a doctor, I unwisely revealed that in the UK such things were available over the counter. She took a sharp breath, looked at me as if I had leprosy, and said oui, c’est pour ça qu’il y a un problème avec la résistance aux antibiotiques. She strode off before I could point out that, though I was no scientist, I did know that the condition was fungal rather than bacterial, and that she was in no position to preach about antibiotic resistance, given France’s dominance of the league table for nugatory pill-popping. Since then the entente cordiale has dissipated rather.)

Uncertain of quite how to represent this subject pictorially, I bring you a chilly scene.

In France, as soon as you commit any medical act, either on your own behalf or that of your children, you are required to hand over your carte vitale. This is proof of your social security status and, amongst other things, will cover 70% of your prescription costs. The remaining 30% is covered by your insurance policy, if you have one, for which another document is required. When we first washed up in Lyon, the need to furnish these papers at regular intervals sent me into a flurry of nervous activity. Now thoroughly acclimatised, I enjoy waiting until I’ve seen the glint of triumph flare in the pharmacist’s eyes before I produce either document, and relish their visible deflation when they discover that this particular foreigner has all her papers in order.

On this occasion, my carte vitale was inserted into the machine, and the Curly One’s details flashed up on the screen. However, also on the screen was a little message requiring me to update my card, an occurrence that crops up about once a year. Je peux le faire pour vous si vous voulez, Miss Trunchbull said, with uncharacteristic generosity. Oui, merci, I stammered, taken back.

Big mistake. No sooner had my card been inserted into Attila’s little machine than plouf ! our daughters’ details disappeared. Without their names on my card, I no longer had no right to ask the State to stump up 70% of the cost of the several hundred medications that our doctor had suggested would be necessary to treat the Curly One’s mild cough. I was baffled: where had the names gone, and why? Behind the counter, Little Miss Sunshine was baffled, too. But the computer had said non, and there was nothing for it but to leave with my tail between my legs.

I went back home and phoned CPAM, the organ that had originally provided me with the card. After 20 minutes on hold, a chilly personage on the other end of the line finally told me that my social security was no longer chez CPAM but had been transferred to the RSI. How could this have happened, I asked? It had taken me nine months to convince CPAM that I was an actual person when we first moved to France because I was not in possession of a livret de famille, a document that all French people have, and without which it becomes much more complicated to do things like rent a house, claim insurance, or open a bank account. I had filled out countless dossiers to prove that I existed despite not having this invaluable little booklet. In that context, how could it be that, without so much as a little note saying coucou, we ‘ave dispensed wiz you, they had ejected me from their database. Ah, but you are now self-employed, madame, came the enigmatic response, and I was invited to contact the RSI for more details.

I duly telephoned the RSI. After a 15-minute wait listening to plinky French hold music, they told me to call another agency that I had barely even heard of, called the RAM. When I did so, and despite the fact that we had never corresponded or so much as exchanged the slightest of bonjours, the RAM confirmed that they were indeed in possession of my dossier and that, for some months, unbeknownst to me, they had been in charge of my social security. Mais pourquoi ? I asked. Because I was self-employed, came the response. Nobody ever told me that earning money all by myself would have this impact, I wailed. Well,madame could opt to switch back to CPAM if she wanted. How could this be achieved? Why, by filling out another dossier, enclosing a copy of my passport, birth certificate, and non-existent livret de famille, and sending it all to CPAM, of course.

In the meantime, how to address the absence of children on my carte vitale ? Presumably, I was told, madame had demandé-d that her children be removed at the moment that she asked to be transferred from CPAM. Well, no, madame had neither asked to be transferred, nor denied the existence of her own offspring, and it was bloody inconvenient actually. Tant pis, how could this mess be sorted out? Madame would have to call CPAM

The Reader demonstrating what it feels like to be besieged by French paperwork, in the home of the Dursleys…

And so it came to pass that, having spent years striving to be accepted by the French bureaucratic machine, it appears that I have been swallowed up by it and am now chugging helplessly along a conveyor belt towards some acronym-riddled backwater where the very existence of my children may be called into question. In future I shall be more careful about what I wish for.

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I’ve been a bit quiet lately. If you are missing your blog fix, why not check out these linkys?

