Transforming Bureaucracy

[Your blood pressure just went up.]

WPJ_summer_bureaucracyThe public perception of consulates and embassies comes from Hollywood. In films of political intrigue, or docu-dramas depicting world-shaking events, these sites become flashpoints for action and conflict. Bombs go off, hostages are taken, and we hear the oft-repeated bit of magical thinking, that the Slobovian consulate is “on Slobovian soil,” and our heroes’ tribulations will end if they can just make it through the gates.

My first impression of Montreal’s French consulate evoked these tropes, but only briefly. On the tenth floor of a downtown high-rise, a glass door is plastered with printed warnings and patrolled by armed guards. Beyond, hints of additional security: a metal detector, a bulletproof desk, more guards. But as soon as I joined the lineup in the hall, the atmosphere shifted. The guard asked if anyone had an appointment for 9am or earlier. Non? How about 9:15? 9:30? With a wave of wearied politesse, the action-adventure story became a tale of bureaucracy.

I had come to arrange a one-year visa, so I could live (unemployed) with my wife (on sabbatical) and child (enrolled in a French kindergarten). I brought a bushel of documents, including my passport, marriage certificate, and a signed statement vowing not to seek employment while in France. I feared terrorism far less than an oversight in paperwork. If I blew this, it would be at least a month before I could reapply—and we were aiming to land in Lille in eight weeks. “The stakes have never been higher.”

If this sense of anxiety hadn’t placed me in an adversarial relationship with the consulate staff, my long-standing bias against bureaucracy surely did. The word itself conjures hours spent playing an obscure 1987 text-adventure game by Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The objective of Bureaucracy was to secure a change-of-address form from the post office, but success involved byzantine challenges like depositing negative dollars, avoiding poisonous stew on an airplane, and escaping a jail using a bicycle-powered chainsaw. Your achievements in the game were measured by an attendant drop in blood pressure, whereas if you failed too often, you would eventually suffer a fatal heart attack. When I played it, I was too young to have any firsthand experience with the Kafkaesque frustrations of bureaucracy, but Adams’s masterful satire was enough to convince me of its lethal dangers.

Coming of age, the game became a reality. I have seldom felt as helpless as when, buying our first house, we sat in a decrepit office while a decrepit lawyer dismissed our situation utterly because he lacked the proper forms for a cross-provincial joint-signature arrangement. I realize it’s a generalization, but I can’t help but see all paper-pushers as disgruntled doctors—your life is in their hands, but unless you brought the right surgical tools with you to the operating room, there’s no way in hell you’re getting healed.

After passing through security, but before my number appeared upon the LED above the waiting room, I reflected upon all my personal baggage, and I decided to let it go. I am an introvert, but I’m also an actor, and I can be friendly towards a foe if the scene demands it. All I had to do was turn on the charm, and once we’d established a rapport, the application process would stop feeling like an interrogation on a tightrope, and would just become a conversation. Then my number was called, and I sat down in front of the camera and the thumbprint scanner and the glass pane with the document slot at the bottom, and I opened my mouth to turn on the charm…and remembered I had to speak French. My charm would be lost in translation.

The consulate employee had nicely coiffed hair and lacked glasses, but otherwise he had all the characteristics of a stereotypical clerk: he was thin and pasty from sitting indoors, and he wore a bland, unironed shirt and tie. He was polite, speaking slowly at my request and repeating instructions whenever the language barrier required it. He showed no hint of contempt when I explained that I would be the primary caregiver while my wife was at work. He even seemed pleased that we had chosen Lille—a city, he said, with a great artistic scene. I had plenty of openings for cultivating empathy, but I was too wound up to take them.

While he inspected my documents, I glanced around his cubicle, looking for clues to personalize the enemy. He had a lot of postcards from exotic places on his wall—the Philippines, Algeria, Morocco—and I started to reconceive the stranger as a world traveler, like I was soon to be. But as soon as I had that thought, I second-guessed it; surely those were thank-you cards from citizens he’d helped to get from one country to another. Did that mark him as a paralyzed paper-pusher, forever trapped behind his glass partition, living vicariously through the travels of others? How could I find out without offending him?

Despite my internal anguish, the interview went off without a hitch. He confirmed that I’d brought all the proper documents, and that my passport would be mailed to me once the visa was enclosed. Then, before we parted, he wrote two words onto a Post-It note: “Marché Wazemmes.” “When you are in Lille,” he said, “You must go to this market, on a Sunday.” And he said it with a distinct glimmer in his eye—the expression of someone losing themselves in a wonderful memory.

I was reminded of a bureaucratic snafu I’d faced in Edmonton, just before moving East—my last great leap into the unknown. I’d been fighting with my landlords over a trivial fee, and when the property manager came up to inspect my apartment, I expected a lot of resentful nickel-and-diming, to punish me for all that extra hassle. But, while we were waiting for the inspectors, he idly asked me where I was moving. When I answered “Cape Breton,” his heart melted. And just like that, my enemy and I had something beautiful in common.

Update: Now I’m in British Columbia, but my passport is back in Montreal—or rather, “on French soil.” It remains to be seen if it will reach me before Canada Post goes on strike, or if I will still be passport-less on July 22, when I am due to board a plan for Japan. [Your blood pressure just went up.]


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