18 Aout – Isolement cellulaire – solitary confinement

I had always heard that France shuts down in August, but took little notice! Shame on me! The first clue that things were going to get a little rough was the sign on the door of the boulangerie stating that they were closed for the entire month of August. A litttle disgruntled by this I quickly shrugged it off since our next favourite boulangerie is not so very far away!

I have to digress a little here because I feel I need to explain the importance of the boulangerie. When we first arrived a year ago we were used to the bread served up by Asda and Sainsbury’s bakeries, and at the time thought it wonderful. Occasionally we would go as far as buying a baguette, especially if we had guests for lunch and wanted to play at a “french lifestyle”. In their turn, we thought them delicious! Something has happened to us over the course of a year and we have become connaiseurs of the humble baguette. No two are the same!

For the past year we have had a baguette (or three)  every lunch, and sometimes the children will pop in for another after school. French mothers turn up at the school gate with long chunks of baguette with bars of Milka chocolate stuffed inside. We have discovered that our local boulangerie sells reputedly the nicest baguettes this side of Rouen. The crust has the right level of crustiness without breaking teeth, its centre is soft and tasty, and the crust to centre ratio is perfect – too much crust and it becomes a jaw breaking ordeal, too little and one might as well eat an unbaked ready-to-bake baguette from the supermarket! With a little more linguistic skill,  the next step is to ask for a baguette “moin cuite” and ensure that you receive the perfect golden crust; and to receive excellence, being a habitual frequenter of only one favoured boulangerie will ensure that the boulanger will reserve the best for you, remember your daily order, have it waiting and pass the time of day. All this makes for the perfect baguette buying experience.

Consequently, after a year of munching the most perfect baguettes, we were devastated to hear that the boulanger was leaving for his annual holidays (congé d’été) for the entire month. Anabel had already declared that it would be very difficult to return to live in the UK since she has transformed from bread loathing to bread-loving thanks to the french bread! It was therefore a double disaster to discover that boulangerie number two was also closing for the same weeks. When I expressed my dismay at the situation an english friend sent me a muffin receipe! No matter how hard I try, my home made bread is not a patch on tat of our boulangerie. The place of the boulangerie is fundamental to day to day life. It is simply incomprehensible to  the non-french to make such a drama out of a crisis. But in what other country could you double park with abandon, clogging up the entire city traffic circulation, and get away with it – so long as you return to the car carrying a baguette. After all, surely Marie Antoinette was beheaded for suggesting that the peasants resorted to cake, when the bread supplies dried up? The french solution to the their boulanger’s congé d’été is to take their annual holidays at the same time! There-in lies our second dilemma!

One of the little known facts about working for a French organisation is that the employee must build up holiday entitlement. The result of this is that for the first year in an organisation there is no entitlement to paid holiday. The employee pays into a “Mutuelle des Congées”, a sort of savings plan for holiday pay, and the organisation that the emplyee actually works for only pays for the days worked. Therefore, a two week holiday will reduce a monthly salary by a half! At the end of the first year the payment plan becomes active and pays during the second and ensueing years the missing salary directly into the bank account, at the same time adding a 30% bonus for those essential holiday “extras”. Before the end of the first year, any holiday taken will leave you broke, and is probably better not taken. Consequently, after a year without holiday, as soon as the mutuelle kicked into action, we took off on holiday. It was July! We had a wonderful time but arrived back to Rouen just as all of the Rouenaise took off to other places!

Still on our French learning curve we discovered that the mutuelle had paid our holiday pay at the end of June, and having not “cottoned-on ” to the fact that this money was to supplement the July paycheck, spent a little more than we should have! When the “Bulletin de Paie”  from Harry’s organisation arrived on the last day of July we were aghast to learn that only 162 euros had been credited to our bank account (once social security, rent and health allowances had been deducted at source). It was going to be an extremely meagre month!

Being penniless and friendless and baguetteless for a month was not quite what we had anticipated when we moved to France. It was time to come up with some clever ideas! We were then devastated furthermore when Harry’s sister rang at the last minute to cancel their trip to visit us thanks to the UK economic situation, and to hear that the UK government, in all its “wisdom” had cancelled all the “Building Schools for the Future” programme, which made up a large part of Harry’s UK office’s workload. Since Harry’s role was overseeing the financial planning of these projects from the financial team’s office in Rouen. Things were starting to look unsettled.

With a lack of french friends on the horizon, we opened our doors to our english friends. Anabel benefitted from  the stay of a long-term girlfriend for a week. Her arrival augmented the necessity to find a solution to the bread problem since being Coeliac, she was unable to consume any form of wheat product. Having produced a reasonable variation on pastry, using gluten free flour and ground almonds, we rustled up a variety of quiches supplemented with baked potatoes and chips and frangipane tartlets.  The arrival of a second girlfriend with her family who were holidaying near-by necessitated a double sleep-over which roller-coasted me into a contact lense/missing bag scenario, never to be  forgotten!

