The seeming similarity between “notaries” and “notaires” is only one of the traps awaiting the American resident of France. Above: the sign of a French notaire.
If you’re a citizen of one country and live in another, sooner or later you will face the predicament of wanting or needing something that just plain doesn’t exist.
For example, when I first moved here from the States and didn’t yet have a French bank account, I once found myself in the situation of carrying a largish amount of cash that I wasn’t going to need right away. Thinking like the Midwestern rube that I am, I decided to go to a bank and get a cashier’s check. (For the benefit of non-American readers: any U.S. bank will give anyone who walks in off the street a bank draft in exchange for cash, payable only to one party – like, for example, yourself. It’s almost as flexible as cash but of no use to anyone else – like, for example, a pickpocket.)
So I went into the first bank I could find, waited my turn and explained what I wanted to the woman behind the counter. In response, she gave me a look – a look that I would see many times in years to come. It’s an eloquent facial expression that says many things. It says, “I’ve never heard of such an idea!” Also, “We don’t do that here.” And it always has a little undercurrent of shocked perplexity that says, “Not only are you from another planet, but for an extraterrestrial you are pretty freakin’ stupid.”
Obviously, I didn’t get my cashier’s check. This was hardly even a minor inconvenience, but the next time I came up against this type of problem I really needed a solution: I had some financial papers from the U.S. that had to be notarized. In the States you can’t throw a high-capacity ammo clip without hitting a Notary Public, someone who is officially authorized to witness and authenticate the signing of documents. A lot of people become certified as notaries because it’s a way to earn some extra cash, because it’s a needed public service, and mainly because they get this nifty nickel-plated hand clamp seal thingy to emboss documents with. And, of course, there is no such function in France. Pas de tel animal. France does not have notaries but, in a nice bit of symmetry, it does have “notaires,” a professional function that, in turn, does not exist in the United States. French notaires also handle documents and signatures, but they are like a subset of lawyers, drafting deeds and wills and so forth.
In case you’re ever asked on a TV quiz show, there’s a notary service at the U.S. consulate on Rue Saint Florentin. But sometimes the national differences in the way things are done prove insurmountable. Some years ago, before there was flat-fee long-distance calling on Internet phones, I had occasion to call the tech help line of a big-name American software maker at their toll-free number in the States. And had the following conversation (the brand name has been changed to protect the imbecilic):
“Stucco Software, how can I help you?”
“Hello. Please let me mention right off that I’m calling from France, not toll-free, so I hope you can answer my question quickly.”
“Okay, Sir, but first I need your zip code.”
“Could we skip that? I just have a simple question and…”
“Sir, I have to follow procedures and I need your zip code.”
“Well, I can give you my postal code, but as I said I’m calling from France, so it’s not an American zip code.”
“Could I have your zip code please?”
“Ahh. Okay, it’s 75009.”
(Pause) “Sir, my information shows that that zip code is in Texas.”
“In the U.S., yes, but in France it’s my postcode here in Paris.”
“No. Paris, France.”
“So you’re not in Texas, Sir?”
“No. As I said, I’m calling from France.”
“Did you ever live in Texas?”
I finally decided that €1.50 a minute was a lot to pay in the dim hope that someone who expected Uncle Sam’s P.O. to cover every location in the solar system would be able to solve my technical problem, and hung up.
Speaking of American provincialism and the Internet, I am sure many readers have encountered this quandary: You want to sign up for an online service of some kind based in the United States. You start filling out the form to register your “profile” – First Name, Last Name, Date of Birth, etc., etc. – and then you come to “Address.” You fill in your street address, give the postcode, enter Paris in the city box, skip “State,” put France as your country and hit “Submit.” And get an error message saying that you have failed to enter your state correctly.
You have to put something in the box, so you try “Ile de France” (the administrative département that Paris is in) and then “N.A.” and then “WTF” and then “WTFF” and then “Eatmerde,” and you keep getting the same error message over and over. As though to taunt us, some sites include a pop-up list of every single country in the world (Faroe Islands, Fiji… there it is!) next to a state pop-up list with the top 50 from Alabama to Wyoming, plus Guam, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, but no other choices (the states of “Exasperation,” “Bewilderment” and “Ill-Repressed Apoplectic Fury” are not included for some reason) and the system insists that you absolutely must pick one. I’ve noticed that more and more sites now include a “Non-U.S.” option, but for the ones that don’t there is usually no way out of this particular deep circle of cyberhell, and you have to give up.
I swear it’s enough to make you want to go postal. With a zip gun.
© 2011 Paris Update
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