The Shady Side of the Law: In Which I Manage to Report Myself to the Fraud Squad!

It is somewhat a relief to be sitting behind my computer screen, and not behind bars this afternoon. Only an hour ago I was staring at the recording device fixed to the “Brigade Financière de la Police’s” computer, otherwise known as “The Fraud Squad” in a state of nervous anxiety.

Last week I found in my letter-box a “Convocation” (summons) from the “Direction General de la Police Nationale”, the “Direction Centrale de la Securité Publique”, the “Surete Departmentale” and the “Brigade Financière”. Scary stuff when the “motif” or reason is noted only as “Affaire vous concernant”. In otherwords – “An affair concerning YOU”. I had the letter a good week in advance of my convocation, and therefore plenty of time to stress over the possible crimes I had committed during the last few years. None immediately sprang to mind, but I had visions of being carted off in menottes (handcuffs), placed in “Garde à Vue”(custody) and using my one free phone-call to call the kids and let them know I wouldn’t be home for supper, or perhaps for a year or two!


I rang the police the day of the letter, but no-one was kind enough to let me know what I had done, for fear I suppose of eradicating the evidence in the interim. So today I walked into the Police headquarters, not entirely sure if I would walk out again, and still dressed in my “upstanding citizen” and “spokesperson for the city of Rouen” clothes following my morning’s guided tour. The police officer behind the counter raised an eyebrow and told me to sit down.

Moments later the lift doors opened and a plain-clothes officer motioned for me to follow him with a demeanor as cold as wintery air outside. When the lift doors opened again I spotted a door to my left annotated “Departement d’Investigation Criminelle” and felt a surge of fear. We went through the right door! Two desks were placed along the wall, laden with manilla dossiers, and on its own, in the middle of the room, a solitary chair with recording devices trained upon it. I was invited to sit down!


The officer took sundry details such as my parents names, maiden names, my address, occupation , salary, and number of children in tow, before getting down to the nitty-gritty. In 2012 I had reported a cheque-book missing at my bank, and as a cheque had been drawn against my account the bank asked me to report it to the police station. In fact, in France, since cheques are cleared the same day as they are presented, it is very difficult to make an “opposition” against a cheque and only can be done by “Porte’ing Plainte” at the local gendarmerie.

In 2012 my mastery of the French language can be at best described as inadequate. For example, and still on the banking theme, one day I had received two letters in the post, one containing a cheque-book, and the other containing a letter from the bank asking me to call them. It took me at least five attempts at listening to the inevitable recorded message before I could choose option 1, 2 or 3, and then another half dozen calls before I got through sub-menu 2 and spoke to a real person. When I did, I discovered that I had only needed to ring the bank if I hadn’t received the cheque-book. Which just goes to show that when you have a feeble mastery of a language it can take a very long time to succeed in doing the wrong thing.

So it was that although I had understood that I had to “porte plainte” at the Police station to oppose the cheques, what I hadn’t forseen was that on the return journey to the bank with document and crime number I would remember that it was me that had written the offending cheques as a series to be deducted monthly for my children’s ice-skating lessons. By the time I arrived back at the bank, it had closed for lunch…and the rest of the weekend…which lasts until tuesday. I had therefore accused myself of stealing and fraudulently writing cheques. What the bank didn’t tell me, when I confessed all the following tuesday was that I had to return to the Police station and withdraw my “Plainte”.

So in the Fraud office of the Direction Generale de la Police Nationale this afternoon I had to convince the investigating officer that I was just a incompetent, and rather dim women approaching her middle years, which wasn’t too difficult since I had to ask for several questions to be repeated twice…. and then he only had to listen to my accent.

As we returned to the lift, the investigating officer was friendly and expansive and shook my hand as the lift came to a stop.

As for the future, well my dossier goes back to the prosecutor, “le procureur generale”, who I rather hope will be my old neighbour, and be inclined to think kindly on me. At least I have been released back into the community and there are no hand-cuffs in sight and at worst I could receive a fine for having wasted police time.

But I have no-one to blame but myself!


Buying a House in France – The ‘Acte de Vente’ – exhaustion sets in!

keysThe ‘Acte de Vente’ for the final stage in the purchase of our new home seems many moons ago, even though only a month has passed since I met with the owner and the notaire in their grand offices of Rouen Gare. This time, as my wordly wealth was flashed up on the overhead projector I was manfully ready for the ordeal, and contentedly absorbed the praise:

“Bien jouée Madame, ce taux, c’est bien” – “Well played, Madame, that’a a good interest rate you’ve managed to haggle for yourself!”

