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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Mug shot musings: the first step towards a French licence.

I have been driving on my UK licence since I came to live in France. My recto-verso sheet of A4 paper follows me everywhere, and the photo card is stashed away in my purse. It is never taken out – not even when the gendarmerie stop me to check my paperwork.  My face of 13 years ago beams out of the accompanying photo card into the depths of my purse, where it brushes shoulders with my French Health insurance card, the hallowed gang of French supermarket loyalty cards, till receipts and packs of stamps. She never sees the light of day.

Never, that is, until I dug her out with horror recently. A series of hilarious posts by Pecora Nera in his refreshingly funny blog “Englishman in Italy” brought up the topic of exchanging his UK licence for a full-blooded, racy Italian version. Thanks to Mr Black Sheep, I woke up to the fact that my own photocard was no longer valid. Not just a little, either. Light years.

I squinted at the photo, and it struck me how the constipated expression we have in photo booths makes us all look like potential villains on our driving licences.  There’s a very fine line between a prison mug shot and passport picture.

Al Capone. Mugshot information from Science an...

Exchange the suit and tie for a roll-neck sweater, put a wig on him, and you have MM Capone’s driving licence. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Now I know I should have dealt with this earlier. I had prepared the paperwork nearly a year ago, when I (exceptionally) did a three-point turn over a continuous white line on an empty road, managing to do so a few seconds before a gendarmette (exceptionally) passed by with flashing lights, and hauled me over. When she glared at my dog-eared licence and told me that I should have got it exchanged for a French one within three months of arriving in France, the mustard got up my nose (as they quaintly say here) and I made a HUGE mistake. As Best Female Friend squirmed in the passenger seat and sent me panicked “DON’T DO IT” signals tapped in terse girl morse code on her thighs, I informed Miss Gendarmette with a self-satisfied smirk that the official government site said otherwise. In for a penny, in for a pound, I continued to knock any hope of absolution on the head by telling her that I was entitled to drive on my UK licence until I committed an offence. Which, of course, I had just done. Result: four points off my henceforth obligatory French licence, and a 90 euro fine.

Citroën C4 Gendarmerie model

 Gendarmette’s blue pumpkin with matching blue light (Photo credit: francisco.j.gonzalez)

Nearly a year later, thanks to my anglo-italian Black Sheep friend, I’m finally revving things up to get my pretty pink French licence, which is too big to fit into my purse, cannot be folded, and promises to resist life with MM as well as Paris Hilton could hold out on a Cornish cliff top in a force eleven gale. I hate administrative formalities, and would like to have a multi-pass to cover everything, just like Leeloo Dallas in The Fifth Element. I dream of popping on an orange wig and flashing the card at everyone from the supermarket cashier to the Gendarmerie, saying “MM Dallas, Mooltipass”, as I swan my way through formalities and get on with life.

To sort this palava out, I decided to take the frog by the legs, so to speak, and went to get my passport photos done. It proved to be a difficult mission, as the photo booth’s screen was ominously black. I rounded up the supermarket security guard and the reception desk assistant, and we checked out the machine with an expert eye. A dodgy wire hanging from the ceiling terminated in a three plug socket, dangling dangerously in thin air behind the machine. Although the machine was plugged in, the screen was blank. I suggested kicking it to see if there was a Twix or a can of coke stuck in it somewhere, and the security guard laughed. The assistant wasn’t impressed, though. She inspected her vicious pink nails, wrinkled her pierced nose, and looked at me like I was a pile of particularly ripe camel dung before pulling a large bunch of keys out of her pocket and forcing the maintenance door open, revealing the dusty innards of the machine. “There’s no button to press”, she announced ominously, apparently disappointed by the lack of a huge red flashing light and a sign saying “Press Here To Destroy the World”. She sighed, rolled her eyes, and slammed the door shut in despair. The machine promptly hummed and the lights lit up. I thanked my two apprentice technicians, and watched with amusement as the young lady trotted back to her desk, jangling her keys and zipping up her fake leopard skin fleece.

Now we’re off for stage two: filling in the papers and taking them to the Préfecture. Watch this space…… And if you’re feeling generous, take a minute to pop over here and support MM in the Expat’s Blog Writing Contest! 😉