October (I), 2004
I have had more car accidents in the short time I have been in France than the rest of my life put together. It’s true that one of the incidents did include me backing the car into a tree, but whose idea was it to put giant trees so close to the road? I blame Napoleon. The other two incidents were typical of France. In one I was innocently driving to see a friend when someone came round the corner on the wrong side of the road doing three times the speed limit and drove straight into me. In the other I was barged into by a Lafarge lorry when the driver ran out of room on his side of the road. Better to take out the pregnant woman and baby in a Golf than the lamppost.
The French around us are appalling drivers. Around midday, when they are rushing to get to lunch, they are downright dangerous. Having had nothing to eat since a croissant at 7 am, their blood sugar levels are dangerously low as they negotiate corners at 80 kilometres an hour while thinking of their steak frites.
But it is not only the French that present a threat. My charming neighbour Virginia recently arrived at my house in a total flap. She had just had lunch in a restaurant where she had drunk two glasses of wine. She was so terrified of making the dreaded mistake of driving on the wrong side of the road when she got into her car that she kept chanting “I must keep to the left” to herself. She was amazed a few hundred metres down the road to see a Frenchman coming straight towards her. “I almost killed the poor man,” she told me. “But he was perfectly wonderful about it.”
When Virginia goes back to England she lends me her car, a Peugeot convertible with English plates. I thought it would be a good experiment to see if the French reacted any differently to me whilst driving an English car. Would they be even more pushy and dangerous? No, is the answer. In fact that’s probably not possible. There really isn’t much difference in their reaction, except I once drove past a man pruning a vine on a roundabout. I had the roof down as it was a gloriously sunny day. He threw down his secateurs, raised his arms in the air and yelled “I love you”.
I meet some very interesting people, and the question of how long one can have English plates on a car is one I am often asked. According to Ivan Tredinnick who runs an insurance company here, there is no time limit. “The French authorities will try to put pressure on you to change your licence plates, but under European law you are under no obligation to do so,” he says. “The only problem is finding an insurance company that will insure a UK-registered car here, as most of the French ones will not.” But in terms of the law, as long as a car is legal in the UK, it is legal in France.
Another frequently asked question is what does one do if one has an accident? Alison Hall, a media headhunter with a company called The 7 Arts Consultancy, recently drove into a deer on the motorway between just outside Cahors whilst on their way to her house in the Gers. “My advice to anyone taking a car to France is to make sure you’re fully covered in case of an accident,” she says. “I dread to think what the recovery of the car, let alone the deer, would have cost us. You should also bring plenty of water with you. Our son was in shock after the accident and we had to try to keep him cool in temperatures of over 40 degrees. And don’t be tempted to ignore the warning signs for deer, which we used to laugh at.”
Getting insurance that will cover you in France is complicated. Most UK policies stop at the Channel so you need to check with your insurance company what they cover. If you have an accident the first call you should make is to your insurance company, unless of course it is an emergency. Then you need to call 15 for an ambulance, 16 for the police and 18 for the fire brigade. There is also a Europe-wide number, 112, which was introduced in 1991 and works all over Europe alongside the national numbers.
For those of you wondering if you can get away with speeding in an English car, the answer is no. My friends Rod and Fee Thompson were recently caught doing 185 kilometres an hour on their way to a ski resort. They were pulled over at the péage and Rod was frogmarched to a police car (in front of his three children) and driven to the nearest town. The three police officers escorted him to a bank and demanded he take out €750 on the spot and hand it over to them. “It was terrible,” says Rod. “The bank wouldn’t take any of my credit cards so I was then driven to a hole on the wall and made to take the cash out there. The whole experience was totally humiliating and the children were terrified.” As well as the fine, Rod had his driving licence taken away and was given a three-month ban. They drove off after the incident, with Fee at the wheel. Unfortunately she is as much of a speed freak as her husband and 15 kilometres down the road they were stopped again. “I don’t know what we would have done if they’d taken my licence away as well,” says Fee. “The children are all under ten so just that bit too young to drive.”
Ivan Tredinnick Insurance, www.tredinnick-insurance.com, email: email@example.com, tel: 0033 ( 0)5 45 82 42 93 fax: 0033 (0)5 45 36 27 95. Alison Hall’s house is available for rent on www.lesarcades.co.uk
The recent cases of rabies in southwest France have resulted in the introduction of new legislation. A rabid puppy, called Tiki, was brought in from Morocco and travelled to the Dordogne, Bordeaux and Lot-et-Garonne before it died. If you live in any of the above-mentioned areas you must now have an up-to-date rabies vaccination certificate for your dog or cat, as well as a tattoo or microchip, otherwise it could be taken away. All unidentified stray cats and dogs picked up by the pound will be put down after eight days. They will only be returned to the owner on production of a valid rabies certificate. For more information please call the government rabies hotline on 0033 (0) 821 22 23 00.
Stephen Gibbs-Sier from Cambridge has written to me with a long list of French planning questions, which I will tackle in future columns. One point he raises, the power of the mayor, is crucially important. I cannot emphasise how vital it is for any owner of a French property to make friends with the local mayor. This could be the single most important contact you make. He or she is the one person who can have a direct effect on your life here and it is well worth the effort. One French friend of mine says that if you fall out with the mayor it’s time to move on.
Helena Frith Powell’s More France Please, We’re British (1903933560, £9.99) will be published by Gibson Square on 16 November.
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