Monday, November 14, 2011

Seulement en français

July 2011

We have our visitor’s visas, enough luggage to require a larger than normal European car, a stroller, two car seats, and two kids. And….drumroll please…no place to live! We did, however, have a vague idea of what we wanted.  Learning the language tops the list, but the question was, where was the best place to situate a family so that all could have a rich experience? I needed a University close by, the kids needed some type of immersion daycare, and my husband needed access to a rowing club. But, before we were able to find a place, we needed a car.

Buying a used car or “la voiture d’occasion” in France, is, as one would expect, much different than what an American is used to. First of all, with very little experience in the country, good luck finding a used car lot. If you go to a dealership, as in the US, you will be able to find higher quality and newer used cars. But, as we were only going to live abroad for a year (10 months by the time we bought the car) we didn’t see any reason to spend too much, hence, a dealership was not the place for us. In fact, we wanted to spend just enough to get a car that would get us around safely, and not resemble a junkpile. Alas, we found several lots, a few of which looked more like dumps and salvage yards.

To sum up the experience, here are a few things one needs to know if buying a used car in France:

1. You need to pay in cash unless you have a French bank account to write checks with. More difficult to obtain than it sounds.  Without a bank account, the maximum that you can pay in cash is 3000 euros. I had one dealer tell me that if paid him 6000 cash for a car that I liked he would “work it out” so that it looked like I paid only 3000 cash on the paperwork for the government. I don’t even want to know how that would have turned out. Long story short, I didn’t purchase a car from him.

2. When you do find a car that suits you and have specific requests for repairs to be made, or for something basic to be done such as having the oil changed, you should probably get in writing that this will be taken care of.   

3. Know ahead of time what paperwork is needed in order to obtain legal ownership, what fees are required etc. A good site to read is:
I printed out copies in French and English and highlighted all legal requirements. I then gave a copy to the dealer and had him show me all of the corresponding legal paperwork that I would be receiving and filing. He might have thought that my French was horrible, but he also knew that I wasn’t going to be buying something illegally.

An excerpt from my experience:

“I’m so glad that you came with me, Jack (my mechanically-inclined father-in-law) because you can look at the car and tell me if it’s a total lemon.

“Well, we’ll see. Here’s another lot right here. Should we stop?”

We parked, got out of the car and looked around for about 10 minutes. No one came out to greet us. It’s just not the way things seem to be done at a used car lot. The psychology: “Let them come to me. If I don’t seem eager, they will want it more.”  Now, I have found that the French are generally very cordial, but a used car lot seems to exist on a separate plane for some reason. I’ll let you fill in the blanks.

After several more minutes of perusing, I found a car that looked as if it might be a good fit.  About that time, a young man came out to greet us. He was wearing a white dress shirt, jeans, and what can only be described as shoes that resembled something from Santa’s workshop—they weren’t made by the elves, but I think they would have been happy to own a pair. With this first impression, I thought that we might just be in the right place. Anyone that serious about dressing, can’t be all that serious about used cars.

We drove the car, looked at the engine, and I decided that it was exactly right for our family. I paid a deposit and came back to collect my prize a few days later.

The return:
Jack reached into the car, popped the hood and came around to see if they had changed the oil as they had “promised.”

“It doesn’t look like the oil has been changed at all, but I can’t tell” he said to me.
I communicated the same to the dealer and his mechanic. They both swore time and again that it had been done. Jack put the hood down and took a look at the windshield wipers. They had not been changed. The mechanic ran to another car of the same model and grabbed the wipers. He then “replaced” the wipers on my car and gave them a test. The wiper fluid sprayed out and was not fully cleared away by the new wipers.

“That’s not good enough,” said Jack. “Tell them I could piss on the window and get it cleaner.” I didn’t translate. 

So, you want to move to France.

You love the food, the wine, the haute couture, and you dream of sitting in a Parisian café sipping kir royal and watching the passersby. Maybe you’ve visited France a few times, and you always left wanting more.

Like many Americans, I had always dreamed of living in France. But dreams are ethereal things, and leave us with more longing than substance. Reality, en revanche, brings our feet back to the ground on which we must build. How romantic it sounds: buying my morning bread at a local patisserie, strolling through market stalls spilling with color and taste, and, of course, learning to speak French.

Fast forward several years, a husband, two children, and a mortgage later, and my little café reveries have become more realistic. Where the heck is a park when you have two small boys who need exercise and not a one and a half hour lunch? (Oh, and that long lunch is broken up as follows: half hour for getting the menu, getting the waiter’s attention and ordering, twenty minutes to wait for the food, ten minutes to eat before baby starts screaming and two year old starts seriously misbehaving, and thirty minutes to wait for the check.)

No, the Paris of my dreams wasn’t going to happen at this time.  In fact, after two weeks of tramping around the city with the boys, we decided Paris wasn’t going to happen at all. Nevermind the expense of living in the city, the fact is, it just isn’t the best place for two kids under two who are used to a lot of space.  Hey, I might have only seen three museums in that time, but I do know where every worthwhile park is in each arrondissement! Thank you, thank you Jardin du Luxembourg for only charging 2.50 per kid.

After a long and fruitless search, we fell in love with the Alps, in the area of France called “Haute-Savoie.” We found a house with a huge yard overlooking Lac du Bourget, the largest freshwater lake in France.  However, I must begin from the beginning…