Category Archives: France

car France law technology

The king’s tax collectors

The French government got me! They caught me driving by one of their speed cameras. Of course, the photo clearly shows that I was driving well below the speed limit. But what do facts matter when the real purpose is fundraising?

This ticket alleges that my car was traveling 97 km/h in a 90 km/h zone on the A6 down in Écully, just north of Lyon. Because there is a 5 km/h buffer to allow for error on posted speeds of less than 100 km/h (above 100 km/h, it would be 5%), this means I was formally charged with the crime of going 92 km/h in a 90 km/h zone.

I would never expect to have a good chance of success in fighting a ticket anywhere in the world. I’ve driven a lot, been ticketed, and fought tickets before. Interestingly, my tickets have been wrong more often than they have been correct. (My last photo citation showed somebody else’s car.) I am thus very aware of the uphill battle when wrongly ticketed, but I think it’s important to document these stories, even if we must live in places with such reduced liberté.

My case

I know society has a tendency to prejudge these situations (“Oh, he’s guilty, but he just wants to exploit some technicality. It’s a photo so it must be correct.”). I ask you to please try to forget those biases, and remember the following points:

  • There is no wizard! Technology isn’t magical. It has specifications that must be respected if you intend to get the desired result.
  • If you violate these specifications, in some cases the evidence can actually be evidence of innocence.
  • The roads do not become safer by wrongly punishing innocent drivers. Guilty drivers will generally be found guilty, even in a system designed to protect the innocent motorist.
  • It is more important to protect the innocent than to convict the guilty.

My argument closely mirrors that of this guy. I guess he won in court, but he’s French so he clearly has an advantage over me.

Here is the certificate (French) for the Mesta 210C speed camera. In the middle of page 2, it is clearly stated that the camera should be oriented at a 25-degree angle to the trajectory of traffic. This relates largely to what is known as the cosine effect, the idea that a car moving away from a radar looks faster than one moving across its beam, however it seems that this particular model has other reasons that make the discrepancy even worse.

Here is an official report from Metz (French) on the impact of improperly aligned cameras on reported speed. At the bottom of page 2, you can see a table showing the effect of small angular error on the reported speed. Note that the effect is very large for even a small deviation from 25 degrees.

Here is a photo from the certificate, taken from a properly configured camera at 25-degree angle from the trajectory of traffic. This angle can be verified with trigonometry (which I have done), but given that it comes from an official document just assume it’s correct.

An official photo with the car at the correct angle.

Below is a photo from my ticket. It is easy to see that the car is changing lanes and that this angle is different from that in the other photo. (Disregard the direction of travel, as the system works either way.) Trigonometry shows that this is approximately a 16-degree angle from the camera line of sight, but the difference is also very obvious to the naked eye. This difference in angle is so blatantly obvious that I don’t really need to type anything else to disprove this citation.

Speed camera photo of my car.

Some points to take away from these photos:

  • This ticket was issued in clear violation of the 25-degree angle in the camera certificate.
  • It is clear to the naked eye that this is true. Anybody who says otherwise has an agenda.
  • Based on the French government study linked above, this amount of deviation would lead to speed being over-reported by a lot.
  • It is unlikely that vehicle dynamics would allow for crossing lanes at a 9-degree angle while traveling at 97 km/h.

One more note, before I proceed to slam the system. The document regarding the government study stated that it is illegal to operate the camera in violation of the 25-degree rule. This means that the person who sent the ticket might be guilty of a crime.

Due process rights obliterated

The only thing more offensive than being found guilty of the crime, in which any bystander would have seen my innocence, is the complete lack of due process rights along the way. The entire system is set up to be as painful as possible for anybody attempting to challenge a ticket. This includes lost time, lost money, and stress (though, to be fair, this is most government interactions in France). Notice how long this process takes. There is no excuse for this slowness. The system is just incompetent and they probably like it that way, as a deterrent to those who might contest.

The timeline:

  1. October 25, 2013: “Infraction” committed.
  2. October 29, 2013: Ticket issued.
  3. November 2, 2013: I requested photos.
  4. November 12, 2013: Photos were sent.
  5. November 21, 2013: I paid EUR 68 “deposit” for the privilege of due process (early payment and admitting guilt would have only been EUR 45).
  6. December 13, 2013: I sent appeal letter by post.
  7. December 19, 2013: Notice was sent that file had been transferred to local tribunal de police.
  8. April 22, 2014: I requested information on the status of the appeal.
  9. July 1, 2014: Police sent letter requesting me to visit them on July 8 with info about driver’s license. (received on July 6, so limited time window to contact them about rescheduling)
  10. July 15, 2014: Police meeting. No translator was present, though I had called to request one. Because there was no proof of who was driving, I didn’t need to present my license to get points assigned.
  11. October 31, 2014: Written appeal rejected. (received several weeks later, but there a clock ticking on the 30-day limit to submit opposition letter)
  12. November 25, 2014: I appealed the written decision.
  13. December 19, 2014: I requested all details of the camera configuration via post.
  14. April 8, 2015 (4 months later!): Response to request for technical details was sent, though it didn’t actually have new information.
  15. April 27, 2015: I received service to appear in court. I had to go across town to collect this myself.
  16. April 27, 2015: I requested camera configuration specifications again, but never received response.
  17. June 3, 2015: Court date.
  18. June 24, 2015: Notification of decision.

