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….

The bad girl in the letter box.

Grab that paper bag and breathe…… In. Out. In. Out. Any other day, I would have be tempted to add “….and shake it all about” before enthusiastically dancing the hokey-pokey, but not today. As I clocked the beautiful weather and the tulip leaves poking out of the earth, my good mood plummeted: I realised with horror that this beautiful weather also announces her arrival. She’ll be back soon. Like every year. Lurking dangerously at the bottom of the letter box and cackling sadistically. Meet CERFA 2042, the evil French income tax form.

Evil Queen

Be afraid. Be very afraid. She may be lurking in your letter box: CERFA, the evil Queen of Tax Administromia. (Photo credit: DoodleDeMoon)

How I long for the British PAYE system. Filling in a form to get money back every year is somehow so much more motivating that having to calculate how much income tax you have to pay to the French state. It’s a bit like having to choose your own poison. So when I pull CERFA out of her tricolour cellophane sarcophagus, I generally scream with a mixture of rage and anxiety at the sight of the A3 recto verso sheet of A-level maths exam, ironically dubbed “the short version” by the powers that be. (Apparently Cerfa’s big brother is called “the full version”: if he ever turns up in my letter box, I’m bailing out in my Tardis.)

Wonder Woman makes short work of the beast: She digs the appropriate paperwork out of well-organised files, fills in the forms with self-satisfied flicking of hair and noisy clicking of perfectly manicured fingernails on her pink calculator, and has the damned thing back in the post before you have time to say “tax office”. But I am not Wonder Woman. So step two kicks in: a state I call “tax form denial”. Whilst Good Sense and Responsibility batter at the door, Cowardice holes up in a paperwork-resistant bunker and pulls out a bar of chocolate to share with her best chum, Procrastination.

Procrastination is a great pal of mine. She and I have been wandering along life’s road together for a long time now; she’s always there to comfort me when something I don’t enjoy rears its ugly head. With her help, I finish all my work well ahead of deadlines for as long as Cerfa is around. I suddenly and inexplicably become an excessively responsible pet owner and take Smelly Dog for very long walks, making sure she gets enough exercise even if it is pouring down with rain. I could even justify cleaning the car with a toothbrush. For a short period, my family is astounded to have a clean home and is perplexed to see me being so enthusiastic about the laundry that I practically rip the clothing off their backs to have an excuse to put a load on to wash. Yes, I admit it: I would rather gouge my own eyes out with a blunt spatula than pamper to the evil Cerfa’s needs.

Pandora's Box Side

Pandora’s Box (Photo credit: yum9me)

By two weeks before the deadline every year, the drawer of my desk becomes my personal Pandora’s Box, and every time I walk past I swear I can hear growling and scratching in its murky depths. I generally give up at this point and hit phase three: “hit the problem before it hits you”. After this date, time strangely accelerates, children mysteriously get sick, and before you know what’s happening you only have a few hours left before the clock strikes midnight, and you are turned into the tax equivalent of a pumpkin. Anyone who has experienced the stress of pounding on their keyboard with sweaty fingers as they try to submit their tax form at the same time as the rest of the French nation (-except Wondeure Woumane, of course, who is already in bed with organic, planet-friendly night cream on her wrinkle-free face-) will understand what I am getting at.

You have to be a hybrid of lawyer, mathematician and accountant with nerves of steel to fill in a French tax form. Before completing this administrative marathon, I make sure that I have not drunk any coffee and put away any sharp objects. Then I get the paperwork together. These receipts, bills, invoices and certificates from the bank are vital if you hope to knock some euros off your tax bill. In my case, this involves emptying drawers and boxes of paperwork located anywhere from the garage to the bedroom, until I emerge clutching my precious paperwork, muttering triumphantly like Gollum after a day looting Tiffany & Co.

First comes the expenses part of the form. If you don’t think that 10% of your salary is enough, you have to do a few complicated mathematic equations based on the power of your car, and the distance travelled. Then it’s time to tally up the value of P.F’s packed lunches for the entire tax year. Followed by the interest paid on the mortgage and the cost of insulating work on the house, and extra paperwork for my freelance work…. By the time I have finished filling in the form and submitting it online, I feel nauseous and light-headed, and have the distinct feeling that the Tax Office know everything there is to know about us bar the content of PF’s Tupperware boxes and the size of his underpants.

The first Captain Underpants book.

Tax forms are a pile of pants.  Does the Tax man wear Captain Underpants undies? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The French government often debate about whether immigrants should be let in, and on what conditions. I’d say it’s easily solved. Give them a sheet of paper detailing a fictitious home, family, income and various additional criteria (childcare, mortgage, work to improve home insulation, free-lance working parent, a pension plan, a given number of children of which one or two study, etc). Give them a calculator and the form, and two days to complete it. If you succeed without the help of humans, alcohol or Prozac, you can stay. Hey presto, immigration problem solved. I’m going into politics…….