April 6th, 2006

International Kittens of Mystery

Cars, Cartes and Campagne - Part Four (The Force, birthdays and the ancient cyclist)

As I stood at the roadblock, blowing into a little plastic bag, I couldn't help but reflect on how sporting the police were being. Breathalysing motorists at 10:00 am on a market day was not going to provide a rich catch of drunks. Whereas, if they'd waited a few hours until after déjeuner and the mix of market day enthusiasm and cheap wine had reached its peak ... well, they would have filled the cells.

Which, on reflection, was probably why they timed their roadblock earlier. A police station crammed to the ceilings with drunken farmers and a car park full of abandoned tractors was not something to be solicited lightly.

The bag blown up and the crystals scrutinised, I was taken inside for processing. The roadblock being outside the police station, I didn't have far to walk. And then came the interrogation.

Where was my identification?

"Er ... à la maison?"

Much shaking of heads. All French citizens were obliged to carry identification at all times. Even when drunk in charge of a tractor.

Where were the car's papers?

"Er ..." Now that was a long story, crammed full of nouns, verbs and several adjectives - all of which had fled the scene the moment the first gendarme's hand had alighted on my shoulder.

I pulled out my 'Get out jail free' card and slid it over the counter, adding a nervous smile and a telepathic onslaught. 'This card is not forged. This man is innocent. Let him go.'

I'd seen Star Wars.

The police sergeant hadn't. More shakes of the head. And a tch tch.

The Force was strong with this one.

Then he hit me with a question I wasn't expecting.

What was my father's date of birth?


He repeated the question. I was thrown. It was thirty-five years since my father's death. I was five at the time. I had no idea what day he'd been born.

I shrugged. He looked dumbfounded and glanced at his colleagues. They shrugged. I shrugged. We looked like a room full of marionettes on elastic strings.

And then he asked me another question.

What was my mother's date of birth?

I couldn't believe this. I was without a dictionary, I had no script and I was being asked to recite all my family's birthdays! Surely this was against the Geneva Convention?

Never cease to be amazed by French bureaucracy. It took half an hour to be processed. I filled up a whole page in their ledger. Most of it with birthdays.

And I had to return to my nearest police station - Aurignac - within three days, complete with passport, birth certificate, carte gris and tax disc.

And I had to tell Shelagh.

In all my years of driving in England I had never been stopped or breathalysed. One month in France and all that had changed.

Although, on further recollection, it wasn't exactly my first encounter with a French roadblock. That honour having come a few months earlier. But then I hadn't been the driver.

I was with Peter, a South African chef cum estate agent. A rather novel combination but indicative of the frequent plight of the newly-arrived in France - the need to augment one's living with a second job. Which meant he occasionally showed people around houses in between cooking meals at his restaurant.

And on this occasion he was having some difficulty locating the property I'd asked to view. We'd toured a particular area for a growing amount of time without success when we turned a corner and ... there it was.

A roadblock.

Two police cars blocking a junction between two single-track roads in the middle of nowhere. The obvious place for a roadblock.

We stopped and out came the documents and back came the questions - what are you doing here and why? They were very inquisitive. And they were armed.

But very helpful. They asked to see the picture of the house we were looking for and peered at it a few times, took it over to the officers in the other police car, conferred, brought it back. Shrugged.

And then out of nowhere appeared an ancient cyclist. A gaunt old man in a beret struggling with heavy pedals and weaving from side to side as he crawled along the road on his vintage bicycle.

Within a flash, a policeman was out into the middle of the road, arm upraised and hand resting on his gun. I wasn't sure if the cyclist would be able to stop - he didn't look very safe as it was without the additional pressure of a police roadblock and an emergency stop. I saw the ditch on the side of the road beckon for a good few moments as panic threw in a few extra wide swerves.

But he stopped, after a fashion, standing astride the cross bar looking less than comfortable and distinctly shaky. I wondered why he'd been stopped. Surely they weren't going to breathalyse him or search his bike?

They didn't. Instead, they showed him our house picture.

The next we knew, we had a smiling policeman waving us on and telling us to follow the cyclist - he knew the house and would take us to it.

I wondered if anyone had given him the opportunity to refuse.

We followed the cyclist for some time, omitting the more eccentric swerves but otherwise exactly matching his snail-like lead. And it was during that epic slow-motion pursuit that we decided that whatever house he led us to, we'd agree it was definitely the one and thank him profusely for all his trouble.

Eventually he pulled his machine to a stuttering halt and pointed down a hill towards a farmhouse obscured by trees. We quickly agreed that that was undoubtedly the place and thanked him for all his help.

Amazingly it was the right house, but after a few minutes inspection I could see it wasn't the place for us - there was too much work to do for the price and the location wasn't ideal.

So, slightly disheartened, we climbed back into the car and headed off for the next property. Hopefully without finding any more police roadblocks.

But we were lost and the roads were winding, narrow and all looked the same. And, as is the often the case in the depths of the French countryside, completely un-signposted.

It's one of those unwritten laws - that when you're lost, places you're trying to find never appear and those you're trying to avoid never go away.

We saw the police cars first, then the cyclist.

We were back.

As we passed the cyclist I could see the worried onset of a bout of deja vu form upon his weather-beaten face. Did we have any more houses for him to find? Would he ever see his own home again?

And then we were stopping and a smiling face leaned into our car. Had we found the house? Yes? Were we going to buy it?

I wondered why he had his hand on his gun as he asked me? Perhaps we should buy it? Perhaps we should buy it now? How much cash did I have with me? There's nothing like an armed police roadblock to bring out the paranoid in the law-abiding.

Peter smiled and said his clients were considering it and could he tell us the way to Tarbes. I think I heard a groan from the cyclist. Tarbes was over twenty miles away, he'd never be able to make it. But it might have been his brakes as he pulled up alongside.

The gendarme was only too pleased to give us directions. He waved and pointed over various fields and clumps of trees and sprinkled his speech with plenty of rights and lefts. I didn't have a clue what he said but Peter seemed to be nodding in all the right places.

With a wave and chorus of farewells we eventually left the roadblock. I think we could have held out for a police escort.

(to be continued)