24 January 2007

A Day at the Castle

Having been summoned to the Gendarmerie for my failure to display a current insurance sticker, I show up at Fort Oscar the following morning at 10:00 hours, valid insurance certificate in hand. My instructions had been specific. The English-speaking gendarme had said "There will be nobody there who speaks English, and you will not be able to approach the Fort directly. There is a gate at the bottom of the hill, with a box that allows you to speak to people inside. BE SURE TO GET THERE BEFORE NOON, press the button, and when they answer, just say "Assurance valide" and they will buzz you through. Then just climb the hill, go into the fort, and show your proof of insurance, and that will be the end of it."

Bright hot day. I have spent my professional life preparing for engagements like this one. I know the importance of making a good appearance, especially inasmuch as I am totally at the whim of these foreign-tongue devils. So I dress carefully in my best impress-the-jury outfit: the flip-flops Sandy Herzfeld gave me because they were too big on him, one of my thirteen bathing suits from Camp-Mor ($16 each, your choice of any color you want as long as it in khaki or blue, quick drying, free shipping on orders over $50.00.),one of my cut off tee shirts known in some U.S. circles as "wife-beaters", and the large very dark sunglasses that fit over my regular spectacles. (Pinks says they are so unfashionable that mine is the only pair on the island.)

The approach to the Fort is impressive. It a massive building, really a collection of attached mis-sized rectangles and curves, walls of huge brown and beige stone blocks, each the size of my new 42' flat screen. The building is about four stories high, no windows, just slits, right out of "Three Feathers". (That reference is for those of us old enough to remember sitting in the movies on Saturday afternoon watching the serials and action movies about the French Foreign Legion.)

The harbor in Gustavia is shaped like a square cornered hairpin. The north side of the hairpin is "downtown" Gustavia, and the south side--the seaward side—consists of a thin strip of mountainous terrain that separates the harbor from the sea. At the very tip of this strip, about 200 feet above sea level, stands Fort Oscar. (Oscar, btw, was King of Sweden. )

The gendarme was good to his word—up to a point. There is indeed a high chain-link fence about 200 feet down the hill from the Fort walls. Set into that fence are two gates. Reading from right to left: a closed center-opening double gate to allow vehicles to drive up the improbably steep driveway to the Fort building proper, then a door-sized gate for pedestrians, and just to the left of that is a buzzer panel similar those found in most New York City buildings sans doormen, except that here there is but a single tenant, and therefore but a single call button.. Makes sense right? The panel also had a number pad, presumably for members of the club. But my gendarme had not shared his code with me, and lacking my trusty Green Hornet secret decoder ring, I could do no more than press the call button.

I did so, and baked in the sun waiting for an answer to my call so that I could utter my "assurance valide" shiboleth so diligently practiced earlier that morning.. But my push of the button yielded ten seconds of martial music out of the tinny speaker in the call box, a recorded announcement in machine-gun-speed French, followed by the same martial music, followed by the same recorded announcement, etc. You get the picture. I was in trouble. No chance of calling on the phone—the Fort is not on my cell phone speed dial list. No chance of ringing another tenant's bell and getting buzzed in that way. I needed either an Order to Show Cause extending my noon deadline while I consulted with counsel, or an angel.

I got the latter. Up drove two vehicles,a truck bearing two gardeners and a van driven by an attractive woman. With a great smile and perfect English, the woman advised me to park my car on this side of the gate because I would not be allowed to drive it inside. Then she simply walked up to the pedestrian gate, TURNED THE DOORKNOB and pushed the gate open. So much for the lack of my decoder ring. Having gained access to the inside of the fence, she unlatched the vehicle fence, the gardeners drove their truck in, and unloaded their tools.

No metal detectors, no pat-downs, checks for liquids in bottles larger than three ounces, not even a look-see. Ah, national security St. Barths style.

The rest is anti-climax. I walked up the hill, and gained entrance to the fort through a small steel door that had just been opened by a female gendarme on her way down to talk to the gardener lady. Entirely pleasant. She wore the standard Gendarme uniform: black army boots, sweat-pants-like dark blue trousers cinched at the ankle, and a powder blue short sleeved polo. Oh, yeah, and a large automatic pistol on her hip. I waived my insurance documents at her, repeated my mantra, she led me inside, told me to wait, came back a minute later and said something in French that I took to be a dismissal with prejudice. For the non-lawyers, when you are the accused, that's a good thing.

We finished our morning by visiting with our local lawyer who is trying to help us prevent the French from deporting Pinks, who lacks her long-stay visa because some official lost a piece of paper on which the necessary tax stamps need be pasted, and the local prefecture lady says that though she has the stamps we bought (220 euros for the year November 2005 – November 2006) she is barred from processing Pinks' already-approved application for the long-stay visa because of the requirement they be pasted on a letter the French lost.

So, no letter, no pasting of the stamps, no visa, no Pinks? Nah. My guess? Sometime around April, 2007, an official in Martinique or Guadalupe, or somewhere else in the French West Indies will send the St. Barths prefecture lady another copy of the letter, she will paste my stamps thereon, the completed application will be sent to France, and in June, 2007, Pinks will get her carte de sejour for the period December 1, 2005 thru November 30, 2006, and she can start the renewal process, which involves another letter, more stamps, etc.

You gotta love this place.

A bientot.

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