Friday, 25 March 2011

A Modern French Paradox

The other week, I realised I needed to pay my rent but had run out of cheques in my chequebook. Having been assured by various people that a replacement would have been ordered automatically and sent to my bank, I went to ask for it.

It wasn't there.

The man who works there, who seems very nice and helpful despite the fact that he works for a French bank, did some digging around on the computer and found out what had happened. With a totally straight face, he explained to me that a new chequebook had been ordered for me in October when I used the tenth-last cheque in the old book. The new book was subsequently delivered to the bank. This was somewhat premature because I go through cheques at a rate of approximately one per month when I pay my rent.

Everything would have been well and good, however, if they had actually told me that the new chequebook had arrived. And their reason for not doing so was that they didn't have a mobile phone number for me. Apparently knowing my full postal and email addresses as well as my place of employment, my date of birth and my first pet's maiden name was not enough to enable them to get in touch with me, as despite the fact that they charge me through the nose for sending endless pages of bank statements, advertising and other irrelevant information through the post, the only way to communicate this particular piece of information was by text message.

The fact that I responded to this story with as straight a face as the bank man's is probably a sign that I have been in France far too long.

The paradox in all of it was that the bank's inability to communicate using anything other than modern technology meant that I was unable to pay my rent for this month. The reason? My landlord abhors bank transfers and will only accept cheques, which he exchanges on a monthly basis for a receipt written in beautiful copperplate handwriting using the fountain pen he keeps in his breast pocket.

Monday, 14 March 2011

Illness the French Way

Back in the middle of winter, a French friend of mine announced that he was suffering from "une bronchite".

Being the kind, caring friend that I am, my first question was, "Do you mean a French bronchite or an English bronchite?"

Given that he had been going to work all week, I was pretty sure it was the former and made him a cup of herbal tea with honey. Had it been the latter, I would have driven him to the hospital.

This is not to undermine my friend's suffering or accuse him of malingering. It's just a cultural and linguistic difference that I find interesting. Where the French have bronchitis, the British have a cough. What we call a tummy bug, they call "la gastro" (une gastro-entérite). We have a temperature; they have fever. We have sore throats, they have angina.

I don't think this is purely an example of common Latin-based French words sounding impressive to Anglophone ears. The French really do take their illnesses seriously. Sometimes I look at the quantities of prescription medicines that they consume and imagine the superbugs that they must be breeding by regular use of antibiotics and I think it's wasteful. But sometimes I think of their longevity and the quality of life here and I wonder if there isn't a positive side to it too. If I had a serious health problem, I'd certainly rather be in France than anywhere else. What do you think?

As a footnote, it was my turn to be ill last week. As I emerged from the bathroom on Thursday morning having just thrown up all of the night before's dinner, Understanding Frenchman looked at me in concern and said, "Do you need me to call a Doctor?"

"No," I replied. "I just need to phone my boss and tell her I'll be late for work this morning."

Perhaps I need to get over my Anglo-Saxon work ethic and become a little bit more French.

Tuesday, 8 March 2011

Roo! Adventures in the Wild West of the Ile-de-France

My friend V came to visit from the UK the other week and, leafing through my Routard guide to Week-ends autour de Paris, we stumbled across a description of the enticingly named Château de Sauvage, not far from Rambouillet in the Yvelines. In fact, Sauvage is simply the name of the tiny village where the château is located, but it nevertheless lived up to its name. The guidebook referred to an accueil inexistant and it was right: even after we had discovered the rusty iron gate behind which lay the marvels of the park, it took us a while to find anyone to accept 8.50 euro entrance fee indicated on a scrawled sign tied to the tree near the entrance. Admittedly, we weren't trying that hard - we were already letting ourselves be distracted by the fabulous flock of sunset-coloured flamingos on the lake, the displaying peacocks and the emu that was promenading on the paths.

The château park is owned by a conservation association and is essentially a kind of safari park for pedestrians and populated by what appears to be an extremely random selection of animals. As well as the flamingos, there are several other kinds of exotic birds, some unusual species of deer and, best of all, the kangaroos.

I had never seen a real kangaroo before and I was surprised by how small they were. The first ones we saw were just sitting around and not that interesting, although I did think their long tails were fun. Then eventually we saw one hop, which was pretty exciting. The best bit, though, was when we saw a tiny head poking out of one of the females' tummies, and they even let us get close enough to take this video:


Who would have thought such exotic sights were to be seen in northern France in February?