And indeed it wasn’t at all bad. After visiting 13 banks, and narrowing them down to 4, casting one very slow and officious manager aside, we came out with 3 offers. At the last moment, having been rejected, one of the final two came back to us with a “new and improved” offer to try to clinch pole position and knock the courtier off his winning perch. But by that point I was too exhausted to care if they could knock off another 1/2% or not.  I’d already scanned, sent and received back via exocet missile mail the signed offer documents by husband à l’etranger in Canada, and nothing could persuade me to go through the process again, especially with only a day remaining until the ‘Acte de vente’ itself, although the bank assurred me that changing offers at such a late stage could be done…

So the proprietaire and I shook hands, signed our names on the dotted line and I walked out into the crisp December air with 3 ancient long keys dangling from my fingers.

It was a moment for a celebratory drink in the “cafe du square”, but husband à l’etranger was missing, and actually, if truth be known, I was dying for the loo, desperate actually, so ideas of a drink would have been  ‘un verre debordé’ (the proverbial straw that would break the camel…) and since home was equidistant, home I scurried, thinking, oh foolish me, that husband à l’etranger would be back to celebrate with me in style the very next day.

Not so fast, crazy English woman, when does anything go according to plan!

I received a phone call that very same afternoon….

A plus tard (till later), husband à l’étranger, A bientôt (see you soon) in-laws”

and settled down to pack up the appartement single handed, whilst waiting for a dual, more elderly set of reinforcements to arrive.WP_20140906_036


House Buying in France

On Monday I bought a house! In fact I have been looking for quite a while, and nothing has really stood out enough to entice me to buy it. Unlike many non-french people who buy in France, who have no particular need to be tied to any particular place, and have a “coup de coeur” on visiting a house in a tiny village or amongst rolling french countryside, I am very fixed to the small city in which I live and work, and where my children, all four of them, go to school. Hence the dream of finding a house became a major task. Where property in the countryside in France remains cheap, in the cities, as a result of  rural exodus, property remains often prohibitively expensive. There-in has lain my problem, finding the french dream in a the bustling city.

One of the major factors involved in house-buying in France is coping with the heavy fees associated. Price of home aside, the estate agent, or agence immobilière, demands a whopping 5% of the purchase price, and the Notaire, or lawyer demands 8%. The notaire can perhaps be partially forgiven as tucked away in his fees is the equivalent of the Stamp duty or land tax to the state which somewhat ofsets the rudeness of the bill. In comparison with the professional duties of the notaire, and his obvious level of expertise, the agent immobilier  gains ‘money for old rope’. What does the estate agent do for his money? He holds a set of keys, unlocks a door or two, and later, if it goes his way, makes a few phone calls on your behalf to negotiate the offers to the vendor. Is that effort really worth 20,000€ for a house of say 400,000€. Can such a bill really be justified? I decided not!

I made it my mission to avoid the estate agent. Without his fees I could offer more to the vendor whilst actually paying less than purchasing competitors who went through the estate agent. Essentially it works as follows: A house is put on the market with an estate agent, but the estate agent does not put up a ‘For Sale’, ‘A Vendre’ sign, nor do anything to make the property visible to the public. Essentially he puts the best view he can of the back of the house, or better still an interior shot into his agency window. Hopefully the photo is enticing enough to draw in the public, but invariably the vendor loses out because the pretty front facade is hidden from the buyers – all to avoid one eventuality, that the purchaser goes direct to the vendor. While in the UK, the fees are sufficiently low , and the ‘For Sale’ sign clearly displayed to prevent direct purchaser/vendor sales, in France the situation is absolutely the opposite. It is normal for a French agent to organise a house viewing but refuse to give the address of the house, name of the owner or any visual street view photograph, arranging to meet the prospective buyer at the corner of a couple of streets, at a local cafe, or preferably at the agency. The idea is that the minute they have crossed you over the threashold and/or introduced you to the owner they can claim their fee if the sale results.

