Pretty in Pink: My New Driving Licence.

The fearless Amazonian MM returns triumphantly from the administrative jungle with Penelope the Pink Permis.

The fearless Amazonian MM returns triumphantly from the administrative jungle with Penelope the Pink Licence.

Drum roll….  Raise your glasses, ladies and gents. MM is finally clutching her French Driving Licence in her sweaty mitts after a long, medically-assisted gestation by the Préfecture.

My French driving licence is pinker than a baboon’s bottom. It’s so pink that Barbie could use it to dress up as a sandwich girl. Talk about girly – it even has sparkly glitter ingrained in the paper. I was almost expecting a Hello Kitty watermark. I have called it Penelope, in homage to the only ultra-pink female personalities I have ever had any respect for: Lady Penelope and Penelope Pittstop.

 Enough gloating. After two months of calling an unmanned phone, I finally got hold of a human being last Friday, who told me that my licence had been waiting for me for two months. They’d just omitted the minor detail of informing me that my marathon was finally over. The road through French beaurocracy to my French licence had been paved with paperwork and involved an exciting wild goose chase in which I sent a medical certificate to the administrative Gods, who promptly sent it to the wrong town, then lost it, then asked me to get it done again, then told me they’d found the old one after all.

The next Monday, MM was at the gate to La Préfecture. The police security guard delved into the bottomless depths of my Mary Poppins hold-all, rummaged reluctantly through the unwelcoming detritus a mother’s handbag always contains, and hastily waved me through.

Inside, Attila the Pun and Bulldog were still manning the reception desk (see here for details). Attila the Pun’s eyesight had apparently gone downhill, as he had a pair of Dumbeldore-style specs on his nose. Bulldog had still not learned how to smile or apply lipstick. Her jowls were quivering in time to her staccato syllables as she gave her visitor some gyp. The word Monsieur peppered every sentence she uttered. “Monsieur, you have to fill in the form…  Monsieur, you will have to come back… Monsieur, you have not understood what I said…” This quintessentially French use of excessive deference to dominate others has always fascinated me. Paradoxically, by dripping with politeness, they actually manage to patronise their opponent into submission: it’s an art form.

Attila the Pun took off his glasses, gave me my ticket, and sent me off to wait my turn at the great administrative cheese counter. He wasn’t as cheerful as the last time. Had he read my blog?

There were a good few people trying to jump the queue. Or maybe they were all colour blind and couldn’t read the writing on the blue tape on the floor, saying that it was rude to butt in on other people who had already gathered dust for hours as they waited their turn.

Then there was the poor man who had ticked all the boxes and photocopied mountains of paperwork. He brandished his ticket triumphantly in the air when his number flashed up on the screen and leapt to his feet if he had just won the pools… then realised that he had forgotten his glasses at home and couldn’t see well enough to sign for the open sesame he had no doubt been waiting for over the last six months.

A vivarium for the lesser spotted civil servant. Note the Hygiaphone in the centre.

A vivarium for the lesser spotted civil servant. Note the Hygiaphone in the centre.

My number was called, and I went to the designated cubicle. A thin-faced man behind the screen pointed at the seat as he hastily glugged down a plastic cup of water. He smiled at me, then yelled, “How can I help you?” I’m sure that he heard himself loud enough, but I had to strain to hear him despite the “Hygiaphone” – a grille in the middle of the screen that is supposed to let the sound through. This term has always had me flummoxed: it implies that it is to stop anything unhygienic happening. Like what? A piece of spinach getting unstuck from between your teeth and flying into the other person’s face? Subjecting them to the residual smell of garlic emanating from your restaurant lunch? In any case, communication was muffled, resulting in lots of shouting, and requiring gallons of water for the poor, parched civil servant on the other side of the glass.

He asked me for my UK licence, typed my name, then said “It’s not ready yet.” His finger hovered over the button that would bring the next person hotfooting to his desk. I suggested that he check under my maiden name, and he said: “Your maiden name isn’t on your passport”. Uh-oh. I was lucky – he asked for my maiden name, typed it in, and gave me my French licence. I left Cerfa’s palace, legal and happy that I didn’t have to go back again for a while.

I’ll round up this post with a little request: Please go over to Pecora Nera’s blog, An Englishman in Italy, to cheer him on.  He started the same quest as me back in April, but he’s dealing with Italian beaurocracy, which is apparently much worse than it is in France.

