jeudi 4 février 2010

Unbearable rudeness

My heart is breaking for my son, and for myself.

Why is everything so difficult here?
is the question that keeps running through my head, only I do recognize that it might be the wrong question. I have heard my friends in the United States anguish for their children, who cannot find their place in the public school system, who have to find a way to pay as much in tuition each month for their education as they did for their care so they could return to work, or not if it cost more than they earned after the rent or mortgage, utility bills and groceries. I know that anguish is universal, but France seems to come up with one uniquely insufferable and breaking experience after another for children to survive before they are damaged enough to be considered competent and worthy adults, ready to begin the humiliating, agonizing, breaking process all over again on another crop of fledging human beings, destined to be culturally French.

I have bitten off more than I can chew in that lead paragraph. I cannot tackle an analysis of all the ways children are hurt and how French society bears its scars in a finally cracking ignorance. Some parents do see what is being done to their children in the name of educating them and preparing them for their future as law-abiding, income-producing, useful adults. It's nearly as ubiquitous a topic at most dinner parties as the usual May and June round-up of which children in each family are passing the year and which are repeating. All I can tell for today is another story, this one about my son's driver's license exam.

It started inauspiciously the evening before his 8 am appointment yesterday at the Salle Jacques Brel in Mantes-la-Ville, the socialist part of l'Agglomération de Mantes-en-Yvelines, which also comprises Mantes-la-Jolie, on the other side of the train tracks leading into Paris and out into Normandy, with its gouvernement de droite and the largest public housing project in all of France, le Val Fourré.

(It helps to have a right-leaning government with a very large poor and immigrant population. Actually, I am not really joking, which might shock some of my progressive and liberal friends in the US (of whom I consider myself one), but that's another subject for another post. Suffice it to say that a sufficient number of those actually living in the Val Fourré vote right, although not extreme right, even though some probably do. After all, they bear the worst brunt of the consequences of immigration handled disastrously.)

It is from here that all driving tests begin, and it is here that they end.

Sam was deemed ready to pass his test at the end of his 20 hours, before he even began the 3,000 kilometers of accompanied driving with his step-father (next to never) or I over the span of one year minimum. The cost of this program is about 1,450 euros, payable in about 3 installments. There are home second mortgages available to help parents who are a little cash strapped.

There ought to be, anyway. Actually, it should never cost so much to get a license in the first place. I'm not sure their elaborate program saves any lives over those of countries whose driver's ed programs cost a fraction of theirs.

At the end of the first "trimester" session back with a professional driving instructor, he was considered to be doing fine. Maybe there was a kink or two to work out, bad habits acquired over about 7 months and 3,000 kilometers already of driving.

At the end of the second "trimester" session back with his instructor for another hour of driving, with me present (again), it was judged that he was driving somewhat too fast in situations that call for a lighter foot, such as slowing for an oncoming car when there are cars parked on both sides of the street, and Sam thinks he can get by without striking the other driver's side rear-view mirror just by easing his foot ever so slightly on the accelerator. That and approaching a right or left-hand turn a mite too fast. Easy stuff to correct.

It was time for him to pass his test in three weeks' time. His instructor would call him with the date, and they'd schedule his last hour of driving together. I asked if it might not be wises to do two, since he was changing from the car he had driven for his 20 hours to one he had scarcely driven, something that made him feel uncomfortable. His instructor agreed.

Cha-ching for the driving school. I thought it was 40 euros an hour. No. It is 48 euros an hour.

I was to meet him at the driving school to pay right after his two-hour driving session, scheduled the evening before his road test. Waiting at the light at the intersection just above the driving school, my cell phone rang.


"Hi, Sam."

"Where are you?"

"I'm right around the corner, Sam. I'll be right there." It was 6:53 pm. The school closes at 7 pm, which means no one is in the establishment at 6:55 pm. I heard the edge in his voice. Everyone in France is scared of everyone who sits behind a desk or a cash register shortly before closing time. This is partly why the French smoke a lot (less, but) and take more sleep aid medications that any other country's citizens. Stress runs high in France, and everyone has their part of the population to terrorize.

