“No,” I cried, and summoned up the best of my then limited French, “Cas d’urgence!”
But this made no impression on the battle-axe, who shook her head again, pointed to her watch and mouthed “Quattors heures et demi.” Whatever my emergency was, it would have to wait another 150 minutes. Aghast as she began to turn away again, and now completely at a loss for words, I was once again reminded of the sheer brilliance of my wife in situations like this. Knowing that she could not hope to plead her case in French, she had slipped over to the car, unstrapped Calum, and now appeared with him in her arms; when she knew she had the dame’s attention, she lowered the towel wrapped around him to show the lad’s bare bottom, and just said one of the few French words she knew by heart, because she needed it so often. “Couches!”
It was, of course, the master-stroke, an ace of trumps. No person born French with double-X chromosomes can resist a child, and whatever she might have thought of his clearly irresponsible Anglais parents, a child in need of nappies was a greater imperative; lunch would be delayed today. The battle-axe turned the key and allowed us in. She closed and locked the door, led us to the nappies section (no stopping for other fripperies) and then whisked us back to the checkout with great efficiency. She was really very sweet, if truth be told, and not a battle-axe at all, now that she was on our side. She even gave Calum a lollipop and smiled as she locked up after us.
That, however, is the only time I can remember the immutable rule being bent, and it was clearly an exceptional case.
This, incidentally, is why, again outside the major cities, commuting to work just does not happen in France, and that in turn, is one reason why there are so many houses for sale silly cheap in the countryside. It is imperative that one be able to get home for a civilised lunch, and no self-respecting French person would ever buy a house that did not permit this. Since the most that can reasonably be commuted, allowing for the necessary ninety-minute repast, even the way the French drive (and it pays not to get in their way at lunchtime) in a two-hour lunch break, is around twenty kilometres, or roughly twelve miles, there you have it; any house outside this distance of a reasonably-sized town is worth sweeties.