Why I will never be French

While I know I am lacking a few vital components that the native French are born with, usually I think I understand French society. As a general rule I know how to behave in most situations. I can swear at bad drivers and cyclists, using the right gestures to get the message across. I talk to unknown old ladies, people with dogs, the person standing behind me in the queue at the supermarket. I know the correct, polite way to address shop-keepers, the old crone who’s just shoved in out of turn in said supermarket queue, bank managers, soldiers with assault rifles, policemen sitting at café tables—all the usual sort of chance meetings.

I don’t question the extraordinary number of religious holidays we have for a secular republic, the protocol for getting onto buses (shove the competition out of the way), the impossibility of getting anything done by anybody on a Wednesday afternoon, or why the police station keeps office hours, closes for lunch, and doesn’t open weekends.

But just occasionally, a situation arises that leaves me perplexed and doubting my credentials to live in this country. One such bizarre occasion cropped up today. While we were at the market the postman called with a small parcel. Since we weren’t there, and our children are still under the impression that they mustn’t open the door to strangers, he left a little card with instructions to get in touch and arrange a new delivery date.

It was a web address. Inevitably it meant creating an account with the parcels service, complete with code words, trick questions, and the dreaded captcha puzzle. Parts of the form didn’t work, then surprisingly filled in the missing bits unprompted, which seemed more like black magic than neat intuitive technology. I waited several hours to get the confirmation email, and thought that meant we could go ahead and tell the post to deliver the parcel on Monday. I filled in the parcel details (fine), submitted them and got the message that there was one last step before we were finished:

‘Give your parcel a name’

I don’t know about you, but I wasn’t expecting that one. I didn’t understand what they wanted. So I took them at their word and gave it a name. The machine registered the name, and proceeded to the next stage of accepting a new delivery date.

We are now waiting for a parcel called Horace.

Published by

Jane Dougherty

I used to do lots of things I didn't much enjoy. Now I am officially a writer. It's what I always wanted to be.

71 thoughts on “Why I will never be French”

      1. Okay. Sorry. I forget the whole world doesn’t know Horrible Horace, the cat the crazy cat woman next door won’t let back in again. He’s not very lovable but he is her cat dammit. He lives in our shed when the others let him. Or on the roof.

      2. Ah so – maybe Horace has wrapped himself in a parcel and posted himself to you – wot it could happen!!!

      3. Oh my word – I’m out of my depth here – how can you have a False Otto or is that a pun on the names of opera singers

      4. No, just more cats. Otto is a rather splendid Turkish Van cat. Must have cost a fortune. Being a prolific sort of moggy there are now three Ottos. You have to get up close to see the difference. The False Otto has blue eyes and obviously has a home. The other one is just The Third Otto and we don’t see him much since the crazy cat lady’s black and white mob pushed him off the roof and he ended up inside our pantry ceiling.

    1. What I never get used to is how the French rarely find these kind of things funny. There are a lot of very odd people about, like the middle-aged woman who dresses all in yellow or Barbie pink and wears a garland of matching plastic flowers in her hair, the Chinese gentleman who cycles around in full Chinese coolie gear, sandals, coolie hat and baggy shirt and shorts, the old lady who asks for the supermarket cashier help her push an entire oven-ready chicken into her handbag. And NOBODY thinks it’s weird.

      1. There’s a lot of conformism here too. People seem to accept that the world is a strange place and what the English call eccentricity and make such a fuss about just passes unnoticed here.

      2. Cool! I like that… just be yourself. Do they apply that attitude to all areas of society ie disabled, gay marriage, ethnicity??? Voting over here next week on gay marriage. Marriage is and should be just marriage!

      3. Your average Français in the street is pretty tolerant. Can’t say the same for the Catholic and Muslim minorities though. Religion is a big stumbling block to tolerance, have you noticed? And we’re way behind the pack in gender equality. But that’s the toughest equality to crack anywhere methinks.

      4. Unfortunately religion does more harm than good in my opinion. Im sure I dont need to give any examples of how this is still current in Ireland, where we have a terrible record for religious intolerance.

