Prisoner of the French

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Travel  |  House: Booksie Classic

Mail Fail almost leads to jail.

In 1986 I was living in France and working at the European Center for Nuclear Research (CERN). I loved CERN, I loved living in France, I even loved Geneva, one of the least fun cities I'd ever seen.

I was going to be there all year, so I thought I ought to buy a car. I'd never owned a car, despite being 25 years old, and I didn't have any money. But I was in luck, because there were many very old cars circulating that had been passed from scientist to scientist over the years. I bought a red 1969 Volvo sedan for $250.
This car was no great catch. It was old. On the good side, it was enormous, with front and rear bench seats. It also had the benefit of having these strange green license plates that meant it was exempt from the visite, the annual inspection that normal French cars were required to undergo.
This exemption was lucky, because I was soon to discover that the red Volvo was a death trap. Brakes? Who needs brakes? I spent most of that Summer jury-rigging brake repairs on that red menace. Occasionally I would scrape to a stop at the border crossing and leave a big pool of brake fluid on the asphalt.
Why didn't I take it to a garage? I think it was because my French was so awful, I was too embarrassed. Once I had to have a house-key made in my small French village, and it was a major event.

CERN is a big place, and it straddles the border between Switzerland and France. So I was crossing the border almost every day. The French Douaniers (Border guards) were an easy-going bunch, but the Swiss could be very stern. I got to watch one bitch my boss out for about ten minutes once for not speaking French. One of the Swiss guards was nice enough to tell me I had a flat tire one day. The Volvo rode so rough I would never have noticed on my own.
One day I got a cryptic piece of mail from the French authorities. I took it to the departmental secretary, and she translated - I had to renew my license plates by such-and-such a date. I could either do it through the mail or travel to Bourg-en-Bresse and do it in person.

I mailed the form off and forgot all about it. These are the mistakes that teach us valuable life lessons.

Several weeks later, I was passing from Switzerland to France when the normally laid back French douaniers decided they wanted to see my papers. They didn't stand on ceremony. The woman douanier popped the passenger door open, rifled through the glove compartment, and came up with what looked to be my registration.
It was at this point I remembered my renewal form. Where was it, out in the wide world? Why had it abandoned me?
Driving with an expired registration is no big deal, at home. Try it with strange green plates crossing from one country into another. The douaniers were not amused. I was trying to look dumb, but I dont think it mattered. The guards pointed at a spot on the ground, and I stood there like a good citizen while they got the boss.
He spoke English. "You are going to this office." He gave me a little map. That was all.

I went to the office. A French border official, who looked very French indeed, greeted me. The guards had called ahead. He proceeded to lecture me for 30 minutes. In French. I understood the words 'train', 'in person', 'tomorrow', and 'Bourg-en-Bresse'. Tugging my forelock respectfully, I retreated to the street before he could have me jailed or deported.

Bourg-En-Bresse turned out to be charming city 70 km north-northeast of Lyon. I got there by train, seeming to recall that I would be killed if I drove. In French, it sounded better. More civilized.

Two days later, I got the form back in the mail. Insufficient postage.


Submitted: August 18, 2013

© Copyright 2021 Keith Welch. All rights reserved.

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