Friday, October 22, 2010
Safe and Secure
It is possible to vote at the American Embassy and I called to make sure of the procedure. Just come any day before 3:00 p.m. and bring your passport. Sounds simple and you might think it a straightforward procedure.
The American Embassy is on Avenue Gabriel, just off the Place de la Concorde, but you can't walk from Place de la Concorde to the gates of the Embassy. No, you have to go around the barriers and French police stationed on the corner and along the avenue, cross the street and walk past the Embassy on the opposite side of the street to where there is a break in the running barrier.
You can then cross to the right side of the street so that you can enter the hamster maze that takes you to a post with guards checking your appointment against a huge ledger. No appointment? Sorry, no entry.
"But they told me I could just come and vote!" I cry. A suspicious look and one of the guards goes to a telephone in a glass booth nearby. A short conversation, another suspicious look, and I'm told to go to the security booth further along the street. The security booth? What did I just go through, the Welcome Wagon?
The guy at the security booth is very polite and asks me if he can look through my purse. This is a little embarrassing because the remains of my lunch are in there, but no problem. After removing practically everything in my purse except my wallet and the foil-wrapped sandwich, putting it all in a large plastic bag and giving me a tag to pick it up on my way out, he comes out of his booth and hands my purse to the next security guy, who is standing by the metal detector. In doing this he carries it around the detector so the aluminum foil won't set off all the alarms and make everyone crazy. He never looks inside the foil packet, by the way.
After the metal detector I enter a secure outbuilding and the door locks automatically behind me. There is the kind of belt you see at airport security. The purse goes in there and I go through a turnstile before recovering the bag. The door on the other side of the outbuilding clicks open and I'm finally in the grounds. I walk through a driveway area and the employee smoking area (heck, why should they make it appealing for visiting citizens, huh?) and finally enter the building itself.
There is a large waiting room that looks like any other government waiting room. I go directly to window 19, as I was told to do, and I find myself in a cubicle that could be in any government office, with a nice American consular officer behind the glass. He's great and goes to some trouble to find out if I can vote for anyone running for any office other than a Federal one. (The answer is no. If Jerry Brown loses by one vote, it will be the one I couldn't cast.)
"How long have you been here?" I ask. "About a year and a half," he says. So I start chatting with him, mentioning the apparently heightened security, wondering if it's typical or a response to recent threats the US has been warning European governments about.
"This isn't much security" he says. "I don't think it's very secure at all." "Really?" I say, surprised. A few seconds pass. "Of course I was in Baghdad before," he says.