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--- Cars, Cartes and Campagne ---


I thought buying a car would be easy, so I drove off to buy a car while Shelagh carried on with the unpacking and plug changing.

I found three local car dealers all relatively close to each other and toured the rows of second-hand cars. Most were outside of our budget. But that was what I'd expected. We'd set our sights on something cheap and basic - we didn't expect to do much driving and just wanted something that transported us from A to B and didn't cost too much to run.

By the third garage, I was wondering if I was going to have to increase our 20,000 Fr budget. Then I saw the old Citroen DS. I'd had one as a child - a toy, that is - and had always been fascinated by its strange aerodynamic shape. It had been so unlike all the other cars of its time.

I walked over and had a look at it. It still exuded a plush elegance, but this model must have been well over twenty-five years old. I thought about it, weighing up all the pros and cons. The 4,000 Franc price tag was the biggest pro. Explaining to Shelagh why I'd bought a vintage saloon, was the con.

She had said, "I don't mind what it's like, as long as it's not red." But had she really meant it? If I returned home with a silver antique, would its colour be enough?

"You bought what?" was the reply my mind encountered the most as I played through the various scenarios. After the eight bedrooms and the five toilets, I didn't think I could quite carry off the vintage Citroen as well. No matter how cheap.

So I reluctantly said goodbye to a childhood memory and strolled on to the next row of cars. More Citroens. But still within budget and far more modern. This was more hopeful. Except for the one very noticeable drawback - they were all red.

I replayed another set of scenarios. "You bought what?" was still very much in evidence, but less so if I played the ‘it was either this or the vintage saloon’ card.

And we had to have a car. Even a red one.

But there was another problem - the one which looked the best deal did not have local number plates. Which meant I'd have to change them. In France, number plates are issued by département. This one had a sixty-five number - Haute Pyrenees. I'd need a thirty-one - Haute Garonne. According to my Living in France bible, that would mean an extra trip to the Préfecture and a new number plate to buy and register. Would it be expensive?

No, said the garage. Neither would it be a problem, they do it all the time, and if we wanted they'd do all the paper work for us - the Carte Gris, the number plates, the lot. We wouldn't have to set one English foot inside the Préfecture. Which sounded brilliant. And a useful card to add to ‘it was either this or the vintage saloon.’

The next day, we returned complete with 15,000 francs in cash and all the papers we possessed - passports, birth and marriage certificates, the lot. We'd heard about French bureaucracy and came prepared.

It went very well, we were succeeding in making ourselves understood, we had all the documents they asked for. And we had the money - which seemed to please them the most.

Then they produced the car's papers. The control technique (certificate of roadworthiness), the old carte gris (log book) and the bill of sale. Everything was there - except a current tax disc. But that wouldn't be a problem, they told us. All they needed was a passport from us and they'd handle the rest. They'd go to the Sous-Préfecture at St. Gaudens, have the number plates changed, the car re-registered and taxed by next week.

Next week? What would we do for transport in the meantime?

No problem, they said - I liked this garage - you can drive it away now. They even had a special form for just such an occasion. I looked at the form. I'd never heard of it. Could my Living in France bible be out of date?

I tried to ask for more details, but the more they explained, the more it seemed akin to a Monopoly ‘Get out of jail free’ card. Had I heard it correctly? If stopped by the police, show them this paper - it grants you fourteen days to obtain the correct documents. Brilliant. I'll have two.