January (II), 2005
It’s a funny thing about communication companies, but whenever you want to get hold of somebody, there’s nobody to talk to. Just recently I’ve been very keen to get hold of somebody at France Telecom. And shake them. Then strangle them, slowly.
This urge to inflict grievous bodily harm all started when Ghislaine, a sweet-talking lady from the French telecom provider, gave me the glorious news that we could receive a broadband connection. Our neighbouring villages are all connected, but as we live in the middle of a vineyard, we have repeatedly been told it is impossible for us.
Prior to this I tried to install satellite broadband. I bought two different systems. Sadly there was no one in the whole county with the technical ability to install either. The technical help desks at both companies assured me it was perfectly possible to do it oneself. Call me unadventurous, but I don’t find clambering on top of roofs putting up satellite dishes straightforward. I then tried an internet version called ‘just like broadband’. Just like broadband except it didn’t work. My whole computer crashed and refused to do anything but give me error messages.
So when Ghislaine broke the news to me that broadband was ours for the asking, I thought all my Christmases had come at once.
“Are you sure?” I asked.
“Pas de probleme, madame,” said Ghislaine. “You can have broadband, faster than anything you would get in England.”
I couldn’t believe it. Proof at last that France was a technologically superior country and that Britain was still in the Dark Ages. This is where it gets technical. Yes, we could install broadband on our ISDN line, they said, but it would have to be changed to an analogue line first. They would send a man along to do that in 10 days’ time. After that we would be part of the technological revolution. I was overjoyed. Soon all my problems would be over. I could listen to Radio 3 while sending emails and downloading short adult films. Ghislaine rapidly became my new best friend.
There followed a series of minor disasters which I took with saint-like calm as I anticipated the day my emails would download at 8 Megabytes (four times faster than in the UK). For example, our internet service provider owned and operated by France Telecom, Wandadoo – nicknamed You Wanadoo But Can’t – seemed to have even less idea of what was going on than we did. It changed our account to a broadband one in preparation for the great event. This meant we had no internet access at all. I had to keep calling Wanadoo, at a premium cost of 34 euro centimes a minute, only to be kept on hold for 15 minutes each time listening to David Bowie wailing ‘We Can Be Heroes’. They might think they are heroes but I don’t: Blondie’s Hanging on the Telephone would have been more appropriate. The technical support team kept sending me back to the commercial team and vica versa. I asked them if they couldn’t sort this out between themselves. “We can’t talk to each other,” I was told by one member of staff. “That’s just how it is.”
Once the man had come and ripped out the ISDN line I was told by various staff at Wanadoo and France Telecom that it was just a question of waiting for the broadband line to arrive. Meanwhile the box was ready and waiting, all configured to my computer by my local technical support team, Lizzie from the neighbouring village.
There was more action around the broadband box than the Christmas tree as we waited for the magic red light to come on. Nothing happened. We waited until Christmas Eve and then started to call people again.
“It’s all fine madame,” I was told. “But nothing will happen until after Christmas.”
The day after Boxing Day I rushed into my office to see if the little light had come on. It hadn’t. I called the broadband technical team in Montpellier.
“You can’t have broadband,” I was told by a rather snotty woman, in the way only the French can be snotty. “You’re too far away from the exchange. In fact the request for broadband on your line was rejected on December 13th.”
I asked said snotty woman what we could do to get broadband?
“Move house,” she said.
Of the 25 or so people I had spoken to at both Wanadoo and France Telecom over a two-week period, none of them had breathed a word about this development. I called Ghislaine. She said she was sorry and would get the ISDN line back. Then we had the charade of trying to get back to where we were before we started the whole process. One mess up followed another. For example, the man that showed up to fix it had no idea of the saga we had been through and just took the first line that came to hand and changed that to ISDN. So we had no phone lines at all for a week. Finally someone with a bit more acumen showed up.
“So let me get this straight,” he said. “What you really want it to have it just like it was before?”
France Telecom is claiming that 95% of France will have broadband by the end of 2005. And Napoleon was a good bloke.
