2006July26 Vignettes

Approximate Reading Time: 9 minutes

An odd sense of privacy

In today’s Var-Matin, one of the daily newspapers of Provence, there is a story about how the air pollution is almost as bad as it’s ever been, certainly the worst since 2003, which was some kind of banner year, but we missed summer here in Fox-Amphoux that year (we were here briefly in May) and so we have no personal reference.

For this story, by way of illustration, though of what I am not sure, there were photographs taken on the autoroute, the federal superhighway of France.The autoroute features immense overhead bulletin boards that span the road, which is sometimes as many as five lanes across. In these particular photos, one on the front page, and one on the interior page to which the story jumps, page 2 in this case, presumably because it’s such a big story, passing cars are shown from the rear. It is a section of highway near Brignoles, approriate to the Var edition of the newspaper (there is also a Nice edition, and Nice is in the département called Les Alpes-Maritimes, as opposed to the Var, right next door). Brignoles has one of the very few autoroute access points in any one of the départements through which it passes, and Brignoles is a larger than average town, though not a city, and one of the centers of commerce in the Central Var. When you’re in Brignoles, you’re halfway to the coast from our village. It takes about 30 minutes to drive there. And it’s probably another 40 minutes to anyplace worth going on the coast.

In the photos with the rears of the cars, there is also a vantage of the electronic bulletin board, and it shows an announcement telling drivers to slow to 80 kph (that’s about 50 mph, the normal speed limit in clement conditions is 130 kph [about 80+ mph]) because there is a high level of pollution.

Now here’s the curious thing (what? you think it’s curious there’s air pollution here in Paradise? you have a lot to learn… naturally, the Francophobes are not surprised, I am sure). In the photos, the license plates are clearly visible. In France, the typical license plate (which the driver supplies, incidentally, once granted a plate number—the key maker shops are big on supplying license plates in various designs and color patterns, all approved for use in the EU) is a wide, shallow rectangle, yellow, sort of an OSHA yellow, with very large black numerals and letters and, usually, to the side, a blue square with a ring of gold stars, the symbol of the EU, with an F in the middle or below it. These plates are far more readable from a much greater distance than any state license plate I have ever seen in America. In these photos, the plates have been electronically altered so that all you see is a cloudy dirty OSHA yellow rectangle.

Mind you, the only other information you have, is that the photo was clearly taken in daylight (which currently begins at about 6am and ends at about 9:15pm) and, because the caption says so, the otherwise anonymous bit of highway is near Brignoles.

Who is being protected from what and why?

No English Please

We just bought two fans. Both are the Alpatec brand, which I’ve seen before, mainly in the French big box stores. I’ve had to do a little, minimal Google-based research to go any further.

Alpatec is a French brand, acquired by a distributing company called White=Brown (actually, the logo incorporates three parallel horizontal lines between the words, but there’s no standard keyboard character for that) that was in business for years, apparently, distributing other people’s products, when they decided to establish their own brand of electrical home appliances.

Alpatec was a manufacturer of climatization equipment, room air conditioners, fans, etc. when White=Brown bought them, in 1999. The year before, White=Brown had opened a manufacturing facility in Sens, France, which, I have to infer, was meant to facilitate bringing all appliance production in-house.

Indeed, one of the fans, described on the box as a 16˝ High Velocity Standfan [sic], was delivered in a generic looking white corrugated carton with black lettering, a black line drawing of the product, and a black logo for Alpatec. It also shows the address of Alpatec in Sens, France, in the zone industrielle of that city (and since I’m being my usual fastidious self, that would be in the département called Yonne, in Burgundy, and hence, not very far from here; kind of central to the entire country, but this is irrelevant). The reverse side of the box (the broadest sides, incidentally) has exactly the same information, with the description of the product in French, but still designating the size as 16˝ [sic]. Just to finish establishing something, the narrower sides of the carton show technical specifications, with all metrics (air flow, basket, or cage, size) in metric units, in French on one side and in English on the other. The motor power is in watts on both sides. Nothing particularly remarkable about that, except all but the electrically challenged will know that US watts are different than metric watts. The presumption is, it makes no difference, as, in Europe, when addressing Anglophones in the same breath as Francophones, the default assumption is, you’re British if you speak English.

On Web sites, on some fancier packaging, such as for iPod accessories and other computer related accessories and peripherals, the little flag they show athwart the English version of the salient matter printed on the outside packaging is a Union Jack.

Quickly moving along here, the other fan is in a much fancier box, printed in four-color reproduction, with a photograph of the product—a contemporary cylinder, very tall (about four feet), so the box is tall and narrow. And once again, the product information is in French, and (presumably) British English.

So now what’s so weird about that, you’re asking me in your head, right after wondering when I’ll get to the point.

The point is this. On all other packaging, except the aforementioned fancy products in a specific category (and almost without exception from American brands: Logitech, Altec-Lansing, H-P, etc.) and absolutely without exception, French packaged goods never show product information in English, British or otherwise. Further, any product user manuals, Quick-start guides, recipes on foodstuffs, also are absent English versions on products clearly intended for the French market primarily.

Further, there will be other versions in other languages. The usual suspects: Spanish, Italian, German, and then usually, Dutch, Flemish, even Greek, Chinese, Japanese, and there have been languages I have not been able to identify.

These fans are the first products I have ever seen aimed at Anglophones, equally, never mind merely secondarily, to Francophones. Do they know something? Does every other brand in the friggin’ country know something they’re not telling White=Brown?

