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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 arrive.

Life in France - a roll of the dice
and a prayer

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 looking promising.

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 musings.

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 of choice.

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 s.v.p."

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 kind. 

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 gravitas.

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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© 2005, Story by Laura Bradbury  & Photos by Franck Germain - All Rights Reserved.

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