Waiting room witterings: a portrait of France.

One month ago, I was in the rumbling bowels of the local Préfecture, clutching a huge pile of paper justifying everything from my address to my bra size in a bid to exchange my UK driving licence for a Barbie-pink French one. I was rewarded with a paper stating that I will have an answer within two months, and that no answer after two months means that the application has been refused. Not that it has been forgotten under a coffee cup on someone’s desk, lost or wrongly filed in the depths of pen-pusher’s oblivion.

So one month later, M.M. is watching her mailbox like a hawk as the sand trickles through the egg-timer. Still nothing. So in the meantime, here is the sequel to the driving licence saga : the waiting room.

At the end of the previous chapter, I had been given a ticket and ordered to “seet downeuh ozzeur zère”. The system was a little like queuing for cheese in Waitrose: You get a ticket, then wait for your number to flash up on the screen. There was another likeness with the cheese counter: the man sitting beside me, who smelled like he had been massaged with a microwaved mixture of Munster, Camembert and a generous pinch of fox poo before leaving the house. There were 32 people in front of me. I found myself calculating how long it would take to see the bespectacled civil servant behind the counter. My courage wilted faster than a salad platter in the Sahara as I realised that even at an average of five minutes per person, that added up to over two hours of waiting.

After Losing His Red Card to a Ravenous Goat, ...

Typical French queuing technique. Note cockerel with file under wing.  (Photo credit: Sister72)

Big Brother stared out of every wall through shiny-white, technological snowdrops that recorded our every move. I was anxious. The Prefecture waiting room is a buzzing melting pot of people from all horizons who all have higher levels of adrenalin and testosterone than Lance Armstrong on the Tour de France. As the classic joke goes, the cockerel was chosen as the French emblem because it is “the only animal that can continue to sing with both its feet in the shit”. Yet the Gallic cockerel loses its infamous cock-a-doodle-doo when it crosses the threshold of Cerfa’s palace: it is tamed by the aura of Administromia, and this feeling of subordination peeves the French. They do not like waiting, and absolutely hate being dominated. (With the exception of some French politicians in their private lives, but that’s a whole different ball game. So to speak.)

They strutted around the golden administrative cage with ruffled feathers. Their beaks remained firmly closed, but signs of their frustration escaped in other ways. Papers were fiddled with, eyeballs rolled, pens were clicked and hisses of exasperation escaped from lips as watches were looked at for the umpteenth time. Knees jerked rapidly, feet tapped on the polished floor.

A line of neatly labelled counters stretched along the wall before us, eerily like the vivariums you see at the exotic species section of the zoo. A glass panel with a circular grill separated the civil servant within them from the tax payer on the other side.

A vivarium for the lesser spotted civil servant.

A vivarium for the lesser spotted civil servant.

I squinted to read the sign in the window, expecting to read: “Lesser Spotted Civil Servant. Common French species under no imminent threat of extinction. Timid, it only ventures out of its lair for 35 hours per week. Please do not tap on the glass”. I was wrong: the sign was a veiled threat to the humble tax payer, and read as follows: “Vous et nous : le respect du droit, le droit du respect.” This basically boils down to: “We’ll respect your rights – if you respect us”.

At this point, a prim and proper retired lady approached, and sat down on the seat beside me. She heaved a huge sigh, looked up at the screen, and burst the bubble of perfection by loudly proclaiming: “Oh, putaing. Je n’y compreings rieng. C’est quoi, ce bordeleuh?” In polite language, this would roughly translate as “Oh, dear, I don’t understand. What kind of mess is this?” Her foul language and loudness were a comic revelation of the real person beneath the improvised exterior. I grinned to myself.

The “lady” hummed anxiously. The smelly man rhythmically jerked his knee up and down, shaking the entire bench and sending waves of stench up my reluctant nostrils. Nausea started to take hold of me. A man glared in our direction, and ostentatiously flapped his file in front of his nose.

