The Frogmarch

"I've got to pull up my stakes and roll, man." --Jean-Jacques Libris de Kerouac

Monday, March 31, 2008

Won’t Anyone Sell Me an Entry-level European Luxury Car?

Café Leffe, Place de Terreaux, Lyon

As soon as you enter the parking lot, they spot you. They snap to alert, every head swiveling, focusing. Instinctively, they begin to converge on you, some slowly, others with frightening speed, slipping between the parked cars, converging like a horde of zombies who have scented fresh brrraaainnnsssss…

Car salesmen. You’ve been there. You know the drill, you brace yourself for the onslaught of cheap cologne, bad suits, overly-aggressive handshakes and tacky jewelry.

But the fact that you’re seeing a post on this topic here should tip you off: Things are just a little different in France. Perhaps it’s because the car-culture/car-as-identity mindset doesn’t really exist here. Perhaps it’s that the French are simply bad at capitalism. Whatever the reason, the French car dealer just doesn’t give a damn if you buy a car from him or not.

Dig: V. strolls into a Saab dealership in Ecully, in the western suburbs, having taken a metro and two buses to get there (wouldn’t it make sense for a place that sells cars to be located in a place where people who do not have cars can get to it? Just thinking out loud). She’s wearing probably a thousand dollars worth of clothes, because that is what one does in France when one goes shopping, if one wants not to be ignored by salespeople. The sales zombies look up briefly, then go back to their cigarettes and discussion of the OL/Monaco match.

Because of my job, I have quasi-diplomatic status and the benefits that entails. That includes diplomatic immunity, which I never have had occasion to use (using diplomatic immunity to get out of traffic tickets is considered bad form), and the opportunity to buy new cars tax-free and at a significant discount. See, the big-name European manufacturers (Audi, Mercedes, BMW, Volvo et al.) consider it good advertising to have their new-model cars cruising around town with green diplomatic plates on them, so they give price breaks to people who don’t really need them.

Now, I’ve never been a flashy-new-car kind of guy; it just doesn’t make financial sense to pay a big premium for a new car only to have that value evaporate the second you drive it off the lot. My last car was a ’95 Integra with 160,000 miles on it. I loved it dearly, and as the guy I sold it to drove off, I turned away so he wouldn’t see me getting choked up. He bought it as a graduation present for his 18-year-old son; I guarantee that the kid stuck a fartcan “performance” muffler and a ridiculous wing on the back within the first few weeks, and he’s probably totalled it by now.

Still, we’ve decided that we're going to need a car, and since I have the opportunity to buy a new made-to-order car at the price of a year-old used one, why not? I almost certainly will never buy a brand-new car again.

So I e-mailed the diplomatic sales departments of the various marques, flipped through the glossy brochures they sent, and cut down the list to a few cars: You can’t get a C-class Benz in a wagon, and too pricey anyway; out. Audi’s discount is far less than the others; out. You can’t import an Alfa Romeo into the US; out. Jaguars look nice but have that famous Jaguar reliability; out. So we’re deciding between entry-level wagons from Volvo, Saab, and BMW (yes, I am aware of the difference between BMWs and porcupines*). The Diplomatic Sales offices for those brands have generally been helpful and responsive. It’s the local dealers that have made the whole process a hassle. The BMW dealer doesn’t return my calls and ignores my e-mails. The Saab dealer has apparently never made a diplomatic sale before, and after considerable hassle gave us a handwritten price list that was totally different from the one I got from Saab HQ.

The Volvo guys were affable enough, once I got their attention and once they heard “diplomat” (if they think I’m the US consul, I’m not going to try to disaver them of that notion). But here’s the tricky part: we want a car with a gasoline engine and automatic transmission (V. can’t drive a manual), and both of those things are relatively rare in France. Both of them in the same car is extremely rare.

So we made an appointment for a test drive. Bien sûr, Saturday will be fine. But we will not have a V50 wagon for you. Um, what? But you can drive one of our other cars, one with the same transmission. Is almost the same. So we took our Volvo V50 wagon test drive [grey car, first photo] in a Volvo C70 convertible [red car, second photo]. And here’s the crazy thing—when he said it I was pretty sure I had misunderstood his French (happens to me a lot). He said “How long do you want it for?” I boggled at him. Not only was the salesman not going to ride along with us on the test drive, he was just going to let us walk out the door with the keys to a brand-new $50,000 car, having done nothing more than write down my telephone number.

