The Brave Warrior in West Africa 6 – Dernier jour à Paris

In Travels on February 1, 2013 at 9:10 am


A Brave Warrior is trained from birth, possibly even in the womb, not to show too much outward sign of emotions, positive or negative. The Mongols called it the ‘cold face’.

So, in delight of having obtained my visa for Congo in just 20 minutes, I avoid skipping lightheartedly down the street, swinging from lampposts, or doing a wonderful impression of Gene Kelly in the musical ‘An American in Paris’. But inside, I am extremely relieved. With my aches and pains, the thought of having to come back to Central Paris tomorrow was not a great motivator.

I decide as I am near, and in fact can see a part of it at the top of the road, to walk to the Place de l’Etoile. This is the famous circle where the Arc de Triomphe is situated. There are some 12 major avenues leading into and out of it. Only a Frenchman can take delight at driving into this major Paris landmark. As I walk around the edges, I realise just how massive the Place de l’Etoile really is. Probably outside of Tien an Men Square in Beijing, I’ve never seen a bigger ‘carrefour’. The Arc has a giant French tricolore hanging from the middle.

There is also a Mauritian connection… On the walls is a plaque commemorating the (only) French Napoleonic naval victory against the British. This took place in 1810 and is known as the battle of Grand Port, situated just north of Mahebourg. The French soundly defeated the attack of General Pym, although it must be said that they surrendered the whole island to the overwhelming British forces within a few weeks. This reminds me of an interesting incident on Google some time back where entering the search item “French Military Victories|” yielded the response: “Your search did not match any documents. Did you mean ‘French military defeats?

As I consider this singular moment in French naval history, I can’t help but think of my recent visit with my mother to the truly magnificent Chateau de Versailles. There is an entire wing there dedicated to famous French military victories, with an imposing gold engraving at the entrance declaring “A toutes les gloires de la  France”. What struck me then and does so again, is how a nation has somehow managed to salvage glory out of so many abject defeats. Going back all the way to Vercingetorix against Caesar (52 BC); 7 battles, including Crecy against the English in 1345-1347; Agincourt (1415), Blenheim (1704); Quebec City (1759); Trafalgar (1805); Waterloo (1815); the siege of Paris (1870); Hitler bypassing the ‘impenetrable’ Maginot Line for the battle of France in 1940; Dien Bien Phu (1954); the nation has known calamitous defeats, yet they can still build magnificent monuments to ‘All the Glories of France’! Without being too biased here, the Brave Warrior code of impartiality does require that I mention that in 1066 Guillaume of Normandy, known to us a William the Conqueror, was the last foreigner to invade England successfully. There is also that famous battle involving the Marquis de la Fayette in the North American revolutionary war that turned the tide against the British, thereby resulting in the creation of the USA. So, the French have also won some world changing battles as well! So much for the history lesson…

Before disappearing underground into the Metro, I am privileged to take in the truly magically beautiful sight of the Champs Elysées lit up with the Christmas lights. They don’t call Paris ‘Ville Lumière’ for nothing.

After a very long day, a very tired Brave Warrior finally gets home. Dinner, seated next to a roaring fire with (Youngest) daughter no.3 and new Son-in-law, at a fine restaurant in the woods rounds off the soirée very nicely indeed.

Friday morning is spent on Skype with various people in Mauritius, before I realise with a start that I have a business appointment in Central Paris. One of the companies I advise has asked me to meet with a potential supplier of Turkish dried fruits and nuts. Rush to Central Paris once again; spend an interesting hour learning all about French Levantine traders in Turkey.

What is more fascinating is the fact that the gentleman I am talking to is actually a Mauritian, married into the Franco-Turkish Pagy family who have been trading products from the ancient city of Smyrna (Izmir) for the past 270 years. How likely is it that from all the companies I could have approached? Would you believe that a month ago, I travelled to Saarbucken in Germany to visit a Christian publishing house. The lady I had been dealing with turns out to be a Mauritian from Rose Hill, who listens to our live broadcasts on Nuradio from Trianon every Sunday. I wonder if there is something afoot in all this? All I need now is to meet a couple of Mauritians in Africa…

As duty calls, I also have to go the Angolan Embassy. It is only to check out if it is possible to get a visa quickly to fly to Luanda when I get back from Ivory Coast next week. Of course, the embassy is located on one of the prime luxury addresses of Paris at 19 Avenue Foch. There is probably no better location in Paris. It is cold and wet as I make my way past the large properties on this wide avenue.

