Step by step

Many of the friends I have made since moving to France have the good fortune not to work. Despite this, when I see them, they are usually a bit speed, and sometimes quite stressée. Don’t get me wrong: I number amongst those who find doing the laundry and providing delightfully home-cooked meals to suit the tastes of every member of the family more wearing than working full time, but nonetheless, initially I experienced a certain degree of bafflement about this phenomenon.

The reasons why my friends are stressée are diverse, but invariably involve démarches somewhere along the way. Literally translated, a démarche is a step in a process: if you are faire-ing your démarches you are carrying out the necessary steps to achieve whatever it is that you want to achieve.

In the UK, there are some situations which involve a series of stressful démarches: take buying a house for example, or filling out the 80-page application form for permanent residency. Mostly, however, life’s little administrative processes are tedious rather than taxing. The prospect of buying a new Oyster card, registering for a TV licence, or paying my council tax hardly fills me with enthusiasm, but a simple click of a button, a phone call, or one irritating queue later, and it’s done. None of this would provide any justification for pleading burn-out to one’s friends at the school gate.

Before moving to France, I had heard that administration was more burdensome here. In my ignorance, however, I had assumed that the difficulties were exaggerated and that a bit of grit and determination would see us over any hurdles placed in our way. Even having undergone the tortuous processes necessary to register a car in our name, obtain our social security numbers, and sign a rental agreement, I continued to labour under the impression that the complexity of these démarches were merely a symptom of our recent arrival in France and that, once we had got ourselves established, we could wave goodbye to the hassle.

It was a routine appointment with the doctor that finally shattered my illusions. The Curly One had been showing symptoms of a mild urinary infection so, after having tried all the usual remedies, eventually I took her to visit the GP, where it was announced that a urine sample was required.

In the UK, under such circumstances the patient would be given a little plastic tube and told to remove themselves to the toilet to produce a sample. The doctor would then either dipstick it on the spot, or send it off for laboratory testing. In the latter case, the lab would contact both you and the doctor with the results once they were ready, and you could make a further appointment if necessary. Not so much a series of démarches, then, as a slightly undignified but mercifully brief and totally free interaction.

Back in France, I was given a prescription for a urine test. Noting my confusion, the GP explained that I was to take this to the nearest laboratoire, where the test would be carried out. Consultation ended, I was asked for my Carte Vitale and paid the 23€ fee that would later be reimbursed by the State and our health insurer, but for the moment came out of our bank account.

The next step was finding our nearest laboratoire, which was a bit tricky as not all such establishments have an internet presence. Fortunately any French person worth their sel has their neck tested for chills regularly enough that they have this sort of information at their fingertips, and a friend was able to come to my rescue. Not wanting to get anything wrong, I telephoned ahead, and was glad I had done so, for not only did the laboratoire have distinctly French opening (or should I say closing) hours, but my enquiry about whether or not they provided a pot to piss in was met with barely suppressed horror. Non, Madame, I was told: if I did not ‘ave one at ‘ome, the pharmacie could provide me with a flacon.

Thus I set out for the pharmacie, which did indeed provide me with the necessary receptacle. Back home I then persuaded my seven-year-old to wee into a jar. In all fairness, this part of the process would have been no easier in the UK than it was in France, so I shall spare you the details.

Urine duly extracted, I followed the strict instructions to rush the sample into the laboratoire tout de suite. I was asked for the prescription and my Carte Vitale, which I produced, but also for an attestation from my mutuelle, which I did not. Having failed this particular test of which random pieces of paper to take with you to any particular place, I had to pay 9€, and was issued with a facture, which I could later use to request a refund from my insurer (in writing of course, and probably in triplicate). I was then given a little card and told to come back 48 hours’ later for the results. After that I would have to make a further appointment with the GP, taking the results with me for her to analyse.

As it happens, when I turned up to collect the results, I was told, rather sternly, that the Curly One had not followed ze instructions for weeing in ze pot correctly, and that there was a risk of sample contamination. I would therefore need to go back to my doctor so that the whole process could begin again. Because I am a cruel and profoundly lazy parent, I decided that I did not want to know about the bacteria in my daughter’s urine enough to face a second instalment of the five-trip, three-fee process, and would opt for swilling water down her throat instead.


Apologies for a more prolonged absence than usual from my blog. I was busy with my démarches …