January 5, 2008

Cross-cultural (mis)communication

Posted in Les français tagged , , , at 5:52 pm by Lauren

On the morning of Wednesday, December 12, I went to the French consulate in Washington to pick up my long term visitor visa. Despite previous visits last summer, I felt fairly confident that this should be an easy visit. My visa was ready, and I’d pick up my livret de famille from woman responsible for registering marriages.

I arrived barely on time, so rather than pick up the livret de famille first, I headed straight to the visa office. The cheerful old man behind the desk recognized my name and asked where I’d been. (My visa was ready on September 14; I received the call as I arrived at the airport for my flight to France.) As he went to retrieve my visa from the back room, I asked the fateful question, “My livret de famille just arrived; should I apply for a spousal visa instead?” He looked surprised, conferred with the younger man behind the counter, and asked to see my livret de famille. It was clear that they were upset that I broke the rules by applying for a long term visitor visa. Breaking the bureaucratic chain does not sit well with the French.

I explained that I had to go next door to pick up my livret de famille, and they made a gesture that indicated I should run. Next door, the ever-charming receptionist – the one who once told me I should have my husband call instead because “he might understand her better” – asked if I had an appointment. I did not. She frowned and said I would have to wait, but sent me upstairs to the woman who oversees marriages abroad. When I arrived there, I could see that she was not busy. I questioned whether I should wait and whether she’d been told to expect me by the receptionist. Then I took a deep breath and knocked instead. She immediately invited me in to her office and gave me the livret de famille; the whole conversation took less than two minutes. The receptionist raised her eyebrows when I got downstairs, “Deja?” I just gave her a big smile, “Bonne journee!”

Back at the visa office, the younger man greeted me at the window. “Okay, I’ll need your application,” he said to me in English.

“The original application?”

“I need your application.” Visa office workers do not clarify, only repeat.

“Well, you have my application from this summer. Do you need the original copy of that?”

He looked at me as if I were exceptionally stupid. He picked up the sheaf of papers that was my original application, “This visa has been cancelled. We will not speak of it anymore.” (Snap!) He looked from the defunct application back at me, “You are applying for a visa. You need a visa application.” I explained that I had not walked in the door this morning planning on applying for a new visa, and he pointed me towards the application forms and told me to fill one out.

I returned to the window a few minutes later with the application form filled out. The woman was now at the window, and I asked her if I should wait to talk to the man instead, who had been helping me. She said, “He was waiting for you to fill out two applications forms.” Two? I went back to the table.

Back at the window, now with two application forms in hand, the woman started to go through her routine. “Passport, please… Now, copies of your passport.” I explained that there were copies in my other application packet. (I dared speak of it again!) She went to find it, took the copies of the passport, and asked for passport photos. I said, again, that there were multiple copies in my other application. She seemed annoyed, and the man leaned over and asked in French, “You don’t have any other photos?” I responded to him in French that I only had one. Something shifted. “Oh, mais c’est wonderful!” He took the photo and told me that the other photos were stapled and wouldn’t work as well.

“Now,” he said, still in French, “Do you have a copy of your livret de famille?” I said I didn’t; I’d just picked it up from next door. I tensed up, expecting disaster to strike. The visa office does not under any circumstances make photocopies. Instead, they instruct visa-seekers to leave, get copies, and come back with the appropriate amount. They refuse to direct anyone to a specific copy shop (not even saying whether you should take a left or right from the consulate gates) because they can’t legally recommend anyone. And furthermore, the nearest copy shop is at least a 30 minute walk, if you choose the right direction to walk. C’est pas evident. I stood frozen, hoping he’d just waive the copy of the livret de famille.

“Well, you know, if we make a copy for you, it’s $100!” His face was stony, but I thought it might be a French joke, and I laughed. He nodded, turned, and made a copy of my livret de famille in the back. We sorted out the remaining paperwork, including copies of all of Allen’s identifying information, and then after a short wait, he called me back to the window to pick up my finished visa. He showed me the receipt, “This shows that we gave you your new visa for free…it should have been 99 euros. Now, on the other hand, you owe us $100 for the copy.” This time he smiled. “Bon sejour en France.”

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1 Comment »

  1. Cate said,

    Oh, gatekeepers and their humor! 🙂


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