Tuesday, March 20, 2007


There is one French euphemism that I just love. Your car window has been busted and your stereo stolen? Your apartment broken into and your television missing? Your purse has suddenly disappeared from your locked desk drawer? You have been "visité."

We headed off to Normandy this weekend to visit le Mont Saint Michel, a trip that my husband had been looking forward to for ages. The weather wasn't the perfect blue sky, unseasonably balmy with temperatures in the 60s that we'd had the week before, but it wasn't raining, it wasn't too cold, and we were looking forward to finally seeing le Mont at a season when it isn't [quite as] overwhelmed [as usual] by hordes of tourists. The dramatic, biannual high tides were due in a few days so we expected somewhat of a show: the island completely surrounded by water, waves advancing at nearly a horse's gallop. It sounded perfect.

We arrived at the coast around noon and stopped to eat lunch at a beach overlooking le Mont and its barren sister island of Tombelaine. The parking was empty except for one other car, also from Paris. The restrooms and tourist infomation booths were locked up for the winter, and the only other human being around was a farmer on a tractor mowing a nearby field.

We got out, opened the trunk, and grabbed the cooler. I changed my shoes, threw my purse in the trunk, and we locked the car and headed off toward the beach.

My husband has long warned me never to open the trunk in a parking lot unless we're leaving immediately. There may be people hiding somewhere, he told me, watching with binoculars and waiting for us to walk away from the car. They'll break in, steal everything, and ruin our vacation, all because I visibly put my purse in the trunk. Paranoia, I thought. Surely such patient surveillance of parking lots can't actually pay off! Where would these thieves be, anyway? Hiding in the bushes? In the window of the farmhouse across the road? Nonsense, all of it. Nearly ten years of my insouciance and our collective luck had made my husband give up nagging me. I almost said something about how we certainly needn't worry this time; what criminal ne'er-do-well could possibly be hanging around here?

Almost predictably, thirty minutes later our weekend morphed into one of those depressing "don't let this happen to you" American Express Travelers' Cheques commercials. The side window was broken, my purse and make-up bag were gone from the trunk, along with a backpack containing our road-worn but well-loved binoculars and digital camera.

I lost it, of course, and started sobbing hysterically. I imagined that they, whoever they were, were still watching me and laughing, so I yelled all sorts of incomprehensible insults in English. That poor, stupid petite américaine, I imagined them thinking. My wallet... my phone... our camera... everything gone.

As in most crisis situations, my husband kept his head while I was panicked and useless. Both our phones were gone, so he drove us to the nearest village. I stayed to secure the car and what was left of our belongings, while he went into the tourist office to call the police, our bank, and our cell phone provider. I sniffed, periodically wiped my eyes or my nose, and started a mental inventory of everything we'd lost. My identity card, my national health care card, 250€ worth of cosmetics (I've recently developed expensive tastes), the annotated birdwatching guidebook we've dragged all over Europe, a card my husband sent me when we were first dating. The new purse he'd helped me pick out. My house keys were gone, along with the only key to the file cabinet at work that I'd conveniently remembered to lock before leaving on Friday. What we could replace would be expensive, and there were plenty of things we couldn't easily replace at all. And all because I was stupid and naïve, and didn't listen to repeated good advice.

[Cue Alanis Morrisette's Ironic]

The rest of our idyllic afternoon was spent at the Granville Gendarmerie, where we learned from the very friendly officers on duty that our back window had been shattered with a bit of lateral pressure from a screwdriver. Like a can of sardines, I thought. Did I mention the car is practically brand new, delivered to us a mere month ago? The gendarmes seemed genuinely interested in our case, and even searched in vain for fingerprints.

I did get to observe something very French, and if I'd been in a bit more of an ethnographic mood I might even have been fascinated: they spent over an hour taking down a detailed description of exactly what happened to us and everything that was missing. The subsequent report was printed, signed and stamped in triplicate, and will serve us over the next few weeks to replace my phone and my identity papers and confirm the cancellation of my credit card.

Reassurance through paperwork. Nothing sustains French society more than the fact that every official document must have some sort of stamp on it. Otherwise, I guarantee you, we're headed for another revolution.

We finished up at the station, taped some plastic on the window, and started back to Paris. We took the two-lane highway instead of the autoroute, and I got to appreciate some classic Norman countryside, rolling hills complete with cows and hedgerows, so perhaps the trip wasn't for nothing after all.

This evening my husband just finished ironing his entire collection of shirts, an exceptional event triggered by last weekend's chagrin but fueled by the first three seasons on DVD of The West Wing. "That's 46€ worth of ironing," he just proudly announced, "And if I do it twenty times, I'll have paid for everything that was stolen!"

That's the spirit!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Wow, and he irons, too! I'm sorry you had such a bad experience. I'm also surprised at the expensive cosmetics. I never would have guessed from the girl you once were!