The light changed, and I didn't get to move forward. It didn't register until the second time this happened. The minutes were ticking by. My cell phone rang again.

"Hi, Sam."

"Mom, are you almost here because they are getting nasty." I felt for him. I knew just how he felt, and now my own blood pressure was shooting upwards.

"Sam, there's a problem with the light at the big intersection. Only three cars are getting through before it changes directly back to red at every green light."

"Please, Mom, just hurry." I considered leaving the car there with the warning lights on and sprinting around the corner. Tant pis for everyone behind me. Instead, I counted red lights before I was the fourth in line. There had been about 6 or 7. Granted they were fast, but it was now 6:56 pm. I was plain out of time. The light turned green, and my foot was playing with the clutch and the accelerator already. I scooted under the light just as it changed over my head, parked illegally in front of the building next to the driving school and hurried inside, the special format envelope Sam said at the very last minute we had to have, the kind, he said, the school sends things in (like bad news bulletins scolaires), and which I found inside a folder dedicated to psychological-educational testing and the horrors that have come regularly and consistently over the years from his schools, in one hand, the other pulling out my checkbook. Sam took the envelope from me, his name already written on it, and set it on the secretary's desk. I tried to catch my breath to greet the normally charming woman, who would, at that very instant, turn into the Nurse Ratchet of driving school secretaries.

"Ca ne suffit pas de tout," she snapped, as though we had just handed her a dead fish, and not an A5 envelope, "Et je ne peux pas accepter votre chèque," she added with a flourish of satisfaction in the dizzying height of nastiness and loathing she had just scaled. I was a) overwhelmed with surprise and confusion, b) still out of breath from the experience of simply getting there, and c) left speechless, trying to comprehend what she was trying to tell me and how to reply, when she saved me the trouble, for the instant, by adding a helpful word of explanation, "il n'y a même pas d'adresse et pas de timbre."

So there!

No address and no stamp? These made my envelope insufficient? Was it not possible simply to ask me to write our address and provide a stamp, and if I were lacking the latter, suggest that I return the next morning with a stamp? So many questions flew through my head that I could barely concentrate on her frowning face, the rejected envelope propped against a stack of papers on her desk, my son looking anxious and helpless and the checkbook, lying limp in my own hand still. I collected myself enough to ask, trying to remember that I actually can speak French, as well as understand it (unfortunately) a question to help my state of confusion.

"Mais, ça n'a jamais posé un problème avant d'écrire un chèque. Pour quoi ça poserait-il un problème ce soir?" Why, I asked, if it had never posed a problem in the past to pay by check could it possibly be a problem this evening?

"Il passe son permis demain. Vous ne serrez plus ici après," she snapped again, speaking very distinctly and as though there were very great reason to be very aggravated by me. He will take his driver's exam tomorrow. You won't be here anymore, was what she replied. I was still very confused. It seemed that she was worried that our check wouldn't be good. But she had more to say, "Je ne vais pas aller à la banque," and here she glanced at her watch for added effect, to draw attention to the advanced hour of the evening, "ce soir." Of course, they had no way to know my check wasn't written on insufficient funds, rubber. She wasn't about to go to the bank at this hour to make sure my check was good.

I thought I was hallucinating. My blood pressure told me otherwise.

"Mais j'ai écris pas loin de 1,500 euros de chèques et jamais a-t-il eu un problème? Pour qoui ne serait-il pas bon cette fois-ci?" As though I would write a bad check the very last evening, taking full advantage of the fact that I would not have reason to return to their establishment to pass a bad check. "En plus, je viens de passer 10 minute à un feu qui ne marche pas correctement et qui ne laissait passer que 3 voitures à la fois --" but it was stupid to even point out that I hadn't intended to arrive 3 minutes before closing. I had arrived before closing, and the place was still full of people, both secretaries still working, the several driving instructors still there leaning against the outside wall, smoking.

