Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Big fat black pen: French bureaucracy part 1

Tuesday’s agenda: connect with the University and find out Kadin’s test results (and take appropriate action)

For the first time, we sleep in and have a real breakfast in the apartment. Then once again head to the internet café. Greg needs to find out where to meet his colleague on campus and I need to find out if Kadin got into school.

If he did, there are forms I need to take to the Mairie (town hall) and then back to the school and I need to sign him up for the school lunches ASAP if I want to avoid picking him up everyday to come home for his 2 hour lunch (perish the thought!). He is not allowed to bring his own lunch to school. He will have only 4 days of school a week for a total of 24 hours. This is standard here as I think there is more homework. He’ll have a luxuriously long 2 hour lunch, be in school from 8:30 to 4:30, but have Wednesdays and weekends off. If he doesn’t get into the school…I don’t know what I’ll do, but something!

At the café I scan my inbox and find the message I’ve been waiting for. He’s in! Just after that message was sent there is one from Carina saying she hasn’t heard yet. Hmmm. Then the end of her message says she then called the school and Sam’s in. We are supposed to stop by the school around 10am and pick up a signed letter to take to the Mairie with passport and proof of address. Okay, it is now 10:15 and I just ordered a coffee. Greg is planning to set off for the University to get set up there, find out more about bank accounts, wifi, French classes, insurance, etc.

I finish my coffee and email and set off with the boys about 10:45 to take 2 trams and a bus to the school. We need to beat the “lunch deadline” when everyone is out of the office from about 11:30 to 1:30 or is it 12 to 2? We arrive sometime after 11 and the headmistress is there with our letter. We take it the Mairie with all of our documents (and more) around 11:30. They do not speak English, but a helpful person in the waiting room translates: there are two people in front of me and with the office closing at noon, it would be better for me to schedule an appointment for after lunch. Fine with me. So after much discussion it turns out the earliest appointment is for 16:00, or 4 o’clock. I have my wits about me enough to ask if I can have the forms to sign up for lunch as well. The receptionist gives me the lunch forms and I figure that should kill about 4 hours!

We lunch at home on yummy selections from the grocery store. There are yogurts and cheeses (goat and sheep are easy to find) salamis and lentils, baguettes for the kids, rice cakes for me.

I do make a valiant effort at the form. I look up words and try to understand the intricacies of the lunch options. I hope Greg will come home to double check what I have concocted. A little before 3 (15:00), when he hasn’t returned, we all head out to see if we can find Carina and Sam. Kadin wanted to play a little bit with Sam and I figure Carina can help me with the forms. We find their place and ring the bell but there is no answer. So instead we buy another baguette and stop in at the fun looking magic shop down the street.

Then it is time to head to the Mairie near the school. I was warned that this could be the most difficult part of the whole process. I have double checked that I have everything I need and they even confirmed this when I stopped by in the morning.

We show up a few minutes early and are told to wait. The room and the building are very pleasant and the people working there are kind, but there is a pall hanging over the room. People waiting there seem to have a sense of helplessness. There is nothing to do in the waiting room. Since French civil servants have a guaranteed job for life, they have little incentive to offer customer service. Our few minutes turns into 15 then 20. Finally someone comes out of the office. I ask the receptionist “16:00? Ça va?” And she explains there are two people ahead of me. Still two people ahead of me.

I am starting to feel like I am in the salle de mort. When the next person comes out, a little argument ensues about who is next and who has been waiting longest. It is explained that several of us have been asked to come back. People say they have young children and they have to work, they can’t sit around for hours. (Realize now that I actually got the gist of this!) Mothers with new babies come in (to register them, I suppose), but they are helped immediately.

Rees is about to jump out of his skin. Kadin is merely antsy. I am just hoping I will pass the test. There is a sweet young girl who keeps trying to talk to Kadin. He asks for my help so I try to understand what she is saying. It takes me awhile, but I finally figure out that she is asking him what his name is. Duh! I tell him how to reply and he does. We ask her name. Boy, I can barely talk to a four year old, how will I do with the official?

