April 10th, 2006

International Kittens of Mystery

Cars, Cartes and Campagne - Part Six (Nous Sommes Banged to Rights)

(to recap, we'd just been told it would take three months to get a document we needed to produce that morning in order to get another document to the police station that afternoon. And God knows what had happened to the chalice from the palace:)

I waited to wake up. I sat back and mentally nudged myself a few times. Come on, snap out of it. This had to be one of those frustration dreams where nothing went right and every attempt at escape was thwarted in helpless slow-motion.

It wasn't.

I was wide awake and staring across a desk at a wiry little man I'd dreamt was the Mayor of Cassagne.

He still was.

I wondered if Spain took political refugees. It was only fifty minutes away. Would driving without a current tax disc be considered political?

We threw ourselves upon the mercy of the Mayor. Told him about the roadblock, the garage, the problem with the documents, the Giant Elk. I didn't need to consult a script, I knew all the words off by heart. I'd rehearsed them so often, going over and over them in my mind. I'd even stop passers-by in my dreams and rant at them about cars and missing tax discs.

The Mayor was brilliant. He picked up the phone and with a, 'This is the Mayor of Cassagne speaking,' proceeded to intervene on our behalf with the Sous-Préfecture.

But the Sous-Préfecture refused to budge. Rules are rules and they had a lot of them.

The mayor offered to vouch for our identity. They refused. He suggested another type of residency permit. They refused. He hung up.

But he wasn't beaten. Next in line for 'This is the Mayor of Cassagne speaking' were the gendarmes at Aurignac.

We listened avidly, trying to cull sense from the few words we understood. Was he plea bargaining? Or was that something about the weather?

He replaced the receiver. We waited, hearts thumping, what was he going to say?

"Bon," he smiled.

And that was enough.

If we took all the papers we had to Aurignac that morning, they'd wait for the rest.

Which was a considerable relief. And in the meantime, we'd begin the process of applying for our cartes de séjour.

Which turned out a lot easier than my notes suggested.

"Don't you want to see our marriage certificate?" I enquired.

"Non, pas nécessaire," he said and told us that, although gendarmes were naturally inquisitive and would want to see the marriage certificate and anything else they could lay their hands on, Mayors weren't.

I liked the Mayor.

We completed our applications in triplicate, had our passports and birth certificates photocopied, handed over our embarrassing photographs of Mr. and Mrs. Mungo and left.

Outside, we breathed the fresh air of freedom. Things were indeed looking up.

We found the gendarmerie on the outskirts of Aurignac. It was a small single storey building, so small it didn't even rate a car park. But there was a lay-by outside - just large enough to take three cars - and we parked in the middle.

As we walked inside the station, I couldn’t help but notice a board full of wanted posters running along one of the side walls. I had to have a look and ... phew, mine wasn't there - though I think we'd all used the same photo booth.

Out came my prepared speech. Not quite the one I'd wanted to give - I thought 'Nous sommes banged to rights' was an excellent opening line. But I'd been out-voted by Shelagh and the cats - the iniquities of living in a one paw, one vote democracy.

Still, we presented our documents and they ticked them off their list. They saw our passports, driving licenses, marriage and birth certificates. They thumbed through our car's papers, glanced momentarily at the 'Get out of jail free card' ... and then asked, "what is your father's date of birth?"

There is something obsessive about this interest in birthdays. I read somewhere that the Mormons have a similar obsession - some enormous database of family trees they hold in Salt Lake City - something about needing to trace everyone's ancestry back to the original Osmonds.

Perhaps the gendarmes had a similar fixation? Certainly, I now know where to go if I ever forget a birthday.

Besides dates of birth, they were particularly interested in what we intended to do in France. We weren't retired, we weren't working. What were we doing?

We did our best to explain in halting French but nothing we said seemed to be understandable. Guide-books again - plenty of entries for 'I am a postman' or 'My husband is a doctor' but nothing under 'well, we kind of gave up working to live self-suficiently, grow our own food and write science fiction.'

But gendarmes are persistent and need to know.

"La Chasse?" he suggested.

Yes, we agreed - swiftly - La Chasse. That's exactly why we came to France. For the hunting. Well, why not?

He sounded envious. A faraway look formed over his eyes. I could see him thinking about such a life. Days of endless hunting. A man and his dog. Utopia.

"Bon," he concluded with a start. And then dropped his bombshell. He'd see us again when we produced the vignette - the tax disc. In the meantime, the car would have to remain off the road. It took several repetitions and a few words written down and looked up in the dictionary but eventually we understood.

Aha. We can't drive the car until we have a tax disc. The car parked outside the gendarmerie. Our only means of transport.

It was a five mile walk home.

Or at least it would have been a five mile walk, but we were hardened criminals by then.

"Why did you have to park right in front of the gendarmerie door?" hissed Shelagh as we walked outside. It's one of the many lines of small print in the marriage contract - the partner is always the one at fault. Shelagh tells me it's somewhere after 'in sickness and in health'.

We casually walked past the car. Was it visible from the gendarmerie window? It was about thirty yards away and there was a slight hedge. And no one was looking out the window. And the alternative was a five mile walk. Perhaps if we gave it a few minutes, wandered into Aurignac for a window shop and waited for the gendarmes to change shift?

Five minutes later we were speeding along back roads, feeling as guilty as any hot-wirer in a stolen car.

An hour later I was on the phone to my sister.

"Can we borrow your car again."

"What happened to your own?"

"Don't ask."

(to be continued)