Being new to contact lenses, Anabel’s friend came down that evening (about midnight) to tell me she had only been able to remove one of the lenses and the second stayed resolutely in her eye. I am completely clueless when it comes to contact lenses, but her eye was becoming increasingly red and sore from all the prodding and poking around trying to grab the edge of the wayward lense. Eventually after a brief call to her mother to ascertain whether the lense would end up on the far side of her eye-ball, and being midnight, we decided that she would have to sleep with it in. Expecting a disturbed night I was amazed to find the girls following true teenage form with a spectacularly long “lie-in”. The following morning, after some chivvying, I managed to get them downstairs dressed and ready for a visit to the optician. It was necessary to arm myself with some fundamental vocabulary, and I was delighted to find that contact lenses translate as “lentiles”, and since the child in question was vegetarian, it was spectacularly easy to remember! Being a monday it was necessary to make a reluctant phone call to find an optician that was actually open, and having arrived at our destination we were disappointed that the optician declared it more than his “jobs-worth” to touch her eye before redirecting us to “urgence” (casualty).

At the mention of Clinque de Cédres, both he and I sighed a sigh of relief, he, for not having to give directions, and me, because I was on familiar ground! Five minutes at the Clinique  however and we were back in the car heading for the CHU (Centrale Hopitale Universitaire) where there was an eye hospital. Having unloaded the girls from the car and made our way to the security barrier we were assured that we had reached the wrong CHU, and needed to head into the centre of the city. From this point on the trip took a more complicated turn, firstly as I had no idea where I was heading, and secondly that there is one major issue with my car, and that is parkability! It was Anabel who got me out of the first scrape when she began to recognise her surrroundings before declaring that this was the route to the school sports stadium and that they always passed a hospital en-route.We succesfully negotiated the busy traffic only to arrive at the multi storey hospital parking, the roof of which was 50 mm too low for my people carrier to pass below! There was nothing for it but to sweet-talk the security barrier guard to gain access to  the doctors’ open air parking. He did not give in without a struggle, but after several minutes of gesticulating over the height of my vehicle, interspersed with unhelpful comments from Rory over the Britishness of my accent, we were through. After parking haphazardly “á la francaise” in a semi-bay we tumbled out of the car again in search of the “urgence” department. A few wrong turns later we arrived at the accueil and settled in to complete the mounds of paper-work before being directed to the eye department. The receptionist was extraordinarily helpful – “C’est midi” she declared – “all the opthalmic staff are on lunch – come back at 2.30” It was midday, there was no earthly point in waiting whilst the doctors consumed their four couse meal. With a sigh of utter frustration we made our way back to the car clutching all our papers and headed home for lunch!

As afternoon approached we set off back to the hospital, inwardly groaning at the necessity of a further conversation with the Doctors’ parking security guard. Having explained the issue of lunch, and cringing under the long-sufferingly sympathetic eye of the guard that surely we should have known that ALL the french stop work at midi, we found ourselves once more parked up and heading for the eye department. This time the receptionist let us through to the “salle d’attente” with a benevolent sweep of her hand, informing us of an hour long wait. The seven children that i’d had the dubious pleasure of bringing along with me emptied my purse into the snack machine in the corridor to dispel boredom, and as it approached four pm the optician took us off to the examination room. After some prodding around and a rather unpleasant turning inside out of the poor girl’s eyelid, the optician declared that there was no contact lense in the eye, and sent us on our way clutching several prescriptions for antibiotics and eye lubricants, in the overzealous and slightly neurotic way that defines french healthcare. It was 4 o’clock.

The girls had planned a shopping trip into town rather than a close up view of the french medical service, and were delighted when I reminded them that all was not lost, as french shops close at 7pm. It was a shortish run into town from the hospital , and once close enough I pulled over to drop them off for the city centre. It was at this minute that the friend who had not necessitated hospital treatment came close to requiring it by declaring  – “oh, I must have left my hand bag in the hospital waiting room. Its got 70 euros in it”. I am supremely proud of my restraint! I solemnly got back into the car and headed back the way i’d come – safe in the knowledge that I would be required to chat to the doctors’ parking security guard one time too many. This time he regarded me through his glass screen with a look of utter disbelief and raised the barrier without a word, leaving me to scurry through the hospital corridors to retrieve the bag, thankfully still intact. Needing a few minutes “chill-time” I made  a call to Harry to pick up the girls from town when he finished work and bid a retreat for home!

The following day, the second friend was collected by her parents after a lazy lunch and some guided sight-seeing around the historic quarter of Rouen. We visited the Joan of Arc museum which the children found hilarious, if only for the accent of the electronic guide to the waxwork exhibition, and for the coloured waxwork soldier who had at some point had his hand replaced by a white one. How much of the story they absorbed I do not know but every visitor with children should visit it! We passed under the Grosse Horlodge and to the Cathedral, putting in a quick trip down to the River Seine to visit the extraordinary orange “stick sculpture” representing the flames of Joan of Arc’s funeral pyre.  Our final stop was in the beautiful collombage antiques quarter and the Ecole des Beaux Arts, with its mummified cat, before walking back up to the top of the hill and the Station where we had left the car. Suddenly a voice piped up beside me – “oh, I think I’ve left my bag back at the fountain in the antiques quarter – its got 50 euros in it”  Needless to say, I was speechless!

