October 28, 2007
I was pulled over by the French police today.
I suppose it was only a matter of time before it happened.
Every time I see the police here I actually physically cringe because I’m so afraid of them.
But this morning I didn’t see them. I didn’t know they were there.
I also didn’t know I’d done anything wrong.
I had just gone through a yellow light, only to go about one car length to the next yellow light where I stopped.
Yes, there were two stop lights one after the other. About 10 meters (yards) apart, if that.
So I’m sitting here at the light when I see a cop walking toward me.
My stomach sinks. I begin replaying the last scene in my head. Was the light red? Did I forget to signal? Was I driving too fast? What’s he doing?
Oh no! He’s knocking on my window.
He doesn’t even wait for me to finish unrolling my window before he demands that I pull over across the street.
“OK,” I say.
But I continue to wait at the red light because I have to do a u-turn to pull over to the spot he’s pointing to.
“You ran a red light back there. Did you see all the other cars stop? Why did you keep going?” he asks me (in French of course).
“Oh. I didn’t realize it was red. I thought it was a yellow light.”
“Are you trying to be smart with me?! If you’re going to get smart with me I can be a real asshole! Is that what you want?”
“Erm. No. I’m sorry. I’m not trying to be difficult.”
“Well, why are you driving if you don’t know your colors. If you can’t tell the difference between green and red you shouldn’t be driving. Now pull over across the street.”
“I am. I mean, I’m going to. I’m just waiting for the light. Oh, there it is.”
So I pull over across the street where he had indicated. And at this point I have absolutely no idea what I said to upset him so much. My hands are shaking and my eyes are tearing up.
Once I’m pulled over he starts in on me again.
“Garbly, garble, blah, blah, garble, the bus … récoule.”
“What? I’m sorry. I’m not trying to be difficult but I really don’t understand.”
“Garb-ly, gar-ble, BLAH, BLAH, GAR-BLE, THE BUS … RE-COULE!” he says it slower and louder, as though I’m in some kind of comedy show where they’re making fun of people who do this. Saying it louder does not help me to know what the words mean, it just scares me.
Now I’m really crying. I have no idea what he’s asking me to do. I pulled over where he asked me to. I don’t see a bus in my rearview mirror.
I am parked in a bus stop area though, so maybe he wants me to back up? Yes. Let’s try that.
I begin backing up and I say, “Like this?”
He instructs me to continue backing up. When I finally am told to stop, he asks me for my license and registration, which I give him.
The registration cards here are in fancy little plastic blue billfolds and I didn’t know I needed to take it out for him.
He throws it back through the window and demands that I take it out of the plastic, which I do, hands shaking.
Everything I do seems to only make this situation worse. I know I’m not trying to be difficult, but for some reason he’s convinced that I am.
He looks at my license and asks me where I’m from.
I look at him confused. Did he really just ask me where I’m from? Or did I hear him wrong? Because it says right on my license in all caps: CALIFORNIA.
Again, with the slow loud talking, he asks me where I’m from.
“California, is that it?!” he asks.
“Oui. Je viens de Californie.”
At this point a second officer comes and I think I’m saved. He must be here to translate for me.
The first cop turns his back to me and speaks in the direction of the translator cop.
“Il faut faire attention ici,” he says.
“Il faut vraiment faire attention ici,” translator cop repeats.
“Il y a des piétons partout ici, et les véhicules d’urgences aussi.”
And again translator cop repeats IN FRENCH.
At this point I’m really beginning to feel as though I’m on candid camera or something.
This looks like a comic sketch.
It goes on for several minutes: The first cop lecturing me, and the second cop repeating the lecture word for word, translating it from French into … French … as though hearing it twice will suddenly make me understand French better.
The imaginary bus I left space for should drive up right about now and hit both of them. Or maybe someone will come running down the street with pies for me to shove in their faces.
Are they going to break into song and dance next? I wonder.
“Is this really happening right now?” I’m thinking, when suddenly something translator cop says catches my attention.
“Meme si le feu est orange il faut arrêter.”
LIGHT BULB! Ah, so the first cop thought I was being smart because I called it a yellow light. Well, how was I supposed to know it was called an orange light here? Aren’t orange and yellow pretty much the same anyway?
“Sorry officer. I didn’t realize I had to stop for orange lights as well,” I say through my tears.
“Well, driving in Paris isn’t like driving in Provence. There you may be able to do that, but here it’s much more dangerous,” says translator cop, who is the only one talking anymore.
The first cop hands me back my papers and license.
Then translator cop smiles and says, “This isn’t the United States. We aren’t as severe as the police in the U.S., are we?”
In my head I say, “Well, in all the times I’ve been pulled over at home I’ve never been yelled at by a police officer, nor have I cried.”
But I say, “Erm. I don’t know.”
“No, we’re not so bad,” he says.
And then they take a few steps back from my car and begin pointedly ignoring me.
What is going on here? Does this mean I get to go?
“Can I go then?” I ask.
“Go ahead.” they say. “Just make a left at the next street and a left at the following light and you’ll end up back where you were headed.”
I wipe away my tears and begin slowly driving away, unsure whether they’d suddenly change their minds and begin running madcap after my car, holding onto the bumper as I drag them behind me.
P.S. I looked for the word “recouler” in the dictionary when I got home and it wasn’t in there. I guess it means “to roll back” but I can’t be certain. I do know it doesn’t mean, literally translated, “to back up,” nor does it mean “to move in reverse.”