Last week I had my first encounter with the forces of law and order here in Carcassonne.
After a dash to the Apple Store in Montpellier on the Saturday before last, we left our UK car in the open air parking by the Boulevard Varsovie - it is free on Saturday afternoon and on Sunday and I knew that I would need it early on Monday morning before I had to pay for parking.
Our Renault Laguna has only just arrived back in it's spiritual French homeland after looking after us for 7 years in London. It had made the trip down here many times and was in fact our means of transport when we first came to tour this region and when we first looked at 42rvh, but I only have one parking space here so the Renault was sitting in the public car park until I could find it a permanent home.
Alas, when I went to get it on Monday morning it wasn't where I left it - it was nowhere to be seen.
I trudged down to the Gendarmerie to report a stolen car but was told that it was 'pas vole, mais enlevee' (accents missing I know) - not stolen but towed. It appears there was a 'brocante' on the Sunday morning and there were signs inconveniently placed so that you couldn't actually see them telling you that parking was prohibited for that day - somehow we failed to see the inconveniently placed signs - car was towed.
There were 5 gendarmes lurking around the reception desk of the police station. The one with the biggest moustache and the thickest incomprehensible accent did all the talking, another wrote out the fine and gave me the form I needed to get the car back from the 'fourriere' (car pound) and the rest said nothing but tried their best to look cool and intimidating, which worked very well.
Despite my best efforts I left none the wiser as to where my car was and what to do next to get it back.
At the Mairie they told me I had to go to the Gendarmerie - thanks. At least the "Police Municipale' told me where the car pound was - well sort of - opposite the Decathlon store, tucked down a little side road. We drove up and down the road for half an hour before we spotted the place, which was of course locked up - but at least we could see the Renault and knew where it was.
We were trying to decide what to do next when an Audi Avant pulled up driven by a swarthy (and handsome, apparently) Mediterranean bloke who demanded what we wanted, disappeared and returned with a key, extracted €96 from me and gave us back the car. He was in fact very charming about the whole thing and told me I needed to visit the police station to pay the fine before he gave my wife a cheery wave as he left!!
I went to the police station again the following day and was greeted by a completely different group of gendarmes who couldn't have been more helpful. 'Yes, you can pay the fine here' and 'Yes, the signs could have been more clearly displayed' and 'Yes, this is the same desk that issued you the ticket'. It would seem that the great Socialist French state is still working to keep as many people in employment as it possibly can - obviously the policeman who issued me the ticket was not authorised to receive payment for said ticket or he would have undoubtedly told me so at the time - wouldn't he?
The towage and the fine cost me €130 in total so a permanent solution to the Renault parking was needed. A friend had told me that the underground parking in town was no more expensive long term than renting a private garage, so that seemed to be the best option.
So it was that I took the car to the Place Gambetta and spoke to the man in the office on the lower ground floor.
"I'd like to buy an annual parking ticket please"
"No, not possible", was the reply
I could buy a seven day pass that would (nearly) take me to the end of the month. Then, I hope, I can buy a monthly ticket that will take me to the end of June and then I can buy, I think, a half yearly ticket to the end of the year and then, finally, I will be able to buy an annual ticket - but if I don't turn up on the last day of the month or the first day of the following month I will have missed my chance! Bonkers.
Bonkers indeed but part of the charm nonetheless - there are things about France that are very different but unless you go with the flow you will just find it all too stressful. So I can't buy an annual season ticket from 20th May to 20th May next year - I have to go back at the end of the week and start the haggling once again.
Just remember, it's all part of the charm