I’ve been learning quite a lot recently. Since my father died a couple of years ago, I have been helping my mother to move back from France, where they lived, and to get her settled here in the UK. This has meant finding somewhere to rent here, selling the house in France and sorting out the enormous amount of administrative stuff that comes with it.
Now, my mother is not – how shall I put this – the most organised of individuals. If she wants to do something, then she’ll generally do it. But when it comes to things that she’d rather not think about, such as paying bills or doing her tax return, then she has a remarkable capacity to forget all about them.
Take this morning, for instance. My mother rang me with the news that the plumber had arrived at the house in France to fix the heating, only to find that there was no mains water. He rang my mother, who promptly rang me. I rang the water company, who informed me that the water had been cut off because my mother has not paid the bill. Fantastic.
Annoying, but easy enough to sort out. I convinced the lovely people at the water company to send me a copy of the bill, so that I can make sure that my mother pays it and that the water gets turned back on. All done and dusted. Experience tells me, though, that while this particular crisis is well on its way to being managed, it will inevitably not be long before something else crops up.
The snag, from my point of view, is two-fold. Firstly, I’m the only one in my family who speaks French, so when problems arise with things in France, I’m the one my mother calls. And secondly, I’m far too nice to say no. She is my mother, after all, and I want her to get everything sorted out, even if it is – at the current rate – likely to take decades.
It’s also a great learning experience for me. Over the last couple of years I’ve learned how to surf French bureaucracy and have developed my language skills in hitherto unexpected areas. Here are just a few examples, in broadly chronological order:
- reporting a death and getting a death certificate;
- organising a cremation and a funeral;
- writing and giving a eulogy;
- hosting a wake;
- schmoozing with the local mayor;
- getting bank and utility accounts into my mother’s name (without anything being frozen in the process, which apparently is quite an achievement);
- driving a tractor;
- liaising with the notaire (French solicitor-type person) to sort out my father’s estate;
- getting a bit shirty with the notaire because a year is not ‘fairly quickly’;
- dealing with home insurers and convincing them to maintain cover despite my father having cancelled the policy and nobody having paid the bill;
- sorting out a tax return;
- arranging a high speed international house move;
- coordinating a large number of family members in respect of a high speed international house move (spreadsheets were involved);
- getting two unruly border collies across the channel without causing an international incident (it was going so well until the lady at customs tried to stroke one of them);
- discussing with an estate agent why the house in France has not yet been sold and what we can do to make it more attractive to buyers;
- negotiating payment of local and national property taxes, when nobody was sure what taxes need to be paid, which had already been paid and to whom they needed to be paid;
- liaising with the estate agent once he had found a buyer for the house, to make sure that nothing – absolutely nothing, you hear me – gets in the way of the sale process;
- selling a tractor (this is, incidentally, far more complicated and bureaucratic than one would anticipate initially); and
- resolving a small issue around the non-payment of a water bill and disconnection of service (though you know that bit already).
I can say with some confidence that none of the French that I learned at school was of any use in any of these particular situations. The key, I found, was to be delightfully charming on the phone (i.e. don’t yell), to recognise what needed doing when, and to keep close track of a never-ending series of reference numbers.
At no stage, you will be pleased to hear, was I required to talk about my holidays, conjugate a verb or ask directions to the train station.