Monday, April 06, 2009

This Never Happens to James Bond...

Last Friday I ran a post titled "All My Soap Operas," in which I took off on the coming demise of the long-running soap "The Guiding Light" to talk about my past infatuation with the show "All My Children." My friend Katherine wrote a comment to that post in which she told the story of being detained at the French/Spanish border by a pair of bored French immigration officers who wouldn't return her passport until she told them who shot J.R. (Ewing, from the prime-time soap opera "Dallas").

Those pesky French.

As it happens, I have my own story about adventures crossing the French border...

When we last lived in Germany, we rented a house in the beautiful city of Wiesbaden, which was only about a two-hour drive from the Alsace region of Germany. Oops, no, actually the Alsace region of France. My mistake...the two countries have traded it back and forth so many times, I lost count. Anyhow, we often would drive down into the Alsace on weekends and find country restaurants and hotels where we'd have a nice multi-course French dinner and a good night's sleep, along with some shopping and sightseeing.

On one trip, we were travelling with our German friends Martina and Horst, and we had visited a crystal factory near the city of Bitche (no, I'm not kidding), where we bought a few nice things at the factory's outlet shop.

That was on Saturday. Fast forward to Sunday, and we're driving home to Wiesbaden. As a military person stationed in Europe, I was eligible to get the value-added tax we'd paid at the crystal factory (a not-insignificant sum) reimbursed...but in order to do that, I had to fill out the proper paperwork at a customs office at the border.

This is Sunday, remember. We visited four or five border crossings back to Germany before finding one (at Wissembourg, if memory serves) that was actually manned, and I duly gathered up our receipts and marched into the office to face two bored, middle-aged French customs officers...who thought that an American looking for their assistance was a gift from God to relive their boredom.

For the next hour or so, I went through the most amazing display of bureaucratic obstinancy I've ever seen. One man went out to carefully walk around our van and inspect it minutely. The other searched his office high and low for just the right form ... and then for a pen that would write. He then had to locate a sheet of scratch paper to try out the pen to make sure it would make just the right line of the proper color. Then he had to carefully transfer every detail of my military ID card, letter-by-letter, into the correct blocks on his form. Then he minutely scrutinized each receipt, front and back, to make sure that I wasn't trying to cheat the Government of the French Republic with some bogus paper. Once the form was completely filled out (and the carbon copies carefully inspected to ensure they were properly illegible), he announced in French (which we'd already established that I didn't speak) that it would be necessary to inspect the articles we'd purchased!

We marched out to the van where, under the careful observation of both officials, I opened the rear hatch, took out all the stuff on top of our packages, carried the packages back into the office, and unwrapped each one so that Inspector Clouseau could compare everything to the receipts.

This done, I was allowed to repackage all our purchases and return them to the van (again under the observation of the second officer) while our stalwart official embarked on a thorough search of his office for the correct stamp to apply to the documents. This took about ten minutes. He then needed to find an inkpad with just the right amount of ink. Another ten minutes or so. Now another sheet of scratch paper needed to be found so that several test stamps could be made to ensure that the stamp was properly inked and aligned.

Finally, he applied the stamp to the correct (thankfully!) block on his form (and each copy), and then had to once again find his pen so that he could sign each copy with an original, illegible flourish.

After one last thorough review of each copy to ensure accuracy, our hero carefully filed each carbon copy in its proper folder before putting on a happy smile and handing me the original form with an officious, "Voila!"

I thought that people only said "voila!" in cartoons.

I thanked him (I know how to say "merci") and rushed with unceremonious speed back to the van so that I could drive away before he could think of anything he'd missed. Agnes, Martina, and Horst, of course, thought all this was grand fun.

To this day, the crystal decanters and glasses we bought that day sit in pride of place on a shelf in the living room...

And I have yet another story to tell of how I have developed my love-hate relationship with the French.

The moral of the story: don't try to get anything past a minor functionary at a French border post on a Sunday if you're in a hurry.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



KKTSews said...

Hey, you were my boss back then and never told me about the tax rebate? I have crystal from Bitche and Lalique and might have saved a pretty penny and gotten another good story!

My favorite thing to do was dash across the border early on Sat morning to buy up all the croissant. Dash back and pop them in the freezer. German bread is great, but nothing beats a hot-out-of-the-oven French croissant.

Mal's Team Gherkin said...

That's why the French surrendered so quicklyly in 1940... too much damned paperwork otherwise!!!! hahahaaa.

John said...

James Bond never stopped at the check points. Now we know why!

Melissa B. said...

I'll bet after that encounter you were French-fried, oui? Or would that be Freedom-fried?

Mike said...

So what was the sum and how much time did it take to get it back? Were you making minimum wage?