I’m an inveterate “wave-and-smile”er at people. This is because around here I usually know most of them and they certainly know me. So it has become a habit to grin and raise a paw at anyone on the road who nods, smiles or acknowledges me.
Yesterday I waved madly at what I thought was a Gendarmes’ car. It was only when they went past I realized that it was the Douanes – Customs. Oh dear.
You see, I do know most of the Gendarmes around here because I translate for them when they have foreign tourists who don’t speak French but have some English and my long history with my British Honda meant that I was marked as “illegal but harmless” all over the county.
It wasn’t my fault I couldn’t get the correct bit of paper to register my wee motorbike correctly with a French number plate. I took my two-inch-thick file down to two major Gendarmeries to show them that I was trying. By then they agreed that I was very trying indeed and gave me a little note saying “Leave Elise alone” to show to any policeman who stopped me for riding an illegal bike.
This meant that I could pootle about on my 125 smiling and greeting all the forces of law and order in my path. Street cred zero, easy life!
The Customs officers over here are less tolerated than the “flicks” because they can be hard-nosed bastids who empty the boot of your car on the side of the road and then leave you to put it all back. There are a lot of problems with wine and booze smuggling within France itself, to the point that there is a limit to how much alcohol one can carry in one’s vehicle. If there is a legit reason, you should have proof otherwise you will be asked to produce a tax-paid receipt.
In this area we are on the rat-run between Switzerland and north/south divide, avoiding motorway tolls. We are, therefore, down by the head with lorries, some of which are transporting illegal immigrants. The Old Feller and I have seen them being allowed off the lorry in a lay-by, legging it into the fields.
Cars are regularly stolen to order to be delivered to Eastern Europe. So, despite appearances, we are in a hot-spot as far as the law is concerned. Those Customs officers would have been wondering why that woman was greeting them like family. Hardly surprising really, when two of my best friends in La Roche Bernard where I lived aboard my boat in Brittany, were the local Customs blokes. I met them when they came to arrest me. I had, apparently, pre-EEC days, outstayed my permit. As I was expecting my boyfriend back for lunch, like a good French housewife, I explained I’d have to cook, invited them in for coffee and offered to present myself at their office later.
It was a weird experience showing up with my terrier, briefcase with papers, asking to be arrested. It turned into a farce. They were mistaken. My boat was my home. I owned no property in the UK and this should have been noted by their brother-officers when I arrived in Concarneau. We got me a coffee mug, they shouted at the Concarneau folks on the phone and then tried to type a report.
By this time Bodkin was sat on the boss’ knee and, as I am an experienced typist, I took over the typewriter. They dictated and I wrote the report. The only glitch came when I had to sign the end which said that I understood French perfectly well enough to know what I was signing. I giggled and refused.
“Aww, come on, Elise. If you don’t, we’ll have to get an interpreter in from Nantes. That’ll take two hours and we’ll all be late for dinner.”
After that we were great mates. They always popped in for coffee if they were at the harbour, I helped out as interpreter and they out-did themselves when we were moving up the river and they organised the local Customs officers to be our reception committee.
Having grown up in a Met Police home I suppose it’s like being a Freemason – we recognise each other. Or maybe it is just that, like with animals, I show no fear and treat them nicely without grovelling.
Here, copper, come n have a bikkie!