Wednesday, July 09, 2008

I love the French, but they’re insane

Today, I would like to talk about two things that strike me as being characteristic of French life: tangled bureaucracy and the exasperated sigh.

First, a true story: when in Paris, I studied at the National Library. The way that the National Library primary document reading room works is really quite simple. You show up and give them your reader card and, in return, they give you a key for a locker right next to the door and a locker pass. You put your stuff in the locker, come back and give them the pass and key; then they give you an orange pass for a seat. You sit down, take the orange pass to the back, and give that person the number of a document you’d like, after finding the old number in a book and replacing that with the new number in the card catalog and completing a form. They take the orange pass and the form and give you a green pass. You sit back down. Soon they come to bring you the document. If you want to go to lunch, you give your green pass to the person at the desk in the center of the room, who gives you a lunch pass. When you want to leave for the day, you give the person in the back the green pass; they give you an orange pass, which you give to the person in the middle of the room, who gives you a paper pass that you give to the front desk in order to get the key for the locker. Really, what could be easier?

What threw me wasn’t the fact that you have to carry all of these passes between people who are within talking distance of each other; it was the fact that the number for the document that you give to the retriever is not the same as the number that you give in order to be allowed to photograph the document: it has two different numbers, or actually three. One of which they don’t ever give you, but you can look it up online, if you know that it exists. I did not. So, the woman in the middle of the room yelled at me about my false number: I gave her the number I needed to have the document retrieved, you know, like a fool. She’s yelling “Non! N’est pas vrai! N’est pas vrai!” at me. I’m yelling that I gave her the number in the card catalogue and she’s getting upset because she apparently believes that I’m a con artist trying to pull the most elaborate and pointless scam in history. Finally, I do the French thing, which is to sigh very loudly and walk off muttering. After that, she’s nice to me.

I thought about this today while I was at the post office, trying to send a package home and nearly causing an international incident. I had only filled out three forms for the package, instead of four. My only excuse here was that they gave me three to complete when I bought the package. The people behind me were angry about this because, of course, you have to fill out four forms to send a package; not a measly three. Everyone knows that! Why didn’t I demand form number four? Ugh! They’re all sighing exasperatedly in unison, sounding like some sort of primitive steam engine. Again, if only I was quicker witted, this Kafkaesque bureaucracy would be pleasant for everyone!

A few lessons from all of this: 1. the French love paperwork, 2. it is remarkably easy to irritate them, 3. in fact, you should probably forget altogether about not irritating them, 4. nor should you take it too hard, though- they are all completely insane.

Conclusion: I miss my wife and cat.


narrator said...

the irrational love of ritual is inherently French. One of the things that never was changed by the Revolution.

Rufus said...

Right. I think Thom Yorke described it best as being "at once completely brilliant and totally mad".