April 3rd, 2006

International Kittens of Mystery

Cars, Cartes and Campagne - Part One (How not to Buy a Car in France)

We've had the 60-hour Move from hell and the first day of unpacking. Now comes our two month (yes, TWO months) attempt to buy a car.

I thought buying a car would be easy, so I drove off to buy a car while Shelagh carried on with the unpacking and plug changing.

I found three local car dealers all relatively close to each other and toured the rows of second-hand cars. Most were outside of our budget. But that was what I'd expected. We'd set our sights on something cheap and basic - we didn't expect to do much driving and just wanted something that transported us from A to B and didn't cost too much to run.

By the third garage, I was wondering if I was going to have to increase our 20,000 Fr budget. Then I saw the old Citroen DS. I'd had one as a child - a toy, that is - and had always been fascinated by its strange aerodynamic shape. It had been so unlike all the other cars of its time.

I walked over and had a look at it. It still exuded a plush elegance, but this model must have been well over twenty-five years old. I thought about it, weighing up all the pros and cons. The 4,000 Franc price tag was the biggest pro. Explaining to Shelagh why I'd bought a vintage saloon, was the con.

She had said, "I don't mind what it's like, as long as it's not red." But had she really meant it? If I returned home with a silver antique, would its colour be enough?

"You bought what?" was the reply my mind encountered the most as I played through the various scenarios. After the eight bedrooms and the five toilets, I didn't think I could quite carry off the vintage Citroen as well. No matter how cheap.

So I reluctantly said goodbye to a childhood memory and strolled on to the next row of cars. More Citroens. But still within budget and far more modern. This was more hopeful. Except for the one very noticeable drawback - they were all red.

I replayed another set of scenarios. "You bought what?" was still very much in evidence, but less so if I played the ‘it was either this or the vintage saloon’ card.
And we had to have a car. Even a red one. 

But there was another problem - the one which looked the best deal did not have local number plates. Which meant I'd have to change them. In France, number plates are issued by département. This one had a sixty-five number - Haute Pyrenees. I'd need a thirty-one - Haute Garonne. According to my Living in France bible, that would mean an extra trip to the Préfecture and a new number plate to buy and register. Would it be expensive?

No, said the garage. Neither would it be a problem, they do it all the time, and if we wanted they'd do all the paper work for us - the Carte Gris, the number plates, the lot. We wouldn't have to set one English foot inside the Préfecture. Which sounded brilliant. And a useful card to add to ‘it was either this or the vintage saloon.’

The next day, we returned complete with 15,000 francs in cash and all the papers we possessed - passports, birth and marriage certificates, the lot. We'd heard about French bureaucracy and came prepared.

It went very well, we were succeeding in making ourselves understood, we had all the documents they asked for. And we had the money - which seemed to please them the most.

Then they produced the car's papers. The control technique (certificate of roadworthiness), the old carte gris (log book) and the bill of sale. Everything was there - except a current tax disc. But that wouldn't be a problem, they told us. All they needed was a passport from us and they'd handle the rest. They'd go to the Sous-Préfecture at St. Gaudens, have the number plates changed, the car re-registered and taxed by next week.

Next week? What would we do for transport in the meantime?

No problem, they said - I liked this garage - you can drive it away now. They even had a special form for just such an occasion. I looked at the form. I'd never heard of it. Could my Living in France bible be out of date?

I tried to ask for more details, but the more they explained, the more it seemed akin to a Monopoly ‘Get out of jail free’ card. Had I heard it correctly? If stopped by the police, show them this paper - it grants you fourteen days to obtain the correct documents. Brilliant. I'll have two.

So we drove away in our new car. Well, I drove and Shelagh returned Jan's car. And as I pulled away from the garage, I couldn't help thinking how easy it had been. I'd read so many horror stories about buying cars in France - the interminable hours spent queuing for the right papers only to be sent somewhere else. Hadn't they heard of the ‘Get out of jail free’ card? Perhaps I should pen a letter to French Property News.

Little did I know of what the future had in store.

But I should have.

The first inkling trickled forth two hours later when we stopped at a small garage for petrol. I had all my, 'fill it up,' and, 'a hundred francs worth, please,' phrases memorised and to hand, and was feeling confident. That is until I tried to unlock the petrol cap. The key I'd been given didn't fit. I tried the other keys - the ignition and boot key. Nothing. The petrol cap wasn't moving.

If ever someone looked as though they'd just pulled into a garage in a stolen car, it was me.

And then my French deserted me. I could almost hear the, 'we're off!' as all the verbs and nouns ran for cover. Shelagh took one look at the situation and wound up her window. She was a hitch-hiker and had never seen me before in her life.

I was alone on the forecourt with a confused petrol pump attendant and a non-functioning key.

"Er ... nous sommes Anglais," I ventured after a while and added a few shrugs and ... left. Swiftly. Another garage added to the list of places I could never return to.

The next problem was could we reach the car dealer before we ran out of petrol? Naturally this was but a smokescreen. The real question we should have been asking was 'would the garage close for a half day five minutes after we'd bought the car?'

The answer was, of course, yes.

We left the deserted showroom and drove home with eyes fixed firmly on the petrol gauge. It was on red but what did that mean? A gallon? Two? And how accurate would the gauge be?

The next day we returned to the garage. The car,however, had other ideas. Perhaps it was colder than I thought or I pushed the choke in too quickly, but whatever the reason the engine kept cutting out.

I dreaded the possibility that we were running out of petrol. The gauge was on red but not by much. Surely there was enough to get us to the garage?

After a while the car started to behave itself. Perhaps it was cold after all. Shelagh wondered if we should mention it to the garage but neither of us had the words and we didn't want to confuse the situation further. We needed a key to the petrol tank. The rest could wait.

At the garage we quickly went into our prepared speech. Petrol cap had turned into quite a mouthful - bouchon de réservoir d'essence, so the dictionary had informed us.

"Je ne peux pas ouvrir le bouchon de réservoir d'essence. Le clé ne pas fonctionner." It was probably my largest speech ever in a foreign language and delivered without a pause for breath. The sales manager looked baffled. Whether by my accent or the fact that the petrol cap wouldn't open, I wasn't sure. I thrust my sheet of paper at him and pointed to my lines, adding a few key-turning finger twists to augment the words.

He still looked baffled.

"How is it possible?" he asked in French to no one in particular, as he stared at our key ring.

I could have told him. I expect one of my ancestors chartered the Marie Celeste.

A collection of different keys were collected from drawers and hooks and we joined the deputation marching out to our car. One by one each key was tried, accompanied by mumbled French words of astonishment as each key failed.

And then one key succeeded and smiles replaced the mumbles. The keys were switched, we filled up with petrol and for a short period all was well with the world.

That is until the next day when the car died.

(to be continued)