Since the money at stake can be anything from 10-30,000€+, avoidance of the estate agent is a major benefit. Some houses sell by word of mouth,  friend to friend, associate to associate, but if all else fails a consistant letter-box fly-posting of requests for owners interesting in selling to contact you is second to none. I missed out on one beautiful house that I fell in love with because I ran out of fly-posts at the neighbouring house and never retraced my steps with more to post to the last few houses on the street. I ended up visiting it through an agent and kicking myself when a rival buyer outbid me. Had I not had the estate agent fees to contend with it may have now been mine. Another time I had searched intensively via Google Sattelite for a particular shaped garden path shown on an agents window photo, but ultimately, after all the searching and contacting the located house owner in question, a visit showed that the house wasn’t nice enough. Observing beyond windows shown in a interior photo shot to try to identify the colour and style of  front door on the opposite side of the road, or a church steeple, a letterbox or an unusual landscape or tree can bear results and each of these procedures have been rewarded with a visit direct with an owner.

So it was that at the weekend, after a rowdy friday coffee morning amongst friends swapping information on houses for sale, and a bit of zooming in and out on Google street view and sattelite to see what was on offer, I received a call from an owner of a very lovely house, responding to my attempt to contact him, inviting me to visit his home the very same day. Before the day was out I’d put in an offer, or proposition, and by the following day I was sitting in the notaires office signing the first document in the French house buying process…

…with not an estate agent in sight.





Rivalling China

A couple of days ago a fellow Normandy blogger posted several photos of the early morning mist rising up over the river near her country home. The early signs of spring and the promise of a glorious day! Looking out of my dining-room window from the breakfast table, from where I have an excellent view of the hills of Mont St Aignan, I too was enjoying that low lying spring morning haze and the clear irridescent blue sky above …or so I thought!

smogphoto:My French Country Home

Ten wonderful days of sunshine and Rouen and much of northern France has been basking in temperatures reaching 20°, and after a long winter the warmth is very welcome. But our pleasure hasn’t lasted long. The warm sunny days and cold clear nights have made impossible the daily dissipation of pollution. Each day the pollution levels have augmented until last friday the readings rivalled those of Beijing, one of the most polluted cities in the world. That romantic mist is none other than smog, and the numbers of people seeking help for respiritory illness has spiked.

paris smogParis smog

Alerte à la pollution aux particules en Haute-Normandie.Rouen smog

On friday, along with Paris, Rouen made all public transport free, and the SNCF and RER, France’s national rail networks made local and intercity train journeys free too. The Velib (velo libre – bikes at liberty) found in special bike racks all over the two cities were also made free of charge. These gratuities were due to last until sunday night, and consequently a free rail trip to visit Paris on sunday seemed a happy bi-product of the climatic conditions. But would one really want to visit Paris at the moment? The answer for most is probably no. On friday, in Paris the pollution readings measured 180 microgrammes of particles per metre cubed where the alert is raised at 80 microgrammes per metre cubed.

cyclist in smogVelib in use but mask necessary!

By sunday night more extreme measures were put in place, and chat forums were busy denouncing or approving the measures depending on the individual standpoint. What caused the frenzy of opinions – “l’alternance de circulation”, In other words, today only cars and motorbikes with an uneven numbered number plate can circulate. No lorries are permitted at all, regardless of numberplate, and only vans used by the emergency services can cross the city. For those with an even numbered numberplate who attempt to drive in Paris and several of its suburbs, a fine of 20€. Only the press, rather bizarrely, and the police, obviously are exempt from the ban. But perhaps we should spare a thought for the police officers, who will number in the region of 700, and maintain order and issue ‘on the spot’ fines, whilst they stand all day in the thick of the smog.

police smog

While many were congratulating the government on it’s tough stance, there were of course inevitably those who critisized the measures for being politically motivated, others that warned of a potential vehicle standstill in the city as a result of spot-checks, and a large number pointing the blame towards Germany and Belgium for their recule from nuclear power and back to fossil fuels, and the increase of pollution as a result. Many were dreading the increased journey times and feared the sardine conditions on public transport. One wise-crack thanked his dad for having bought him two cars, one with an odd number-plate, the other even.


For my part, I can do pretty much everything by foot, and the jury us still out as regards the journey to university today, not so much for the distance, but for the ability to be home in time for my children and the end of the school day. Leaving the city centre yesterday for the open air lido on the plateau above the city, the air seemed pretty fresh and most people were taking advantage of the sunshine to give their ‘bronzing’ a head-start, lounging happily by the out-door pool.euroceane-mont-saint-aignan

But despite the sunshine and blue skies perhaps it wasn’t really as fresh as we really thought?


