Global Mom: La Bureaucratie

Bureaucratie is a French word, of course, and France won’t let you forget it.  Getting Dalton into French school was not my first experience with French bureaucracy, though. As soon as we’d landed in Versailles (a Friday), unpacked our suitcases in a hotel (on Saturday), gone to church (a Sunday), and Randall had flown off on an extended trip to Karachi, Pakistan (Monday), all my days thereafter, it seemed, were filled with sorting through French forms.

New American family moves into Rue René Aubert. There goes the neighborhood.

Just a detail: I did not speak French.  I had not studied French law. I had no background in governmental negotiations, neither did I have any one to help me peel off those pesky official royal wax stamps without losing the whole middle paragraph in the process. I had three young children, no child care, twelve suitcases and, the week we finally moved into our home, I had a flooded basement that turned to mulch thirty-four cartons of precious, irreplaceable belongings. For that baptism by basement flood, I had a skinny Portuguese plumber with his Polish Sancho Panza. How the two ever understood each other, how I ever understood them, how they ever understood me enough to clean out the mess without being electrocuted by the live wires dangling above the soupy reservoir that just the day before I’d stocked with all my storage, remains to this day one of the weirder mysteries of my life.

I also had a deadline. There were two weeks before school start for me to get everything up and running. For those two weeks, Randall would be absent, establishing his first connections with his direct reports in the Middle East, an area which, along with Europe and all of Africa, comprised his new area of professional responsibility.  If I ever wondered how he was doing in Islamabad, Karachi, Cairo, Beirut and couldn’t reach him, I just turned on the news. As you know, interesting things were going on there. And as you can guess, this was not the Calm Pill a wife and mother needed.  Ah, but he had gone to that two-week-long personal security course at Langley, near Washington.  There, he’d learned how to effectively wield a kubaton, how to identify a sniper and roll for cover, and how to drive a get-away car at high speeds and from the floor of the passenger side with only one hand on the pedals.  And that was supposed to make us all feel much more secure.

All this on my mind, I’d find myself taking those forms in a big folder to an endless string of offices, dragging three restless bodies with me, essentially crawling through French legalese with the help of a frayed dictionary and flailing arms.  Mine and the children’s. One of these many offices, I was sure, held the mystical keys to unlock the entrance to this new world.  It seemed they didn’t want me there, these alarmingly uncharming French.  Well, unless I was willing to be their circus pooch and fling myself through the endless hoops to jump.  My three children, my stressed-out self, hopping through hoops, standing in offices, beseeching what felt like a whole pageant of unsmiling officials behind glass walls in cigarette smoke-filled bureau after bureau after bureau.

Today I wish I’d kept a tally to share with you how many times I arrived at some office, a sweaty wad of forms in hand, barking children at my ankles, ready to get the coveted stamp so I could proceed to the next stamp-dispensing venue, only to be told I was missing one signature, one blood sample or a birth certificate. (And this was just to install a clothes dryer.) The American in me who values convenience and accessibility, the German in me who prizes efficiency and order, and the Norwegian in me who extols simplicity and cooperation, balked in one groaning triad at the convolutions of our new host culture.

The children took the big tangle of inconvenience in stride, though, only because they were too young, probably, to realize what we were doing fingerprinting them every week.  Then Parker had his own run-in with bureaucracy when he discovered the basketball hoops in a sport center in Rue Remilly around the corner from our home in Rue René Aubert. Parker loved nothing as much as he loved basketball, and was going crazy not playing.  So I was almost ready to let him scale the fence to shoot some hoops there once in a while in the middle of the night.  But the fence was high and there’s an after midnight no-noise law for Versailles and I’m a rule-keeper, so we waited until we saw a live person inside the gymnasium one extremely hot August day.  Then we went straight in for shade and to plead our case.

Parker shooting hoops

“Bonjour, Monsieur,” I said with as much confidence as I could muster without donning combat gear.  The middle-aged gentleman in a small office at the entrance of Gymnase de Remilly looked up at me, nodded, released a puff of smoke, and flicked the ashes from the end of his cigarette.

“Bonjour Madame, jeune homme.”  It was Boris Karloff’s long lost French cousin, I swear it.

I’d brought Parker, my jeune homme, to help me plead and, if necessary, to impress the court keepers with a three pointer from the back court with his eyes closed. To convince a potential person in authority or stamp dispenser of just how much this boy really loved basketball and how, maybe, his engagement in their Versailles Club de Basket (I’d seen a sign advertising try-outs) would benefit them as much as it would him.

