Government buildings in foreign countries seem to set out to confuse everyone, even (especially?) in countries where they speak English.
In Zambia the ‘official’ language is English, though it is not the language that most Zambian’s speak at home. However, you can expect to find out what you need to know if you speak English. Usually.
Collecting my work permit in Zambia would have been absolutely impossible without the assistance (hand-holding, really) of our local admin staff at AISL. It wasn’t a language issue, it was an organisation issue. Luckily, we were walked through the whole process, which involved standing in several unmarked queues for over an hour, being sent “over there ” with a vague flutter of the hand. Our school representative knew exactly where to go and what to do – she’d done this dozens of times before. We got the work permits, job done and dusted. Mine was valid for 2 years.
Fast forward a couple of years to France, 2015. I have ‘misplaced’ (i.e lost) my Carte de Sejour. This is effectively my visa and work permit, which is valid until 2018. So back in September, I trundled off to the prefecture to apply for a replacement. I joined one queue. Once I got to the front I was told I was in the wrong queue, I needed to go to Window 9 and get a number. Then you wait until your number is called. I go to Window 9, there is no real queue, I am pleased to see, but a couple of people loitering nearby, I realise they are the ‘queue’. Meanwhile, a couple of dozen people are littered across the bench seats facing the service windows- ‘guichets’ in French. They appear to be waiting for their number to be called.
As there’s no real system, I smile at the man at the ‘end’ of the queue and stand a bit further back so it is clear I am also waiting.
A woman comes through a door behind me and marches up to the window. She stands behind the woman currently being ‘served’. It is all taking a very long time to simply get a number, so I’m not really delighted to have a queue jumper. When she looks at me, I indicate the other two poor saps and myself and say ‘Nous attendons’.
This is when it got embarrassing. A very kind young woman came over to me – she spoke English thankfully or perhaps I would have been lynched when I still didn’t understand. She quietly told me (with dozens of, now I think about it, angry watchers sitting on benches facing the service windows) that she was also in the queue, as were all of the people now glaring at me with real hatred in their eyes.
As the lightbulb came on, my embarrassment multiplied. I wanted to run out and forget the carte de sejour – I don’t need to work in France, do I? Not really…oh wait yes I do.
No, I stood my ground, apologised profusely in two languages and went to the back of a very long slow queue. Once I got my number, I did it all over again.
Misunderstandings are a daily occurrence for me here – I waited for 5 months before chasing them- I was under the impression it would be sent to my house. Apparently I have to collect it, and the first opportunity I’ve had to do that is today.
Which brings us to another frustrating morning standing in queues.
When I finally got to the front of the line, to mystical Guichet 9, the woman puffed out her cheeks at the date printed on my paper. December? I explained that I thought they would send it to me. She took my passport (my photo is on the paper she just looked at but luckily I remembered to bring my passport ‘just in case’). She then garbled something quickly about paying something and wafted her hands toward the door to the street. What? Where do I need to go now? I heard ‘impôt’ – I have to pay a fine? What for? Because it was lost. Oh.
She sent me down the road to the centre des impots – except that it’s not called that and she only gave the road name, not the full address. She smiled like a great white shark as she told me I’d need to be back before 12:30. The oh-so -important lunch break. Oh, and she didn’t tell me, but I figured out that they won’t reopen today after lunch. Don’t be silly. It’s Wednesday.
No address, wrong sign- no big deal, I found it. I stood for a short while in a somewhat shorter line than at the Prefecture, after which I was told that , no he didn’t have any left. Any what? Timbre fiscale. Is that what I need? A stamp? Apparently it’s not a rubber stamp on my paper to say I’ve paid, it’s a physical adhesive stamp like a postage stamp. But he didn’t have any, and not only that, he couldn’t imagine any shop in St Germain having one, so he sent me several miles down the road to the Bureau de Tabac in the next town, Chambourcy.
When I got there I realised it wasn’t THE ‘Bureau de Tabac’, which I thought had to be different to an ordinary ‘tabac’ where people buy cigarettes and lottery tickets. No, no it was exactly that sort of tabac, begging the question: there must be dozens of those in St Germain en Laye, why did I need to go to Chambourcy for that? Ho hum. No idea, he didn’t tell me that, or if he did, I didn’t understand him.
Ok, funny little fine stamps bought, back to the Prefecture to stand in another queue. I didn’t dare jump the queue (again), even though the shark-woman had given me a number- it corresponded to nothing on the monitors calling people to the various windows.
A very self important man jumped the queue in front of me, not really asking, saying he was just coming back with his photocopies. When I showed him my number, indicating that I, too had already waited in the very long queue more than once, he turned his back and held his place in front of me.
He proceeded to cross two different ‘lines of confidentiality’, rudely pushing his body in front of other people who were being served – because he was (obviously) much more important than they were. Luckily he didn’t try to get back in front of me again as I would have been tempted to kick him.
I waited and was rewarded, if not with a smile, then with my new valid,nCarte de Sejour. I am once again able to prove I’m allowed to live here and legally work as well- at least until 2018. I think that’s good news. Phew!