The Grape Years Weblog
September 15, 2005
Villers-La-Faye, Burgundy - France
The Upside of Anarchy
Our return to France was not auspicious. When we finally arrived
in Lyon after twenty or so hours of traveling, Charlotte, Camille and I
collapsed on the nearest bench in the luggage area and attempted to compensate
for our lack of sleep with some Maltesers I scrounged from the bottom of my
backpack. Franck grabbed a luggage trolley and waited for our suitcases to
Life in France - a roll of the dice
Bags began to appear on the magic revolving carpet - blue ones,
black ones, red ones...The girls and I watched as passenger after passenger was
joyfully reunited with their clothes and other motley possessions. Franck's back
remained rigid and ready - but there was nothing for him to leap forward and
snatch off the mat. Not one single bag of ours had arrived yet. This wasn't
I thought back to earlier that day (or was it yesterday by now?)
when we were checking our bags in at the airport in Victoria. Despite the ticket
agent's assurances that we didn't have to pick them up until Lyon, I had glanced
skeptically at them as they were being loaded onto the scale.
"It's always a leap of faith to believe we'll actually find them
on the other end," I said, to which the ticket agent looked at me strangely.
I don't know about you, but in
my experience, airport personnel are not very receptive to philosophical
Back in Lyon, the crowd was thinning, and still no bags. Even
though part of me realized that it was grossly unfair to do so (after all, who's
to say that the bags hadn't been waylaid in Canada or England?) I inwardly
railed against the fact that situations such as this seemed to happen an awful
lot in France - much more often then in countries where people aren't always
buggering off on a strike or a coffee break.
This reminded me of another inauspicious arrival - ten years
ago, in Venice.
That time, Franck and I had flown in from London to spend a few
days with our friend Scott who was working in the nearby town of Padova. When we
disembarked we were pleased to see that at the far end of the entrance hall the
Venetian Customs Agents were seated in their row of little Plexiglas boxes,
looking very businesslike. We'd be through the formalities and eating gelato in
no time, we thought.
Then, all of a sudden we noticed that every single one of
our fellow passengers who wasn't elderly or infirm had broken into a run towards
the customs cabins.
Just as the first passenger (a fleet footed businessman in a
beautifully tailored suit and pink shirt if memory serves correct) closed in on
the line of booths, every single customs agent stood up and vacated their post
with the eerie coordination of synchronized swimmers. To add insult to injury,
we could definitely hear murmurs of "café?" from the departing
contingent. Us thwarted passengers were left abandoned in the hall, our only
recourse being pacing back and forth, chain smoking, or cursing in our language
About a half an hour later, the customs officers returned as
mysteriously and nonchalantly as they had left, and ushered our planeload
through with no apologies or explanations. When we described this bizarre
phenomenon to Scott, who had been waiting patiently on the other side of the
sliding glass doors, he didn't seem a whit surprised. "That's the way it happens
most of the time," he said. "They like their coffee breaks."
So here I was, back in France, another Latin country where,
judging from our baggage situation, anarchy seemed to be the modus operandi.
And I was in no state of mind to be charitable about it.
An edifying twenty minutes with the Lyon airport baggage claim department
later, we dragged ourselves and our backpacks along to the parking office. This
was a last and necessary stop, as we had driven our car down to Lyon and left it
in the airport parking for the five weeks we were away. However, five weeks ago
when we had arrived at the airport in our car we discovered that the long-term
parking was barred off and some ingenious individual had scotch-taped a
hand-written sign saying, "Long-term parking full - use short-term parking
This was a vexing state of affairs, as the long-term parking
would have cost us 75.oo Euros for the five weeks, whereas the short-term
parking was going to cost us around 300 Euros for the same amount of time. To
make matters worse, we could clearly see that there were LOTS of empty spaces
still left in the long-term parking lot. It appeared that the parking attendants
had opted for putting up a barrier and going for a nice long coffee break rather
than for the tedious business of keeping track of the number of empty spots.
Tant Pis if people like us had to pay three times the regular price for the
privilege of parking, I could hear them reasoning as they reclined with a
freshly brewed espresso. It was enough to make Franck and I want to plow down
the barrier à la Bruce Willis. Once again, anarchy had a high price, and we were
getting stuck with the tab.
So it was with a bitter heart indeed that I waited with the
girls while Franck settled the parking bill. Three hundred Euros all because of
their Latin-ness. It was enough to make me want to use some of those Italian
curses I'd learned a decade ago in the Arrivals hall of the Venice airport.
Imagine my surprise, then, when I saw Franck walking back over
to us with a smile on his face.
"Quoi?" I demanded, feeling snarky with all things
French, including my husband.
"I had a little chat with the femme in the office," he
said. "We got along, so she only ended up charging us 75 Euros."
I stood, momentarily gob smacked, and was forcibly reminded of
all the times we had benefited from the widespread dislike of rules in France.
Like the time we had about five pieces of luggage too many to get on to the Euro
star in the Gare du Nord but were let on anyway, or the time when we wanted to
catch an earlier TGV to London, even though our tickets were the non-changeable
And there was that day last year when I was stopped on the boulevard in Beaune in
a loan car for
a "contrôle des papiers". I was mortified to discover that someone at the
garage must have forgotten to put the automobile's paperwork in the glove
compartment, and that I had also left my driver's license at home. But I ended
up having a delightful chat with a charming Gendarme about Canada and the
gîte business. About twenty minutes or so later he sent me off with
his email address and wishes of bonne chance in
our rental house endeavor. He dismissed my apologies about
not having any valid papers with an easy wave.
The fact of the matter is that in France if people like you they
will go out of their way (and break a pesky rule or two if required) to make
your life easier, whereas in North America and the UK, "The Rule" - however
ridiculous or prohibitive - is generally treated with considerably more
The French way is much less predicable, to be sure, but it does
have its charms. The next day, once we had a marathon twelve hour sleep and were
delivered every single one of our missing bags, I was forced to agree with
Franck, that, oui, anarchy sometimes has an upside.
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Story by Laura Bradbury & Photos
by Franck Germain - All Rights