Drôle de Paix

December 24, 2003

Drôle de Paix

In the really bad old days, when I wasn't even of kindergarten age, a drôle de guerre baffled Europeans.


In the really bad old days, when I wasn't even of kindergarten age, a drôle de guerre baffled Europeans. From September 1939 until May 1940, World War II would not get off the ground, at least not on the Franco-German front.

Now that Germany and France seem to be Siamese twins, especially in our opposition to America, we are experiencing a drôle de paix of sorts. That is, some powerful institutions simply don't seem to get it - French banks, for example, and the railroads.


Figure this: monetarily we are one. Wouldn't you have thought that, thanks to the common currency, a German could just whip out his checkbook and pay a bill in France? Well you can, but it costs you just as much in charges as if you brought in dollars from America or yen from Japan.

The other day, I handed my French insurance broker a German EU420 ($460) check for the coverage of my car. The next morning, he called me angrily: "Imagine, the Banque Populaire is charging me EU21 to cash it - just like in the old days of marks and francs."

I lodged a complaint with the European Central Bank in Frankfurt. Indeed, their customer service department replied, any such charges within the same currency zone would be illegal, provided the transfers are made electronically. On the other hand, since checks have different shapes in different countries, cashing them might cause extra efforts, and hence a fee might somehow be justified.

Well, I placed a German check on top of my French checkbook - and guess what? The two were a perfect fit. Which tells me that the French bank just reached into my pocked and helped itself to the equivalent of a good lunch.

I discussed this with a German political editor - one of those superior types who quite rightly looks at everything from an extremely elevated perspective. "Why complain about anything as trivial as that?" he chided me. "Look at it this way - in Europe we accept each other's academic diplomas. Now that's something to be cheerful about. You view these things too much from a Froschperspektive."

Translated literally, Froschperspektive means frog's perspective, but that's misleading, given that "frog" is a politically incorrect Anglo-Saxon term for a Frenchman. What the editor meant was simply this: my view was too pedestrian. It was the view of just a regular guy who didn't give a hoot about having his diplomas recognized, but simply wished to pay a bill in France's and Germany's mutual currency.

Another experience turned me into a furious frog, however. I have a home in France but some members of my family live in Leipzig, Germany, the city of Johann Sebastian Bach. And that's where I was invited to go for the baptism of my Goddaughter Clara in the gothic Thomaskirche, Bach's old church.

I didn't want to drive, especially not in the winter. Neither did I wish to fly, considering that the fare would have been the equivalent of two roundtrip tickets to New York. No, I decided to travel by rail, reading a book or enjoying the sight of glorious landscapes of the Champagne and the Lorraine, the Moselle vineyards and later the Thuringian Forest.

I was looking forward to supper and a good wine in the diner as we passed the Wartburg, where Martin Luther translated the Bible, then eventually disembarking at Leipzig's wonderfully rebuilt central station, the largest in Europe.

So I did what I had done many times before - I called the French railroads' toll-free number  to reserve seats. An enchanting soprano voice informed me that there was no longer a direct train from Paris to Leipzig, not even one to Frankfurt, Germany's most important transportation hub.

Moreover, she said, "I can't even reserve a seat for you on Germany's ICE," meaning the high-speed train.

"You are kidding," I replied, "we are now one Europe, and you are telling me that what was possible as far back as in the 19th century, when our ancestors hated each other, can now no longer be done?"

"That's what I am saying," she said, "complain to them," meaning the Germans.

Now, I was never a Francophobe. Instinctively, though, I suspected the French railroad people of being the miscreants here. I have long entertained the theory that if you checked the DNA of the SNCF folks arranging schedules and designing stations you'd find that they are all descendants of the Marquis de Sade.

How else would you explain the fact that when you arrive in Paris from the provinces changing trains for another destination in the provinces or abroad, you are obliged to carry your luggage up and down a dozen flights of stairs to the subway connecting the capital's multitude of stations.

I am sure that there are peepholes for Sadists all along to tunnels from, for example, the Gare du Nord platforms to the Metro stop. It must be thrilling to watch old men and women keel over, or mothers struggle with suitcases and screaming kids or baggage-laden foreigners being accosted by beggars and muggers.

This time, though, I suspected the French railway administrators unjustly - at least in part. The culprits this time were their German counterparts, or so it seemed. "You see," lectured my colleague, the one disdaining my frog's perspective, "the German and the French railroad companies are fighting over whose high-speed trains are to connect each other's major cities. And they have reached a stalemate."

Aha, I conjectured: The railroaders squabble and sulk, and so the Germans won't allow the French to accept reservations to the German fast trains as long as they, meaning the French, won't allow those very trains into Paris. "Is that about right?" I asked my colleague, the one with the superior perspective. "More or less," he replied.

To make sure I was right, I checked with the PR department of the Deutsche Bahn (DB) in Berlin. Another beautiful soprano took my call - a woman officially listed on DB's website as a spokeswoman. When I told her my story, she began to twitter the way, I presume, the switchboard operator of Saddam Hussein's underground guerilla headquarters would twitter nervously when caught by a reporter trying to inquire into the rationale of suicide bombings.

"I can't talk to you about this," she said nervously. "Somebody more qualified will call you back. I promise." Two weeks have gone by, and no general from Deutsche Bahn's Berlin bunker has rung. But then, what do you expect in a drôle de paix, which in reality is a new Franco-German war?


Uwe Siemon-Netto is UPI's religion editor and lives in Washington and France.