Friday, August 02, 2013

French Customs Officials - 1, Bilbo - 0

In the last two days, I've told you two stories about my misadventures in France. Today, we'll look at the third and last of my experiences in the land of wine and cheese ... my encounter with French customs agents.

When we lived in Wiesbaden, Germany, we often made weekend trips down into the beautiful French Alsace region*. We would pick a small town with a nice hotel and restaurant, drive down, and spend the weekend dining and sightseeing. This usually worked out quite well, as most hoteliers and restauranteurs in the Alsace tended to speak at least a little German, which compensated for my total lack of French.

On the weekend in question, we picked up our friends Horst and Martina (whom you will remember from the previous posts) and drove down to a little town near the city of Bitche**, where we checked into a delightful country inn with attached restaurant. After lunch, we went to a crystal factory that Agnes wanted to visit, where we purchased several beautiful crystal decanters at - relatively speaking - very good prices. We then went on to do some sightseeing before returning to the hotel to enjoy a wonderful, multi-course gourmet dinner that lasted about four hours, after which we were returned to our rooms in wheelbarrows.

The next day we did some more sightseeing and, after lunch, prepared to head home. This is where the adventure began...

If you have traveled in Europe, you know that most countries impose a very hefty (17% or more) "value added tax" (or VAT) on almost everything you buy. But if you're a tourist, and you get the right itemized receipts and customs paperwork, you can get the tax refunded when you leave the country. This being not chump change if you've bought a lot of stuff, most knowledgeable travelers go through the administrative hassle of applying for the tax refund ... which is exactly what we intended to do with the crystal we bought.

At the factory, we obtained the properly formatted receipts, clearly showing the amount of the VAT eligible to be refunded. We were instructed to submit these at the French customs office before we crossed the border back into Germany, where we would obtain the forms which, once decorated with the appropriate number of stamps and signatures, would allow us to get the tax money back. Easy peasey lemon squeezey, as my granddaughter Leya would say.

Not so fast there, bucko ...

The first hitch in the plan came when we suddenly realized that it was Sunday ... and in true French fashion, most border crossing stations were not manned. We drove for quite a while and many miles, searching for a border post that actually had people working in it. Finally, just outside the town of Wissembourg, we found a manned customs office - hooray!!

I was appointed*** to take our receipts to the office and get the paperwork done, and so I put on my very best good-natured-tourist face and approached the two very bored-looking Inspector Clouseau clones sitting behind the counter.

"Bon jour!" I said cheerfully, instantly exhausting my French vocabulary. "Sprechen Sie Deutsch?", I went on hopefully.

Both men looked at me suspiciously.

"Do you speak English?"

More blank looks through narrowed eyes.

At this point, I figured speech was pretty much useless, so I just laid all the receipts (thankfully, written in French) on the counter and pointed to the line indicating the amount of tax to be refunded.

One of the customs officers sighed and slowly picked up the receipts, which he proceeded to examine minutely. Finishing his examination, he handed the receipts to the second officer, who also slowly and carefully studied them, occasionally looking up at me with a baleful eye.

Eventually, he handed the receipts back to the first officer, who - with great and theatrical effort - rose from his chair and lumbered across the room to a battered five-drawer file cabinet, where he slowly and methodically searched through several drawers before finding the sheaf of forms he wanted. He then slowly lumbered back to his chair, sat down with a grunt, laid the forms on the counter, then spent a few minutes searching for a pen that would write, testing half a dozen or so on a pad of scratch paper before finding one that would produce a suitably firm and official line.

The officer then went through a pantomime act which I finally understood to be a request for my passport, which I duly handed over. He studied it carefully, comparing my picture to my face and my printed information to the data already entered on the purchase receipts at the store. Finally satisfied that I was really Bilbo, that the receipts were not forgeries, and that I really had bought the things listed thereon, he proceeded to copy - very slowly and carefully - all the information from my passport and the receipts into the proper places on his new form.

While this was going on, the second officer indicated that he wanted me to take him to the car so that he could inspect the items we'd bought ... which, of course, were underneath all our suitcases in the trunk. As we walked from the office back to the van, Agnes, Martina, and Horst glared impatiently at me as if to say, would you get a move on with this, already? I dutifully located all the crystal items we'd bought, and we carried them back to the office, where Clouseau 2 compared them to the receipts, and the receipts to the data laboriously entered onto the other forms by his colleague.

Finally the forms had been properly filled out and compared to our purchases. We were almost done ... all he now needed was the official stamp.

Which he couldn't find.

After a ten-minute search Clouseau 1 finally located the official stamp, after which a new search was initiated to find an ink pad. The pad was finally found, but - naturally - was dried out and had to be re-inked. The ink had to be found. After the bottle of ink had been found and the pad re-inked, a large number of test stamps had to be made on a scratch pad in order to make sure that just the right amount of official ink was applied to the official form.

Finally - after nearly a full hour - I left the customs office with our crystal, receipts, and the hard-won official form that would authorize us to get the tax money refunded. I was accompanied back to the car by the Clouseau brothers, who watched carefully as I repacked our purchases and kept a close eye on us as we pulled out of the parking lot and headed for the border.

Looking back on that adventure, I suppose I can't fault a couple of bored officials at a backwater border crossing for yielding to the urge to jerk around a hapless American tourist. The beautiful Baccarat crystal decanter set so thoroughly documented at the border still holds pride of place on our living room shelves.

And the next time, I'll let Agnes deal with the Clouseau brothers.

Have a good day. Avoid the border crossing at Wissembourg if you can ... the Clouseau brothers have probably long since retired, but I'm sure they have relatives still there.

See you tomorrow for Cartoon Saturday.


* Or German Elsass region, depending on who owns it at the time.

** Yes, really.

*** I didn't get a vote.


Duckbutt said...

It sounds like they were real jerks who had nothing to do plus the fact that you spoke German and English. They can be provincial.

Margaret (Peggy or Peg too) said...

FRench border? TSA? Hmm....
they didn't steal anything did they?

eViL pOp TaRt said...

I'm sorry you had a bad experience with French customs inspectors. They might have been bored, or feeling sorry for themselves for having to work on Sunday, or were simply scheissokopfs! It's amazing that some customs stops were unmanned. Apparently they took French leave.

At least you got money cack on your purchases. I wonder if sometimes functionaries are deliberately perverse to discourasge your getting your VAT back!

Mike said...

Sounds like a typical 'you're not French and we are' story.

Elvis Wearing a Bra on His Head said...

Your speaking German did it. Got their backs up. Especially in Alsace or Lorraine.