The art of paperwork

Bureaucracy in France has a formidable reputation. From personal experience, I’d say it’s entirely justified. My thesis though, is that it’s actually an art form. Bear with me as I explain.

I’m still trying to apply for child benefit. It’s the only state help we’re seeking, and that’s largely because we have two children with big feet, even bigger appetites and a great long list of supplies required for school. I dutifully informed HMRC that we’ve moved, so have received nothing from the UK government since 2018.

We’ve lived here for nearly two years now and the visit to CAF (Caisse d’Allocations Familiales) was one of the first I made. Since the start of the pandemic, I’ve been continuing to supply the documents that I’m asked for, seemingly at random, online.

That’s the first element of artistic expression: creating a list of forms to request. This could be anything from a birth certificate (no not that one madame, it doesn’t list your parents’ names and every pet they’ve owned since childhood, please try again.) It could be your marriage certificate or your tax return. Nowhere, that I’ve found anyway, is there a complete list of everything you are required to submit.

I thought I was nearing the end of the process. Having submitted everything I could conceivably think of at least twice, surely there couldn’t be anything else? That’s the next part of the creative process. Ask for documents, receive documents and then cultivate an absolutely bland expression (easier before masks were obligatory I grant you) while you state that the documents are still missing.

So I’d reached the end of the line with things that could be achieved during pre-lockdown meetings and I’d reached the end of the line with uploading documents on the website.

Some of this I know is down to my lack of understanding of the wider social context in France. I don’t know exactly which part of the site to visit because I don’t know if I’m changing or updating my situation. I suspect this is another aspect of the art form, by keeping it all amorphous and ensuring the boundaries are fluid. I can’t be sure though, so I may be attributing a creative process to something that is governed entirely by logical reasoning.

I decided I would try to ring someone. And I must say there is a distinct lack of creativity in this part of the tale. I’m English. I know this because almost every time I speak to a stranger here, they either tell me I’m English or start speaking in English. I think this means I have an English accent and the automated telephone system lacks the imagination and flexibility to account for this. I dread the French equivalent of the phrase, “tell us in your own words why you are calling.” I can usually jump the first few hurdles but inevitably it either fails to understand me or asks a question that I can’t reply to.

And here’s where it gets creative again, involving me in an inner exploration of my sanity and an outer exploration of the locality. I decided I needed to speak to someone, so I tried to find out where my local ‘permanence’ or outpost was, as I’d previously been visiting one in the next town. This wasn’t as easy as it sounds and I came up with two potential locations. The website told me in no uncertain terms that I could not visit without an appointment but, in a stroke of sheer genius, did not include a link for booking appointments or a phone number to do so. And I wasn’t going to phone anyway. I’d tried that.

So I turned up at the first potential location. It was wrong, but I was given an address and directed to a location I did know. That too was wrong and, in fact did not match the address. I think you’ll agree that’s inspired.

With the help of Google maps, I found the correct location. The door was locked, because you can’t get in without an appointment and it didn’t list CAF as one of the options available. So I phoned the only phone number given. This time I spoke to a human person but she wasn’t from CAF so was unable to help me at all, despite the fact I told her I was standing outside the office just trying to make an appointment. In desperation I banged on the door. The human person who appeared almost instantly was the one with whom I’d just been conversing on the phone. I think she could probably see me outside the window the whole time. Again, I think you’ll agree this is artistic expression of the highest order.

To cut short a very long story, I finally managed to make an appointment and presented myself to a different permanence today (the local one was closed over the school holidays, because it caters to parents, many of whom will find that the most convenient time to visit. Again, brilliant.)

The man I met with was polite and helpful and a true artist. It was clear that there was a lot of documentation missing. Eventually we established what I needed to supply. (It was, of course, paperwork I had not been asked for before.)

Some of the things he asked for I had with me in anticipation, but he wouldn’t allow me to give him copies at that point. Instead I have to upload everything to the website. But not today. I have to wait until tomorrow to do that. I don’t know why. There probably isn’t a reason anyway. It’s just another artistic flourish.

I’m getting wise to the way the performance unfolds here. (I feel like I’m at the end of Act Three in a very modern play that only the cleverest people in the audience understand.) So I asked the man if he was sure that what he was asking for was absolutely everything they needed in order to process my claim. After tomorrow obviously.

At this point he uttered the word that always strikes fear into my heart: ‘normalement’. What this means roughly is “under normal circumstances yes, this is all fine, but this is France, so random bureaucratic and frankly artistic elements can be thrown at you at any point without warning.”

