We bought a car, a rebuilt 1989 silver Audi from a mechanic for 3,000 euros cash. The mechanic’s name is José and he said he lived for the love of making cars. He was tall, dark and Spanish and had one tooth that stuck straight out of his mouth when he smiled.

Our friends said, you did what?

José’s garage is in the countryside and surrounded by a graveyard of old cars, rusted bodies and a few beautiful deux chevaux that had seen their years. Two Rottweilers patrolled a chain-linked fence and a steady stream of customers in Mercedes and BMWs waited their turn. Inside a large corrugated shed that was José’s workspace were carefully organized car parts in piles and on shelves and he had an office in the corner. By his computer was a worn copy of Moliere’s Le Bourgeois gentilhomme.

We took the car for a test drive and immediately knew we wanted it. José said he had made the car for his daughter. He assured us it was very good, but insisted on keeping it for a few days to get it right. When we picked it up the following week, it was spotless and ran as smoothly as a sewing machine. At full speed on the open highway it whistled, so we named it “Whistler.”

Then we had to register it: our first brush with French bureaucracy and the prospect intimidated us. Our insurance agent advised us to take everything we could to prove our legitimacy to buy a car in France – an electric bill with our address, the deed for our house might be a good idea, passports, drivers licenses, proof of insurance coverage, the bill of sale, a carte grise (the registration) and inspection papers. I called ahead to make sure we should go to the sous-préfecture in Bergerac; there is a préfecture in Périgueux. And, yes, the woman said, it was the right place and she’d be happy to help us. We arrived fully prepared mid-afternoon and the bureau was closed. It had opened after lunch at 1:30 and closed for the day at 3:15, regular sous-préfecture hours.

The next day we drove to Bergerac early in the morning and got there during the busy morning market. The office was abandoned; empty desks behind barred windows. We braced ourselves for the worst and struggled to fill out an incomprehensible form that a sign warned us to have ready. Even in the US, we would need help with the technical language and abbreviations. Our dictionary was of no use.

Several other people came in confused by the empty office. That made us feel a little better. Eventually an officious woman opened her window and we took her our pile of papers. She ignored everything except the form and the carte grise, asked us to make some corrections and told us to take a seat. We sorted our papers again, making sure we’d have anything she might request, worrying that maybe we should have our birth certificates.

In about 20 minutes, she called John to her window, gave him a new carte grise and said it cost 25 euros. She didn’t ask us for proof of insurance, a driver’s license or even a passport. We were so astonished that we got the giggles. We sat down to organize and file our documents, happy the ordeal was over, but when we started out to celebrate with lunch, a formidable chain gate barred the door. It was exactly 12 o’clock, and every self-respecting French person was hurrying to their noon meal. We were locked inside the sous-préfecture.

A few calls for help produced a late-for-lunch clerk who let us out. We had an extra glass of wine with our lunch.

Whistler was ours and legal to drive. In the three months we were in the Périgord, it never gave us a moment’s worry. José took it back when we returned to the US to honor his three-month guarantee and get it ready for us in September. We’ll recommend him to everyone.