Especially for Bevchen: French driving licence glitter :-)

Especially for Bevchen: French driving licence glitter 🙂

To read the whole story, here are the three previous episodes:

Mugshot musings: the first step towards a French licence

Into the Jaws of Administromia

Waiting room witterings: a portrait of France

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MM’s Supermarket Showdown.

I wouldn’t like to be a supermarket cashier. It must be a boring job, day after day. But today, any compassion I had for cashiers disappeared in a puff of half-price supermarket smoke.

Bigfoot, Little My and I were at the “grown-up” supermarket, the one where you bump into people like Earth Daddy and the Dinkies (more about them here). We were on a mission for Perrier and shampoo. As carrying packs of water does nasty things to your fingers, I took a shopping trolley and wheeled it around the store.

We got our handful of items collected off the shelves in no time at all, and got to the tills to discover queues that were depressingly reminiscent of Heathrow’s immigration control. Then I saw it: the oasis of sanity, the spanking-new “scan your own” section. It was gleaming invitingly at the end of the store, its four pristine tills waiting patiently for customers to cheer up their lonely existence. We scooted over to it and started scanning our items with an enthusiastic Little My as chef d’orchestre. Each time she flashed the bar code in front of the optic sensor, she was rewarded with a loud and satisfying “bleep”. I felt warm inside to see how happy she was, and was wondering how we adults lose sight of these small thrills in life when my maternal nirvana was interrupted by a loud scream of horror.

An indignant voice shouted out, “Ah, NON, Madame!!!!!” I lifted my head from the depths of the shopping trolley to find out which poor Madame had committed a sin worthy of such vehement hostility. Had someone tried to leave the supermarket with a saucisson stuffed up each sleeve and a honeydew melon craftily hidden in each cup of a FF cup bra? Was Super Cashier about to save us from a terrorist who was on the point of stealing the day’s haul of money-off tokens?

Calamity Jane (album)

Remove the smile and imagine purple overalls, and you have the ardent defender of scan-your-own territory. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I didn’t have time to see much, as my field of vision was immediately blocked by a faceful of purple overalls with an official badge pinned over a heavy boob. A pair of hands firmly grabbed my pack of Perrier and launched it unceremoniously back into my trolley. “Madame” was none other than little old me, who had apparently just committed the most heinous sin of the shopper’s universe. Meet MM the criminal, aka Materfamilias la Maudite.

A pair of hostile blue eyes drilled into mine from below disapproving eyebrows. The hands settled at hip level, Calamity Jane-style. Her fingers were twitching, no doubt ready to whip a hand-held scanner from the depths of each pocket and code-bar me into submission if I moved a muscle. “NO TROLLEYS IN THIS AREA, Madame!” the purple lone-ranger yelled at me. “Take your shopping elsewhere! Honestly, some people….”

My children looked on anxiously as my infamous “ancient camel dung” expression slowly appeared on my face. The kids know that this bodes no good for the recipient of my wrath. I levelled with the prison-warder-come-cashier. “Oh, yeah? Says you and whose army?”

“Says Le Règlement, Madame. No trolleys here. It says so here”. She bristled with self-importance and pointed triumphantly at a drooping sheet of paper that was forlornly taped to a sweets display above our heads. Its corners were at half mast, clearly in mourning for the cardboard support that didn’t make it on the long journey from the administration office.

I smiled at her and informed her that the “notice” in question must have been taped there by the Green Giant – she could probably understand that even for a tall person such as MM, it was too high to see, let alone read. I savoured the sight of my vertically challenged aggressor looking up at the sign before she spat “No trolleys!” at me for the second time.

Bigfoot was remarkably elegant, telling Madame that we only had 14 items, and that the recently discovered notice gave an upper limit of 15. Madame said yes, but in a basket, not in a trolley.

English: Carrinho de supermercado adaptado par...

Shopping trolley complete with get-away vehicle for supermarket sinners (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

By this point, the mustard was really getting up my nose. Excuse the pun, but I was inches from going off my trolley. Forget Attila the Hun, this was Attila no Fun. She pulled her special badge out of her pocket, waved it ostentatiously across the screen as if it was a VIP pass to the backstage door at Cannes film festival, and stabbed evilly at “cancel” with a nail-bitten index finger.

“I thought this system had been put here to make shopping easier for customers, and for yourselves. Why do you have this rule, anyway?” I enquired. MM lethal humour was bristling on the end of my tongue, ready to be deployed.

