Life On the Road in France

put it pout of misery
Alas! It was beyond saving.

And Sudden Meetings With the Gendarmes

by M-R Erickson

Paris:- Tuesday, 12. May 1998:- When I first came to Paris, I was decidedly unimpressed by the French police force - particularly because twenty-three years ago French people - and that included French policemen - used to be small. In Ireland, one of the prerequisites for being a policeman used to be height and girth. One doesn't mess with someone who is six foot two.

Not only were the French gendarmes small, they were also cheeky and I was never very sure how to feel when walking down the street and being wolf-whistled by one of these uniformed figures.

In comparison, a French friend of mine - long, long ago - twenty years ago - was being driven by friends in Iowa. A few alcoholic beverages had been consumed and she thought it would be amusing to stick her tongue out at a cop car. She was the only one who found it amusing and almost ended up being deported.

During the last year I have had three experiences with French gendarmes and although some of them made my heart stop, the results were not unfavorable.

It started when one day I was driving a carload of kids - three in the back and one in the front - to English school. The drive is a pleasant one through a forest and we were enjoying the view when suddenly I realized I was being pulled over to the side. The first question was what age my son sitting beside me was - he is a big boy, but he was eight then and ten is the legal age for being in a front seat. Secondly, we didn't have a seatbelt for the middle child in the back. Cold sweat was pouring down my neck at this point.

He asked to see my driver's license. Thankfully I could produce it - but not the 'Carte Grise' which proves ownership of the car. I am always afraid of losing it so I never carry it! Then the policeman finally dropped the bomb. The reason he pulled me over was that one of the letters of our registration plate had partly fallen off and so could no longer be read. I hadn't realized that.

He then totalled up the fines for the above offenses and told me that he could fine me 1500 francs on the spot. Instead he told me I was to go and fix the carplate and learn my lesson. I did. I now carry a bottle of Tippex with me wherever I go - to paint back the missing letter.

This experience was well behind me when I was recently returning home after a theatre rehearsal in Saint-Germain-en-Laye which is our nearest 'big' town. It is a very well-lit place.

I got into the car and drove home. On the way, I have to go through a very pretty roundabout with a nice fountain in the centre. I had not been drinking. There were no problems. There were two policemen who pulled me over. What on earth for? I still didn't have the Carte Grise.

One of them came up to me. "Have you got lights on this car?" he asked. My hand clapped itself over my mouth in genuine horror at what I had done. Now would he ask me for the papers or what? I turned the lights on.

"I think you'll be able to get home better like that," he said. "Bonsoir Madame".

Was that lucky or what?

And then there was another evening some time ago - temperatures were very low and I had again been at a rehearsal. Now there are a lot of things I don't know - like checking for ice on the windshield. So I didn't and once I was on the road I realized I couldn't see a darn thing.

Not only that, but my brain - no doubt also frozen by the weather - suggested that I turn on the windscreen wipers and shoot a little water... My problem at this stage was that there was nowhere to stop. So I continued as best I could - right up to a police car which was barring the road; there had been a nasty accident and I couldn't go the way I usually went. Looking at my windscreen - I couldn't see out of it.

The policeman in question told me to park on the path and wait until I had the windscreen unfrozen. Problem again - I am not sure which button to press. I asked the cop. He came over and fiddled about with a few buttons, but in the end, I scratched the ice off the wind- screen with the scraper. I have one of these.

Then, instead of asking for my papers, he gave me directions how to get home and stopped all the oncoming traffic so that I could turn around and go back from where I came.

And so what conclusion can I draw? Make sure the Tippex is always full. Get a photocopy of the Carte Grise. Make sure I never lose the scraper. I think I'll ask my husband if there's enough air in the tires.

M-R Erickson©1998
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