You know the scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off with the parking attendants and the Ferrari 250 GTO?

France's nationwide autoroute speed limit is 140km/h (87 mph). Deeplomatic eemmunity!

*Porcupines have pricks on the outside.

Friday, March 28, 2008


A few months back I mentioned the work being done in our apartment building's entry. I finally remembered to snap some pictures of the finished work when I went down to dump the recycling.

[beware: tangent] Even though France is far far ahead of the US in many environmental issues, their recycling programs are generally in their infancy. While our building does have weekly pickup of recycling bins, if you want to recycle your glass, you have to haul it several blocks to a community glass recycling station, a giant egg-shaped thing squatting on a street corner. Recycling bins are non-existent in most public spaces (e.g. parks) where you would expect to find them in the US. [end tangent]

Anyway, here are a couple of photos of the trompe l'oeil painting on the doors that hide the utility storage and the garbage bins. I was worried that they might look cheesy, but I think the artistes did a pretty nice job.

You might for a half-second believe that our courtyard houses a garden with olive and citrus trees, rather than some rolling garbage bins, some external elevator shafts, the back end of a Petit Casino, and 150 years' worth of pigeon poop.

March Madness: C'est Chouette, Bébé!*

I am absolutely dominating my office's NCAA tournament pool. Probably because I'm the only one in it.

While the French do have a passing interest in basketball (well behind soccer and rugby, but ahead of f'rinstance baseball), that interest is in the NBA variety. The French just don't do college sports; if Université Lyon competes in any intercollegiate sporting events, I'm unaware of it, as it certainly doesn't show up in the papers.

So while the odd game featuring the San Antonio Spurs (here referred to as "Tony Parker and his teammates", which is something like the Japanese-market version of Star Trek being called "Sulu, Master of Navigation") turns up on France 4 at 3AM, if I want to follow my beloved Heels I generally have to do so via dodgy Chinese video-streaming websites. Alternately, I try to find a North Carolina radio station that broadcasts online and has neglected to switch off its streaming feed when the basketball game comes on. I was having good luck with an AM talk radio outfit in Hendersonville ("where the heavens kiss the peaks") for a while, but they seem to have gotten wise or received a nastygram from the NCAA for webcasting without having bought the rights.

Fortunately for me this year, the NCAA is webcasting every single tournament game live and for free, so I'll be able to watch (albeit on my laptop screen, with glitchy video and WiFi that drops at the least opportune times). Now if they could only do something about that time difference so the games don't run from 3 to 5 AM...

*"It's awesome, babeee!"

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Used Furniture Photo Dump

Every month or so, we make a pass through the Boite d' Occases, a sort of combination used-furniture/thrift store/junk shop. There's usually something interesting to look at, and sometimes some really great deals.

In addition to the 50 pounds of gear required to maintain two small boys for an afternoon around town (diaper bag for Tater, water bottles, snacks, books for Boog, rain cover for the stroller, ad infinitum), we try to bring along the digital camera. This way, we take snaps of anything potentially interesting we see, plus its price tag/stock number, so that when we get home we can think it over. I usually just delete these photos after we've made our yea/nay decisions, but this time, lucky you, I'm posting the ones from our most recent Boite expedition.

Are you ready for some flat, artless utilitarian photos of grotty secondhand furniture? Hell yeah!

Here's a nice-looking armoire with some tasteful marquetry. This one's been here a few months, but now they've moved it up front and dropped the price substantially. Maybe they're willing to deal on it... maybe it'll fit in our bathroom so we can keep Tater from rifling V's feminine hygiene products and throwing them in the bathtub.

Do we need an end table? This one's OK, plus it's small enough that I could take it home on the Metro. The wood finish could use some work, but the marble top is in pretty good shape, and at 40 euros the price is right. (The wheel thingy underneath is from a serving cart behind it.)