Think literally

Over the years we have spent in Lyon we have tested every means of travelling to the UK: plane, Eurostar, Eurotunnel, and ferry. When leaving France, they each have their particular advantages and disadvantages, but upon coming home, the plane wins hands down. Why? Well, all three other modes of transport require us to have some degree of interaction with French customer services during the return journey, and after a few days abroad, the shock is usually more than we can bear.

Take the start of this year. Our ten-day sojourn in the land of our birth had been no idyll (a particular highlight was getting into an altercation with a woman on a bus, which resulted in her intoning loudly, “it’s the children I feel sorry for”… don’t ask). However, one thing that we could be certain of was that, upon walking into some emporium or other, the rules of the transaction would be readily apparent (there is a menu, you select something from it, the food arrives, you pay, you leave).

As we drove off the ferry and steamed southwards, we applied as much acceleration as was consistent with the law in a desperate attempt to make it home without stopping. Finally, though, we reluctantly turned into the Langres-Perrogney service station on the A31 near Dijon. It was past 19h, and, this being France, only a small window of time remained to us if we wished to eat.

At Langres-Perrogney, the restaurant, as it insisted on calling itself, was one of those ones that has a formule for children. Your child picks up a clear plastic box containing some piece of plastic junk and a fruit compôte; they collect their mini boisson; and then they proceed to the main serving hatch where some unsmiling woman asks them what they want in a manner bordering on aggressive. Aggression or otherwise, the Curly One loves a plastic box and a portion of indifferent steak hâché frites, so she was in her element. It was the Reader who caused a problem.

I am immensely proud that the Reader has an environmental blog, and goes around our house turning off lights before we’ve finished using them. In this spirit, at Langres-Perrogney she decided that she did not want a plastic box, still less the plastic junk or the compôte, and that she would simply take the mini bottle of water and the greasy main course. As we were making our way with this feast to the till, the dame who had served us (there is no verb to convey what it was that she actually did, so “serve” will have to do) bellowed at our retreating backs: si vous prenez ni de boîte ni de compôte, ce n’est pas un formule enfant et vous allez payer plus cher.

Regulation meal for the Curly One, with plastic box and no wine.

Whereupon I made that rookie error of applying a little bit of logic to the situation. In my best French I explained, as patiently as I could, that it was a win-win situation. Madame got to keep her boîte, jouet en plastique, and compôte, and therefore to re-sell them, theoretically at least making a tiny profit, whilst we did not have to encumber ourselves with things that we did not want or need. To no avail. The woman shook her head. After several volleys of this, we gave in. We would pay 3€ more if we didn’t take the box, and so we took the wretched thing, and she smiled in a self-satisfied manner, knowing that she had done her boulot despite the best efforts of her lawless customers.

Needless to say, as soon as her back was turned, we snuck back into the self-service area and replaced the plastic on the shelf from whence it had come. Sometimes I wonder whether the national motto should be less Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité, and more Le regle est plus fort que la logique.

As we were muttering to ourselves about French literal-mindedness at Langres-Perrogney’s finest formica table, we espied a hapless German couple enter the premises. They embarked upon a tricky conversation with our friend behind the counter about what was on offer (they didn’t understand French or the system of formules, and explaining what andouillette was in German was beyond the serveuse). Eventually they settled upon a bowl of soup each (I didn’t blame them). Then the male half of the couple retraced his steps and made the terrible bêtise of picking up a tiny bouteille de vin. Non, non, non, she was heard to shout, vous ne pouvez pas acheter ce vin. They turned round, perplexed. Our ears pricked up. Why could they not buy the wine? Had they not picked up the correct box? Vous ne prenez pas de viande, the woman explained, donc ceci n’est pas un répas, et vous ne pouvez pas acheter du vin sans répas.

Silly me! Everyone knows that it’s not a meal unless it’s eaten at 19h, accompanied by a plastic box and consists largely of a huge slab of dead animal.

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Thank you to everyone who had noticed that I have been quite quiet for a while. Life has been rather busy. I have ten times more paperwork than you do… but I’m back!

Fast Food Nation

On a recent trip to the UK I took the girls on a London bus. The Curly One, who must have been a bloodhound in a former life, suddenly wrinkled her nose in distaste. “Mummy,” she said, in her well-spoken foghorn: “someone is eating a steak hâché on here. Why doesn’t the driver tell them to stop or get off?” Having furtively ascertained that she wasn’t about to get us all knifed, I shushed her and pointed out that she had herself just eaten a snack on board said bus. Assuming an air of world-weary patience she explained, “yes, but that was a goûter. That lady’s eating a whole meal. It stinks”.

