Check please

Having lived in the U.S. my entire life before relocating to France, I am often struck by how much Americans prize efficiency and how quick we are to embrace new technologies to speed up and smooth out everyday activities. Uber, Apple Pay, Grubhub, Task Rabbit…the list goes on.

In France–especially in the more rural areas–change often comes at a slower pace. Stores and government buildings here still shut down for two hours at lunchtime. And you can forget last-minute grocery runs on a Sunday afternoon–everything is closed.

Paperwork tends to be an onerous process here as well. Even the French roll their eyes at the mountain of paperwork that accompanies any activity. For instance, registering my kids for school requires filling out 20 sheets of handwritten paperwork each and every year (for each kid). I haven’t experienced hand cramp this bad since my days at university!

But one could argue that this slower pace of life can have its charms. Who couldn’t benefit from easing off the accelerator every now and again? And once you get used to how things are done here, you’d be surprised at how quickly you adapt.

However, there is one thing that I have never quite gotten used to in my three years in France. For me, one of the most mystifying practices of the French is their penchant for writing checks. Since the mid-90s, I had only written a handful of checks. That is, until I moved to Provence. Here, it is required for nearly all day-to-day business. In fact, many people still use them in the grocery store, which takes forever. (How I wish the French would adopt the American practice of stocking the checkout line with trashy magazines to help pass the time!)

One recent day in particular summed up how prohibitive my life is when I don’t have my checkbook handy.

“Honey,” I called out to my husband as he was getting ready to leave for work. “Please leave the checkbook for me. I may need it for the fuel delivery–their credit card reader doesn’t always work.”

The fuel is what our boiler runs on and without it, we have no heat or hot water. The bank only awarded us one checkbook when we opened our French account and asking for a second one was too arduous (again with the paperwork). A few hours later I realize the checkbook is nowhere to be found. This should be interesting.

A knock at the door. It’s not the fuel delivery. It’s the mail lady. Whew! At least I don’t need my checkbook for the mail, right?

“I have two packages for you,” she explains in French. “This one you need to sign for and this one requires that you pay a customs duty and tax.”

Ok, this is a first. The post office is charging us €74 on a package teeming with Christmas gifts from a well-intentioned relative in the U.S.

I don’t have enough cash in my wallet. “Can I pay by credit card?” I ask hopefully. 

“No, but a check works.”

Of course it does. So, as my checkbook is M.I.A., there will be no package of Christmas joy for my children today.

After an hour (and a few tears) of muddling through French homework with the kids, the fuel man makes his appearance and promptly gets to work. As he wraps up the job, he hands me the paperwork. I present my credit card. He explains that his machine is defunct. Merde. What the heck do I do now? He can’t syphon the fuel out of the tank. Fortunately, he’s lovely about my predicament and tells me I can stop by office to pay the bill the following day. Phew!

I decide that will be hubby’s job. Followed, of course, by a trip to the post office to pick up our hostage Christmas package.


The Slippery Clutch

Buying a car can be a stressful experience. Buying a car in a foreign country with a different language brings the stress to a whole new level. For that reason–and many others–our family tried getting by for months in France with only one car.

Living in the French countryside, this was challenging. In order to catch the bus for work, my husband, Matt, had to leave just as the kids and I were getting up in the morning. And then he wouldn’t get home until I was putting the kids to bed. After six months, we decided for our sanity that we would need a second car. Fortunately, Matt knew a guy from work who was getting rid of an old Peugeot. Nothing fancy, just a clunker to get him back and forth during the week.

His coworkers promptly christened the car “the slippery clutch” because, well, it had a slippery clutch. It felt more like riding in a go-kart than a car. The passenger side had no handle on the outside of the door. The sunroof leaked when it rained. Anytime he rounded a corner, his passenger was treated to an unexpected shower. This would prove awkward for any unsuspecting coworkers who would ask for a ride home. Fortunately, he was prepared to offer a towel, which he kept in the back for such occasions.

The Thanksgiving Spool Debacle

It was Thanksgiving 2016. I was preparing for a Thanksgiving potluck we had organized with other American expats, when I spied a man standing in our driveway. Next to him was an industrial-sized spool. Why is there an enormous spool in my yard? Who is this strange man? Where did he come from?

“MATT!” I bellowed. “There’s a man in our driveway–and he has a giant spool!”

“Did you say ‘bonjour’?” he asked.

Did he not hear the part about the massive spool?? “No, I didn’t tell him ‘bonjour’!”

Matt glanced out the window and then walked outside to talk to the mysterious man and his giant spool. After some time of animated conversation, he returned and filled me in on the story.

Apparently, the man owned property above us (we live on a hill) and his children had been using the spool to play a game of “circus.” The spool began spinning out of control, rolled off the embankment above our property, dropped twelve feet, and landed smack on the hood of Matt’s car. It left a perfect imprint of the spool in its wake.

Luckily, none of us were outside when it happened. Matt and Mr. Spool Man traded contact information and his insurance was able to cover the damage to the car.

The Slippery Clutch Finds a New Home

Shortly after the Thanksgiving spool episode, Matt decided it was time for an upgrade from the slippery clutch and bought a Mercedes from a friend. But what to do with the slippery clutch? Surely, no one would want to buy it.

For six months, the slippery clutch sat in our driveway–outcast and leaking rain. Then we miraculously found someone willing to give the car a new home: the owner of the local garage where we get our cars serviced. He planned to use it as his loaner for customers when they drop off their car for maintenance or repair.

And it appears he followed through with his plan. Every now and then, we will catch a glimpse of the slippery clutch zipping around town in all its dilapidated glory.

Hopefully it doesn’t rain.