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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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….

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….