"What we need is a little French runabout car to keep in Menton, then we can fly to and fro from England by EasyJet and have a car at each end.""Now why didn't I think of that?"
Simple, really. Well, that's what we thought. And bits of it really are. Like buying on the internet a little left-hand drive Mercedes A140, UK registered, with remarkably few miles on the clock, perfect condition, one titled lady owner - no, sorry, ex-diplomatic registration, which is nearly as good - sitting in Paris but delivered free (!) to Menton and all for about half the price of a similar car already sitting in Menton. What's not to like?
Somehow, all the anxiety and hassle of negotiating face to face with car salesmen, the traipsing from garage to garage trying to remember the details of the last three cars you looked at but didn't quite like enough to buy, faded on the internet.
The second hand car salesman, sorry, Previously Possessed Vehicle Recycling Executive, was charm personified. Open and frank, he answered an e-mail exchange of rapid-fire questions with equal speed, so that eventually I couldn't think of a reason not to buy it.
Delivery next week - by his driver - worked like a charm. "My driver is sick, so there will be a delay," while they worked the logistics of a driver to bring the car from Paris, drop it in Menton, get the quick train along to Nice, pick up another car and drive it back to Paris, all in one continuous operation. Eventually, "Expect the car at 6 pm." Sharp at six, a phone call: "The car is outside." And there it was, smart British Racing green - just right for a couple of British ex-pats in Menton - and one slight scrape on the wing like every other French car.
So we immediately went into a major decline on the phone to the salesman in England about the totally-bashed-in wing, and the totally-empty petrol tank (which was true). He took it all in good part and agreed instantly a reduction of £150 on the price.
Of course, we eventually discovered that the nice salesman had forgotten he had agreed the reduction in price, and had taken the wrong amount on our credit card, so that set off a whole storm of zippy emails to try to put things right. Turned out the salesman was "in hospital with his father." Unspecified who, why, or what, but clearly we should be sorry for one of them. Hopefully one of them was dying. Preferably the salesman. But that's another story.
And everything was going swimmingly until we started to try to register ownership in France and applied for French Plates.
There are a lot of public offices in Menton, and each one deals with a different part of the bureaucratic jig-saw. The French, of course, know this because they are brought up dealing with it from infancy, and know instinctively which office to go to without being told. We just queued for a long time to be told that we are in the wrong office and must go to the one the other side of town, where we queued for a long time to be told that we needed the office upstairs, where we eventually discovered that we still needed to bring copies of documents that were in England. Which makes the whole process a teensy bit longwinded. About three weeks in total.
But there was one document we couldn't find. A Certificate of Conformity, or COC for short. Looked it up on Google - yes there were a number of organisations that would supply one.
For a fee of £170 we could have a new one. Of course we didn't think that a COC could be remotely the same as a EG-Übereinstimmungsbescheinigung (which was in the highly efficient Drivers Manual that came with the car) because an overall-stemming-shining-appearance document must be something to do with the correct Teutonic way of cleaning the car. So, reluctantly, we ordered a new one. You guessed it. They are one and the same. So we put that cock-up down to experience and, in some way, to the French determination to maintain the supremacy of French as the major language of the European Community. At least in France.
Eventually we got back to Menton with all the English documents. No waiting around this time, we knew exactly where to go. The nice girl gave a cursory glance at the papers and was just about to start filling in the form when she noticed the date of registration was in 2012. A 1998 car first registered in 2012? Impossible.
We explained it had been for diplomatic use and so didn't have to pay tax, and was therefore not registered until the diplomat came to sell it. And, very luckily, she then explained that if we tried to transfer it to a French registration within six months of the first registration, we would have to pay TVA on it. So why didn't we wait for a fortnight when the six months were up and register it then? Thereby saving a lot of money. Quelle bonne idée! She didn't have to be nice, so maybe we were starting to find our way around the bureaucratic nightmare. It seems that if you can get the person on the other side of the desk to crack even the faintest smile, things tend to go better. They realise that you think they are a real person.