Sunday, March 15, 2009

Moving mountains...of paper

The cliché of France being a bureaucratic country is well known (comments #62 and 122), and we certainly had plenty of first-hand experience negotiating the maze getting visas, an apartment, residence cards, bank accounts, and (soon) paying taxes. But more surprising than having to change our flight twice while we waited for someone to send an "official" piece of paper to the consulate because a phone call wouldn't do, were the reams of paper we would soon accumulate. Not just paperwork, but --literally-- paper, and folders to keep it all organized. Making and storing copies of everything, just in case our utility company wants a copy of the lease, or the prefecture wants a copy of the utility bill. Or in case we needed a birth certificate to open an account at the local video rental store (turns out we didn't, but we've taken to arriving everywhere a bit over-prepared...)

The French love everything about paper. The way it feels, the colors, the weights, the pens you use to write on it, the folders you put it in, the envelopes you mail it in, the tampons (rubber stamps) you use to certify it, and the signatures used to sign it.

Papeteries (paper stores) are numerous and they stock every imaginable size, color, and weight of paper, envelopes, and folders... well as accessories to make everything more official, like multicolored wax and personalized seals. In case you need to disseminate a decree to your serfs.

They sell pens too, but unless you're one of those serfs, you'll go to a proper pen store and get a nice fountain pen to give your completely illegible signature that special flare.

Luckily, since they love it so much, most things associated with paper are well designed. Paper is lined both ways so you can draw graphs and make sure your L's are the same height as your H's. Envelopes have easy-open seals...

Note the scalloped perforation (click to expand for a better view).

... and folders are ingeniously designed to make sure nothing falls out. The common grade-school prank of bumping the school nerd and sending their papers flying doesn't work here. Nya-nya.

Not only do they love paper, they trust in it. If it isn't written down, stamped, and signed, it isn't real. In order to change anything regarding your bank account, you must return to your specific branch so they can find your actual paper file and change the info. With white out and pen. Only then will they enter it in the computer database. The digital version is the backup of the physical copy, not the other way around. I imagine that somewhere in Le Nord among the industrial parks of Lille, is a warehouse full of printouts of everything that has ever been written on the internet in French, just in case it goes down someday.

Once you start accumulating this paperwork, you quickly learn to modify your signature. Who knew that writing "lu et apprové..." (read and approved) on each page of the four copies of your 25 page lease can actually make you break a sweat. Pretty soon your signature starts to look like this:

(actual signature, with printed name removed)

Below, in a photograph from a local art exhibit, we have everything coming together in one glorious photo. The numerous rubber stamps of various designs, the filing boxes, stapler, hole punch, folders, hanging files, and a computer that hardly ever gets used:

Close-up of the desk:

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Grrr...I've nearly forgotten since when that I had to become used to this French type "escargots" that deal with nothing else other than these sixes and sevens
Really a good work!That's what I've been trying to say,but it's not that easy for me to write down in English exactly what I think. And this, tells all that I wanted to say