Friday, August 10, 2007

Paper Chase

I have been trying to organise the work from the Tentmaker's Khan to go to France.

I had to get a piece of paper called a EUR 1. My lovely and helpful French contact said it would mean we did not have to pay customs duties for work to be sold, and it would be at the Chamber of Commerce.

I tried to find it on the internet. Three sites, three addresses. I asked the friend who is the very efficient receptionist at the embassy to help me. She found an address, and a phone number, and the fact that women finished at 3.15 pm and men at 3.30.

I organised a car and headed for the place. The piece of paper gave a number on Falaki Square and I felt quite pleased with myself that I actually knew where this was.

I found the Chamber of Commerce. The day was not too hot. It was perhaps 34 at ten am but we had a bout of over forty a week ago and I was almost comfortable.

That was perhaps before three flights of stairs. I found myself staring a a lot of foot high Arabic lettering in brass. It was very beautiful against a cream marble wall but I didn't have a clue what is said. At least - I could say the work aloud to myself, but I had no idea what it meant. At either side of the stairwell long corridors stretched into a seeming infinity - possible aided by rather grotty and fly spotted mirrors. I had not seen that they were mirrors till I wondered why the woman walking down the corridor had such similar clothes.

I wandered for while and realised that all the occupants of the offices were studiously looking elsewhere as I walked past. I walked to a door and tapped on the frame. Two people looked up from their conversation. I asked about the EUR 1. They shook their heads, but one then walked me to another office.

A nice and older man in one of a circle of desks seated me, offered me tea, and took out a ledger. I rather assumed, as he flicked through it, that he would pull out the form and hand it to me, and I would thank him and leave. I was wrong. He took nearly five minutes, then pulled a sheet of paper towards him and slowly and laboriously started to write.

Ten minutes later it was done. He had copied one letter at a time. I had assumed - still - that this was to do with the form I needed. It wasn't - it was an address for another place to go to where I could get my EUR 1 form. He had written it carefully in English which he obviously did not speak - and I was sorry as my driver of the day was Egyptian.

I called my driver who had had to park a long way away and we headed for the next location. The address was clear enough, but when we got there - it could have been any part of two or three blocks. I walked loops around blocks - and it was now heading up for 36 or 37. I found the office space eventually on the side of an alley and with a grotty desk at the bottom of steep stairs. He immediately walked me outside the building and around the block again. We entered on the other side, and after some argument with another guard at another grotty desk we walked three flights of stairs in a humid and hot building and down enough corridor for me to realise that obviously he should not have bothered walking me around the building as we were now back on the original side.

I was shown into an office full of women where men in the corridor milled around a window with a cashier's slit.

It was really bizarre. There was not one thing on any desk. It was like an empty classroom without the clutter around the edges. Nothing on the yellowish-creamish-greenish dirty walls. It was HOT and airless and all were wearing heavy perfume so it was like an onslaught of ten different sorts of rock music, but olfactory, not auditory. There were no phones in the room or on the desks. No books. Not even ledgers - and these huge heavy books are loved in Egyptian offices and are everywhere. No fans. No computers. One woman walked slowly to the window, spoke briefly to a man behind it, took a piece of paper from him, then walked back to her desk, took a plastic biro from the drawer, and proceeded to fill out the form.

I was asked to sit beside a lady in pink with very large costume jewelery on almost any part of her that could support it. She was painting her nails. She looked up and said in Arabic " Two minutes please," and continued on the nails. I was a bit staggered that she could not paint nails and talk at the same time. She was very carefully leaving white areas over the moons and with scarlet polish it looked as if the nails had just grown out.

I can see this being a long post. After five minutes I was given a Eur1. The invoice was demanded and I told her that I did not bring one as I would fill out the sheet at home. Come back tomorrow she said, with Arabic. It seemed a big ask to become fluent overnight, but I think she was telling me to bring a friend. I had actually understood almost everything she had said - the problem had been trying to tell her what I was taking and I had covered that by ringing the stitcher who is accompanying me so he could explain.