Also note that, in the best case, the cost more than doubles if you fight it. In the worst case, the judge is free to impose a fairly extreme fine. You only fight one of these out of principle. The bureaucrats worked out the math so it’s always a bad financial move to contest, even if you are innocent.

The implications

This should have been a straightforward decision. Anybody can see that the car was changing lanes and it was therefore at an incorrect angle. The prosecutor, Lionel Gauthier, may very well have known his evidence was shaky, as he didn’t put up a serious fight in court. Though he was speaking too fast for my translator, it doesn’t seem that he ever really argued against the actual points I was making. The judge, Sylvie Lagarde, was friendly, but remember that traffic court doesn’t exist in any country to protect the innocent. The translator was nice, but it was her first time in court and she was unable to keep up just due to the nature of the interactions. Nobody was pausing long enough for her to get everything translated. So this alone was pretty unfair. The judge should have taken steps to ensure that every sentence was translated. As it was, 75% of what the prosecutor said was never relayed to me.

This presents a few problems for France:

  • This would be a hard enough process for a local to navigate, but successfully challenging a ticket as a foreigner seems impossible. Where is my égalité?
  • Because of the translator, I got to go first in court. The translation also meant that my appearance went very slow. It took about 35 minutes. When you have a courtroom of people waiting behind me on this, that has a negative effect on productivity.
  • There is a stereotype about French engineering. This ordeal is a data point in support of that. It’s troubling that a ticket with this problem was even mailed out.
  • The taxpayers lost money on this case. Yes, they charged me some money to fight it (in clear violation of standard due process principles) but they still didn’t make enough to pay all of the people involved:
    • People to process the multiple documents going back and forth,
    • Person to rule on written argument,
    • One hour of the translator’s time for the court appearance,
    • At least 45 minutes of the prosecutor time, and
    • At least 45 minutes of the judge’s time.

And you want to know why I recommend against living in France?

But, more seriously: Life is hard. I have a lot of legitimate stresses with respect to moving around and searching for jobs, etc. I want to feel like the government is there to serve the people. I want to feel like the government is there to stand up for the little guy and keep things fair. In general, I’m not anti-government. But when a government behaves like this, victimizing people for no good reason, it’s really upsetting and it leads to a lot of internal conflict about who the government is really there to serve. I know “life isn’t fair,” but in theory aren’t our interactions with the government supposed to be? Are we really supposed to sit back while the government randomly demands our money without any obligation to provide sufficient evidence of wrongdoing?

If the people of France want to reinstate the king’s tax collectors, they should just make it official.

Update (July 15, 2015): I’ve written a detailed description of the math and science behind these problems at

France technology

Replacing a Macbook power adapter in France

I wrote a long time ago about my good service at the Apple Store in Dijon. Now I want to briefly share another good experience, this time in Lyon, though it was actually Tiffany who went down there.

As anybody who owns a Macbook knows, the power adapters are horrible. The wire invariably frays after about two years. This problem has persisted for years, occurring on each of the four Macbook Pros I’ve owned. The good news is that in America I’ve found in the past that many, if not all, models have a service bulletin allowing for free power brick replacement even after the warranty/Applecare expires. The even more exciting news is that they honor this in France as well. Tiffany was told that normally the French must pay for replacements, but if the laptop was purchased in the US then the replacement brick is free. I’m happy not only because this policy exists, but also because the Apple Store in Lyon actually knows about it and honored it with no problems.


The terrible customer service from Philips France

Everyone knows that France has a certain reputation for customer service. In general though I don’t find it to be too horrendous. Yes, sometimes a waiter might be a bit brusque in a Paris restaurant or store employees will just give you a “no” or an “I don’t know” rather than offering a suggestion as to how you might go about solving a problem or finding a particular product. It seems to me though that the French are rarely outright rude to customers during in-person interactions. Over the phone can be a bit trickier. The phone makes it a lot easier for rudeness to occur in the course of your interactions, I suppose just as anywhere. Whenever I do encounter a problem interacting with French people, I can usually work through it by telling them that their behavior is unacceptable; surprisingly, their attitude usually changes for the better then.

However, I recently experienced one of the worst customer service interactions of my life with Philips France. In truth, every single experience I have had with Philips in France has been problematic. From the very beginning there were issues when the product (an electric toothbrush) failed to function properly after two weeks of use. Then a rebate I was entitled to was not issued (it took multiple calls over a period of months to resolve the matter, and when it was finally resolved they still failed to transfer the money; it took several more calls before the money finally showed up nearly a year after I had purchased the product).

