Wednesday, 5 May 2021

Is it over yet?

I’ve been looking at the pictures of people in the UK celebrating their first outings since the lockdown was eased - sitting in pub beer gardens wrapped in thick coats with umbrellas protecting them from the traditional bank holiday weekend downpour - and I feel envious!   Here in France we are in what could be called ‘loose confinement’ - which sounds like a great description of the elastic-waisted jogging bottoms I have been living in all winter.   From having been restricted to ‘free movement’ within a 10km radius (or 30km with an attestation proving we have a valid reason for the journey) we can now travel as far as we like.  Unfortunately there is no reason to do this - as there is nothing to do when you get there.  Bars and restaurants are still closed, as are ’non-essential’ shops.

Nobody seems to know what is ‘essential’ or ‘non-essential’ at the moment and the decision seems to have been made by somebody just sticking a pin in certain words on a random list.   Clothes and shoe shops have been ordered to close but the wine shops remain open (this is France after all…)  In the supermarkets certain displays have been covered up so you won’t be tempted to buy ‘non-essential' items such as socks and pants but there is nothing to stop you buying tortilla chips and chocolate.  It also seemed strange that one couldn’t buy toys for children but you could buy toys for dogs.  I went to a large electrical store to buy printer ink, having used up all my supply printing out the endless travel attestations.  For some reason the fridge/freezer section was taped off like a crime scene - and yet there was nothing to stop you buying electric toothbrushes, beauty gadgets to make your face look younger, electric scented diffusers etc.  

For the moment we are still under a strict curfew and cannot leave our homes after 7pm, unless we have a fantastically valid reason for needing to do so, and have filled out yet another attestation.  I am still not entirely sure why there is more chance of catching Covid-19 at night, but as the restaurants are still closed there is not much reason to venture out in the evenings anyway.  This curfew will gradually be pushed back to 9pm (when outdoor terraces reopen) and then 11pm towards the end of June when everything should be fully functioning again.     The only bonus to all this is that I have learnt something that is glaringly obviously once you know it - the word Curfew comes from the french Couvre-feu (cover your fire).   Apparently it was a law created by William the Conqueror to ensure that everybody put their fires out by 8pm so that the old timber buildings wouldn’t catch fire.  No doubt if their houses had caught fire and people had to leave their burning homes they would have needed an attestation….. 

Tuesday, 6 April 2021

How Life in France Works - Part 2 - Driving

My car has many dents and scrapes but none of them were my fault but caused by badly placed pillars in car parks, or having to scrape the front gate in an effort to avoid running over my dog (for example). 

It appears that many people have the same problems with car park pillars and gateposts as I do as it is rare to see a car in pristine condition - we get odd sitings of immaculate cars in the summer but they are usually driven by tourists.  You can tell where each car is from as the Department number is marked either on, or just beside the number plate (depending on the age of the car), so cars here in the Pyrénées-Orientales are marked 66 - and anybody else is a ‘foreigner’.  This system is also useful for the police during the Covid confinement as it is easy to see who is where they shouldn’t be!

Apart from the obvious difference about driving on the right and not the left, there are other things that you need to bear in mind.   STOP signs mean that you must actually Stop and not just roll forward while checking for traffic, White Lines are to be respected as if they are a river of lava and never to be crossed, Cyclists are king, and have priority everywhere (this is not from official sources, just the impression they give…).  Other differences that I think are a great idea are the traffic lights for roadworks that have a countdown timer on them, and the unofficial system of putting your hazard lights on when you find yourself approaching a traffic jam, giving a warning to the person behind you that they need to slow down.  

Speed limits are generally well-respected in France and it is pretty easy to stick to the limit on the motorways but sometimes you can get caught out when approaching villages as you have to quickly slow down from 80kmh to 50 or 30kmh as soon as you pass the sign giving the name of the village and then in the centre it can be reduced to 20kmh.  As I can never remember what speed I’m supposed to be doing I now stick to 3rd gear on the outskirts of a village and 2nd gear driving through a village.  And just on the subject of gears, perhaps now is the time to admit that I had my car for well over a year before I realised it had 6 gears...  

The biggest surprise to me has been the fact that ‘Priority to the Right’ was not a myth, but a reality.  You can be driving merrily on a main road and somebody on a side road can just pull out in front of you - and they have the perfect right to do so!  Apparently there are signs on these roads advising you that you are on a ‘Priorité a droite’ road and they are more common in rural areas but they do exist.  Apparently the sign is a black cross in a red triangle (I thought it meant cross-roads ahead). 

But if the Highway Code is a mystery to you, or you have never learned to drive, or even if you have lost your licence, there is nothing to stop you driving in France -you can just buy a VSP (Voiture sans Permit).  This is exactly as it sounds, a little 2-seater car with a restricted speed of 45kmh that you can drive without a licence!

Thursday, 28 January 2021

How life in france works - Part 1 - Banking

This is the first of a series of articles about general stuff that I wish I’d known when I first moved to France.   This week - Banks.

You will need to open a bank account, and this will involve a ton of paperwork, because this is France.  They will ask for proof of ID (with photo), proof of address (recent utility bill, rent statement), proof of funding (previous bank statements, wage slips or tax return if self-employed).  These are just the basics and different banks have different requirements so keep your 10-metre swimming diploma and ‘O’ level certificates to hand, just in case!  They will often ask more detailed questions about your other savings accounts and how much you think you will spend each year or, in the case of a business account, how much you think you will earn.  Feel free to ‘guesstimate’ as it just seems important that they have something to fill in the boxes.

If you are opening a joint account be sure you know how you want the account to operate.  If the account is in the name of M. et Madame Clooney it means that both account holders have to sign cheques or other documents; but if it is M. ou Madame Clooney, only one of their signatures is required so Mrs Clooney could clean out the account!

There is no such thing as ‘free’  banking in France and charges can vary wildly and for all sorts of different things, whether it is for the cheque book, debit card, internet transactions, standing orders, and/or the little gadget they give you for internet banking that you stick your card in to receive a confirmation code.  Check around but you are highly unlikely to pay less than 100€ per year.

Once you have your shiny new debit card, do not be tempted to rush out and spend all your money at once - there is a limit to the amount that you can spend each month, even if you have the funds available in your account.  You can draw cash out of the ATM or pay by cheque, but can only use your debit card up to a certain limit.  I have no idea why. 

DO NOT, under any circumstances, spend more than you have in your account.  Bouncing cheques is not just ‘frowned upon’ but is a criminal offence and you can be black-listed from banking for 5 years.  In reality the bank will most likely honour the cheque but  charge you an arm and a leg in interest and fines.

Talking of body parts you will often be asked for a RIB when setting up direct debits or arranging transfers to your account.  This stands for Rélévè d’Identité Bancaire and is a slip of paper which gives the coordinates of your bank account and branch details.  It’s a good idea to carry a copy of your RIB in your wallet as you never know when you will feel the urge to open a mobile phone account.  You will usually find this slip tucked away at the back of your cheque book, or you can print one out at the ATM, or if you are clever enough to negotiate Internet Banking you can download copies from your client account page.

PS.  I have no idea why the man withdrawing money from the ATM is wearing a dressing-gown - this is not obligatory.

PPS.  To open an account with a utility company you will need a bank account, and to open a bank account you will need to show proof of your account with a utility company.  Welcome to France!