April 15th, 2006

International Kittens of Mystery

Cars, Cartes and Campagne - Part Eight (Mrs Mungo and the sawn-off shotgun)

March disappeared into history and we met April, car-less and potentially stateless. Surely something had to happen soon? How long did Toulouse need?

On the Fourteenth of April we received a letter.

I hardly dared open it. I could see it was from the Mairie. I slowly began to peel back the flap of the envelope, until I found a patch so firmly glued that it refused to budge, so I ripped the envelope to shreds in a passable imitation of a shark at the height of a feeding frenzy.

I was desperate. We both were. We read the letter, our hearts beating wildly.

There was something waiting for us at the Mairie. We read it again, comparing our translations. It had to be the cartes, didn't it?

Back on the phone again.

"Jan, we need a car. The Mairie closes in less than an hour. But don't worry it'll be the last time we ever have to borrow a car."

I could feel Nemesis shuffling on my shoulder the moment the words passed my lips. Didn't I know better by now? Had tempting fate become an obsession?

We arrived at the Mairie with minutes to spare. I was already calculating how long it would take to drive to St. Gaudens, park and then walk to the Sous-Préfecture and could we do that before 11:45 when the Carte Gris office closed for lunch?

There were two blue A5 cards on the Mayor's desk. Was that them?

Not exactly ... they were récépissés.

What the hell was a récépissé?

Apparently it was an interim carte de séjour valid for three months and issued as a receipt to acknowledge the fact that a carte had been applied for and would be issued in due course. I was on the verge of asking why they didn't just issue the cartes de séjour if they'd accepted the fact that they were going to, when I realised that I was dealing with a bureaucracy. Why issue one card when you could issue two with different names?

But they did look official. They had our photographs on them. And the stamp of the Préfecture at Toulouse. Would that be enough for the Sous-Préfecture to accept them?

The Mayor rang and asked.

"This is the Mayor of Cassagne speaking," he began. We waited. The bon took a while but there it was. They would.

Back inside the car again, out the village, through the countryside, into the suburbs, the car-park, the Sous-Préfecture, the Carte Gris office.

"We have our récépissés. Give us our vignettes!"



Apparently our Certificat de Situation - a certificate to prove there were no ourstanding loans against the car - had lapsed. It was only valid for a month following the date of issue.

"But you saw it when it was valid," I shouted.

I showed him the tick he'd made in pencil on the form.

He wasn't interested.

There was so much more I wanted to say but couldn't. It wasn't so much that my French had deserted me but all the verbs were having to be restrained by the nouns. They wanted blood.

How could our car's situation have changed in the last month? It hadn't moved. We couldn't drive it. We couldn't tax it. We couldn't register it. And we had all the documents. So how the hell could anyone secure a hire purchase loan against it?

I think the Carte Gris man was starting to weaken at this point. Perhaps he took pity on our plight. Perhaps he was fed up with seeing us. Perhaps he saw the look in Mrs. Mungo's half-lidded eye.

He stepped over to the back of the office and pulled an application form from a tray on the shelf. It was a request for a new Certificat de Situation and he filled it in for us. He even wrote down the address of the Préfecture in Tarbes for the application to be sent.

We returned home in a subdued mood. The optimism of the early morning replaced by a quiet determination.

We posted the application and waited. It was Easter week-end. The Préfecture probably took three weeks off to paint eggs, or failing that there was some limit to the time you could register a car after purchase.

But on the Tuesday, the glorious eighteenth of April, the new certificate arrived. What a surprise, there were still no outstanding hire purchase agreements on our car.

Back to the Sous-Préfecture. We had our récépissés, we had our passports, the old carte gris, the bill of sale, the control technique, two Certificats de Situation and a sawn-off shotgun.

Well ... strike the last item. We didn't actually have a sawn-off shotgun but I think we gave the impression that we were just the kind of people who would the next time.

He took all our documents, ticked them again, and ... gave us a new carte gris.

"Et la vignette?" I ventured, determined that we were not leaving until we had everything.


What! This was not happening. Not again. The nouns were wavering, reinforcements from the adverbs and pronouns department were drafted in to keep the verbs from shredding the Carte Gris man where he stood.

"Pas ici," he continued very quickly as Mrs. Mungo advanced upon him. And then he started pointing and saying something about the Centre des Impôts.

Ah, I've heard of that, the tax office.

As we left, I began to experience a worrying thought that perhaps we'd been enquiring at the wrong office all the time. That perhaps if we'd known that vignettes were issued at the Centre des Impôts we could have gone there earlier.

It was not a pleasant thought.

Luckily it wasn't an accurate one either. The first thing the woman at the Centre des Impôts did was to ask for our carte gris. I doubted if she'd have looked very favourably upon a cancelled one from a different department.

After that it was a few seconds and back came the shiny tax disc. We were legal. We could drive our car.

Well, almost. We had to buy new number plates and change the insurance to reflect the new plates. But that was hardly a Herculean task.

It was something of an anti-climax after that. After months of frustration and hitting brick walls at great speed, suddenly everything was easy. We showed our carte gris at the auto-shop and there were no supplementary questions or requests for extra papers or birthdays. We didn't need a script or a phone call from the Mayor. It was: thank you very much, and back five minutes later with a pair of yellow and white plates.

A similar story at the insurer's. A quick update of the file and out came a new green disc from the printer.

It's amazing how easy life is when you have the right papers.

And how impossible when you don't.

 (next week: Logs, Language, Fires and Flues)