More recently the product failed again and a critical replacement part is nowhere to be found in France. Actually, Philips doesn’t even seem to know their own product line, because over course of three chat sessions I’ve been given numerous part numbers for the part I need. Philips also seems intent on sending me on a wild goose chase to mom-and-pop repair shops across France that service and repair their larger consumer products — as I’ve discovered, none of these places ever deals with toothbrushes or their replacement parts. The only other “options” are to purchase the replacement part at an exorbitant price from a third-party reseller or to purchase a part that “may be not suitable for France” because is manufactured for a different country with different specifications.

All of this might have been overlooked though if my latest round of interactions with a customer service representative had displayed a modicum of empathy or positive attitude. Instead, the representative inflamed frustrations by refusing to seek information above his expertise level, engaging in back talk rather than problem solving, becoming personally offended, and refusing to connect me with his superior when directly asked on multiple occasions. The representative is the interface between the customer and the company, and for me this interaction is critical in determining whether I will come back after encountering one or more problems with a purchase. Needless to say, Philips isn’t a company I will be seeking to spend my consumer dollars/euros on in the future.

I’ve attached the transcript of the latest interaction below. I will admit I jumped onto the swear train a little early, but given that this was my third interaction trying to locate this replacement part and the latest in a long line of problems associated with this product, can you blame me? I quickly returned to being a polite human being, but I guess that wasn’t enough for this particular representative to provide actual customer service. I’m now left wondering what percentage of my problems with this company have been a French thing versus an evil corporation thing.

UPDATE: After informing Philips of this blog post via Twitter, they miraculously decided they did have the ability to source a functional charger for my device, at no cost to me. It took a few weeks to get here (because France), but my toothbrush is now back in working order. Turns out the squeaky wheel really does get the grease.


