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Minutes passed. We stood at the back of the nearest thing resembling a queue and waited. Somehow the wedge of people ahead of us didn't diminish. Instead they seemed to rearrange themselves. People would reach the counter, chat a while then move towards the back. No one seemed to want to leave. And then other people would walk straight in, force their way to the front and somehow be served immediately. It was chaotic. But no one seemed to mind. It was as though everyone knew the system except for us.

Eventually we began to discern a pattern to the behaviour. People were being processed in several stages. One to hand over their documents, and another to receive and pay for the newly printed carte gris. I didn't know how the man kept track of who he was serving. To confuse matters more some of the customers appeared to be dealers registering large numbers of cars who flitted in and out of the office and appeared to have their own fast-track queuing system.

We attached ourselves to the back of someone who looked as though they knew what they were doing and inched forward behind them. Very slowly.

As the counter approached we went over and over our prepared phrases. I felt like I was reciting a mantra. Nous voudrons une carte gris, nous voudrons une carte gris. But wasn't that superfluous? We were in the Carte Gris office, what else would we be asking for?

After a hasty script conference we decided to stick with the original opening line. And out it came, on cue and perfectly enunciated. I handed over the documents, he took them, ticked them with his pencil, clipped the corner off the old carte gris and said:

"Carte de séjour?"

"Non. Passeport," I said pointing to the passport I'd slid towards him.

"Non. Carte de séjour," he said, pushing my passport back.

I tried to reason with him. After all, the only reason for the carte de séjour was proof of identity. If I'd been French he'd have asked to see my identity card. And what better proof of identity was there than a passport?

"Non. Carte de séjour."

We showed him our birth and marriage certificates. We pleaded, we babbled, we mentioned the gendarmes.

"Non!"

We left. It was Wednesday morning. I had to have all the documents at Aurignac police station by Thursday. God knows what they'd do to me if I didn't produce them on time.

Driving home we began to put the matter into perspective. If they wanted a carte de séjour we'd have to get one. After all, we'd need them soon. We'd read that you could only live in France for ninety days without one. But we'd planned on waiting for a month or two as tax residency was determined from the date of application for a residency card and I wanted to push that date as far back as possible to make sure all the house sale proceeds were dealt with under the British tax system.

But given the choice between that and the gendarmes...

Back home, I dusted off the notes I'd made on cartes de séjour. I'd culled the facts from several sources and all seemed to be slightly different - the confusion being caused by recent European Community moves to give equal rights to all member citizens. Some argued this included the right of abode - in which case the carte de séjour was unnecessary. Others argued it didn't and warned of deportation unless the card was held.

No one said you couldn't buy a car without one.

We read further and collected together all the supporting documents we'd need - birth certificates, marriage certificate, passports. The only things we didn't have were passport size photographs.

So off we went, carefully avoiding all police cars and roadblocks, on our search for a photo booth. Unfortunately, we found one of those booths with the built in blink detector - Shelagh always finds them. They're designed to catch you in mid-blink or, failing that, to install such fear of being caught in mid-blink that your face takes on a fixed wild-eyed stare. It worked - out came eight perfect pictures of a demented half-lidded psychotic and her husband, Mungo - just the kind of couple you'd want to grant residency to.

We toyed with having them redone. But did we have the time? Not really. So off we rushed back to the Mairie at Cassagne.

Which was closed.