Friday, August 1, 2014

A Non-Automotive Ode To France.

With just over 24 hours left before I leave France, I felt like sharing my thoughts and impressions. While this has nothing to do with cars, I felt that a blog entry was the best forum to use, so those that are only interested in cars can stop reading now. Excuse me for this blatant misuse of automotive internet real-estate...
The past couple of days have been eye-opening. I am so excited about my next journey (to Shanghai, China), that I failed to predict the difficulty I would have leaving this place I have called home for the past eight and a half years. Wanting to go somewhere else does not necessarily mean you don't want to be where you are, and that's the case right now.
There's so much to love about this country. I live 150 km north of Paris, and have travelled extensively in France, so I have a good appreciation of the different regions of 'the Hexagon'. Most of my travels I have done by car (hey look, an automotive connection!), which is a fantastic way to truly discover a country. My house is in the department of Aisne in the region of Picardie, a very rural area loaded with history (what part of Europe isn't?!?). This region was touched heavily by both World Wars, and there are traces of it even today. There are beautiful old castles and cathedrals and churches, and old cities and towns with cobblestone streets and tired old stone buildings. Even the smallest of villages usually has an old church or ruin that seems normal here, but would be a historical monument anywhere else.
France is a fantastic place to live if you like food, wine, cheese and cars (there they are again!). It really is a gastronomic culture, and while not everyone eats top French cuisine every day (France is one of McDonald's biggest markets after the US, FYI), if you want to taste a variety of traditional and avant-garde cuisine, you can find it all here. I know that the French didn't invent wine, but they certainly have mastered it, and while I am certainly no expert, I appreciate a nice bottle of wine much more since I moved here. Add to that Champagne, a good bottle of which is an event all its own. Even before coming to France I considered myself a cheese fan, but the choices here are nearly unlimited, and one interesting insider tidbit is that the smelliest ones aren't necessarily the ones with the strongest taste! And the cars! The current crop of French cars, from Renault, Citroen and Peugeot, are competitive and attractive, but it's the historical models and brands (including Talbot, Alpine and Panhard) that really managed to catch my attention.
But it can't always be 'La Vie en Rose', can it? No, it can't. France is a frustratingly complex country. The rules, the traditions, the bureaucracy... they can all be tricky to read, difficult to manoeuvre, and angering to have to accept. I have countless examples of the mind-boggling complexity and paradox that is the French way of doing things...
A few years ago I had to mail in an official document to the government. I knew that I was supposed to send it by registered mail (to have proof that it was sent by the right date in case it got lost), but I was rushed before leaving on vacation and simply sent it by regular mail. The French postal system (La Poste) is very reliable at getting letters to their destination quickly (when they're not on strike; more on that later...), so I knew it would be okay. I was more than a bit perplexed when I returned from vacation and saw that a letter had been sent back to me. It stated that because I had not followed the rule, they could not accept my document. I recall standing there dumfounded, picturing the scene: an overworked public servant (because they're all apparently horribly overworked here) opened my letter that had arrived on his desk, as planned. He took it out, saw that it was the document he was waiting for, but also noticed that it wasn't a registered letter. He then prepared a response notifying me that my document could not be accepted because it had not been sent with the guarantee that it would arrive on his desk, put that in an envelope, added a 0.54 euro stamp, and had it mailed to me. Ummmm...
Or how about a few years back when I applied for my 10 year working Visa? For 5 years I had been renewing my Visa every year (according to the rules), and was therefore eligible for the 10-year version. I prepared all of the documents (there were many!), made an appointment, and filled in the paperwork and was told to wait a few months. A few months passed, then a few more, then a few more. After around 10 months I called and was finally able to get through to someone. She told me that my application had been 'filed'. Refused? No. Delayed? No. 'Filed'. I asked what that meant, and she said that it had been a busy year, no one had had the time to process the request, and that the best option was to start again with a new request! I heard her rummage through a file folder and she said that she had my file in her hands. I asked politely (because you have to remain VERY polite; these people have an incredible amount of power over you, and they know it) if there was any way she could simply put it on the 'To Do' pile, and she said no, that it would be easier to start again. Easier for who?!? I then asked if she could mail me the file folder in her hands so that I could simply mail it back to her, since it was complete and exactly what I would send her if I started over, and again she said no. Start over. Merci, au revoir. Grrrr...