 I had come prepared: I pulled out a pen and paper and started scribbling down my observations. It was striking to see how people preferred fiddling with Facebook to  discovering the bored person sitting right beside them. Bang in synch with what was going through my head, Mrs Mutton-dressed-as-lamb prodded me in the ribs. “Are you doing your homework?” she enquired, pointing at my scribbles. “No, I’m just writing”. She gave me a quizzical stare. Apparently, it was not at all strange for grown adults to play Angry Birds on their telephones, but it was strange to write for no reason. I nodded my head sideways. “I think someone’s going to lose his trousers in a minute”. She followed my gaze, and burst out laughing. Here’s the vision that met her eyes:

How to "hang out" in administromia - in the literal sense of the word. Photo taken for your eyes only,  at MM's perils and risks.

How to “hang out” in administromia – in the literal sense of the word. Photo taken for your eyes only, at MM’s perils and risks.

We waited patiently, and as the man walked past us two minutes later, his aptly named “saggy” was sliding slowly and suggestively downwards. Our impromptu Adonis split his thighs in an cowboy-like stance, and his trousers ground to a halt midway between his groin and his kneecaps. He was forced to stop beside my neighbour, who beamed up in delight at the sight of his taut thighs and generous manly attributes, all delicately wrapped in designer undies. As her number was called, I think she had already decided to come back again the next day in the hope of a Full Monty. The Préfecture was not so boring after all….

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31 thoughts on “Waiting room witterings: a portrait of France.

    • Hello, and welcome to the madhouse! I do agree that camera phones come in useful for bloggers in search of material. I was worried that he would see my reflection in the glass and duff me up. I had a head start before he pulled his trousers up, so i took the chance nevertheless 🙂

  1. Ah ha ha haaaa! I am dabbing my eyes! Thank you for making me laugh so much!!!!!!
    I had never realised the French are so much like the Italians. I have to face the chickens of Sicily in a queue to renew my own driving license soon. The only difference here is that they are actually headless…..

    • Thanks 🙂 I’ll be very careful to say thank you every time, now I know that your town is full of Mafiosi 😉 Do keep me up to date with your driving licence déboires: Pécora Nera is testing the Italian system out too 😉

      • I was hoping for some top tips from Pecora Nera, but he seems to be tripping into even more ludicrous pitfalls than I did last time around. I may just have to cultivate some “special relationships” locally and get it by pulling strings instead…

  2. LOL you are a master at observation, and captured this waiting room sooooo well, did you pretend to be texting someone as you were photographing Mr Cowboy-almost-full-Monty? When I see these guys walking on the pavement ahead of me, I have to restrain my urge to just go and give a little pull of those trousers, you just need a tiny pull, I am sure, and they will fall to their ankles… great fun to read this post!!

    • I did indeed, although the camera shutter noise was a bit of a give away. I am always bemused at the idea of deliberately buying jeans that are four sizes too big; I was smug to see him show his knickers to everyone.

  3. Some months after i moved to France i met the maire in the bakery and she said she thought I ought to get a Carte de Sejour so we toddled off to the mairie and the clerk found a form which seemed to want to know the ins and outs of s bull’s arse which we filled in and it was sent off with other papers from the mairie.
    I was provided with a temporary card by the maire…and that was that.

    A year later no permanent card had arrived.

    Some months further on I met the maire in the bakery again and she said that she didn’t remember seeing a Carte de Sejour notification for me….so we toddled off to the mairie, where the clerk hunted through the filing cabinets and then got busy on the ‘phone.
    It appeared that the arrival of the papers from our Mairie had coincided with some work to rule or whatnot at the Prefecture…and no trace could be found of any of them.

    What to do?

    The clerk said I would have to fill out the forms again.
    I said no. I had done it once…if higher authority had lost it that was higher authority’s problem.
    We turned to the maire.

    I’ll give you another temporary one.

    What, said the clerk, if she is stopped by the gendarmerie?

