Friday, January 19, 2007

“You will never understand bureaucracies until you understand that for bureaucrats procedure is everything and outcomes are nothing.” Thomas Sowell, (American writer and economist, b. 1930)

Far below the heady creativity of permaculture planning, ordinary life is also taking place and in France, that must surely involve bureaucracy. We very much enjoy life here and I’m certainly not about to start gratuitously bad-mouthing our hosts but the French themselves have been complaining about their own bureaucracy as far back as 1764.

Once upon a time (last May) I submitted my French tax return on time. In about September, the health service wrote to me to ask me for my avis d’imposition (the form that advises how much tax one must pay for the year). It hadn’t arrived so I went to see the health people who suggested I went to the tax office to ask where it was…which I did: within the next month, allegedly! I received another letter from the health service so I wrote to them, explaining all and supplying all the figures on the tax return so they could do their own calculations, notwithstanding the lack of a real avis. Another letter, and another visit to the tax office and the health service and on it went. The last letter to the health service I sent recorded delivery, a trick a French friend told me: no reply but now a new letter, mentioning the fact that I live maritalment with Gabrielle—which, confusingly, is correct, notwithstanding that we’re not married—and asking for new documents regarding our relationship. Gabrielle’s already registered via a different system (which covers the first two years in France as a new resident who’d recently paid National Insurance contributions in England) so I worried how she had become embroiled in my mess.

This week, on the way to our latest visit to the health service and tax office, we stopped off at our friend Caroline’s house (where we rented a gîte for six months last winter) to collect a letter. This letter turned out to be a demand from the public treasury asking why I hadn’t yet paid my tax…aaaargh.

When I arrived at the health service offices, I found that my registration had expired because they hadn’t yet received the avis that I’m still waiting for. Just when I thought all was lost, they informed me that as we were living together as a couple—and I am apparently Gabrielle’s “concubine”(!) I am now re-registered on the system under her name, don’t therfore have to pay anything for this year and don’t need to send them that avis if and when it ever does turn up. The avis is now promised for the 19th February and the “demand for payment” wasn’t as such, just a letter to say that I will soon receive the avis and would I please tell them if I’ve already paid at another office…duh!

And another view of life in France: our neighbour Paulette, invited Alan and Carol, Gabrielle and I to a traditionally Breton lunch at her home (see photo above). She served up galettes—a savoury buckwheat pancake filled with ham and cheese and with an egg on top—with cider to drink and lait ribot to try, which is the fermented remains of the milk once it has been churned and all the fat removed to make butter…an acquired taste which I’ve yet to acquire! This was followed by a sweet eggy desert and coffee and chocolates. Thank you Paulette, just the remedy for all that bureaucratic confusion.