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Red tape – blue shutters | c’est la vie in France

Every country has red tape. That’s the price of modern living. In the U.S., it’s the Department of Motor Vehicles, in the U.K., it’s the National Health Service. In France, it’s…well, France.

We’ve got friends who’ve spent their adult lives in the Foreign Service.  They’ve been posted from Africa to Asia.  Their least-favorite billeting: Paris.

We ask why.  Their answer: red tape.

“We had a hole in the wall,” they explain. “It took three months to fix. One month to get it patched. Another to get it sanded. Another to get it painted.”

We suggest wall sconces. They don’t laugh. But they reiterate, no more France.

We’ve got other friends, Bob and Peggy. They’ve spent six months in France,  from Brittany to Cote D’Azur. They want to buy a house here. They’re figuring out where.

Our advice is go for it,  be patient, bring spackle.

Even a chainsaw couldn’t cut through the red tape

France is frustrating. So what? So was Michaelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. But that turned out alright, didn’t it? So, we tell people to give France a break. You want convenience, call Amazon. You want beauty, style, history – and maybe one of those apricot tartes with the buttery crust, crème anglaise filling and candied berries on top – it’s France.

We bought there three years ago. We have seen red tape. But we rationalize it. The French don’t mean to be bureaucratic, they’re just born that way. Wait…now that I think about it, I take back what I said. They do mean it. Every bit of it.

Take our car, for instance. We bought it second-hand, sight unseen. It took nine months to register. They wanted the serial number. Then the carburetor dimensions. Then the average rainfall total in the Amazon Basin. And they wonder why bikes are so popular.

Then came the trees.

We have a one-acre hillside over the Dordogne River. We once saw the river. But the trees grew up. Now it’s a rumor. Our friend Jean-Paul said cut them down. Our friend Jonathan volunteered a chainsaw. But we demurred. There are rules for everything in France. One of them protects trees. So we went to La Mairie.

La Mairie is the town hall, the seat of power. Every village has one. It has three functions:

  • Interpret local laws;
  • Enforce them;
  • Be unable to explain them in English.

We went to La Mairie four times. Each time we asked permission to cut trees. Here’s how we interpreted their responses: 1) you can cut the tops; 2)  you can cut the bottoms, if they’re on your land; 3) to be safe, just cut the middles; 4) try the Amazon Basin, they don’t regulate trees.

We cut four trees but left standing three others of questionable provenance. The penalties for cutting red tape with a chainsaw are severe. So we still can’t see the river.

There are laws about painting shutters in France

Now it’s time to paint.

Our house is surrounded by wood shutters. They’re painted a dispiriting brown. Which is odd because every other shutter in France is blue. Not sure why. Thinking the hardware store had a sale. But for Franco-American relations, we want blue shutters, too.

First, of course, we need permission from La Mairie. They have an approved color palette. We got it. We pointed to the blue paint chip. “Bon,” they said.  “No, blue,” I said. It went on like that till they gave up and nodded permission.

Then came the kicker – a 15-page form requesting authorization to paint our shutters the official French blue. “It took less paperwork than that to build Mont-Saint-Michel,” I said in stammering French. “That’s true, they said. “But they didn’t ask for blue.”

We’ve been to the Musee d l’Orangerie in Paris. We’ve seen Monet’s Water Lilies. They’re breathtaking. In 1966, they were bequeathed to France. We now understand why.

Monet’s Giverny is a beautifully simple home in a spectacular setting. Monet’s shutters are vibrant green. Not sure how he got the OK from La Mairie to forego blue. But in gratitude, his heirs gave away the most famous paintings in the world.

If I could paint, I’d do the same thing. And like Monet, I’d forego the blue.

Mike Zampa is a media relations consultant and former newspaper editor and columnist who, along with his wife, splits time between the Dordogne Valley and San Francisco Bay Area.

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