Oooh, check this out! A telephone chair, uh, furniture thing! Upholstered in skanky gold velour! With a space for the Chapel Hill-Carrboro phone book! Sadly, V hates the color. Also, we have absolutely no place in the apartment to put it, as we already have an armoire and a secretary in the entry hall, in addition to our stroller collection and our upright France-spec bread box. It's a shame... because I could absolutely picture V draping herself dramatically across it and picking up the candlestick phone to call 'round to Le Nord to arrange lunch with Lady Dinkelfwat, or ringing Brad and Angie to see if they'll be coming down to the Lake Como villa this weekend.

En-bas Dans La Rue

Over at the excellent car-buff site Jalopnik, they run an occasional feature called Down On The Street, which presents photos of interesting, daily-driven vintage (or just plain old) cars in their natural habitat--parked on the street, rather than in a climate-controlled garage or museum. Here's my version, a snap of an orange '70s Citroen Mehari parked across the street from the Quai St. Antoine post office.

If the photo appears blurry, that's because of the rays of pure awesome emanating from the Mehari.


I spent a good bit of time composing a long post yesterday, but in reading back over it I realized that I sounded like a complete jerk for whining about what I was whining about. Maybe if I can de-jerkify it a little I'll run it anyway. Stay tuned.

Friday, March 14, 2008

Observations from a Morning Commute

Boog and I pass through the turnstile gate of the Bellecour metro station onto the platform for the A-line toward Perrache. There's a suspicious smell wafting across the platform; I look around and spot the source: two guys in green workman's coveralls are standing at the back of the platform, smoking a joint (mixed with loose tobacco, as is the custom here). It is 7:35 in the morning.

I hope these guys are coming off the third shift, rather than making attitude adjustments prior to punching in for their crane-operator jobs.


In the freebie newspaper I pick up at the metro entrance, there's a headline: The last French poilu has died. (Article in English here.) Poilu, which literally means "hairy" (and I suppose by extension "manly/tough/brave") is the term given to French soldiers of the Great War--roughly analagous to our "doughboys"-- and is uttered with great reverence. In America we refer to the Greatest Generation who won WWII and built a prosperous Atomic-age nation; there is no comparable term in French that I know of, but the sentiment is the same.

For the French, World War I was the last Good War. World War II had its heroes, no doubt, was France's Vietnam in a way, a sudden collapse of ideas of power and invulnerability, and a rabbit punch to national pride (of course, the actual Vietnam was also the France's Vietnam, and throw in Algeria to boot). Every French village and town, no matter how small, has its monument to its war dead, much the way Southern towns have their Confederate memorial. The horrific bloodshed of WWI--France lost 1,700,000 killed, 11% of the entire population (!)--means that these monuments can be very affecting. Out strolling in a quiet hamlet in rural Burgundy, V. and I came across one that had twenty names on it; there were only nine houses in the village. My frickin' bank branch has a plaque in the lobby listing its employees who died in La Guerre 14-18; it's got probably 30 names on it. Noble, bitter sacrifice.

One wonders whether, with the last of the poilus having answered the last bugle call (or insert your own overwrought metaphor here), the French view of its own history will have to take on less of a shine and begin to address issues of heroism and glory that are much less clear-cut. We shouldn't smirk, though; reunions of our WWII GI's get smaller every year.


The 8 bus, in its transit between the old-money 2nd arrondissement and the leafy southwest suburb of Ste.-Foy, passes through some of the city's most blighted urban landscape, a former shipping/warehouse district that was forgotten when the modern port opened a few miles downriver. The bus stops close to Cours Charlemagne are used primarily by characters out of Bukowski--bums, drunks, squatters, dealers, pimps and whores. One of these last gets on the bus and sits caddy-corner from us; she is young, maybe 18 or 19, with nearly blue-black skin and clothes that are seedy even for members of her profession. It is most likely, based on what I read in the papers, that she owes a huge sum of money in exchange for being brought illegally from Nigeria to Europe in hopes of a better life, and now has few other options for paying it back.

She removes a glossy publication from her bag, and begins to read. Curious, I edge a little in my seat, wondering what it is she might be reading. She turns the page and I glimpse the cover.

It's a ski resort brochure from Courchevel.

