In the course of our everyday life officialdom frequently places in our path a host of petty rules and regulations which, as my Frenchie frequently observes, you Anglo-Saxons resignedly accept as insurmountable hurdles. You just don’t seem to realize it only takes a modicum of resourceful and audacity – the very essence of the Système D – to reduce them to mere stiles to be hopped over with ease. Nothing illustrates this better than that masterpiece of bold inventiveness my French part is especially proud of, which got us round a little snag we had with the la Poste, the Post Office, last year. I’ll leave it to him to relate.
The other Saturday morning, on getting back home from our weekly shopping, we found reposing in our letterbox an official post office form, duly completed by the postman, informing us that he’d called at precisely 10.50 a.m. with a lettre recommendée avec accusé de reception, a registered letter whose receipt had to be acknowledged by the signature of the recipient. However, in view of our absence, post office rules and regulations had obliged him to take it back to the main post office where it would be available for collection the following Monday morning from eight o’clock onwards (the main post office in the town where we live closes for the weekend at noon on Saturdays). Now past experience has taught us that this sort of missive, often arising from official sources, can, like tap water in foreign climes, be the prelude to a messy business. Being a born worrier, our English half began to fret so much about what it could contain that this threatened to spoil our weekend.
‘Well, we’re going to have to wait until Monday morning to know what it’s all about!’ he muttered with resignation.
‘Pas du tout, mon pauvre!’ I retorted. ‘Leave it to me. On va se débrouiller!’ It didn’t take me long to concoct a way of getting round all this. Here’s what I did:
Picking up the phone, I called the main post office and asked to speak to Monsieur le Receveur, the Post Office Manager. Once I’d been put through I began by politely explaining that I had in my hand a post office form which the postman had deposited in our letterbox, informing us that he’d called at precisely 10.50 a.m. that morning with a registered letter which, in view of our absence, he’d been obliged to take back to the post office.
Monsieur le Receveur replied – not, I noted, without a trace of irritation – that he didn’t really understand why I was calling, as it was certainly indicated on the post office form that the registered letter would be available for collection on Monday from 8 o’clock onwards.
‘In addition,’ he added, ‘the postman was simply following post office rules and regulations.’
‘Do post office rules and regulations stipulate,’ I asked, ‘that before taking the registered letter back to the post office, the postman should first use all reasonable means to ascertain whether the addressee is, in fact, at home?’
Monsieur le Receveur confirmed that official post office rules and regulations did, in fact, require the postman to first use all reasonable means to ascertain whether or not the addressee was, in fact, at home.
‘And does using all reasonable means include ringing the doorbell or applying knuckles to the door?’ I then enquired.
‘En effet,’ Monsieur le Receveur replied, ‘official post office rules and regulations are to be interpreted in that sense.’
‘And is it your honest opinion we can be absolutely sure the postman acted in full accordance with post office rules and régulations?’ I continued.
‘Since all postmen have received strict instructions in this respect, monsieur, I have no reason to believe that he did not act in full accordance with post office rules and regulations.’
‘But don’t you think that, since I’ve not put a foot out all morning, some doubt might be cast on whether the postman really acted in full accordance with post office rules and regulations?’
‘Might I be justified in thinking,’ the post office manager retorted, ‘that when the postman rang the doorbell, you were engaged in some form of sonorous household activity – vacuum cleaning, for instance – which prevented you from hearing him? But whatever the case may be, you’ll only have to wait until eight o’clock on Monday morning,’ he went on, ‘so I don’t really see where the problem is. And since I’m a busy man, would you please forgive me for abridging this conver…’
‘On the contrary,’ I interrupted (and here I showed all my inborn inventive genius), ‘there is a very real problem. You see, I was expecting this registered letter. It contains vital information, determining whether or not I take the six o’clock T.G.V., the High Speed Train, on Monday morning for an important nine o’clock business meeting in Paris. And since I’ve spent all morning quietly reading the newspaper, the only explanation for me not now being in possession of the letter in question would seem to be due to the fact that the postman, for reasons known only to him, did not act in accordance with post office rules and regulations.’ I paused for a moment to let my words sink in.
‘But, whatever the cause may be,’ I continued, ‘there’s absolutely no question of me letting the matter rest here. If I don’t obtain satisfaction, I’m going to lodge an official complaint. So what do you suggest we do about it?’
After a long and heavy silence, it was, I must confess, with some relief that I heard him pronounce those magic words I was waiting to hear:
‘Bon. Exceptionnellement, on va se débrouiller! Voici ce qu’on va faire.’
He then proposed the very solution I had in mind. Though, normally, it would have been out of the question, in view of these exceptional circumstances, he was prepared to bend the rule. Since it was now going on for midday and the post office would be closing shortly, if we presented ourself at his private flat located to the rear of the building, and identified ourself by giving three sharp raps on the door, he would personally remit the letter to us. This, of course, we did. Everything went without a hitch, the contents of the registered letter weren’t half as bad as our Englishman had thought, and we had an excellent weekend. C’est ça, le Système D. En France, on se débrouille!