Volumes have been written about the French "paradox". Usually this refers to the fact that while modern nutritional science suggests that it's sheer folly to eat lots of breads and cheeses, drink lots of wine, and consume nearly raw or actually raw beef because you're likely to either die of blocked arteries, end up at an AA meeting, or contract Ecoli from the un(der) cooked meat, the French have been living like this for centuries and continue to be among the healthiest people on the planet. And as long as they live in the "classic" French way (which includes daily walking, eating in moderation and eating lots of fresh produce and abstaining from processed foods), statistically speaking they seem to defy all the odds (even with the penchant for smoking).
Yet paradoxes in French culture are not limited to the food and wine. There are paradoxes everywhere you turn, like in the language where "there is the rule, and then there is the exception to the rule". Rules like "nouns ending in -e take the feminine gender... except when they don't".
It's enough to make you insane some times, and what's funnier (except when it's not funny at all) is that the French KNOW these paradoxes exist everywhere in their culture, and in typical Gallic fashion will just shrug them off: "Beh, oui... c'est normal."
This rule/exception logic also applies to the sometimes mind-numbing bureaucratic machine that is France. According to a survey from the end of 2003, 20% of employed people are employed as fonctionnaires, or civil servants. And those fonctionnaires take their job security seriously. The French, as a collective body, seem to like having rules, structures and procedures for doing things... at least judging by the sheer volume of documents one must produce, copy or fill out to get things done. Yet the paradox is that the French, as individuals, seem to enjoy being the ones to bend or even break the rules... they want to be the exception, the one who got around this or that regulation, or the one who got a fonctionnaire to go the extra mile. When you're THAT lucky person, you get to feel like you scored one for the Little People.
As I immerse myself more and more in French culture, I am becoming more intimately acquainted with the Paradox of the Red Tape... and with the frustration of having to deal with fonctionnaires and their little power games. Added to my periodic frustrations is my inability to sometimes communicate fully with the people with whom I must be able to communicate, because my French, although improving, is still not up to the task of withstanding the wrath of an indignant civil servant.
Case in point today: while trying to get a simple apostille on some documents to make them valid in the U.S., a fonctionnaire at the Palais de Justice MADE ME CRY.
I am not going to bore you with the details of what was happening or why I cried, but suffice to say I was mortified, confused and monumentally frustrated all at the same time.
The paradox was, that my tears ended up putting me in that category -- just this once -- of People who Beat the System. One of the fonctionnaires (not the one who made me cry with her witchy attitude) took pity on me, made some phone calls, and actually left her cubicle to walk me to another office where she spoke to another very nice fonctionnaire about my paperwork dilemma. In minutes we had a workable solution that, although it will require me to come back tomorrow with more papers, is a small price to pay for having had someone actually bend over backwards to HELP me, and to do it with sensitivity and a smile. Walking back towards her office, she admitted that things are confusing in France.
It was as I was preparing to leave that I noticed the title chiseled over the doorways adjacent to the "apostille" kiosk at the Palais de Justice:
Chambre des Criées. The Chamber of Screams*.
I know just how they feel.