When it comes to getting a bargain you can’t just do anything. I mean, you’ve got to go about it in the right way. And it’s amazing what you can do with just a dash of imagination and a touch of daring. Now, it must have been the English part of me who took it upon himself to buy our previous, second-hand car. After reading through the used car ads in my local newspaper, I spotted a vehicle which seemed to suit the bill. So, off I went to the dealer’s to have a look at it. I then took a test drive, haggled a discount of 5% and drove it back home, highly delighted with the deal I’d done. But at the back of my mind I couldn’t help hearing a French voice muttering that this wouldn’t have been his way of doing things. So when I decided to buy my present car, it was the Frenchman in me who took charge. And it wasn’t at all the same approach. But first, just as my Englishman had done before, I went through all the second-hand professional car ads in my local newspaper until I came across something like what I was looking for. I then phoned the dealer.
It was only now that my Frenchman showed all his natural genius. Now, since profit margins between car dealers are much less than when they sell to members of the general public, I pretended to be a professional like him, based in another town far enough away for him not to know any of the dealers there. I then proceeded to inform him that I was acting on behalf of one of my customers who had expressed great interest in this particular model – which I would be pleased to take off his hands … provided he could manage a discount of 15%. After hesitating a bit he finally agreed, and off I went to the garage. He only realized I was a private buyer at the last minute when I handed him the cheque! It’s true that I couldn’t help feeling a bit embarrassed when I did it (it must have been the English part of me), but the dealer said nothing and I got away with it. And as I was driving away a French-sounding voice rang in my ears, ‘Vous savez, you English play it far too straight. Il faut être malin dans la vie. C’est ça le Système D!’ You know, my Frenchy’s tried very hard but he just doesn’t seem to be able to get it through his English alter‘s thicker part of my skull that life is too short not to take advantage of every single moment, and that precious time can be wasted slavishly following the rule. During the time we went out together Priscille lived with her parents in a small mountain village some five kilomètres from the town where I lived, and which could only be reached by a twisting main road. Journey time could, however, be reduced by turning left off this main road and following another route – a steep, narrow, but relatively straight lane leading directly into the village centre. So narrow was this lane that a one-way traffic system had always operated to the advantage of the coming-downers, the going-uppers being officially informed they must take the longer route by a conspicuous No Entry sign located at the intersection. It goes without saying that when my English part was at the wheel the words ‘No Entry’ constituted a barrier as impenetrable as Priscile’s virtue and, in the eyes of his French alter, I stupidly wasted up to two minutes following the longer main road to the village instead of taking the illicit short-cut.
Things really came to a head when a section of the road between the short-cut intersection and the village was partially blocked by a landslide, and a one-way system, regulated by temporary traffic lights, was put into operation. When he was at the wheel, not only did my Englishman continue to take the same longer route, but he actually waited when the lights were red, frequently wasting as much as five minutes. What my Frenchman could never get into the English, sparrow-sized part of my brain was that, even if I took the short-cut, the limited number of inhabitants, the remote location of the village, as well as that time of day (usually I called on Priscille and her parents in the evening after dinner) weighed the law of probability heavily in favour of me not meeting a going-downer on my way up. Of course, much to my Englishman’s discomfort, my Frenchy always took the shorter route. His choice always revealed itself to be right, except on one occasion when I had to stop and pull into one side to let a coming-downer through.
He, of course, in typical French fashion, left me in no doubt as to what he thought about my choice by lowering his window, sticking his head out and bellowing: ‘Ca ne va pas la tête, non?’ His allusion to the softness of my brain was due, however less to the fact that I’d infringed the rule than the slight personal inconvenience he’d been caused; for it in no way prevented him from taking the same short-cut himself when he became a going-upper on his way back! Sooner or later, of course, life’s journey leads us on a collision course with those officially appointed to make sure rules and regulations are respected, and to sanction them when they’re not. It must not be imagined, however, that because a French policeman is clad in blue, a heart of gold doesn’t beat beneath. What my Frenchy doesn’t seem to be able to get into the English side of my brain is that, with the help of the Système D, this type of encounter is far from obliging you to resign yourself to the worst. During the (short) time Priscille and I were together, whenever we were stopped by les flics for speeding, my French alter had given her strict instructions to pretend to give me a resounding telling-off (towards the end I suspected she wasn’t acting at all). At the same time my Anglo didn’t have to force himself to impart a typically English, sheepish expression to my face. In nine cases out of ten the policeman was unable to conceal his amusement and let me off with just a warning! C’est ça aussi, le Système D!