Les aléas

– How are you this morning? – If you really want to know, press 1. Otherwise, press 2.

We all have those Murphy’s law moments, when we are reminded that nothing in life is ever intended to be easy. A natural catastrophe. An unexpected expense. Anything involving a government administration

Here in France we talk about ‘les aléas de la vie.’ And as long as they don’t involve death or taxes, it’s par for the course. I’ve had my share lately – nothing serious but annoying none the less.

It started with the bank. We ran out of checks, and as France is a country where people still write a lot of checks, and also take long holidays in the summer, I wasted no time in ordering some. More fool me, I tried to be super-efficient and modern by going online. After digging up my login and password, a feat in itself, I wrote a quick message to our so-called account manager. In six years with this bank, the turnover at the branch has been too frequent to allow us to develop much of a relationship with the constantly changing staff. And we live half an hour’s drive from our bank so stopping by is not convenient.

– It’s about a loan.
– Great, how much can you lend us?

Two weeks later, still sans-cheques, I phoned. My tone may have been slightly annoyed when the woman I dealt with informed me coolly that she had no idea why her colleague had not replied to my message; I was, of course, free to send a message to any of the staff but each individual was responsible for replying to their own messages. I pointed out that there was no point in going through a centralized platform if there was no centralized follow-up, and that email was only good if you got a reply. She snippily informed me that the checks were now ordered and I should have them by the end of the following week, given the mid-August holiday. The end of the month came and went, with still no checkbook.

Everything changed when our regular contact returned from holiday. Naturally nothing had been ordered in her absence but she pulled some strings and I got the checks within the week. Several companies who’d probably thought we’d taken a very long summer holiday finally got paid.

Meeting agenda: do we really need insurance for water damage?

Next, my car registration papers went AWOL. I searched up and down, convinced I must have stuck them in a drawer, a file or even another purse but alas, there was no sign of the ‘carte grise’, as we call it. I would have to pay for a new one. Then began a little dance with my leasing company, the official owners of the car. The first phone call involved endless loops of automated voices and after punching in the wrong contract number finally led me to a cranky lady who informed me they would send me the necessary document by la poste. Snail mail? I hung up in frustration.

The letter arrived the following week, advising me to connect to an online platform where the entire process would be handled automatically. I needed a letter for that? Still, it was good news: no lengthy trip to the Préfecture with various copies of documents. But first I had to create an account, or log-in with something called France Connect – a service that manages your identity with various online administrations. It turned out I already had an account with this mysterious organization. Once again, I surprised myself by finding the keys to the kingdom and logging in. Off to the races!

Shortly out of the gate, I ran into the first hurdle: I needed a special code to request a new registration for the vehicle, and as the vehicle belonged to leasing company, it would sent – by la poste – to them. Gah! Back to cranky voicemail lady a week later. I explained my tale of woe and was informed that they had in fact received a code in the mail, but they had to request the number from whoever opened the mail by phone so who knew how accurate it would be? Their words, not mine, as I wondered in what kind of parallel universe they operated.

– CIVIL SERVICE WITH A CUSTOMER FOCUS – SPEAK UP!

Naturally, the code was wrong. Back on the phone, punching in numbers and another disembodied voice informed me that this time, they would send me the code. Seriously? They couldn’t have done that in the first place?

It arrived several days later, an official letter bearing exactly the same number as the first time. In despair, I went back to the government site and typed in the number. Still wrong, although this time the message seemed to suggest it had once been right but was now expired. Determined to have no further dealings with the leasing company ladies, I ticked a different box that led me to a different window. It’s all a bit of a blur now but somehow, the magic happened. And once again, French efficiency kicked in: I was able to print a temporary registration document and, lo and behold, two working days later, my brand new Carte d’Immatriculation was delivered by La Poste.

(I will probably find the old document within the week.)

It seems that even with all the technology in the world, things still work essentially the same way in France: you get stuck in an administrative no-man’s land where you think you’ll never get out and then, suddenly, you’re done!

What’s your most memorable Murphy’s law moment?

La politesse

I was going to apologize for sharing an old post instead of something new. But then it occurred to me that my apology was really more of an excuse, so why bother? And as I have shared before, sorry seems to be hardest word in France.

