Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Chocolate and Lemon

I slipped into the country with a simple “Bonjour”, a smile and not even so much as a raised eyebrow from the French Customs Official.

This may not seem that remarkable, if it weren’t for the bureaucratic, lengthy and arduous process I had to go through to get my French visa prior to leaving Australia. Following several letters from my prospective French employer and the French Foreign Ministry, a must-do personal visit to the French Consulate in Sydney, where I even digitally fingerprinted, the Custom Official didn’t even see my visa!

Not to mention I didn’t even have to fill in a landing card or a customs declaration form – nope nothing. This, I have come to realise, was simply my first experience of many in France thus far where on one hand the French are incredibly and unnecessarily bureaucratic, whilst on the other hand they are laid-back and relaxed.

It’s not that the formal bureaucratic requirements and relax nature contradict each other, but in some strange way it works. Much like the classic chocolate flavoured ice-cream coupled with lemon gelato – contradictory, not really, complementary, maybe.

Hopping into a taxi I attempt to tell the driver where I need to go. He seems confused. Understandable, I can’t speak of word of French, and I’m sure I’m mispronouncing everything. However, I find out latter that all French taxi drivers are confused because none of them know where they are going and rely on their GPS devises to get there – relaxed. I hand over my credit card to pay...”non,”. OK, maybe they don’t accept foreign credit cards. Nope! There are no credit cards in France. Yep, that’s right, there is no such thing as a true credit card. It’s only Mastercard/Visa debit cards - bureaucratic.

Following this I get unceremoniously dumped by the taxi driver with my 80kg of luggage on the opposite side of where I need to be. I slowly inch my way across the square with my multiple bags, where I’m sure I provided all the patrons at the nearby cafe at least 20 minutes of entertainment as they watched me huff and puff.

My first day at work the next day was much the same. Straight into discussing the projects I was to work on for the next 12 months and I hadn’t even been shown my desk – formal. Then we there was a 10am morning tea function to celebrate the Epiphany (a religious event, of which there will be many during the year) where everyone gets a slice of an almond cake-type pastry called a Gallet and if you’re lucky enough to find the little ‘thing’ buried in the cake then you will be King for the day…or Queen as it turned out. This lasted an hour – relaxed.

Following this there was a Division meeting, which started a relaxed 10 minutes past the schedule start time. At the meeting I learnt that there will be a Division lunch, next week, maybe, which is a belated Xmas lunch – super relaxed, lazy even. The Division will also be going on a ‘retreat’(*add French accent here) next month. As exotic as this sounds, I think it’s just an off-site day and no actual ‘retreating’ as such. Again, this is a maybe – relaxed.

So after another relaxed hour, I was able to log into my computer, only having to create a new password that must be 14 characters long (!) – bureaucratic.

There are no locks on the doors of the offices and no keys for the filing cabinets – relaxed, but I can’t have two drawers of my set of drawers beneath my desk open at the same time, it won’t let me and locks the other draws automatically and won’t open them until I shut the drawer that is open – hilariously bureaucratic. Even the furniture is French!

Moving to my new apartment on the weekend was exciting. Finally my own place, with a tiny insy winsy itty bitty kitchen, complete with bar fridge and a 3.5 kg load capacity washing machine. No more bulk buying and huge loads of washing on the weekend. I will have to learn to be an efficient single-serve almost daily shopping Parisienne apartment dweller. I even bought a shopping caddy to complete the look!

In anticipation of receiving my ‘secret code’, as advised by the bank staff member when opening my French bank account, I needed to have my name placed on the letterbox in the foyer of my apartment building. In turns out that to get a key cut in France you must pay €50 to get an identity card which says that you have the legal authority to cut another key, and then €120 to cut the key – ridiculously bureaucratic. Thankfully this is something my landlord took care of. However, it seems that the postman has all the codes (most apartments have electronic keypad entry) for all the apartments and my letterbox key had been left with the local Indian Restaurant owner down the street – relaxed.   

By the way, my trip to the bank, you guessed it, was both bureaucratic and relaxed. After apologising profusely for being late because I was waiting for a colleague to join me just in case I need help translating, my “pardons” were waved off. “You are in Paris, it is OK to be late” I’m told - relaxed. I walked out with a ream of paper as well as pre-filled direct debit authorisation forms for each of the mobile phone providers in France so that once I choose a carrier I can give them the form. Yep, the bank can only authorise direct debits from your account, the account holder can’t – bureaucratic.

Oh and of course I’ve sent away not one, but four signed copies of my French residency card (which will allow me to stay for a year), and I had strict instructions that the form must be printed double-sided. It should take three weeks to process – fingers crossed.

So I have come to learn rather quickly that the French are famously bureaucratic in Europe, whilst they are also known for their relaxed long lunches, endless coffee drinking / cafe milling-about and being fashionably late to things.

This is all amusing at the moment....for how long, I’m not sure.


  1. Hilarious. J'ai des larmes.

  2. Look forward to hearing of your adventures in Paris! Jussie

  3. Fantastic and hopefully your Australian sarcasm is not translateable. Looking forward to the next installment. Bart

  4. Hey Talz, sounds like you are going to have a blast! Enjoy and I'll stay tuned...
    Pash xo

  5. fabulous Taliya looking forward to your impressions of Notre Dame, one of my all time favourite places on earth
    Stella :)

  6. Sounds like quite an experience ! Soak up the European attitude to life and work, and try and squeeze in some weekend get aways to nearby countries as well. Looking forward to following your adventures in Paris! Cheers GT

  7. look forward to more more more!!! Eliza

  8. Hey Tarz I am really enjoying reading your explorations stay safe and relax! Juliet C.