Sunday, 30 January 2011

What's Your (Department) Number?

After a couple of glasses of wine last weekend, an English friend and I, suddenly and for no apparent reason, found ourselves filled with the urge to test our knowledge of French regions and départements. This knowledge seems to be something that all French people either learn by osmosis as they grow up or are forced to learn at school, but we did shockingly badly. I even got the number of a department I once lived in wrong. I have a theory that, as a foreigner, your chances of ever reaching native-level knowledge without some serious effort are minimal because, like multiplication tables, if you don't learn them by a critical age, you probably never will.

The regions are relatively easy. Names such as Bretagne (Brittany), Normandie, Alsace and Lorraine are familiar to anybody who knows anything about France and even the less well known ones are big enough and have obvious enough names that you can pick them up fairly quickly.

The départements are another story. They're much smaller than the regions, and there are 95 of them in metropolitan France, each with a name and corresponding number. Many of the names come from rivers and, as a result, are harder to remember because rivers are long and thin and flow from one place to another. The Centre region, for example, is divided into 6 departments: Eure-et-Loir, Loiret, Loir-et-Cher, Cher, Indre and Indre-et-Loire (and if anybody knows why there are two spellings for Loire, please post a comment!).

The numbers mostly correspond to the name of the department's position on an alphabetical list, so that Ain is number 01 (not to be confused with Aisne, which is number 02) and Yonne is 89. There are, however, some exceptions which provide interesting trivia for the true département geek. Corsica used to be one department, number 20, but was split in half and the 20 became 2A and 2B (not to be confused with 02 above), so there is no number 20. Likewise, departments 91 to 95, which lie around the outskirts of Paris, are newer and therefore not in order. The Yvelines was created at the same time but has number 78, which was the number of the old Seine-et-Oise that, along with some of the other new departments, it used to be part of.

So why is learning this fabulous list so important to the residents of France and how do they manage it? Well firstly, the department number forms the first two digits of each postcode, so unless you're like me and have lived in so many places that you're at risk of forgetting your current address, never mind the one you lived at 5 years ago, everybody knows their own and that of their nearest and dearest (or at least the people they write letters to).

Secondly, and far more interestingly, however, the number also appears on car registration plates. It used to be part of the registration number itself but on modern plates it's at one side. Its presence means that when somebody rudely cuts up a farmer driving his tractor along a road in Brittany, rather than merely jumping to the conclusion that such a person must be a Parisian, the Breton can have his suspicions confirmed by the 75 number plate. Likewise, when Parisians are held up by someone with a distant department number crawling round the périphérique, they can enjoy the satisfaction of knowing that they are superior to this rural cousin with no knowledge of the great metropolis.

Understanding Frenchman, who always likes to look on the bright side, claims that Parisian drivers are more tolerant of those with "foreign" numberplates than they are of fellow franciliens. Which kind of makes me wish I'd been able to take my car somewhere far, far away to be registered!

Sunday, 23 January 2011

See What I'm Driving At

Over the past two weekends, trips to visit friends on the other side of the Ile-de-France and in Franche-Comté have probably caused me to more than double my hours of driving experience in France. In the course of approximately twenty hours, I have experienced miles of traffic jams where you can’t even get the clutch up in first gear, rain stotting like hailstones off my windscreen, black ice, thick fog, hairpin bends, roads with no lines on them, the Boulevard Périphérique and the very best of il fallait le savoir driving rules. (And yes, when I brought the matter of the invisible speed limit signs up with Understanding Frenchman, that is exactly what he said: “You just know what to do. You learn it at the driving school.” Which explains why the French driving theory test includes hundreds and hundreds of potential questions and why it’s very common to fail it several times. And then, after all that effort and angst, everybody just ignores it anyway.)

Anyway, the aim of this post was not actually to have another rant about the French tendency to value theoretical knowledge above all else, even their own lives, but to report on the fact that, once you get out of the Région parisienne, driving in France can actually be very enjoyable. I really don’t mind having to figure out the speed limits by myself when I’m not worrying about the fact that some moron is trying to overtake approximately two centimetres from my right-hand wing mirror.

Franche-Comté was particularly beautiful. It’s the region next to the Swiss border where the Jura mountains are.The summit of the highest mountain, Mont d’Or is at 1463m, but because the whole area is on a high plateau, the landscape is more one of rolling hills than jagged peaks. From the summits, though (which in the case of Mond d’Or can be reached in an easy 5 minute stroll from the high car park!), there are stunning views over the Swiss border and south to Mont Blanc mountain range, as well as glimpses of Lake Geneva and Lake Neuchatel.


