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Jul 12, 1997
French Paperwork -- a moveable feast for the 90s - Forbes
Hemingway labeled his memories of the years spent savoring Paris' wine, women and Stein "A Moveable Feast." I am fond of this city, too, and thanks to Paris' omnipresent bureaucracy, my favorite souvenirs are almost equally portable; my wallet is bulging with multicolored fiches, tickets, resus, cartes and other numbered, stamped and triplicated delights.

The Eskimos are said to have 40 different words for snow. The French seem to have at least as many words for "receipt." Whatever one calls it, the bearer is invariably obliged to affix a tax stamp to the bottom of it. France's pervasive tobacco stores have the concession for selling tax stamps, which suits me fine as every time I get involved with French bureaucracy, I feel the urge to smoke.

Before lighting up, permit me to take you on a tour of a few cherished tokens of French paperwork--my own moveable feast:

1. Attestation de Non-Polygamy

The French go to their nearest prefecture the way Americans go to the grocery store. The prefecture is the local administrative center where people come to register for the hundreds of things one must register for in France. Like the ancient royal courts a prefecture is filled with ritual and ceremony, and my company decided an ignorant American like myself ought not navigate alone when applying for a residency permit. So they lent me Eve, a no-nonsense bureaucratic samurai to guide me through the paper maze.

After two days' waiting in line and filling out forms, we were approached by a West African gentleman with ritual scarring covering his face. "Madame," he asked Eve politely, "you obviously know how to fill out everything, would you mind seeing if I've completed this correctly?"

He passed her a form entitled "Attestation de Non-Polygamy." Apparently he needed to prove he did not have several wives in order to get residency in France. One of the form's stipulations was that his local police constable had to periodically stamp it stating that to the best of the police's knowledge, the bearer had still not acquired more than one wife.

"He's going to have trouble with this." Eve muttered. "He's listed one wife and 15 children."

I was due to get married in a few months. It occurred to me that my in-laws might be gratified to see a document proving I was not a polygamist and resolved to get an attestation for myself.

Eve would have none of that. "Getting your residency permit is complicated enough," she admonished. "Besides, they won't let you have one. This form is only for people from polygamous cultures."

"Couldn't we say I'm from Utah?" I suggested, but Eve quickly shot me a glance that said no, we could not say I was from Utah.

I filched a form anyway. Contrary to my expectations, my in-laws did not find it amusing. Nor did my wives.

2. Firemen-broke-into-your-house slip

After a weekend in the country, I returned to my apartment to find it littered with broken glass: Someone had smashed through the giant double-glazed windows in my living room. A search of my place revealed that nothing had been stolen. Eventually I noticed that someone had left a tiny preprinted yellow slip on my coffee table. It was an official notification that fireman had broken into the apartment two days previously. It went on to state that if I wanted to know why, I had to fill out a form with the local prefecture (you begin to see a pattern evolving here, n'est-ce pas?) and affix a $3 tax stamp. Two days! A $300 window destroyed, my apartment vulnerable to the whims of passersbys and weather for an entire weekend, and only a flimsy preprinted slip to show for it.

A few questions of my neighbor uncovered a vague rumor that someone in the building might have had a water leak. "The fire department breaks in all the time," he said shrugging. "These things just happen." This is when I first started to notice that Parisians shrug a lot.

3. Unpaid parking tickets

Parisians have a marvelously paradoxical relationship with authority: Despite their external show of subservience to the random acts of government, there is an underlying conviction that this randomness is deliberately designed to provide a sporting chance for evasion. This is after all the country that created Devil's Island--the prison without bars--for its highest security risks.

Take parking tickets. As far as I can figure, they are only meant to combat unemployment over here. It takes three flics to issue a ticket; one cop writes the ticket, the second makes sure it is correctly written, and the third supervises. Of course, it helps to have all three there should the car try to flee the scene of the crime.

Despite the manpower that goes into writing a ticket, a real Parisian would never dream of paying one. Every seven years the French hold presidential elections, and one can bank on the inauguration being followed by a general reprieve for outstanding parking tickets. This has been going on for several decades now. Even my grandparents' generation used their parking tickets for wine coasters.

Of course, those who amass too large a stack of parking tickets are liable to wake up one morning to find their car towed, their bank accounts frozen and their paychecks diverted. The big question is always: "How many unpaid tickets are too many?" No one knows for sure. All that is certain is that if one can make it to the zero hour of the next presidential election, one is scot-free.

4. Stolen shirt receipt

I particularly prize this receipt because it reveals how much even the smallest businesses have learned from the state.

I was given the receipt when I dropped by my laundress to pick up my shirts. The receipt stated in bold print that they had been stolen. "Don't worry, monsieur," my laundress told me. "You are entitled to a $15 restitution per shirt and you won't have to pay the laundry charge for the missing shirts."

"But who on earth would break into a laundry just to steal a few worn shirts? How do I know you didn't just ruin or lose them?"

"But monsieur, it says so right here on the ticket that they were stolen."

Truth is no match for a preprinted ticket. By this time, I had been in Paris long enough to acquire the habit of shrugging--a great habit, by the way. It enabled me to keep cool long enough to persuade the old dear to do my laundry free for the rest of the month instead, which, on the whole, was a good bargain.

5. Dull Men's Club membership certificate

The Dull Men's Club is one of the unique rewards of living in Paris. The Club could only exist in this city as its premise rests upon the indigenous longing for good paperwork. Its several dozen members are dedicated to the French trinity of irony, verbal one-upmanship and nondilutible alcohol. Paris' literary salons have been long-silent, and the opium dens are shuttered, but the Dull Men's Club chatters on, owing its success to solid documentation. Witness the membership certificate which, according to the bylaws, must be framed and prominently visible at all times in one's place of work:

"Whereas; for his qualities of: evenness, consistency, regimentation, standardization, homogeneity, continuity, regularity, robotic stoicness, muffled indistinction, [it goes on like this for another 400 words] . . . dormancy . . . even-keeled deadlock . . .conveyer belt routine . . .self-regulated impartiality . . . level pegging . . . [really, it just goes on and on] Let all Dull Men know by these present that this is a member in good standing of the Dull Men's Club, Paris, Pindar/Hessiod Branch."

If you would like a copy of this article please send your request in triplicate to Finn-Olaf Jones, an American living in Paris, and be sure to affix the proper stamp.
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