She flared her nostrils like a silverback on crack, and bellowed: “Because it’s the rule! We don’t ask why! We obey the rules! That is all! No trolleys, Madame!” She had obviously  been promoted from the status of cashier to the vertiginous heights of Queen of the Scan-your-own Kingdom, yet didn’t feel any need to understand the rules that she enforced with so much breast-beating. She accepted the rules passively without questioning. She had been given power, and she was wielding it as coldly and methodically as Genghis Khan.

I took a deep breath. This conversation was going nowhere, fast. It was time to wrap up and go before the ice cream melted.  “Here’s a little advice for you, sweetheart: if you want to enforce a rule, it’s good to at least know why it exists. It’s healthy to question things – give it a try. Oh, and I’m sure that the little old lady who has to take a shopping trolley for three packs of water will be delighted when she keels over in a queue because you’re too small-minded to bend the rules you can’t explain. Have a good day”.

As a responsible, caring citizen, I felt it necessary to warn the (pleasant) cashier who took care of our shopping afterwards that there was a Rottweiler on the loose without a muzzle and wearing a shop uniform at the scan-your-own section. You can never be too careful: dogs aren’t allowed in supermarkets. It’s no doubt written somewhere in Le Règlement….

Beach babes.

The sun battered through the windscreen as we crawled our way at snail pace through the afternoon traffic. People were making their way to the beach on foot, toting lorryloads of parasols, beach mats and toys. A woman in vicious pink flip-flops flapped across the road in front of our car, dragging a screaming child in her wake. She was scantily clad under a tight, crocheted dress, resulting in a disconcerting effect of blancmange trying to escape through a fishnet stocking.

The roundabout was jam-packed with determined holidaymakers and locals, all jousting for a place in the traffic. My muscles crisped as P.F swore in his usual elegant way and threw himself into the battle. I stamped my foot on non-existent brakes in the passenger foot well, grimly realising that just one season driving here would be enough to make my pelvic floor tauter than Paris Hilton’s G-string. Hell, my idea could maybe save the French state millions in postpartum physiotherapy.

P.F is no beginner in the bumper-car game; his studies in Marseille made him a champion of driving in the French vehicular jungle. He pushed dexterously in front of a battered Citroën. The oily, sweaty, and determined local clutching the wheel promptly hit his horn and waved his arms around in indignant French semaphore. P.F. grinned, waved at him and yelled “Thank you, so kind!” out of the window. There was no doubt about it, we were on the infamous Côte d’Azur.

After squeezing the car into a minute parking space, we finally unloaded the kids and beach towels and headed towards the sea. A pocket-sized piece of beach was all that central Juan les Pins had to offer. The remaining 90% of the pristine sand was covered with empty restaurant tables and plastic recliners, all jealously guarded by seasonal pit bulls who were apparently awaiting the improbable arrival of George Clooney and a team of German top-models to break the monotony of their day.

St Raphaël: under all this there is a beach.

We found a space between a family of four and a young couple on the miserably small area left for the population to squabble over. It  strangely resembled a refugee camp, with blankets, parasols and beach tents jostling for space. Laurence of Arabia’s eyebrows would have hit the roof at the amount of rubbish required for the average French family to survive 6 hours on the sand. Whilst towels and a bottle of water sufficed for our beach needs, the rest of the population had brought everything bar the kitchen sink: blankets, tennis rackets, parasols, beach mats, inflatable crocodiles, footballs, sun-tan lotion, half of the shelf at the local magazine kiosk, mobile phones and an icebox full to the brim with victuals. This junk was then distributed over the minimal space available on the sand, hence creating a protective barrier to keep other people at bay.

I hate swimming (I learned how to swim for the same reason that I learned to run: it’s what I would term a survival tactic). However, I have found the ideal activity to avoid getting bored whilst my husband swims to the buoy and back and my kids build multi-storey castle complexes for miles along the beach:  I “people watch”.

“Voyeurism, aha!” I hear you mutter under your breath. Non, non, et non, mon ami! Does anyone remember those “I spy” books? You could tick off multitudes of trains, birds, buildings…. Whatever subject floated your boat, you could buy the book and get ticking. I have my virtual list of beach populations, and check them off every time the kids hit the waves.