A third example you ask? Just today I went to pick up my last 1-year Visa. It was actually processed quickly (I applied for it just two weeks ago), which was a nice change. The fee was 106 euros. For income tax, property tax, speeding tickets (oops!), France has fantastic, modern, one-click online methods of paying. It's really very easy and super efficient. For Visas? Now that's another story. You have to go buy 'Fiscal stamps'; they look exactly like postal stamps for mailing letters, but are in different denominations and are a form of currency. Where do you go to buy these? Why your local tabacco shop, of course! Logical, right? I think that years ago most (if not all) 'Tabacs' sold them, but nowadays it's getting harder and harder to find one that does, even though they're an official payment method that you need for many different types of official transactions. After my third try this morning I had a friendly tobacco vendor tell me that I could also buy them at the nearby Tax Center, which made a bit more sense. But then I watched as the woman behind the counter had to go take out 4 different file folders, carefully rip off four different denominations (90 + 10 + 5 + 1 euros), and note each one in a little chart, take my 110 euros, then give me change... and realised that it is not surprising that official transactions can take ages in France, and that public servants claim they are overworked! Arrrrgh...
Enough of the complaining! That can also be considered a French trait; 'raler', or complaining, is an art form in France, and I seem to have picked it up. Even with these frustrating moments in day-to-day life, there is still so much to be said for this country. Over my nearly nine years here I have made many wonderful friends: people of different ages, with different origins, and from different regions, but all kind and caring and likeable. I was a bit of a novelty at first in this rural area, with my broken French and horrible accent, but it generally seemed to be a positive thing. I leave behind many friends and some new family, and while I will obviously keep contact with as many as possible, it is difficult to realise that they won't be part of my everyday life anymore.
That's life though, isn't it? "C'est la vie"! I am glad to leave still in love with this place. I have always said to myself that I didn't want to wait until I hated a place before leaving it; to be so sick of it that it was a relief to pack up and go. This is the exact opposite situation. I leave very excited about the future, but a tad nostalgic about the past eight and a half years of my life. There was lots to learn (Do I use the formal 'Vous' with someone, or the informal 'Tu'? Am I supposed to shake hands with the people I know, or do I do the French 'bise' (kiss)? Are ALL stores closed between 12h and 14h? Why do I have to put a bar in the middle of my number 7 ( 7 ) so that people won't confuse it with a number 1? Am I legally required to go out and wait for the breadman in my nightgown and slippers like the 'mamies' in my village?), but then again that's part of integrating and appreciating a new culture.
And to finish off, another paradox. I was annoyed to have to go pick up my Visa this morning. This has to be done at the 'Préfecture' (the local government office, usually in the largest city of the department). In my case it is in Laon, around 40 minutes away. I was grumbling as I headed off, knowing that I would have to take a number and sit for an hour in a hot, noisy waiting room to be called. My grumpiness melted away as I hit the road, though. It's a lovely drive through green countryside, with a couple of hills and turns to make the ride more interesting. As I approached Laon (a city that I have visited often and know well) there was a detour because of a car accident, so I ended up approaching the city from a different direction than usual. At one point I caught a glimpse of the skyline in the distance... and was thankful for the convoluted French bureaucracy system. If I had been able to click a few buttons on a website and go to my local mayors office to pick up my Visa, I wouldn't have seen this:
Laon is a very old city perched on top of a large hill. The cathedral (Notre Dame de Laon), built between 1150 and 1155 (no typo there!) is the most impressive I have seen, and inspired other cathedrals in France, including Notre Dame de Paris (maybe you've heard of it??). In the end I was very thankful to have had the opportunity to visit it one last time, and the wait at the Préfecture (it was barely 30 minutes in the end) wasn't nearly as painful as I expected.
Tomorrow I will travel by train into Paris early and visit with a few friends before heading to the airport. More than likely I will go have a bite to eat at a Parisian brasserie, and the server will be rude and grumpy and annoyed at having to serve me. And I wouldn't want it any other way! Then I will trudge off to the airport with my bags and wait as my flight is delayed because the air traffic controllers have planned a strike tomorrow (another French pastime; there are yearly strikes with the Airlines, Post Office, and Railway, to the point that it's nearly comical!). And I wouldn't want it any other way! I'll sit and wait patiently as people around me fume and complain and argue with the hapless airport staff ("Mais ce n'est pas possible! C'est scandaleux!"). And I wouldn't want it any other way. So much in France is wonderful and unique and exceptional and loveable, that even the things that aren't somehow seem charming and adorable in the end.
So I raise a glass to this life-changing experience! When you cheers a drink in France you have to look the person in the eye; it's a sign of respect (and goes back to when if you wanted to poison someone you put the poison in your glass and sloshed it into theirs when you did a cheers; most people couldn't look their intended victim in the eye), and it says alot about the character of the French. They are honest, and blunt, and sincere, and caring, and respect their traditions because it is their traditions that built this wonderful country.

Santé, la France, je t'aime!

1 comment:

  1. Back for 18 hours, then off to (hopefully) fall in love with China!


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