Liberté, Egalité et Conformité – Mais NON Madame!

Just before Christmas I decided to do some communications ‘spring-cleaning’. It was long overdue because my TV, telephone and internet were with one operator, and our family’s  4 mobile phones with another. Clearly there were deals to be had if I put everything under the same operator and a few savings to be made. Turning overpayment into patisserie had to be a good idea!

If you are not ‘au fait’ with French ‘abonnements’, or membership contracts then you have a thing or two to learn about France. Number one, there is a certain amount of legalised ‘theft’ going on with most mobile contracts. Firstly ‘pay as you go’ doesn’t really exist in France. It is possible to buy a pre-payment card for mobiles, but really they are just a mini contract. For example if you wish to top up your mobile with a fiver, the credit will not last until you have made five euro’s of phone calls or internet forays – oh no! The five euros will last you 5 days, and if you have only made one euro’s worth of calls, the other four euros will be swiped at midnight of the 5th day, no matter how much you might have wanted to talk to your boyfriend, mother or missing child at 12.01am.

The second thing to know about the French is that offers for a reduction an a new phone, or an offer for reduction if you change contact type is not as clear cut as going to the till and having the reduction taken off the bill. Oh no! That would be far far too simple. And this is precisely what happened to me when I decided to do my communications spring-cleaning!

A charming lady in the phone, internet and TV shop told me about the remarkable offer they had if I changed from a contract (forfait) bloqué to non-bloqué, which became even more exciting if I also joined them for TV and internet and ‘land-line’. In the process I would gain a juicy percentage reduction  per mobile, and one mobile absolutely free as part of the TV and internet package. Then I was also going to get lots of euros off per phone from changing from bloqué to non-bloqué. Marvellous, it was a new year master-stroke of savings and increased consumption of Tarte aux Fruits! Or so I thought!

Did I mention that these great reductions were not done at the till? The charming lady gave me a special form for each phone to fill out, and another even more special form for the TV package.  I left the shop with 5 new contracts and five new forms, which is clearly quite a large amount of paperwork for one day.

At home I carefully filled in the forms, photocopied the contracts, photocopied the receipts, cut out and added the cardboard barcodes from the boxes, added the RIB (Relevé Identifiant Bancaire – or bank account details on a special print out – visit to bank required) and once I had completed this multiplied by 5, and very very carefully checked the small print of the forms, I headed off to the Post Office to send all the information in a big envelope by recorded delivery to the ‘big men in suits’. A month passed before I discovered in my post box an equally fat envelope waiting for me. When I opened it up I discovered all my carefully organised documentation plus a letter which stated:

“Chère Madame,

Je suis désole de vous informer que nous ne pouvons pas faire suite de votre demande. Vous n’avez pas conformé aux réglementations comme requis.”

“Dear Madame,

I am sorry to tell you that we cannot deal with your application. You have not conformed to the requirements”

Once you have lived in France long enough you will be familiar with ‘the groan’ – a sort of inward mixure of irritation, annoyance, frustration, and incomprehension which is very quickly followed up by a sense of grim determination whilst at the same time maintaining an outward appearence of charm and serenity and cool.

I had mastered myself somewhere between the 4th and ground floor of our lift;  Sadly I forgot that the phone and tv shop would be far too engrossed with their lunch! They assurred me that whilst they were happy to take the wodge of paperwork from me, they couldn’t possibly look at it for more than an hour. I left to stare wistfully at the Patisserie window down the road.

“Well” I said when I returned, “Have you worked out what I did wrong”

“Ah OUI, Madame” came the reply, “Vous n’avez pas conformé” (you haven’t conformed)

“Chaque application doit avoir également son envelope à lui” (each application must equally have it’s own envelope)

“Mais Vous, Madame, You have put all your applications into the same envelope”

“On doit conformer, Madame!”

“Well” I said “Can I send them back in separate envelopes?”

“Mais NON, madame” she replied, C’est fini.(it’s finished)  We are not at ‘liberté’ to accept late applications, It would not be “equalité” for tout le monde …..

……On doit conformé.”

It seems I cannot have my cake and eat it after all!


11. Janvier – La guerre du portable – battle of the mobile

The snow is still lying around us. The kids went out and built an excellent igloo, large enough for an adult and four children, and we carried steaming cups of hot chocolate out to them to drink inside it! Even as the rest of the snow starts to melt, the igloo stands defiant!

I’ve never been very keen on January, I think many people feel the same! After the fun of Christmas it’s a long haul up to the summer. I felt concerned for the children after having seen all their friends in the UK for a couple of days, and the ease with which they were able to chat to them it was going to be difficult to kick off the January term in France. I wondered if it had been a good idea to go back to the UK so soon after leaving, but there had been building work done on our UK house which we had needed to check, and a water leak in the roof which had ended up in puddles on the kitchen floor. Ultimately the damage was too minimal to cause concern, the pipes were drained properly this time and the house shut up once again.

