My Paper Doll

1st April 2017 |



Just when I thought it was all over for me, just as I enter my leaden years with all thought of romance a nostalgic dream, I find myself launched on a new affair. It crept up on me so quietly and unobtrusively that I didn’t even realise it was happening .

I was on my way back from meeting her in Béziers, a nearby city, furious at having been given the brush-off yet again when it dawned on me. Of course, I thought, she had only sent me away so that I would have to go back, again and again, to play out this tantalising courtship which might never be consummated.

It had been my third visit to the Prefecture – the French police headquarters – so that I could put French plates on my scooter. When I look back now at my first visit I smile at my naiveté. I had read online that they wanted a piece of paper to prove that the bike actually conformed to European regulations. Since England was still in Europe, and the bike was originally brought their from Italy, it must obviously have already been certified kosher, but the French do love to have their own bit of paper. To get it from Piaggio, the manufacturer, costs 150 euros, but I found an English outfit called DVLAAdvice who said they could give me an equivalent piece of paper for £67. Always the sucker, I leapt at the offer, not having read the fine print which explained that it might not work.

I have to say that the piece of paper they sent me was a work of art. With all its seals and signatures it looked tremendously authoritative. It was the kind of instrument I always wanted on my way round the world – something to get me past obstructionist officials at borders and game reserves and splendid receptions. But it didn’t get me past the lady at the window in the prefecture. “Everything else is fine,” she said, “but you have to come back with the right paper.”
So I had to spend that 150 euros anyway to get the real thing,

I have to explain that you don’t just go to the Prefecture. You have to go online and make an appointment for a ten-minute slot on a weekday morning, but that’s better probably than being stuck in an endless queue with uncouth lorry drivers and terrorists-in-waiting.
However, the second time I went the same lady pointed out regretfully that what I had brought her was all very well, but  – and she brushed the signature with her finger – it was not the real thing. It was only a copy of the real thing, and she really, sadly, couldn’t accept a copy although, – and she repeated it – everything else in my dossier was fine.

So I went back to Piaggio to get the real thing and that’s what I took to Béziers the other morning.
But this time there was a different lady, a little sterner. She looked at the papers in a puzzled way and said, “Where’s the fiscal?”
“What’s that?” I asked? She looked at me with pity for my childish innocence.
“You have to go to Customs and Excise to pay the import duty. I can’t do anything without that.”

“But, but, but she told me  . . .  ” I spluttered . . .  and I looked imploringly at my first lady who was sitting in the next booth,  but she was being very quiet . . . and in the end there was nothing for it but to retire.
So I went to the Tresorier, the money people, who live in another town altogether, for permission to revisit my ladies, and there an even nicer lady told me there was nothing to pay and she would give me a piece of paper to prove it, but first I must get another piece of paper from the man who gave me the scooter in the first place

However,  I must tell you that these skirmishes over the scooter are merely a sideshow.

Just around the corner from the Prefecture is another office, CPAM, (The Caisse Primaire de l’Assurance Maladie, if you must know) and there I have been no less than seven times, to see seven different ladies, because there the game is not about my little road toy, there my very life is at stake. Without the right piece of paper from them, I can’t afford to go to the doctor or dentist or hospital. Not that I need to but, you know, life is scary. So that explains the number of visits, which obviously have to be in proportion to the importance of the quest.

Let me say now that nobody doubts I will get this vital piece of paper eventually. I am entitled to it, and I have a printed pamphlet to prove it. All that is required first is a dossier, which must be gradually built, like a house, from many different papers. At one point, on the third visit just as everything seemed to be coming together my dossier was lost. Disappeared in the system, they said. Never mind. This happens quite often, I’m told. We started anew. Last Monday, on the seventh visit after four months , it all came together again and my dossier has been sent somewhere. Perhaps it will be lost again.

It was just this morning, as I shook off another fit of exasperation, that I realised what was really going on. I am being drawn gradually but ineluctably into a love affair with the French bureaucracy. Between us we are engaged in a process of creation: we are pregnant and anxiously awaiting the birth of the great dossier which will define my relationship to the Fifth French Republic. It will be made of paper, but in France paper has a deeper meaning. Banks, Insurance companies, Utilities can go paperless, but France? Never. Only when all my paper is securely gathered together and held deep in the bosom of the bureaucracy will I know that I am really, finally in France.