I enter the gate and see a massive 4-story ‘hotel’ as they are known here. To my left is a gatehouse that is larger than my apartment back home. There is space to park and manoeuvre at least 25 cars in the courtyard. A smart suited gentleman comes out and looks at me questioningly before informing me that this is the Embassy. The consulate is located some distance away near the Parc Monceau. One has to wonder what they do in this large building that they need another one elsewhere just for passports and visas.

On arrival at the consulate at 13:15, a few minutes before closing time, I am greeting by 4 extremely bored looking ladies who hand me a form and instruction sheet. One tells me that a visa takes between 15 and 21 days, as the file has to be sent to Luanda. I explain my particular circumstances, and she disinterestedly tells me to tell all that to the ‘man’ who will be there shortly. I sit outside in the waiting room listening to a group of bike couriers exchange ‘war’ stories. It seems the chappie can come downstairs at any point between 14:00 and 15:00, which sounds very promising indeed. After 40 minute or so, I approach the desk again, wanting to know when ‘Monsieur’ will be down. She tells me: “He will!” Because I don’t move, she sniffs and deigns to ring his office before telling me curtly that he will be only a few more minutes.

Just before 14:30, a young dude complete with leather jacket makes an appearance. His arms are loaded with passports. The couriers seem to know him well. His name, strangely for a Portuguese speaking Angolan, is Elton… My latest good friend Elton tells me that anyone seeking a visa must come in person to submit the application. The delay is usually around 15 days with no guarantees. I explain my circumstances – that I can hardly spend 2 weeks in Paris waiting for a visa – and am told that I should try London if I think it might faster. I ask about South Africa; he has no clue how it works there. I speak about SADC or COMESA countries; he doesn’t seem to have heard of these either. Conclusion: it is highly unlikely that I could decide on a whim to pop off to Angola.

It is dark and cold and wet as the Brave Warrior wraps up his tour of African embassies. Despite still dragging a cold and the associated aches and pains, he must still go to a dinner with some French ladies to discuss a project for CTMI Media. A pleasant Parisian evening later, he heads home to pack his bags.

I have to leave for the airport at 7am for my flight to Brazzaville tomorrow.



The Brave Warrior in West Africa 5 – Expect the unexpected!

In Travels on January 30, 2013 at 9:01 am

Expect the unexpected!

Thursday dawns very early for the Brave Warrior. He has some major transport logistics to achieve. Dear Wife is coming through Paris on her way to London. An aunt has fallen seriously ill and the family are gathering to be there for her. It is also a special surprise for firstborn grandson as he gets to join his Dadu on this expedition, without knowing where we are going or why.

We leave home in the dark at 7 am, and I quickly realise that my timing is likely to be thrown out quite a bit. He simply cannot walk as fast as me on his little legs. Whatever the case, we plough on in the bitterly cold darkness. First it’s RER to Gare Montparnasse, then Paris Metro to Denfert-Rochereau, where we connect with another RER service going all the way to Roissy-CDG. Firstborn grandson is loving the experience and keeps asking how many stations before we get ‘there’…

Finally, after almost 2 hours we pull into the modernistic railway station at the CDG. Outside it is very foggy. We’ve received a SMS informing us that Granny has had to move while they blow up some poor person’s abandoned suitcase where she is waiting for us. I cannot imagine what that feeling must be for someone to discover his bag and contents are now in over a million waterlogged bits and pieces, and smelling of explosives.

Firstborn grandson is so excited to be at the airport that seeing his Granny (and her, seeing him) is a complete surprise. A great reunion takes place – Granny has been with him in France for most of the past 7 months – before we move off to have a hearty and healthy breakfast at Macdonald’s. That done, we wait for the AF ‘Car’ which will take us right across to South East Paris to Orly Airport. When we get there, we have to wait for a while before Granny can check in. Before leaving firstborn grandson makes sure that Granny is very clear that he is expecting her to come ‘to my house in Paris’ when she has finished in London. We say goodbye to Granny. From Orly, we take a high-speed tram link before waiting twice for over 20 minutes in the cold at various stations and returning to Chaville. Firstborn grandson is delighted with the complete experience of the Paris transport system, but is completely exhausted.

