Jan 2, 2014

Bureaucracy - Coming To a Theater Near You: Tomme des Vosges


Our visit to the OFII office to get our cartes de séjour (finally, finally!) has all the elements of an excellent movie: suspense (will they get the cards or won't they?), setbacks (but wait, here's a new hoop to jump through), surprise (bet you didn't see that twist!), laughter and tears (because it's a fine line between pleasure and pain, and once it gets ricidulous enough, even French bureaucracy can be funny), an underdog (yippee, it isn't us!), a formidable, fiendish foe (the unsinkable French bureaucracy), even a memorable catch phrase (in this case, "Non! C'est pas possible!" -- "No! It's not possible!"). 

There is always a certain amount of sadism involved in bureaucracy, and that much more if it's French bureaucracy (remember their motto?: We're Not Infamous For Nothing). But today, the fonctionnaire in question is really in fine form.

We arrive at the precise time of our appointment, only to wait 40 minutes to go in and get weighed and measured, have our eyesight tested, and then disrobe halfway, smash our faces against a machine, and have our chests X-rayed. Another 20 minute wait to go in and meet with the doctors who -- huge sigh of relief -- don't actually ask to see our vaccination records which we have somehow lost in transit. The doctors don't do the same things with both of us (Anthony has his blood pressure and heart rate measured, whereas I just chit-chat with my doctor). They tell us our X-rays are fine and send us on our way. And then, it's another 10 minute wait to receive our papers which allow us to go the final line which appears like it will take 15 minutes. It all seems too easy to be true. Cue ominous music.

We have been carefully sent OFII forms for just this occasion with very specific amounts on them: 340 for me and 70 for Anthony. We cannot explain the price discrepancy, but Anthony's theory is that since he's the one with the job here, the government sees me as dead weight. The letter was received late last week, end Dec 2011. Anthony needs to go to a local tabac (tobacco & sundries store) in order to buy a certain kind of government stamp for this amount. The first one he finds doesn't have amounts large enough for my big bill, so it takes him two tries, but eventually he is able to buy the stamps. The form specifies my fee should be comprised of 4 x 55 stamps and 8 x 15 stamps. However, Anthony doesn't buy the stamps till today, January 2, and as of the New Year, they no longer make 55 or 15 denominations. So he buys 340 worth in different denominations.

I know that right now you are thinking it's too bad he procrastinated, because clearly we are screwed, but no: This is the "surprise!" moment.  An Asian-looking but French-speaking lady in front of us -- the Underdog -- steps up to the counter with last year's stamps in the correct denominations and is told unceremoniously that last year's tickets are no good! She must go to the tabac across the street at 41 rue de la Roquette for several hundred Euro more in stamps, and will have to cross her fingers she can return last year's stamps to a tabac. And the audience feels a wave of relief as the protagonist (Anthony) is rewarded for his procrastination!

A few minutes later, the Underdog returns and rather than wait again in the long line, she steps to the counter for the second time, and plops down a new batch of stamps, only to be told there is an additional 19 charge. "What?!," we all ask. "Is that true for everybody?" We are all wildly checking the forms to see any mention of this. Yes, it is an additional fee levied since Oct 1 (even though the letters with our amounts were sent to us two month after that). More surprise and setbacks! An unexpected charge! Not mentioned anywhere! This is an indisputably perfect foil in that it is both arbitrary and unforeseeable. So, Anthony runs down to 41 rue de la Roquette and buys 19 more of stamps for each of us. I let other people in line pass me by, though most of them, too, have to run to 41 rue de la Roquette.

The Underdog returns and steps to the front again, for the third time, where she learns she is 1 short. Cue fonctionnaire, who drops her head in her hands: "Non! C'est pas possible!" Her delivery is spot on, and conveys a level of long-suffering and pain that you and I will never know, even if our homes burn down, our dogs run away, and every appliance in our temporary motel breaks down simultaneously. This is the moment that sets me over the edge and I laugh (discreetly: don't want to piss off the fonctionnaire) till I cry, which works out well for me since I have had an eyelash stuck in my eye for two hours, and it finally gets washed out. It's true: Laughter really is the best medicine.

"Non!," she mutters weakly, "C'est pas possible!" Yes, yes it is possible. Probably because Underdog has been running back and forth across the street carrying little stamps on an extremely windy day. You're thinking, "Why don't they just let people pay at the office?" Well, if they did that, there wouldn't be a movie, now would there?

Underdog and Anthony both return. Underdog, on her fourth attempt, is finally given her carte de séjour, and there is a heartfelt but discreet wave of support for her. Discreet because we don't want to incur the wrath of the fonctionnaire. But there is a sort of solidarity here: If I am ever walking in the streets of Paris and run into the Chinese lady, the couple from Mali, the Indian guy I translate for, or Underdog, I swear I will walk up and greet them with bisous (kisses on the cheeks). I even get the e-mail address for the Canadian guy behind us (yes, he too visited 41 rue de la Roquette) so we can have him and his wife over for a carte de séjour celebration: I think in keeping with the theme, we will deny them entry to our apartment until they show us their cartes de séjour and pay whatever arbitrary fees we tack on.

So now we can end your suspense: Anthony walks out of there with his carte de séjour . And I run out of there with mine, because by now I will be late to pick the girls up from school. As the credits start to roll, you can see me jogging through the streets of Paris till I arrive at the school hot, sweaty, and tired -- but legal, legal at last.

THE CHEESE: Tomme des Vosges

Tomme des Vosges is, as the name suggests, from the Vosges region, in Alsace. It's a hard cheese made from raw cow's milk and one that is not normally found outside the region. Even information about the cheese is hard to get outside the region.

It's a dense wheel of cheese -- but not quite wheel-sized: The Tomme des Vosges is the medium-sized one in the middle of this picture, covered with a dusty dark mold (smaller ones on the right: Munster, and huge one on the left is a Meule d'Alsace). The Tomme des Vosges has got a grassy, earthy stink to it, but it's not at the same level of stink as the Munster.



The first planned square in Paris was built in the Marais between 1605 and 1612 by King Henri IV. It was originally called the Place Royale, despite the fact that no King or Queen actually lived there. The square was renamed in 1799 when the Revolutionary army offered to name the square after the first department to pay its taxes to the new regime. This turned out to be, of course, the Vosges. Then came the Restoration, and it was re-renamed Place Royale. And finally, in 1848, the Second Republic re-re-renamed it Place des Vosges, where it has remained both a lovely place for art galleries, fancy teas, expensive cafés, and the residence of rich luminaries (including the notorious DSK), and also the ultimate tribute to bureaucracy and regulations.


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