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Keep a book handy

July 4, 2009
The French police are really nice, at least, they are if you're the victim of a theft.

The French police are really nice, at least, they are if you're the victim of a theft.

Today I had to drop by the commissariat in Paris to report my stolen wallet and had a reminder lesson in French bureaucratic efficiency. Having just spent an hour at the doctor’s (long story), I was a little disappointed to enter into the waiting room as eight other people watched me. They all had the sullen, brain-dead expressions of people who’ve had nothing to do for far too long. As I approached the makeshift desk (because they were renovating), I learned that my wait would be at the very least an hour. At this moment, one man canceled his own spot in the queue and said, “I’m sorry madam, but I cannot wait an hour for a paper that takes two minutes to sign.”

Resolving not to appear testy, especially to a police woman, I told her I didn’t mind. Seeing as there were no more free chairs, I sat down on the grainy cement floor (also being redone) and settled in.

In the U.S., usually when the hostess tells you it will be an hour wait, she’s bluffing, or rather covering her bases in case something crazy happens. But most of the time, you can be reasonably certain that “an hour wait” translates to “roughly 25 minutes.” Not so in France. Although I did manage to claim one of the semi-cushy chairs, I definitely waited over an hour to sign a couple of papers and be told that they would let me know.

The thing about the wait is that I actually ended up enjoying it. You’d be amazed at how quickly an hour passes with a good book (in my case, I Served the King of England) and, eventually, a comfortable chair. Meanwhile, the woman at the desk was pleasant and patient. There simply were not enough people to tend to all of us at once. The police officer with whom I filed the claim was also amiable and patient with my imperfect French. It’s just that in France, life moves a little slower, and occasionally you just have to wait. It makes for a little bit more calm, or a bit more frustration depending on how you look at things. My advice? Keep a book handy.

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