Grown Parker, playing the game

“Excuse me. I disturb you,” I start in, taking the same lines I’d first used on Britt at barnepark, only in French, not Norwegian, and with slight modification. “We are Americans.  We inhabit house not far. ” I say this pushing nine-year-old Parker in front of me. “We are hot.”

Which is not the right thing to say.  In French, it, meaning the weather, makes hot. But you are not hot. No decent Mormon mother of three, at least, is hot or announces that she is.  And not on a first encounter with Karloff’s cousin.

“And you have the air,” the man responds, his face as unmoved as the heavy heat wave that is making parts of me, like my brain, liquefy.

I have the air? Well, in fact, I don’t have the air.  I have none. Which is why I think I’m going to faint on the spot.  I don’t have enough air, that’s for sure, but this guy, the guy who’s smoking and therefore giving me less air, is accusing me of having it. Only weeks later do I learn he’d just been saying, “You sure look like it.” But right now and because I have to be a wee bit obsequious, I tell him what any hot, needy newcomer would; “I’m terribly, horribly desolated.”

Things in that moment aren’t going precisely as I’d hoped, and I begin aching for a woman with half a red jumpsuit and a coffee thermos to walk in from around some corner back there and sing, “Hurrah! Komm in!”

But there’s a door. And it has a plaque. And the plaque has a title.  And all this, I think, belongs to this cigarette-smoking man who’s clearly leaving me to my own devices.

“My son plays on the basket,” I bulldoze indelicately over my string of unwitting French faux pas, trying to recall the phrases I’d written on Post Its and studied on the walk here.  “Is it that you have perhaps a place for him, Monsieur?”

“S’il vous plait?” Parker peeps.

The man then lifts himself from the chair, tossing his cigarette into a trashcan, and stretching his shoulders. “Shwee pah coach,”he says with a shrug. Which means nothing at all to me for a full minute.

Then a light goes on, and it has to do with what I now see are the man’s janitor’s clothes and the broom he reaches for.  I now know. I’m not the coach, he’s told me.

The coach, when we did meet him on our next visit, was animated, even gregarious, and completely keyed about an American boy named Parker  like “Tony Parker!”  he shouted, who’d himself grown up playing basketball in Versailles. The coach shook the hand of the nine-year-old boy who’d just moved in around the corner, the one who had a Norwegian mom, (the coach thought this forever), the boy who loved more than anything, Le Basket.

But being France, there was a certain protocol. Only after several forms, mug shots, blood tests and fingerprinting, was Parker allowed to wander in there as he pleased and shoot away.  Some months later, he would become a full -fledged member of the Versailles CB (Club du Basket) where he played three times a week on a team of resolute French players who spoke no English except the essentials even I could understand: “dribble” (pronounced “dreeebl”) and “Parker,” pronounced “Par Coeur”, as in “by heart.”   The motivation to make that switch from Norwegian to French got some traction. And in no time, he improved his game while picking up loads of local basketball lingo.  Alright, so not quite French of the court of Versailles. But French of a court of Versailles.

Parker, grown again, teaching his brothers and sister how to play Le Basket

© Melissa Dalton-Bradford and, 2012. This work (text and images) is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. . . which means, as long you’re not selling it, you’re welcome to share, but please remember to give me a link and mention my name.

6 thoughts on “Global Mom: La Bureaucratie

    • Heather, So happy this made you laugh. What is pathetic in the moment is pretty funny in hindsight. I’d love to hear about your family’s hoop-jumping sometime, and think that’s best done face-to-face, don’t you. Would love you at my table, friend. Always with deep love—Melissa

  1. Souvenir, souvenir, I knew this situation when a went in France (Paris) from Prague in 1968, attendre des heures et des heures pour le permis de séjour, once a week, every week, à la Préfecture de Paris, l’île de la Cité…. oh yes, bureaucratie is still there. But what about the French school ? No places, a lot of “paperasse”… so at that time I met you at the ASP, your sister was there with you… the beginning of our friendship. Et maintenant que tu es là, à 10 minutes de chez moi, je ne t’ai toujours pas vu, I miss you

    • Irina—Yes, la Préfecture de Paris, l’île de la Cité how many times have I stood there? Twenty? How many hours? Forty maybe? And the schools, yes, so much paperwork it’s used up a whole forest. And our first meeting 1998 front lobby of ASP, how I did cling to you then. And now, my neighbor right down the lake, cannot believe it. And can believe less that we have not been in one another’s company every day. All this book writing. . .keeping me pinned to my chair. S’il te plait, un petit verre un jour ou l’autre? I do miss you, too. Thrilled you are so close.—M.

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