My daughter is quite correct. UK high streets reek constantly of food. Tube carriages are infused with air de cheese ‘n onion with accompanying crunchy sound effects, and train stations are filled with wafts of Cornish pasty, which the adjacent spiralzed kale and goji berry joints do little to smother. Meanwhile one glimpse of the pavement at the end of a Saturday night in any major town will tell you that if anyone in the post-Brexit UK economy is going to thrive it will be the fast-food worker and the street-sweeper.

This image, from Joe Hawkins via WikiCommons, captures a street scene from Blackpool

The ubiquity of food, and people consuming food, was not something that I particularly noticed when I lived in the UK. Having now spent nearly four years in France, however, it hits me smack in the nose. The thing is, you see, that nobody eats food in French streets, unless they are seated outside at a café or brasserie. Just occasionally you might see someone eating a croissant standing up at a bar, but presumably they have a very good excuse for doing so. The only waft that you will encounter in the rue is the fug of a gauloise, or, more pleasantly, the smell of fresh bread that canny boulangers have pumped out onto the pavement to lure you in.

Whereas fast food to a Brit signals cheeky kebab, or guilty donut, to a French person it means menu du jour. With this menu, you may not have any choice about what you eat (invariably lump de viande, with sauce de quelque chose and overcooked haricots verts followed by slab de tarte aux pommes), but you do know that it has been freshly cooked, from scratch, probably using local produce, that it will only cost you 12€, and that you will sit down to eat it, possibly with un petit verre de vin.

Fast food French-style at Jocteur in St Rambert, Lyon

I once found myself in the difficult position of not yet having eaten lunch at 2pm, and needing to get to my next appointment by 2.30pm. Not to worry, I thought, I’ll just buy something quick to eat and consume it en route. Needless to say this was easier said than done. I strode purposefully towards an ardoise bearing the legend restauration rapide. It turned out it should have read rapide [compared to ten-course banquets], for not only did the ordering process seem to comprise five separate steps, but then, having retrieved your meal, you were expected to consume it at one of the tables provided. In any case, the man running the joint gave me a dirty look as I approached and very deliberately plucked away the ardoise that had drawn my attention (it was after 2pm, after all, and tout le monde sait qu’on ne mange que entre midi et 14h).

Next I ran into the nearest mini supermarché and hunted round desperately for the picnic lunch section. If you have ever tried this you will know how disappointing an experience it can be. There are always several dispiriting croques monsieur on display, all requiring the aid of a frying pan before they can be consumed, and otherwise your options are limited to some plastic cartons containing mounds of carrottes râpés, and then one or two approximations of a sandwich, containing lacklustre Emmental et jambon on soggy pain de mie. Thoroughly disheartened by what was on offer, I purchased a packet of chips anciens and a bunch of bananes and went on my way.

That was not the end of the matter, though, for I had not reckoned with the public shaming that would ensue when I made my first attempt at opening my packet of chips anciens once I had boarded le tramway. A mere rustle as I got it out of my bag and the vielle dame opposite fixed me with a steely glare. Knowing that I needed to eat, I turned away from her, only to find a much younger dame glaring at me from that direction with equal disapproval. Fearing that my reserves of sang froid would not run to crisp consumption, I reached instead for a banane, but the chastening stare was, if anything, more sternly applied. Defeated, I put all consumables back into my bag and waited for my stop, where I sat on a banc and shivered as I stuffed a bit of fuel in, unobserved, before my meeting.

This image is by JKCarl via WikiCommons

This idea that fast food is an oxymoron has percolated down even to the likes of McDonalds. No self-respecting French branch of McDo is without its proud advert for service à table. This is too much for poor old Eadred, who mutters perplexedly about the “same soggy fries and contaminated beef burgers” whether it is served to your table or not. He’s missing the point. Eating a steak hâché is absolutely fine so long as you do it in the allotted period for eating, sitting at a table, and never, ever, on public transport.

 

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Stamp of approval

The other day I heard the emotive tale of a British five-year-old who had saved her mother’s life by dialling 999 when she went into anaphylactic shock. Good point, I thought: I ought to teach the kids what to do in an emergency. The problem is that, like everything in France, the system for contacting the services d’urgences has been designed for the convenience of the service providers rather than the service users and is, thus, utterly impenetrable.

