The French Are Unfriendly?

We have builders at the house in France, who have been let loose on the property without supervision. Not ideal, I agree, and their principal achievement so far seems to have been to ruin the garden with building materials, without actually building anything. So I decided to make a short trip to assert myself in French (just stop that sniggering right away, okay?).

I took a cheap easyJet flight to Toulouse and picked up our 11 year-old Citroen banger from the car park at Blagnac, where it’s kept for at least nine months of the year. I reconnected the battery, and with fingers crossed, started the ancient car. Sigh of relief: everything seemed to work fine. Until I got onto the road. Then I realised there was a repeated banging from the rear tailgate. I stopped, and discovered that it wouldn’t shut. It’s hinged at the top and it’s heavy, so it stayed more or less closed, but the latch wouldn’t fasten and it wouldn’t lock. That meant driving back to Toulouse in three days’ time and leaving the car unsecured for what might be several further weeks or even months. Getting an appointment with Citroen in the time available was a non-starter.

However, once in the village I learned that a chap called Yves who lives a five minute drive away used to be a Mercedes, or perhaps BMW, mechanic, but now worked for himself out of his barn. So I searched Google Translate for some essential phrases such as “lock” and “boot”, and set out to find him.

I turned up in the middle of the morning, but Yves wasn’t home. However the aged mamie (grandmother) who answered my knock identified herself as his mother and she invited me into the kitchen. He would only be ten minutes, she said. My French is far from fluent, her English non-existent, and her Gascon accent almost impenetrable, but she plied me with fresh coffee and told me her family history while her two enormous dogs tried repeatedly to climb into my lap. Twenty minutes later her son, the mechanic, arrived. I managed to make myself understood with my essential French phrases, and he set to work stripping the tailgate. I stood by, pretty much useless, handing him the occasional tool and holding the tailgate at an appropriate height. After half an hour the tailgate and its locking mechanism were in increasingly small and worrying pieces, and I was wondering if it would ever be reassembled. After a further while mamie came out to watch, and having understood correctly that I was only in the village for a couple of days and had not bothered to stock up with much food, she placed a box of freshly laid eggs on the passenger seat.

Half an hour passed, and she emerged with another cup of coffee, and this time a pot of her own pate. Everyone in this region makes their own pate in vacuum jars, labelling it with the year and the species of the unfortunate animal (usually killed by the local hunters) now compressed inside. The pate joined the eggs in the car.

After an hour and a quarter my new-found mechanic friend had diagnosed the problem: a broken piece of plastic that should communicate between the lock motor and the catch. In the likely event that the entire assembly would have to be replaced, I was looking at between €200 and €300. On the other hand, he thought he might be able to locate a second-hand lock assembly and cannibalise it. He would make enquiries, and if I left my telephone number, he’d call. In the meantime he would effect a temporary repair which will allow me to lock the tailgate manually.

While he started the reassembly a man in a white van arrived. The smell of fresh bread poured out of his van as he slid open the door. This was the travelling boulanger, supplying the far-flung houses in the region with daily fresh bread.

In a further ten minutes the tailgate was complete, and locked. How much? I asked. Yves waved away any payment. I don’t charge the locals, he said. There’ll come a time when I’m sure you can do me a favour. I protested, but to no avail. Maybe once, when Yves is out on a job, said mamie, and I need a lift to the market, I’ll ask you to give me a lift. I said my goodbyes, thanking them both profusely. As I was about to drive off mamie put out an arm to stop me. She scurried back to the kitchen and emerged with a still-warm bagette. I bought a spare for you, she said, so you’ll have fresh bread on which to put your pate.

I left with a repaired car and a complete meal, from people I had never met before.

I may be wrong – I like to think I am – but if I had been a Frenchman in a small English village with a problem with my car, I doubt I would have received such kindness. And certainly no pate.

Don’t let anyone tell you the French are rude, or don’t like the Brits.

Ce n’est pas vrai.