posted 10 March 2005

Sunday dawned bright, sunny, and warmer than it had been for weeks. We loaded up the day-trip tote bag with maps, tourist brochures, the Gault-Millau restaurant ratings, bottles of water, and the Michelin guide; donned our sporty straw panamas; and set off to explore old Nice. It was so warm that I left my wool scarf home, and once we arrived in the parking garage by the open market in the Cour Saleya, I even left my fleece jacket in the hatchback, under the privacy panel with the tote, and wore just my outer coat.

I had thought that, except on Saturday mornings, the market was only for flowers. It's famous for its florists' stalls, which are gorgeous, but it was in full swing Sunday morning, too. They were selling meat, fish, vegetables, clothes, candy, painted flower pots, and everything else under the sun. One vendor was selling elaborately sculpted and painted marzipan fruit, and another whole glacé fruit--even whole glacé prickly pears! As we strolled the market, toward the starting point of the Michelin walking tour, the sun went in, and instead of getting warmer, the temperature started to drop. At the far end, I left David to read the Michelin guide and look at the 15th century chapel while I walked back to the parking garage for my fleece.

When I got there, not 45 minutes after we left the car, the left rear fanlight was broken in, the car was full of pieces of glass, and the tote and my fleece were gone. Double drat. The one employee on duty was sympathetic and helpful--he toured the stairwells and trash cans with me, looking for unsaleable items the thief might have discarded; apologized for not being able to watch the video monitors all the time; had me fill out an incident report; recommended that we come back on a weekday to check the municipal lost and found (coincidentally next door)--but he told me it was the fourth incidence since the beginning of Carnaval. Our license plate reveals that the car is a "rental" (our six-month purchase-repurchase deal counts as a rental for these purposes), and according to the garage guy, the thief probably spotted us in the street, followed us into the garage in his own car, watched us put the fleece and tote out of sight in the back (prominently flashing our tourist-give-away Michelin guide all the while), waited until we and several other people who arrived at the same time left the area, then broke into our car, transferred our stuff to his car, and left at leisure. The other cars in the area weren't disturbed--they had local, owners' plates--and nothing was visible inside our car. He knew just where to stand behind a pillar so that he probably wasn't visible on the video monitors anyway, and once he had the rear door open and the stuff out of the car, he would look just like anyone else, walking to his car and loading stuff into it.

Meanwhile, David was standing on his street corner wondering what had become of me. When I finally got back, we took a few minutes to assess the situation, concluded nothing else could be done about the car that day, and decided to continue our sight-seeing. I was still in my light coat, but after all the excitement, running up and down all the stairs in the garage, and speed-walking back to meet David, I wasn't cold any more. We applied the hundred-yard rule, reading menus as we went, and settled on La Mama, a semi-Italian restaurant that was featuring roast lamb that day. We both had the "menu à 19.50 euros," and a fine Sunday dinner it was. David started with calamari fritters, and I had mixed vegetable fritters, both with aioli. Then we both had the roast lamb--thick, rosy slices with a brown gravy flavored with thyme and rosemary; sautéed potatoes; and green salad with a mustardy dressing. Terrific. For dessert, I had coffee and "praliné" (crushed almond brittle) ice creams, and David had the hot apple tart with whipped cream.

When we emerged from the windowless back room, though, it was a lot colder and raining steadily. Come to think of it, waiters (who apparently pay more attention to the weather forcast than we do) had been busy erecting café umbrellas over their sidewalk tables all along our walking route. So we consulted the waiters at La Mama and were told that, no, it wasn't supposed to stop raining soon and in fact might turn to snow. So much for the rest of the walking tour. We zipped our straw panamas inside our waterproof jackets, put up our rain hoods instead, and headed for the car. As predicted, before we got there, the rain had turned to fat, heavy snowflakes. The car was as I'd left it, and nothing had been turned in to the parking-garage office, so we drove back to Villefranche--passing, in the process of travelling about 3 km, out from under the rain/snow and into sunshine; the weather can be really local here.