Femmes et Flics – A Matter of Con-trôl!

Last night the frantic hooting of a car in the street below my apartment found me hurtling down four flights of stairs in aid of my neighbour. I didn’t need any further information, I knew what the insensed fury was about!

Earlier in the day, in my mad homeward dash from University to give the kids their lunch, I discovered an unwelcome obstacle outside my apartment. Some wise-crack had determined that parking their car in the turning area for entry through our Porte Cochère was perfectly acceptable behaviour.

The Porte Cochère is the doored entrance to a ‘tunnel’ which passes under the building to an inner courtyard, originally built for coach and horses in the 17th to 19th centuries. If you look carefully you will spot two metal restrictors at ground level either side of the arch. These cunning items originally were to prevent the coach wheels from hitting the side walls, and do the same job to protect the sides of cars, however they also narrow the access significantly, which is often at best only a couple of centimeters wider than a modern car with the wing-mirrors folded in.

Having only half an hour to arrive home, make lunch and return to class, spending 20 minutes of it doing an unsuccessful 50 point turn in an  attempt to place the car in a suitable position to enter the Porte Cochère was not very amusing. Imagine, then, my irritation when a the end of the day I returned home to find the offending car still blocking my way, his parking ticket having long since expired. When my neighbour arrived home several hours later, the hooting was self explanatory!

The flics, in France, are not the cinema, but the colloquial name for the police; our equivalent to the ‘cops’. Their duties include not only dealing with thefts, drunks and drugs, but for keeping the peace in the local neighbourhood. A party going on late and keeping the neighbourhood awake? No need to descend in slippers at 3am to knock on the offending door. Simply ring the flics. Once they have intervened three times, the culprit receives an ‘amende’ (fine), and everyone-else wakes the following morning with the happy knowledge that the party animals have no idea who actually made the call, but will have to pay for the nuisance.

So it was that my neighbour pulled out her phone and within about five minutes the police had arrived!

The offending vehicle wasn’t technically on a yellow line, the council irritatingly not having obliged us by stretching the yellow line further than the archway entrance to our courtyard to allow for the turning area, but neither was it in a parking bay, the last of which was several metres up the street. The male police officer studied the car carefully before declaring that while it was an offence to not park in a bay, it wasn’t towable since it hadn’t physically got a tyre on a yellow line.

Now everyone knows that the French park haphazardly anywhere and everywhere, but blocking access to a porte cochère is a definite ‘No-no’, and everyone knows not to do it, in much the same way that everyone knows that when visiting Paris for a day out,  to avoid the hefty  subterranean car parking daily rates the idea is to find a parking bay and deposit the car without worrying much about the parking meter. The French do this all the time. The fine for a parking infringement is in the region of 11€, which is vastly cheaper than feeding the meter, and saves moving the car every couple of hours whilst in short stay parking zones! And meanwhile one gets to enjoy the delights of Paris for the cost of a couple of cups of coffee.

I watched a superb film last week in which the heroine carried in her handbag an old parking ticket in its plastic pocket, and each time she parked, she pulled it out and placed it under her windscreen wipers  just in case a parking attendant should come along. It would have to be a real ‘gem’ of a attendant, after all, to give her two tickets in one day. Our heroine never had a fine to pay. But the rule of thumb in France is to always park in a designated bay or all hell may break loose!

So it was that the male flic (did I mention ‘male’) looked at my neighbours car – a real tank of a vehicle, and decided that the offending car was not  infringing parking regulations enough to call out the tow truck and that she should clearly be able to drive through the porte cochère into the tunnel access.

‘Mais non!’ said she

‘Mais NON’ said I

and he proceeded to direct her to the merest millimetre into a one hundred point turn turning to me and muttering in frustration –

‘Mais elle n’a pas maîtrisé comment contrôler son vehicule’ (she hasn’t learnt how to master driving her car)

Bah oui, Monsieur – Ce n’est pas possible, c’est tout’ I said‘ On doit être tout droit’ ( Of course she’s in control  – It’s just not possible to do unless the car is going straight forward)

‘Bah non, c’est facile’ replied the flic ‘et nous, nous entrons toujours en reverse – et dans les bus enormes’ (Of course it’s easy, and we always do it in reverse – and in much bigger vehicles)

‘Vous n’êtes pas habituées alors’ he declared (you still don’t know how to do it yet)

‘I’ve been here three years’ I retorted whilst my neighbour climbed out of her car, now nicely wedged at an angle in the archway, and offered the him the wheel.

