Oh Interfering Life!

William Golding, the renowned British novelist, poet, Booker Prize winner and Nobel laureate, once wrote:

“Novelists do not write as birds sing, by the push of nature. It is part of the job that there should be much routine and some daily stuff on the level of carpentry.”

I’m learning this the hard way, having come through a period when routine all but vanished in my life. Instead of sitting at a desk as soon as I woke, I found myself fielding calls, traipsing to shops, and generally dealing with crises.

The reason? My partner bought a house in France a few months ago and I set about managing its renovation remotely, little appreciating what a mammoth task this would be in the land of foie gras and insane bureaucracy. (The wonderful picture below is taken from another blog, that of an American who has lived in France for many years, Anne Stark Ditmeyer.) pretavoyager-francebureaucracy

Let us take as an example the hiring of skips. Only in France could the humble skip, that unadorned metal crate into which junk is placed, tell a story. In practical countries like the UK, you don’t need permission to have a skip unless you wish to place it on a public road, or in a spot which obstructs someone else’s path.

Which makes sense, right? Not in France.

This straight-forward Anglo-Saxon approach would be too simple for a people who revel in creating complexity where none should exist. To have a skip parked on your private driveway – where it inconveniences no one but you – you need the local mayor’s permission. Not only that, but you have to notify him or her in writing via a letter which you must sign. In that same missive, you are expected to give precise details of why you need a skip, which company will provide it, as well as the dates and hours it will remain on your driveway. Such detail obviously satisfies the Gallic obsession with minutiae. Moreover, before permission for a skip can be granted, the local policeman must question you – ostensibly so that he can verbally clarify what you have already told him in your long letter of explanation. I can only assume that the policeman is undertaking due diligence at the same time, assessing whether or not you are a person who could be trusted with a skip. After the policeman talks to you, he issues an arrêté, a decree which announces to the world exactly when you will be blocking your own garage! This worthy paper is autographed by no less a personage than the local mayor.

Thus, what should be a simple commercial transaction between two parties, namely you and the skip operator, turns into a convoluted chain involving five and more people: skip operator, local policeman, every worker in the mayor’s office, the mayor himself and you, the poor person looking for a skip. Yet, such administrative zeal brings no benefit to anyone. Decrees flutter in the French wind, desperately trying to attract the attention of the passers-by who willfully ignore them.

Now imagine the same complications extending to every aspect of a house renovation and you will understand why my routine was decimated, despite having an excellent project manager on-site. The unexpected invariably happened, which led to new problems, which resulted in yet more decisions…and so the loop went. During the days, I was interrupted whenever I tried to work, and during the nights, I couldn’t dream – except about tiles and wood and the bloody-minded French. The result was that I no longer rose with fully-formed sentences of fiction, but began waking up having conversations in my head with the many people I wanted to shout at.

Not that I wrote nothing. In the brief moments I could snatch, I completed a short story that had been on the back burner, wrote the first draft of a second, and finished two entirely new pieces of flash fiction. One of these was actually long-listed in The National Flash Fiction Day 2013 Micro Fiction competition, the first flash fiction competition I ever entered. But I couldn’t write anything very long.

Thankfully, my period of turbulence is about to end. I will soon have a regulated life back, a life in which I know when I will rise, when I will eat, when I will trade and when I will write. At that point I shall finally breathe. I can then collate the many tales I’ve picked up, a whole new genre I had never planned. The stories are sure to feature decreed skips and broken bathtubs and men called Jean-Marie. I can hardly wait.

8 Comments

Filed under Writing

8 responses to “Oh Interfering Life!

  1. Sheema

    I sympathise with your Gallic tribulations. I’m currently embroiled in the process of applying to do my PhD in France. Quelle headache! The application form and all supporting documents/info are in French (my proficiency isn’t advanced enough to understand all the terms). They ask for information like my spouse’s name, did I ever stop studying, if so when and for how long. And they even want to know what my parents’ professions are!!! (Umm, my father is DEAD. No numeric code for that, it seems.) Not only that, they don’t recognise my UK Masters degree because it was only a 1-year course (as is the standard under the UK education system). So I have to apply for something called “equivalence” in order to be considered. If I do ever get accepted, guess I’ll be in for one big adventure!

  2. You partner feels bad about it…. poor you! But what a material for a book on France!

  3. frieda fuchs

    Well, you can always drown your sorrows with a glass of good red wine, eat a pastry, with your copine, and think of what General de Gaulle once said about his country: that its hard to create order in a country with over 400 varieties of cheese.

    • Order isn’t the issue; common sense and initiative though, are. And yes the wine is good, though pastries are tricky as I don’t take dairy. I have been asked in France whether my dairy prohibition includes butter, cream and cheese! I must leave the answer for another blog-post.

  4. Dominic Roberts

    A beautifully written piece and I empathise. Why don’t you get it published in a local, or National magazine/paper, or will the bureaucracy overcome you! You will probably need the presidents signature for that! Keep writing, it’s a joy to read and the sentences flow.

    • Thank you, glad you enjoyed, though publication may once again involve the local mayor, the policeman, and everyone in the mayor’s office!

  5. dennis

    never quite understood france, though during my stay in UK (my final year law degree) from 1993-94, two french beauties were my close companions (ok the other was from geneva in switzerland).

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