French Red Tape

Translation for my non-french-speaking friends:
And us also, we are French?
But yes, everyone in the universe is French.

There’s a reasonable explanation as to why the French have a reputation for bureaucracy–they’ve earned it.

As I’ve learned after a year-and-a-half of trying to get anything official done here, there is no such thing as official. Just because the official government website says it’s so, doesn’t mean it’s so. If you speak to a government official and they tell you it’s done a certain way, don’t count on it. The next official you speak to will tell you something quite different. And who’s right? Why, they both are.

Take my recent experience trying to exchange my U.S. driving permit for a French permit. According to the official website, my state has an exchange agreement with France. I’ve learned not to count on the official website, so I went directly to the Marie annex to get the appropriate paperwork and the answers for my locale. The lady handed me a written list of everything I would need to submit. Great, I thought. I have it in writing.

So, I gathered everything on the list. One item asked for an official translation of my original permit OR an attestation of validity from the US. Notice I capitalized OR. In actuality, the instructions were in French, so it said OU. Ok, that means I need one or the other.

I traveled to Marseille, gave the US Embassy $50 and they gave me a paper that says it is an official translation and attestation of validity of my permit. I included it in the portfolio of other documents required. I was ready to get my permit, or so I thought.

The translation/attestation of validity, I was told, was not acceptable. I needed both, the lady said. I pointed to the “OU” and said, the paper says I need one or the other.

Are you ready for her answer? She put an X through the “OU” and said I need both.

And such is the arbitrary French system. As carefully as I have tried to plan for every scenario, when I show up with exactly what I think they want, they arbitrarily change their minds.

I didn’t stop there. I called the US Embassy to see if I could get another type of paper. I was told that is the paper the US gives out to meet France’s requirements. What else can we do, she asked? It’s a translation and we stamped it with our seal to say it’s valid.

And so I told this to the not-so-kind lady at the French bureau. Her response: It’s not acceptable. And so I just stared at her for a few minutes, and finally asked, in French, so give me a solution. She shrugged her shoulders and moved back to her desk.

Technically, I’m supposed to get a French permit after living here for a year. At least that’s what the official website says.

So, what am I going to do? I’ve decided to adapt to the culture and make my own rules. I’m going to keep my US permit.

 

Pont du Gard: Artistry and Functionality

Several months ago I visited the Colosseum in Rome. I expected to be impressed by this grand, ancient structure. I wasn’t disappointed.

I’m delighted by the ancient Roman ruins throughout France, especially by the functional arenas in Nimes and Arles and the crytoportico beneath Arles’ City Center. Throughout southern France aqueducts, ruined walls, and magnificent stone monuments pay tribute the Roman influence on their French neighbors.

After living among these ruins and still-functioning structures of the ancient Romans for a year, I was surprised by the Pont du Gard.

Set in a remote area, the ancient Roman bridge/aquaduct rises from an otherwise tranquil and beautiful landscape. And perhaps this adds to the awe it inspires. Nearly 1,000 feet long and 164 feet high, the three-tiered structure spans the River Gardon, which reflects its majestic display of arches.

This artistic tribute to Roman architecture served a functional purpose for nearly five centuries. It is the best preserved and most impressive portion of a 31-mile aquaduct built in the middle of the 1st Century A.D. to supply water to the fountains and baths of Nemausus, known today as the City of Nimes. In studies of Roman aquaducts, it has been discovered to be one of the empire’s highest capacity water systems. In later centuries, rich landowners garnished income by charging tolls to those who traversed the river using the lower level.

The interior walls of the aquaduct were coated with lime, pork grease, and the juice of unripe figs to insure a smooth and easy flow of water.

Records do not name the original architect, although some have attributed the building of the pont to Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa, a general in Octavia’s army and a close friend of the future Emperor. After his successful military career, Agrippa returned to Rome and became responsible for improving the city’s physical infrastructure, including repairing aquaducts and building fountains. More recent excavations have led researchers to believe, however, that the aquaduct of Nimes was built later, around 40-60 A.D., because the water utility bypassed certain tunnels known to have been built by Augustus.

For the future monarchs of France, the pont became a way to associate themselves with the former greatness of the Roman empire. Napoleon III ordered renovation to the bridge. Charles IX of France and Louis XVI included visits to the Roman structure on their tours of France.