“Blancmange in a fish net” arrived, and stripped off to reveal newly imported white flesh wrapped in a mini-bikini and decorated with maori tattoos. She pulled a cigarette out of its box and lit it, then left the fag hanging out of a corner of her mouth, squinting and blowing smoke into her child’s face as she tied his float belt around his waist. She launched him seawards with his bucket and spade, then collapsed on to her towel hissing like a punctured tyre, a copy of Gala magazine clamped between her strassed purple claws.

My trained eye wandered off to investigate further. All my favourites were on the beach, and I almost squealed with the frustration of having forgotten my notepad and pencil to jot everything down. This was the ultimate whammy for my collection.

They were all there. The cool young couple who barely acknowledge each other’s presence, sending text messages (perhaps to each other) between sips of Perrier water. The poser papa with white-framed, Polnareff sunglasses, prancing through the surf and tossing his curly locks in the sea breeze whilst his silent, wiry wife desperately tried to control his gobby offspring. The bored grandparents. The pseudo-philosopher, ostentatiously waving his copy of Bernard-Henri Levy in the air and thoughtfully chewing the end of a brand new pencil. The African selling beach junk, a tower of straw hats listing dangerously on his head. The aspiring pin-up. The English tourist with his beer belly flopping over the elastic of his pink Hawaï trunks. His son, yelling “Did you see a shaaaaaaaark?” at his sister as she emerged from 60 cm of urine-saturated surf wearing matching Barbie flippers, mask and snorkel. The Thai masseur, hoping to be paid for the pleasure of feeling up complete strangers on their beach towels. The ogler, strutting along the water’s edge like Aldo Maccione, ignoring the vast turquoise waters with his head turned at right angles to shamelessly evaluate the boob community on the beach. The topless wonder, breasts sagging like grandfather clock pendulums, checking from behind her heavy Prada sunglasses that the ogler had seen her. Even the sunbathing granny was there, uncomfortably stretched out across the rocks in a grey swimsuit. She was so motionless that when I first saw her, I thought she was a piece of driftwood.

Cool couple in foreground, Poser papa Polnareff in background.

And there were my all-time favourites: The over-concerned parents with the three-year-old they still see as a baby. You know, the frustrated kid with the huge hat, sunglasses and enough buoyancy aids to refloat the Titanic. This child runs more risk of getting lost or injured because he can’t see where he’s going than getting sunburned -he’s so generously smeared in sunscreen that if they tried to pick him up he would shoot out of their grasp into the sea, where his factor 700 Bergasol would bleed into the Mediterranean and kill off more species than the Erika.

Anyone else who indulges in people-watching?  Hands up, folks, don’t be shy! Chances are that if you smiled at any of this, you do it too…..

Post scriptum: This is a post written last year; I am reposting it as a) it went unnoticed and b) I am currently on holiday in the same context, so i would have written about the same topic anyway!

The Expat Birthday Party.

In my early twenties, I au-paired on the Cote d’Azur. The family I worked for were wonderful – they were caring and fun, and had their feet firmly anchored on the ground despite the privileged lifestyle they led. Then one day I accompanied my “charge” to an expat child’s birthday party, and discovered the buttery upper crust of the international expat pie……

We walked through the automatic gate into a child-sized garden party on a lush green lawn. Think Buck’s Palace, without the Queen. The entire knee-high cast of a Shakespearian tragedy was running riot across the garden: Portias, Ophelias and Octavias dressed in designer frocks vied for superiority in the “my daddy’s car is bigger than yours” stakes. I ground my teeth and squeezed Laura’s hand. They had probably all been force-fed Mozart in the womb, followed by a moonlit jacuzzi birth and intensive developmental training with flashcards until they were old enough to enroll for Prodigious & Precocious –the human equivalent of the Kennel Club.

Two groups of adults met my eye: girls my age, grouped together near the children, and a group of meticulously groomed mothers whose hair had been blow-dried and lacquered into submission. They had set up a maternal HQ beside the pool, and were holding tea-cups and hee-hawing beside a teak garden table, their Estée Laudered lips bared to show immaculate white teeth and pink gums. My instinct told me that these ladies were on first name terms with their dentists.

Birthday cake, Hamstead style

Forget chocolate cake with Smarties: this is the ideal birthday cake for the jet-setting expat kid. (Photo credit: dan taylor)

On closer inspection, my doubts were confirmed. Forget the grindstone – the only thing these mothers had ever kept their noses to was the Gucci shop window. Their definition of financial difficulty was getting their Visa gold card jammed in their Hermes purse. They rolled their “r”s and doubled their barrels, and their vowels were longer than Cousin Itt’s hair. Whilst their husbands had good jobs, money and influence, they had embossed invitations to luncheon parties, private swimming pools, masseurs, canine psychotherapists for their chihuahuas and most probably Louis Vuitton nappy disposal bags.