Bonjour et bienvenue sur le Chat Philips. Je vous remercie de votre question, vous conversez avec Alexis.
Alexis: Hello Mrs Tisler
Alexis: I’m affraid this sparepart is not available on the Philips France online shop
Alexis: what is your postal code?
Tiffany: Yes. This is causing me a great deal of difficulty.
Tiffany: I am going to Paris this weekend. Perhaps you can find a retailer there who has this part.
Alexis:  you may contact STE SEREL 22 RUE CAMILLE DESMOULINS 75011 PARIS 01 43 79 72 80
Tiffany: Or point me to a philips website in another country that actually has this product.
Alexis:  It seems to be available on the UK online shop :
Alexis: but it may be not suitable for France (voltage difference FR/UK)
Tiffany: don’t you know?
Tiffany: why isn’t it available in france if it is available elsewhere?
Alexis:  I’m sorry, I don’t have this information
Tiffany: are you not a representative for this company?
Tiffany: obviously if you are selling your products in france, people may need to know this sort of information.
Alexis:  I’m a Philips Helpdesk agent
Tiffany: well this is bullshit
Tiffany: I now have a useless 200 euro toothbrush
Tiffany: what the fuck
Alexis: I can’t have this kind of information
Alexis:  very well
Tiffany: you need to have someone who does have this kind of information contact me
Alexis: i must inform this is a chat plateform for french speaking customer
Alexis: I’m making an effort speaking to you in english
Tiffany: no, it is for customers in france.
Alexis: it’s no use to tell bad words such as bull… or f..k
Alexis: have a nice day
Alexis: goodbye
Tiffany: ugh. please. nothing but run around from this company.
Tiffany: I would not have to use such “bad words” if this company actually provided customer service.
Alexis:  I just did
Tiffany: Haha, please connect me to your supervisor.
Alexis: I provided you a resaler contact as you asked
Tiffany: I’m 99.9% sure that the resaler won’t have this replacement part, because how would they if you don’t even sell this part on your website?
Alexis:  there are more than billions Philips products
Alexis: not all of them are available on the online shop
Tiffany: I’m sure that is factually not true that there are “billions” of Philips products, and even so it is no excuse for leaving a customer without a functional product within the 2 year warranty period.
Tiffany: I have already been in contact with other resalers, and none of them can locate or order this part, or even know what it is.
Tiffany: You need to direct me to someone who has actual authority and ability to solve this problem.
Alexis:  what problem?
Alexis: you aske where to buy, I gave you the info
Alexis:  asked*
Tiffany: The problem with not being able to find this part in france, and if I must go elsewhere (such as the UK website), the knowledge as to whether it is even compatible.
Alexis:  CRP243 is a UK charghing base…
Tiffany: Please give me your supervisor’s contact information.
Alexis:  to what purpose?
Alexis vous recommande la page suivante :
Tiffany: So that I may speak to someone more knowledgeable, as you have already admitted you do not have all the necessary information I need.
Alexis:  you want to know why the CRP243 is not sold on the Philips France online shop, well it is because CRP243 is a UK charging base
Tiffany: Why is it listed on the Philips France website then?
Alexis:  all products are listed on the Philips website
Tiffany: You clearly lack sufficient knowledge, please give me you supervisor’s contact information.
Alexis:  this is not possible
Tiffany: It is possible. I am sure of it.
Tiffany: You just don’t want to do it.
Tiffany: Please do the right thing and give me this information.
Alexis: It is not is work to attend you
Alexis: It is mine
Tiffany: But you cannot do it, so now I must go above you.
Alexis:  I already gave you the info
Tiffany: You have not answered all my questions with appropriate answers.
Alexis: CRP243 is available on the UK web site and here
Alexis: you can also contact STE SEREL
Alexis: CRP 243 is not available on the frenche online shop because it is a UK product
Tiffany: Which I intend to do, but since I know how things work, I am quite positive they will not have the part. Furthermore, my toothbrush, which I bought in France, came with the CRP243, so it is clearly not exclusively a UK product.
Alexis:  what is the reference of the toothbrush
Tiffany:  HX9332/04
Alexis:  ok
Alexis: where did you find the CRP243 reference?
Tiffany: By looking for the part I need in the online store.
Alexis:  well CRP243 is obviously not the part you need
Tiffany: It looks exactly like the part that came with my toothbrush, so please explain how it could be otherwise.
Alexis:  CRP243 refers to the spare part code 4235 090 03211 which is the UK charging base
Alexis: the spare part code of the charging base compatible with your HX9332/04 (FR) is 4235 090 03201
Tiffany: And where might I find that part?
Alexis:  at the same resalers I already gave you the direction
Tiffany: And what is the CRP number for that part?
Tiffany: Please stop sending my this link. 47 euros for this part is unreasonable.
Alexis:  it is not the same link as before
Alexis: this is the link with the correct sparpart you need
Tiffany: True, but it is the same website charging similarly unconscionable prices.
Tiffany: So can I find this correct spare part on the philips website?
Alexis:  That’s why I told you to contact STE SEREL in the first place
Tiffany: As I said before, I know that they are highly unlikely to have this part or be able to find it for me, because that is how things are. Thus, if you could just tell me the CRP number for this correct part, and tell me if it is available on the Philips France website, I would be much obliged.
Alexis:  there is no CRP code for this spare part
Tiffany: How does a layman go about finding it then?
Tiffany: And is it available on the website?
Tiffany: What am I even to ask for when I do go to STE SEREL?
Alexis:  the spar part 4235 090 03201
Tiffany: In the manual referencing this spare part number, it seems to indicate “warranty claims” are possible, but on a previous interaction with a customer service representative, they told me this part was not covered by warranty.
Alexis:  I confirm spareparts are not covered by warranty
Alexis: only the handle
Tiffany: Seems that the charging base is a pretty critical part.
Alexis:  indeed
Tiffany: So, shouldn’t it be covered under the warranty? Otherwise the handle is useless, as in my current situation.
Alexis: I have no opinion wether it should or should not be covered uneder the warranty
Alexis: the fact is that it is not
Alexis: under*
Tiffany: Yes, well, I guess we can’t expect all multi-national corporations to provide excellent customer service. Just last week, Apple replaced a 70 euro charging adapter at no expense to me, even though the computer was well out of warranty. I guess if they ever decide to make electric toothbrushes in the future, the choice will be clear who to buy from. I’m glad I’ve experienced such a terrible time with this philips product and the customer service to go along with it, because it will make my family’s purchasing choices much easier in the future. (PS, be sure to pass this part along to that supervisor who’s contact information you still haven’t given me).
Tiffany: Cheers!
Alexis: I must tell you that I answered the question you asked which was “Where can I get the replacement part CRP243?”
Alexis: you doubted every answer I gave you
Alexis: but at the end it appears you wanted to buy a spare part that is noyt compatible with your device
Alexis: 99.99% sure is not enough
Alexis: the info Ia gave you are 100% sure
Alexis: Have a very nice day Mrs TISLER


France technology

Futur en Seine

We just got back from another great weekend in Paris, which is currently my favorite big city. As usual, a work mission brought me there. I was in town to demo the project I work on, VARI3. It’s a challenging project, with a handful of French partners spanning industry and academia, in which we use an iPad Mini to interact with a virtual car model for purposes of design review at Renault.
Eric demoing VARI3 in Paris at Futur en Seine

I was surprised by two things. First, this was a very large event. It took us a few hours to see a mere fraction of the demos. Second, all of the demos we saw were of things I believe are neat and useful. A few notable examples:

