Candes Saint-Martin, my favourite spot in La Touraine.

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Swans - but not the kind you think

In colloquial French, in both Belgium and France, policemen are commonly referred to as ‘flics’. In Flemish it’s ‘flikken’. In France you’ll also hear the word ‘poulets’ (chickens). And in Flemish ‘flikken’ who ride motorbikes and always come in pairs are called ‘zwaantjes’ (baby swans!). The name ‘zwaantjes’ finds its origin in the early days of the motorized police. In those days they used to ride Harley Davidson’s. They wore a white crash helmet, black-rimmed goggles and – when it was raining – a long raincoat, which used to float elegantly in the air when they were cruising at high speed. With a bit of imagination, it wasn’t too difficult to see the resemblance with a swan gliding over the water surface.

An elegant swan, photo from the internet. 
See the resemblance?!

Today the ‘zwaantjes’ ride on BMW’s, wear orange helmets and blue and black leather protective clothing. Very un-swanlike, yet the knick-name remains …

Contemporary Belgian 'zwaantjes'.

Just one advice when travelling in France (or Belgium for that matter) and finding yourself face to face with a policeman never, and I mean NEVER, address him as ‘Mister Poulet’ or Mister ‘Flic’, unless that is the name showing on his badge. You could find your fine doubled or even ‘win’ a night in prison for offending an officer on duty. 

During my recent stay in the Loire Valley, we had a short and rather worrying encounter with the French equivalent of our Flemish ‘zwaantjes’. We had just left our B and B at the foot of Vouvray’s bell tower and Vera was sitting on hands and knees beside me in the back of the car, putting the two fruit tarts we had bought for Susan and Simon’s BBQ party in the cool-box. While she was doing this, I was thinking that moving around in a driving car wasn’t very safe and that the police, if they were to see it, wouldn’t be very pleased. She had just jumped back in the passenger seat in the front when we saw the two motorized policemen standing at the end of the road ahead of us.  

They couldn’t possibly have seen Vera jumping into place. And yet, they signalled to Mats to pull over and stop the car. One of the ‘flics’ strode (motorized policemen don’t ‘walk’ but ‘stride’ as if they have a broom stick stuck down their jacket and trousers) over to Mats' side of the car.

“Vous parlez français?” he asked. Mats shook his head put pointed to me sitting in the backseat of the car, adding “No, but she does.” The man looked at me and said “La personne dans le siège passager ne porte pas sa ceinture de securité. » (The person in the passenger seat isn’t wearing her safety belt.) I translated the message for Mats and Vera. In the meantime he asked to see Mats driving license. He studied it carefully, while making the mandatory tour around the car. He handed back the license and asked for the ‘papiers du vehicule’ (car papers). I translated the request and Mats and Vera looked very bewildered. “This is a company car. We don’t carry the car papers with us”. Outch!!! I tried to explain to the policeman what they said, adding that in Sweden people in company cars never carry the car papers with them.

By the look on his face, the policeman found this very unusual but had no arguments to proof the contrary. “The fine for not wearing a safety belt is 90 euros.” he said (in French, of course). Once again I translated the message. And then Vera made an almost crucial mistake – thank heavens French policemen, or at least this one, don’t understand English, because she said “I haven’t had time to fasten it yet, because I have been busy in the back and was just sitting down when you saw us.” “Keep quiet” I whispered- “You’re making it worse!” The policeman looked at me. I had to come up with a translation. “We have just left our B and B up there” – pointing at the bell tower – “And she forgot to fasten it. She didn’t do it on purpose”, I pleaded.

The man frowned and in French said “I suppose you are on vacation and don’t have that kind of money on you?” I didn’t even bother to translate it back into English and nodded “That’s right.” “D’accord, continuez.” (Okay, you can go.), he said. I noticed that he looked puzzled though. He must have recognized my Belgian accent and was probably asking himself what a Belgian middle-aged woman was doing, travelling with a Swedish couple in a Swedish car with a Stockholm license plate.

For a moment there I thought that he was going to confiscate the car and that we wouldn’t make it to the party I had been looking forward to for months. But he let us go … But wait ... this isn’t the end of the story!


Food, Fun and Life in the Charente said...

Oops I did not know about that, I am so glad you made the party. What could have been worse than a party for you and that you did not make it :) It was a good day wasn't it. Have a good Sunday, Diane

VirginiaC said...

Oh now you have got me on the edge of my seat Martine....don't keep us waiting too long for the rest of the story.
I always sit in the lotus position when I want to be really comfortable, so I know Vera was enjoying the ride in that position. (sounds sexual but you understand what I'm trying to say don't you?)
Wow what a close call...

Louise said...

Martine...I can't wait for the next instalment. You write so well I found myself laughing, and then being concerned for Vera.. It's confronting to be "accosted" by the police in a foreign country...your diplomacy was perfectly timed I think!

Jean said...

We have been stopped a few times by the French police, sometimes to be checked for drink driving and breathalised but mostly because I'm sure they were just being nosey - especially when we were on our own Harley-Davidsons !! Consequently we always carry all our documents with us, just in case and to avoid aggravation.

ladybird said...

Diane, The party was super and I wouldn't have missed it for the world. Even if it meant taking a taxi to get there :)

Virginia, Vera had been sitting there for only one or two minutes, the time it took to put the party food in the cool-box. The rest of the story is in today's post. Enjoy!

Louise, It was more my 'survival' instinct and wish to get to this all important party than diplomacy. But it worked. And that's all that counts:)

Jean, Luckily we have never been breathalised. Especially in the past! We are much more careful nowadays. But I agree that it's possibly curiosity that makes them stop tourists. But you know what they say: 'curiosity killed the cat!' I'm sure that applies to 'poulets' too. lol!