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?


What Never to Say to Security at the Channel Tunnel..

The Control Technique certificate, an annual and rather tedious necessity for the average Frenchman holds for us a somewhat elusive quality. Driving as I do an ancient, unrecognised Japanese import about France means that I am easily recognised by my friends but has the somewhat inconvenient issue of having to take it across the Channel annually to put it through its MOT.

While it is possible to gain a ‘Certificate de Conformité gris’  and imatriculate unusual cars at the Prefecture – it had become a delicate balance between whether the cost of realigning the headlights to that of a left-hand drive will be cost-effective based on its remaining lifespan. So it was that I found myself turning out of the gate last thursday, having shed a crowd of French teenage boys in the aftermath of my 14 year old’s birthday sleepover, and heading for Calais.

It took only twenty metres to discover that the gearbox had just failed, and thankfully ‘husband à l’etranger’ was with me, and with him – where there’s a will, there’s a way! To add to the challenge, last thursday was a bank holiday which, unlike in the UK means that everything is closed. We managed to limp the car to the nearby service station and discovered that the oily patch in our parking-space in the courtyard was in fact the contents of our ‘Boite de Vitesse’ (gear-box)

Thankfully we discovered that once we had purchased a suitable funnel and a bottle of ‘Huile de Transmission’ (gear-box oil) the car actually engaged in gear and moved. Stopping to refill the gearbox every 80km we made it to the check-in at the Channel Tunnel.

For the first time in our experience, the queue for check-in was so lengthy that we managed to miss our check-in time and were relegated to a train some four and a half hours later. Not to be outdone, we made our usual manoeuvre of trying to make a bolt for it past the security to the embarkation lanes by holding our ‘G’ hanger upside down and back to front whilst all the other cars were sporting ‘X’s and ‘Y’s. We were not successful.

Having failed to convince the security that the fault of our delay lay with the enormous queue the other side of the ‘check-in’ and in a desperate attempt to catch an earlier train I piped up, smiling sweetly..

‘Monsieur, C’est très important que nous prendrons le prochain train car nous avons un rendez-vous chez une garage en Angleterre. Nous avons une fuite d’huile’

(Its very important that we take the next train because we have an appointment at the garage in England. We have an oil leak)

whereupon Monsieur Le Securité replied, also smiling sweetly but firmly –

‘Madame –

Si vous avez une fuite d’huile, vous n’allez pas prendre ce train, ni le train en quatre heures et demie, ni aucun autre train, aujourd’hui, demain, ni aucun autre jour.’

(‘Madam – If you have an oil leak, you are not going to be taking this train, nor the train in 4 and a half hours, nor any other train, not today, tomorrow nor any other day!’)

So there you have it, along side telling security you have a weapon in the car, drive with LPG or have an Ash sapling, where you will inevitably be delayed whilst the offending article is removed and yourself interrogated, this is probably the worst thing that you can say to a Channel Tunnel security guard.

As luck would have it, the depannage (breakdown) lorry driver who was sent to deal with us had a smile that reached past his lips to a sparkle in his eye. Having minimized the damaging statement to the fact that the leak was really tiny (honest!) and that it didn’t leak at all when the vehicle was stationary (difficult to uphold since we had been stopped over a puddle and as one knows, oil likes to freely disperse itself into an ENORMOUS slick in water), the depannage engineer rang through to the train to request instant passage on the next train –

…possibly because he appreciated that we spoke the language – although the children cringing in the back would hasten to differ.

…Possibly because he’d never seen a car like it and didn’t want to tackle its unknown engine on a bank holiday.

…Possibly because he was just a very nice man.

We were on the next train out!