You go, girl.

Saturday, March 01, 2008

Thursday Night at the Expat Bar

Dave is already there, leaning on the bar at Wallace, when I come in. I'm a bit out of breath, having picked a Velo'V bike with a busted derailleur that wouldn't upshift out of first, so I spun the pedals like Lance Armstrong on angel dust all the way across the 2nd, over the bridge and into Vieux-Lyon. We exchange our greetings as I shuck my jacket and toss it over a barstool.

"Anyone else coming?"
"One more for sure...I dunno. We'll see."

[photo: Full moon on Hotel-Dieu from the living room balcony. Click to enlarge]

Dave and I don't have too much in common other than being American and roughly the same age. But we talk a bit; this is what you do as an expat--hang out with people for no real reason other than that you have the same-colored passport. We do share a taste for whiskey, though, which partially explains why the American Club's monthly low-key hang-out-and-drink is held here at the Wallace, a Scots-owned place that features every brand of scotch I've ever heard of plus a bunch more.

I order a drink, a glass of Lagavulin 16, sans glacons, and there's the odd little interaction with the bartender, an invisible, silent negotiation over which language the transaction will occur in (the Wallace staff are bilingual). The customer wishes to show that he is a local and not a tourist; the bartender wants to complete the transaction as painlessly as possible. In this case the conversation begins with "Bon soir. Alors, je prends..." and ends with "Cheers, mate."

[photo: pretty much the same photo, taken from 5 steps to the right to get the neighboring building in the frame. So sue me, I like 'em both.]

A blackboard shows upcoming events: Chelsea-Blackburn Rovers, Six Nations rugby, some cricket match or another. One of the weekly specials is haggis. The music switches from Oasis to U2. I finish my dram, and having warmed up a bit, have the barkeep pull me a pint of Murphy's.

Some more 'Ricains show up, plus a couple of English-speaking French people, and we've got enough people to enter the Thursday Night Pub Quiz.

Pub Quiz is pretty straightforward: A bloke reads off a set of trivia questions, aided by a French translator sitting next to him, and a videotape of visual aids displayed on the bar's TV. Each team notes its answers on an official scoresheet, and scores are tallied after each round. There's a tiebreaker question that no one can be expected to guess correctly (last time it was "How many kilos of pubic hair does the London sewer authority remove from its network each month?"*) Highest score wins... something. Free rounds, gift certificates maybe.

I don't know because my team has never won--Americans are at a distinct disadvantage at Pub Quiz, as it is heavily biased towards UK culture. If you don't know your Coronation Street cast members or BBC presenters or 1966 World Cup team members, you're going to drop points.

As it becomes apparent that we're going to finish out of the money in Pub Quiz, conversation wanders: The French folks have all sorts of questions about Hillary and Obama (very big story here) and we scratch our heads to try to remember arcane details about party conventions. There are a lot of "where can you buy [x] in this town, anyway?" and "anyone ever been to [y], and is it any good?".

Of course, the first question in any expat conversation is "How long have you been here?", which precedes even the "So, what do you do?" that is standard within the US. There is small talk. There are silences a bit too long as everyone tries to think of a suitable conversation topic. I figure "Anybody got the new Mountain Goats album?" is unlikely to generate much conversation. There is a bit of oversharing as someone gets a little too far into the whiskey.

After a couple of pints I need to visit the Gents', so I excuse myself and head down the hallway to where the urinals are. Interestingly, the Ladies' is past those urinals, and as I'm conducting my business a girl passing by catches my elbow with her oversized bag. "Oh, pardon," she says, slightly embarrassed. Somewhat more embarrassed, I reply "C'est pas grave" [It's no big deal]. She doesn't try to peek to verify.

Back in the bar room, a table of about 12 Brits and a handful of Frenchies (useful if you need to know how many times Edith Piaf was married) takes the pub quiz prize. I'm getting tired far too early, plus I've got work tomorrow, so I decide to cut out.

The streets are quiet and I ride along the sidewalk, slowly so I can look in the shop windows. Two years and I still haven't been in most of these shops, bars, and restaurants. Maybe this weekend... well, probably not.

*1400 kilos!