This centennial entry was going to be a celebration of everything French. That is before I looked at my bank statement on Monday morning.
Returning bright eyed and bushy tailed from my cousin’s wedding in North Wales. Looking forward to a few glorious months in Lyon before the end of my contract. The last thing I expected was this:
L’AVIS A TIERS DETENTEUR
Don’t bother translating it – it doesn’t translate. All you need to know is that the taxman had come knocking on my lavender wood sanded door. And he was pissed off. So pissed off in fact that he was demanding all my money. And there was nothing I could do about it until I paid my Taxe D’habitation, the bank told me on Monday afternoon.
I received the bill in December but decided to blow it out. They’ll never find me, I remember saying. And even if they do, they can’t force me to do anything. I’m English God damn it!
But this was before I knew about the extraordinary powers the French tax authorities had. Namely, if you don’t pay them, they’ll take it.
My instant reaction was to close my French bank and use my UK account. Or failing that. Beat it south to Spain.
It was only after a couple of lunchtime pastis in my local bar that I realised that if I wanted to live and work in France long term, I’d have to pay.
It felt like everything I’d done here over the past two years came down to this one bill. If I refused to pay, all my efforts would have been for nought. With my bank blocked and the taxman on my back, it would be difficult to forge a legitimate life here. Easier to leave.
But I didn’t want to.
So after a few days of intense personal deliberation, I wandered wearily down to the giant public finance building on Rue Garibaldi ready to part with 460 Euros.
Inside was as stark and uninviting as any building I had ever been in. It felt like a burial ground.
I approached the desk and explained the situation in my best French.
‘Charles de Gaulle is the biggest cunt in history.’
Was what I may have well have said to the receptionist. Her face turning the colour of cement as I spoke. As though not paying tax was the worst crime possible. The guillotine the only possible sentence.
Even as I explained the mix up – I’d just received the letter – I’d moved house – I’m English – I love France. Didn’t extinguish the intense hatred she had for me.
But she had a job to do. So after an age of punching my details into an ancient computer, she gave me a ticket and waved me over to sit where all the other villains were. The rapid, almost despotic movement of her arm, clearly demonstrating that she wanted to see me dead. Dying in agony in a pool of my own blood. Strangulated by my own intestinal cord. A traitor to the Republic.
As I waited the anger welled up. I wanted to leave. Leave France. Fuck the baguette munching bastards. I had come here to pay. Not be insulted. I had the cash in my pocket. I didn’t want any special treatment. I certainly didn’t expect any smiles. God forbid. I just wanted to pay and leave. But the contempt shown to me for ‘misplacing a few forms’ was staggering.
It felt like it would be a hell of a lot easier for me to leave and head for Spain than to stay here and pay. What was in it for me?
The markets. The flowers. The fresh herbs that have made my cooking so good. The scenery. The cheese. The wine that’s better than anywhere. The white slopes in winter. The lavender fields in summer. The history. David Beckham.
So I waited.
‘Let’s just get this over with,’ I said to the teller when I was finally called up. ‘Then we can all go for a drink and get on with our lives.’
He didn’t understand because he didn’t have one.
I passed him the money. I was surprised. I was smiling. He counted it cautiously and then passed me a receipt and the unblocking letter I needed for the Bank of France.
‘Thanks for letting me stay,’ I said in English as I folded up the letter.
He frowned. ‘Je ne comprends pas.’
‘It doesn’t matter,’ I said. ‘C’est pas grave. C’était une blague. A joke.’
I walked out of the building and into the sun. I was free. Free to remain in France for another year at least. Vive La France.