Thursday, March 24, 2011

Divorcing in Provence: a tale of divorce Provençal style in Avignon

I divorced my ex a few years ago in Avignon. There was a complicated build-up to the end of the relationship (isn't there always?) but the divorce was remarkably simple.

Once I had decided to divorce I trundled off to see an avocate in Avignon, recommended by my notaire in Isle sur Sorgue. (Excuse me - I break off here for a moment to swat a capricorn which is trying to walk in through the open window onto my desk. These insects seem quite benign to me, and rather pleasant, but everyone round here tells me they burrow into the wooden beams of your house, eat the wood away to make nests and eventually make your house fall on your head. That's it - he's outside again.) Where was I? Yes, the advocate was a charming woman who listened kindly while I explained my Ex had run off with some other bloke's wife and kids.

She shrugged her shoulders when I'd finished the short summary and said: "Mais c'est banal."

Which is of course one way to look at it.

I told her that I preferred not to remain married to the boyfriend of some woman I didn't know and she quite agreed. As the man in question (boo, hiss) had gone to live in Scotland, the divorce would be a bit unwieldy but she batted the geography aside. "We just send him a document to sign, saying he's OK with the divorce, then he appears with you before the judge for 5 minutes and it's over."

She asked for a flat fee of 1200 euros and the divorce was in progress.

As it happened, I did most of the work. I had to put together a dossier of papers, including birth certificates, the marriage certificate, and various documents showing we no longer had any property in common. The Ex was sent his paper to sign, and signed it.

As he was coming down to Provence on holiday with his girlfriend I co-ordinated with the advocate and the tribunal judge to book a day and a time that would suit him to come to court.

When I arrived on that morning in May, the hall at the court was stuffed with couples waiting to divorce. You don't realise quite how popular divorce is, of course, until you go along to a divorce court. Everyone was looking rather hangdog. There were lots of advocates swishing about in black robes, looking grand and important. One was wearing his bedroom slippers. Another stopped and whipped out a hand mirror to apply red lipstick before stepping in to court to see the judge.

My advocate came up to me and said: "I'm afraid there's a problem. I should have organised the divorce with reference to Scots law because you both used to live in Scotland."

"What's that got to do with anything though?" I asked. "We married in France. And he's a Scot but I'm not."

She waffled a bit about French law and then dragged me over to talk to an imposing advocate, obviously her senior, a rather grand man and very tall. He listened to her dilemma (mine, actually) and then said:

"The issue is this: does the concept of divorce by mutual consent exist in Scots law? Frankly I haven't the first idea about Scots law but that's what the judge will need to know."

My lawyer turned to me. Her senior colleague turned to me.

"Does it?" she asked.

Very firmly I said: "It certainly does. No problem."

I hadn't the faintest idea about Scottish divorce law but I had to get the divorce through while the Ex was in Provence and I felt fairly sure that the Scots would have divorce by mutual consent. Why wouldn't they?

"Well then" beamed the senior guy "you can divorce." He said it as if he were casting a blessing on my head.

My advocate then gathered up her papers, her gorgeous leather handbag, me and my Ex and swept us all in to see the judge.

The judge was a young woman, or rather a girl - she looked about 22 - and was clearly struggling to project gravitas. She had two other girls flanking her at the little table we sat round. My Ex was the only man in the room which I found oddly funny. As if all the women present might suddenly give him 'a telling' for cheating and running away from home. Nobody did.

The judge looked at our papers for a moment. Then asked if we had any property in common? No. No kids? Nope. Then she looked at my lawyer and asked what nationality we both were. Uh-oh. Here came the Scots law issue.

My lawyer said "They're Scottish" (I'm English but she was a bit slapdash throughout.)

The judge muttered something about the way the paperwork had been done and then asked: "Do they have divorce by mutual consent in Scotland?"

My advocate looked a bit pink and turned towards me.

"It does exist in Scotland" she said. "Doesn't it?"

"It certainly does" I said. "No problem."

For a moment the young judge looked doubtful. I was getting a bit restless. In 48 hours I was throwing a party, on my birthday, and I'd arranged for a local chef, Udo Phillip, to do the catering. I had to be round at his restaurant shortly to finalise the budget and discuss the food. Couldn't we just get on with this?

Suddenly the judge looked up and sighed as if she could really hardly be bothered with Scottish people turning up with their funny ways and broken marriages.

"OK" she said, signing a bit of paper. "You're divorced".

"What? Now?" I asked.

She nodded. "Yes. Straightaway. Now."

My Ex and I got up and gave our seats to the next unhappy couple coming in.

While the Ex flew out of court like a scalded cat, I hung around to thank the advocate. She came over and told me we both just needed to sign a paper and the divorce would be complete. Damn! He was already on his way to the TGV station. I asked her if we could mail it to him and she said that would probably be OK.

"Am I still divorced though?" I asked.

She explained it was an unusual situation. Normally the couple both sign the papers before leaving.

She laughed and told me: "It's sort of're divorced now, but he isn't."

We got the papers off to him and back again within the week. And the divorce was complete.

The party was a good one. A friend who's a professional musician played outside in the forest garden till late. It was a lovely hot evening and we danced in the open air, delicately scented by pine trees. And I'd made it to the meeting to discuss the catering. The food was wonderful.

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