Thursday, May 24, 2012

A Pain in the Montparnasse

On behalf of all American expatriates (motto: "Loudly Noting the Bad Manners Abroad Since 1828"), I should like to clear up certain grave misconceptions concerning my adopted country, France (motto: "Proudly Producing Stronger Odors Than YOUR Country Since 1543"*). Here goes: contrary to what you may have heard, France is not a bureaucracy-ridden, administratively corrupt bloodsucking death maw filled with enough leech-like, paper-pushing, flesh-eating android cockroach bureaucrats to colonize Asia. No, this is not an accurate picture of France. On the contrary: France also lacks Burger King restaurants.

Now I don't mean to be harsh here. I'm only stating the facts, though I admit I state them with a tinge of regret. I've spent a long time being very fond of France, thanks to its sterling cultural offerings, such as:
  • Cereal, especially chocolate-flavored cereal. This one is going to cause me DEEP withdrawal issues when I return to the US this summer. When people ask, "But aren't those just Cocoa Puffs?," there is no choice but to chuckle gently and hit them in the face, because stupid people should not ask questions. The gulf between American and French cereals is vast. How vast, you ask? To give you a concrete index, mathematicians at Harvard calculate that in comparison, the planet Jupiter is only "pretty vast". My theory is, the difference can be summed up as follows: American cereal is made from cereal ingredients, whereas French cereal is made from heroin. Back in my earliest times here, when I lived with a host family, many was the day I would retire to my room and "do some cereal", always peripherally terrified one of my host brethren would open the door to find me up to my forearms in the cereal box, crazedly digging out handful upon handful of cereal pellets even though at any given moment my mouth was already filled with 10,695 of them. I should really just start taking it intravenously.
  • A strong and healthy cultural aesthetic appreciation for attractive naked people.
  • High-class comedy in the form of presidential elections featuring nail-biting contests between individuals who appear to be the illegitimate children of sadistic chipmunks and/or Far Side characters.
  • On a related note, the Paris metro features two stations called "Ourcq" and "Picpus".
  • Also, a foreign language is spoken here, possibly French.
So we can see that France has many fine qualities, but if you ask me, none of them - and I INCLUDE the naked people in this statement - make up for the qualities that suck, or as we say locally, "les qualités qui suckent." Yes, I'm cranky, and you would be too if you'd spent the past five months embroiled in mortal combat pitting you against ... well, against negative space, actually, because the bureaucrats you WOULD be fighting are way too busy ignoring you to have time to fight with you. You understand how it is: there are only so many hours in a day.

I should explain. Let's roll back, as so many Wal-Mart prices have done before us, to last December. Ready? Wheeee!** Okay, so, here we are: last December. Following a brief and peaceful Christmas vacation in the US, I returned to France fully rested and fresh as a daisy. Here is a picture of me in December:

Whereupon I learned that:
  • The local immigration office had not properly validated my visa, which was my fault as per France's Law of 16 January 1851, which states, "Everything is your fault."
  • My insurance company had never actually given me the insurance I had paid for, which was my fault as per the Law of 7 June 1927, which begins, " 'Twas brillig ... "
  •  My school had no record of my having ever submitted various important forms, or possibly existing, which was my fault as per the Law of 28 December 1901, which states, "Also, your school shall always have toilet paper in all stalls except the one you personally have just used."
  • Therefore, in accordance with French law, they were going to take my lips
And so, faced with massive gobs of French bureaucracy, I did what any sensible person would do: I enmired myself in more French bureaucracy. I did have a good reason, though. It turns out that in order to engage in an artistic profession such as theatre, glass-blowing, spray-painting stick figures engaged in obscene acts on nursery school buildings, playing "Für Elise" on the accordion in the metro,*** etc., you need what is called a SIRET number. SIRET is an acronym; it stands for, "Of course we do not know what zis stands for and of COURSE zat is entirely your fault, DUH." So I got myself a SIRET number, only to find that now I had a new problem:
  • I had a SIRET number
Thus, long story short, in the past several months I have encountered a certain amount of bureaucratic finger-wagging and document-losing and stone-walling and document-losing and insult-snarling and document-losing, and by "a certain amount," I mean it has basically never stopped, except here and there for an hour or two (obviously, the bureaucrats have to take breaks sometimes, to have lunch, or shed their skin). So now I look like this:

I was able to wrangle some of these problems into order over time (not the SIRET one; I finally had to cancel my account, which basically obliged me to go through a long and elaborate process of begging not to be allowed to work). But I did finally get my visa properly validated, despite what I suspect would be classified as a "chick fight" between myself and the snot princess administrator I had to deal with. I admit I started it. I was upset and tense about the situation, and as a bilingual person living here since 2010, I did not wish to be spoken to in officious English. I wished to be spoken to in officious French and that cow was gonna KNOW it:

SNOT PRINCESS ADMINISTRATOR: Zis document it is what?
ME (through gritted teeth): It's my landlady's electricity bill. The one you requested.
SPI: Zis is not good enough as document. It does not have original thumbprint of St. Francis of Assisi. You go away and come back anozzerr day wis ozzerr documents.
ME (cracks appearing in teeth): I speak French.
SPI (in French): Oh, well if your French is SOOOOOOOO good, perhaps you would like to LEAVE and go talk to FRENCH people OUTSIIIIDE.

