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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Snapshots

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MM is back after a few days away from the ranch. Here are a few pics of what I saw there.  Back to service as usual soon – now I’m going to get my head around all the stuff you lot have written in my absence…..

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…..

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….

A picnic with Italiaman and the Persian Princess.

Yesterday we got up and discovered that the sun had come out. We had already planned our day. M.M’s family have little patience with ritual eating when the sun is shining. There is nothing more frustrating for me than being holed up inside in front of a roast dinner whilst the sun screams at us to come out and play through the window. So whilst the French population ceremoniously slid garlic cloves into entire flocks of New Zealand lamb and popped them in the oven across the nation, we threw a picnic into the car, picked up two friends from the bus station and hit the road for our favourite playground: the Lac du Salagou.

The day was perfect: blue sky, gently lapping water, happy kids, and fun and interesting company. Our crowd would have appeared strange to anyone passing by: Italian, Persian, French and English picnickers sitting on the red rock, all happily chomping their way through roast chicken, baguette, eggs, crudités, cheese and crisps that all taste so much better in the open air.

The Lac du Salagou.

The Lac du Salagou.

Give me fresh air, nature, sunshine, good food and good company, and I am in my element. Our guests had been brave enough to return after a first encounter with M.M’s culinary efforts over a month ago, when I had taken the colossal risk of cooking an osso bucco for an Italian. The gastronomic gods were smiling at me that day – both guests tucked in with gusto, and Italiaman informed me that his mama had never cooked it for him before. They have been welcomed with open arms ever since.

Persian Princess is beautiful, bubbly and enthusiastic. She patiently answered all the questions I fired at her about life in Iran. I took photos of her with Candide Canon, and noted that however I chose to take the photo, she was stunning. She has fabulous eyelashes – they are so long that they could double up as windscreen wipers. It struck me that attempting to hide a woman’s beauty with veils and scarves does nothing more than accentuate the beauty of what remains visible.

I had noticed that Italiaman was tightly ensconced in a huge grey scarf, and took the opportunity to ask him to explain what the symptoms of the dreaded cervicale were. The term “cervicale” is used by Italians to describe an ailment that only seems to afflict them, whilst the rest of the world has never heard of it, let alone suffered from it. I was introduced to this notion by Our Adventure in Croatia and Englishman in Italy, and the translator in me is frustrated and intrigued to see that no official translation exists for this illness. Despite relentlessly trawling the net, I have failed to find a translation anywhere. Italiaman explained that the merest draught can reduce an Italian to pulp if his or her neck is not sufficiently well covered. The pain goes from the back of the head down to the base of the neck, irradiating out into the shoulders. I asked him why noone else gets it anywhere else in the world, and he shrugged. We decided that Italians are genetically different to the rest of the world.

Rabbit football. The Italian players have been visciously attacked by a "colpo d'aria".

Rabbit football. The Italian players have been viciously attacked by a “colpo d’aria” – literally, a “hit of air”.

Next, Italiaman pulled a bag of Easter chocolate out of his bag. Once the children had dilapidated the bag, we decided to reenact a France-Italy football match with the remaining Easter bunnies and a chocolate egg. Of course, the two Italian players were blown over sideways by a colpo d’aria within minutes of the match starting, and had to be stretchered off to treat their cervicale.

The afternoon was spent in Pezenas, a favourite haunt of mine where my favourite French playwright, Molière, spent a lot of his time. Here are a few pics of our day – I hope you enjoy them.

A colourful slap in the kipper from Mother Nature.

Today was programmed for cleaning and tidying the family cave, but I couldn’t resist sneaking into the garden to take a few pictures after the rain. I was literally gobsmacked by the amount of colour and life clamouring to be seen out there.

I’ve had fun reducing some of these photos and creating only glimpses of them. I have realised just how much beauty we miss in the simplest things, and how beautiful they can be.

Here are a few of them, with a special thought for snow-bound fellow blogger Perpetua 🙂 Have a lovely Easter!

Who’s coming for a walk?

As I have said so many times before, the best things in life are free. Do you fancy a short break from whatever you’re doing? Come on! Let’s go for a walk together with Smelly Dog. The Tramontane wind has driven the clouds away leaving beautiful, luminous blue skies, and it would be a crime not to make the most of it. Wherever you are – Britain, Serbia, Australia, Malaysia, Canada, Indonesia, Germany, India, Croatia, Italy, Dubai or elsewhere – drag on a pair of trainers, an anorak and a warm hat, and join me in my playground: the gorges de l’Hérault in the south of France.

The vineyards are waiting solemnly for the sweltering heat of the summer. Their gnarled, knotted branches thrust out of the freshly churned earth in disciplined lines, pointing defiantly at the sun like accusing, arthritic old fingers.

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Walk through the olive yard over a soft carpet of green, and turn suddenly when you hear a loud buzzing beside your ear. Apologise profusely to two bugs who – for lack of a better expression – are full of the joys of spring, and feel uncomfortably like a voyeur as you admire the petrol-like reflections on their kingfisher blue and turquoise wings. Then wonder how Mrs Bug manages to hang on to that olive leaf with Mr Bug flapping away on her back like that. She must be one tough lady, with claws that would scare the pants off Godzilla.

Oops, sorry to disturb you....

Oops, sorry to disturb you….

The fruit trees are blossoming in line near the stone cabanon. Their branches are swaying in the wind, and they look like giggling girls all dressed in pink and lined up to square dance.

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Turn and walk up the uneven limestone lane, and look up to see a vivid yellow, sunny mimosa tree swaying in the wind. Close your eyes and breathe in its heady fragrance. Look closely at the blossom – the perfectly round balls of delicately perfumed colour perched along delicate stems take you back to the illustrations of your childhood Dr Seuss books. Look closer again, and wonder at the perfection of the tiny filaments that each offer up pollen to visiting insects. Then get taken by a childish desire to draw beaks on them and turn them into chicks.

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Drop your camera lens cap on the ground in your hurry to change lenses. When you crouch down to pick it up, bump into Billy Idol the caterpillar making his way with difficulty through the grass as his punky hair-do gets tangled up in the greenery. Maybe he’s on his way to the hairdresser’s to ask for a short back and sides.

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As you stand up, you get knocked over by Smelly Dog, who has bunny-hopped through the long grass towards you. I could swear she’s laughing….

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Lie in the grass with Smelly Dog, soak up the sun and let your senses sharpen. Take in the undefinable, fabulously pure blue colour of the sky. The plaintive cry of the buzzard. The bossy chatting of the tits and finches, the rasping smoker’s cough of the crows. The far-off sound of human voices chips into the natural concert: the wine growers must be coaching up their protégés to produce the best wine for the coming season. The distant, gut-wrenching howls of hunting dogs as they move in on their prey in the forest. The wind rustling the leaves in the olive tree above you. The smell of the mimosa and of freshly-ploughed earth. The surprising chill of the gust of wind that hits your cheek as the Tramontane reminds you that winter is not over. Not yet.

Now let’s go home for a hot chocolate. Thanks for the company. And please don’t remind me that I’ve forgotten my camera lens cover: I know. It’s still in the grass with Billy Idol.