      5. They shouldn’t let religious opinions occupy the moral high ground. Even secular states like France seem to take it for granted that the religious authorities should dictate morality.

  1. This post made be laugh. I loved the comments, too, where you mentioned Horace the Package’s namesake. I had wondered if Horace the Package had something to do with ancient Rome. I’m trying to image all of my packages having names, and saying to my husband, “Oh Cynthia arrived today, and George is expected tomorrow.” 🙂

    1. Well if you have them delivered by Colissimo they will have names! The really silly part is that I still haven’t been able to tell them when I want them to deliver the parcel. All that’s changed is that the parcels service now know that our parcel is called Horace. I hope they have someone who speaks Latin to keep him entertained 🙂

  2. I never got this one with parcel delivery but have had my share of adventures with post office and assorted deliveries. Don’t get me started on administration! I’m not surprised by what happened to you though (I am French, born and raised there, but lived for a year in London a while ago).

    1. It must be a new service from Colissimo. I’ve not had this before. Nice idea, but apart from giving the parcel a name, nothing’s changed— still haven’t been able to fix a new delivery date. And I won’t get you on about administration. It’s the pits!

  3. Terrific Jane and I must admit after fifteen years being similarly bemused at times. We have a lovely postman for all that time and he now puts our parcels over the gate onto a ledge rather than make us drive the 10k into the post office where there is no parking within a mile and you have to show a passport and give various numbers.. Anyway we don’t have to give them a name and I hope you and Horace are united at some point but presumably not on a Wednesday.. Looking forward to posting your interview tomorrow.. enjoy the rest of the weekend.

    1. Thanks Sally. I’ve just been put in mind of a funny experience we had with the education administration over a mission dossier for a grant for one of the children. We didn’t understand it—my husband had put it though the letter box himself. I got a rendez-vous to see the administrator, a very aristocratic elderly gentleman, who expressed no surprise whatsoever. He told me to look at the letterbox on the way out—the slot is in the wall, not the door, and the mail drops through…straight into the dustbin!

  4. I spent a week recently wit some friends who have bought a house in the Var. They were trying t o have wifi installed which had been proceeding for a week and despite at least seven visits while we were there still seemed no further forward. One day two men appeared, one to look at some wires and the other to discuss some paperwork. As our hosts were busy with them we answered the door. Call one, had we seen a wild boar, supposed to have been eating the neighbours potatoes. Call two did we realise the garden wall had been painted without permission – this the other neighbour who also became embroiled in the wild boar discussion. Call three looking for caller one because is van had rolled into the road blocking it – we all left to help push it up the slope down which it had now gone at which point one neighbour spotted said boar and we chased it off before withdrawing for a pastis… Doesn’t happen in south London… Great post and thanks for the reminder or how the French enrich our lives.

    1. We get wild boar in central Bordeaux. The last time was a couple of months ago when one wandered up from the station. There was a shoot out in the park. It got a mention in the local paper but no big deal. Apparently they kill upwards of fifty every year in the town. Who knew? I didn’t. Glad to have brought back fond memories 🙂

      1. Thanks Jane – yes it did. So matter of fact about disasters, so passionate about irrelevancies like the correct way to say hello to Madam in the boulangerie – madness!

  5. A friend who’s lived in Paris since 1970 once sent me a letter he posted at the main post office. He asked for a commemorative issue since the letter was going to America and he knew I liked stamps with historical or cultural interest.

    The clerk was insistent that a printed postage meter label was better, that he could weigh the letter to determine the correct postage and print the postage on the envelope at the same time.

    After several minutes of explaining why it was important to use an actual postage stamp or stamps to his friend in America, me, the clerk finally sold him a beautiful commemorative issue featuring a chateau.

    It was an unusual size and shape, and the image was beautifully engraved, a piece of postal art! (Certainly one of the more =beautiful French postal issues I’ve ever seen…!)

    My friend affixed the stamp, handed the letter back to the upset clerk, then left, his mission to promote French history and culture to America done…!

