Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Rules and rule-breakers

"The first rule of driving in Marseille is that there are no rules."

--told to me by a Dutch film studies student, relating his first day commuting in Marseille

Witnessed during my daily commute in Marseille.


The form looked official enough. It was part of the stack of papers I was filling out in order to obtain my visa, and I wanted to make sure everything was correct. My friend Jolene had years of experience leading semester programs in France, so I asked for her help in sorting through the language, the expectations, and the culture. She was walking me through the form line by line, but it didn't take long for the process to baffle me.

"This line says that you are supposed to say 'courriel' rather than 'email' or any other term, according to a law from 1996."

"What?!? I can't call it email?"

"Not quite. No one actually calls it courriel. But they're obligated to tell you that you're supposed to call it that instead of email."

"I don't understand."

"You will. Sometimes rather than going the easy route, they take a stand against incursions into the language. 'Email' is an English word, whereas 'courriel' is distinctly French. But everyone says 'email.'"

I've been here a month. I had to look up what that word was that I was supposed to use instead of email.

I send my courriel from this keyboard. Look very carefully. 
It revels in its non-QWERTYness. In the right-hand corner of the screen there is a small EN, which tells my keyboard to think it's QWERTY. This allows me to touchtype, but it devastates any attempts to hunt and peck.


How does a seven six-year old navigate this?

I am generally a rule follower. Part of it is my moral compass, and part of it is the social awkwardness of getting caught breaking a rule. So I read up on how to use (and actually pay for) public transportation, and I'd found out that we could get reduced fairs for our daughter. We bought bus tickets from the airport to Gare Saint Charles, the rail station in the middle of town that also serves as a hub for the metro. The adult tickets included a single ride ticket for public transportation, but our daughter's cheaper bus fare did not. No big deal. But the ticket vending machine did not include an option for a child.

Anne sought out an RTM worker to ask how to buy our daughter a ticket. [Imagine this is all in French because I have magically learned it.]

"Je suis desole, Monsieur. Can you please tell us how to buy a children's ticket for our seven year old..."

"Elle a six ans" ("she has six years"...meaning "she is six years old") he interrupted.

"Quelle...?" Anne said slowly.

Very deliberately, but losing patience: "Elle. A. Six. Ans."

His insistence made the light go on for us. Our suspicions were confirmed when we checked the info on the RTM site: les enfants six years and under ride for free with a paying parent. So I guess elle a six ans, at least according to our RTM expert.


There will be some overlap in our posts, but you'll pick up differences due to the point of view. You may have read part of this before.

On The Day We Tried to Find a Bank, we visited a half dozen or so branches. It was exhausting and confusing and a little frightening, because the rules were definitely different. We knew we were Not From Here, and we had just begun to find our bearings.

We stepped inside La Poste Banque and figured we had found la line for la banque rather than for la poste, but the man behind the first desk who decided what line you went to next began gesturing to us. I think he was saying something rapidly in French, too, but I was a bit shell-shocked. Anne figured out that he was saying something about taking a number, so she looked around for the number machine. He gestured some more, and we found the machine behind us.

We stared at it blankly. This was not the simple pull-tab number from the Purple Cow.

The man gestured some more.

Finally he got up and walked briskly over to us. I figured we were about to be sent to bank number eleventeen, but instead he pushed a button, and the machine spat out a number.

He walked back to his desk and sat down.

Then he immediately called us over.

Anne tried to mention that our number did not match the number displayed overhead for "Now Serving," but he would have none of it. He gave us the friendly hand wave of don't-worry-about-it, and he insisted we come up right away.

It was very important that we have a number, though it didn't matter that we had the right number.

We had to come back the next day with more paperwork, and when he saw us come in, he jumped out of his seat and led us past the long line of people straight to the desk of the person whose help we needed.

I've mentioned both of these last two stories to Jolene, and she's assured me that she is not at all surprised.


Our daughter got a library card and checked out an array of English and French book. After a few days of checking out a number of museums and stores in the neighborhood, she was itching for some imaginative play, and I returned home from work at just the right time.

"Dad, will you play library with me?"

"Sure. Do you want me to help you shelve books or read some with you?"

"No. You're visiting the library. I work here. You need to check out some books."

"OK. I'd like to check out these books."

"May I see your library card?"

"Here it is."

"No it isn't. This is just a piece of paper. We need to get you a library card."


"May I see your passport?"


"And your visa?"


"Do you have a lease from your apartment or a bill?"


"Do you have a letter from the owner?"

"I can find one."

"Do you have a bill for electricity or water to show that you have an apartment?"


"OK. Please come back here tomorrow with all of your papers, and we'll see if we can get you your card. Now please leave the books you wanted to check out--you'll have to wait until you have your card."


Our new Dutch friend living in Marseille who told us that there are no rules for driving here is mostly correct. But it would be more accurate to say that the rules that are on the books are not the rules that everyone follows. It takes a good deal of experience to figure out how it all works.

Par example:
  • There is a minimum of three lanes on any road with the opposing traffic. The dotted line down the middle of the road belongs to velos and motorcycles, who are allowed to pass at will*, so long as they stop at traffic lights. (*I saw a special case of this on my commute home from work today. A motorcyclist became impatient with the pace of passing the idling cars of the moped in front of him, so he swerved to the right, hopped the curb, and passed about a dozen cars on the sidewalk right in front of an elementary school. The only thing that made this notable was that the sidewalk had special railings to protect pedestrians from traffic, so this took evasive maneuvers.) 
Here I am, taking my life in my own hands, walking in the middle of the motorcycle lane.
  • Honking is required for many occasions. When, not if, the front person at the light doesn't notice it change to green because he or she is busy with a smartphone, the trailing cars must honk at least one long and one short blast. When a car gets stranded in the middle of an intersection because the driver didn't want to wait another light cycle despite there not being room to proceed, the cross traffic drivers must honk repeatedly until the road clears, and then leave with a parting blast. When a car with a green light stops for pedestrians waiting to cross*, the drivers two and three cars back must honk; the car just behind the stopped car does not honk. When a driver can't find a parking space when picking up a friend, he first honks a couple of times, then turns on the hazards and leaves the car in the street for a few minutes. (*I have seen this happen multiple times--people stop, and then they wave you to cross. You are jaywalking. They don't care.)
  • No matter what the signs say, if a car can get past you, that is a parking space. It does not matter if a pedestrian can get by on the sidewalk parking space. All mirrors are folded in when the car is parked.

Fairly decent parking here, though the Mercedes has erred by leaving a gap for someone to walk by.
  • They have another name for jay-walking here: crossing the street. My rule-anxious daughter is unhappy that we're teaching her how to assimilate.

This is a city of nearly a million people, and we have yet to witness an accident. We are shocked and impressed. 

That is what happens when everyone understands how the system works.

No comments:

Post a Comment