Rees and Kadin flee to a little courtyard on the other side of a door. I am not sure they are even allowed to be out there, but at this point I don’t care. If they set off an alarm opening a door at least that would be a little excitement and entertainment for everyone. It is clear we are clueless anyway, so if we inadvertently break a rule, so be it.

The little girl cries because she is too little for her mom to let her go out in the courtyard with the boys.

Finally it is my turn. I say hello (in French) and say I am sorry but I don’t speak much French. The civil servant is very officious and grimly bears the news. She takes my letter and my documents (thank goodness Kadin is French and I have the standard Livret de Famille, otherwise, who knows what complications could have ensued) and trots off on her high heels to photocopy them. She then uses an impressive fat, black pen to fill out a long form in front of me repeating all the information on the documents: name of student, name of parents, address, etc. She has large, formal handwriting. It is almost like a comedy skit, but unfortunately there is only flourish, no humor in her demeanor. I am impressed by the French bureaucracy in action.

Then, before my stunned eyes, she writes out a letter to the headmistress—by hand—saying with her big black pen that it is okay to admit Kadin Tucker to the school. Then she signs it and stamps it with her official seal. Thunk. Done. It is now my job to walk this precious piece of paper back over to the headmistress about 2 blocks away. I think this is done for every single new student in the schools. Hundreds of them. Where do all these papers go?

Then I produce my school lunch form and tell her I would like to sign my son up for lunches (I use the words from the form, otherwise I would be hopeless in saying this). She looks at my form, shakes her head, takes her white out, crosses out nearly everything I had filled in, muttering “non, non, non,” corrects it all with her big black pen and tells me my son can start lunches on September 9th. She writes a big “September 9” on a post-it note for me. Fine. Maybe my inability to understand is working in my favor! I’m the big savage imbecile.

Then she tells me she needs a feuille for the lunches. I am stymied on this one. I understand it is a form or a piece of paper of some sort, but what sort exactly? She tells me lots of things I can’t understand, but I think she says I can get it from my husband. Okay. She then flourishes her pen again and writes out her request on another post-it note in big formal letters and says I should take it to the school.

So I do. The headmistress at the school also does not speak English. She has had a whole day of this. She accepts my all important signed letter and then, when I show her the note about the feuille, she very kindly takes me up to see the school’s English teacher to help translate. It turns out, to see if we are eligible for a reduced lunch fee, they need to see last year’s tax form. “How long have you lived here?” I’m asked. “Since Friday,” I reply. It is clear to all that there will be no tax form from last year. “Well,” I say, “I’m sure we can afford to pay for the lunches.”

“Yes,” says the English teacher, “but it doesn’t work that way here. You live in center city so there is likely to be some subsidy of the fee. Don’t worry about it, it will sort itself out.” Meanwhile the headmistress has gone back downstairs to call the Mairie. She speaks to someone. When she hangs up she explains something that I think means she needs to talk to someone higher up who wasn’t available, not to worry about doing anything now, and that she would let me know more later. Wonderful. “À Jeudi” she says. “See you on Thursday.” Thursday is the first day of school.

I think we’ve passed the test.

We rendezvous with Greg back at the apartment and debrief. His joy of the day was that to get a bank account you need to get paid and to get paid you need to have a bank account. Once again, there are ways around these problems, but one thing he needs to get paid is to prove he is qualified for the job. Part of this proof includes photocopies of his diplomas. Well there is something we didn’t think to pack. Still, they’re accessible and an email home will likely solve that problem. So it goes. I don’t have a bureaucracy part II yet, but I do have the feeling this is only the beginning.


Anonymous said...

This is such a hoot, Jen! I love reading your blog posts; I can completely visualize what you went through. (Hope you don't mind that your travails become a source of hooting for the rest of us...)

Keep it up, I'm one of your committed blogees!


Newly Acquired White said...

Sounds a lot like Austrian bureaucracy!! Forms to fill out, circular qualifications like the pay and the bank account. I often wonder what people do when they move to the US... is it similar and we just never realize it because we are part of the system from the start?

Dais said...

You are my hero.

Fe said...

I'm hooting along with Trileigh! Tell Kadin I wish him "bon chance" at school tomorrow.

Fe said...

Or is it "bonne chance"? J'ai oubliee!