    I heard about this episode at the post office in Paris because I mentioned the letter to my friend the next time he visited America. I noted the chateau stamp was beautiful and unique, but the French postal person who processed the letter in Paris had stamped it 10 times. That completely destroyed any philatelic value and definitely showed excess zeal and wasted effort since one well-placed cancellation on the denomination end would render it used as far as any postal authority was concerned.

    Had the stamp arrived in reasonably decent condition, I would have given it to the stamp collecting young son of a friend, and he would have treasured such a unique and beautiful stamp. The zealot in the French Post Office destroyed the stamp with excessive cancellations, some of which tore the paper. Guess he was really pissed he had to hand cancel that letter.

    The irony of this is my local post office people knew I mailed letters and packages abroad using commemorative American issues because of their cultural and historic interest for the children of the friends who got my mail. Not only did they patiently wait while I affixed the stamps at the window, they let me hand-cancel the stamps so they were properly cancelled but still acceptable as used stamps for collectors. American history and culture was served, some kids in other countries were happy with the pretty American stamps, and life went on.

    1. You get vicious public employees everywhere I expect. The staff vary from post office to post office. In our local one they are always very civil and obliging. The PO in Paris though was completely different. The person at the desk could get up at any moment, slam the window closed in the next customer’s face and leave without a word. Sometimes it would be to go for a pee or a smoke. Sometimes they’d have gone home. The staff would claim it was because of the stress and the abuse they had to put up with. It was certainly a guarantee that a fight would break out among the people left standing in the queue in front of a closed guichet!

  6. Perhaps you are a townie? In my little village that would not be a problem. If the post didn’t fit in my mail slot it would be left just inside the outer door or if too large for that, with a neighbour. C’est la vie!

    1. Doesn’t happen in this quartier. Not enough neighbours you’d want to trust anything with! I know the postier would do that in some quartiers though. It’s my dream to live in one of them some day 🙂

    1. The point of contacting the parcels service was to ask them to deliver the parcel on Monday. That is the one part of their very rambling site that doesn’t work. I’ll just have to wait and see what happens.

      1. I’m keeping my fingers crossed the postman delivers Horace tomorrow. You never know though. Mondays might be reserved for the first five letters of the alphabet. They might not get round to H until Tuesday 🙂

  7. I am with you, Jane, if they want a name… I always wanted to call forms and things like that at work by a proper name, but they never agreed… Boring people.

    1. I’ve been trying to think how giving a parcel a name will make things easier for anyone and I honestly can’t. It has an address of destination and that’s all the postman needs to know. Maybe it’s just to make things friendlier for the customer, tracking a parcel with a name rather than a serial number. Rather sweet if it is.

  8. Oh Jane, this is so funny. I guess the best way to survive in a new country is to behave like everybody else. So, has Horace turned up yet? I can imagine a parcel with four paws sticking out of it. 🙂

    1. He did. I was expecting to see ‘Horace’ hand-written on the box and was a bit disappointed that there was nothing on it 😦 I ought to have posted to announce the happy event. Got bogged down in tax forms so I’ll do it tomorrow.

      1. That’s a bit of a let down Jane. A parcel called Horace could catch on you know. 🙂

  9. Ha! Makes a good-laugh story but must have been frustrating for you. I think I will print a name on the next parcel I post in Australia! No one would query it, thinking that was the name of the person who was to claim it at their household. I had a ticket left me recently when I had been away and just lined up at the local PO counter, presented ticket, received parcel, after signing for it and PRESTO, my legal {unnamed} goods were mine. But then I live in that wild and never-considered-strange-country of Australia. {That tongue in cheek statement may be a typical part of my heritage here} I have a very important and pressing question:.Do all French parcels have male names attached????????

    1. It’s a new tracking service and I’ve a feeling it still needs fine tuning. I’ve had parcels to claim before and the PO asks to see identity papers before they’ll hand it over (you get asked to prove who are for everything here). Why they have decided that giving the parcel you’re tracking a name is beyond me. You can call it anything you want, Barack Obama, Mary Queen of Scots, they’re not fussy.

    1. I hope you haven’t been looking out for news all this time! Horace arrived on the day promised as I was informed by the tracking service. As if I didn’t know! Horace was a half-years supply of valerian tablets and arrived just in the nick of time.

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