I have in mind a Woody Allen film.
Dans le Bureau de Chef.
The tropical sun pours into the whitewashed office of the Chief of Police. Le Chef sits behind his impressive desk (both chair and desk once belonged to former colonial administrator) dressed in his impressive uniform: spit-shined combat boots, dark blue cargo pants tucked into the top of those beautiful boots, web belt, large pistol in black canvas holster, and tailored light blue long sleeve shirt with epaulets, open at the collar, five point star on the breast pocket. A visored cap with gold braid reminiscent of Douglas McArthur sits on the far left corner of the desk.
Le Chef is busy stamping documents. He does so with zest—a man who loves his job, loves the heft and thump of the oversize rubber stamp, first on the ink pad and then on the document. He meticulously removes a document from Pile A on his left, stamps it, and places it on top of Pile B on his right. He obviously takes pride in his work as well as his office, which is about half the size of the Oval Office, but lacks a fireplace, couches, chairs, rug, or, indeed any furniture at all other than his chair, desk, and wastebasket. The office is so spotless as to suggest laboratory standards of cleanliness. No telephone disturbs our hero because there is no telephone in the office. No intercom, radio, computer. There is not even a desk lamp. (There is no need for one because this office is NEVER occupied after dark.)
Cut to a sign outside the door of the Police station, informing all those who have business with the Le Chef that his office hours are 9-12, and 2:30 to 5:00. Visitors start to line up outside that door at 8:30. They hug the building to stay in the shade. At precisely 9 AM, a car pulls up and out of the driver's door steps a stunning dark haired young woman wearing high heeled sandals, tight fitting white leggings, and a sheer top that reveals the detailed stitching pattern of her sheer bikini bra. While her hair, nails (fingers and toes, of course), lipstick and attire are all perfect, it is a squandered effort because her beauty needs no enhancement. Mlle. Milou unlocks the front door, gets back into her car, and exits stage left.
Inside the anteroom.
The small group of petitioners respectfully files into the ten foot square room, where a sign instructs them to wait in the uncushioned wooden chairs lining the walls. When these petitioners entered the anteroom at 9AM, the door leading to the le Bureau de Chef was closed. As the morning wears on, Le Chef never opens it. The only evidence of his presence is the metronomic thud of rubber stamp.
Dans le bureau de Chef.
At noon, as is his right, the commandant departs for lunch. He does so by stepping carefully out the low window in the back wall. He returns promptly at 2:30 via the same route, and resumes his work till 5, when he again defenestrates.
(In six years on the job, Le Chef has never opened the door between the anteroom and his office. And in that entire period of time, no one has complained, lest they appear impolite, or worse, they offend Le Chef, whose rubber stamp is believed to be as powerful an instrument as exists in this jurisdiction.)
At 5PM sharp, Mlle. Marie Milou reappears, and with a demure smile, suggests that those who choose to do so may return at 9 am the next morning. When the last citizen has departed, Mlle. Milou, closes and locks the front door from the inside, and commences her chores.
Dans Le Bureau de Chef
When the anteroom is cleared and the door locked, Mlle. Milou unlocks the door to the now-empty inner sanctum, approaches Le Chef's desk and deals with the papers thereon. On odd-numbered days of the month, she takes the stamped papers in Pile B, turns them face down, and puts them on the bottom of Pile A. On even numbered days, given the irrebuttable presumption that the documents in Pile B are now stamped on both sides and are therefore no longer eligible to be replaced in Pile A, Marie, deferring to the official status of these twice-stamped official papers, handles them with great care, and without mussing the clean lines of the edges of the stack, places them into Le Chef's wastebasket. When she finishes sweeping and dusting the two offices, Mlle. empties the contents of Le Chef's wastebasket into a Hefty Lawn and Garden Black Trash Bag (42 Gallons, Contractor Quality) which, when she locks up, she will put into the trunk of her car, to be dropped off at the dump on her way to open the front door of the Police Station at 9 AM on the next business day.
