I could hear the thump of rubber stamps wielded by the strong arms of French bureaucrats long before I could see them. Sounds of ‘dumph’ and ‘dumph’ were followed by calls of ‘avancer, s’il vous plait’.
It was Wednesday, ten days since I’d made my online booking to visit the ‘préfecture de police’ at their earliest convenience – which happens to be the 7th of June, just a week before my visa is set to expire. This is an appointment that has played havoc with my mind since I pressed ‘suivant’ on the online booking form. Not fully believing that I hadn’t organised to permanently migrate to Ulaanbaatar (although, that could be fun), I had woken for the ten consecutive mornings that followed, in the knowledge that the only way to find out was to head to the fortressed beast that is the préfecture on the ile de la cité, just a short walk from home.
The other beast, one from the east, more fondly known as ‘ de Moscou à Paris,’ is a snap frozen packet of a weather pattern that recently blew in from Siberia. It’s weeklong séjour in Paris has seen below zero temperatures become common place, along with smatterings of snow. When it’s not snowing, it is bone chillingly cold – with my walk to the préfecture early on Wednesday morning, being no exception.
I set off in a sensible skivvie, two woollen jumpers, one pair of gloves and as many pairs of jeans, two pairs of socks and a scarf for good measure, all bundled under a feather down coat. As I penguin hopped across the Pont St Michel, I let out my fair share of ‘putains’ and ‘merdes,’ while shrugging almost erratically. Making my approach, the sound of stamps wielded by those strong, French, bureaucratic arms became louder, and at this point I envied those arms because I could no longer bend my fingers and my ears felt brutally sunburnt.
The queue was short and within ten minutes I was inside the four walls of the préfecture stripping down to a pair of tight jeans with the woollen skivvie tucked inside them. Both jumpers and my coat had the easier job of sailing through an X-ray machine alongside my handbag. In my mind, I was screaming ‘don’t look at my backside, I didn’t dress for this’ but in reality, I just smiled meekly at a handsome policeman who stared into the distance and thankfully, not at my derrière.
In my humble opinion, bureaucrats in France are given an untidily bad wrap. Each time I read an online forum about ‘how to do this,’ or ‘what to do about that,’ people from ‘English speaking places’ have written less than savoury reports about how ‘it would never be like this at home’ and ‘where I’m from, if you even looked at a person the way the woman at ‘booth 4’ looked at me, you’d be immediately fired’. Thankfully, (the metaphorical) woman in (the metaphorical) ‘booth 4’ doesn’t live in ‘that’ country, because all the ‘booth 4’ women I’ve ever encountered have always been (in a fashion perhaps only a bit surly), more than helpful.
After re-dressing and waving goodbye to my handsome cop with an enthusiastic ‘merci’ (for what, I thought, not telling me I should cut down on the croissants), I made my way to Madame at reception. ‘Bonjour, I small stupid’ I explained in my best French, ‘but I understand not this appointment – why two dates on form?’. Madame took my passport, holding it hostage as her eyes scanned my visa and carte de sejour, before telling me that the 7th of June was the date and I should just come at 2 o’clock. Très simple. Walking away feeling half convinced that I was on the right track, a second handsome policeman stopped me in my tracks as I tried to exit through the entrance. ‘Sorti, ici’ he laughed, pointing to an exit around the corner and across a courtyard. ‘Ah oui,’ I also laughed, at least I understood that one.
Once in the courtyard, I read the email again. I’d booked an appointment at 2pm on the 7th of June, but was completely bamboozled by a ‘second date,’ August 19th, at no particular time, just through the brown door in the area for people ‘Asie et Oceanie’. Looking up, I realised I was in fact, standing in front of the brown door reserved for Asie et Oceanie people.
The door slammed loudly behind me causing a large congregation of South East Asians and Caucasians to looked up, mildly alarmed. ‘Pardon,’ I mouthed to the woman who looked up kindly from her desk as I did a Mr Bean style tip toe towards her. ‘I have small question, tiny stupid,’ I offered in advance.
Madame had rosy cheeks, an ample bosom and a neat pile of frizzy, strawberry blond hair piled atop her head. ‘You can help me?’ I half begged, again, in my best French. Taking my passport, her eyes scanned both my visa and carte de sejour, and then she tapped a few numbers into her computer before hobbling off into another room. Good, I thought, progress and maybe even a print out- in France it seems, a print out is everything.