This piece of paper petrified me. I had printed out a thing on the internet that explained how to fill it out - all five pages of instructions for three sheets of the form. There was a large area explaining that a correction made the form null and void. My friend in France who is our sponsor had said I had to itemise each piece of stitching on the form - and there were sixty to go in an area only twelve centimetres each way.

That night I typed invoices, made up an accurate packing list for each suitcase and totaled columns of figures. There will be some very happy men if we sell all this work. I did the maths on the commissions with the help of my Southern Cross quilter friends.

I got to bed at 4.30 am. By this stage I had looked at the form and decided I was too weary to tackle something that needed absolute concentration. I set the alarm for 6.30am.

Next morning, with Mohamed as my 'Arabic', I fronted up again. Mrs Nails scanned my carefully foldered and typed Invoice - with 60 itemised pieces and their descriptions (nine pages) - and then the form. She asked what the transport was. I said we would use a shipping company but it was to be organised from France, and I did not know which one. She wrote - in English and very badly in a great scrawl "by passenger in airplane".

Now we had just explained in Arabic that this was not the case and I expostulated! She crossed it out in large black strokes. She said it did not matter that she had just crossed out my carefully written form as it wasn't right anyway - it had to be done like everyone else, on a computer. I pointed out that a form with many small boxes on both sides all over the form and with small spaces for words was hard to set up on a computer. She said I could use an old typewriter.

I told her I did not have one.

She shrugged and said "There are many Internet cafes - they will do it. Anywhere!"

Now at this point I knew she had never used a computer because what she was lightly telling me to do was very hard - especially for me.

We gave up and left.

Next morning I went in, again with Mohamed, and presented her with a PERFECT form, done on the computer, and with the shipping company filled in. I was so proud - I had done it with multiple photocopies for checking, and holding up the printed test sheets over the 'real' form with the light behind to see that everything would fit exactly. The space bar had worked overtime, I had adjusted margins - I was thrilled.

She handed it back and said - "you have to do it again with the value less than 500 Euros".

Now there was no way I would lie about the value. This decreed the insurance value and I would need every cent I had listed to pay back the men in the Khan if the shipment was destroyed or missing.

She pointed out that if I wanted such a high value I had to go to another office way out at the airport and everyone else just changed the value. She could only authorise a small parcel - and maybe I needed a different form. I stuck to my guns and fought this one as the shipper in France was clear and specific and I knew he would be right. I was getting annoyed as I could see our time sliding away.

She shrugged, sat down, and took chewing gum from her handbag. The interview was over and I was a nuisance.

In the hurry to finish the form and paperwork and leave the house, and in my scrambled and exhausted state I had left my mobile and my ID card behind and could not go to the airport without my ID. The traffic was building up and the airport is a long way away. I go to England in the early hours of Saturday morning and Friday everything is closed. I had hoped to have the work collected on Thursday, and it was already too late to drive the hour-long drive to the airport and be at the office there by 2.00pm. It closed at 3.00, but they said they were busy and I had to be there at 2.00 to be served.

I had had an interim drama on my return to the house when I found that my house guests had been horribly gypped out of a LOT of money. They had gone to the bank to get the balance out as they had to pay the man who was calling to collect it - $680 for five vials of perfume oil. I was horrified and when they went to their room for a nap I went to the guard box and took back the money they had left, telling the guard to tell the man from the shop to come and see me.

It is all another story - but to cut it short - I was frustrated and angry about two very annoying days and that man really copped it! He was only the messenger so I rang the shop and blasted the owner too. My friends were charged almost six hundred dollars too much for what they bought. I kept the extra money and we handed it back. Bob will talk to them tomorrow and we may bring in the police. Worse - they were taken there by a guide from the museum called Moses who probably pocketed half the money.

This morning - early - Mohamed and a trusty driver and I went to the airport.

It took five offices! It took seven separate conversations and five hours. I rang France once and they rang me back once. Each conversation was grave and took ages.

Once office had a wall of men's backs about seven deep along a counter. Mohamed took one look and said "I will go". I said I wanted to try it my way. I drew myself to full height (not a lot at any time) and started excusing myself clearly and briskly in British English and they fell back like the parting of the Red Sea. Mohamed kept muttering "I never saw you like this. I am following a different woman."

