“Just borrow a dog for a few hours,” a Toronto friend once told me. I was trying to figure out ways to become more local – to connect more deeply – during the three-or-so months that we spent in the South of France each year.
I could see myself gliding through Antibes’ streets with little Fifi on a rhinestone-studded leash. I’d extract cordial ‘bonjours’ from real French folks on their morning errands and enjoy chit-chats with neighbouring diners at sidewalk cafés.
Borrowing a dog may have been the practical solution. But a few years ago, when I realized it was possible to welcome a dog into our family and to maintain my family’s longstanding tradition of summering in the Côte d’Azur, I offered to take on the related bureaucracy. In a moment of weakness, my husband Philippe acquiesced. At long last, Lolo, our pet-obsessed, tween-aged daughter, began researching puppies.
Ferrying Fido from Canada to France
Our miniature poodle Yoko arrived on Bastille Day. Ten-and-a-half months later at the tippy end of May, I found myself hunched over the kitchen counter in Toronto, in the wee hours in an attempt to complete Yoko’s paperwork for our upcoming flight to France. Reams of instructions and governmental forms littered the cool marble. A blazing internet screen led me deeper and deeper into the abyss of official regulations.
The critical, 10-day window before our French arrival loomed. During this period, our vet needed to pronounce Yoko A-OK health-wise. She needed to sign off on a sheaf of bilingual, governmental documentation completed to perfection. The Canadian Food Inspection Agency (bizarrely) also needed to add its stamp. To throw in a tad of French humour: We couldn’t be certain that our 10-day window would end when we expected it to end. We were heading to France. The country’s air traffic controllers were on strike.
Facing the forms
The paperwork had to be ship-shape for our abbreviated 10-day span. A phrase from one set of instructions wallowed in my bleary brain: “If the above-mentioned health requirements are not complied with, the officials in charge of checks can have the animal sent back to the country of origin… have it put into quarantine or have it put down.”
Put down. Blimey.
How could a smart, spirited, apricot miniature poodle puppy cause so many headaches? As the clock on my laptop spun forward, I unearthed silly error upon silly error in our vet’s preliminary attempt at the bilingual, European Union document entitled Non-Commercial movement of five or less dogs, cats or ferrets.
The next morning I rang the CFIA with questions as pernickety as the bureau’s requirements. Actually I rang three times.
Yes, the authoritative-but-friendly man said, the vet had to do all strikeouts with a ruler and to initial each one. Yes, it was true that we might cross out 2/3 of the document (or put another way, that we might have to understand three times the regulatory minutiae before realizing that most of it didn’t apply). Ditto for the French translation that (more than) doubled the length of the English document. On the initial attempt at Yoko’s form, there were no lines, ruled or otherwise. Yes, the man said, the block printing had to be in black ink – but not the signature. The signature had to be in blue. Yoko’s form was all in blue.
I had one last question: Did the attachments (the vet’s rabies and health certificates, both considered intrinsic parts of the bilingual form) need to be completed in French as well as English? The CFIA official was unsure. He advised that I check with the French consulate.
I charged Philippe, our family’s native French speaker, with this job. The local French consulate told Philippe to call French Customs in Washington, D.C. An automated message at French Customs advised callers to visit their website. The site was useless. My husband rang the French Embassy in Ottawa. The receptionist jamais – never, not ever – had received this question about a French translation. Attendez, she told Philippe, and off she went to discuss the matter.
When the receptionist returned, she was très desolée for keeping Philippe so long, but it was a very deep question. When we arrived in France, she said, we simply must tell French Customs that the French Embassy in Ottawa couldn’t find the right form. They would have to deal with English. This ingenuity from the French Embassy was a breathtaking insight into how the French deal with their own, legendary bureaucracy.
A few days into the do-or-die 10-day window, we were set. Philippe offered to drive to the governmental inspectors with our precious paperwork, properly completed in its black-penned, blue-signed, struck-out-with-a-ruler-and-initialed, semi-bilingual ecstasy. Inside the compact bureau, an officer reviewed Yoko’s paperwork.
“This is the most comprehensive application I have ever seen,” he said. Of course he still had a couple criticisms, mostly relating to having too much information, but once Philippe paid the requisite fee, he was sailing out the door.
The rest of Yoko’s initial immigration story went off a little too smoothly for my liking. The French air traffic controllers showed up for work. Yoko managed to hold it together. The burly French customs agent gave us perfunctory glances, stamped our passports, and waved us through.
Vous voulez voir les papiers du chien? I asked, waving a manila envelope in front of the customs official. Surely he wanted to see Yoko’s perfect papers.
Non. French shrug.
I was stunned. Non, il faut regarder les papiers! I cried, pleading in my transatlantic grogginess. You have to look at these papers! I worked so hard on them!
We’ve repeated the same routine for several years now. Repetition has made the paperwork easier, but it remains as nit-picking as ever. Minute changes crop up in the regulated pen colours, for instance, creating an effective way for the government to ensure that I’ve reread the instructions every year. The CFIA official still finds the annual problem or two and extracts his governmental fee. Meanwhile, no French customs officer has even laid a finger on my paperwork or chatted with me about my adorable pooch.
Once back in Antibes, though, Yoko has introduced my family and me to loads of locals, many of whom grasp their own leads. On one evening walk in the sultry Côte d’Azur, Yoko received a marriage proposal (a request to breed her). Our poodle, though, has fallen for another guy, a fluffy, white bichon frisé. His name is Gucci.
My Toronto friend was right. Borrowing a dog definitely would’ve been easier. But bureaucracy and all, I’d still not change a thing.