I asked him, on the off-chance that this would happen and that I could possibly forestall it, if he’d just check for me that they had everything else.

This is where the performance to date peaked. It’s just beautiful. They’re missing my tax declaration and the certificates proving our children are in school. These are not missing because I haven’t supplied them. No, the absolute circular beauty of this unending work of art is that they’re missing because a whole year has passed since I first supplied them. They’re out of date.

I’m trapped in an art installation that I fear I will never escape. And all I can do at this point is admire the creative genius.

English eccentrics

“Everyone knows the English are eccentric,” says my friend and neighbour Anna.

She has a point. We’re talking while I’m out walking the dog – and both the cats who regularly accompany me. I’m sure they think they’re dogs as they use the opportunity to sniff, mark territory and relieve themselves. One often sits and yowls loudly if we leave her behind or scurries along with her tail straight up and puffed out like a bottle brush. Honestly, it doesn’t help us blend in.

And then there’s the fact that we’re (I’m) still using our tiny above ground pool, despite the fact that the temperature has plummeted and the sun has disappeared. And that we have a ‘wildflower meadow’, which looks suspiciously like a weedy front lawn, while the rest of our neighbours mow almost to the point of obsession.

I’d venture to suggest we’re not the only ones though. There’s the jovial neighbour who is happy to chat as he returns from the hunt, in full camo, gun in hand. As soon as he finds out we lived in Wales he’s very keen to ask me about Scotland. My replies are more than a little nervous, due to said gun. But whenever we meet him now, with or without a gun, he hails us as “les gallois” or the Welsh people.

There’s the neighbour who literally uses a ruler to cut his hedge (and makes exceptional hooch.) There’s the neighbour who has a tiny chihuahua with the big attitude. The dog struts his stuff in a light-up red collar at night, making him look like a demonic mini-hellhound. And then there’s Anna.

Often our conversations take place while walking. Often it’s raining, because this is the north of France. Often she’s wearing slippers and a dressing gown.

“You and I are the only ones who enjoy walking in the rain,” she said to me one day. I’m a dog owner. ‘Enjoy’ is a strong word for ‘obliged to take an over-excitable dog out, otherwise she will pester incessantly all evening.’ Anna is just out for a stroll in the rain, on her own, in her night clothes.

She’s wonderful and, like all our neighbours, has made us feel thoroughly welcome. I’m not sure whether the Ch’tis are renowned for eccentricity or whether we just got lucky, but I wouldn’t change a single thing.

Waiting for la rentrée

We knew it was coming. We’ve known that for weeks and we knew there was a plan in place. But with Covid-19 cases rising here in France, we’ve all been waiting to see exactly what the return to school would be like.

I didn’t think anything could be harder for our daughters than walking into a new school nearly two years ago, in a new country, knowing no one and with only basic French language skills to call on. I think this rentrée could rival even that experience though in terms of stress.

Our prime minister, Jean Castex, gave a long and detailed speech on Thursday, followed by the education minister, outlining exactly what would happen. Schools will open.  Masks are compulsory for over 11s and for all adults working with children. Pupils won’t be distanced as they were when schools returned in June, but hand washing, sanitiser gel, cleaning and ventilation will become part of the routine. Sports are back on the agenda and everything else is, on paper, largely back to normal.

We’ve known it would happen and I’ve got all the supplies together in preparation, but these last few days have been hard. As a parent our job is to love, protect and reassure our kids, as we prepare them for adult life. How on earth do we reassure teenagers, who keep up with current events, that everything will be okay with a pandemic still raging?

They know that, although infection rates are high, hospitalisation and death is not. They also know that teenagers, although often asymptomatic, could well be as contagious as adults.

They know that, if most students respect the gestes barrières of mask-wearing and hand washing, the spread will be slowed but they know there will probably be those who don’t, because there are always those who ignore or resist the rules, wherever you live.

They know they’ll be able to eat with their classmates at lunchtime, but how that will happen safely is far from clear. In June it involved everyone sitting in a row and facing forward to prevent contagion so lunch, one of France’s most sacred social rituals, could instead become a matter of pragmatic refueling.

I want to protect my daughters. They’re scared, stressed and worried and I want to put my arms around them and tell them they never have to go to school again. But I can’t. As teenagers they need their peers. They need an education and they need life outside our home again.

We knew it was coming, but none of us know quite what this rentrée will bring.

Does confinement ‘derange’ you?