After dropping him off at home, the Brave Warrior does not dally. After all, there are African embassies to be tackled. I arrive 30 minutes late for my ‘appointment’ with a thought that I really hope that my visa is actually issued; that there isn’t another Ivorian step in the process. On arrival in Africa (102 Rue Poincaré), I hand my receipt to Mr. Efficient who tells me to wait in a queue. Before too long, Mr. Smooth Senior Executive comes out with my passport, asking me to check the dates. I try to explain that next year, I expect to have to organise visas for a delegation and do they really need to spend almost an extra week in Paris to get a visa in person. His reply is that they need the fingerprints, but the Consulate could exceptionally speed up the process – from 4 days to 3 days. Very helpful indeed!

By this time, it’s late afternoon. I’m not sure that I can even get to drop off my passport at the Congo Embassy before it closes. I walk around the corner – it seems that the former African colonies decided the buy up the whole area, as every third building is an African embassy or consulate. Now, it is not in the make up of a Brave Warrior to worry, or even to be concerned.  Possibly a slightly raised left eyebrow might indicate anticipation of a challenge to be faced. So, full of self-assurance and in total confidence, he enters the Congolese Embassy… only to be told the Consulate is in another building around the corner.

At the Congolese Consulate, no one is pretending to be super hi-tech efficient. Everything is a bit messy and tatty and the lady at the cash desk takes (all) my documents and says she will see if it is possible to issue a same-day express visa, costing an extra €50 over the usual fee of €60. She tells me to wait, which I do, expecting to be told to return late tomorrow (Friday) afternoon to collect my passport and visa. This is cutting it a bit fine for my early Saturday morning departure, but we are in Africa after all…

20 minutes later, she calls me over and, without a word flings my passport to me on the counter. My first reaction is that there is a problem. Very likely, someone must have reported the hissy fit I threw in Brazzaville airport in 2000, when a customs official tried to confiscate my foreign currency. But, no, I have a visa in my passport. Who could believe it? After all the travails with the Ivory Coast, little disorganised and bureaucratic Congo has managed to do the same thing in less than 1% of the time.

What can a Brave Warrior say or do in the face of such efficiency? Expect the unexpected? Maybe the best answer is “Africa wins again!”

The Brave Warrior in West Africa 3 – WAWA!

In Travels on January 25, 2013 at 8:49 am

When I lived in Africa in the good old days, one would often hear expatriates of various nationalities talk about the continent and its people condescendingly. I am sure I must have joined in from time to time. But I consider this in the same way that one defines a pessimist: an optimist with real-life experience!

Without digressing further, each nationality would say with great vehemence and assurance that Africa begins at: Calais (British); Lille (Belgians); Lyon (French); Rome (Italians); Lisbon (Portuguese): South of Madrid (Spanish). I am sure you can spot the pattern here. Basically people living in the south of their home countries were prone to the more relaxed, laid back, manana lifestyle that one associates with Africa.

It is now more than 20 years since I left the continent as a full time resident. My regular forays into Africa since those times have not really convinced me that, organisationally speaking, things have changed for the better. So you can imagine my extremely pleasant surprise to see that Ivory Coast issued biometric visas, and much of the tedious procedure could be completed online. So, last Thursday evening in my bed in Mauritius, I set about completing the online formalities.

Two hours later, I had paid for the cost of the visa, generated a fixed time slot interview the following Monday in Paris. Not being completely computer literate, I somehow messed up the actual application form. No problem, I could do this tomorrow morning… Another hour online at the office on the day of my departure, and with a colleague’s help, saw the application, complete with uploaded photo, duly filled in. Why the Ministry of Foreign Affairs needs to know the names and ages of my children remains a mystery, but I can accept that the needs of information and technology are manifold and require the submitting of such trifling additional details. I also prepare all the key documents requested – original of Birth Certificate, Medical Insurance, Hotel Reservation, Invitation Letter, Air Ticket, and Yellow Fever Vaccination certificate. I was a little surprised (and disappointed, I might add) they had not asked for my school leaving certificate or my rather impressive CV!