If you have a medical emergency, the people that you want are the Service d’Aide Médicale Urgente (SAMU). To reach them you dial 15. However, the SAMU really only deal with maladies graves, so if your medical emergency is of a lesser order (a cold neck, perhaps) you actually need to dial 18 to contact the pompiers (fire brigade). I was sufficiently troubled by this protocol that I was moved to ask a friend where the line was drawn between a maladie grave and a maladie moins grave. Beh, she said, nonplussed, ze pompiers are for une jambe cassée and ze SAMU are for une crise cardiaque… Well, that cleared that one up nicely then.

For the police you dial 17. If, however, you think that because they have a single number, the flics provide a single, unified service, you would be sorely mistaken. There are, in fact, no less than four separate police services in France. The police municipale are to be found in your local mairie and are the officers who prowl around seeking out parking violations. They are not to be confused with the police nationale, who are based in the local commissariat de police, are under the control of the Interior Ministry, and are described as agents de police.

Just in case this seems too straightforward, there are also gendarmes, who wear pale blue uniforms with gold buttons and slightly Inspector Clouseau képis. They deal with serious national crime and law and order in rural areas. Gendarmes are under the control of the Ministry of Defence, as are the Compagnie Républicaine de la Sécurité (CRS). The CRS do riot-control (and are therefore kept very busy in the land of the manifestation) and, evidemment, life-saving on beaches.

How do I know all this? Well, last time you saw Eadred he was driving around sans permis, fearing arrest at every turn. He had been to the préfecture for his new permis, and had been despatched from there to obtain a signed and multiply-stamped déclaration of the loss of the old one from the police.

Thinking that a policeman was a policemen (quelle bêtise !), Eadred had trotted off to our local mairie to speak to the people who he thought were the police there. Mais non ! he should have gone to the gendarmerie two villages away. Dutifully he schlepped to the gendarmerie after work the next day. Mais non ! c’est la police qu’il fallait. It took a kindly colleague to point out to him that perhaps he needed the police nationale instead of the police municipale, and that he could try a commissariat in the centre of Lyon. Somewhat sceptically this is where he next went. The agent behind the counter was mildly baffled at Eadred’s request but confirmed that, although he had not done one for des années, he could provide a déclaration. Youpi.

Police documentation assured, Eadred then had to proceed to a tabac to spend 25€ on something called a timbre fiscal, a sort of stamp representing payment of a tax, with which to pay for his new permis. Expecting something quite retro in appearance, he was pleasantly surprised to be offered a timbre fiscal éléctronique. Could this be used for a permis de conduire ? he asked. Mais oui, he was told.

Enfin, Eadred was able to make a rendez-vous at the préfecture (or the préf, as he had taken to calling it). The meeting was for 10.30 in the morning: he turned up at the appointed hour, took his ticket and waited. Just before midday he was called in.

Relieved to be at the final hurdle, Eadred produced his dossier, proudly handing over the déclaration, signed and stamped with about three separate tampons, as all good official documents in France should be. He was midly disappointed that, after all that effort, his interlocutor showed barely any interest in it. Timbre fiscal ? she prompted. Aha ! She wasn’t catching him out that easily, he thought, as he pulled the swanky éléctonique version from his folder. She looked at him with disdain. Mais nous n’acceptons pas des timbres fiscaux éléctroniques she said. Eadred must have looked so crestfallen that, rather than following the usual procedure of unceremoniously ejecting him from the premises, the woman softened, and told him he could go and buy a timbre fiscal classique in the nearest tabac, and that she would see him again upon his return.

Eadred ran out. No, the tabac would not exchange the version éléctronique for a version classique (zis is not in zee reglementation), and he would have to buy a new one, for another 25€. Tant pis, he thought, as he handed over his money. He sprinted back to the préf and presented himself at the office. Mais, monsieur, tous nos interlocuteurs prennent leur pause de déjeuner he was told. And so he settled down to wait, again. Finally, after the staff had eaten their eight-course meal, he was summoned again, presented the new timbre fiscal, had his dossier validé, and was told to go home and await the arrival of his permis

… and, three weeks later, it arrived. Quel bonheur.

Now he just has to complete the dossier (including lengthy form, the timbre fiscal éléctronique, receipt from the first tabac, a copy of his passport, and his rélève d’identité bancaire) to obtain a 25€ refund. This could take some weeks.

 

***

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.

***

#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.