It’s been a funny old spring. Terrifying, stressful, busy and calm, often all at the same time. For months, the only French people I met were our neighbours – all desperate to chat over the garden gate, eager to swap plants and keen to know when my mother-in-law was going to be able to go home.

She still hasn’t, thanks for asking, after her one week stay became four months. We’re all very glad she was tucked up safe and sound here with us rather than alone at home. She’s cooked us inventive meals, after my panicked monthly trips to the supermarket with a scarf wrapped round my face, then with gloves and a mask and then with just a mask, netted most, but not all of the items on our list.

She’s planted seeds, bought on a trip to an RHS garden in Devon last year. She’s watered and weeded them and watched them grow and is now enjoying the courgettes, tomatoes and peas they’ve produced. And she’s learning French.

Her friends are convinced she’ll be fluent when she returns, but it’s only in the last few weeks she’s been further than 100m from our home, due to the strict lockdown rules in France. She’s been stranded in a little British island, with no delicious French cuisine, no French culture and only Fun Radio – the girls’ music station of choice – and occasional forays into French TV to remind her she’s not in Herefordshire. She’s only had croissants once for Heaven’s sake and a trip to a patisserie felt decadent when we all feared for our lives. It’s only since the plastic screens at the counter, strict distancing (sometimes), mask-wearing (by almost everyone now) and contactless payments became part of normal life that we’ve had deliciously delicate French cakes again. They were worth the wait though.

But she, Paddy and I are all diligently practising French every day on our apps. Izzy and Helena have moved on to Spanish, Norwegian and Korean – they’ve clearly nailed French already – but we’re struggling with the grammar and the strange differences that exist between the languages.

I asked the girls today what furniture they need for school, because the French for school equipment (we buy all text and exercise books here) is ‘fourniture’ and my brain just can’t translate. We’re all referring to confinement, because that’s the French word for lockdown, and we’re happy to be deconfined. The weirdest one I find though is the idea of being deranged.

We’ve got a lot of work done in our garden, including along our boundary with our very lovely, elderly and stone deaf neighbour. This has involved me asking another neighbour repeatedly “est-ce que ça lui dérange?” I think it means “does it bother or inconvenience him? Does it put him out?” I can’t help imagining him going mad with rage and becoming quite deranged though at the idea of us painting our boundary bright blue.

And the opposite of deranged is ranged. Because of course it is. So as well as constantly asking each other whether we’re deranged, we also debate how we will range our things.

In French DIY stores, “rangement” has a whole happy wealth of possibilities. You can “rangez” your “dressing” (that’s a walk in wardrobe or dressing area), your kitchen drawers and even your garage shelves.

And the girls, back in the dim and distant past when they actually went to school, would be told “rangez vos affaires” when it was time to gather everything up and leave the classroom.

So I can’t say whether confinement has deranged Paddy’s mum, but I do know that, like everyone else, we all need to get out more.

Shower thoughts

The point at which you want to remember that you disconnected the shower attachment from your ancient shower cubicle and put it in the garage really isn’t while you are standing in front of said cubicle, in a towel, about to turn the water on.

I know this, because that’s the exact point at which I remembered I’d disconnected the shower attachment earlier in the day. And it was now dark outside. And cold. And really dark.

Obviously I wasn’t about to get dressed and go outside, in the dark, into a dark garage to retrieve the shower attachment. That would have been sheer folly. It turned out the girls, who I called on for help, weren’t about to either.

No, instead I forced my head into the gap between the ‘tap’ I’d inadvertently created and the moulded plastic compartment designed to hold bottles. I somehow manage to make my hair wet, and then more or less rinse off the shampoo and conditioner. I won’t even go into the other contortions necessary to get clean.

Once again, this entirely avoidable situation comes down to communication. I was confident that the builder who is currently replacing our 70s/90s fusion bathrooms with modern loveliness such as taps that work, sinks that drain, appliances that don’t leak and colours other than battleship grey was ripping out this bathroom today.

I was equally convinced that he was ripping it out last Thursday and I was wrong then too, but last Thursday I remembered to reconnect the shower attachment, which I’d disconnected before we give away the cubicle because it may come in useful one day.

So if you want an old, but functional, shower cubicle without a shower attachment, please do let me know.  I’m pretty sure it’s being ripped out tomorrow.

France 2, bewildered Brits 0

One of the hardest things about living in a new country is that you just don’t know how much you don’t know.

Take today for instance. Helena has joined the school choir and has signed up to do eight concerts before Christmas. “What a lovely way to meet some new people and visit some new places,” I naively thought.

