No doubt you’ve heard the horror stories about French paperwork, red tape, never-ending trails of translated copies and surly staff you must apologize to for taking their time.You’ve heard all this right?
Seems there’s no end to complaining and sometimes it’s warranted, even necessary.
But this is a story of my helpful mairie and its staff. A tale of kindness to counter balance all the tales of woe.
I’ve become acquainted with my mairie (town hall) since registering the Big Kids in school. It was back in May when I understood very little and could speak even less of their language. So with serious reservations and a nervous stomach I braved the mairie because the alternative was keeping the Big Kids home with me for more home school torture. The mairie was the lesser of two evils.
I guess I should explain that in France there isn’t a school secretary like we have in American schools. All of the paperwork related to school–registration, attendance and payment for lunches is done by the secretaries at the mayor’s office. Turns out these ladies are really nice and helpful. Back in May we got to know each other the way you do when trying to piece together words of understanding to complete a task while three kids wiggle and argue nearby. Now when I go in to pay for lunches it’s nice to see them. They even complement me on the improvement of my French…there was only one way to go so that’s not saying much. Just shows how nice they are.
So when Mon Mari told me we had to go there to renew our carte de sejour I was not worried. I was relieved. I’d thought we’d have to go into Montpellier and wait in line at the dreaded Prefecture known to me only through mythical tales of shuffling feet, blank stares, stagnant lines and crazy-making incompetence.
With a spring in my step, happy to show off my French village friends and excellent communication skills to Mon Mari, we went. Across the hall from the school secretaries sit the town secretaries. How lovely to get to meet new people in my happy little village. ‘To mairie, to mairie, we go!’, thought I.
Except we're the only Americans, foreigners for that matter, who have ever lived here. And we're the only ones who've ever been given the fancy pants Paris law firm 'skip-past-the-Prefecture-pass' and presented it at our local mairie. Luckily, we presented it to Mme. Gentille.
We began our explanation of what we needed done, handing over our blue folder of official documents in explanation. She kindly accepted them and tried to make sense of our request. When she hit a glitch she was not ruffled. Not in the least. She asked permission to ring fancy pants Parisienne lawyer. Of course, ring away.
Mme. Gentille asked fancy pants Parisienne lawyer some questions and admitted she'd no idea of these fancy pants ways but she'd be happy to oblige. We strange smiling Americans are her villagers now.
What happened next was the really remarkable thing. Mme. Gentille spent the next 20+ minutes patiently speaking doucement, doucement so I could understand, looking through all of our paperwork and calling people to ask for help when she got stuck. She could not have been nicer and went as far as filling out the carte de sejour form to be sent to the Prefecture on our behalf. She asked our full names, birthdates, childrens' information and I answered as she wrote the facts of our lives down in her neat French handwriting.
She could have so very easily sent us packing to the big bad city. Yet she took the time and helped us. Not only did she help us but she did it with warmth and kindness and clever efficiency. And in the end she complimented me on my French. The cherry on the top.
We left her in a flurry of mercis and je vous remercies and bonne journees; the Littlest shouting out his new 'au revoir, merci!'
Thank you, thank you Mme. Gentille. You made our day. And saved us from the yawning void of the Prefecture.