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HORRORS: FRANCE

One Slip, and He's (French) Toast

An American in Paris without 'papers' is an illegal alien, non? A bilateral force of bureaucrats fights for his hide

October 29, 2000|JOHN McBRIDE | John McBride is a writer in Los Angeles

The guard led me to a room. I'd be sharing it with another prisoner. As we entered, the hulking man who was to be my cellmate stopped staring out the window at the planes taking off long enough to turn and eye me icily.

Even the guard seemed taken aback by this guy's expression. He led me to another room, vacant because the shower was broken. I didn't mind because I wasn't staying. I stowed my luggage under the bed. Then I too took up a position at the window, gazing through bars at the outbound traffic lifting off from Paris' Charles de Gaulle airport.

My wife, Lynn, and I had meticulously planned this trip to France in the summer of 1997. Lynn had sifted through years of accumulated travel articles to find accommodations: a castle in Bordeaux, a country estate in the Dordogne. Our route would take us from southwest France through Provence to the Co^te d'Azur, where we would stay at the Colombe d'Or hotel in the hilltop village of St.-Paul-de-Vence. From there we'd make day trips to places like Nice and Cannes. The final leg would bring us back to Paris for two days in the City of Light.

In the weeks before we left, I got used to being awakened at odd hours of the morning by our fax machine, receiving confirmations and detailed directions from France.

We stepped off the 11-hour Air France flight from Los Angeles to Paris feeling pretty good, having maintained a carefully timed regimen of remedies to ward off jet lag. Our new bags, purchased after much consideration and testing, rolled smoothly on shiny plastic wheels toward customs and the connecting flight.

That's where we got the news, from a boyish-looking policeman in a glass booth: "Your passport is expired."

This, of course, could not be true. I grew a patronizing smile as I fumbled for my reading glasses, but my smile withered as the truth became apparent: He was right. Mouths open and staring blankly at each other, Lynn and I flashed back to the moment weeks earlier when I asked her whether our passports were OK. "I checked, and yours is good till '98," she said.

Did I mention my wife has dyslexia?

Maybe the Air France agent at LAX who checked our passports was dyslexic too.

My passport, issued in February of 1987 and expiring in 1997, contained the digits that a dyslexic person might read as 98.

"Stand over there," the customs officer told us. He seemed older now, a figure of authority.

Lynn later described it as like a scene from the movie "Midnight Express." To me it was more reminiscent of early television comedy. During the hour we waited to be escorted to police headquarters, she and I tried variations on the refrain: "Oh [Ricky], this is all my fault!" and "Don't worry [Lucy], everything's going to be all right."

But it wasn't. I didn't say anything, but I knew the cops meant business when they held up the connecting flight to Bordeaux for an hour to retrieve our bags. And I didn't say much at police headquarters, where Lynn explained in French and English that she had misread my passport. Obviously we were not outlaws, just tourists with elaborate plans for a vacation in France. Just look at the faxes!

My wife was addressing the stout, red-faced officer who gave orders and his tall, unflappable assistant who carried them out. The radish and the cucumber. And like vegetables, neither was in any way moved. We were, however, allowed to go to a nearby pay phone to call the U.S. Embassy.

Things seemed to be looking up when we got through to the U.S. Consulate, which handles travelers' crises. We spoke with a fellow who said his office could issue me a new passport on the spot. Just bring in my expired passport and new photographs.

Well, that pretty much settled it, I thought, as we headed back to tell the officers. They listened politely before handing me the detention papers to sign. No, I would not be going to the embassy. I was to be sheltered in a hotel for the night, under police supervision, and dispatched back to the U.S. on the next Air France flight to Los Angeles. My wife (this brought a smile to their faces) was free to continue her vacation. I signed. As they took me away, Lynn stuffed my hand with 1,000-franc notes, in case I needed cash for room service.

Technically, I suppose you could say it was a hotel. The detention center was in the basement of a hotel property near the airport. But it had the unmistakable look, feel, smell and general population of a jail. Up to this point, I had kept my cool. Now I was shaken. As I walked in, a guard holding a phone shouted my name. It was Lynn, calling from a nearby hotel where she had taken a room. I tried to reassure her.

A few minutes later, a guard called me back to the phone. It was the fellow from the embassy. He'd had a call from Lynn. She was hysterical. I should call her immediately. He gave me his home phone number "just in case." In case of what, I wondered, as other inmates circled.

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