You get the picture. Woody, you can have my material. All I want is a credit in the crawl. Oh, yeah, YOU have to write the rest of the movie.
NOTHING LIKE THAT HAPPENS IN ST. BARTHS.
Not even close. But what does happen is so French, so bureaucracy-centric, as to give rise to the imaginary scenes above. The only thing that saves the French bureaucracy here from being maddening is the unfailing courtesy and good nature of the people behind the desk. Just super. Mind you, they do not cut corners, they dot every I, cross every T, but it is done with grace, charm and generosity. It is as if they know what they are doing is a bit much, but so it has been for generations, indeed centuries, they accept it and make it as painless as possible. (Police Aux Frontiers, the heavies at the airport, are an outstanding exception to the foregoing.)
One small example:
Our daughter Stephanie, her husband Mark, and three month-old Audrey Viola Madoff will come down to stay with us in March for a two-week visit. Accompanying them will be their trusted nanny Petal, a citizen of Jamaica, who lives and works in NY and has a US green card. All very legal.
Steph, Mark, and Audrey Viola will automatically get a St. Barths entry visa when they present their valid US passports to the PAF officer at the immigration window at the St. Barths airport. No questions asked. (Yes, A.V. needs a passport of her own.) That visa, consisting of the inked stamp applied by the PAF officer, allows the US passport holder to stay here for up to 90 days. (Inasmuch as there is no passport control on departing the island, there is no realistic way for the government to know whether a visitor stayed here for 90 days or 900 days. That's a diversion from my tale, but I couldn't help pointing it out.)
Petal, however, is another kettle of mahi-mahi. A citizen of Jamaica, despite her US Green Card, she needs a different visa—one that must be issued by the French Consulate in New York City. For those who do not know where that is, one need only look for the brownstone on 76th Street between Madison and Fifth, with the long line of people, rain or shine, standing on the sidewalk at the front door. (Please be on notice that of all the nice things I have to say about the gentility and the courtesy of the French bureaucracy on this island, NONE of those things apply to the people in that building in New York City. Though they are French also, those people behave much like the clerks in the New York City County Clerk's office. It's a matter of contagion.)
So Petal goes to the 76th Street location, takes her valid Jamaican passport, her valid US green card, etc, etc, tells them she needs to spend two weeks here to care for Audrey, spends the better part of a day there and departs, not with a visa, but instead with a list of things she needs to produce to get a visa.
My role in all of this? One of the items Petal needs is an "Attestation d'accueil". Roughly translated, this is a piece of paper that attests to the fact that Petal is welcome here. It must be procured on St. Barths, sent to Petal in New York, and she must then take it, with her other stuff, to the consulate.
Hey, I can do that, right? Easy.
The very next morning (we don't fool around when it comes to Audrey Viola's welfare) Pinks and I go to the sous-prefecture, the local government office that does everything having to do with the French government. Pinks and I have been there a dozen times to get the difficult piece of paper we need that says we can LEGALLY stay here more than 90 days. I got one once, but it took me so long to get it, the one-year card expired 15 days after they gave it to me. It is now three months later, and I am told my renewal application is complete and my documents will be sent to France, and our long stay visas will be in our hands in a month or two, at which time they will, of course, effectively be SHORT-term visas. What, me worry? Ahh, Paradise.
The lady at the sous-prefecture counter is adorable. Great smile, kind, gracious, good English. While waiting our turn (yes, in the seats lining the wall in the anteroom) we were trying to think if we had a guy for her. I would put her in her late 20's, great figure (Not difficult to ascertain. French women invented "If ya got it, flaunt it."), smooth café au lait skin, just as nice as could be. We couldn't think of a guy. Maybe she has one already, or several. Yeah, probably.
When our turn comes, we say, "We need an attestation d'accueil." Uh, oh, good looks only get one so far. She never heard of it. We explain. The two other women behind the counter overhear all of this, of course, and there ensues two-minutes of a three-party conversation in which the French words ricochet off the office walls at gatling-gun speed. Conclusion? We need to go the Police Station. Not the French National Police- -the Gendarmes, not the Police Aux Frontiers at the airport, but the Police Municipale, the local cops who direct traffic, give parking tickets, etc. Go figure.
