The French Shrug can be so exasperating. Anyone who has travelled in France will know exactly what I mean. Here’s a typical example. You book a tour online. You arrive to be told it’s no longer available. “But I booked it, I can show you,” you say, as you start poking at your phone. Then you get the shrug. Without saying a word they have given you the message. You can poke at that phone all you like, but it won’t make any difference. The tour doesn’t exist.
I have experienced the French shrug many times and it has almost always frustrated the hell out of me, until yesterday.
We’re staying in the Vezere valley of the Perigord Noir region of France in a beautiful old farm house adjacent to an oak forest, with views across the valley, a gorgeous garden and a pool. What more could we ask for? The house is 2.5km from the nearest town which has no supermarket and the region has an abundance of ancient towns to explore. We needed a car.
Our extraordinarily helpful host takes us to a car hire place and a few hours later we’re on the road. While I’ve driven in Europe many times, I’m a little nervous to start with as the car is much bigger than I’m used to. But I soon get the hang of it, along with the gear stick being on my right and having to look left before I enter a roundabout.
As we drive through a small town, I pull up behind a large white van which is double-parked. The road is narrow and there are cars coming from the other direction so I wait patiently for an opportunity to pass. Then a man emerges carrying a red witch’s hat and jumps into the van. I assume he has been working nearby and is about to take off. But no, he starts to reverse into the empty car park beside me. If I don’t move he will hit me. I frantically attempt to find the horn while reversing at the same time … into the car behind me.
After I few seconds of cursing I jump out of my car. The man in the van is shouting at me in French and pointing to the empty carpark. He thinks I’m trying to steal his park. I rush behind the car and look at the damage. I have a tow bar so my car is okay. The other car appears to have some damage to the number plate. I approach the driver through his open window and start babbling “desole, desole” – sorry, sorry. Naturally, he starts speaking to me in French. I babble on, “Desole, Australien. Anglais.” – Sorry. Australian. English. I motion for him to look at the damage. He reluctantly gets out of the car, touches the mark I’ve made, gives me a nonchalant shrug and gets back into his car. And that’s how I came to appreciate the French shrug.