De Gaulle once asked how anyone could be expected to govern a land that has 246 kinds of cheese.
The solution the French have come up with is to create a legion of fonctionnaires, each of whom acts like he or she is perpetually smelling the stinkiest of those famed French cheeses while performing various acts of public governance.
In search of a proper student visa, my first visit to the French consulate in Toronto is short: I'm told through an intercom that all visa requests are by appointment only.
I make an appointment on the website and bring every possible document to my rendezvous: passport, letter of acceptance, university transcripts, degrees, health insurance. A woman looks at me unblinkingly from within a hermetically sealed glass enclosure and explains that to work in France I require a "DDTEFP visé par le rectorat."
She says it quickly. In one breath. I'm still not sure what she means when I ask her to repeat it, but she makes it clear that our time is up.
On my next visit, I tell her I spoke to the grand école I am about to attend and was informed that I wouldn't get the DDTEFP until I am on French soil and attached to a lycée. She explains that without the DDTEFP I won't set foot on French soil. It seems we have un paradoxe.
There is a basic three-month European visa, the Schengen, that would allow me to get the appropriate documentation once on French soil. When I ask her if I could get a Schengen visa, she coughs in outrage.
"You are a student. You will not be working. You do not need a Schengen visa," she scolds.
I explain that a colleague applied for a Schengen visa last year and was able to resolve everything in France.
"Well, he must have lied, and he was lucky not to get caught when he arrived in France," she puffs.
She confers with a colleague. They look at me from behind the glass wall. I can't hear what they say, but hope flickers in my chest. It feels like heartburn when I eat canard confit in too rich a sauce.
The voice of the second functionary crackles in the speaker. She explains that the visa I need is the visa étudiant classique."
I will have to meet with another woman in the office to discuss the purpose of my trip and then come back with the visa application. She lets me know that this is a very special circumstance, one that will not be repeated. It is only for me. The reason why it is only for me, however, is never clearly stated.
My meeting with the woman to discuss my research and my schooling is uneventful, if surprisingly efficient. She takes my various documents, stamps, folds and organizes them and I am off in about 20 minutes.
I walk into the visa office for my next appointment like de Gaulle after the libération. The security guard remembers me and asks if I've just come back from France.
"I haven't left yet," I sigh.
She looks at me with knowing eyes.
I'm called to the counter by the same woman I dealt with originally, but everything is different today. She remembers me and is cordial charming even. On her desk is a small container of apple sauce and a spoon. She slips a piece of dark chocolate under her tongue.
I slide all my documents through the drawer that acts as a portal between Canada and France. They are the same documents from my previous visits, but this time I've trimmed the fat. I have one visa application the long stay and only the supporting documents expressly required.
She staples my photo to the application; I don't say a word for fear of breaking the charm. She stamps, staples and folds my documents. I can feel the envy of those behind me, as thick as double-crème Brie. She tells me to sit.
A few minutes later, the other functionary the problem solver calls me up to her window. She smiles at me from behind the glass and says my visa is good for three months. I will have to apply for the carte de séjour once I am settled in Paris.
She slides my passport to me with my much-sought-after visa affixed to a page in the middle of it. I open it to regard my shiny, official-looking Schengen visa, the one my colleague must have lied for. The one I was brazen enough to ask for. The one I asked for back in June.
She wishes me luck in my research, and I leave the office, my heart beating to the rhythm of The Marseillaise.