We must have, unwittingly, offended the gods, and believe me, they are taking particular pleasure in spinning out their revenge. 

It has been three months since I started the process of importing the Ultimate Overlanding Vehicle from Italy into France, and the end is not in sight. In true Sisyphean style, every time we think we are nearly there, something goes wrong and we find ourselves right back at the bottom of an uphill struggle. 

In the French Alps, with temporary plates.

The ultimate overlanding vehicle is a Toyota Land Cruiser HZJ78, a troop carrier affectionately known internationally as Troopy, converted into a camper. Built to last, with practically no electronics and with front and rear diff lock, this is a go-anywhere, survive-anything car that can no longer be imported into the EU from anywhere else because of non-compliance with emission standards, although it is still produced (in slightly updated versions) in South-Africa and Australia, where it continues to be a favourite among farmers in remote areas and 4×4 enthousiasts.

Charlotte found a rare one for sale in Italy in July, and after going there in a rental car a couple of times, we reached an agreement with the seller. Part of the agreement was: we have things to do first, we’ll buy the car in one or two months’s time. As I approached the Mediterranean during my hike, in early September, I contacted a company that would take care of the initial paperwork and arrange to have the car transported from Italy into France. Italian law does not allow a car to be exported by driving it across the border, it has to be transported by truck and signed for upon receipt. Only then can the Italian registration be cancelled.

We have been staying in the appartment in the French Alps of which Charlotte is part-owner. I thought we would be travelling with the Cruiser by October. It is now December; the leaves on the trees have not only turned, they have fallen and been buried under the early winter snow. Of the many bird species we spotted in summer, most have gone south. Among the few that remain are the ‘choucas’, alpine crows, which are mainly found higher up in summer but come down into the valley in winter to seek the presence of humans who leave out bread crumbs for them. Winter has come and is here to stay, the days and nights are cold, the sun no longer melts away the snow that has fallen. The first tourists have arrived. Shops that had closed during the off-season begin to open. Dog shit, not seen for months, reappears on the sidewalks.

For several reasons, there was some delay in having the car transported. We received it on the 3rd of October. The company had obtained temporary registration, valid for one month, so after getting licence plates and insurance, we could drive and prepare to get permanent registration. Travelling by October was no longer feasible, but surely we would be on our way by November.

To get permanent registration, about eight documents were required, and for most of those, obtaining them required additional documents and additional procedures. According to the government website, we would have one month to get all the documents.

That was not going to be easy. For instance, there were residence issues. Officially, owning property was sufficient proof, but in France, the generally accepted proof consists of a recent electricity bill in the applicant’s name. It so happened that the electricity bills were still in Charlotte’s father’s name, although he had passed away two years earlier, because changing the name on the electricity bills had proved to be challenging.

Next, although the car had first been registered in Germany and then in Italy, proof needed to be produced that it is in compliance with European standards. It should have had a Certificate of Conformity, but for some reason, that did not exist for this car. Other possibility: an attestation of conformity, proof that this particular car is identical to a type previously admitted into France. I sent the required documents to Toyota France, which deals with conformity issues concerning Toyota cars. 

In order to get Toyota to issue anything, we were asked to send personal cheques for payment, no bank transfer or online payment could be accepted. We did not have personal cheques. We bought postal cheques instead, but they were returned: not acceptable. In the end, we found someone who could write cheques for us.

Also, the copy of the Italian registration that we sent was, apparently, not clearly legible. Could we send better copies? The seller still had the Italian registration papers, so to get better copies, we had to contact him and he was away on business. Time was lost. Later, it would become obvious that the registration papers, through repeated use, were barely legible themselves.

Toyota France eventually sent me an attestation of partial conformity after three weeks. The tyres were wider than standard. Remember how our temporary registration was valid for one month? Pressure was beginning to build.

Because the sous-préfecture where we would have to apply for the permanent car registration also only accepted cheques, and for other reasons, we decided to open a French bank account and apply for cheques.

I had had a French bank account in the past, opening it had been easy. But in the meantime, European rules had come into effect that were, apparently, so complicated that bank staff were not sure what to apply. At one bank we were told that I would have to produce evidence that I live in the Netherlands, while at another, proof of paying tax in France was needed. I could provide neither. So no French bank account, and no cheques.