I introduced myself then listened with interest to the battle of one-upwomanship that was being played out centre stage. Two mothers had drawn their superlative swords and were openly competing for their offspring’s superiority in art, music and sport -it was a very amusing maternal equivalent of bragging about penis size. I avoided the temptation to make facetious comments about their budding Einsteins and Beethovens, and took Laura to see birthday girl.

Portia didn’t see us at first – she was busy excavating the contents of her right nostril. She removed her finger from her nose and carefully inspected her catch before popping it into her mouth and chewing it with relish. “Hi! Fishing good?” I enquired. Portia glared at me, snatched the gift from Laura’s hands and ripped off the paper before dumping it unceremoniously on a huge pile of French designer clothing and politically correct hardbacks for precocious readers. A cruel smirk spread across her face. “Oh, a gift that cost a tenner. How cute of you, Laura. Really, you shouldn’t have…..”. A ripple of sardonic laughter ran through the nearby group of children. My jaw dropped. I had never seen such cruelty in five-year-olds.

Portia’s moment of glory as Chief Bad Fairy was interrupted by piercing screams from the bottom of the garden. Ophelia had carried out a nifty putsch on her host’s sparkling new swing, and was defiantly shaking her head at another child who wanted to take a turn. She apparently got a bigger kick out of depriving the others than from the swing itself. As the competitor for her throne whined, Ophelia remained firmly welded to the ropes on the swing and screamed into her struggling au pair’s face.

Pitbee

Ophelia – without her muzzle. (Photo credit: ambiebambie39507)

Glancing up the garden, it was clear that Mumsie had chosen to turn a blind eye. To no avail, the au pair tried again and again to remove the screaming despot from her throne. Ophelia opened her mouth and dived towards the nanny’s arm. With a primitive grunt of victory, she buried her teeth in the awaiting flesh. The pit bull in a party frock then got down from the swing, wiped her mouth on her cardigan and trotted over to her mother. Tugging on her skirt, she pointed at the nanny and tearfully complained to the manager.

Ophelia’s mother looked at her in surprise and registered the sorry state of her nanny’s forearm. I waited with interest to see how she would react. Would she explain that nice kids don’t bite? Make her apologise? Take her home and deprive her of Nutella for the forseeable future? Or just slap her backside? Nope. She turned to the other mothers in desperation, and said “Can you believe it? This is the twelfth nanny we’ve had in a year, and we still haven’t found one Ophelia likes. Can you recommend anyone, girls?”

My jaw dropped for the second time, and Ophelia ran triumphantly back to the swing. As she expertly wrestled Portia’s little brother off the seat, I asked the other nannies what had happened to the previous au pairs. Ophelia’s nanny rubbed her arm and told me that the eleven other nannies had left with enough tooth marks on their skin to play the role of human remains on the beach in the next Jaws film. This was a whole new world for me. Laura grinned, and we went off to find some cake. Cake is a universal value. Cake never lets you down. Long live cake.

Post entered in the DP Weekly Writing Challenge, 8th July 2013.

Kiss and Make Up: Retail Therapy with Little My.

My daughter is a serial shopper, whereas I am as happy about setting foot in a shopping centre as Brigitte Bardot would be with the prospect of a full-time job in a fur coat factory.  So when Little My asked me for an afternoon at the local shopping centre this week, I bit my lip.

Shopping seen by Little My.

Little My’s shopping philosophy: “Shop till you drop”.

It would be easier to convince Robert Mugabe that democracy is a viable form of government than it is to get me to partake in retail therapy. But Little My has had a tough time recently, and deserved a bit of quality time. So I grabbed my bag and set off with my beaming daughter to the nearest shopping mall.

As we walked along chatting, Little My suddenly grabbed my arm and yanked me out of the sunshine into the dark interior of what smelled suspiciously like a brothel. I choked on the unexpected lungful of eau de pong. My eyesight adjusted to the darkness, and I gaped in horror. She had done it again. I was in a “parfumerie” -a high-street den for felines who spend more time in front of the mirror than I spend in front of the fridge; women who pluck their eyebrows, pay to have their pubic hair ripped out by wax-yielding sadists, and touch up their lipstick during their coffee break (presumably incase George Clooney bowls through the door on an unexpected visit). In short, women from another planet who scare the pants off me.