The Alpatec Web site is, as these Web sites tend to be, mildly (if that) funny, if you click on the “English” version button, where you find a translation that’s largely literal, and, for me, always, of its kind, reminiscent of the hilarious essay by Mark Twain, written late in life, in which he opines on the poverty of the quality of translation of his stories into French. And he proceeds to prove it by presenting the standard French translation of his most famous (and first published) story, “The Celebrated  Jumping Frog of Calaveras County.” He then proves his point about the inadequacy of the French translation, by translating it back into literal English.

If you are an American, or a Brit, until you have elected to be in France such that you must equip yourself with the usual and nominal essentials, I mean in addition to food on a daily basis, like a vaccum cleaner, a radio, a power drill, etc. you will never have cause to wonder why the French marketers deliberately omit any guidance, explanation, caveat, or disclosure to their English speaking customers. Not to mention the stove(s), the refrigerator(s), the dishwasher(s), and the washing machine (OK, why in multiples? well, see, it’s like this, those of you not aware: there are two kitchens in the house, one on the ground floor, and one on the top floor, next to the terrace), all of which were left for us by the previous owners. And none with instructions of any kind in English.

And until you have so elected, judge not.


Speaking of those Alpatec fans, one other thing that’s omitted on these products, in addition to any other information save in the English and French languages, is an indication of the country of manufacture.

We are used, in the US, to seeing Made in China, or perhaps Taiwan, on an increasing number of consumer products. In fact, it’s the law to so indicate, not China, but whatever country in which the product was made. And you cannot say, made in the U.S.A., unless the final product, entirely assembled and ready for use, whatever the origin of the parts, was manufactured and packaged in the United State of America or its Territories.

I’ll tell you right off the bat, I have no idea if there is a similar law here. Some products tell you they’re from somewhere else. The grissini sésame (sesame breadsticks) I bought today, of the LU brand, which is French, were made in Italy. Says so right on the box, in French.

Neither of the fans we bought says anything. Not on the box. Not on the so-called “manual.” Not on the fans.

The White=Brown puffery on their Web site allows me to believe my original suspicions are correct.

When I removed the products from their respective boxes, and did the minimal assembly required so either of these tall fans could stand upright, I could not help but remark (to myself) on the cheesiness of the manufacturing: fabrication of parts, use of materials, fit and finish, etc. Must be made in France, I thought.

Here’s the thing. We have a similar fan to the tall cylinder, with the remote control, and the oscillating works, and the timer, etc. at our apartment in Cambridge. Bought it at Brookstone, under their brand. Cost about one hundred bucks, and a beauty. Nicely designed, nicely fabricated and assembled. Works well—been working for a year. And manufactured in China.

The two fans we bought here in France came to 198 euros. That’s about $250 at current rates of exchange. I don’t know which was how much, but it doesn’t much matter.

We already know from repeated attempts to find a sofa we really like that was designed and manufactured in Italy, where they know how to do these things, and which is, admittedly, expensive. It’s available in the UK, and it can be delivered here (for 400 euros). It’s available in the U.S, but that’s a ridiculous proposition. It is not available in France, as far as we can tell, and I’ve spent hours researching the beast.

A particularly snide, and knowing, sales rep from the UK told me on the phone that this is not surprising. The long and short of her superior opining was that the French don’t want to acknowledge the competition, and the best way to do it is simply not to let them in. This seems particularly true of household goods. And, though I hate to admit it, the French don’t make such good household goods. We do have Ligne-Roset and Roche-Bobois furniture either here in France, or at home in Cambridge, and it’s gorgeous, magnifique, very costly, well manufactured and it’s made in Italy. But those two brands are French—retailers, but French, and that makes it OK. I guess.

We also weren’t satisfied with any of the bathroom fixtures we were directed to look at by our French friends (at building materials outlets, and home furnishings big box stores outside Toulon, which is kind of the Newark of southern France). Then I stumbled—I seem to stumble a lot—on a store specializing in bathroom fixtures on a back street in Nice, where I found beautiful fixtures. And we bought (OK, now I have to admit to having two full bathrooms) towel bars, and hooks, and toilet tissue roll holders in two different styles—brushed nickel over solid brass for the contemporary bathroom downstairs, and solid brass, sort of Belle Epoque style, for the bathroom off our bedroom. All made by a company that has been making these things since 1820. Called Samuel Heath, and it’s in the United Kingdom. With prices to match. As I always like to say, there’s no such thing as a free lunch.

The result of these anecdotal observations is that I now know what accounts for those French worker productivity figures I keep hearing about—some of the best in Europe, and among the best in the world. But how can this be, with their level of unemployment, the famous French “attitude,” the culture of farniente? It can be, because the French likely do what we will not. They pay their workers far in excess of workers in the third world, and they keep the manufacturing at home. Not difficult, and they look upon the cheesy results and are satisfied, because the money stays here (I mean the money all stays with the government, because along with the relatively high wages come very high taxes), but that pays for a lot of beer and cigarettes, and your basic roof over the head of those en chômage (unemployed).

Or it could just be that I stumbled on not only the last two big fans in that particular store during the dog days that cleaned out every other store we went to prior. I may also have stumbled on the only products still manufactured in France, because who needs to be patriotic when it comes to cheap, but cheesy goods? Except the cheese that is, and that’s not cheap.

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One thought on “2006July26 Vignettes

  1. Well I have a Bionaire digital fan myself, came with the appropriate plug so all I needed to do was to slot into the nearest socket. Couldn’t tell if yours was already user friendly perhaps I’d lost the will to live by then! Anyway its hot here and we just having the first bit of rain for a week before it hots up again.

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