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Shelagh did not take my news lightly about being stopped on the way to Samatan market. She wasn't sure whether to blame me, the garage or the fact that the car was red.

The debate continued into the car as we headed back to the garage armed with my police summons.

"Ah," said the manager as we told him what had happened. Apparently, the car's documents weren't quite ready yet. I waited to hear 'computer error' or 'the wrong kind of leaves on the line outside Clapham Junction', but neither excuses were forthcoming. It was the wife's fault - far more plausible - she was supposed to have taken the forms in that morning but had forgotten.

I waited to hear pas de problème and was not disappointed. He would take the documents in himself.

"And when would they be ready?"



A shrug. "Apres midi."

We'd be back.

The next day came and the afternoon saw us on familiar territory - in the manager's office at the garage.

"Une problème," he said. I didn't like the way he said that. And what had happened to pas de problème? It had a much better ring to it. More lyrical. More comforting.

The Sous-Préfecture had refused to process our documents, he explained.

"What! Why?"

Because we didn't have a carte de séjour.

This was not what my copy of Living in France told me. It clearly stated that you needed either a passport or a carte de séjour. Not both. Something was wrong.

"How do we get a carte de séjour?"

He shrugged.

But the police...

He shrugged again and pushed our pile of documents - Shelagh's passport, the control technique, the old carte gris and the bill of sale - across the desk towards us.

It was now our problem. And far from pas.

As the days progressed I began to think that perhaps pas de problème was best translated as the father of all problems. If not a mother as well.

First we decided to confront the Sous-Préfecture. Surely there had been some kind of mistake. Perhaps, they didn't like a third party trying to register a car with someone else's passport?

Our trip to the Sous-Préfecture underwrote everything ever said about French bureaucracy.

It started well. We'd tracked down the Sous-Préfecture with the aid of the Tourist Information Centre. It was open and we even found a small building with Carte Gris written on the door.

But then we opened that door.

The place was packed. A room full of people clutching handfuls of documents and cheque books. And was there a queue? It looked more like a melee.

And, of course, there was only one person on duty and he wasn't in a good mood.