The Illusive Carte Grise

The Illusive Carte Grise

I was a bit of a novelty here. Giggly, unassuming, often loud and always smiling, I think in many ways people weren’t quite certain what to make of me. Given the fact that the French tend to be very somber and morose, (complaining is the national pastime) I was very unorthodox.

With Jayne, it was different. My quirkiness amused her and our common language acted as a bridge not only to our communication but also to our shared experiences. Jayne emigrated here from Scotland in her early 20s, raised two children and put down roots. When you’ve grown up in a place, your surroundings acquire a degree of invisibility. You don’t see them as thrilling or intriguing. They just exist, merged into the background of your day-to-day life. But for me, everything was new and exciting. She relived those moments with me. Thankfully, Jayne made it her mission to help me in any way possible. Enlisting Antoine to act as my personal attaché to all things France was one of the first things on her list.

If you looked up French in the dictionary, you would very likely see a photo of Antoine in the adjacent column. He was in every sense of the word the embodiment of the culture and style that France is famous for. His French was flawless. FLAWLESS. I know what you’re thinking, ‘Well of course it was flawless, he’s French!’ But you would be incorrect in this assumption. This language is so complicated that a large portion of the population neither speaks nor writes it properly. His language skills, on the other hand, were a point of pride for him. Raised in Paris in a very traditional household, Antoine was well educated in all facets of French history and culture. You could easily drop him into mid 19th century France and he would blend in perfectly.

One of the things that I love about the French language is its lyrical rhythm. In the right hands, it is a truly beautiful language. The French speak as if they are writing poetry. For a New Yorker who is accustomed to short, direct sentences, it is quite a departure. (And a bit of a pain in the ass when you’re trying to communicate.) But it does make for an enjoyable afternoon of people watching or in my case, listening.

Antoine, at the behest of Jayne, took it upon himself to help me navigate the red-tape laden nightmare that is French bureaucracy. The Hybrid, my visa extension, health insurance… the list was never ending. But primary in his responsibilities was The Hybrid. I think Antoine saw it as a challenge. Even amongst the French, the matriculation process for The Hybrid was unfamiliar. It really required a dedication to seeing it through to the end.

Once The Hybrid arrived in France, there were a series of steps that needed to be completed. I spent an inordinate amount of time at the DREAL, an office whose specific purpose was help to matriculate foreign cars. Madame Calleux, a woman for whom a smile seemed a great effort, was in charge of my case.

Some things remain the same no matter what country you’re in and although my default setting is always to bulldoze through a problem, I have learned the hard way that this often makes things worse. I knew the process for The Hybrid would be complicated but it became obvious very quickly that this woman was holding all the keys and I would be better served if I didn’t piss her off.

During my first appointment with Madame Calleux, she explained the steps necessary to get The Hybrid to conform and ultimately receive my carte grise (registration card). What I failed to realize, was that no American car met these requirements without a number of changes. It didn’t matter how ecologically friendly The Hybrid was. American cars would not conform without some type of modification. Period.

The first step was to get Honda to fill out a 3 page technical sheet. Madame Calleux suggested I visit one of the local Honda dealerships not too far from Chartres. She made it seem like a simple process. She even suggested that I just drive over without an appointment. So obviously, this was just a formality right? (When have I ever been that lucky?)

Given past experience, I instead called over first. They instructed me to email the form to them. Everything seemed to be moving smoothly until a few days later when I went to pick up the paperwork. They refused fill it out. Understand, this was extremely technical information that I had absolutely no way of acquiring without their help. I argued for about 15 minutes but the manager wouldn’t budge. He didn’t want to be responsible for the information on that sheet of paper. I convinced him to hold on to the form while I searched for a solution.

I returned home dejected and panic stricken. There was no way I could fill out this information alone. Not only was it in French, but the units of measurement were European so even my Honda counterparts in New York would not have been able to help me.

It suddenly occurred to me that the issue rested with the required signature on the bottom of the form. I immediately called them the next morning and explained that all I needed was the specs. I would sign and therefore vouch for the information. He agreed.

I returned later that week bearing gifts in the form of pastries. Bribery is a very effective motivator. We spent over an hour filling out the information. I thanked them profusely and headed back home.

After each step I had to visit Madame Calleux. I was always super sweet and full of smiles. You could never be too careful, she might stop helping me if I pissed her off and we had developed a very nice rapport over the previous months. My suspicions were confirmed during one of my office visits. (She often kept me in her office recounting tales of her grandkids and the perils of driving on French highways.)

On this particular day, she recounted a story about a client who was trying to register his car. She described him as disrespectful and arrogant. She made it clear to me in no uncertain terms that she felt she was under no obligation to accommodate someone if they didn’t know how to be cordial. I suspect they may still be trying to get their car passed.

Every time I though I had jumped the last hurdle, there would be another in my path. This process was not for the faint of heart and I’m certain that if The Hybrid wasn’t already in France, I would have quit very early on. But The Hybrid was here so I soldiered on. After inspection number three, (No, I have no reasonable explanation as to what the hell they could have possibly been inspecting that many times) they determined that I would need to make a number of modifications to the car. They didn’t seem too complicated so I took the list over to Honda (yes, the same one) to get a sense of the cost. It was more expensive than I anticipated. A lot more. The cost of the modifications combined with the cost of the final technical inspection (yes, another one) was going to make this a somewhat expensive proposition.

At this point, I seriously considered trading in The Hybrid and just buying a used car. We walked the lot to see what was available. The cars had more miles than mine, were ridiculously expensive and weren’t Hondas…7,000 Euros for a used, no name brand with over 150k miles on it. I wasn’t thrilled. My car had less mileage and was in great condition. I would be taking my chances going this route. But the final straw came when he told me that I couldn’t trade in The Hybrid. It was too old for parts and since it didn’t have a carte grise, (registration card) the whole reason I was going through this process to begin with, I would have to scrap The Hybrid. The thought of discarding a perfectly maintained, fully functioning car didn’t sit well with me at all. So I decided to proceed.

I had the modifications made and received my appointment for the final technical inspection. Antoine was coming with me. I could see the light at the end of the tunnel.

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