They all smoke. It's like a job qualification.

"Ce n'est pas moi qui décide. C'est la politique de l'établissement pour le dernier paiment. Ca doit être en liquide ou par carte bancaire." And how much easier would all this have been if Miss Ratchet had silply said, "Bonsoir Madame. Alors, Samuel est prèt à passer son permis! Vous avez amener l'ennveloppe -- ah, il faut simplement l'adresse et un timbre, s'il vous plait -- et le dernier paiement s'éffectue en liquide ou par carte bancaire, si vous pouvez le faire. Merci!"

I handed her my bank card, thinking If only she'd just asked how different would the entire tone of the interaction had been, and sat down to write our address on the envelope and get a stamp from my wallet.

"Combien de timbres faut-il?" I asked in my iciest of polite voices.

"Un seul," she said, as though having to reach into her vitals for the will to reply. That did it. Not even a s'il vous plait. I wasn't going to hold back. I wasn't going to hold my tongue. Not this evening. I could feel Sam draw what he must have been sure was his last breathe as I drew mine to let her have it.

"Votre manque de courtoisie ce soir est affligeant. Personne ne doit me parler comme ça jamais," and here I made the fateful decision to tell her exactly what I think not just of her, but of nearly all people in her position in this country. I told her that not only was her lack of courtesy appalling, but that this is endemic to this country, and it is the single thing that I cannot tolerate in France. She looked at me as though unable to believe her French ears. What she didn't know is that I am also a citizen of this country, and like other citizens of this country who are not naturalized but born of French blood on French soil, I am aghast at this behavior, but unlike many, I am going to call it out every time I am met with it now, "Allez voyager un peu," I suggested, "et vous verrez ce que je veux dire. Vous ne rencontriez ce genre d'attitude que rarement car c'est inacceptable ailleurs."

Go and travel, I suggested, and you will see what I mean. You will run into this sort of attitude but rarely because it is unacceptable elsewhere.

It makes people mean here. Everyone, right down to the last secretary, becomes her own little Napoleon, wielding what little power she has over those unfortunate enough to have to do business with her or never be able to pass a driver's license exam. She looked to her papers and started to go on about the 70 students she'd had to process that month alone, and I cut her off, "C'est votre travail, Madame," and I don't want to hear about it. She busied herself with having me tap my pin code into the little machine and giving me my receipt, making sure Sam knew what to bring and had his instructions.

I knew what Sam was thinking. He said it to me in the car when we left, "Mom, you shouldn't have done that."

"Sam, let me tell you your [French] aunt would have done that. She was rude, and I am sick of people feeling it is their right to treat people the way she treated me this evening." I will spare his aunt the pain of appearing in my blog by leaving her name out.

"Well, that doesn't make my aunt right, and you were rude by speaking back to her, and if I don't get my license, they can blacklist me and make me wait six months to take the test again."

After explaining that they don't have the right to punish him by putting him perpetually at the end of the list for exam appointments, I launched into an explanation of why exactly it is not rude to point out to someone else his or her own rudeness and let them know that you will not accept such treatment before the exchange exploded over the absurdity of what it costs to get a driver's license in France. At least in the Paris metropolitan area, implying that he had better pass after another 96 euros for 2 additional hours of driving to make sure everything was bien comme il faut. I hurt him. I hadn't intended that. I was angry with the system, not with him. We'd managed to get into a fight between the driving school and the train station, and they are not that far away.

Near the mosque, not far from the hospital, he let out a breath and said, referring to what the secretary had felt empowered to do to me that evening, "Well, that's what I go through every day at school, and I can't say anything."

And that was all I had been able to think about while my own integrity was disrespected by a woman who thought she could do it with impunity to an adult. Imagine what it's like for young people.

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