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Much shaking of heads. All French citizens were obliged to carry identification at all times. Even when drunk in charge of a tractor.

Where were the car's papers?

"Er ..." Now that was a long story, crammed full of nouns, verbs and several adjectives - all of which had fled the scene the moment the first gendarme's hand had alighted on my shoulder.

I pulled out my 'Get out jail free' card and slid it over the counter, adding a nervous smile and a telepathic onslaught. 'This card is not forged. This man is innocent. Let him go.'

I'd seen Star Wars.

The police sergeant hadn't. More shakes of the head. And a tch tch.

The Force was strong with this one.

Then he hit me with a question I wasn't expecting.

What was my father's date of birth?


He repeated the question. I was thrown. It was thirty-five years since my father's death. I was five at the time. I had no idea what day he'd been born.

I shrugged. He looked dumbfounded and glanced at his colleagues. They shrugged. I shrugged. We looked like a room full of marionettes on elastic strings.

And then he asked me another question.

What was my mother's date of birth?

I couldn't believe this. I was without a dictionary, I had no script and I was being asked to recite all my family's birthdays! Surely this was against the Geneva Convention?

Never cease to be amazed by French bureaucracy. It took half an hour to be processed. I filled up a whole page in their ledger. Most of it with birthdays.

And I had to return to my nearest police station - Aurignac - within three days, complete with passport, birth certificate, carte gris and tax disc.

And I had to tell Shelagh.

In all my years of driving in England I had never been stopped or breathalysed. One month in France and all that had changed.

Although, on further recollection, it wasn't exactly my first encounter with a French roadblock. That honour having come a few months earlier. But then I hadn't been the driver.

I was with Peter, a South African chef cum estate agent. A rather novel combination but indicative of the frequent plight of the newly-arrived in France - the need to augment one's living with a second job. Which meant he occasionally showed people around houses in between cooking meals at his restaurant.

And on this occasion he was having some difficulty locating the property I'd asked to view. We'd toured a particular area for a growing amount of time without success when we turned a corner and ... there it was.

A roadblock.