The first concert was this evening, so cue much dashing around after school to be ready to leave at 6pm to arrive in plenty of time.

The first new person I met was inside Helena’s school. Not deterred by finding the gate locked, we persevered, as a room called Salle Rheinberg, listed on the programme given to parents with no other location must clearly be a room in the school. The girls agreed. “I think it’s by the canteen” Izzy said. “It’s where I have choir practice,” Helena confirmed.

When we found the room, I turned around to discover they had deserted me and left me to face the lone woman at the far end of the huge room on my own. “Ah no, madame,” she said, when I told her what we were looking for. “That’s behind the town hall.”

“In this village?” I asked.

“Yes,” she replied, quite emphatically.

I think perhaps she was just trying to get rid of me, because when we arrived at the town hall, the second new person I met, another lone woman inside it, had never heard of the event we were looking for.

A search around the back showed everything in total darkness. By now we were 15 minutes late and a quick trip to Google Maps showed that Salle Rheinberg is actually behind the town hall in Montreuil, a good ten minute drive away and with multiple parking issues.

So no new places and two new people later, we gave up and we’ve come home.

Oh, and curtains in France are, apparently, not sold in pairs. Alright France, you win this round, but tomorrow is another day.

School lessons learned: 1 Open all hours

It’s been a year now since we began our French adventure and since we dropped the girls off and waved goodbye as they ventured in for their first day in a new school with a new system and new friends in a new language.

So it seems like a good time to reflect. There were some things we were prepared for and some we weren’t. We knew that there were three different zones in France so that, while the school year starts and finishes on the same day, other holidays are staggered. We also knew that half-terms here are two weeks long.

What we didn’t know was that the late May half-term doesn’t exist in France and, while the calender says the kids break up at the end of the first week in July, they begin to drift off in mid to late June.

This is true of the younger ones at collège (like middle school) who, once they’ve received their average for the year (after the conseil de classe, where teachers and elected pupils discuss their grades), are no longer obliged, or even really expected, to go to school.

It’s true of the older ones who take their Brevet exams at the very beginning of July (unless of course a heat wave means they are postponed like this year’s were) and can leave to study at home.

Having said that, the school is open come what may, so even when school buses were cancelled due to snow, we could have taken our kids in if, for instance, we had to get to work whatever the weather.

That’s unless it’s a public holiday, and there are some not celebrated in Britain, like Bastille Day (14th July), All Saints’ Day (1st November) and Armistice Day (11th November). If these fall in the week there’s no school that day.

We knew that school hours are long. The girls started at 8.30am and finished at 5pm every day except Wednesday, when they could stay for lunch and finish at 2pm or leave at 12.30.

We didn’t know that, within that, there would be days on their two week timetable when one of them started at 10.30am or finished at 4pm, or that they would learn to love what they’ve dubbed the ‘absent professors’ board, which lists the teachers who aren’t in school that day (due to training, school trips or illness etc).

A quick study of this board could often result in a trip to the loo to send a furtive text asking to be picked up early. Mobile phones are banned in middle schools, so open communication is tricky.

So school here involves long days, sometimes and long holidays, sometimes. And that’s just one of the differences. We all had so much more to learn!

Parent School

I’ll be honest, there have been occasions when I’ve felt more grown-up than when I’ve been sitting with a big badge, which reads ‘ecole des parents’ around my neck trying desperately to find the letter ‘m’ on an unfamiliar keyboard.

I wasn’t expecting to be sitting in a classroom again with someone having to explain to me how to use a computer. But then this move to France has seen us doing lots of things we didn’t expect to. (Submitting paperwork three times for everything official, trying to work out how to say ‘pipe’ and ‘queue’ in French without offending anyone and solemnly promising to clean my dog’s teeth every day spring instantly to mind.)

But there was orange juice and cake, so I was staying positive as I dutifully added the @ symbol to my document as instructed. (Yes, I was indeed a swot at school.) I have learned that many things are different when it comes to school computers in France, including that number keys don’t give you numbers – you need other number keys for those – and that adding accents is complicated.

So as I was struggling through creating a simple document, trying desperately to remember the French words we’d just been given for ‘save’ and ‘insert image’ and what each ‘alt’ combination did, it really didn’t help to hear my husband snigger next to me.

He elbowed me in the ribs and gestured to his screen, which sported a large, curvy ‘w’ he’d managed to insert, completely ignoring the teacher’s instructions.

