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Man Vs. Bureaucracy, Part 2,369
Further Confessions of an Innocent Abroad
Riffs ran into a wall in the Fall of 2022. Or maybe the wall run into Riffs, at high speed, in any case I stopped publishing here or just about anywhere else. Whatever was stopping me wasn’t in the same place today that it was yesterday, it followed me around. Very modern wall. It’s tricky business living in a foreign country when your papers have expired.
Reader, a long diatribe follows.
The writer here, this one, was ready to run out of town, unlike the gent above taking his own sweet time in the shade after opening a bottle of red. (Horses lined up on the other side of the river, what are they doing in the heat ?) No, this writer was up to his waist in papers – the legal kind, for residence and emergency medical care. The French have a program called AME, Aide Medicale d’Etat, for medical assistance to indigents and anyone on the In-Between, papers expired or never possessed. There’s no sense letting people die on the street just for lack of legal status and it’s bad publicity to boot; but getting the dossier just right so you’re approved is a hurdle many illegals never successfully navigate. (Pols have attacked AME so long and so often for giving ‘special privileges’ to immigrants that it’s nearly a secret. You can ask at your local city hall but no one will tell you.) I don’t know how my African comrades living in a foyer with a dozen other construction workers make it when they’ve got a bum leg and no coverage. They manage.
So the wall rose up like a shimmering, diaphanous sheet of A4 paper with a multitude of boxes to be checked and explanations given. Every time I sat down in December and early January, resolving that Dammit ! This time I’m writing something that matters, I never did. Forms and the letters for my carte sejour attacked, that being the residence permit to work and have access to society as a law-abiding, contract-signing individual, not to mention the latest scolding from AME about pages missing from my dossier, or my reply to collection agencies wondering when I was going to pay for my trip to the Emergency Room in August. Very First World problems, you say. You try writing letters in French to officials whose only response is a print out. You’re leaning on the wall, cramming your note into a crevice but the plaza is deserted. God has left his factotums to clean up the mess and they’re on vacation.
Ten days into this January I trekked to the Jura to see friends and make my personal assault on the bureaucracy from a different angle. I’d given up on Paris and trying to get one of those select rendezvous where you present your case for a change in status.
Paris and the nearby suburbs have too many petitioners, and no bureaucrat wants to have the Wrong Guy on his CV or his conscience. No one wants that kind of trouble in their dossier. Fonctionnaires come in two types, aggressive and passive-aggressive, one pacing the entrance like security at a night club, the other behind glass giving you wary, uncertain looks, searching for the first missing element that will let them send you away. It’s an old culture, with rituals and arcana no one escapes. You get used to sitting on benches and staring into space. You tell yourself, This grand, glorious, old country surely has room for me but they reply, Who are you to knock on our door so persistently ? Why didn’t you do things properly and file your papers in advance, before you left home ? Sensible people do that. You know they aren’t telling the truth but that’s too bad. You think about Arthur Koestler in his Paris apartment getting a visit from Immigration in the run-up to WWII, all his papers in order and being thrown into an internment camp just the same. You sit and wait on the bench next to quiet, intense people, their arms equally full of pages in shiny colored plastic files collated by date, no one making conversation or trading notes and before long you ask yourself if you aren’t in the outer room of an insane asylum.
Let’s go back to July when I’d had enough of playing by the rules and started to lay seige to L’Haÿ les Roses, an innocuous town south of Paris that happens to be the nearby administrative center for hard cases like myself. My mornings began by logging onto the site where you politely beg for a rendezvous; by July I was closing in on 300 rejections. (Mull that one for a moment, oh slick reader with your feet up, a glass in your hand.) I’d had enough. July is a terrible time to do official business but I started going out to L’Haÿ with its fancy ÿ anyway. Little did I know I was walking in to an early Kubrick homage to Kafka, filmed in the green ‘burbs and forgotten.
L’Haÿ les Roses lives up to its name : quaint, historic, built on a gently rolling hillside covered with gardens overflowing with roses, a sweet view of smoggy Paris to the north. The usual compromises with efficient office architecture in the town center give the newcomer, the straggler, Lev Tolstoi with a pack on his back in old age, that creeping sense of displacement we all take for granted in the modern world. The placeless place where man is present but does not belong. Or rather, where he belongs, pertains and even grows on certain blocks, only to turn the corner to face the glass and concrete wall of an international bank in the next. That’s displacement, one reality giving way to another, man lost somewhere in the equation. I was nosing around, trying to find my prefecture and getting lost.
