Saturday, May 4, 2013

France – a love affair

International Driving Permits are valid for twelve months, and I must have bought mine just before leaving Australia in 1963. When it expired, I was in the middle of France with Chris and Annika. Chris was one of the South Africans from our Earl’s Court flat, and Annika was his Dutch girlfriend.

We had been down to Andorra and Spain for a couple of weeks, and would be back in London in a few days – if the gendarmes didn’t catch me driving without a valid licence. Also, our wallets were all but empty, so we couldn’t even pay a fine. We had to go without breakfast to afford a new Permit. (Annike had lost her purse two days into the trip, and we scraped by without its contents; it had been a frugal vacation since then.)

As it transpired, the cost of the Permit wasn’t a problem. A polite-but-cold bureaucrat in Grenoble explained that Permits could only be obtained in one’s country of residence. Sorry! “But madame! I am not in my country of residence. I am here!” [Basic schoolboy French, you understand. “Je suis ici!”] Shrug. “Then you must go there”, she said. “How will we get there?” “Drive.” “But madame, it would not be legal for me to drive in France without a Permit.” It was like that Harry Belafonte song, “There’s a hole in the bucket, dear Liza...”

She shrugged again. I tried another angle. “Could I perhaps obtain a French domestic licence?” A snort, this time. Ah well. I made a careful note of her name and title. If the Police stopped me and demanded a current Permit, I would ask them to phone her and she could explain the situation to them – n’est-ce pas?

It’s hard to generalise about a nation of fifty million, but by and large the French are a practical people. Legal principles aren’t set in stone; every once in a while they can be set aside in the interests of peace and goodwill. My middle-aged antagonist glared at me for fifteen seconds, shook her head in disgust, and typed the Permit. I kissed her hand passionately, made it plain that if she and I had been alone in the office her marriage vows might have been in danger, and got out just before she smiled.

I’ve loved France ever since, and everything about it – except its predilection to torture its colonial subjects; its rulers tend to be nasty people. And, to be truthful, I don’t love Marseilles, either.

Almost thirty years later, another example of the same practicality – this time in Martinique, a French Overseas Department in the Caribbean, where I was due to represent the Cayman Islands Chamber of Commerce at some EU-Caribbean conference or other. It was a bit of a shock to be refused entry because I didn’t have a visa in my Australian passport.

On earlier visits to France (Martinique is part of metropolitan France, constitutionally), no visa had been required. Unbeknownst to me, the rules had changed since then. Australia had for some reason (the Rainbow Warrior affair, perhaps?) begun requiring visas from French visitors, and France had retaliated.

Under the new rules, I had to be put back on the plane that brought me. But, well, this was an international conference at which France’s prestige would be on the line... and I assuredly would have been granted a visa if I had applied... and the plane wasn’t departing until the next morning... and... The young gendarme shrugged and smiled a trifle ruefully as he stamped me in and wished me a pleasant stay.

Nobody’s perfect, of course. French people can be very rude, especially to foreigners who don’t speak French well enough. I’ve been the victim of that. What you do is insist on speaking French to the rude one – badly, loudly, and at length. Keep at it until he or she runs away sobbing. Then turn to whoever is still around and ask gently (in French) if they speak English. You’ll be surprised how many are willing to try.