In fact, I did eventually get that situation straightened out, although I hit new roadblocks when, mere weeks later, I was told I had to RENEW this same visa in order to stay in France and finish my studies. Only the Bureau of Random-Ass Excuses told me I COULDN'T renew, because - I swear this is the real reason they gave - I was going to the US over the summer. Which I was doing because, well, because my visa was running out in the first place. But I understood, of course; you can't be too careful with Americans who go spend time in America. You never know what sort of shenanigans they might get up to there. For example, they might go to Burger King restaurants.

Still, I'm cheered by the fact that, however outrageous these stories are, other expats' are far worse. I talked to an American classmate from whom the immigration bureaucrats had actually taken documents out of his renewal application and thrown them away with the express purpose of telling him - get ready - that his application was incomplete. He claims they did this right in front of him, although I'm sure they actually used much more subtle techniques, such as pointing the other way and shouting ("LOOK!"). This is how they get their jollies at the Bureau of Random-Ass Excuses. You can't blame them for trying to enjoy life.

Compared to that guy, I feel I got off easy. The worst thing that happened to me was that they told me I had to get a new identification photo taken, which normally costs 5 euros, only the Photomaton machine somehow managed to eat about 15 or 20 of mine before I got wise. Then the bureaucrats took 30 more in order to tell me to go to hell (you can't get that at the five-and-dime anymore these days).

Therefore, France, I'm sorry to have to do this, but you drive me to it. Due to my conviction that turnabout is fair play, I'm going to have to reveal national secrets:

1. First, let's discuss La Marseillaise, the so-called national anthem. Don't believe the propaganda: the supposed "lyrics" are not the real lyrics. Generation after generation has learned:

Allons enfants de la Patrie,
Le jour de gloire est arrivé !
Contre nous de la tyrranie
L'étendard sanglant est levé ... (etc.)

Whereas the REAL lyrics are as follows:

Allons enfants de la Patrie,
Le jour de gloire est arrivé !
We're gonna do the Twist
We're gonna do the Twist
We're gonna do the Twist and it GOES LIKE THIS

(Mention this to any high-ranking member of state, and you will get a free Popsicle.)

2. French cuss words do not work. It turns out that when you are moved to curse - and I can attest to this from personal experience - you default to English cuss words. I am thinking here of one particular instance: once, having arrived early for a meeting at the Théâtre de la Ville, I decided to go around the corner and visit the puppies at a pet store. I made the acquaintance of one Jack Russell puppy who frolicked around before me being all adorable until CHOMP suddenly I was left with a seeping gash on my finger, whereupon I was heard (probably as far away as your house) to yell "OWW!! WHY YOU LITTLE (VERY BAD ENGLISH CUSS WORDS)!!!!" It never even occurred to me to use French. So don't try to tell ME this isn't a national secret.

3. The secret to getting your visa renewed smoothly is to breakdance while burping the Poké Rap. Backwards.

But I didn't know that last one until I had already gone through it all the hard way. So this is where I stand these days: the insurance company won't reimburse my health costs unless I  bring them the heart of a gryphon topped with a fried dodo egg; professionally, I cannot really work unless I ally myself with an association (which is fine except for the part where you have to ally yourself with an association), which I could do in order to enjoy the privilege of being taxed 45%; and my school found my documents, called me to congratulate me, and has now forgiven me. I'm so happy we're on speaking terms. I'll even be able to speak if France gives me back my lips.

In other words, everything has pretty much calmed down now, just in time for me to go back to the US for the summer. Everything has calmed down, that is, unless you count the incident this afternoon where a vending machine ate my euro. I have no doubt this was related to everything else; it was probably in league with the Photomaton machine. And if you don't agree with me, well, that just so CLEARLY means you haven't been living here. I, for one, know how to think in local logic. 'Twas brillig.

* Generally translated as "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité."
** Was it good for you?
*** I have actually heard this rendition in the metro more than once. As a sensitive and thoughtful listener attuned to the details and nuances of classical music, I would describe it as "stupid."


Ron H said...

re: #3: although I have resorted to my 1970's high school French use of "fils de la chienne" at times!

Ron H said...

I meant #2. Sorry

The Old Wolf said...

Oh, ma petite... je suis tellement navré. Although I must tell you in plain honesty that the bureaucracy in Italy is far, far worse. The only redeeming feature is that they smile pleasantly and look like Marcello Mastroianni or Gina Lolobrigida while they are telling you that what you are trying to accomplish is handled seven departments further down the chain, all of which you must contact, and please to come back next millennium but in the meantime it's so nice to meet an American who speaks such good Italian.