My advice to anyone planning to install broadband is to double check that you are eligible for it before taking any action at all. Always get the name and the number of the France Telecom or Wanadoo representative you speak to so you can go back to them should it all go wrong. Don’t be fobbed off by them, they are very good at telling you to ring another number. Tell them you already have and insist they help you. Finally, be proactive. If I hadn’t hassled them we would still be waiting for our broadband connection. And the whole mess would probably have taken until next Christmas to sort out.
My top tip is this: if a Wanadoo representative comes anywhere near you, run screaming from the room or reach for your shotgun. As I write I am still battling with them. For some inexplicable reason they have just switched my account to a broadband one again. This means I am in limbo – I have no broadband and so can’t access the internet. More David Bowie. If I ever hear that song again it will be too soon.
“A neighbour of mine has just signed a compromis de vente to sell a piece of land he owns adjoining our house,” writes a reader with a holiday home in the Var. “I want to buy the land and as I am a cash buyer he is keen to sell to me. Sadly he didn’t know how to get hold of me and the previous transaction went through while I was in England. Can he get out of it?” According to Stephen Smith from Stephen Smith France Ltd, it is possible, but the vendor may need to pay a fine. “Most properly drawn compromis include a clause whereby if the vendor withdraws for any reason she or he must pay damages of typically 10% of the agreed purchase price,” he says. It is also worth noting that in France you can go to your local notaire (notary) and sign an agreement for right of first refusal on land adjoining your property.
Stephen Smith, French lawyer, Stephen Smith France Ltd, www.stephensmithfranceltd.com, tel: 01473 437186
Priorité a droite
This quirky French driving law causes much confusion among Brits living here and probably a few accidents. It seems ridiculous, but if you are driving along a main road people coming from the right (where there is no give way or stop sign) have priority. Just to keep you on your toes, this isn’t always clearly indicated so you can be going along quite happily when cars suddenly appear from nowhere forcing you off the road. Anyone wanting to know more can buy the French equivalent of the Highway Code, the Code Rousseau.
Helena Frith Powell was born in Sweden to a Swedish mother and Italian father, but grew up mainly in England. She is the author of eleven books, translated into several languages including Chinese and Russian. She wrote the French Mistress column The Sunday Times about life in France for several years. She is a regular contributor to the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, The Times, Daily Telegraph, Tatler Magazine and Harper’s Bazaar.
Helena has been the editor of four magazines, including M Magazine, a supplement for the Abu Dhabi based National Newspaper and FIVE, a high-end fashion glossy, also published in Abu Dhabi. Helena was also editor in chief of 360 Life, a quarterly glossy magazine published with the Sports 360 Newspaper in Dubai, part of the Chalhoub Group.
Helena contributes regularly to UK-based newspapers and magazines and holds a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Cambridge. Helena is also working on a thriller called Thin Ice that will be published in spring 2021 as well as a novel about the relationship between Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield called Sense of an Echo.
Her latest non-fiction work Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles came out in hardback in 2016 and in paperback in April 2018.
Helena, who was educated at Durham University, lives in the Languedoc region of France with her husband Rupert and their three children.
More France Please, we’re British; Gibson Square 2004
Two Lipsticks and a Lover 2005; Gibson Square (hardback)
All You Need to be Impossibly French; (US version of above) Penguin 2006
Two Lipsticks and a Lover; Arrow Books (paperback) 2007
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (hardback) 2006
Ciao Bella Gibson Square; (paperback) 2007
So Chic! (French version of Two Lipsticks) Leduc Editions 2008 (also translated into Chinese, Russian and Thai)
More, More France; Gibson Square 2009
To Hell in High Heels; Arrow Books 2009 (also translated into Polish)
The Viva Mayr Diet; Harper Collins 2009
Love in a Warm Climate; Gibson Square 2011
The Ex-Factor; Gibson Square 2013
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles; Gibson Square 2016
The Arnolfini Marriage; Amazon Kindle December 2016
Smart Women Don’t Get Wrinkles (paperback); Gibson Square spring 2018
The Longest Night; Gibson Square spring 2019