The bureaucratic tango and other stories

Today was the day I had to forfeit an entire day of work and pay $50 to go all the way to Geneva to submit a few forms to accept my job offer for October . And the bureaucratic tango may not be over yet. But then again it may be.

The whole process started off less than ideally, when the consulate ignored my four polite requests (two emails and two phone calls) for something as basic as a document list, and I was forced to crib off the Chicago consulate’s list, which led to me spending an additional $50 on things I didn’t need, namely six passport photos, express mail stamps and a whole pack of black pens. Oh well, they will all come in handy some other time I hope. Then in the actual meeting, after taking nearly half an hour to scrutinize every detail of my documentation (-Where did this stamp come from? -How should I know?) the officer insisted that the combination of a visa and an affadavit from my work stating my residence permit was in process was not good enough and they needed a real residence permit, which I won’t get for another week, and they weren’t even sure whether my residence permit would allow me to receive a visa without going back to Washington. Keeping the most precarious of grips on both my composure and my grammar, I told the consular officer that I’d be a monkey’s aunt if I had to pay the cost of a transatlantic flight to attend a 25-minute meeting. He said he would “consult with the local authorities” and get back to me. The way he failed to bother to get my signature on any documents or take any photos made me think that even in the best case scenario, I would have to come back. The silver lining in that cloud, though, is that unlike Switzerland and Russia, France does not confiscate your passport while your visa is in process, so my trip to Burundi is in no danger.

I did get a nice afternoon hanging out with Salim as part of that visa goose chase though. And there was one very good omen. When I’d established that Google Maps had made a complete hash of the route from the train station to the embassy, I started asking people for directions. I asked this one skinny white-haired guy, who said I should go across the bridge, turn right and ask the first person I saw. “Tu vas trouver ton ch’min, c’t’une belle journée, c’t’un beau ch’min,” he said. “You’ll find your way. It’s a nice day and it’s a pretty walk.”

There was something about the way he spoke, something about the way he said “trouver” with a rolled “r” and “ch’min” rhymed with “rain,”, something about the way he called me “tu” although he’d never seen me in his life, and  something about the way I could understand every word he said.

“Where are you from?” I asked.


Half an hour later I had just spotted the place and was sitting down on a park bench to kill time, when the same guy showed up, behind me on a bicycle. “Hey, la canadienne!”

The guy offered to take me for coffee and a sandwich down the street, which was fantastic because I keep my food consumption to a bare minimum in this pricey country. Five minutes later we were sitting on a sunny terrasse talking about student union strikes in Quebec. Turns out they are not a new development at all.  (translating from the joual as best I can) “When I was in school in Victoriaville we had a sit in, I remember bedding down a couple of nights in the school gym, I don’t even know what it was for but I was there to be with my friends, and there were a lot of people there and one thing led to another and well, at least one baby came out of that sit in,” he said. “You know, when I was in school I studied agricultural techniques, and there were only two of us from the city, me and Claude Joyal–he was from Laval, he was–and we were surrounded by, you know, country people! Ha!” The sheer randomness of his stories and the familiar accent made me laugh, and it felt good to laugh when I was so tense.

He dropped me off in front of the consulate with a handshake and a “Ca va ben aller” (everything will be fine). Here’s hoping he’s right. I think he was a good omen.

My sincere apologies for falling off the writing planet. I left off right in the middle of the St-Jean-Baptiste Day beach party, which was indeed on a beach, on Lac Léman (the same lake that backs up against Geneva). Nicolas is a student in a university sports management program in Lausanne and so are a gaggle of his compatriots; they were there along with random friends of theirs in town for the occasion and a few Quebecers who had just happened to wander by.  The lake view was surreal with the softly falling night, the mountains in the distance and the city lights; many of the Quebecers said that as far as pure optics went, it was the most beautiful St-Jean ever and no pictures should be taken because we wouldn’t believe the scene when the pictures came out. The conversation was typical–politics and music, the old debates of federalism or separatism, unilingualism or bilingualism, Canadiens or Nordiques, Montreal or Quebec City, whether this band or that band was better live. We had local beer and sausage, but the hard stuff had a Canadian touch– vodka with maple syrup. Mmm.

