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A week later we received a call from the Mayor. There was a problem. Apparently the Préfecture at Toulouse had returned our application forms. They wanted more information. How did we intend to support ourselves? Did we have health cover?

This did not seem to accord with the European ideal of equal rights for all member citizens.

We rifled our document case. Would they accept the E111 health form as proof of health cover? And as for supporting ourselves, would they need an attestation in French from an accountant? Or would they accept a photocopy of a building society pass-book?

We took what we had. The mayor liked our freshly issued and stamped E111 forms. And he took a photocopy of our pass-books. Everything was bundled up and re-submitted to Toulouse. Leaving us to do what we had most practice at - wait and hope.

Time dragged as only time can. The car continued to sit outside our house. We'd see it through the window, we'd see it every time we opened the door. It was like having a Christmas present you couldn't open until Easter. Look but don't drive.

So we had to borrow a car once a week, which wasn't ideal for anyone. Jan lived ten miles away, ten miles of winding country lanes and we seemed to spend more time ferrying the car back and forth between the two properties than actually using it.

It was ridiculous. The vignette only cost 100 francs. I had the money. I wanted to pay. But no one would accept the money!

Then I had an idea.

If it was only the vignette that was preventing us from using the car, could we buy one without re-registering the car?

It was worth a try.

Off we went to the Carte Gris office. We joined the same melee of people, waited the same amount of time. But came up with a new question.

No more nous voudrons une carte gris, this time we wanted a vignette.



We couldn't catch what he said but it didn't sound good. Our script for alternative replies wasn't very helpful either as we'd gambled everything on a successful response to the opening line.

I tried handing him the money but he pushed it back - probably thought I was trying to bribe him.

"What are we supposed to do?" I asked, more in frustration than expecting an answer.

"Go to Tarbes," he said. I think it was Tarbes. But whether that was helpful advice or a well-known Pyrenean insult I couldn't tell.

I thought it best to leave though. I didn't like the way Shelagh was clenching her fists. We already had one felon in the family and I didn't think a brawl in the Sous-Préfecture would help our application for residency.

But had we found a solution to our immediate problem? Was it possible that the Sous-Préfecture at St. Gaudens couldn't issue us with a vignette because the car was still registered in the Haute Pyrénées? And did that mean that the Préfecture at Tarbes, the capital of the Haute Pyrénées, would be able to sell us one?

And what was worse, it was all beginning to make sense. I was becoming attuned to the local bureaucracy.

We debated the pros and cons of going to Tarbes most of that evening. Perhaps we were becoming defeatist but I couldn't see any outcome other than failure. We would ask for a tax disc, they would ask for a carte gris, we would show them our cancelled one with the corner clipped off and they'd show us the door.

That was one of the better scenarios. Others had us being arrested for trying to tax a stolen car - why have you got someone else's carte gris, where is your carte de séjour, what is your father's date of birth?

And to make matters worse, the next day we met another English couple and cartes de séjour casually cropped in conversation, as they frequently do amongst the newly arrived. And we found to our horror that they'd been one day away from being deported. They'd lobbied the Mairie, the Sous-Préfecture and the Préfecture. It was only a last-minute trip to Toulouse and an insistence on seeing the person in charge that resulted in their cartes de séjour being issued and their deportation order rescinded.