  • KEECKER is a robot that travels the home projecting things on the walls or ceilings. The most basic purpose seems to be watching movies on whatever surface is convenient and bringing a movie with you from room to room, but really it’s based on Android so the possibilities are kind of endless. It’s easy to imagine remote home monitoring tasks, for example. At only about EUR 1500, it seems like a good price, given that a decent projector alone can cost EUR 1000.
  • Vinoga is a game in which the objective is to grow your own wine. I guess you get to choose the grape varieties and maybe the techniques, while purchasing various types of equipment. Their business model is interesting in that the game is free, but it is set up so that the resulting wine is always one of 50-something types, which they can then sell you from real producers (labeled with your own chosen name, of course). To be honest, this seems a bit silly to me so I doubt I’ll be buying wine this way especially given our refined tastes. But I might give the game a try to see if I learn something.
  • Art Graphique & Patrimoine is a company I’ve seen a few times before at such events and I’ve often chatted with one lady in particular. They make augmented reality applications for cultural heritage. This time, they were promoting a prototype application to augment an exhibit at the Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine museum in Paris. They were giving out free tickets to visit the museum and try the app on a loaner iPad. It was pretty cool, though a bit heavy. Once the iPad recognized a particular piece through the camera, it displayed a virtual church all around. This is not the first time I’ve seen such things, but it’s catching on and I believe it represents the future of museums. See the photo below.

Eric using augmented reality at Cité de l’Architecture et du Patrimoine

There were also plenty of VR applications, though I didn’t try too many. There tends to be a line at those demos and it was quite crowded.

France law technology

Privacy Contradictions

I’ve probably mentioned this before, but Europeans have some intense views on privacy, and this has some very real effects on photographers. There is this idea in many European countries that a person owns images of himself. I question the legal rationale behind this and it certainly limits the possibility of a free press. It also might be a little naive in today’s world. But, at this time, I don’t intend to really criticize this stance offhand (because, hey, I like privacy too). I don’t even really want to talk about the legal side but, instead, just the cultural side. I don’t feel that these demands for privacy are very principled, at least in France.

I think it’s generally good policy to respect people’s wishes. If a friend asks me not to share a photo, that’s basically fine. I don’t even question it. I myself shield my face in public when tourists are around. I am not overly shy about the camera, but I just find it disrespectful to take photos of people you don’t know. So I’m cool with this idea. However, I do find it a bit unfortunate when you take a photo with friends and then cannot share it because of one holdout. I see a subjective distinction between the case of some friends taking a photo together and a tourist snapping shots of random people.

That being said, my big problem with it is the inconsistency with other areas of French life. It seems OK to have a cultural shyness in which you don’t want to broadcast your activities to the world. However, if that’s how the French feel, I wish they would stop sending my birth certificate and passport all around the country in unencrypted emails. This is a huge problem in France. It’s even common for hotels to request credit card numbers via email. My requests/demands that people don’t do this with my personal information are generally shrugged off. My concerns are seen as unfounded and certainly not worth the hassle of finding an alternative. (Of course email is a huge privacy/security problem for personal information.) To me, this makes the whole thing less genuine. It seems like there is an indignation-laziness tradeoff at play here. They’ll get indignant about you trampling all over their privacy by sharing a photo, but using encrypted email or sending things by post? No, that’s inconvenient. Privacy isn’t that important.

flat France law workplace

French fire safety

It is no secret that the French culture embraces regulations. Illusory or not, they love the feeling of controlling the world around them with policies, procedures, and assignment of responsibility. These regulations slow down all activities in France and, in many ways, hurt France’s standing in the world. Of course tradeoffs exist, so we should be careful not to conclude that they are a bad thing in all cases.

What astounds me is that, even with all of this government intervention, common-sense safety regulations really don’t exist. In some cases, this seems like a good thing. It is liberating to not be protected from myself at every turn. But here they don’t even have basic safety features in flats and workplaces.

Take my workplace, for example, where there is a single usable fire exit (UPDATE: See below). The building is not particularly small. It is quite modern, and fire exits do exist all over the place, but they are all locked or barricaded in various ways. The only way out is the front door, and many parts of the building will likely be quite cut off from this exit in case of a fire. I don’t know what French law actually says about this situation, but such an American lab would be inspected and shut down promptly. It is true that some codes in the US are ridiculous, but I’d go so far as to say that the effective lack of fire codes here is stupid. One would think that a responsible employer would solve the problem, but I guess this lack of action illustrates the need for workplace safety regulations and enforcement.

The situation at home and around town is more complex. There are a lot of old buildings in France, including much of the housing. For this reason, it is undoubtedly difficult to implement safety rules across the board. That said, there are some things that are just silly. Last month, though we already had one, a law went into effect that finally mandated smoke detectors in rental housing. This is shocking to me, given that this has been regulated in pretty much every American town for decades. I don’t know the laws in the rest of Europe, but there was also no smoke detector in my flat in Germany. The silliness also extends to the construction domain, with almost every door in France swinging inward. Even worse, many doors require a key to exit. In our flat, for example, we must manually unlock the door to the actual flat and then also the one downstairs to exit to the street. If we don’t have our key on us, we’ll be trapped. I’m not just arguing for the value of regulations. I also believe that responsible landlords and architects should solve these things voluntarily, and it astounds me that they largely haven’t.

Imagine living in a place where right turns on red are universally outlawed but the fire exits are chained shut. It’s mind boggling.