On Monday morning, we studied the car's paperwork and consulted Laurence, who called in Marc the lab tech--local expert on reporting procedures, since his car has been stolen twice (though we're in a lot of good company, it seems--people all over the lab have since regaled us with stories of the various ways they've had their wallets stolen and of new students who arrived destitute because they packed everything they owned into their cars to drive here, then parked in Nice to have lunch before reporting to the lab and returned to find their cars empty and stripped). Renault wouldn't pay for repairs until the incident was reported to the police, but no, Marc said, we didn't have to go back to Nice for that. It could be reported in any (city) police station or (national) gendarmerie in France. So Laurence drove me up the hill to the local police station, where a friendly and helpful young woman interviewed me and typed my answers directly into the computer, which then generated the incident report in quadruplicate. I signed them all and was given one to keep. Back in Laurence's office, we called Renault Central in Paris, where a friendly and helpful older woman said I should (1) fax her a copy of the report, (2) find a local factory-authorized Renault shop that accepted our sort of insurance, (3) send her their address and fax number so that she could send them an authorization to do the work and bill Renault, and (4) arrange to get the repair done. I got on the internet and ordered another fleece--I'll need it in Paris in a couple of weeks, not to mention Poland in April!

That evening, we stopped in at the Renault garage in Beaulieu--Ambrosini and Son--that we walk past every evening on the way to the bakery and explained the situation. It's a real urban garage, entirely indoors, on two floors (and no parking lot--not even supermarkets have parking lots around here). We were handed over to Jerome, a friendly and helpful young man--apparently the chief mechanic and probably the son--who talks (and does everything else) incredibly fast; he practically throws off sparks, he's such a bundle of energy. Fortunately, his diction is excellent, so I was able, barely, to keep up with his French. He couldn't be bothered to wait for this fax business--he whipped out his cell phone, punched up Renault central, got his authorization number, and ordered the replacement window, all while occasionally interruping himself to contribute to another conversation about another repair going on in the other side of the office. He even walked--well, more like bounded--across the street to the train-station parking lot where I'd left the car to check the odometer. The part arrived in less than 24 hours, and we made an appointment for Wednesday morning to have it installed--about an hour and a half's work, he said. They would also be able to extract the bits of glass that had fallen down inside the rear seat-belt buckles and prevented the belts from buckling. And best of all, he could activate our second car key at the same time! Remember the second car key? Just drop by any dealership, about 5 minutes' work? Well we went back to the Renault dealership in Nice three times in January--twice by appointment--without ever managing to catch the right people on duty, so we pretty well gave up on them.

Wednesday morning, I dropped David off at the lab and took the car back to Beaulieu. I got there about 8:50 a.m.--just drove in the door and parked in front of the office-- and learned that Jerome wouldn't actually be installing the window. He's a mechanic, and windows are "carrosserie" (body work), done upstairs. I gave them the two keys, and they said they'd call me when the work was done. Any time after that, I could come back for the car, but on no account between noon and 2 p.m.--Jerome and his crew work 8 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. every day, but nothing interferes with the two-hour French lunch. In this part of the world, everything except restaurants is closed from noon until 2 p.m. So I strolled through Beaulieu's weekday vegetable and fish market, where I acquired some beautiful red rhubarb (rhubarb crumble with heavy cream for dessert tonight), then dropped into a stationary/book store for a map of Nice to replace the stolen one, then strolled back to our apartment. I set up my computer and put in 1.8 hours of work before the garage called, about 11:20. I walked back into Beaulieu in plenty of time to pick up the car--good as new, with functional rear seatbelts and two working keys--before lunchtime. Jerome moved the tow-truck out of the way so that I could back out, and I was on my way.

I got back to the lab in time for lunch with David before I drove into Nice to check the municipal lost and found. No luck, but they said I could call in weekly if I wanted--apparently the average time for a found item to make its way into their files is 5 weeks! So Wednesday evening, David and I bought a new Gault-Millau guide on the way to the bakery and declared the incident closed. Sorry, Aunt Henrietta--the zippered black tote was a lovely Christmas present, and I liked it alot and used it all the time, but now someone else will no doubt buy it in good faith from a second-hand shop and, I hope, give it a good home.

The French can be incredibly bureaucratic sometimes (for example, we still don't have our residency cards), but think of it--break-in Sunday morning and police report, paperwork, insurance payment, repair work, and key activation all taken care of by noon on Wednesday, at no cost and minimal hassle to us. I am truly impressed! If you need a mechanic in the south of France, I'll give you Jerome's number.

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