According to internet sites of varying reliability, it was Napoléon Bonaparte who first said ‘If you want a thing done well, do it yourself’. Though presumably he said it in French. Such a statement makes sense within the context of French administration, a vast and knotted series of systems designed to never let anyone into France who is not a) French; b)a wizard; c) a corrupt forger of documents.
One of the only Erasmus students at the ENS Lyon who is ‘sorted’ with bank card, housing etc., was born in Lille, and developed a lucrative fake ID-card business at school, for 15 different countries. This seems like a useful technique for carrying out basic registration tasks in this country.
Over the past 10 days I’ve spent hours trailing from corridor to corridor, room to room, dagger-eyed secretary to dagger-eyed secretary. It’s a love-hate relationship, but without any of the love part.
In order to get a bank account, you need the housing insurance; in order to get housing insurance, you need to have a room; in order to (legally) have a room, it needs to be registered; in order to be registered, you need a guarantor; in order to have a guarantor you basically need to be French and already resident in the country; in order to be already resident in the country YOU ALREADY NEED ALL OF THE ABOVE. Let alone: getting wi-fi access for your room, updating the main student card without a French bank account, and receiving post when denied a postbox.
Perhaps this is fairly standard – it is pretty difficult moving to any new country. What is really outstanding is the attitude. Firstly, no problem is too small or too simple to be considered entirely unsolvable. Almost every simple request is met with a deep shrug, eyebrow raise, and expression of rueful acceptance, as you are informed that ‘Ce n’est pas possible. En fait, c’est hors de question. Ce n’est pas possible, ça’. Often the activity seems very much possible and within the grasp of anything with a functioning respiratory system.
Sometimes (for example) you need the form signed as soon as possible, and you are sitting across the desk from the secretary who can sign it, and you need the form to be signed to receive Erasmus money, and yet she cannot sign it, because ce n’est pas possible. You may resort to begging, such is the extent to which the system has degraded you. This will not work. She is signing it on Lundi après-midi, and that is now God’s will, and nothing – no reasoning, no polite request – will change this. (You doubt there is a God, because surely He would not have invented French bureaucracy). There is another form to be signed, but this must be sent to another department, even though you know this woman will never sign it, because she has not replied to your emails for a month. And also because ce n’est pas possible.
The other response is to lecture you on all the faults you have ever possessed, and all the many ways you are incredibly stupid for ever believing you might be able to join the gym, given with a thorough analysis of the terrible character of the British. Waiting for one secretary at the ENS to finish her 10-minute presentation of my incorrigible stupidity in incorrectly filling out a housing form, I wondered why she couldn’t just take out a bilingual dictionary, and flick through to V, vers (m): maggot, worm, and indicate that this was a fitting description of myself. It would have been quicker, and would have involved considerably less eye-rolling.
Joining the gym is my next goal. In order to do so, I have to buy a medical certificate of health from a doctor. Foolishly, I thought this would be possible to do through the on-site medical centre, and so posted my personal health form (plus 9€ ID photo, not forged) through the boite à lettres outside; unfortunately this request was met by the same sad shrug. However, in order to make a Doctor’s appointment, you have to have slay the Nemean lion, the Lernaean Hydra, and to capture Cerberus, guardian of the gates of the underworld.