Of course, even trying to get information about a visa from Congo Republic embassy proved impossible. So, I therefore work on my good friend Laurent’s maxim in life: If you can’t convince them, confuse them! Photocopies of my Mauritian ID, CEB bill, plus everything else asked for by Ivory Coast. The Brave Warrior will arrive in Paris ready for any request…

Monday morning, I wake up bright and early (actually it’s dark and 5:45 am). My computer-generated appointment is at 10:30 am in Central Paris. I am no.13 in that 20-min time slot. It is seriously cold when I head up the hill to Chaville Rive Droite SNCF station. Hanging around waiting for the train is not much fun either. I arrive at the Embassy in good time and within seconds realise that all the sophisticated electronic process is all smoke and mirrors; a mirage, totally misleading! We are channelled downstairs into a dingy room with paint peeling off the walls. An arrogant officer is hiding his condescension behind a veneer of weak paternalistic humour. The whole room is chaotic. People are shoving and pushing, loudly; others (Africans) are complaining about being given fixed appointments online and then having people get ahead of them. The officer calls for silence then explains to us that we must “forget all that stuff we did online”… We are informed that all we need are a few key documents; to simply forget the rest. For a moment, I am gobsmacked, speechless! There I was, so concerned about the fact that I had a copy of my Birth Certificate, but had omitted to take the original. After stapling a photo, over the electronic photo on the downloaded form, we are then given a scrap of paper with a number and told to go back upstairs.

Of course, upstairs is where everyone walks in, so there is real confusion, as newcomers have to realise that they need a session downstairs with Mr. Comic before they can join the real queue. A second official also pretending to be efficient checks our documents. He asks me for the number of children I have; checks if I am OK to be described as male (‘you never know these days’, he whispers); we hit a wall in all this amiable discourse when he wants to know when I’m leaving Paris. Try as I might, Mr. Efficient refuses to understand that I am travelling to Abidjan from Brazzaville, that I have just come from Mauritius. The tone hardens, he raises his voice to tell me in words of 1 syllable that the visa is issued in Paris and comes into effect when I leave France. I shrug my shoulders and confess I don’t have the Paris–Brazzaville ticket with me, but that it is on my laptop and can be viewed. Who would have thought that one needed to show them a Paris-Brazzaville ticket to conform to the strict requirements of a visa for Ivory Coast?

After scribbling something illegible on my application, I join the final queue waiting actually to hand in the pile of documents. Moving inside, I am shouted at from behind a thick glass panel by a not too polite, or very feminine, lady of a certain age. Immediately she picks up on her colleague’s scribbling. She sighs, before calling a more senior personage over who wants to know when I am leaving France, and why I’ve asked for a visa for a date after I leave Paris. Gritting my teeth, I explain the apparently strange notion that I am not travelling directly to Abidjan.
Mr. Senior Smooth Executive takes a while to grasp this weird 21st century concept made possible by airplanes criss-crossing Africa. With a flourish he writes on my form “Appointment Thursday 15:30!” We are Monday morning, for goodness sake… I still have to get a visa from Congo. Of course, they don’t want to know anything and I complete the biometric part of the application by putting my fingers of each hand and then thumbs together on the scanner. I am now convinced that Mr. Allasane Ouattara (the President) must know of my case personally.
As I walk out of the embassy, 3 thoughts assail me:
1. A former friend and colleague said to me in all sincerity back in 1980: “In 150 years nothing will have changed here.” I can attest to the truth of that assessment: certainly very little has changed in the first 32 years. But who knows? There’s hope yet. We’ve got another 118 years to go!
2. I realise with a flash of inspirational brilliance that I’ve finally discovered where Africa begins… It’s at 102 Rue Poincaré, Paris XVI; at the Ivory Coast Embassy!
3. Another expression that floated around back in those good old days was “WAWA’. I can certify that West Africa Wins Again!