I resisted the temptation to do a runner, and meekly followed my ten-year-old to a make-up stand. Little My was enthusiastically inspecting a strange collection of mud cakes, and started rubbing brown gunk on the back of my hand. “It’s foundation, Mum,” she kindly explained to her cosmetically challenged genitor. As I protested that I knew what it was, a voice piped up at my side. “Are you looking for something in particular, Madame?” Swinging around, I relished seeing the sales girl’s realisation that it would take more than a swish of her magic mascara wand to improve my sagging façade. Her eyes peered out of a generous circle of shimmering, electric blue eyeshadow. Combined with her white shirt and close-fitting black suit, she bore an uncanny resemblance to a penguin wearing Sir Elton John’s glasses.

I'm still standing

Another long day in the make-up department drew to an end as Elton John Penguin sang  “Blue eyes, baby’s got blue eyes…” (Photo credit: rogiro)

After establishing that my skin is dry and that I am allergic to most face creams, she proposed a “bébé crème”. Although this may sound very sexy, elegant and classy to  French women, I found it more reminiscent of blotchy babies’ bums than a beautiful complexion. She reassured me that I had got it all wrong: Blemish Balm Cream is the new Rolls Royce of the make-up world, le must for a flawless complexion.

But what about madame’s allergies? Another black and white apparition hove into sight, also sporting electric blue eye sockets. Cue Jaws film soundtrack. This was a solitary killer whale, cruising the diva-infested depths of the shop in search of prey with the ideal combination of low self-esteem and a high bank balance.

She glowered suspiciously from beneath a mercilessly lacquered black fringe and inspected me from head to foot. Once the customer scan had been completed, “ Tomboy Alert” flashed in red lights in the thought cloud above her head. “If madame has allergies, madame will have to buy a Clinique BB cream,” she snarled, pointing towards what was probably the most expensive brand in the shop. I informed her that you could probably feed a family for three days with the price of one pot. She hitched one nostril upwards in a condescending snarl and wished me a good day, then flicked her fins and glided off into the darkness of the anti-wrinkle cream abyss, where she had spotted an unsuspecting bottom-feeder seeking a solution for facial gravity.

As Elton John Penguin sorted out a tester so that I could blotch in the privacy of my own home, my eyes roamed along the shelves. It’s my problem: I can’t switch off from work. I find spelling and grammar mistakes everywhere I go – see the post about Super Saver Tomato for more about this foible.

Sure enough, there it was, screaming at me:

A pot of BB Crème will be awarded to the person who pot the missing letter.....

A pot of BB Crème will be awarded to the person who spots the missing letter…..

I resisted the temptation to correct it immediately with a red lip liner, and diplomatically suggested checking if the word “beau” required an “x”. Elton John Penguin appeared dubious, and darted off into the seaweed to seek the advice of Killer Whale.  Five minutes later, she tapped me the shoulder, and reassured me that it was fine the way it was…. “because beau is an adverb”. Little My looked at me, and her mouth opened. It was my turn to drag her out of the shop.

“Beau is an adjective, Mummy. And it should have an “x” at the end. Didn’t they go to school?” Little My concluded that although it’s great to know how to apply make-up, it was tragic to have the IQ of a pot of Nivea. I think I enjoy this shopping lark after all…..

A life in the day of M.M.

This morning was just wonderful. Spring provided the perfect awakening, courtesy of birds arguing noisily on the cedar branch in front of our bedroom window. P.F had offered himself the luxury of a “lie-in” until 6.30 and would go to work by car instead of taking the bus, giving us time for a leisurely breakfast with the boys. We waved Bigfoot off to the lycée and sneaked upstairs to wake Little My, who pretended to be grumpy but was obviously delighted to be woken up by a grinning parental posse.

As P.F left the house, he waved happily at the open window in a spontaneous Prince Charming moment and yelled, “Au revoir, Princesse!” I looked suspiciously behind me, half expecting to find Elle Macpherson pouting over my shoulder in one of her designer silk nighties. Nope, “Princesse” was apparently me – complete with my very unprincess-like Mr Men P.J.s, garish purple bed socks and lurid orange and red dressing gown. I was gobstruck by this touching sign of unconditional love – as far as I could see, all I needed was curlers in my hair and a fag hanging out of the corner of my mouth to qualify as Dame Edna Everage’s look-alike.