So we hotfoot it over there. It is in the center of town, on the street above the main drag. Parking, of course, is impossible, but this is too important and so we hunt and we find, even though the spot I found left me with six inches of space to maneuver, and the guy behind me with three.
The public part of the Police Municipale office is empty. Just a large counter, and some shelves and desk behind the counter. On the back wall is four foot square glassed-in frame with shoulder patches from police forces all over the U.S. I guess it's a thing for visiting cops to stop by and give em a patch. Nice, huh? Friendly. Can you guess which prominent city was not represented in the frame?
A female officer spies us through the glass window separating the public space from the official space, and comes out to help. She speaks excellent English and is dressed like all other police officers: black combat boots, navy cargo pants tucked into the boots, web belt with a gun and a radio, and a light blue short sleeved polo shirt with a police logo. We tell her what we need, and she departs. A minute later, out comes Officer Querrand, clearly the experienced hand in these matters.
M. Querrand is a really nice guy. Pleasant, a generous smile, and a real desire to help. Good English too. I immediately think of making a shitoch with the sous-prefecture lady, but M. Querrand wears a wedding band. His wife must be a good woman to make a man so happy.
We explain what we need. No problem, says he. He turns to the wall cabinet behind him, takes down a folder, leafs through it to find a form that sets out, in French, what we will need in order to fill out the next form, which is the official request for the final form, the Attestion d'accuiel. "I am prepared" says I. "I have my passport, I live here and own a house here. This is my daughter's nanny, coming for two weeks, where do I sign?"
He smiles and the conversation goes like this:
He: "I will help you. We will fill out the request together. Let's look at the instruction sheet. First, do have your passport?"
Hey, I'm feeling strong. My countless visits to the sous-prefecture have prepared me well. I have become an expert at this bureaucratic stuff. I am ahead of the curve. I give him both our passports.
He: "Do you have a residency card."
Me: "Yes, but it has expired and I am in the process of renewing it. I just came from the sous-prefecture where Miss Lovely is helping us." I mentally prepare for the worst.
He: "No problem, I will call there." He goes next door, I chew my lip, and he comes back with a smile, "C'est bon. No problem."
So we have done it. But I notice I still have not heard him say he will give me the attestation.
He: " So you have proof you live here? A lease, perhaps?"
Me: (proudly) "No lease, we own our home here."
He: "So you have the deed with you?"
Me: " The deed? Who carries around the deed to his house?"
He: "You need an Attestation."
Me: "Yes, that is why I am here."
He : " Yes, but in order to get an "Attestation d'accueil" you first need to present an Attestation."
Me: "That is what I want from you, the Attestation."
He: "Yes, but what about your house? Where is the Attestation?"
Me: "Yes, Petal is staying at my house, but she cannot come to my house without an Attestation from you."
He: "Yes, but you cannot get the Attestation you need until I get the Attestation from you."
No, this was not an Abbott and Costello routine. He was dead serious, and after a couple of rounds of the foregoing, he saw we were making no progress. By then another customer was waiting to be served, a nice French woman, and the two of them conferred in French about our problem. (You can readily see why everybody on this island knows everybody else's business) The consultation, in rapidly spoken French of course, was again quite productive. Using their combined English skills, Officer Querrand and Mme. Helpful explained that we needed an attestation that said we owned the house we owned. Everyone, I was told, carries one of those, or has one lying about the house. Duh, not me. (How many of you could produce from your home an official document saying you owned your home?)
They told me the guy I needed to get that document was Le Notaire who was in charge of my house closing. I had no recollection of what his name was, but, in fact, after walking the streets later that day, we found his second-floor office, and talked to the nice receptionist lady who actually remembered us from the closing three years ago. She told us to wait, disappeared behind a closed door, and five minutes later came out and gave us a two-page single spaced French language document, full of official stamps, seals, and signatures. The heading made me smile: all caps: "ATTESTATION"
At no time did Messieur Le Notaire actually appear, or was he even heard. I could not testify whether he was even at work that day. I didn't ask. I took the treasured document, offered payment that was respectfully declined, and we boogied out of there before somebody rescinded something.
