Back in the UK, only once in my adult life did I strike up any sort of relationship with my local council. The experience was mutually unsatisfactory, centring as it did on primary school admissions, but it least it increased the scope of our interactions, which had until that point been confined to voting, my payment of council tax, and their collection of my rubbish. I believe this to have been fairly standard: in the UK unless your financial situation is extremely precarious, your local council will have only a minimal visible role to play in your life.
If we gave any thought at all to our local mairie upon arrival in France, it was thus in relation to the known quantities of rubbish and schools. Neither of these issues posing any problems, we promptly forgot that it was there except for a brief interlude—detailed in Beer goggles—during which we hoped that Monsieur le Maire might provide us with a glass of champagne, but were duly disillusioned.
During our first summer in France we had a string of visitors who, as we ferried them into our village from various excursions, commented admiringly about the electronic noticeboard that was situated on the roadside. How marvellous, they remarked, to have such an active mairie and so much going on in the local community. It must be incredibly useful to have all that information displayed so accessibly, they raved. Yes, we muttered, moderately ashamed that it had not occurred to us to avail ourselves of any of the services or animations advertised in lights on the board.
Still: old habits die hard. We had busy lives to lead, boulangeries to haunt, and, besides, who wanted to risk having to stand through another interminable, virtually tee-total reception?
It was after an entire year had passed, and a second invitation to the ceremony of New Year’s vœux had been set aside, that the error of our ways finally dawned upon me. I had taken a ride in a friend’s car, and she had pulled over at the local commerces to buy an éclair au chocolat, or possibly an escargot: I don’t remember precisely, but, oh well, peu importe. She pulled into a space marked out in blue. I considered this to be somewhat reckless: blue spaces are for permit holders only, and in Collonges au Mont d’Or there is an agent of the police municipale who seems to be employed exclusively for the purpose of catching non-permit holders parked in places where they have no right to be. Just as I was about to start hyperventilating about this instance of French disregard for the rules, however, my friend produced a blue disk, which she plopped onto her dashboard, having first adjusted the cardboard clock on its surface to reflect the time of our arrival.
Recognising a parking permit when I saw one, I racked my brain for any conceivable public office that my friend might have held to merit one. Finding none, I finally spluttered out my question: mais où l’as-tu obtenu ? Quoi ? she asked, perplexed, then, indicating the permit with what I considered to be an unhealthy degree of contempt: ça ? Oui, ton permis, I said. At this point, my friend burst into peals of laughter. Mais à la mairie, she responded, shaking her head at my obtuseness.
Once her mirth had subsided, it transpired that all residents of Collonges au Mont d’Or had a perfect right to stride into the mairie and demand a resident’s parking permit at any moment (except during lunch breaks and extended holiday periods, of course). But the very notion of my doing so was utterly absurd, because, évidemment, we would have been given one when we first arrived and presented ourselves at the mairie… In response to my dawning look of horror, my friend gasped. Mais vous ne l’avez jamais fait, c’est ça ? she asked, incredulously.
Of course we had not presented ourselves at the mairie, for goodness’ sake! Can you imagine ever turning up in, say, Chipping Norton, and presenting yourself in the local council offices? The very notion is absurd, and profoundly embarrassing. As arrivals fresh from London, nothing, but nothing, would have compelled us to march into the municipal offices and introduce ourselves. And yet, apparently, here in France, it was the done thing.
We felt the damage in Collonges au Mont d’Or to be irreparable, so it was with great joy that, when we moved into St Cyr au Mont d’Or earlier this year, my husband and I took a moment to stroll down into the village and present ourselves in the mairie. I had initially hidden behind Eadred the Bald’s back, for fear of mockery, but the official on the front desk was most kind and not in the least taken aback by our appearance. We were presented with the inevitable dossier, and left. On rifling through it back home we were overjoyed to note that it contained not just one, but two, parking permits.
Once we had become pillars of the local community, we could not stop. We were invited by that first kindly official to a réception for all new arrivals to the commune, which we attended last weekend. It was hot, and there were long speeches, but it was useful, and there was an apéritif, which included saucisson brioché (sophisticated for sausage roll) and wine. Afterwards there was a forum des associations, an annual event in which all the local societies and interest groups present their activities and allow you to enrol. Our enthusiasm for local events has reached such a pitch that the children are getting bored of listening to my frequent exclamations over the marvels presented on the electronic noticeboard.
For such a centralising bureaucracy, local life in France isn’t half flourishing.