Dame Edna

Dame Edna. A real princess. (Photo credit: Eva Rinaldi Celebrity and Live Music Photographer)

As the car left, Little My charged into my bedroom wearing her Hawaiian costume for carnival this afternoon. We giggled as I gave her a crash course in dancing the Hula. Rugby-boy kissed me goodbye and sauntered off to the bus stop. I looked out of the window at the improving weather and the tulips opening in the garden, and heaved a happy sigh. The beginning of my day had been a smooth, rolling carpet of excellence. Life was perfect.

Suspiciously so. I furrowed my brow. Something fishy was going on – my days never usually start like that. The usual morning in our household is somewhat animated, and generally goes as follows:

1) Get out of bed just after P.F. runs out of the door at 6.45 and gets the bus by the skin of his teeth.  2) Observe Rugby-boy as he looks for his shoes and discovers that he has “forgotten” that he needs a cheque for the canteen. 3) Deal with a grumpy, half-awake Bigfoot who can’t find his favourite jeans, generally because he kicked them under the bed in true teenager style the night before. 4) Discover that the cat has thrown up in the staircase and that the dishwasher still hasn’t learned to fill and empty itself overnight. 5) Wake up a grouchy Little My who is muttering below her quilt, resolutely anchored to the mattress. 6) Reassure offspring that the remains of the two-day-old baguette really are edible if toasted and disguised with generous slatherings of Nutella.

I therefore immediately suspected that this morning’s euphoria was doomed to be short-lived. My intuition was correct: the positive train of thought that had set out at 6.30 courtesy of Rapture Railways was rudely drawn to an emergency halt at Reality Central two hours later by a terse call from P.F. He was nine kilometers away, but he might as well have been in a snow drift in Alaska. Albal, our aluminium foil-coloured people carrier, had suffered from acute indigestion on the motorway, and had gone into a mechanical coma just as she got to the motorway exit. Oh, the irony of it all: my steely stead had bitten the dust less than twenty-four hours after the death of the Iron Lady in London.

A photo of Sébastien Loeb at the 2005 Wales Ra...

Albal seems to think that Monsieur Mécano is Sabastien Loeb  (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Albal was rapidly towed off to her favourite massage parlour garage. I immediately smelled a rat; as I have already described in a previous post, I suspect Albal of having a serious crush on the garage mechanic. Monsieur Mécano is not your average French mechanic featuring builder’s bum and a beer gut on either side of his anatomy; he’s young and fit (in every sense of the word), and wears a snazzy red and white Citroën outfit that would be more at home on a Formula One race track than on the windy forecourt of a provençal village garage. Albal has apparently succumbed to his charm, and is constantly blowing fuses as an excuse to get him to manhandle her headlamps. Whilst he tickles her inner sanctum with his outsized spanner, P.F. and I get to play gooseberry and foot the bill.

So I’ve dusted off Helga, my faithful green VW, and put her back in service until Monsieur Mécano has diagnosed the cause of Albal’s suffering. Affaire à suivre……..

Post Scriptum

Monsieur Mécano has shaken his head and announced that Albal is in seriously bad shape.  She has bust her timing belt – so much for staying in trim, Miss Albal.

Into the Jaws of Administromia.

As promised, I continue the saga of my quest through the impenetrable depths of French Administromia for a pretty pink driving licence. As my experience two days ago was full of trials and tribulations and (above all) rich in writing possibilities, I will be writing it up in manageable chunks. Here is the first…. 

 Tuesday was the big day for the driving licence showdown. I gathered together the driving licence forms and the mug shots and slid them into my briefcase with a huge pile of photocopies. I had frantically copied practically every document in my possession bar my supermarket receipts and the Easter egg wrappings, due to a well-founded fear of the French powers that be. They have an unhealthy obsession with what they call “justificatifs“: they can ask for documentary proof of anything from your home address to your bra size three years ago, depending on which way the wind is blowing and what they have had for breakfast. If you don’t have it with you, you are sent to paperwork jail without passing go in their real-life Monopoly game, and you have to start all over again.

In any case, whether you are desperately battering on the door for political asylum with determined gunmen hot on your tail or requesting a simple change of address on your car papers, you will invariably be met by an indifferent civil servant shrugging his Gallic shoulders as he informs you that he needs a copy of your phone bill before he can do anything. I have come to the conclusion that even if there is just one telephone bill for every member of the French population, there must be the paperwork equivalent of the Black Forest lurking in the depths of every French administrative building. I sincerely hope that they never get flooded – the employees will end up like museum pieces from Pompeii and Herculaneum, but encased in papier mâché instead of volcanic ash.