“Boobies,” he whispered

Now I’m pretty sure that’s a word I haven’t really heard since I was at school myself.

Paddy was clearly connecting with his inner 12-year-old and honestly, I don’t think that’s ever very far away for most male members of our species. In fact I noticed our American friend also had a 12-year-old-style grin on his face while I was rolling my eyes and trying to remember how to add a % sign to my document.

But I’m destined to sit in a classroom, beside my apparently juvenile husband, for many months to come yet. I’m hoping if I’m good I may even get a gold star (or perhaps a language certificate) from the very lovely, very patient teacher, who I’m guessing has taught 12 year old boys before.

An open and shut case

Starting a business in France, to go with our established British one, less than six months after moving here felt like a small victory. Opening a bank account to go along with it a short month later was a triumph.

Clients were duly invoiced in Euros and we headed off on holiday without a banking-related care in the world.

It was a bit of a surprise therefore to return home to two copies of the same letter, in the same envelope, explaining that this account had been closed. Sure that there must be some mistake, we headed to the bank today brim full of confidence that this simple misunderstanding would soon be cleared up.

Oh how wrong we were. After telling a computer screen in the swanky, newly refurbished branch who we were and why we were there, we installed ourselves in the space as instructed. Before long a bank clerk appeared. Yes indeed, she confirmed, the account had been closed. No indeed, she didn’t understand it either. She was sure we would understand that it was not her who had set up our account so we would need to speak to the woman who had. The fact that she had a screen in front of her with all the relevant details, and that we had all the paperwork relating to the account with us did not change anything. We needed to speak to her colleague. There was literally nothing she could do herself.

The phone at her brand new desk in the brand new branch wasn’t working, so she disappeared off to make the call.

Sadly, her colleague wasn’t available, I should explain this was Friday afternoon, but she assured us she would leave her a message to contact us as soon as possible.

So the account we opened less than three months ago has been closed. We have issued invoices that can’t be paid and can’t issue more until we have resolved this utterly bizarre situation that is not of our making. A qualified member of staff in the branch of the bank at which we opened the account can do no more than leave a message with her colleague and wish us a very polite good weekend.

Mostly I love the way France works: the emphasis is on quality of life and family and it rarely feels as though you’re subjected to the hard sell approach of capitalism and consumerism.

There are times, however, when it’s entirely mystifying. This would definitely be one of those times.

Fill your boot.

“Get down Twiggy.”

It’s 8am UK time and we’ve been up for four hours and travelling for most of that. The freshly-washed dog, who doesn’t do crates or small spaces, is supposed to be in the boot, in her freshly-washed bed, alongside the shoes, coats, swimming bags and general detritus required for a family holiday at the British seaside. And a spare car battery, obviously.

The dog, however, won’t be moved. We’ve just reached the motorway so stopping isn’t easy, but a medium sized black and tan dog doesn’t improve rear visibility, so we stop at the next services.

I’m not surprised she wouldn’t climb back in the boot. What we’d taken for one of her infamous and nauseating farts is far, far worse.

An unfortunate series of events has led us to this point. It probably began when the dog discovered she could reach the cats’ food a few days ago. I caught her slinking out of the utility room licking her lips at around 2am and found evidence that she’d had her head in their food bag. The bag was duly sealed, but I think she’d got a taste for it as last night she upended their bowl for another midnight feast.

Getting up and leaving in a hurry this morning involved clearing up the three large piles of dog mess that resulted and meant time only for a quick and ‘unproductive’ walk. We were sure we’d have time to stop before we got on the Eurotunnel, but delays at passport control meant we were ushered straight on. The dog whined throughout the crossing, but there’s not really anywhere to stop when you disembark.

So here we were, in a service station car park, surveying the devastation. I’m glad I washed her bed yesterday, although it’s escaped quite lightly (if any trace of excrement can be considered light.) A dog towel is a write-off and goes straight in the bin. She’s caught the swimming bag dead on with considerable collateral damage to the car battery.

Twenty disgusting, smelly minutes later and our stuff is as dog-poo free as we can make it under the circumstances. (My family think I have a phobia of dog poo. In my view if you don’t there’s something very wrong with you.)

We all troop into the soulless service station, taking it in turns obviously because of the dog, to wash our hands. We all also get funneled into Macdonald’s on the way out but eventually escape, burger-free, and finally we’re under way again.

So if you want a cute, fast, black and tan dog with bad teeth (a whole different story) she’s yours. Honestly, she’s no trouble at all.