Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Offices and Officialdom: I have only recently finished wrestling with a planning application to convert the upper level of our long barn into an eco-loft for a couple, to compliment our very successful holiday cottage. I finally handed in this huge dossier in quadruplicate to our local mairie on 11th July. The accepted time for processing is two months and not a day earlier. Imagine my dismay to receive a letter this morning, just a few days later, summoning me to the mairie for a retrait de dossier et décision d’urbanisme. There was no way that the dossier could have gone, by post, to the local planning office and returned with time for a decision in between. The maire or his secretary must have discovered a reason against our request and called us back to say “no”.

Despite my urgent curiosity, we couldn’t go to the mairie directly after it opened at 2pm (the end of French lunchtime) as we had a meeting with the Bureau de Gestion to see how we could get Gabrielle teaching English and violin as a registered business. We arrived on time at a modern, if unprepossessing, square office building, to be greeted outside by a tall, good-looking and confident in a graduate-studenty sort of way man. “Madame Anderson?” he enquired with a smile, then led us in, warning me against knocking my head on the low doorway. The bureau is based at the large town of St Brieuc but they offer a peripatetic service, so we met him in our local town, in temporary lodgings. It was a fair size room, with office-style windows, flooring, ceiling and open-plan layout. There was just one desk, giving an empty and unlived in feel and the photocopier was perched on a chair alongside, cables trailing, adding to the temporary feel. But, the very weirdest thing was, never mind about the doorway, the whole offcice was too low, so he and I walked along with our heads to one side (the shorter Gabrielle being unaffected). Sitting down, there was no further problem but when he stood up to go and get a reference book and had to walk the whole way with his head bent over, I was forcibly reminded of the half-floor, between two others, in the film Being John Malkovich (see photo at top).

We’d gone to see him about Gabrielle’s enterprise initiative but very quickly got stuck on why our gite business wasn’t attracting social charges. He didn’t know himself and so phoned the tax office (Centre des Impôts). Nobody there could answer the question, so he phoned the social charges office (URRSAF). They could neither find our dossier nor answer the question. “Typiquement français, he said; we nodded furiously. So we finished an hour-long and very pleasant meeting with him explaining that he needed to go away and research our peculiar case and then we stood up—almost—and walked out, bent over, to leave this very strange building behind. With gloom hanging around my shoulders, sure that our renovation plans had been turned down, I wondered, with some irony, how the office building with a ground floor suitable only for troglodytes, had ever passed muster with the planning department.

Back in our own village, we were beckoned into the maire’s office by a very smiley secretary who, as astonished as we were, gave us our official “yes” for our planning permission. Never had she seen an application processed so quickly. Relief rather than celebration was how I felt, as I’d psyched myself up for a disappointment. A strange day all round …

Next blog: how to measure levels really accurately with a home made Bunyip water level.