UPDATE: I’ve been told (for unrelated reasons) that there is a second exit that does work in our lab. As far as I know, there is still no alternate exit from the large room with the VR equipment, which has 3 out of 4 exits locked, but is the most likely place for a fire.

France Germany law USA

Freedom of speech around the world

There is often talk, particularly among Americans, about freedoms and who has more of them. I have lived in the US, France, and Germany, and have traveled extensively elsewhere, so I want to make some comments based on my understanding of the different tradeoffs in these places. I may write additional posts, but first I want to cover freedom of speech.

United States

Americans like to talk about freedom, but in reality they have given up more than a lot of countries. Americans give up freedoms mostly in direct exchange for the feeling of security. Note that this doesn’t often translate into actual security, as many of the programs that suck up American freedoms cannot demonstrate any positive outcomes. However, freedom of speech is a glaring exception.

There are many in the US who are fighting for censorship, with arguments that hate speech isn’t covered by the first amendment (it is) and uninformed references to the “fire in a crowded theater” quote. Their efforts have been slightly successful, as we are seeing some actions being taken against people for what should be protected speech. For example, public universities have been really going down a bad path lately. Ultimately these people are OK with limits on speech, as long as they get to define the limits.

Additionally, police action is often not on the side of free speech. There have been many examples of military-style crowd control to intimidate protesters. There are also plenty of examples of police beating people up and arresting them for verbal insults.

That said, the courts often come down on the correct side (in my view) of this issue, finding that the government cannot place limits on objectionable content. In the US, speech is instead supposed to be regulated by society. The government cannot stop you from saying things unless they are credible threats or defamation (which must be believable, harmful, and false), but they also offer no protection against repercussions from your fellow citizens. Obviously that citizen can’t go violating other laws when giving payback, but you get the idea. Things aren’t perfect, but this is one issue on which I believe the US really shines as compared to the rest of the “free world.” It’s a shame that so many people are trying to ruin it.


I was surprised to learn that there really isn’t free speech in Europe. Every government over here seems intent on defining lines and limits on what speech is allowed. Britain is generally known to be the worst offender, with laws against all sorts of speech that might disturb the feelings of any subset of sensitive citizens. I’ll comment a little more on Germany and France, as those are the ones I have the most experience with. But note that the laws are not very accessible to non-native speakers so I don’t always know them with great precision.

Germany’s big thing, with regards to speech, is that you cannot deny the holocaust or say anything antisemitic (or other types of “hate” speech). This seems to actually be the case around Europe, and I understand their history is a bit different, but it certainly doesn’t seem to have eliminated such groups. Germany also has some, let’s say ridiculous, limits on insulting people. You quite literally cannot call names in Germany, and the truthfulness of a statement is not a defense. While I don’t condone limits on speech, I must say that Germany is a very civil society.

French speech laws are similar to those in Germany, though they seem to have less emphasis on the personal attacks (i.e. you may be less likely to be sued for calling a name). Worse than a normal personal attack is insulting an employee of the government, an activity that receives great protection in the US. One can also not legally insult the flag or anthem. Germany does have a law against desecration of the flag, but I think the French law differs in that verbal insults, for example, would be illegal too. Think about that: They allow “free” speech, but one cannot fully mount a campaign against the government (certainly not its agents), which is arguably the most important reason to have protected speech. France has also been getting in trouble lately (after the Paris attacks) because of the lines they have drawn regarding religious insults. This is the danger when you start to draw lines. Once you draw them, every special interest group wants them moved. Finally, it is also illegal to publish anything promoting the use of drugs, which can limit arguments about reforming drug policy. So, ultimately, France has left setting limits on speech in the hands of the majority, which is a very dangerous move. Instead of “je suis Charlie,” they should say “je suis hypocrite.”


The quest for authority in France

This is something that I mostly notice in the workplace, but it seems to be the case generally in French culture. The people seem to absolutely love to have responsibility assigned to them. By this I mean they want, more than anything, to be in charge of some thing, place, or activity. These responsibilities are often minimal. For example, perhaps there is some piece of equipment that needs tending or a document that needs completed. In the US, these duties may be ad hoc or just a small part of somebody’s job that is rarely mentioned. In France, it is formalized and you are made to know about it.

I used to think this was all just about a cultural need to have policies and procedures in place. It may be a little of that too, but as time has passed I’ve become more and more convinced that a big part of it is to maintain each individual’s sense of importance. I believe this because of the silly emphasis on these tiny side projects. Related emails and signs give an air of importance around what is often a minor footnote in my day.

I’m sure part of it is the language, and this isn’t surprising because languages seem closely related to culture. I work in a small building with 15-25 people on a given day. If a hypothetical policy comes down from above that applies to some system in my building, really a casual note is all that’s needed:

Hey everybody they want us to start doing X to the widget, so could you go ahead and do that when appropriate?