At the same time, we needed to get a statement from the tax department that no VAT was due on this car. For that, we had to produce a host of documents, including proof of sale and the original Italian registration. That needed to be done within two weeks after buying the car. Only, two weeks after receiving the car, I still did not have the Italian registration. So I went to the tax office and explained my predicament. The official across the table shrugged. In any case, one of the documents I had brought could not be accepted. But it was one of the required documents, according to the government website! No no no, he was not going to be held accountable for errors on the government website. Come back when you have the necessary documents. Stress…

By the time we thought we had everything that we needed to apply for permanent registration, we went to the sous-préfecture in Thonon and were attended to by a very helpful young lady, who… suddenly realised we only had an attestation of partial conformity! She gave us a number to call, she wasn’t sure how this worked, but these people were going to make everything right.

‘These people’ sent me instructions for getting a car approved that had not received full conformity. In order to even make an appointment, ten documents had to be supplied, including a multi-page list of specifications and a weighing report of the car, empty – did that mean without the kitchenette, without the beds, the cupboards, the water tank?

This was rock bottom. Instead of moving towards our goal, with every step, we were moving further away from it. At this stage, I wanted very much to push our ultimate overlander vehicle off a cliff and walk away. It did not seem that this was going to work.

I sent Toyota an e-mail, basically saying: only the tyres are non-standard. If I change those, can I get an attestation of conformity? They replied, yes, you can.

That should have been simple. But wait. The original tyres were not easy to find. A tyre centre could order them, but they were not sure if they could get the corresponding rims. The local Toyota dealer could order those for us. Fine, let’s do that. Then, the tyres did not arrive. It turned out the transport company had loaded them onto the wrong truck, they had probably gone off to a different part of France, but nobody knew exactly where they were. I cancelled the order and asked the local Toyota dealer to order them, instead. Soon after that, the tyre center called to tell me that the tyres had been delivered at a different branch nearby. Did I still want them? I said thanks, but no thanks. Then Toyota had problems: the rims made inner tubes necessary, and the ones they had ordered turned out not to fit. Of course, they would do their best to find the right ones. I was ready, by now, to throw myself off a cliff.

Our one-month temporary registration was about to expire. It turned out that a one-time, one-month extension was possible. We went back to the sous-préfecture in Thonon to apply for that and were attended to by the same helpful young lady who said sorry, I am only a temp worker, the only person who has the authority to sign this off is on holiday. We hurried to the sous-préfecure in Bonneville, a good hour’s drive away, and arrived there just in time to renew the temporary registration. We could continue to drive for another month.

But you know what? It took three weeks before the ‘correct’ tyres were mounted. We sent Toyota France photos of the car with the tyres and the bill for the wheels and the tyres straight away. Four weeks (four weeks!!!) have passed since then. One week ago, they phoned us to say that yes, as far as they are concerned, the car now complies with the requirements and they would send us the attestation de conformité. Of course, it will take some time to arrive, say five or six days.

Our temporary registration has expired. Still, with the last required document arriving any time now, you would think that we have reason to relax because we can finally apply for the permanent registration. But nooo…. that was still not all. 

Shortly after we had renewed our temporary registration at the sous-préfecture in Bonneville,  the préfectures were basically closed to the public. All administrative procedures could and can, from then on, only be done online, ‘for your convenience’. Sure, fine. 

I had a look at the website where this is done. In order to apply for anything, I had to first create an account. Before being able to open an account to register an imported car, my identity first needed to be confirmed by FranceConnect, a go-between for citizen-government interaction. In order to log into that I needed an existing account at the revenue services, the social security services, the Orange phone company or the postal services. Only the latter was accessible to me.

So I set up an account at la Poste. My personal details had to be verified by the mail lady, but on the day of our appointment, she drove past without stopping. I made a few phone calls, there had been a computer problem, very sorry.

My personal details were later verified and confirmed as such on la Poste’s website, but I could still not log into FranceConnect because, apparently, not all the necessary data to ‘confirm my identity’ were passed on. It appeared that my place of birth was not known. I had no way of correcting that. So I sent out e-mails to help desks but received no reply. I called the sous-préfecture to see if they could, exceptionally, process my registration request, but got only an answering machine that told me to send questions by e-mail. I did that and received an automated reply which said that all procedures are now done online and e-mailed questions would no longer be answered.

Finally, with the help of a local la Poste representative, my data were corrected, and still… I cannot log into FranceConnect. I have been told, this time, to wait for an activation e-mail. Apparently, that can take several days. Does it take time for the link to be set up? Is there still a human in there somewhere, who has to approve of me accessing The System?

This is where we are at now. It is impossible, as it has been all along, to know whether we are on a wild goose chase or whether all wiĺl be right. All of this has had, and still has, unmistakeable kafkaesque overtones.

I am at my wits’ end. No I’m not, it will be all right. Or will it?