Afterward, those of us who weren’t exhausted or drunk (and I was fortunately one of them, although Erin wasn’t, since she had had to get up at 6 that day ) set off for a pub called Les Gosses du Québec, where the decor was license plates and moose stuff and the St-Jean party was in full swing. Jovial drunks draped in flags with blue and white painted faces hollered at us as we went in, and I bought a Blanche de Chambly, which was surprisingly no more expensive than the domestic beers. I practically had to chug it, as the pub was closing, but it was sooooo gooooood.

We went to another club, the name of which I don’t remember except that it was loud, chaotic and filled with people of all ages, and had a few more beers before heading home– taking the scenic route and talking with passersby who wondered what that giant blue and white flag Nicolas was carrying meant. When we got back it was nearly light and the birds had started to sing…no one got up before noon or moving before one.

Erin and I took a walking tour of Lausanne led by a diminutive, adorable older French-speaking Italian guy. To tell you the truth I can’t remember a tenth of what he said as we walked by this bishop’s house and the statue of that revolutionary. I do remember cutting through private property as he spoke to us about residential areas, and more than once climbing a hill (Lausanne has millions of hills) to see the clear blue lake below. I also remember going into the city’s main cathedral and admiring a fantastic set of reliefs–various saints with dogs at their feet, birds in their arms and other tiny, beautiful details. There was one central element that, in the words of the tour guide, looked like “an almond”, but the tour was all-female and we all burst into laughter, because the said part clearly belonged to the female anatomy.

I admit that I was a bit worried about spending the weekend with Erin, considering that although we got on brilliantly at one staff gathering two years ago, I barely knew her. But she and I made great travelling companions–neither of us is totally naive, we both are pretty easygoing as far as accomodation and food standards go, and we have a lot in common. Not only does she struggle with depression, but she is a fellow queer person, a fellow francophile and slavophile, who also loves obscure languages, photography, good chocolate, whining about bureaucracy and crunching on dry Oodles of Noodles as if they were chips. Add to that that it felt good to have someone to speak Russian with. We would constantly lapse into it, even in front of Nicolas, who to his credit was more amused than annoyed.

We went exploring that night, and ended up at a cozy little bar drinking yellow-gold pastis and trying to flirt with the barmaid.

The next morning we went museum-hopping, and the winner by far among the museums was the Musée d’Art Brut, which showcases art made by people who for whatever reason– often mentally ill, but also religious enthusiasts, deaf-mutes who can’t normally engage with others, loners, people without formal education and garden variety wacky iconoclasts (Where do we draw the line anyway? That is part of the question. Who are we to judge who is sick and who is not, if their only diversion is not seeing the world in the way we do? How can someone who did this work be sick? Is it possible that we are the sick ones?)

We spent hours looking at woven grass clothing made by a nearly mute war veteran, models of guns put together from found objects by an autistic guy, bright and detailed paintings born out of religious ecstasies or compulsive desires, copies of mystical glyphs carved all over the walls of a mental hospital by a man who  was in communion with the stars, and glittering, multicolour-painted intricate animatronic shell sculptures, some of which actually played Christmas carols (built by a charming, eccentric older man, hardly insane but the kind of guy who would move into a cookie-cutter suburb and paint his house chartreuse) and asking ourselves those same questions.

I put off leaving Lausanne as late as I could. Lucky Erin, who was staying another night, ate dinner with Nicolas and his baseball teammates while I was in Berne, getting read the riot act by Eric, who thought that I had spilled oil in the kitchen on Saturday. How I could have spilled oil in the kitchen on a Saturday when I was gone from Thursday to Sunday remains a mystery.

The following weekend I didn’t really do that much, except for have a blazing row with Roger, whose judgmental comments about people of other ethnic groups are really starting to get on my nerves.

to be continued…

About msmarguerite

Young Quebec City-based freelance journalist. once and future nomad. I blog about life, about travel, about things I notice and every so often about work. I enjoy language learning, singing, swing dancing, skating and...other stuff, sometimes. My heart is somewhere in East Africa, Haiti or Eastern Europe. English, français, русский, malo slovensko, un poco de espanol, um pouco de português ndiga ikirundi, mwen ap aprann kreyòl...
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