Who Dat?

Back in the 80s, long before the X-Games existed, Tom Haig traveled the world as an extreme athlete. He visited more than 50 countries as an international high diver, doing multiple somersault tricks from over 90 feet.

That life came crashing down one Sunday morning in 1996. While training on his mountain bike, he smashed into the grill of a truck and became paralyzed from the waist down. But less than a year later he completed a 100-mile ride on a hand-cycle and traveled by himself to Europe and the Middle East.

Since then he has continued to travel the world as a consultant, writer and video producer. He spent six months launching a Tibetan radio station in the Himalayas and shot documentary shorts on disability in Bangladesh, France, Albania, Ghana and most recently Nepal.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Enculez la Bureaucratie!

With the Dalai Lama festivities in the rear view mirror it was time to get back to work on the List from Hell. I’d acquired everything needed for my Long Stay French visa so all I needed to do was present the paperwork in person to the French Embassy. There is a French office in Portland, but as far as I can tell, it’s staffed by three people who are hired for the express purpose of telling people they can’t offer any services.

I’d met the representative a few times when I worked for the Alliance Franciase de Portland and found her to be quite charming, if not a tad pompous with her official designation. I assumed they couldn’t have too much of a workload so I called them up asking them if they could help me process my visa application. After leaving three unreturned messages, I decided it would be in my best interest to knock on their door and see if anyone actually worked in the office.

When I showed up at the office a young woman came to meet me and apologized profusely for not returning my messages. This pissed me off even more since she’d heard all three messages and couldn’t once be bothered to, I don’t know, CALL ME BACK!

She then explained that the official representative of the consulate was out of town, but she could help me. Her idea of helping me was to give me completely incorrect information that would eventually make all my effort moot. She told me the office in Portland was just an adjunct office and I would have to appear in person at an official consulate with my mountain of paper work to apply for the Long Stay visa.

Not the answer I was looking for, but at least I knew what I had to do. Seeing as I was on my way to Charlottesville, only a two-hour drive from Washington D.C., I asked her if the Embassy could process my claim. “Yes,” she confidently replied. “Any of the major offices of the French government in the U.S. can handle your claim.”

I rolled out of the office and temporarily put the visa application on hold so I could concentrate on both the Portland Marathon and the gig in Charlottesville.

Before the lingering glow of the Tibetan music soiree dimmed and the hangover of the Kung Fu Fighting began, Michael, Mia and I were on our way to Washington D.C. for my 11:45 appointment with the French Embassy. Despite a 45-minute delay to deal with an incompetent copy store clerk (no, not a zitty-faced 16-year-old, but a 70-year-old moron who didn’t know how to push the ‘copy’ button on his machines) we made good time and were inside the beltway with a half hour to spare. Thanks to the advent of GPS we found the embassy on the northwest corner of Georgetown, which would have been a bitch of a task had we relied on the old paper directions method.

Looks easy - it wasn't. 

I hopped out of the car into my chair and presented my reservation to the guard at the gate who pointed me to the consular section. I entered the waiting room to find a line of mostly Africans fingering through reams of documents preparing for their audience with the French representative. Any one of these representatives could alter the path of their lives with a simple nod of their head and quick stamp of their passport.  My situation wasn’t nearly as desperate, but that same quick ‘yes’ could save me thousands of dollars and send me to France guilt-free for most of 2013.

To my surprise, my name was promptly called at 11:45 (last reservation of the week!) and I found myself face-to-face with a friendly young woman who was relieved to see me, as I had no children or business plan to present to her. Although I’m fluent in French, I learned years ago to speak English when dealing with French officials whose job it is to know English. Whereas you are much better off speaking French when trying to order a meal in Paris, speaking English at the consulate puts you in a power position. When they turn to their colleagues and speak in French, they don't realize you understand what they're saying. 

The woman looked over my paperwork, smiled and told me everything (All 22 pages of documents!!) was in order. All she needed was my passport and my proof of residency – which in my case was my Oregon Driver’s License. I looked at the clock which had not yet reached noon and thought to myself, in just a few minutes I’m going to be lunching at some hipster politico café in Georgetown with visa in hand waiting for Helene to wake up in Aix Les Bains to tell her the good news. Damn, these Frenchies are E-Fish-Ant!

The woman took one look at my driver’s license and shook her head. “I’m sorry Mr. Haig,” she said, “But you live in Oregon correct?

“Yes, that’s right. Oregon.”

“But that is in the Western District…”

“Yes, and…”

“And here we can only process applicants for the Eastern United States. You’ll have to go to your consulate -  in San Francisco.”

“But I don’t live in San Francisco – I live in Portland – that’s 600 miles away! It would be like telling you to drive to Chicago from here.”

“I’m sorry Mr. Haig, but we cannot verify your address from this location. They can only do that in San Francisco.
“Can we call San Francisco? Can we call the office in Portland – I’ve got their number on my phone. I was just there last week.”

“No sir, I’m sorry. We cannot process this here. You must go to San Francisco – but the good news is that your paperwork is in order and we have no reason to refuse you.”

“But I can’t go to San Francisco – I won’t even be home for two more weeks…”

With me still pleading, the window closed and the woman was off to calmly dejuner, probably at my hipster politico café in Georgetown, without the slightest pangs of guilt over what she’d just delivered me. It’s what French officials do. They give you shit – and loads of it – because they can.

This of course, was information the functionaire (derogatory French word for a government worker) in Portland could have relayed to me. Not only did she do nothing, she was actually incompetent at doing nothing.

Michael, Mia and I did eventually eat at a Georgetown hipster café (no West Wing politics being spoken – just RGIII talk) and we spent an excellent afternoon at the National Gallery adjacent to the Capitol building.

When we got back to Charlottesville, I went on line and scheduled ANOTHER visa appointment, this time in San Francisco just three days after I would get back home – which wouldn’t be for another ten days.  Flights were quite expensive so I planned on road-tripping down upon my return and hanging out with friends in the Bay Area for a few days before packing my bags for France.

When I finally got back to Portland, I found that SouthWest was having a huge sale and the prices dropped down to $125 round trip – much cheaper than gas plus wear and tear on my van.  I was just about to lay down my credit card number on a flight when I decided I’d better call the consulate in San Francisco and see if they had actually received my reservation. Although I’d signed up for the spot, I’d never received the confirmation letter needed to enter the building.

I called and waited and called and waited and left a message and called and waited and left a message on their English line then called and waited and waited and called then left a message on their French line then waited then called. Then I went to bed.

The next day I called and waited and called and waited and left a message and called and waited and left a message on their English line then called and waited and waited and called then left a message on their French line then waited then called and FINALLY – got a real person! Who put me on hold. Forever.  

But while the one line was on hold, I used another phone and this time found that same live person and finally got to ask them, “I just want to know if I’ve got an appointment or not? PLEASE!!”  

“Did you make it on line?”

“YES, YES! I made it on line!”

“Oh no – that system [the only one available] doesn’t work. Something with the computers. I can get you an appointment for Wednesday the twenty-first?”

Wednesday the twenty first was the day before Thanksgiving – which wouldn’t be that bad except that I would be leaving three days after Thanksgiving and the visa takes three weeks to process.

This time, I closed the window on them. I really wanted to slam down a receiver, but instead I was forced to angrily tap ‘end call’ on my Droid – which was about as satisfying as hooking a shrimp in a bass contest.

And now I sit in France on a short-stay visa knowing that I have to leave Europe at the end of February.


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