But all this took place after we left the Police Municipale. Back to the original interview:
Officer Querrand: "You, of course, have the visitor's passport with you?"
Me: "Well, not exactly, but I know where I can get it."
He: "And proof that you are financially stable—a letter from your banker saying how much money you have, translated into French?"
Me: (Staring at my flip-flops) "Go on, please."
He: Also, you will need Petal's address, an official 15 euro blue stamp from le Tresor Public, a utility bill for your house, and proof of Petal's health insurance while she is here, but she can get that herself and present it to the consulate in New York with the Attestation d'accueil when you get it and give it to her."
Me: " You are very clear, very helpful, see ya."
A week later, we actually had everything we needed. Everything, and went back to M. Querrand at the Police Municipale. We were there, I would say for thirty minutes while he filled out a lengthy form for us. I needed to supply additional verbal information, such as, whether the house was new when I bought it, how many square meters was the interior of the house, was Petal my friend (in French, "nanny" is what kids call their grandmothers. A nanny is, en francais, a "nu-nu"), and a bunch of other stuff that wasn't hard, just enormously detailed, and about as relevant as the color of my roof.
When officer Querrand agreed I had produced everything necessary, and he had finished filling out the long buff-colored form, he had me sign and date it (no, I did NOT read it!) and he then filled out a different official-looking piece of paper, signed and stamped it with the official Police Municipale stamp, and with a great smile, handed it to me across the counter. It was like crossing the finish line in Central Park.
Me: "Is this the attestation?"
Officer Querrand: "No."
Me: "Have I not given you everything that is necessary?"
Officer Querrand: "Absolutement. C'est bon."
Me: "Was my Attestation sufficient?"
Officer Querrand: "Absolutement. C'est bon."
Me: "So where is MY Attestation? I have shown you mine, now you show me yours."
That brilliant quip produced two simultaneous reactions: First, Officer Querrand looked at me as if a Martian had invaded his Police Department. Second, Pinks gave me a poke in the ribs that, one week later, hurts only when I lie on my left side. I explained to Officer Querrand my comment was a poor effort at an American joke. He smiled weakly.
Me: "Sorry. So, if this document you have given me is not an Attestation d'accueil, what is it?"
Officer Querrand: "Ah, M. London, this is a RECIPISSE DE DEPOT, an official receipt, saying we have received from you an APPLICATION for an attestation d'accueil. We now will submit your application to the Mayor, and it is he who issues the ATTESTION. Normally, that takes a month, but… (now with a genuine smile,) I expect I will have it back from Le Maire in about three days. I will call you when I get it. Bon jour."
The following week we stopped by the Police Municipale and picked up an 11" x 14" buff colored document on heavy paper stock. The original L'Attestion d'accueil, signed by, and bearing the official seal of, Le Maire. I thanked Officer Querrand profusely, and started to fold the document into quarters so that it would fit in the back (zippered) pocket of my bathing suit, when Officer Querrand excitedly exclaimed, "Non, M. London, do not fold it. It MUST be presented to the consulate in New York City FLAT!" I was speechlessly obedient.
I felt like a jackass walking the three blocks to the car with the !@#$! document held flat against my chest lest the breeze or my sweaty palm put a "Go-directly-to-jail,-do-not-pass-G0,-Do-not-collect-$200" wrinkle in L'Attestion. I put the document under the floor mat on the passenger's side of the Jeep, drove directly to the Fedex office, and sent to NYC on the next plane. Stat. And flat.
Question of the day: Will Audrey Viola EVER appreciate how difficult it is to get her a few days in the sun? Nah. Ah, who cares. In due time, Audrey, Petal, Stephanie, Mark and a cargo-hold full of diapers, bottles, playpens, and all that stuff I haven't seen in years will arrive for a delicious stay in Paradise. Nice.