As an American living in Perpignan, France, I have the usual stories to tell about cultural adjustment and exchange, from engaging in lively debates over current events to missing buses because protesters are blocking the main street. But before I was settled enough in France even to realize how universal these instances were, the greatest cultural hurdle to overcome was the bureaucracy. Notorious for its slowness and inefficiency, the French administration pervades every aspect of society, from the national to the local level.
Of course, for routine procedures like creating a bank account or registering with the immigration office, an administrative struggle is to be expected. But the French bureaucracy has a way of popping up unexpectedly in the professional and private spheres. If you have to call in sick to school? Two separate forms, please. Make any transaction at the bank? Hope you didn’t leave your passport at home. Would you like to buy two packets of salami and get the third one free? Great—all you need to do is mail the manufacturer your grocery store receipt, barcodes from each package, and your bank account information. (Not a joke.)
As I adjusted to my life in France, it seemed more and more as if I couldn’t do so much as sneeze without receiving authorization from the correct government minister. I concluded somewhat bitterly that this was a system put in place deliberately to keep you from succeeding in whatever it is you wish to do—its purpose is to make you fail. And nothing made this clearer than the adventure that would become my favorite analogy for the convoluted French administration: my Odyssey-like search for a free public toilet during a visit to Montpellier.
It was October, very early in my stay, and I was visiting Montpellier with two friends. We had just enjoyed a sunny picnic in the park, and now were in need of a restroom. We considered going to the train station, a central downtown landmark, but we wanted to save money. At train stations and in malls, where bathrooms would ordinarily be free and open to the public in America, you often pay between 50 cents and 1 euro in France. This fee is supposed to ensure a high standard of cleanliness, but don’t be fooled; I once paid 80 cents only to enter into a pitch-black bathroom, and had to use my cell phone flashlight to aid in my precarious trek into and out of the stall.
There was always the restaurant option: having a coffee at a café or bar. But we wondered if we couldn’t play the system. My friend entered McDonald’s, or McDo, thinking that the throng of people inside would allow her to sneak upstairs to the restroom. But little did we know that at this crowded location on the Place de la Comédie, there is an attendant standing at the front door, just waiting to catch shifty newcomers who try to make a beeline for the bathroom without having bought anything. He promptly asked my friend in English, “What are you doing?” and ushered her into the line. We left soon after.
So, shamed by the McDo man, and steadfastly refusing to pay for a restroom—now less from a desire to save pennies, and more from sheer determination to stick it to the (French)man—my friends and I continued our search through downtown Montpellier. And then—could it be?—a free public restroom! A single silver stall, roomier than your average portable toilet, with an automatic sliding door. We were saved, along with our pocket change.
But why was there such a long line? It wasn’t because people were taking their time. In fact, with this kind of toilet, called a sanisette, you can’t—the door opens automatically after 15 minutes to prevent any potential misuse. What takes so much time, we discovered, is the self-cleaning. When one exits the toilet, the door closes, and a two- to three-minute wash cycle runs before the next person can enter. With a line of five or six people, you may wait up to half an hour.
As I was beginning to wonder if we shouldn’t go back and test our luck with the McDo police, the people ahead us grew impatient and left the line, sparing us several minutes of waiting. The last person exited the toilet, but of course, we didn’t dare forget to wait for the merciless cleaning cycle. We all somehow knew the urban legend: the story of the tourist who held the door open for his wife on his way out, and unknowingly subjected her to two minutes trapped in the small, dark room, shrieking as sudsy water sprayed from all directions. There was also the child who met the same fate, because he was so small that the weight sensors didn’t detect him.
The French bureaucratic system puts you through this same rigmarole. You search for a solution. You wait. You try to take action, without any luck. You wait some more. You think you’ve almost made it—and in some cases, you have. If you’re patient, and if you follow every instruction precisely, then congratulations, you’ve succeeded. In this case, my friends and I made it in and out of the sanisette without incident. Shortly thereafter, on a separate trip to Montpellier, I somehow went through the necessary channels to validate my visa and become a legal French resident (and only after three months of actually residing in France!).
But if you’re anything like the tourist couple who didn’t know the rules of the game—or even if you’re more like the small child, who was just down on his luck—you’re going to be trapped in that sanisette, deprived of the very thing you came to do in the first place, all while receiving something worse in return. Clearly, in France, no good can come from evading rules, structure, and procedure. If you can’t maneuver your way out of restroom fees, the McDo police, and robo-toilets with their automatic cleaning cycles, then you certainly can’t avoid the omnipresent French administration.
Some months after my arrival in France, I asked myself: by investing so much energy into complaining about the system, and none at all into questioning and resisting it, was I adopting too passive of an attitude—the classic French “Oh, ça me saoule ! Mais bon, tant pis.”—towards the administration? This is why I often wonder, dream even, about turning complaints and compliance into bureaucratic disobedience. What would happen if I applied for the housing allocation fund without the necessary documentation? Or skipped the appointment with Dr. OFII and just didn’t leave the country until I wanted to leave it for good? Or didn’t weigh my fruit before getting in line at the grocery store?
I do know now, though, not to try my luck with an automatic toilet.
By Isabelle Chen.A recent college graduate who has lived, studied, and worked in both Aix-en-Provence and Perpignan, France. In my free time, I enjoy writing creatively about my time abroad.
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