Montpellier. The big city. It's bitterly cold. We can see a huge bank of snow-laden cloud heading for us from the direction of Marseilles and the Camargue. We've already seen TV news pictures of Marseilles traffic brought to a halt by a couple of
Montpellier. The big city. It's bitterly cold. We can see a huge bank of snow-laden cloud heading for us from the direction of Marseilles and the Camargue. We've already seen TV news pictures of Marseilles traffic brought to a halt by a couple of centimetres of slush. The southern autoroutes are lined with kilometres of lorries parked nose to tail, coralled by the police against an accident. La Croix Rouge, the Red Cross, moves among the drivers, distributing hot meals and cigarettes. There's a sort of jolly Dunkirk spirit, resignation to enforced idleness. Perishables are hardly at risk in this weather. It's warmer inside the refrigeration units. Is this what we moved to the south of France for?
But never mind that. There's protection of a different sort, and not too much enforced idleness, for convoyeurs de fonds, the armoured bullion carriers, though. We've seen TV news pictures of them, too, coursing through the streets of Paris with police and soldiers riding shotgun. It's the same in other big cities, throughout Europe. It's a massive exercise.
They're delivering Euros. In Montpellier they've obviously braved snow, black ice, bandits, heists and hold-ups, because they've delivered the goods. In the Post Office, which is wonderfully warm, a pretty girl in a blue smock directs us to the right queue. (Do you get this service in the UK or the US?) We wait a few minutes, and presently a counter assistant takes our 100 franc notes and hands us a pack of the first Euro coins ever in exchange. E15.24-worth, although when we open the pack there's E15.25 in it. We've made 1 Euro-cent on the deal.
All this is happening in mid-December. The government has decided to release Euro-coins in advance of the official change-over date, January 1st, to allow people the experience of handling them and to get used to the denominations. You can't spend them until 2002 has started.
We take them home, open the packs and look at them. We feel we're in at a historic moment, and we wish we could share it with our compatriots north of the Channel. They're shiny and new, like foil-wrapped chocolate coins. Some are very small, some are dated 1999, so they've waited some time in the wings. They're all marked with their denomination, of course, but on the other side there's the famous semeuse, the girl sower, who featured on the 1 franc coin. It's the only link with France.
We can't wait to spend them. In fact by the time you read this, we'll be in Portugal. We'll have spent them there. They're valid thoughout Europe - at least, in all those member countries of the monetary union. No more changing into escudos, pesetas, guilders, punts, schillings, Uncle Tom Deutschmark and all. Wonderful. I'm all for bringing people together, even if it's only to grumble about how poor they are.
WE HAVEN'T seen any notes yet. They're due out on January 1st. But we've seen the designs, which all feature bridges. While there are certain national symbols like la semeuse on the coins, the notes are the same whatever their country of origin. The bridge is a good symbol, one of bringing people together. In Latin Pontifex meant 'bridge-builder' before it was extended to mean 'priest'. You knew that, of course.
SO WE'RE not even saying au revoir - which really means 'until we see each other again' - to some old friends, but the much more final adieu: goodbye to all those great Frenchmen and Frenchwomen who have accompanied us for so long.
Adieu, Marie Curie, nuclear physicist, on the 500 franc note. I'm sorry we saw each other so seldom.
Adieu, 200 franc note, with Gustave Eiffel, engineer extraordinaire, designer not only of the Eiffel Tower in Paris but of the railway bridge in our village:
Adieu, Paul Cézanne, impressionist artist, on the 100 franc note:
Adieu, Antoine de St Exupéry, pilot, explorer, author (The Little Prince), guardian of the 50 franc note:
THANKS TO Louise Hill for this story.
The old francs died one by one and went to heaven. First to tap at the pearly gates was the 500 franc note: God looked it up and down and said 'OK, you, there's your place in eternity, over there, right at the back, next to the station d'épuration.' The 500 franc note shuffled off grudgingly.
Next the 200 franc note appeared through the gates. 'Right', said God, 'I've got a place for you, over there, just in front of the 500 franc note. Off you go.'
The 100 franc note was told to go and stand just in front of the 200 franc note, the 50 in front of the 100, the 20 in front of the 50.
The coins started to appear. The 10 franc piece found its place just in front of the 20 franc note, the 5 franc piece in front of the 10, and so on with the 2 franc, the 1 franc, the 50 centimes, the 20, the 10.
Finally the 5 centime piece appeared. The trumpets rang out, angelic choirs sang, the heavenly host cheered and God said 'Good to see you, old friend. Come and sit at my right hand.'
There was immediate protest from the 500 franc note, outraged at this blatant favouritism no less than the stink from the station d'épuration.
'Pipe down, you,' God said. 'When you were on earth, I don't ever remember seeing you in church.'
December competition results next month. Meanwhile, Bonne année, Happy New Year. You've booked up with French Connections, of course?