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An Open Letter to the Préfet de Police, aka “Operation Rescue Swampy”

swampy the car

[Loosely translated into English]

Dear Monsieur Le Préfet de Police,

Excuse my intrusion into what must surely be the start of your summer vacation. You have certainly been very busy over the past year, and being sorely overworked it’s totally understandable that, as you get closer to your well-deserved break, you might inadvertently overlook some of the more mundane tasks of your job.

For example, you may have forgotten to put up the signs informing car owners that they need to move their car so you can perform the necessary maintenance works that keep Paris looking fabulous and running smoothly. In fact, I’m sure you had nothing to do with the lack of proper signage, as this is certainly a task assigned to the junior members of your staff, not someone at the top of the Préfet’s organigramme organizational chart of hierarchy. So let’s say someone else who obviously was busy planning their beach getaway overlooked this important task, and when the construction workers arrived on the Monday morning of July 11, the street they were supposed to rip up was full of parked cars.

Including mine. I have a 1995 Renault Clio, named Swampy for his blackish green coloring that was so popular in the mid-90s. I brought Swampy to Paris when I returned from three years of living in a Metro-free part of the French countryside. I enjoy the Paris public transportation system, and have even invested in annual passes for both the Metro and the Vélib. But like most Parisians, I love the idea of venturing out of the city once in awhile with my dogs, Pedro and Lena. So I have kept my car, benefiting from the superb weekly street parking rates that you offer for residents. I find this to be a very reasonably-priced service offered to those of us who don’t have our own parking garage.

On July 4, I purchased the weekly ticket and happily affixed it to my windshield where the police could verify that I am a law-abiding citizen. I was parked in a very convenient spot right behind my building, facing the entrance of the Commissariat du 13ème. I walk past here three, sometimes four, times a day with Pedro and Lena, so I regularly check up on Swampy and remove the inevitable flyers that get shoved under the windshield wipers (and I throw them in a trash receptacle, never on the street).

On Sunday I was cleaning out my basement cave and made several trips to my car to load the items I would be donating to the Emmaüs. As this charity shop is located in the distant suburbs, I was quite happy that I had Swampy on call for the task. I planned on going Tuesday morning. And since my residential parking ticket was good until Tuesday morning at 8am, I had no reason to believe anything was amiss.

And yet, Monday night at approximately 11:45pm, when giving the doggies one last stretch of the legs before bedtime, I turned the corner of my building only to see Swampy was gone. In fact, all of the cars were gone. And in their place was a sign indicating that, because of construction works on that street, it was a tow-zone as of Monday July 11.

As I stood there staring at the empty spot where my Swampy once stood, your fine officers on duty at the Commissariat asked if they could help me. I asked them where the cars went, and they said that they were towed and impounded at the Bercy Fourrière earlier that day. I asked if they had seen any signs before that day, and they said they did not. I know I certainly did not see them. After all, I walk there all of the time, and only the day before had filled that car with items destined for the charity shop. I would have certainly moved to another spot in the neighborhood had I known.

Paris street
Swampy Was Here.

The kind and efficient officers asked for my license plate number and called themselves to confirm the location of Swampy, and gave me very good directions on how to retrieve him at the Bercy Préfourrière via the city’s fabulous public transportation system. I think it’s very convenient and forward-thinking of you to keep the impound lot open 24/7. After all, someone might need their car right away, you never know. But I had an early day of work, so I waited until I was finished at 6pm to go rescue Swampy the next evening.

Operation Rescue Swampy begins at the Place d’Italie. Look like rain…

It looked like it might rain so I took an umbrella with me.  I first took the 27 bus from the Place d’Italie in the southerly direction, which I’ve never done before. I’ve been living in the 13th arrondissement for several years, but this bus trip allowed me to discover neighborhoods I had never seen before. Of particular interest were the extensive roadworks underway at the Porte de Vitry for the extension of the Tramline 3. This tram will eventually replace the PC2 bus that circles the eastern edge of the city. I needed to transfer to this bus, and was happy to see that your workers had conveniently signposted the provisional stop that was moved due to the roadworks.

future tramway
Tram Works at the Porte de Vitry (and imposing rain clouds)
future tramway
The Provisional PC2 Bus Stop

When I saw my stop at the Porte de Bercy, I asked the friendly and knowledgeable driver if I was in the right place. After all, it was getting late, and there aren’t too many other pedestrians around this part of town to ask for assistance. He confirmed it was my stop, so I got off and started walking. Almost immediately I was reassured by the sign indicating I was indeed going in the proper direction to the impound lot. I’m a big fan of proper signage, as you might have guessed.

Paris ring road
We’re not in Paris anymore, Pedro

I must say I was quite impressed how quickly I arrived at the Bercy Préfourrière. It’s a very efficient office, so I had no problem finding the right window to claim my car. Just one suggestion, please take it as constructive criticism: perhaps you could spruce it up a bit with some plants or artworks or something. Not for me, of course, I was only there for 15 minutes, but for the kind municipal officials who work there every day. Not that they seemed in the least unhappy about their working conditions, but I can imagine they’d enjoy a bit of greenery. Who doesn’t?

Impound lot entrance
How about some ivy? Or maybe a white picket fence?