The end of the month is nearly up. We managed to squeeze a three night camping trip to the D-day beaches, and were amazed by the beauty of Omaha beach, and profoundly moved by the war footage at the 360° cinema at Arromanches and subjected to the onslaught of rain during the night that forced many campers to evacuate.

School term is but a week away, along with fresh injection of salary. There’s a world of jobs to do before september. “Yellow pages” rang to see if I was prepared to deliver the next batch of “annuaires” and my weekly delivery job will start up again next week. My car needs new brakes, the kids need the last few items on their “liste des fournitures” for school. This is the second time round and I hope we are  a little better prepared than last time. Let’s hope the results come more easily too!

8. Octobre – control technique – MOT’s

I realised, with a futile annoyance that I should have MOT’d the car before we had left England! Considering that having my car immatriculated “French style” would be straightforward, I decided to take the bull by the horns and approach Toyota in Paris for some general advice. Rather than attempting a phone call which would demonstrate huge omissions in my vocabulary, I went for the safer option of an email. Now, my written French is reasonably passable, so I sent off my request and waited. Paris was quick to reply. To pass first base I needed a “Certificate de Conformité”, which they assured me was straightforward. It was a matter of filling in a form with the chassis number, registration plate, model, fuel type and so on. Once this stage was passed I would be required to put the car in for a Control Tecnique – France’s version of a MOT and obtain a Carte Gris. The most complicated part of the process would be to have my headlights realigned to comply with France’s Volet Gauche (Left hand drive).

A few minutes later, having stuck my head inside the bonnet, I completed the form with chassis number and all other required information and sent it off to the very pleasant man in Paris. This was the point at which our relationship faltered – I promptly received an email back politely requesting that I gave the complete chassis number, as he had only received 12 digits from me. Somewhat bemused I stuck my head once more under the bonnet, but the 12 digits remained 12. From this point onwards the helpful man dug his heels in. All French cars have 16 digits, and mine would have to have the required number or it would not be recognised!

A quick call to our trusty garage in the UK clarified matters, it appeared that because my car was a Japanese import it was missing the vital four digits. Rather than being a Japanese car built for the UK market, it was a Japanese car built for Japan and imported privately once three years old. I had reached a dead end in the simplest part of the Immatriculation process. There was nothing for it but to drive it back to the UK, a month after I had left and MOT it, English style with the distinct possibility that this would be a yearly visit!

We have since discovered that having a non-french, i.e not a Renault or Citroen, car in France is a very bad idea since parts are also hugely expensive and mechanics are also not so familiar with the model to complete repairs quickly. I have also discovered that there is also a  recognised system for applying for “grey imports” which applies to my car – but I have yet to get it done. The form looks oenerous and I have yet to muster any enthusiasm to get on with it.

The children have continued to go to school without complaint! Of them all, the most optimistic has been Rory. The French children appear to have been welcoming and friendly, shaking hands, faisant les bises (kissing cheeks) and offering sweets. Rory has also been fortunate, being the sole child with an English speaking student in his class. However the good humour disguises the true nature of their emotions which are on a knife edge. There was an occasion where Rory’s classes finished an hour early at the end of the day and students were permitted to leave school early, so long as their pass card had the right code printed on it, or a parent was there to collect. Arriving early, I was forced to move the car to a proper parking space. In the meantime the students came to the gate and the Surveillant gave the nod to those whose passes were in order. Unfortunately Rory arrived at the gate in those vital minutes when I was parking the car, and was refused leave and sent to Etude. I waited the hour having unsuccessfully located him but my guilt levels ran high as I received him an hour later deeply upset and frustrated at his inability to explain that I would be outside. Such small events were to be such huge triggers for emotion.

Similarly Anabel had her mobile phone confiscated for being used in school, despite the fact that she was texting me for translation of a task she had been set. I had to explain to the very unaccommodating member of staff, that at present their mobile phone’s were a life-line to enable them to communicate and that perhaps for the first month or two a certain leniency could be accommodated since none of the staff seemed to be able to speak English in case of difficulty.

As Rory’s birthday approached, a huge fair was constructed on the quay-side of the River Seine. Lasting almost a month, the lights glittered, and the smell of the fair tantalised the children for weeks, until we suggested a birthday trip by way of a celebration. So we roared around on rollercoasters and spun in teacups under a warm evening sky, a great compromise instead of a party as we waited for our children’s friendships to establish.

Finding the cost of living prohibitively more expensive than the UK,  the need for registration with the Caisse Allocation Familiale and  Assurance Medicale were all the more urgent. With some outstanding costs still to cover thanks to the move  we were feeling the  drain on our resources. We took a two pronged attack, one contacting the London and Rouen offices to clarify the allowance situation for overseas moves  for which there seemed to be divergent views, and the second to visit the Caisse Familiale to find out what was causing such a delay with our registration. The former attack seemed to be inconclusive, the latter produced results. The Caisse Familiale, once contacted revealed that three of our birth certificates were of the short format, and unacceptable. We contacted the Office of Births, Deaths and Marriages in the UK and ordered 3 long version certificates, and believing our work completed, sat back and waited!