‘Mais non Madame’ he replied ‘je n’ai pas le droit’ (I am not permitted!)‘Pourquoi ton mari a t-il acheté une voiture comme ca? (Why did your husband buy you such a big car?)

My neighbour, with a determined look in her eye then reversed her car back into the street where she parked mid-road, halting any ideas of passing traffic, and the officer, faced with two now extremely irate women resignedly pulled out his phone.

The tow truck arrived five minutes later, lifting the offending car onto its trailer…

..and we went in for a glass of wine!


So if you happen to park in a French city, remember remember, you might get away with starving the meter, but not with blocking a porte cochère –

especially if a woman is lurking behind it.

It’s just a matter of who’s in con trôl!

On French Time!

Returning home at 6 this evening, my arms laden with bags and bouquets of flowers I stop dead in my hallway, quite simply because I can go no further. There are two men, a huge cardboard box and a fridge blocking the way!

I am somewhat incredulous regarding the arrival of these two men, especially because they actually are in possession of a fridge. They were due on the 13th July but were clearly working on French time!

It is especially appropriate that they should arrive today, since tonight I am out to dinner, hence the flowers, and the two events dovetail nicely to demonstrate that elusive paradox known as “French Time”.

You may have read my previous post about our somewhat “désagréable”  proprietaire and landlord of the building in which I live. After a series of pitiful pleas to have the broken-down cooker replaced, and in the face of complete refusal by the same, I resorted to “storm tactics” in which I gained proof that every one of the miserable fitted electric fixtures in my kitchen were well past their ‘sell-by date’ and in a state of total “vetuste”. Eventually the campaign reaped results, and whilst in Italy on holiday in the early summer I received email confirmation that a new fridge was on its way.

I think I can be excused my growing paranoïa when July turned to August, August to September, and September to October, and now November, that the landlord had commenced a counter-offensive. I cannot count the number of emails that winged their way to the Agent, nor the number of phone-calls made to the kitchen fitter, only say that with the increase in time, the vocabulary, content and assertiveness of my communications improved dramatically!

My two sets of neighbours living below me have both chosen this month to move out, both equally frustrated by the landlord, and yesterday quite by chance I happened to bump into the Agent in the lift with two prospective tenants. It was a brave move on her part to ask whether ‘par chance’ I had heard from the fridge man.

“J’ai appelé plusieurs fois Madame, I said  Mais je n’ai eu aucune réponse”  (I’ve called several times with no response) I was very polite in the circumstances!

Clearly with me and potential tenants likely to meet over the next few weeks, the agent made the all important phone-call, and the fridge is now with me, the very next day! It is mid November.

This kind of scenario is one that every Britain thinking of France believes is the norm. The French are quite simply always late, the workmen invariably delayed and everyone takes three hours for lunch. But is that really the case? The answer simply is that that depends!

Yes the agent had quite clearly taken a three hour lunch with plenty of wine when we first signed for this apartement, which could explain why the “apartement with garage” that we’d signed for didn’t actually come with a garage. But no, not all business men and professionals are the same. French professionals often work longer hours and more intensively than their British counterparts, but take longer fixed holidays than the British and generally for the entire month of August. For this reason I would have been foolhardy to think that a fridge ordered in July would ever have been delivered or installed before September.  It appears however, that French workmen do indeed work to “French-time”, and when the kitchen fitters arrived this afternoon and I enquired ever-so politely about the delay, I received what I thought was an ever-so typical reply:

“C’était un poulet avec le fournisseur” – (there was a chicken with the supplier) In other words, clearly the supplier was having  problems and was nothing to do with the fitter. It must have been, I thought, a very big chicken!

However, the joke was ultimately on me! My fluent french speaking son assures me that I misheard (how typical) and that there was actually:

“Un boulet avec le fournisseur” (a mess-up, to be polite!) Frankly I prefer the more colourful chicken option, which leads me nicely on to the invitation to dinner.

Tonight I shall be celebrating the arrival of the fridge with French friends who have invited me as the lone “Anglaise” to spend the evening with them and several other couples.  One of the common misconceptions about the French is that they are always several hours late for a dinner party. When I first arrived in France I found this concept very  ‘inquiétant’. After all, how late should one be? When invited for our first French dinner party I suffered a not inconsiderable level of stress, even before I arrived, and that was before I crossed the threshold and attempted to speak French all evening.

