In my daily reading of blogs I enjoy I came across a post by Lee Zeltzer describing his battle with La Aduana, Panamanian Customs in order to drive his car from Panama to Costa Rica to attend a seminar.
In France, where I was captain of a foreign- (U.S.) flagged sailboat we had “La Douane.” Pronounced like the Spanish word but without the beginning and ending “A”s. I’ll never forget the first of many trips to La Douane.
I had been sent to Antibes, France, on the Riviera, back in 1989 to take over for a French captain whose sole purpose, it seemed, was to live aboard and cash the owner’s checks while doing as little as possible in return. In France all foreign-flagged vessels are issued something similar to their “carte de séjour” for individuals allowing them to be in the country, and it needed to be renewed from time to time. It was a piece of paper work largely overlooked by most boats in the country that literally invented the phrase “bureaucracy.”
I knew that our “séjour” had lapsed prior to my arrival but I did nothing to remedy the situation. About a year into my three-year stay I read, in a newspaper for the boating world, that a large yacht in nearby Villefranche had been hit with a six-figure (US) fine for not having that cherished piece of paper. I decided it was time for me to correct the error and took the boat’s papers off to La Douane.
I was shown into the office of the person who soon came to be known as “The Douane Lady.” There, behind a precarious mountain of paperwork threatening to avalanche and engulf the office’s resident sat a woman who can only be described as the inspiration for Jabba the Hut. When I started to speak in French she dismissively waved her hand, as the French are want to do, and told me to speak in English.
I explained that I was the newly arrived captain of a large sailboat and in going through the ship’s papers discovered that our séjour had lapsed and I wanted to correct the error.
“What’s the name of the boat?” she asked.
“Jolie Aire,” I said.
“Hmmmmmmmm,” she rumbled from deep inside her cavernous enormity. “Jolie Aire… Jolie Aire… Hmmmmmmmmmm.”
Then, after several moments of inert and contemplative deliberation, she raised her hand and with two fingers, each the size of a Polish sausage, delicately plucked a single sheet of paper from the pile.
“Ahhh, here it is,” she said.
I was stunned at this display only having seen something like it in a W. C. Fields movie once. But this was happening in real time before my eyes.
In another few minutes everything was ship shape again, and without penalty, to my relief, and I was on my way back to the boat.
I had to make several other visits to her office before we left the country to move the boat to Spain prior to our crossing of the big pond. She turned out to be very efficient and helpful each time, but one thing I knew for certain after our initial meeting…don’t EVER try and pull anything over on the “Douane Lady.”