Rosie Millard: Thrifty Living

I'm overdrawn in Paris, so it's the guillotine for me
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Global economics lesson No 223. The French don't do overdrafts. They really don't. Or arrears of any kind. Owe a French bank anything upward of about €15 for longer than 15 minutes and you'll get into a hell of a mess. Funny, isn't it? While the French are utterly relaxed about things that we Brits get all uptight about – underarm hair on women, plotless films, children in restaurants, extra-marital sex – they are ferociously exercised about the sheer wrongness of being even the teeny tiniest bit overdrawn. Whereas here in Blighty, judging by the number of people who fall into fits of laughter about their five-figure overdrafts, we are all rather laissez-faire about being in the red.

If you're overdrawn in France, you immediately receive a battery of terrifying threats via registered post, which are rather more formal than Monty Python's cod Français, "I wave my private parts in your general direction." Non, a letter from Paris is no laughing matter.

My immoral activities involve a minute Paris apartment, bought five years ago, which I do my best to fund via renting as a "delightful love nest". Sometimes, I don't find quite enough tenants. This sends my French bank manager into a frenzy. So far, she has threatened to cut up my cheque book for five years, send in the bailiffs, send in the police, send in everyone from Sacha Distel onwards. Sometimes I ring her and calm her down with the promise of forthcoming cash. Sometimes I forget. This week has been one of those times.

Sacre bleu! What a barrage of horrors. So far, I have been threatened with immediate termination of insurance, immediate repayment of all the capital owed (about £80,000), penalties, fees and a whole roster of fines, all for the princely arrears figure of €2,000.

It would not do to laugh in the face of such threats, so I have to organise an express payment from the Clydesdale, to France. "Express" here is a description that would fail the Trade Descriptions Act. How do those City types working on international currencies ever get anything done? I start the ball rolling with a polite email to the Clydesdale requesting a transfer. No, it has to be done on an official form. I fill in the form and email it back. No, it has to be faxed. When I get back from the chemist, site of the nearest fax machine, it transpires I have used the wrong BIC, SWIFT and/or IBAN codes. How do I find these codes? Perhaps they are lurking in my correspondence. I open my big file full of nasty French letters. No, not those ones.

By Saturday night, I start to panic. I do not want penalties, fines of £80,000 or the rest. "Try the internet," said Mr Millard calmly. Has he ever tried to find the International Swift Code for BNP Paribas via this method? He has not. Three hours later, I concede defeat.

Monday morning, I call Marie-Claude at BNP Paribas. "Donnez-moi votre SWIFT code," I beg her. She rattles off about a hundred numbers, all of which seem to involve "Quatre-vingt". But my brain doesn't compute "Quatre-vingt". I mean, why not have a proper word for each and every number up to a hundred? Is that too much to ask?

"OK, je le ferai chiffre par chiffre," (I will do it figure by figure), she concedes. After about 30 minutes of chiffre dictation, we all realise that what I actually need is dictation par caractère.

That afternoon, I am ready to fire off my third request for express payment. "You have missed the afternoon communication to Glasgow," says the Clydesdale. Honestly, international money exchange was probably quicker in the days of the Lindisfarne Gospels.

At this point, our lovely nanny Tina and the junior Millards tumble in home from school, plus the dog. "Less children, more money," trills Tina. What's this? No, not Britain's No 1 hit, but a poaching attempt. At the school gates, no less. From a parent of a fellow child. A child who has actually been to this very house, and eaten fairy cakes. That's the sisterhood for you. "She offered me £450 a week after tax to look after only one baby. For a very rich businessman," she explains. I slowly digest the fact that my life is about to collapse. "Of course I told her where to get off, namely the classified ads section of The Lady," says Tina, with Slovakian brio. That's the spirit. Maybe I could follow that with a typical missive from a French bank manager.

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