We have been reminiscing about our time spent in France in 1995. We had taken our three young children and travelled to Europe for six months from Australia, where we were then living. This is well before we had any thoughts of living in France permanently but on reflection this is probably the moment when my love affair with Provence started. We had rented a house in the hills behind St Tropez for three months, the children were being schooled in French and I was happily soaking up every moment of this blissful time… Until…
There was a loud banging on the front door very early the morning before our return to Australia. Reflecting on the monumental pack-up ahead, I hoped the resident gardiens, (house managers) Monsieur and Madame Robert, would deal with the intrusion. The knocking continued, growing more and more insistent. When I opened the door I was surprised to find three uniformed policemen and one civilian lined up before me. Stern expressions mouthed the prerequisite pleasantries and the plain-clothed person introduced himself as an Inspector of Police from Marseille. Flipping open his photo identity, he pushed the door with one hand and flashed the plastic with the other. As his trench coat disappeared through the door I could not help but think of Inspector Clouseau and his bumbling investigativeskills. This Inspector was no Peter Sellers and this was no joke. His team wasted no time and promptly moved in.
The gendarmes were respectfully quiet, as the Inspector demanded my passport and those of the children. In the same breath he advised me to remain silent to avoid any future misunderstanding. Silent; I was mute, dumbstruck would be a better description. Everything would then be dealt with in a calm and orderly manner. There was no need for panic. Panic; I was in a grand state of panic. I had never been in trouble before – my worst crime was a parking ticket – and here I am in a foreign country in the throws of being arrested. My husband was inconveniently absent so this mess was mine alone. All this was discharged in record-breaking French of which I understood very little.
The French gardiens, my only link to the truth, were noticeably absent and nowhere to be found. I attempted to suggest there had been some kind of grave error, explaining I was an Australian on holiday with my three children. The Inspector understood a little English, but dismissed my excuses. He requested the immediate presence of the gardiens and suggested we all assemble in the kitchen. One gendarme searched for them, while the other two accompanied me to wake the children and collect our passports.
Monsieur and Madame Robert, now drawn out of hiding, refused to say a word in my defence. The Inspector questioned them repeatedly, but they would not budge. Over and over they shook their heads and pleaded a lack of knowledge. Frustrated by their attitude and completely baffled by their silence, I had no choice but to surrender our passports. The Inspector studied them one by one, page by page and concluded they were fraudulent. I demanded that he verify our documents through official channels – surely one phone call to his superiors could clarify this silliness?
Although I knew without doubt that we were innocent of any wrong doing (perhaps shop a little too hard at the antique fairs and brocantes…but as far as I knew there was no crime in that) the presence of so many police made me feel guilty.
He most strongly suggested that if I would not be prepared to cooperate fully we would be taken to Marseille police headquarters. I had no qualms about cooperating, but what was I cooperating about? He questioned me at length. Why was I at this house? How long had I been there? What were the names of the owners? I had no answers. I repeated my account that we were Australians, we had rented the house through an international agency and that I had no dealings with the owners. I knew nothing of them or their whereabouts.
He was not convinced that I was telling the truth and my cross examination continued…