Instead, we get an authoritative email:

In accordance with the policies that have been enacted due to the recent events pertaining to the use of university widgets, I have been assigned the responsibility of widget control officer until further notice. A new policy regarding widget use is now in place for all staff and students. You will now be required to do X to all widgets upon completion of activity Y. Any deviation from this plan is strictly prohibited.

Now I’m not saying there is anything wrong, per se, with the second email, but hopefully you can see how this comes across as excessive and self-important to an American. I’m also not pointing fingers at anybody in particular, as I see this sort of verbosity from many different people.

Finally, the point of these assignments is not productivity. If the guy who is responsible for a given task goes on vacation, it just doesn’t get done until he returns. As an example, we have a system in my lab where a single person is responsible for the reservations of an important piece of equipment. (Note that in 1.5 years, this policy has changed 3 times.) Unfortunately, we have a couple months of holiday every year in France, so he’s often gone. We cannot properly reserve the equipment during that time. Yes, we can still use it because in practice the reservation system is useless given the general lack of competition for the equipment. But this just goes back to my point about responsibilities being assigned purely for the sake of assigning responsibilities and not because a policy is needed.

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Saint-Vincent de Montagny-les-Buxy

January is the time of year when Burgundy winegrowers trim branches from their vines and celebrate Saint Vincent, patron saint of vineyards and vintners. For the second time, Eric and I attended the Banquet de Saint-Vincent de Montagny-les-Buxy. This Saint Vincent celebration is a whole day affair, involving a lot of food and even more wine.

Always on a Sunday, the celebrations begin with a small procession of vintners dressed in ceremonial garb making their way to a local church. After a religious service, they parade to the local war memorial and pay homage to those lost in the two world wars. The procession then starts again, this time headed to a local domaine. Each year a different vintner gets to be host for the ceremonial first drink of the day, and at this point the activities become more jovial. A white wine is served along with gougères. In our experience, everyone joining in the festivities usually crams into the vintner’s cold warehouse area and must jostle to get at the drinks and snacks. Perhaps the wine is too cold and the atmosphere a bit lacking, but eventually a group clothed in traditional regional outfits will step outside and perform a variety of songs and dances. Everyone’s spirits rise in anticipation of the rest of the day.

Lunch starts at 2pm, and can last five to six hours. It is held in Buxy at the Salle des Fêtes, probably the only facility in the area large enough to hold all the guests and equipped with a kitchen that can turn out hundreds of plates of food over the course of the afternoon. This year the organizers were kind to seat us next to the only other native English speaker in attendance and in close proximity to many of the winegrowers we have become acquainted with.

Over the course of the afternoon, six courses of food were served. After the first two courses, we were given a little extra time to digest between each course as the brotherhood of winegrowers performed skits on the stage. While our understanding of French is by no means perfect, the skits were still entertaining for us to watch. We wined and dined over the course of the afternoon and into the evening. Not only are local wines served with with the meal, but the tradition is that winegrowers and attendees bring in bottles of wine from their own cellars. This allowed us to taste and sip on at least 15 different wines throughout the afternoon. We were provided with a spittoon and ample water, so we could move from one wine to the next without worrying about finishing every last drop or getting too tipsy.

Every course of lunch was superb, and dessert — cake decorated with large sparklers — was paraded before the crowd before it was sliced and served. It was a lovely, gut-bursting meal.

After the lengthy lunch, the party really gets started with a live band and dancing. The music is a bit old-fashioned and polka-esque, but I wouldn’t really expect anything else given the average age of the crowd. Eric and I tempted fate by going for a spin on the dance floor again this year, and somehow we managed not to take anybody out. I think it’s safer when we just watch though. Everyone is jolly and satisfied by this point in the evening, and it is nice to take a little break from all the eating and drinking just to watch the French be French. Not too long though, because a buffet is served just a few hours after the lunch feast has ended.

Eric and I stayed until shortly before midnight, just long enough to fill ourselves at the buffet, but we couldn’t imagine drinking any more wine after doing so for the last 12 hours. Many of the winegrowers and their friends were still going strong, dancing across the floor and lining up at the buffet for more food. Eric and I practically rolled ourselves out the door and toward the hotel we had rented for the night. I have no idea how the older French ladies and gentlemen have the stamina to keep partying into the wee hours of the night after so much eating and drinking, but perhaps it is just years of practice. I guess that will give us reason to keep coming back to the Banquet de Saint-Vincent de Montagny-les-Buxy whenever we can!

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Wine tasting in Burgundy

We have been living in Burgundy for about a year and a half now and we have really gotten into the wine culture. In the past, I have never been a huge fan of wine or alcohol in general. I drank from time to time, and I sometimes enjoyed it just fine, but it was never a big part of my life. However, wine is an important part of the culture here, and beer was a big part of the culture when we were living in Germany. So as outsiders it kind of makes sense to really embrace these drinks as a way of learning about the cultures. When living in Germany, we tried many types of beer, I toured a couple breweries, and we even went to Oktoberfest once (which is nowhere near where we were living). Now that we are in France, we have really embraced the wine culture, to an even greater degree than we embraced beer in Germany. This is a great way not only to learn about wine, but also to see a lot of small villages around the region. We rarely drink at home. Because of our relatively cheap weekend hobby, we have really gained an in-depth knowledge of these places and the people. We’ve even become acquainted with some of the producers, who have been very welcoming and generous to us.


