I can’t claim to be documenting the idiosyncrasies of life in France without mentioning the Mairie.
Familiar to anyone who has studied French at school, the Mairie is the grand building in the centre of any town or village, flying the tricolore and sporting a bust of Marianne with the words liberté, égalité, fraternité.
We were told at school at the Mairie is the town hall. But actually isn't really. It is the hub of the community.
France is divided into départements, of which there are 92 on the mainland. These break down into pays which are a collection of communes. And it is to the commune that the Mairie belongs.
When we arrived, we reported to the Mairie as we had been advised to do, and found ourselves greeted like long lost friends and ushered into the office of Madame le Maire herself. We chatted a bit, answering her questions about our livelihoods, our past, our intentions. It was like an interview with the headmistress.
It was several months later when we realised how central the Mairie is to the life of the commune. One of our dogs had gone missing, off on an adventure in the woods behind our house. We searched, put up notices and went to the vet’s to see if anyone had reported finding her. Finally, when all hope was nearly lost, we went to the Mairie with a photo for the weekly bulletin and were met with joyous exclamations. She had been found, probably no more than an hour after she slipped her lead, by one of the Mairie’s handymen and had been accompanying him all week.
In case of any query, concern or anxiety, the Mairie is where you turn. So much more than a font of information, the Mairie is where you will register your births, deaths and marriages; it’s where your boundary dispute will be discussed; your application for photovoltaic panels be turned down on grounds of not fitting in with the local architecture. It is where you will turn when you want to arrange a knees up in a local salle, or to accommodate your association’s weekly meetings. It is the hub of gossip and the breeding ground for entente cordiale with your fellow members of the commune.
Where the British town hall is aloof and formal, the Mairie is welcoming and friendly, enshrining at least one of the three tenets of the French constitution - fraternité.