A couple of weeks ago, for the first time in my life, I had to make a call to the emergency services. The idea of having to do this in France has always terrified me, not only because I'm convinced that my linguistic skills will desert me and I'll lose precious seconds that could save someone's life, but also because in France, unlike in the UK, there are different numbers, depending on which service you need. For the police it's 17 and for the fire brigade it's 18, but in the case of a medical emergency, you have to decide whether it's serious enough to call the SAMU (15) or whether the situation can be dealt with by the pompiers (18), who often intervene for example in the case of accidents.
In our case, however, it actually wasn't an emergency at all.
We were driving to the Alps when, about 60km south of Paris, the car broke down on the motorway. There was no smoke, fire or explosions, and we didn't crash into anything; it just wouldn't accelerate and shook violently when we tried to go over about 40km per hour. So we proceded slowly and shakily along the (empty) motorway, took the nearest exit, parked in the car park just after the toll barrier and called the insurance company. (I have breakdown assistance as part of my insurance policy).
At which point, bureaucracy kicked in. Despite the fact that we were safely parked in a designated parking space and were sitting in the car contemplating whether to have a sandwich while we waited for the mechanic to arrive, we were officially still in a "motorway zone". This was because the companies can charge far higher rates for breakdown assistance on the motorway than they can on a normal road, and they want to stop people doing exactly what we had just done and avoiding paying the charges, so even if you have just come off the motorway, it actually still counts. And if you break down "on the motorway", you have a choice between using an orange SOS telephone and calling the emergency services. Not being on the motorway, and therefore nowhere near an orange phone, we followed the insurance company's instructions and dialled 112, the emergency number that you can use in all European countries as an alternative to the local numbers.
I felt so guilty as the red alarm signal showed up on the screen of my phone and I waited for someone to pick up. All those childhood lessons about not wasting the emergency services' time came flooding back to me. I expected to be put through to a switchboard that would put me in touch with the appropriate service, but in fact the call went directly through to the pompiers. They told me it was a matter for the police, so then I had to repeat the whole thing again by dialling 17.
In fact, I felt much more relaxed talking to the police, as they were the right people to deal with the situation and because, although they obviously have important work to do just like the fire brigade, at least I wasn't imagining children trapped in burning buildings as I told them that I was safely sitting in my car in a car park. If the same thing ever happens to me again, I'll definitely be phoning 17 direct, whatever the insurance company says. If I ever find myself in a situation that is a case for the pompiers, however, I think I'll be much more confident now that I know what it's like to have to phone them.
Another lesson that I learned is that in France, unlike in the UK where a large percentage of breakdown problems are fixed at the roadside, in France, you might as well drive yourself to the nearest garage if you can, because all the breakdown assistance people are likely to do (and all your insurance is likely to pay for) is tow you there anyway. Sadly though, my poor little car is a bit of an infirm and elderly lady these days and may have to be put into retirement, so my days of driving on French motorways may be over for a while anyway :-(