If there is one thing the French do better than anyone else, it is bureaucracy. You might think you've come across some pretty good examples of the science of bureacracy but, believe me, if not come across it in France, you've yet to meet the world champions. They are masters of the art. I expect to have the pleasure of banging my head against the proverbial when we allerons en france next month. Of course, this will not be my first experience. I wouldn't say I'm an old hand at the game, but there have been a couple of bouts. (I first typed "skirmishes" but thought that would be mixing my metaphores so you've been let off.) The first time was when we exchanged contracts to buy our house (here) and then when we completed (here). The next occasion was not too long after we had bought our dream cottage.
In view of what I had heard about the bureaucratic French, I thought we should check we didn't need a permit of some sort to let the house as a holiday home. I duly presented myself at the village mairie on one of the mornings it was open. This is a building that seems far too large for a commune of just about three hundred souls; it is almost as big as the church and has a tower just as imposing as the church tower. I opened the nail-studded, oak door and crept into the enormous hallway. The last time I had seen an entrance hall this large was in one of the Loire châteaux. There was no sign of anybody, and there was no indication as to which, if any, of the many doors leading off the black and white tiled floor might provide access to a receptionist, or whether I would have to mount the magnificent flight of stairs. There was no ringing of telephones, noise of computer printers or even subdued murmuring to give me a clue. I decided to try the first door on my right and, if necessary, work my way round anti-clockwise. The first door was locked. The next door opened into a committee room where the plastic tables and chairs looked distinctly incongruous against the wood panelling of the walls. All the other doors were locked, until I came to the last. It would have been just the same if I had decided to go in a clockwise direction: the reception would still have been in the last room I tried.
An enquiry counter ran diagonally across the room. Well, it went from corner to corner, though not in a straight line, turning through ninety degrees every three feet or so to perform a zig-zag. On the desk behind the enquiry counter was a large ledger in which a lady was making entries with a ballpoint pen. From the look of the ledger and the lady's clothing, I assumed that she had only recently given up using a quill. Her grey hair was parted in the middle, pulled back hard from her forehead, and wound into two coils which were pinned one above each ear. She wore a grey blouse with a piecrust collar that buttoned tightly at the neck. Even her lips looked grey and, for the first time in my life, I saw somebody actually wearing pince-nez. I had to choke back a laugh as she reminded me of a Beatrix Potter illustration of a mouse. She looked at me timidly as I introduced myself as the new owner of old Madame Erlanger's house.
Suddenly, she became a model of business efficiency as she asked for my passport, which I just happened to have with me, and proceeded to photocopy every page that had anything on it. I decided not to ask why she needed a copy of the Maltese entry and exit stamps from a holiday three years before and just let her get on with it.
"Are you married?" she asked.
Blimey, I thought, she doesn't waste any time, but I replied in the affirmative.
"Is your wife with you?"
I looked around but could see nobody in the room apart from the mouse and me. Perhaps she thought Mrs S was very short and was hidden from her by the counter. "Err, not right at the moment," I replied.
A withering glance from the mouse, as if to say it was just typical of a man to leave his wife behind when it was obvious her presence would be needed and that I shouldn't be allowed out on my own. "She will need to come in with her passport."
I promised her, "Cross my heart and hope to die", that I would ensure Mrs S called at the mairie on the very first occasion she happened to be in the village with her passport at a time when the mairie was open. Then I dropped a bombshell. I explained to the mouse that we intended letting Les Lavandes as a holiday home and asked if we needed a permit for this. A look of utter terror came over her face as she told me that she didn't know and I would have to enquire at Angers, the large city that is the capital of the département. It was the way she said it that convinced me she didn't want me to make any enquiries that might stir up trouble from the big city and that it would be better just to leave them in ignorance while the village slumbered on in peace.
That time we opted for the quiet life.