Moments in France

21 May 2017 21:30 

Another collection of jottings, cut scenes found on the editing room floor, reminders written on receipts, things remembered, and various marginalia. Some of the writings were also found on an old envelope (our team has a hard time throwing out things, especially if they are on paper). On the back of the envelope was a business plan, written long ago at Buck’s in Woodside: a plan for a yet to be named stealth technology, insanely impactful and disruptive, yet social, that will change, redefine, revolutionize, empower the world. But coffee spills, red wine stains, and teeth marks rendered it unreadable.

As always in these cases, it’s E.B. White style. Previous instances are here and here


It’s the end of the academic year and therefore report card time. Here a perfect score is twenty, but parents and students alike are happy with a score of fourteen or higher. We all know from Lincoln that score can mean twenty, but it’s curious way of counting. English historian Norman Davies writes that this use of Base-20 counting is a legacy of the Celts, who also used Base-5 and Base-10 for counting, but once higher than nineteen, used Base-20. The French word for twenty, vingt, is not of Celtic origin but from the Latin vinti or viginti, but French for eighty is Base-20 counting and an exercise in multiplication: four twenties, or quatre-vingt (why not two forties (deux-quarante) or eight tens (huit-dizaines)?). Base-10 only became de rigueur in Europe in the thirteenth century, by way of India, through Muslim Spain into the rest of Europe.1Norman Davies, Europe – A History … Continue reading

In the meantime I’ll just report Catherine got a bunch of A-‘s.


We continue to see Army patrols in town. It’s no longer startling, and we’re used to it. It’s going to be like this for a long time.


There was a presidential election here recently. What’s very odd about the French system is that the candidate who gets the most votes wins the election. Those French!


After six years here it was time to start thinking about getting a driver’s license. After a bit of research, I learned that certain states in the United States have an arrangement of reciprocity, such that with the usual amount of paperwork, you can simply exchange your American driver’s license for a French driver’s license. This came as a relief as getting a license here means going to driving school, and that can run up to 1,000€. A little research and I learned that Maryland and France have an agreement – perfect!

Of course it’s all too good and too easy to be true.

I gathered all the necessary documents: two forms to fill out, bills to show that I really lived in Montpellier, my titre de sejour, a color copy of my current driver’s license, and a certified translation of my driver’s license. Then I went through the onerous process of making an appointment at the prefecture. This can only be done at midnight on Sunday nights, when the Herault prefecture appointment calendar opens up (I assume there is some sort of back end database refresh that occurs at this time, which then opens up the appointment calendar. Why – I don’t know). The window for getting an appointment via the prefecture website is pretty short, several minutes – it’s sort a virtual version of there being a run on the bank, and depositors are running like mad to get there before everyone else, and the bank runs out of money. If you don’t type fast enough you won’t get an appointment, and have to wait until the next Sunday, then try again.

But I got an appointment, for about two weeks later, and on that day, just to be safe, brought Annie along. We arrived after lunch, joining the other people with appointments, who were also getting licenses or getting some sort of visa or registering their car: all prefectures in France are an odd mix of the DMV, your favorite U.S. border entry line, and hell.

My number was called, the guy behind the window was friendly enough. I gave him all my papers. It seemed to be going okay for a while, but then two things came up.

First he notes that my license is only four years old, but clearly I have been driving for much longer. Do I have my original driver’s license? When I ask why, he replies that the longer I have been driving, and can prove it, the lower my auto insurance will be. I think it best not to tell him I already have car insurance. But there’s a problem here: I started driving (legally) in 1977. On the very first day I could legally drive, my birthday, my mother dropped me off at 8:00am at the DMV on Route 1 in Alexandria; I passed the written and practical test, then drove to school – I remember it being very strange and thrilling that first time driving by myself. 1977 is a while ago, and while I do in fact have my original license, it is buried in a photograph album in a box in storage in rural Maryland.

I told the administrator I’d see what I could do about getting my original license, but that won’t matter much because the second thing is the administrator does is look at my titre de sejour, and he notices it’s the ten year visa. You get these only after being in France for five years. He asks me when I arrived in France. He’s on to us, and here’s why he asked: if you want to get a French driver’s license, you must get it your first year here. If you wait any longer, you cannot exchange your American license and instead have to go through the regular process. I knew this already, but hoped against hope he wouldn’t notice.

October, 2011 I answer him.

He makes a face, not unfriendly, maybe even sympathetic, but the rules are the rules. I mention that our first two years in France we did not own a car, but that doesn’t matter. He says he must consult with his boss, but in the meantime I should see about getting my original license.

We leave the prefecture, and decided that it was at least worth a try.