When she returned, Madame did in fact have a print out which also featured ‘two dates’ – le Jeudi 7 Juin (Thursday 7th June) in ‘Salle Asie – Oceanie’ Cour du 19 Août- Porte 9, Marron (Asia and Oceanic, 19th August, brown door number 9). Thanking her profusely I asked again ‘why it have two date?’ to which she answered, ‘no, there is one date’. Pointing at ‘cour du 19 Août,’ I repeated ‘two date’. Stifling giggles and dipping her head towards her heaving bosom, she placed her hand on my hand and said ‘Madame, it is one date- cour du 19 Août is the name of the courtyard’.
If I had to deal with people like me each day, every working day of the week, I would rupture an artery in my brain, and through our entire French exchange where I spoke slowly and she spoke kindly and sensibly, I felt nothing short of grateful for having anyone even half willing to help solve my problem. So, to all the ‘booth 4’ men and women out there, I salut you. And Madame, thank you for the printout.
During a week of my French life, I complete about one millionth of the things I would usually complete in my English life. Rendez-vous’ like Wednesday, with ‘les deux madames et les deux cops,’ (humiliating as these meetings can be) fill me with a decent sized balloon of pure joy which see me float out of meeting rooms across Paris, humming a little tune under my breath as I squeak ‘oui, oui, oui,’ all the way down the street.
Earlier in the week I made a long awaited visit to Fanny, my long suffering friend at the nail bar. In her uniform of hooded jumper riding up towards her chin worn over a pair of low slung jeans and a dust mask, Fanny greeted me with her usual huge smile before ripping off her mask and launching into rapid question time about my holiday en Australie. Chinese pop played gently in the background (surprising, because it is normally exclusively John Denver) and we quickly moved into a conversation about boyfriends and how she believes I really need a Frenchman (not without warning me that they are no good for the heart, but nice for the language). My Chinese manicurist speaks little to no English so our regular one hour encounters are always good for my comprehension. We banter away in French peppered with Chinese and Australian accents as red dust flys around the room while she files and huffs and puffs, before reapplying another shade of rouge to see me through until our next session.
On Wednesday, following my meeting at the visa office, I took solace from the freeze in Notre Dame – the queue was surprisingly non existent and midday mass was just beginning as I took my seat. I find real solace in old cathedrals, with their candles flickering and abundant light spilling through the stain glass windows looming above. This famous place of worship is only a few short minutes from home, but moments such as those that I enjoyed this week are rare, mainly due to the queue that normally snakes for miles around her forecourt. Just like a fat escargot.
As I rocked on my rattan chair, one of probably a thousand that make up the neat rows in the four walls that house them, I listened to the sermon and was surprised at how many people actually turn up to take part and not just take selfies.
And, while it would be generous to imply that I took in about 60% of what was being said, I was reminded only this morning during a phone conversation with one of my dearest friends, that it’s not so much the extent of what you understand of what is actually being said, but rather, the body language between people, the emotions you can recognise through these interactions, and the speed at which we continue to move through life- whether we understand what is happening around us, or not. Speaking makes up just a small part of who we are and who we will become.
It is the pregnant pauses or an awkward silence that could lead to moments of sheer humiliation, which will inevitably force us to explore a side of ourselves that may otherwise remain unexplored and therefore, dormant. Throughout our entire life.
Our phone conversation came at a time so poignant to this particular moment in my life, where I often find myself dreaming of running a shop by the sea full of raffia shoes and white shirts and where the clientel speak only English. I also imagine business being so quiet that I can take seventeen coffee breaks a day at the café next door.
While that would be a dream come true, it would go against the grain of what Madame at the visa office taught me earlier in the week, along with every other French bureaucrat before her. Unbeknownst to them, as they form an important part of my own little path in life.
Following my phone conversation this morning, I pulled back the curtains and was greeted by rooftops blanketed in snow – even ‘the beast from the east’ had delivered pure magic at the end of a week full of contemplation, tight jeans, skivvies, derrières et al.
At this stage in life, I wouldn’t swap those moments for anything. Not even a shop full of raffia shoes and endless white shirts.
Pictured: a gutter full of snow.