As well as being a mountain, Mont D’Or is also a cheese. Without a doubt the best way to eat it is local style: whole and melted in its own crust and container, with potatoes and local charcuterie to dip in, just like fondue but, because of the crust, even more delicious.

As you drive away from the mountains, the roads take you through pretty villages and past castle fortresses. At one point, we thought my faithful TomTom was leading us astray (especially when she told me to turn on to a bumpy road full of potholes with no markings other than a sign warning us that it was never cleared of snow) , but it turned out to be a beautiful drive, with the hairy hairpin bends more than compensated for by the spectacular views down from the plateau to the plains below. If you want to discover one of the more “hidden” regions of France, Franche-Comté is definitely recommended!

Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Il fallait le savoir

On French T.V. for about 3 minutes in the evening there is a mini-programme called Fallait le savoir (You just had to know). In this programme, two children explain useful information to each other about things like recycling and global warming. It seems to me, though, that the attitude of "il fallait le savoir" applies to many other things in French life as well as environmental awareness.

When I first got my car back in the summer, I decided to do the responsible thing and spent several hours on the internet practising the Code de la Route (Highway Code). As well as (beginning to) get to grips with priorité à droite (the complicated rule by which cars joining a main road from a side street have priority... but only on some roads ... and not on dual carriageways ...unless it's the Paris Périphérique ... and so on) and speed limits in kilometres per hour, I learned a lot about road signs.

Six months down the line, I wonder why I bothered. Because it seems to me that a lot of the time, the information that you need to know isn't actually displayed. For example, if you're driving along a main road in the country at 90 km/h and you have to slow down to 50 km/h to pass through a village, don't expect there to be a sign on the other side of the village telling you that you are now out of the 50 zone and can drive at 90 again. You're just supposed to know.

Likewise with parking. Parking spaces where I live are incredibly expensive to rent, so I park my car in the street wherever I can find a parking place. Back before Christmas, I parked on a wide street with no yellow lines, along with several other cars. Coming back a week later, I scraped the snow off the windscreen to discover a parking ticket under the wiper. After scrutinising the ticket for several days, I was finally able to discover what I had done wrong. My town has alternate parking, where you park on one side of the street for half the month, then switch sides. The switch happens at 8am on the middle day. Which is fine, if inconvenient. Except that today, with the snow gone and time on my hands, I parked in the same street (on the other side) then walked the whole length of the road. A road sign does exist in France to say that alternate parking applies. It's in the Code de la Route. It was not displayed anywhere on that street. The authorities clearly did not feel it was their responsibility to tell me where I could and could not park. Il fallait le savoir.

On the upside, even at a rate of 11 euros a week, paying the parking fines is still cheaper than renting a space!

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Happy New Year!

Ok, so it's a little late, but we Scots take a while to get over a Hogmanay party.

After a quiet family Christmas, I came back to France in time for New Year. (No travel hitches this time, but I'm still working on my conspiracy theory about the fact that it wasn't reported in the media that the pre-Christmas Eurostar trains were cancelled not only because of speed restrictions on the line but because the snow was causing them to BREAK DOWN. Remind you of anything? Last year, perhaps?)

Although this is my fourth year living in France, it was my first Hogmanay here and I was delighted to find out that the French celebrate new year the same way as they celebrate everything else : by eating lots of delicious food. We went to a party at a friend's house and ate the following: champagne with foie gras and smoked salmon, seafood platters, roast lamb stuffed with mushrooms with a foie gras sauce, many delicious cheeses, pineapple, lychees and oranges and an ice-cream log for dessert. I would have expected to have been as stuffed as the roast lamb after all that but the fact that the meal began at 9pm and finished at 3 in the morning meant that I was actually just comfortably satisfied and still able to dance the new year in a fireworks exploded on the skyline outside every window of our friend's tenth floor flat.

On Saturday, another friend hosted an ice-skating party at the outdoor rink at the Hôtel de Ville. I used to be a competitive skater but the combination of years of lack of practice and scary teenagers practising their hockey manoeuvres on innocent members of the public meant that I had to restrict myself to going round in circles and avoiding the hockey players' victims as they sprawled across the ice. Nevertheless, it was fun to try again and the Hôtel de Ville makes a beautiful backdrop with its fairytale architecture and sparkly Christmas lights.

Then on Monday it was back to work. Believe it or not, more than 1% of 2011 is over already!