After producing my Carte Grise and Carte d’Identité proving who I was and which car was mine, I was asked to pay €126 for the tow truck, €20 for two days in the impound lot, and a fine of €35 for parking in a tow zone.

Monsieur, I understand the need for road works. I understand the need to move cars out of the way. And I understand it’s up to me to come and fetch my car myself. But I don’t believe I should have to pay for it when clearly I was legally parked until July 12, and there were no signs placed on the street in advance indicating the need to move my car. Again, perhaps one of your employees forgot to put up the sign in advance to give the car owners enough notice to move their cars, but in that case I think I should be absolved of the fees for towing and impounding my car.

view of impound lot
A view from the office window. I’m coming, Swampy!

The officer at the Préfourrière listened to my plight, and seemed surprised as well that there was no sign there when I checked on my car the night before. But as he is responsible for upholding Préfet procedure, he informed me kindly that I would need to pay the fine to retrieve Swampy, and to send you a letter afterward to ask for a reimbursement. He even gave me a handout with your address so that I wouldn’t have to look it up myself. I must say am impressed with the professionalism and courtesy of the municipal employees of Paris.

Swampy at the impound lot
Swampy! (Someone needs parking lessons. I’m just saying…)

After writing the check and presenting my receipt to the second window, I was allowed into the impound lot to rescue Swampy. I found him parked at the far end of the lot, looking a bit sad, but in fine condition despite the unexpected journey from familiar territory. On the side window I found a tow notice sticker which was not even filled out. I must insist that I would have seen this sticker on Sunday when I visited my car, which leads me to conclude with certainty that the construction workers arrived Monday and immediately towed all of the cars at the same time they posted the tow zone sign and the tow notice stickers.

parking ticket
Obviously someone was in too much of a hurry to fill it out.

So as an honest, tax-paying, law-abiding citizen who loves her city and happily pays for the services that I use, I respectfully request a reimbursement of the €181 payment I have already made in good faith. No rush, you can reimburse me when you have returned from vacation (but I myself find it’s nice to return from a long break with a cleared out inbox). Enclosed is the aforementioned residential parking ticket that shows I was legally entitled to park through July 12th, as well as the receipt for my payment. If you require any further documentation, please don’t hesitate to contact me at the address below.

I should also mention that I was quite pleased that it didn’t start raining until I was in my car, and that the entire Operation Rescue Swampy only took one hour door to door. Not bad!

I do hope you will accept, Monsieur, my most humble and sincere wishes.
Heather Stimmler-Hall

If Your Car Disappears

If your car isn’t where you left it, you can guess it was either stolen or towed. Either way, the nearest police station can look it up for you, or you can just look it up online at the website of the Préfecture de Paris website (note, this only works for cars with French plates). For this, you’ll need to enter the license plate number. It will then tell you if the car is in one of the city’s four impound lots.

I should mention here that you should, whether your car is yours or a rental, keep the Carte Grise (registration) or a copy of it on you at all times. You will need this, as well as photo ID, to prove the car is yours. It also conveniently mentions the make, color, year and license plate number. They only accept cash or (French) checks at the impound lot. Expect the fee to be no less that €126 plus €10 for every day it has been at the lot.


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  • Just loved your "letter". Please keep us informed when you hear back from the authorities. I won't hold my breath; I reckon about 6-8 weeks.

  • You're a very cool lady Heather. I'm not much of a reader (no patience), but I read every word of your (spoof) letter. Love the way your mind works. Thanks again for a couple of terrific outings with us (Paulo/Lucila, Kathy and I) earlier this summer in your wonderful city. If you're ever in Toronto …Dave

  • What a delightful 'letter', Heather…. If only we could all find the humor amidst the occasional chaos that surrounds us city-dwellers. And a heartfelt 'bon chance' with that refund!

  • And a note for all of you Americans out there: this tiny little European three-door car costs almost €70 to fill at the petrol station (it gets almost 700 kilometers from a full tank). Think twice before renting anything much bigger when you visit!

  • You gotta love bureaucrats, be they French or American. I'm delighted you and Swampy have been reunited. I'm sure Pedro and Lena are besides themselves with joy. Swampy reminds me of a Renault Clio I once rented in the mid-'90s, even down to the color. Before that, it was a Renault Cinq. Both were very nice cars, with some stories to tell (especially the Cinq, following a bizzare trek in the Pyrennes).

  • My actual letter to the Préfet de Police (and yes, that's who is listed on the directions for making reimbursement claims; I'm sure he isn't the one who actually reads the mail) is about two paragraphs and has no photos. I like to think the spoof letter on the website is a bit more entertaining and informative for the readers here. In any case, I had more fun writing this version.

  • Oh Heather!I LOVE this story…not the trouble that you had to go through, good Lord…but I think you handled this unfortunate event with such grace and just a wee bit of humor, that I sincerely hope that Swampy and yourself recovered from your ordeal quickly and hey…I hope you post a response if you get one from the Police!

  • Good luck – let us know how it goes (and your neighbors too, I guess…)And extra good luck if this is actually the letter you sent. It's very long and addressed to someone far too senior to care, I reckon… nonetheless, hope it works.