One thing that makes Burgundy unique, as compared to tasting anywhere else in the world, is the incredible diversity available from only a couple grape varieties. Most of the grapes here are either Chardonnay (white) or Pinot Noir (red), though there are a few minor exceptions (Aligote and Gamay, for example). In terms of differences then, the concept of terroir is very important. It’s a very complex subject, but basically the ground expresses itself through the grapes. Grapes grown in a different village or even on a different part of the same slope will have different sun and wind exposure, as well as different minerals and water availability in the soil, for example. This affects the taste drastically and, from what I’ve heard, there is basically no other place on earth with such diversity. Also, this concept is very historic here. Many of these vineyards were mapped out by monks centuries ago, because even they understood that different plots of land produce wine of different quality, some of which is subjective, of course.

Finding Burgundy wine events

There is a wine tasting event within an hour’s drive almost every weekend. However, one thing that I noticed when we first moved here is that it isn’t entirely clear how to best find these events. Yes, there is a website that lists a lot of them, but it is poorly designed and it lists special festivals and open houses right in the same list as tasting opportunities that go for months. There just isn’t a great events calendar for Burgundy wine tasting and certainly not in English. That said, you can check the following sites for some information:

It is also sometimes possible to look at the websites of any villages that you find interesting. They often will list local events.

Tiffany at Saint Vincent Tournante 2014 in Saint Aubin

Occasions to taste wine in Burgundy

Just to give you an idea of what to expect and the general etiquette, here are a few types of occasions on which one might go wine tasting in Burgundy:

  • Regular tasting at an individual domaine: Some domaines have an open tasting room many days of the week where one can just come in and do some tasting. In this setting it is considered good form to buy something. We usually do buy at least a bottle of whatever our favorite was from the tasting, within our price range of course, and this way we always have a collection of wines at home that are not always super fancy but very decent stuff that we like. For example, we often go to Domaine Berthenet in Montagny. They are open most days and they have quite a solid selection of good wines.
  • Portes Ouvertes: This is where an individual domaine or even an entire village has a free tasting event. For these, you just follow the signs and taste wines. Usually it does not cost anything, but once in a while they will charge a couple euro. Though it is considered good etiquette to buy something if it is free, realistically these events are crowded and not everybody buys. Our deliciousness threshold to buy at an event like this is higher, because we can’t taste at every place in town and buy something everywhere.
  • Wine festivals: This is what we mainly attend. For various reasons, throughout the year many of the little villages have special festivals. For these, you generally pay 5 or 6 euro to buy a glass and walk around the village tasting wine at each domaine. Just due to these events, we have way more glasses than the number of people we could ever entertain in our home, and each village has their own glasses so it’s a fun collection for us. Because you pay to participate in one of these festivals there is less expectation to buy bottles. In fact we’ve been to events where the producers didn’t even have bottles available for sale.
  • Expositions: Sometimes in the larger towns (think Beaune or Mâcon), there are indoor events with an admission charge. These events typically also have food available to sample and buy. The downside of being indoors is that you are isolated from the character of the town, and instead it really is just about the food and wine, but we do usually try to walk around the town afterwards.

Note that here I’ve only listed the types of events that are generally practical for our income bracket. There are some events where you pay something like 70 euro and walk around tasting wines in a vineyard. These may be cool, but we haven’t done one yet just because it’s not really necessary to spend this type of money to taste really good wines in Burgundy.

There are some events that are seasonal and they occur in many villages around the same time. For example, the past couple weeks has been filled with events related to Saint Vincent. We actually attended a banquet in Buxy (for the Montagny appellation) two weekends ago, for the second year. Maybe Tiffany will be writing about that, because it’s an awesome story in itself. In addition to these various events around Burgundy, each year one village holds the Saint Vincent Tournante. This is a big tasting event and it is worth seeing at least once if you get the chance. We went last year when it was held in Saint Aubin. However, last weekend we opted not to go to the 2015 event. It’s just not as interesting to us as the little festivals in random villages. There are crowds to fight through just to get a taste, the number of tastes are limited (this is sometimes technically the case at other festivals, but it is rarely enforced), and it’s expensive (15 euro for 7 tastes this year). Additionally, outdoor tasting at this time of year is not really great for enthusiasts because the wine is always too cold.

Stay tuned…

This was a broad overview of how to taste wine in Burgundy. Of course there are also businesses, such as large cellars and wine shops, where wine can be tasted. We do go to these sometimes, and some are awesome, but here it was my intent to talk about opportunities to get a little more culture. Hopefully we will begin writing some things about individual villages and events we like. We are not experts on wine, but we are learning. We want to share what we can.