The bridge inspired artists and many writers. Jean-Jacques Rousseau wrote:

“One asks oneself what force has transported these enormous stones so far from any quarry, and what brought together the arms of so many thousands of men in a place where none of them live. I wandered about the three storeys of this superb edifice although my respect for it almost kept me from daring to trample it underfoot. The echo of my footsteps under these immense vaults made me imagine that I heard the strong voices of those who had built them. I felt myself lost like an insect in that immensity. While making myself small, I felt an indefinable something that raised up my soul, and I said to myself with a sigh, “Why was I not born a Roman!”

This olive tree at the base of the Pont du Gard is believed to be approximately 1,000 years old.

Today the bridge is one of France’s most visited ancient sites. Visitors can walk the bridge to view the handicraft of masons and laborers who quarried the yellow limestone from the river banks and stacked, rather than mortared, precisely cut stone. The site surrounding the pont is beautifully and naturally preserved. Several miles of carefully cultivated land allow explorers to revisit the agricultural history of the Mediterranean and see others parts of the aquaduct, most of which was built underground. Approaching the bridge on foot, don’t miss the giant olive trees, estimated to be approximately 1,000 years old.

Pont du Gard is a World Heritage Site and a Grand Site de France.

Watch this short video about the Pont du Gard.

Ever Heard of The Gypsi Kings?

Nicholas Reyes? Name ring any bells? He is the lead singer for the internationally known music group The Gypsi Kings. One Friday evening we were privy to an unexpected private concert — Nicholas playing guitar and singing one of my favorite songs seated in a restaurant at the next table.

The restaurant is Braumelle, quite well known in la Camargue. Nicholas, Andre, Bic and several other band members were there having dinner with family and friends on a Friday night in May after the great Gypsi pilgrimage to Les Saintes Maries de la Mer for the fete of Saint Sarah.
As usual, other musicians were playing there and someone passed a guitar to Nicholas. He gladly played a few tunes.

And later that evening I had the opportunity to speak with him. What a rare treat!

This was just moments after one of his buddies told a good old spanish joke. He used the Catalan word for bull, which I don’t recall, and said when a big, beautiful Catalan woman walks by a man should greet her with belle toro–basically meaning beautiful bull. You must understand, the Catalans in southern France love bull fights almost as much as they love music.

A few minutes after the joke was told another member of Nicholas’ party walked by. Someone decided to try the phrase out on her. She just smiled. I guess she had heard that joke before.

It was dark in the restaurant so the video is not the best quality; but you get the idea: Nicholas Reyes playing and singing impromptu while I’m enjoying a tasty French dinner.
Vivre la France!

“Volets” en France

One of my old, charming volet's on my old, charming house in the South of France.

I’m fascinated by volets in France, what we Americans call “shutters.” In the States they are stationary, ornamental additions to houses. In France you can actually open and close the shutters.

I love getting up in the morning and throwing open the volets. (Forgive my romantic imagery.) It’s like a statement that says, good morning, I’m ready to start my day.

Besides the fact that I find them charming, volets in France are practical.

Today it’s raining and the infamous “mistral” (wind storm) has arrived. Mon amour quickly closed the volets. You see, in France you can actually close the shutters, you know, like in the movie “Gone with the Wind.” The shutters keep the rain from beating against the windows and keep the wind from breaking them.

Shutters also keep out the cold air. When you don’t have double-paned glass, as in most of these old French homes, shutters serve as insulation. I’ve been grateful for our volets on many a cold and windy day.

Probably my favorite practical use of the volets is to keep out the sun. Every night before we go to bed we close the shutters. In the morning I can sleep in the darkness until I’m ready to get up. Of course, sometimes I sleep later than I should; but on weekends I love sleeping in and not having the morning sun tell me it’s time to get up.

In summer the volets keep out the sun and heat. I love a sunny home with lots of windows, but again, in an old French home with no central air conditioning, the volets offer a welcome reprieve from the hot sun that beats down in summer in the South of France.

So if you decide to spend your holiday in the South of France, make good use of the volets. You can sleep in, and then throw open the volets when you’re ready to greet the day.