It is ironic that this rather elegant way of apologizing, ‘faire son mea culpa’ or to admit being at fault in some way, borrows from the Latin. The French use the fact of being Latin (in language and in character) as an excuse for most bad behaviour: being late, disorganized, resistant to order.

So I’ll keep this short and suite: Mea culpa!

Hope you enjoy this oldie but goodie about manners…see you next week!

FranceSays

La politesseOr how to charm the pants off the French

We Canadians are known for being polite. Sorry, we’ll say, every time we even come close to bumping into anyone. When we don’t understand or can’t make ourselves understood, we apologize first, ask questions later. Sorry, sorry, sorry.

Things are different in France. The French rarely apologize but they do have their own strict forms of politesse. If you follow these, you will be admired for your manners and appreciated by all but those mauvaises langues who always have to find something to criticize. There’s one in every crowd.

Hello and goodbye

Bonjour has always struck me as such a formal way of saying hello. Perhaps because I translate it into English as ‘good day’ which no one says anymore except Aussies (and the way they say it, g’day, makes it sound very cool). You can say ‘salut’ as ‘hi’ in…

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Les vacances de Monsieur Hulot

You can hear the emotion in his voice. When Nicolas Hulot, Ministre de la Transition Ecologique et Solidaire, says that he has decided to leave the government, live on French radio station France Inter, his words shake with emotion. The announcement sent shock waves across the country this week.

Nicolas Hulot was a big catch when Macron formed his new government in May 2017. For years, French presidents from Chirac to Hollande had been vying to put his name on their environment portfolio. The fact that the well-known ecologist and TV personality of ‘Ushuaia’ fame finally agreed to join the new ‘En Marche’ government felt like a coup, and an indication that the president’s promise to ‘make our planet great again’ was more than just words.

Alas, the reality of this notoriously difficult portfolio was more than Hulot could bear. He is no career politician and I can only imagine that the daily meetings with dullards diplômés must have grated as the ice caps continued to melt. And the long, hot summer vacation gave him ample time to weigh up his options. Despite what many saw as significant progress over the past year, he could not reconcile himself to playing politics. Dumbing down what he sees as a planetary emergency in order to negotiate with lobby groups, each with its own agenda. Farmers, hunters, energy companies.

While some might see Hulot’s departure as a lack of courage, of abandoning ship in stormy seas, the French on the whole approve. For one simple reason: personal integrity. This unwillingness to sell out or compromise one’s beliefs is a value highly prized in France. Nicolas Hulot will be remembered as someone who had the courage of his convictions.

When I heard about the surprise announcement on the radio, I couldn’t help but think of Jacques Tati’s classic 1953 film, Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot, aka Mr. Hulot’s Holiday. I’ve never watched the entire movie, but this clip will give you its essence.

Are there similarities between Tati’s lovable but clumsy character and Nicolas Hulot? I see a few, from the fact that he has always seemed like a fish out of water amongst the smooth and smiling political elite, that he is rough around the edges and rather gauche at times. And, as I discovered while researching this post, Tati actually took inspiration for his ‘Monsieur Hulot’ from Hulot’s paternal grandfather, an architect who lived in the same apartment building as the filmmaker.

The word play is fairly obvious. As the French word for holiday is ‘vacances’ and the singular version of the word ‘vacance’ means a ‘vacancy’, the media have also played with this syncronicity of life imitating art.

https://www.letemps.ch/opinions/vacance-monsieur-hulot-agite-medias-etrangers

https://www.contrepoints.org/2018/08/28/323640-vacance-monsieur-hulot

So what do you think of Mr. Hulot’s post-holiday decision? Kudos or cowardice?

A couper au couteau

So thick you can cut it with a knife.

That expression, the French version of which is ‘à couper au couteau’, is often used to describe an accent. A heavy one. Like one in which a typical French politician, ie not a slick new model like Emmanuel Macron, attempts to speak English.

In French, however, it is also used to describe heavy fog, a wine or even an atmosphere. I learned this from Bob, that wonderful online reference for French as it is actually spoken (not for learners as it’s all in French).