So L’Haÿ is both old and not old, crumbling and shiny. Modern architects cleared the table for the glass towers that loom over us but what comes after ? What comes now, while we’re alive ? Drive through on your way somewhere and you’d speed up, you’ve seen it all before. Walk and it’s bewildering: one second you’re in the courtyard of a an old monastery, leaves swirling around your ankles, cemetery over the wall, musing on times gone by, next you’re walking down a street that practically shouts shop, save and hurry home. I had to find the police station but first I had to catch my breath. Competing voices battled in my head as I stumbled to a bench. Does no one know how to build anymore ? I asked. But really, another voice said, are people expected to live in a historical park for your amusement ? Look around, voice three butted in. See anything that isn’t an invitation to the conformity of a herd of well-fed cows ? Can’t be any other way, said another, resigned. Social housing projects line the route into town, greying concrete tombstones, cabinets full of immigrants and ne’er do betters.
But this was not it. No, I had further to go in this weird film. I’d been living in a basement too long, for all of Covid in fact. I had to find the local sous-gendarmerie that handles immigration petitions. And I did, but not before a quick stroll around the town’s spectacular gardens with its curlicue ponds, busts of local worthies, arbors twined with roses for greeny trysts and of course, every variety of the town’s namesake, russet red, pink with dark fringes like labia, all the whites you could ask for. Everything you could ask for, including a small stage for a jazz concert on a languid summer evening.
A lush life but not for me. I had to find this Processing Center.
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And there it was, down the hill: an enormous glass eyeball revolving and staring at the hillside, the town, the pigeons on the ground, anyone who came too close. Yes, Buckminister Fuller’s genial dome turned into a square-paneled, flat-rooved outpost of Control. Too much, too 2001. I lay on the grass and wailed. The silver circus tent looked like it might blast off at any moment except that it was busy recording everyone who came within a hundred yards. One has dreams but one never sees this revelation of our future. Because this silver, sleepless eyeball is our future. How approach a glass eyeball set into a hill, how does one summon the courage to go in ? I half expected to find Lee Harvey prowling the front with that rifle cradled in his arms.
Little did I know that only a few years before a man had burned himself alive right there in front of the sous-prefecture. An alien resident living in Kremlin-Bicetre, behind on rent when the police came calling and his final petition exhausted, he preferrred to die right then and there.
I came closer. No one there. Control was temporarily abandoned. Bless the French, nothing interferes with their vacations, nothing. But wait, there was a middle-aged couple, Bulgarian, in easy summer gear, killing time whispering to each other on a bench in the shade. The doors were flung open and pacing the entrance was Lee Harvey’s cousin, medium height, thin, mid-thirties with short dark hair, arguing with someone, telling them in no uncertain terms that nothing could be done, she must come back later, to which she replied, But when ? He ignored me as I stole inside.
No one there either. The sleek silver eyeball was deserted. Had I come too late ? There were salles d’attente, all empty, and a smaller room where people queued to lay their papers before windows A-D. The shades were pulled down on each one. Instructions posted on the wall stated that dossiers could only be presented from 8:45 in the morning until 10. I was right in the middle of that but everything was closed anyway. I peered through the glass panels of the eyeball-dome to the well-swept countryside, and left the room. If the building was empty, I might as well have a better look. Maybe I’d find a living human being. And after climbing a set of circular stairs, one for up full of hope, the other for down and out, up three flights to the top floor and then back, I heard something, a small, nervous sound as thin as a tendril of a rose, the sound of things being slotted into place. Apart from my footsteps, the only noise in the whole place.
A man was stocking candy machines in the lobby. He went about his work patiently, the metal doors with the display sugar bars flung open, slipping the sweets into position for the police when they came back from vacation at the end of the month. Pointless work, the candy would be hard and cool by then but he did his job. I asked him a few questions, which he patiently told me he couldn’t answer. Why should he ? No one could tell me a thing. I went back to pacing and sticking my nose in various rooms, looking for a human, a relation. Kubrick’s camera pans around, goes in and out of every room, reads the bulletins on the wall, searches. One thinks, there must be someone here, why would the building be open otherwise ? But no.
The guard outside gave me yet another internet address, which of course led to the same form-to-be-filled that had given me nearly 300 rejections.
Reader, I know this isn’t the France you were expecting. Nothing is ever what we expect it to be once we step out the door. Pascal warned us about that: We should all stay home and lead a happy existence tending the roses. But some of us, for perverse reasons, just can’t. We wander.
