Monsieur So British #16: Running Round in Circles

Sunday, November 10th, 2019

#16 Running Round in Circles

It starts just before 6am with Gigi barking. She’s taken to barking in the same way that Donald Trump uses Twitter, indiscriminate darts of anger through the night and it’s like a canine form of Tourette’s Syndrome. Her barking sets Kipper off barking, He barks like a teenager who’s just discovered cheap cider, full of gusto and enthusiasm and now he’s started he’s unlikely to stop until he’s made himself sick. It means though that one of us has to get up and deal with it. Me, usually. Natalie works during the week and so any weekend sleep is precious and as I’m forced to be at home more, I’m supposed to be enjoying these vignettes of domesticity.

I get up. First thing to do is open the door to the garden and let Minou in who’s been mioawing there since about 5am. Gigi won’t even look up at this point, she was just barking at something in a dream. Minou rushes past Kipper’s cage to her food, I close the door to the larder and open Kipper’s cage. He goes out of the door into the garden but not before molesting Flame, one of the other cats, who has timed his entry just to be molested apparently. I separate them, Kipper goes out, Flame goes in to the larder. Kipper starts barking at something in the garden, this sets Gigi off though she still won’t get up. Kipper comes in to be fed and put back in his cage. I open the larder, the two cats run upstairs and I sit down for a minute. Indiana, the third cat, starts mioawing at the door. Gigi starts barking, Kipper starts barking, Flame comes back down the stairs because he hasn’t eaten enough to throw up yet. He joins Indiana in the larder and throws up. Indiana goes out disgusted, Gigi barks at him, Kipper joins in. They all stop for five minutes and then Minou comes back down stairs and sits by Kipper’s cage sending him loopy. Gigi barks at Flame’s vomit, then eats it.

It’s now 6.20 and the weekend is off to a flyer.

Having worked most weekends for the past twenty years, you forget just how tiring they can be, precious but tiring. And in France especially there are hidden traps set for the cosy family, just in case you might be enjoying life just a little too much. French bureaucracy does, with some justification, carry with it a dark cloud of foreboding. It’s not just the tentacle like ubiquity or its vice like governance over every single aspect of life here, it’s worse than that. It’s that despite centuries of administrative layer added to administrative layer, 250 years of honing the art of pen-pushing interference it is staggeringly incompetent, ten times out of ten woefully inept. And what is actually worse than that is that they know it. And so over time another layer of bureaucracy has been developed just to cover up the Olympian levels of bungling lubberwortery. Only these people know what they’re doing. It goes without saying that Taxe d’habitation and Taxe Foncière (local taxes) will be calculated at local level and with such a lack of attention to detail and prowess as to produce figures almost as arbitrary as when I choose lottery numbers, but what these cover-up admin merchants do is really clever. All official post, that is bills, final demands, forms etc. are posted on a Friday. The recipients, us poor schmucks, then get them on a Saturday when there is no-one to complain or talk to, no-one to address your ire towards. It’s like a state sponsored bout of ginger knocking and you’re left to stew for the whole weekend, and fret about a bill that is unjustifiably out by a good few thousand euros. Also, the letter will have been sitting in an out-tray for a few weeks and will arrive 24 hours before you have to pay or face a fine. Knowing the labyrinthine process of appeal for these cases, I suspect most people just pay up, life being too short.

One such letter arrived on the Saturday morning, the Taxe Foncière. Now, I’ll admit that it was partly my fault as I had initially filled in the wrong form, but then they said they’d lost my wrong form, so I filled in the right form, wrongly, which they then added to the wrong form that I’d filled in correctly and which they had magically found. Anyway our bill was out, by our reckoning, by at least 1500€, and the surface area they had calculated our property by would have made the Palace of Versailles out to be no more than a mere garden shed. But we could do nothing about it, nothing, nothing until Monday at the earliest. It was now late morning on the Saturday and as I held the bill, shaking with frustration and staring into the rain outside, it was looking like the high point of my weekend at home was going to be cleaning up Flame’s catsick.

I am an impetuous, short-tempered and petty individual and Natalie will tell you, having read various theories on the subject by snake oil salesmen and charlatan medics, that that has contributed directly to me having chronic rheumatoid arthritis. Maybe. But the truth is I had my first stomach ulcer at the age of 16, so when it comes to storing up recrimination, frustration and impotent rage I have previous and so the Saturday was spent going round in a circular argument about how wrong the bill was. We, I mainly, though Natalie can be as dogged as I can on these occasions, simply couldn’t let it go. There was nowhere to vent apart from on each other, nowhere to go.

It was not then a happy family Moore that braved the torrential rain on the Sunday to watch Maurice and Thérence compete in a fun run. I for one saw no fun in the thing at all. If there’s one thing I miss about living in England it’s a rainy Sunday lunch spent in a pub, a roaring fire crackling in the corner, roast potatoes on the counter… yet here I was in the, admittedly, stunning grounds of the Chateau de Valençay getting soaked to the skin and trying in vain to come up with a more outrageous oxymoron than ‘Fun Run.’ The boys were competing in different races but all the kids aged 10 to 15 were lined up on the starting line together, they would both be running two kilometres and the competition looked strong. Some of these kids had come from serious running clubs and had the gear to prove it. Maurice, a gangly youth, lolloped to the starting line in a Chelsea football kit, Thérence wore a Barcelona kit and his football boots.

‘Right,’ said the starter, ‘here are the rules!’

I mean rules, in a running race?! All of a sudden my fury, my outrage at despotic, needless, pin-headed, weasel faced bureaucracy rose to the surface and I wanted to grab the pen-pushing rodent by the neck and throw him into the moat.

‘When I fire the starting pistol, you start… but…’ of course, there’s a but, ‘you must not run past my colleague on the bicycle there.’ He pointed to an old fella on a bike. ‘This is for your own safety. Do not, and I want to make this clear, overtake my colleague on the bicycle or you will be disqualified!’

The kids looked at him like he was nuts.

‘On your marks, get set, GO!’

The kids set off at a pace, unfortunately the man on the bicycle wasn’t ready and only twenty metres down the track he was gripped with panic. He wasn’t even on the bloody bicycle. He jumped on wobbling terribly and tried to get going but it was too late. All of a sudden he was engulfed by 40 odd youths who were terrified to pass him but had nowhere else to go. It was a debacle, a badly organised, over organised, car crash which summed up perfectly well my feelings about stifling red tape intrusion and utter po-faced inadequacy. It actually cheered me up, it was so Keystone Cops like, such a perfect allegory of bureaucratic nincompoopery that it almost drowned out my pride when Maurice won his age-group race by a huge distance, and Thérence, tearfully pushing himself through the pain, a lesson not lost on me, came a brilliant fifth, crying as he crossed the line, ‘it hurts too much,’ he wept, a mix of pride and agony.

It turned out to be some weekend and when we got back I cleared up some more cat vomit using the tax bill as a scoop. And to think I could be on the road nursing a hangover in a soulless Travelodge somewhere rather than this…

The ‘Monsieur So British…’ blog carries on from my two best-selling books, ‘À la Mod…’ and ‘C’est Modnifique!’ both published by Summersdale and available here. This blog will also appear as a podcast every fortnight. It’s here on itunes and it’s on spotify  and acast, if you’d like a listen. They’re only 15 minutes long…

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