    She can tell them tor ring me.

    And that is why I enjoyed living in France then, when Systeme D was the rule and not the exception.

    • Ah , the carte de séjour 🙂 My first was issued in a timy back office by a guy who typed it with one finger on a typewriter. Those were the days. In Montpellier, I had two renewals before getting the official version. I saw an Algerian try to push in front of a Russian, and the ensuing catfight was resolved by a security guard. Long live the système D….

  4. Love the phonetic Provencal accent. I’ve become inured to waiting now – I’m more surprised when things happen quickly. The main challenge is having sufficient justificatifs to satisfy your inquisitor:)

    • I love the local accent. Particularly when it’s adorning bad language – it almost makes it charming! I hope I didn’t forget anything in my pile of papers…. I gave her everything bar a photocopy of my shopping list, just to be sure.

  5. How I would hate to smell like Munster cheese! (It is quite the smelliest cheese I have had the mischance of meeting – though I guess there are others.) But to smell like fox poo AND Munster is beyond repulsive.
    An older woman and I recently happened to see a youth with very low pants recently. We looked at each other and laughed. Awkward fashion is such fun.

    • I love eating Munster cheese, because I lived not far from where it is produced. But the smell is pretty strong, and this man really did smell awful. I don’t think he’d been in contact with soap and water for light years 🙂 I don’t mind awkward fashion, as long as it’s not repulsive viewing for others….

  6. Great post! I was in there with you along with the knot in my stomach. I took a similar photo of the exposed underpants last week (I just don’t get it!), sadly my new camera uploads to PHOTOfunSTUDIO and I just can’t work out how to upload the photos to my blog! God, I’m useless – I should have stuck with a Box Brownie!

    • Oh, I’m sorry I gave you a knot in your stomach… Can you upload to your computer by putting the memory stick directly into your computer and saving them in a file? Then we can compare hanging out bottoms across France 🙂

  7. Your account of life in the Prefecture is so wonderfully vivid, and it’s true, you see all of France in cross-section there.

    The low jeans guy is wearing very boring undies. When my son’s trousers slip down, you see a colourful pattern from his trendy undies. If it gets too low I end up by whacking his bum and telling him to pull his trousers up. 🙂 If he complains, I tell him that I only whack what I can see (too much of) so the solution is clear – wear a sodding belt!

    • 😀 I nearly told him his undies were a disappointment, too. My kids have kecks with brightly coloured pics on them, but they only show the top elastic, if that. They must have inherited the English prude gene from me 🙂

  8. Chortling here, MM. I’m just thinking how much we miss in the UK because we can do all these things online nowadays. What fun is that? 🙂

    • Oh, the French are probably allowed to do lots of things online, but they insist on seeing the originals of the photocopies you provide for administrative procedures like official paperwork. It is a very good test for the legendary “flegme britannique”; interestingly, mine appears to be intact despite many years away from Perfide Albion.

  9. It drives me nuts when I see guys with their jeans hanging half way down their backsides! I have to fight the urge to grab hold of their belt loops and yank them upwards! Thankfully my sons agree with me! And why is there always someone smelly in waiting rooms?! Thanks for the laughs 😀

      • Heh heh 🙂 well you can sign me up right now! There are probably enough of us in wordpress land to cover most of the world where it would be an issue! Will await your instructions MM… this is TACVBSS over an out 😀

  10. Brilliant, I will take my camera next time I go to see Mr Cretino. We had a stand up argument this morning. Well, I was stood up arguing while he tried to understand what I was shouting about…

    • Definitely a good idea; I want to see what this man looks like now. If he stood up and you sat down, it would probably be fairer (given that Italians aren’t so tall, he may have an inferiority complex that could prejudice the outcome of your application).

      • I was so angry when I left the office

        I phoned Mrs Sensible, to tell her what happened, normally she says “well you did want to live here” This time I think she knew how angry I was because she didn’t say anything.

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