For the first French dinner party ‘Husband à l’Etranger’ and I were fashionably late! However it was quite clear, within minutes of arriving, that being late is not in fact “de rigeur”. And why? Because at a French dinner party, no drinks are served until the last invitée has arrived. To arrive late means to deprive your fellow guests of a drink for an inconsiderate amount of time. But when the drinks at last are served it will  invariably be Champagne and the party can begin.

Champagne is served as one might serve wine in the UK, with one major exception, it is served, and savoured. The French in general really know their wines, or Champagnes, and the morning afterwards, you will not find a dozen empties in the recycling bin, but one or two carefully selected and expensive bottles which will last the evening. And while there are millions of bottles of cheap wine circulating in supermarkets all over France,(I suspect for the millions of foreigners who stampede France every year) the French on the whole are highly selective. Whilst in Britain guests arrive for dinner holding a bottle of wine, the French have in general an “empty handed” policy prefering, if need be, to arrive with a box of special chocolates, generally exquisite, but costing a small fortune!

But French timing doesn’t stop there! One of the other extraordinary phenomenon regarding the French dinner party is that the French also leave on time. Our first dinner party, having booked a baby-sitter, we felt bound to return home by midnight. As we stood to go, we were astonished to find all our fellow guests stand in unison, and felt guilty that we had so clumsily terminated the evening. We are several dinner parties further on, and have discovered, to our quiet amusement, that this phenomenon of leaving together is universal. To save the host from numerous trips to let his guests out onto the street, (remember that the French have, very often, wonderfully ornate, but locked, metal gates to their gardens) the guests leave “en masse”. And so, after the coffees and digestifs have been served, the invitées start to observe and take their cues from one another, gradually closing the conversations in order to rise as one, around midnight, and leave!

Who says the French know nothing about timing? In general they are impeccable, although workmen all over France leave alot to be desired…

but at least now I can chill my Champagne!

And the pleasure I get from opening my new ‘bon marché'(cheap) fridge is definitely heightened by the wait.

And perhaps that was the point!

Making Headway – Registering at a French University.

language school

A couple of months ago I threw a book into the dustbin. I have never thrown a book away before, but then again I have never disliked a book enough to warrant doing so. What was the book, you might ask? Humiliating an author is not very ‘bon esprit’ but some may recognise the book  nevertheless.

Every so often I pick up a book written by an author who has started a new life abroad. Most are amusing or heart-rending or downright outrageous tales of  courage or mishap in the face of adversity. The particular tale that ended in the waste-paper basket was one in which a woman had simply given up her life abroad. Of course many have given up on a life inundated with drama and catastrophe, and there is nothing wrong with that; but the author of the book in question had given up on their dream long before the book was written, and the book was merely a justification of the decision. It nearly killed me to read it, but I dedicated myself to every page in the hope that somewhere along the line the author would “DO” something to try to halt the inevitable decision to quit and head home her the country of birth. I wanted to see her try. She never did, and by the time I had finished it, I too had nearly given up on hope in life itself!

Many of the issues faced by that author were ones that I have faced myself, ones of loneliness, friendlessness, boredom and isolation. They come to all of us at one time or another, heightened by the foreignness of the adopted country itself. What made me so desperate about this particular book was that at the end of every page I wanted to shout

“stop – there must be a way…. couldn’t you..?”

but of course it was far too late to say anything, even less protect other readers from her depressing prognosis that it was quite simply impossible to make ‘it’ work.

Probably the two hardest issues to deal with when moving abroad are employment and financial stability,  and friendships. Every nationality has a different approach to these two major issues, none more so than the French. In the last year, after having stagnated for at least two, my life lurched forward a gear or two, and everything started to fall into place. This week, as a result of a lively discussion between a wide variety of nationalities, the subject of friendships in France arose and our understanding of them finally started to fall into place. How did I happen upon this group of foreigners? Quite simply, I decided to enroll into French university!

One of the main barriers to friendships and employment in a foreign country is of course language. Having four children in the French school system I observed two things. Firstly, total immersion is key to language learning, secondly mastery of language and immersion enables the development of friendships and the creation of opportunity. Nowhere else have I noticed the power of the word of mouth for career and life development than in France.