Just in case, I contacted Virginia DMV and their reply the next day was that regrettably they don’t keep records that far back. Vermont does have records that far back – I found that out the hard way – but that’ll be a story for another time, as will my upcoming experiences of French behind the wheel – derriére d’volant?


We’re now in the French medical system. It used to be that you had to be in France for five years before being eligible to enroll. However, at the beginning of 2016 that changed, and after only three months residents can apply.

The French basic system covers a high percentage of the cost of outpatient visits, and almost all the costs of hospitalizations. Still, we’ll need to look into what’s called top off or complimentary insurance, which covers less essential services.


We’ve had a few mice. I trapped and killed one a few months ago, and then Loki (our cat, not the god) killed a second. There’s one now that has managed to escape us so far, and it might be time to get a trap.


One morning in early May we woke up and hearing a radio, looked out the window: a motorcycle policeman was blocking the intersection on our corner with his motorcycle. A little later, while walking Catherine to school, we turned the corner and ran into a squad, well, I think it was actually closer to a platoon, of National Police, ready for action: body armor, knee and shin pads, helmets, and automatic weapons.  All of the streets in the area were blocked off.  As we walked towards the school, three of the biggest German Shepards I have ever seen got out of a van with what I can only describe as three bad ass big ass handlers. They were there to enforce an eviction order.

Just up the street the Royal Theatre has been abandoned  for over a year. For a while there were squatters of a rather mild nature: they used the theater for various projects, artistic and otherwise, but were generally harmless. But then they left and it was taken over by large groups of homeless men with their dogs, and things got bad. The theatre is across the street from retail businesses: a hotel, and three restaurants, and all these homeless guys hanging out there, them drinking and their dogs shitting everywhere transformed the neighborhood into a dump.  This is right at the edge of the pedestrian zone of the city center, and we are in a residential area close by, so our area was a part of the collateral damage. I learned from a neighbor that while we were in North America in April, there had been almost a small riot: there were fights, an employee at one of the restaurants was hurt, and the next day there were broken bottles everywhere. 

There had been several legal attempts to evict the squatters, but for reasons unknown nothing came of this. Some of the press were sympathetic to the squatters.

But that was over and done with. I dropped Catherine off at school, then went and watched for a little bit, but there was nothing to be seen. The squatters were evicted without incident, although there were a few arrests, then over the next few days the front of the theater bricked up and a side door replaced with a steel door, and there’s now always a guard (private) by the building.

Some pictures from the local paper are here


At the rest stops along the autoroute here, whether it’s a simple place with some picnic tables and chemical toilets, or a full fledge commercial center with gas stations and restaurants, there are signs at the entrance and exit informing you that you are now arriving or leaving said rest stop. Do you really need a sign telling you that you are leaving a rest stop? My theory is it’s a job creation program, enacted by the government after lobbying by the French sign industry.


No one comes door to door here, but walking the main drag of downtown Montpellier, the rue de la Loge – in the summer there are matching t-shirted young people stopping passers-by to talk about Green Peace, animal rights, the environment, and the Red Cross.


After all these years, this still bothers me: on the French AZERTY keyboard, to type the period requires Shift + period key, instead of it being just a one touch type. You can type the colon and semi-colon with one finger, but not the period. Got usability? Calling Donald Norman. The frequency with which the period is typed merits a faster way of typing, e.g. no shift key required.

To avoid all this, even though I use the AZERTY keyboard, I remapped the keys to QWERTY. On my Windows 7 system (the second best operating system ever, after Windows XP), shift-alt toggles the keyboard between languages, so I can correctly type é insteqd of 2:


We go back to Var every few months: our old town of La Garde  is there, near Toulon. We like Herault, our current department, but miss the beauty of Var – especially the varied landscape and the chalky hills. Coastal Herault is like the seaboard of the mid-Atlantic United States: rather dull, there are sandy beaches, and the land succumbs to the ocean calmly and without complaint –  there’s no drama. Var is more like California: the beaches are rocky, the land meets the ocean with mountains, and the ocean returns the favor by eroding away chunks of the shore.  


Our neighbors upstairs, Mathieu and Marina, speak German to each other. He’s French and she’s Russian, and they met while working in Germany. The second daughter is a few years younger than Catherine, but they still play together sometimes. We hear her practicing the violin every day, and she’s a pretty good chess player. Their three daughters don’t speak any German.


Going in style: on the Place de la Comédie, a cold clear winter day, last December 31st. The cafes on the place are enclosed in clear plastic to keep the wind out, and all have propane heaters running inside. Two very old ladies are walking slowly, each outer arm has a cane and the inner arms are linked together. Their coats and hats are beautiful, they are wearing make up and lipstick. They look great. They sit at one of the cafes. They’re going out for a New Year’s drink, and they’re getting started early. 


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