Petrified body at Pompei

“Queen Cerfa realised the importance of the paper shredder just minutes before the flooding water signed her demise in the records department of the Prefecture”. (Photo credit: Natasha Lloyd)

I hauled the huge pile into the car and set off for Queen Cerfa’s evil palace; our local equivalent of the tower of Babel. After successfully shoe-horning the car into a tiny parking space in the underground car park, I walked up to the huge gates, where a chubby little boy dressed in pair of jeans and a well-worn, hooded Spiderman top appeared out of thin air and placed himself between me and the gate in what I can only presume was a Superhero stance. Arms neatly crossed across his plump belly and feet planted well apart, he stared defiantly at me with dark, malevolent eyes set beneath furrowed eyebrows. I opened my mouth to tell my aspiring superhero that his shoelaces were undone, but I didn’t have time. He lifted an arm towards me, and folded his two middle fingers down to create a llama-head shape with his hand. Thrusting it towards my face, he proceeded to force air through his pursed lips to make a “pshhhhh” sound, but only managed to generously shower my lower half in saliva droplets before legging it across the square to his mother. I brushed myself off glumly – I had obviously been given the role of Doctor Octopus rather than Gwen Stacy. The rest of the day did not bode well.

I lifted my eyes to see a policeman who asked me if he could check my handbag. I smiled sweetly and opened my bag to reveal my personal collection of tissues, post-its, lollipop wrappers and supermarket receipts. He wisely decided against foraging, and hastily waved me through before anything escaped from my bag and bit him.

In the inner sanctum of the administrative beast, two pulsating snakes of muttering people twisted towards the door as they waited in line for the two reception desks. My queue was being dealt with by a pasty-faced lady with flaccid cheeks and loud pink lipstick, loosely-permed greying hair drooping half-heartedly over her glasses. This offbeat French reincarnation of the British Bulldog was unceremoniously perched on a wheelie chair behind the counter. She irreverently shoved a form towards the woman in front of me and barked  “Come back tomorrow!”. The woman blinked, and left. It was my turn.

Photo0231

Cross at your peril….

Or so I thought. Bulldog glared at me, and didn’t call me over the taped line on the floor.  Keeping eye contact, she slowly and deliberately put her hand in her pocket and pulled out a black object. As the screams of an exhausted child echoed around the hall and the queue grew in length, she languorously examined her phone, peering sadistically over the top of it from time to time to be sure I had understood that she, and she alone, had my destiny in her hands. At this point a man sporting an official badge appeared and beckoned to me, succulently pulling the plug on her power trip. Flashing a victorious smile at Bulldog, I stepped up to the counter and explained what I had come for. A huge grin spread across his face. “Ahaaaaa!” His blue eyes sparkled mischievously as he flicked through my papers. I cringed – he had picked up on my accent. It escapes when I’m stressed out and tries to transform my voice, making me sound like Jane Birkin on a bad day.

Bulldog’s sidekick was none other than Attila the Pun, and he was thrilled by his discovery.  “Soooo, wee-euh wanteuh a nay-ceuh driveeng permee for ze biouteefool Joanna, heing?” he shouted, evidently proud of his linguistic party piece. I was furious to realise that I had blushed to the roots for the first time in light years. It was Bulldog’s turn to produce a sardonic smirk.

Yoo weel tekk zis teekeet to ze countère O, and yoo weel wett. Goude biyeuh, ze biouteefool Joanna”. I stomped off, sat down in an empty seat, and glared at my teekeet. Here it is, crumpled and soaked with sweat: my administromia open-sesame. Everyone was clutching one, and their heads snapped up like expectant punters at the betting shop every time the buzzer signalled a change in the stakes.

My grimy open-sesame. Note date and time, and a kind mention of how many people there are in the queue in front of you.

My grimy open-sesame. Note date and time, and a kind mention of how many people are in the queue in front of you. Note also that if you wish to kill yourself through sheer desperation,  they even mention that the ticket contains a dose of free Phenol.

My ticket informed me that my number was number 55, and the number on the board was 22. So at least the ticket machine could count. It was half past ten. Even if they dealt with one person every two minutes, I had over an hour to wait. So I did what I enjoy most: people watching.

To be continued….