It was not much use - it was the wrong office. I said that at least I was seeing Cairo and the men laughed.

At office number four we fell into conversation with two very nice men with very high piles of forms. At first they were not really wasting time talking to us as the seven women in the office were sitting around a table eating bread and ful (hot broad beans cooked to a spicy sludge) and drinking tea from large mugs. The conversation took twenty five minutes and I only followed a little, but the gist was that the shipper should do these forms, not us. "Look", said one man, expansively circling his arm, "how many ambassador's wives do you see?"

We decided to find the shipper only to find the numbers we had been given did not work. We had brought the cases as the shipper's address was at the airport. The mobile number worked, but the man on the other end was apologetic but not working for the company now. I rang France. My friend sounded worried but promised to ring us back. I also asked him to ask his contacts to warn the office that we were bringing the cases.

He rang back, we rang the office, and were setting off for Heliopolis with only me a bit concerned that we had been told to leave the cases at the airport branch.

Then as we turned through the car park I saw - just out of the corner of my eye - a neat and tidy and freshly painted office on a long string of grotty ones - and a sign which looked like the agency we were looking for. I insisted we loop back - and walked in to the smell of fresh coffee, and a young man with a delightful smile saying "Can I help you?"

It was like coming home after a long journey. He took over, the forms were done, we were given marvelous coffee, and he inspected and whisked away the cases. He sent my driver off to buy padlocks, and checked that they would go on the cases.

I could have kissed him.

At ten tonight the way bills arrived and all is well and wonderful.

We go to the Camel market in the morning, and will see our friends from the wedding and henna party a few weeks back. Then I have some work to do. Then we will pack. Then we have a party to farewell a loved Embassy member who will be missed.

Then - we go to England and I will be in Birmingham.

Back in ten days.


Anonymous debbie jordan, elf4 said...

dear jenny = all i can muster up to say is "oh my god!" what an incredible, horrible, annoying time you had - your dedication to the tentmakers is courageous! i was glad the story had a happy ending - well done, and i wish the exhibit in france all the best - the one in melbourne was stunning!

10:04 am  
Blogger KDS said...

As always, a wonderful read. I took my time to read each line carefully while sipping my "almost-midnight" cup of tea. The story almost seems like getting something done in a government office in India. The successful ending indicates that you won't have much trouble if you ever are doing the same in India's Babudom (couldn't find definition).


12:57 pm  
Blogger Lazy Gal Tonya said...

Holy Cow. All your hard work will be worth it in the end - will truly be a stunning exhibition.

9:05 pm  
Blogger Helen said...

Strewth Jenny, you sure are one determined woman.

French bureacracy is very similar - millions of forms in triplicate plus visit every office in town every time. Hey weren't the French colonists in Egypt ? perhaps that's where they get it from !

So dig out a good French speaker if you have to deal with any French officials - or perhaps just whip out the diplomatic passport, cos they are very reverent about officials ! it's just ordinary citizens they try to tie up in knots - and the English and the Americans.

9:11 am  
Blogger Lisa Walton said...

I am still gobsmacked that you continued and perservered. You are an amazing woman.

9:50 am  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Dear Jenny, I am exhaustd from reading all that. You are a wonderful woman, and I wish you all the best with the exhibition. May you sell the lot, as I'm sure it will be fantastic.
Margaret in PN, NZ

6:42 pm  
Blogger Shelina said...

Wow, that is a lot of work to ship a parcel. I admire your persistence!

8:16 am  
Blogger Feather on a Wire said...

I've heard French bureaucracy can be impossible even in France. Well done you for persevering.
BTW I loved you piece in the FOQ gallery.
Sally B

9:40 pm  
Blogger Liz Needle said...

Oh, Jenny,

I know it was an horrendous experience, but I can't help feeling that you will look back on this and see the humour in it - that is your way, I think. Good on you for persisting. and ggod luck with the exhibition.

7:56 pm  
Blogger Mia said...

Just found your blog and sympathise with all the trouble you had to go thru!

But I HAD to comment to say how absolutely STUNNING those pieces are! Oh my gosh.. I can't get over it... too bad they're all headed for France :(

11:41 pm  

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