I got home and wrote more letters. I cursed my stubborn Taurus spirit that had come to France to stay, wagering they’d have to take me eventually. French friends laughed and said they knew of artists and others who’d never bothered with papers and lived to a ripe old age… It was enough to make my skin crawl and make any all-on-their-own bodies throw up their hands but I wasn’t going to do that this time. I decided to be devious. It was my turn. I put my name on a friend’s rural mailbox and declared I lived in the far Jura part-time. Why not ? People in the Jura were kind, they’d practically treated me like a visiting prince on my earlier trips. I was done with the internet and bored lawyers who take your 500€, give you a few orders only to say, Time’s Up and race out of the room. I was done with my trips to L’Haÿ les Roses and its weird Control igloo.
The small regional commune in the Jura, not far from the Swiss border, gave me an interview after six tries. I was floating when I heard that. I spent early January making my history in France look acceptable, if a touch wayward, with documentation for every month I’d lived here. I lugged all of it out with me to the Jura, all ten plus years of it. I’d stayed in France because I wanted to, because it was good for my writing and my life, never mind the legalities or the soft protections of being a full-fledged citizen who can sign a contract for a job or an apartment. And now Jura friends were enthusiastically coming to my rescue, and if it wasn’t a Done Deal, things looked a hell of a lot better. They still do.
Those days in the Jura when I went to see, if not the Man, his local representatives at the Gendarmerie in Lons le Saunier I save for the next installment. Too rich, too revealing. Let’s just say I get a little twisted walking into police stations. Once again my friends came to the rescue. I didn’t get the papers but I maybe inched closer. I know more about what they expect anyway, the appropriate lies they will accept. Item one, get a copy of my birth certificate without going to New Jersey to get it in person. Plus a dozen other small items, plus I have to swear certain oaths or it’s no go. (I must not be a polygamist if I want papers. Is that clear ? Have as many affaires as you like but no dragging six brides over the border.) The whole thing had its moments and I’ll write it as soon as I can.
So I was back in Paris with 20 pounds of neatly compiled and presented dossier, still not legal, not even waiting for approval or one more rejection, although the latest adventure wasn’t bad and adds to the unofficial résumé of life. Hard not to laugh about it, hard not to admire the friends who gave my proofs-of-residence such a tough inspection because they wanted to make sure it was a success.
And then the phone rang and it was a small teaching outfit in Eastern Europe that didn’t ask questions about my French status, but was I still interested in working for them ? They could use me right away. The program was fairly innovative, giving students in small towns a week off from the grammar grind to stretch their conversational skills and build confidence. The pay sounded okay. I thought about it for five minutes and said yes. And now I’ve signed on for a few more weeks of teaching in small Slovakian towns far from Liberté, Equalite, Fraternité, where they still keep statues of the head-chopper in the main square just to remind people not to go too far. And going too far is the only way to go.
And the novel-on-line I proposed in November ? Still a good idea. But there weren’t any takers: a few kind souls pitched in but nowhere near the subscription goal I’d set. There are no lines queueing up to read Riffs, Americans have a kind of gauzy, nostalgic interest in Europe and France, and accepting that, I’ll hold the rest of the story for later. It’s Spring Break over here now so I’ve got a free week when I can bash out a few pieces and finish a few others, posting them once they’re over the line.
The photograph on top is from the first decade of the 20th century. It isn’t hand colored or colorized mechanically, it’s an early experiment using color filters. (Tints made from dyed potato starch.) There are more Parisian images floating around from Albert Khan’s Archives of the Planet project if you look, and if you come to Paris you can visit his Japanese gardens along the Seine in Boulogne-Billancourt. Those horses on the other side of the Seine pulling a long boat along the crowded river are the giveaway to the date.
All the weeping and wailing above wouldn’t be fair if we didn’t hear from the other side of the divide, non ? Not the bureaucrats but the French themselves. Here’s today’s Twitter grievance, from Jean Banville, ‘proud to be a real Frenchman’ (français de souche, old line, old trunk).
“Today, February 27th, I asked for a rendezvous to renew my national identity card. The administration gave me a date on June 5. Nothing works in this, the most taxed country in the world.”
Immediately informed by commentators that it could be done on the internet and on the local municipal site, Banville replied that he had done exactly that. Another voice chortled about how things move so much more quickly now that we live in the digital age. The complaint about taxes is strictly de rigueur but the one about a bureaucracy far from the cares of its citizens is not. Worth pointing out that Banville’s bio fits the identitairian profile, and thus puts him on the ‘far-right’ in our endless division of society into hostile camps. But asking someone to go four or five months without an identity card is essentially rendering them defenseless in case of accident or legal imbroglio. You be the judge if that is solely a ‘far-right’ concern.
Stay tuned, as Hentoff used to say. Part II sometime soon.
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