“Flash fiction” short story from France:
My 76 year-old Aunt ‘M’ and I took her little Golf car into nearby Riberac yesterday. We were going to send postcards back to Australia, wander the shops, and of course, find Wi-Fi to check emails. Where should we park? We drove around the ancient town, narrow lanes not designed for motor vehicles, and got caught in a one-way system round a free carpark; finally, we settled on a spot in the shade, neatly lined up with all the Peugeots and Renaults. We had 1.5 hours ‘Gratuite’ or free, according to the sign; perfect.
Imagine how pissed off I was when I came back 1.45 hours later to find a big fat ticket under the windscreen wiper! I couldn’t believe it. I stood there next to the car, frowning and sighing. An old man walking past noticed me, so I went over and stumbled (in French) “What is this and why?”, waving the ticket at him, knowing that the French all love a good complaint about fines and rules. He shrugged bent shoulders: “I got one myself yesterday. You can only park here if you have the special disc.”
Right. It doesn’t actually say that anywhere though. Annoying. Off I march to find ‘M’, and share the news. She’s more of a drama queen than me, so she rolls her eyes and sighs deeply, and we decide we should deal with it straight away, and that I will try (in my best English) to explain that we are tourists, and didn’t understand- the fine is 17 Euros, about $27- worth wriggling out of if possible (that’s at least 10 croissants for the teenager remember).
We stomp to the Tourist Office. She directs us to the Mairie (the Mayor) at first, then changes her mind and says we must go direct to the Gendarmerie (police station). Now I try and avoid the police in any country, just as a matter of policy. But I’d kind of like to get out of this fine, and I’m up for a bit of role-playing as a dumb Australian tourist, using all my theatrical skills and eye-fluttering charm, so off we go…
No chance. The officer shrugs, and says we must pay. But we can’t pay here, at the police station, where the ticket was issued. Oh no. That’s too easy. We have to walk back into town, buy stamps of the equivalent value at the stationary shop, then bring the ticket back once we’ve stuck them onto it. Or we could post it in, if we fancy a bit more expense and effort?
Right. I’ll deal with it, I say to ‘M’; you go off with your friend and have lunch etc. As soon as I walk through the stationary shop door, ticket clutched, the woman behind the counter pulls out a thick leather folder full of stamps, well worn, and thuds it down. We don’t even speak. I give her the money, she sticks down the stamps, tears off the return carbon slip, and now I have 2 pieces of paper to clutch. I shove them in my bag.
I’m walking back down the hill to the Gendarmerie, kind of dreamy, looking in shops, finishing my small salmon quiche, fiddling in my bag for sunnies, when I realize I’ve accumulated quite a bit of ‘stuff’ in there: loose serviettes, old shopping lists, a couple of used train tickets, empty croissant paper bag- the usual stuff.
“I’ll have a clean up,” I think. “I’ll chuck all this away,” I think. “Lighten my heavy load…”
So I do that, into a convenient bin. Get to the Gendarmerie and it’s closed for lunch (of course) 12-2. Sigh. Drive home. Have lunch. Potter round the Barn. Read a bit. Get ready to go back into Riberac, to do my civic duty, but can’t find the ticket ANYWHERE.
It must be in the car. No, it’s not in the car. Is it in my bag? No it’s not in my bag. My bag is really clean and organized and… Oh shit… I put it in that random bin in the park didn’t I?
What shall I do? It has to be paid, or they’ll hunt ‘M’ down and prosecute her (I imagine- the French are VERY strict about fines and rules, as we know). I decide to sleep on it, then confess to ‘M’.
It takes me till noon the next day to admit my mistake to Aunty. We’re wandering round the Riberac markets, which are packed full of people, and stalls selling new and old clothes, plus fabulous artisan crafts like pottery, as well as delicious handmade foods like marinated olives, breads and cakes, garlicky chicken paella, massive stinky wheels of aged goat cheese, and spicy salamis in hanging baskets.
She laughs and gasps in horror in equal amounts. She tries to avoid the police in any country as a matter of policy too, but now we’ll have to voluntarily go in and hand over the registration papers and license and ask for a new fine! Plus get new stamps, and stick them down, and even post it in to them, just for more effort and expense.
I laugh, and propose searching through the bins. We look at each other. My son ‘15’ looks at each of us. We look at him. He recoils. We look at each other again.
Then two women, quite well dressed and presented, one aged 76 and one 49, start peering at bins; there’s a choice of several in the park. First one we come to is full, but looks the most familiar to me. How often do the French empty their bins? What kind of stuff do they put in their bins? How much stuff gets put in there in a 24-hr period?
We lean forward. Son ‘15’ leans away. Can we do it? Gingerly I push aside a soggy cup of coffee. ‘M’ prods a stained magazine. I don’t think we can do this. ‘15’ begs us not to.
And then I see the green corner of that goddamned stamp. There it is, only 3 layers down, crumpled, and a little damp! What are the chances of that??
Does France have a national lottery, because I feel like I should buy myself a ticket in it today…
What’s the luckiest random thing that’s ever happened to you (not counting meeting soulmates/having children/getting the perfect job)?