“Just borrow a dog for a few hours,” a Toronto friend once told me as I contemplated future stories for this blog.
It was a sure-fire way to dig more deeply here, as I do for this site (which – bonjour, New Subscribers! – aims to bring you a snapshot of real life in the glitzy Côte d’Azur). Gliding through Antibes’ streets with little Fifi on a rhinestone-studded leash, I would live like a local – extracting cordial ‘bonjours’ from real French folks out on their morning errands, and basking in affable chit-chats with neighbouring diners who lingered at sidewalk cafés.
That was my friend’s idea anyway. And borrowing would’ve been a reasonably practical solution. But when I realized last year that it actually was possible to welcome a dog into our family and to maintain our longstanding tradition of summering in the Côte d’Azur, I offered to take on the bureaucracy. In a moment of weakness, Philippe acquiesced. At long last Lolo, our pet-obsessed, tween-aged daughter, was researching puppies.
As we headed overseas last June, Lolo was first in the queue of an Ontario breeder for a puppy born to her favourite pooch, a miniature poodle. The litter arrived on Bastille Day – when else? Fireworks exploded on our TV screen and all along the Mediterranean coastline outside our home, Bellevue.
And that is precisely why, ten-and-a-half months later, I found myself hunched over the kitchen counter in Toronto, plowing through the wee hours for consecutive nights at the tippy end of May, in a valiant attempt to complete Yoko’s paperwork for travel to France this summer. Reams of instructions and governmental forms littered the cool marble, and a blazing internet screen led me deeper and deeper into the abyss of official regulations.
The 10-day window before our French arrival loomed. During this period, our vet needed to pronounce Yoko A-OK health-wise, signing off on a sheaf of bilingual, governmental documentation that was completed to perfection. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency needed to add its official stamp, too. But because we were heading indirectly to France, via Quebec, our 10-day timeframe shrank. And to throw in a tad of French humour: We couldn’t be certain our 10 days would end when we expected them to end. We were heading to France. Everyone was on strike.
All to say, I started the paperwork early. Everything had to be ship-shape for our abbreviated 10-day window.
How could a smart, spirited, apricot miniature poodle puppy cause so many headaches? The hours scraped by there in the kitchen, showing me silly error upon silly error in the vet’s attempt at the persnickety, bilingual, European Union document entitled Non-Commercial movement of five or less dogs, cats or ferrets.
. . . or ferrets. Honestly.
With Yoko curled up sweetly at my feet, a phrase from one set of instructions wallowed in my bleary brain: “If the above-mentioned health requirements are not complied with, the officials in charge of checks can have the animal sent back to the country of origin . . . , have it put into quarantine or have it put down.”
Put down! Blimey. I could not get this wrong. And in any case, I didn’t want to do a Johnny Depp.
Having gone line-by-line through the official regs over the course of those late hours, I rang the CFIA with specific questions. Actually I rang their offices three times.
Yes, the authoritative-but-friendly male voice told me, the vet needed to do all strikeouts with a ruler and initial each one. Yes, it is true that we might be crossing out 2/3 of the document (or, to put it another way, that we might have to understand three times the regulatory minutiae before realizing that most of it didn’t apply). Ditto on the French translation that (more than) doubled the length of the English document.
There were no lines, ruled or otherwise, on my completed form.
Yes, the block printing had to be done in black ink – but not the signature. The signature had to be in blue.
My form was all in blue.
I had one last question: Did the attachments – the rabies certificate and the overall health certificate to be issued by the vet, both of which were considered intrinsic parts of the bilingual form – Did they need to be completed in French as well as in English?
The CFIA official was not sure. This time the voice advised that I check with the French consulate.
I charged Philippe, our family’s native French speaker, with this fragment. His approach to any and all bureaucracy is far more laissez-faire than mine – which could be endearing except that as a result, I (his wife of German extraction) have to double-down and get absolutely everything right.
The local French consulate told Philippe to call French Customs in Washington, D.C.
An automated message at French Customs advised callers to visit the website. It didn’t help.
My husband rang the French Embassy in Ottawa. The receptionist jamais – never, not ever – had received this question about a French translation. Attendez, she told Philippe, and went off to discuss the matter.
When she returned, she was très desolée for keeping Philippe so long, but it was a very deep question. Tell French Customs that the French Embassy in Ottawa couldn’t find the right form, she said. They will have to deal with English.
French bureaucrats are never wrong, we’ve been told. We’ve also learned that any errors (non-bureaucrat in origin) can be rectified at a leisurely rate. I’ve witnessed this reality through a tenacious American friend living in Antibes: Years ago she left her marketing career in California to travel with her husband’s work to France – only to have him return to the US without saying goodbye, and thereby leave her life, career and bank balance in shreds. But that was nothing. The battle that has defined her life? Getting her carte de séjour, her French residency card. It was that bad.
This collective thought from the French Embassy, then, was a breathtaking insight into how the French deal with their own bureaucracy. Philippe found the receptionist’s advice hilarious – which it was, sort of, if my cute puppy’s life wasn’t on the line.
He tried to make it better. “We’re going to France,” my Quebecker insisted in relating the telephone discussion to me. “Yoko’s a poodle. She’s going home!”
It’s true. The French will probably even set off fireworks for her birthday.
Soon we were some days into the do-or-die 10-day window. Philippe offered to drive the prescribed highways to the CFIA office with our precious paperwork, properly completed in its black-penned, blue-signed, struck-out-and-initialed, semi-bilingual ecstasy. Inside the compact bureau of the governmental inspectors, an officer reviewed Yoko’s paperwork. Beside Philippe an elderly couple pleaded with another official over their papers for Portugal. Their Siamese cat was 24-years old! said the man, who was kitted out in a pink button-down shirt, linen scarf, and straw, fedora hat. The cat ate only fresh, raw fish! Every day they gave him a Tantric massage! (This stuff is too good to make up.)
At last the official in front of Philippe nodded. “This is the most comprehensive and well done application I have ever seen,” he said. Of course he still had a couple criticisms, mostly relating to having too much information, but Philippe was sailing out of the CFIA offices with his officially stamped pages while the adherents to cat Tantrism were still explaining.
The rest of Yoko’s immigration story went off without a hitch – a little too smoothly, actually, for my liking. The French air traffic controllers chose to show up for work. Yoko had managed to hold it. The burly French customs agent gave our passports perfunctory glances and waved us through.
I glanced down at Yoko, clipped to a taught leash in Lolo’s grip.
Vous voulez voir les papiers du chien? I asked, waving a manila envelope in front of the official. Surely he wanted to see Yoko’s perfect papers.
Non. Perfect French shrug.
But . . . . I was stunned. Non, il faut regarder des papiers! You have to look at these papers! I worked so hard on them! I pleaded in my half-drunken-sleepless state.
A shake of the head, left to right, right to left.
The poodle born on Bastille Day has come home. The agent was so unimpressed by this fact that I didn’t even get to carry on a small conversation, much less make a new acquaintance. Borrowing definitely would’ve been easier.
At least now that we’re settling back into our Bellevue, thing are looking up. The soft June sunshine bestows a fresh gaiety over Antibes’ seaside community before it confronts the summer onslaught. I pop into “our” boulangerie the first day back. As I pay for that coveted, first-back, crusty-but-chewy baguette, the garçon calls over to me, “Bonjour, mon amie!” Hello – my friend, even!
Returning to Bellevue along the boardwalk, the hunky owner of a few neighbourhood restaurants whizzes past me on his kick scooter. He jumps off, swings it around on the pavement, and rolls back to plant a kiss on each of my cheeks.
Poodle or not, I’ve come home, too.