Les gens qui ne rient jamais ne sont pas des gens sérieux

Be who you are and say what you mean, those who mind don't matter and those who matter don't mind

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

identity cards

I turned the corner and spotted door number 8. The door I'd been directed to, to pick up my shiny new electronic Belgian carte de sejour. There was a ticket machine so I took one. 724. I looked up at the screen. 728. Oh Belgium.

A lady was standing with her young child and I pointed at the door. 'Vous allez ici aussi Madame?' I asked. She looked at me, blankly, and a man I hadn't noticed sitting behind me cut in 'it's chaos in there.' he said. 'they're all in foul moods.' I sighed and a newly arrived older woman went up to the ticket machine and took a useless ticket.

'I don't know whether we shouldn't just go in' she said to me. 'This lady was here first' I said, pointing at the lady with her baby daughter. The seated man nodded. 'Go in!' the new arrival advised the mother. The screen flicked to the next number - 729. 'Go ahead' we said to the mother and child. She looked at us wide-eyed and pushed open the door. When she didn't come out immediately we took it as a good sign.

A woman walked down the corridor and towards the door purposefully. It was clear she was an employee and as the number system was helping nobody, I decide to tell her about it. 'Pardon Madame...' I started as she opened the door. 'There's a little wait' she announced, loudly, and shut the door firmly. I turned around, mouth open, to the older lady who had sat next to the man. 'They're a miserable lot these people' she said 'don't even try.' 'What a shame' I said. 'You work with people every day and you can't even be pleasant. It would make the day pass more more agreeably.'

The screen buzzed and the next number was shown. I indicated for the man to go, but he waved me away 'no, I'm a complicated case. They'll come for me. You go ahead.'

I opened the door to find the mother and child sat in front of a desk, and three employees standing across the desk from her, looking at the screen with concerned expressions. One looked up as I entered, and asked me to wait. I stod awkwardly by the door, wth no option but to eavesdrop on their conversation.

'She's got a Belgian passport.' one said
'But she speaks no French?' another asked
'No French, English, Spanish, Portuguese or German' the third explained. I couldn't help but be impressed. Usually the workers in administration buildings speak French and Dutch and look at you with scorn if you try any other language.

The first employee turned to the mother, sat quietly and patiently as they fussed around her. 'Tu veux quoi?' she asked loudly, flapping the passport in her face. I contained the urge to explain that if someone doesn't speak a language, it is generally not a question of upping the volume and being obnoxious before she understands.

'Well I don't know what she wants' the shouter said, 'let's move her and wait for Claire to come back from lunch. She might be able to speak to her.' She turned again to the lady. 'Viens avec moi.' The lady looked up at her, still not understanding. 'Toi!' the lady shouted, pointing at her 'viens!'

It never ceases to amaze me how officials turn to the familiar form of you 'tu' to try and show someone their place, even if they don't understand. Something in my face must have shown my contempt for the way she was treating the lady, because the employee looked at me briefly, turned back to the woman and pulled her up gently by her arm. 'Venez madame. Il faut attendre ici.'

The second employee went back to her seat and waved me over. The third employee buzzed the number screen and the older woman who'd joined us in the corridor came in and took a seat where the incomprehending mother had sat.

I handed over my papers, and as the employee was looking for my card, I heard the conversation at the desk next to me.

'What's your first language Madame?' the shouty employee asked the older woman.
I could almost hear her bristle. 'French!'
'Yes, but your native language. You see we can't understand this lady. Maybe you could speak to her.'
'Well where's she from? Africa's four times the size of Euope you know.'

My papers were put down on the table in front and the emplyee dealing with me joined in the conversation next to us 'Ghana, she's from Ghana.'

'Huh, well, I'm from Ethiopia. A long way from Ghana. They speak English, didn't you try with English?'

The employees confirmed that they had tried with English, and listed again the other languages she did not speak. 'She only speaks her dialect. How she got a Belgian passport I don't know...' the first employee said.

I was handed my card, told to keep my PIN safe and that was that. As I let the room, the lady from Ethiopia was trying to talk to the lady from Ghana. She was just looking at her, not understanding a word, her daughter hanging on her arm.

I looked down at my card, and tried to imagine it. In a foreign land, trying to do a task you can't explain, people shouting at you in a language you can't make sense of. I wondered who she was, and how she came to be in Belgium with its grey skies and rude officials.

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