And when it comes to cutting with that knife, if you are in France it has to be with an Opinel knife. The Savoie company started making its trusty folding knife with the wooden handle back in 1890 and has been famous for it since. So it is that the Swiss have their army knives and we have our Opinels. If you go on a picnic in France, that slab of sausage or cheese or baguette just has to be sliced with a trusty wooden-handled knife that someone happens to have in their pocket, hopefully one in better condition than ours!

As you can see from my feature photo, we are not good examples of French culture. Our Opinel was moldering in the back of a drawer and is in terrible shape. The tip of the blackened blade appears to have been broken off, possibly from being used as a screwdriver instead of a knife, and the handle bears the logo of another company, so it was probably a giveaway. In fact, it probably belongs to my Beau-père, handyman extraordinaire, so it has been around the block a few times.

Whose English, by the way, sounds a lot like Sarkozy’s. There is no political message in that; Hollande’s anglais was just as bad.

But like the knife itself, though it may be thick at times and dull at others, it is sincere. And it gets the job done.

Do you have an accent? Or a trusty knife?

Le soleil

I have a love-hate relationship with the sun.

Here in France, le soleil is associated with all things bright and beautiful. Sunny days. Warm weather. Long vacations. Joy.

Sunshine is all that is expansive, generous, extroverted.

And I have every reason to love it. The sun rules my birth sign, Leo. Being born under this most powerful of stars, on the first day of the hottest month, my heart is said to be ruled by the sun. Perhaps it is part of my contrary nature but instead of worshiping the sun I fear its power and flee its effects.

In the throes of too much sun I am closed, ungiving, introverted. When at last it sets and darkness falls, I marvel at the moon. Am liberated by its soft cool light.

My aversion to the sun begins in my head but it doesn’t stop there. My eyes feel it first: they water and squint. I must wear dark glasses and shade my face to avoid migraine. My skin suffers most: quick to burn, slow to tan, it comes up in itchy red patches if over-exposed. And as the temperature creeps up, my inner thermostat goes haywire, turning me into a red-faced demon, permanently sticky and evil tempered.

My cupboard is filled with potions and sprays to protect me and my unfairly fair skin. SPF 50 abounds. Most of it renders me even whiter, makes me even more miserable as I sweat beneath the layer of supposedly grease-free protection. Despite all my efforts, hat and glasses, I am outdoors often enough that by midsummer I sport a light tan.

Like any good French citizen, I watch the weather forecast with an eager eye. What can we expect? Will it be a good day, an even better weekend? The stick-like character on my TV screen points and gestures and explains, as I’ve posted about here, the fickle nature of the weather, the inexplicable arrival of clouds and rain. Or the hoped for row of bright yellow circles that means happy days ahead.

For most of us, that is. I for one am thrilled to see the summer heatwave reach an end. We are back to cooler mornings and, even on the hottest days, the sun seems to have lost an edge. It sets a little earlier, giving us a chance to cool the house before going to bed.

My husband experiences the sun like most of his countrymen: with unfettered joy. Its absence depresses him. Not because he likes to be hot or to get a tan but rather because of the light.

Our house is designed to take advantage of the sun, with large windows providing a maximum of exposures on all sides. It seemed like a reasonable idea when we had it built: the Haute Savoie is a mountainous region with cold winters, and we do have a rather nice view. But the reality for me is different. Now we have covered all of the south-facing windows with solar screens and sunshades. When husband is away, I keep them drawn and live as much as possible in the dark. As soon as he returns all is exploded open. The sun floods in, along with the flies. I sweat and I swat and we do battle over the windows.

For all those who worship the sun, this summer has been exceptional. Even the UK, with its near-permanent rain, has had its share of hot and sunny days.

But I worry. Because it seems pretty obvious that this is not a one-off but a disturbing trend. The hottest summer on record. Wild fires in Greece and California. Dry periods with not enough rain then flooding when it comes all at once. Climate change is happening and the sun is leading the attack.

So it’s decided: next year we get air conditioning. I don’t want to add to the planet’s problems by burning more energy but in order to survive the summer I will need at least one portable unit to make work and sleep possible during the onslaught months from June to August.

This attitude is decidedly un-French. As I’ve shared before, most people here hate and fear ‘la clim’ far more than the sun or the heat.

How do you feel about the sun?