So it was that last December I handed over my CV to the Bureau of Tourisme to apply for their “Formation” to be a “Guide Conferencier” (tour guide), and acceptance onto that training course opened the door to university in France. It wasn’t ‘per se’ the training course that made university possible, but thanks to one of the other trainees I met along the way. The young Italian trainee was at the time enrolled at the University of Rouen studying the DELF/DALF/DUEF course. Essentially a Diplôme de la Langue Français pour les Etrangeres. (A diploma in French for foriegners) It appeared that holding the “Diplôme” was an essential step in career development, further education, and becoming confident about conversing in a French friendship group. Having suceeded in passing my “Guide Conferenciers” exam, a French oral, and being painfully aware of my limitations in the language as a result, I decided that to do this university course was the next logical step.

In June, I downloaded the application forms online for the “Departement des Lettres”, compiled my CV, wrote a “lettre de motivation” and photocopied and translated my degree certificates. Then I left for my summer holidays. When I returned, a “pre-inscription” form had been sent to me. In principle I was accepted for the course, but not before I had completed a three hour French exam. In September I sat the exam which consisted of  a French multiple choice grammar paper, an oral comprehension exam and a written comprehension exam. The following week we had our results. According to the French system there are a series of “niveaux” (levels) of positionment. Broadly speaking A1,A2,B1, B2 and C1; A1 being unable to communicate, and C1 being fluent.

“If you don’t understand what I’m saying” said the course director in the exam hall “leave now, forget the exam – you will be A1!”

I was placed into the B2 group, and the attainement of the B2 diplôme at the end of the academic year is the all-important “golden milestone” into life in France. The B2 enables everything from entry at Master’s degree level at a French university to acceptance into professional jobs; and crucially competence around the French dinner table! The C1, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow!

At the time of the Guide “Formation” I was probably feeling a little like the author of the book. French friendships had developed to a certain level, but then had seemed to meet a wall, from where close friendship, as we’d understand it from an English point of view, seemed unobtainable. As one of the Russian students in our first lively university discussion so accurately described it, even four years on, French friendships seemed “superficial”.

“But not so”, exclaimed the professor of our first French oral lesson, the problem was that we simply didn’t understand the French!

The genuine true close friendship with a frenchwoman takes years to develop. The idea that one could become close-friends with a French woman in a matter of months is unthinkable. French friendships are like fine wines or cheeses. They take years to mature, at first they are one dimensional and without depth, they move through specific stages of development, and with each phase they develop a new layer of warmth and understanding, until at last, often six or seven years on, they reach full maturity, with trusted nuances understood facets and a reliability beyond question. When a french woman at last decides to commit to a close friendship, it endures through thick and thin and to the end. A true french friend will rise from her bed in the early hours of the morning to aid in a crisis and at the drop of a hat, in full knowledge that the gesture will be reciprocated without question. But until that stage, the women must first be aquaintances, then copines, then friends before ever achieving the exaulted status of close friends.

Indeed, as our professor explained, the very British or American manner of “divulging all” in the early stages of aquaintence or “copineship” frightens French women away. The idea of discussing private family activities and issues within an aquaintance group is “très mal élévé” and typically the French will withdraw in face of it. It does now go to explain why in my early days in France no-one ever seemed to discuss their weekends in the school playgroup on a monday morning.

French women do however like to share – lifts to children’s activities, information about activities and events, offers of hospitality and discussions about current affairs. They like nothing better than voicing concerns and opinions about life-style and culture in general. But what is private stays private until a friendship nears maturity.

“And that” said our professor “brings us back to the matter in hand”;

For the B2 course is about dispensing with chatting about the simple day to day life; and is the training for debate on current affairs and culture. The B2 is the enablement of dinner party discussions and  job interviews with all the necessary vocabulary. And when we have finally attained our B2, the French women will probably know an awful lot more about what kind of person we are from our cultural and political contributions to conversations than they ever could have done after endless divulged stories about our weekends.

Registering at French university is about more than just learning a language; it is about understanding the French and their cultural differences and becoming more like them.

When the author of the book threw in the towel in the face of what seemed to be a stagnation of friendship and the inability to find something to do with her day, if only she had known she was facing “une petite pause” in the natural stages of development of becoming closer friends with the French, and what to have done to overcome it, she may have persevered and succeeded yet.

For making a success of it abroad necessitates mastery of language, total immersion into culture and re-education of preconceived ideas.

…helped along the way with a healthy dollop of “le diplôme B2 “