There were groans generally about the return to school, but not unmanageable. With the novelty factor now truly worn off it was interesting to see how they would tackle the new term! I would classify January as the battle of the mobile phone! The two older children had been given simple mobile phones once they had passed their 11+ exams in the UK. Whilst in te UK and once at senior school we had considered it to be essential for them to be  able to contact us easily as the senior schools were so far from home. We argued that in France, unable to speak the language, a phone might get them out of difficulties, and topped them up once a month. However, in reality most of the talk-time was being used on texts to English friends. Gradually they began texting French friends much to the apparent horror of the French parents as English to French texting is expensive, and their credit was being speedily used up. Demands for a French mobile started slowly and increased momentum throughout the month, until it reached a crescendo towards February. Trying to be clever we went out and bought French sim cards to put in the English handsets. All was well for twelve hours, until inexplicably Anabel discovered her 30 euro credit had dropped to zero. Topped up again, it was wiped out in the space of an hour or two. Neither Orange UK nor FR could explain what was going on, but it seemed that the French sim card had started sending automatically generated texts to the old English sim card that she had put into a redundant handset. Unable to retrieve the credit, we were forced to admit defeat and take out two entirely new contracts with French mobile and new handsets. A pricey conclusion to a long battle for economy, but now armed with unlimited texts, the kids were into a new world of French text-speak and another leap forward in French friendship making.

I have been conscious that the three month mark since we arrived in France has been passed. We had been told that the youngest children would be starting to talk. A Spanish woman that I had met said that the first month was spent listening, the second month, understanding, and the third month, talking! I was watching Theo in particular, being the youngest, but there was no apparent sign of understanding, let alone talking. He had had several invitations to lunch, or to play which initially he’d been keen to go to. Gradually I noticed that he was, if anything, withdrawing. Used to him being headstrong and wilful at home, I realised that in truth he was a very timid little boy, barely speaking to me in more than a whisper at pick-up time. Try as I might to get him to say “Au- revoir” to Veronique, his teacher at the end of the school day, he refused! Despite this, the French children seemed to adore him, despite being constantly rebuffed.

I am delighted to say that Angus has developed a friendship with a lovely boy in his class, whose mother is also a delight. Maybe this is the start of a breakthrough. There is no sign of conversation but Lego figures seem to be an aid to playing in the playground, along side marbles. I am struck more and more that the French seem to be 10 years behind us. The playground games seem to be those of my child-hood which I find strangely reassuring and comforting. I love the way the French teachers of the primary children are so warm and motherly. The teachers (so far all women) think nothing of kissing the children hello and goodbye and seem to have such a bond with them. It is fantastic to be so removed from the  American (and now British) culture of fear of abuse. It is fresh, simple and nurturing!

College for the older two is a different matter. The Children “Vous” their teachers, each one a specialist in his own subject, and call them by their family name where the primary children “Tu” and call them by their first name. Amongst themselves the girls kiss both boys and girls as a greeting, and the boys kiss the girls and shake hands for the boys. It’s great for our boys to learn to shake hands, a greeting that has all disappeared for English children.

My Collége children are also struggling along with language though I am detecting a breakthrough with Rory. The hours of homework are also easing. Frequently they are completing it themselves without aid, and their increase in comprehension is obvious. Rory is now au fait with the passé simple tense, one of which I have never learnt and has extraordinarily managed to achieve a 17/20 for a French dictée. We still have some real “down” moments when something goes awry, a forgotten book that delivers the wrath of an irate teacher, a misunderstood direction which ends up with some-one ending up late for class, or worst still a change in schedule misunderstood. I am not sure I will ever be used to the quantity of cancelled classes in Collége, a teacher sick, or relegated for a school trip, and never a temporary replacement! On the up-side, we have had a few children home for lunch, though the silence on the trip in the car is somewhat excruciating, being used to the general hubbub in the UK. Once home though, with some basic attempts at conversation from me we have a good time and the kids mess around on the Wii with the instructions in French for their guests, and they return to school smiling – relief?!

The subject of finance inevitably rears it’s ugly head during January. It is time to replace “Les Pages Jaunes”. The general job description had fitted in well with my desire to be accessible to the children for all their needs – which are understandably great at the moment and so I pick up the telephone for a second time and make the call to another distribution outfit. This time it is for weekly distribution of a variety of brochures ranging from the local Mairie to Carrefour supermarché. I am not sure about this as it impinges on my principles and I am not sure I will be well received by the general public. Again, a few teething problems writing down the address, but I make it to the presentation, understand a huge level of what is said and find myself registered “toute suite”! Amusingly my car creates problems on the automated computer registration form, which crashes each time we attempt to enter the car model and loading ability, but with a bit of tweaking we have a level of success and I am ready to go!

I make a decision that if I am met with any level of derision or abuse I will quit as quickly as I registered. And so I make my first round ready prepared by some kind soul. I am amazed by the level of acceptance by the people I meet. Many ask for their copies or come out to collect them from me to save me the walk down to their letter boxes. I am frequently stopped for conversation and it doesn’t take long for them to realise that I am not French. They seem to be generally amused that a British person might be doing such a job and I assume that most French people believe that the British are all moving out to France, buying up old houses to renovate, and making property unaffordable to the average Frenchman. It appears that the French do not expect the English to be working, fully paid up members of the French social security and tax system. Memorably, I was stopped for at least ten minutes by one old retiree, wondering what the English thought about immigrants – I felt I wasn’t very well placed to respond but muttered something generally about Rome and Romans!

We finally discover that the reason we have not heard from the social security office is because our marriage certificate, a non standard, elongated format, has had the last box of information clipped from its photocopy. We whisk in the original and allow them to photocopy it themselves, and to our delight receive our brand new social security numbers, and Cartes Vitales by return of post. Within a further fortnight we also receive a very welcome back-dated cheque for child benefit, a generous payment twice the value of that of Britain. We have now become fully fledged members of the French system!