“Ici, pas là”

When in 1978 Buffalo Bills head coach Marv Levy called a referee an “over-officious jerk,” Levy had unwittingly coined an expression that by now has entrenched itself in the American vernacular. It did so because those words resonated with tens of millions of others about so much. For example, in what might well similarly be termed “over-officiousness,” the other day we were told:

Overland Park, Kansas … this week … announced that, from now on, professional photographers would be required to purchase permits if they wanted to shoot in any of the city’s public parks….

Americans tend to feel Europeans are over-regulated and stifled by heavy-handed governments. Yet based on my experiences living in Britain for 15 years, my own take is the U.S. is a more pettily officious society than Britain. Indeed, the U.S. does often come across as “over-officious.”

Perhaps it starts with all the various layers of U.S. governance below the federal – ward, school district, fire district, hamlet, village, town, township, county, borough, city, state, etc. – all having their own peculiar “laws” and “ordinances”. I don’t know. But an “officiousness-mindset” clearly stems from somewhere?

Consider this. In Britain, there are “the police.” (Usually they are county level.) They enforce the law. With the exception of the UK Border Agency (which has a very narrow remit), mostly “the police” arrest you. (Hopefully, of course, only if you are guilty of something meriting arrest.)

In the U.S.? Well, let’s try to list some of those who could “arrest you”: your town police, your sheriff, your city police, your county police, your state police, (in upstate NY) your DEP – Department of Environmental Protection – police (from New York City, protecting the watershed), your FBI, your ATF, your….. well, you get the idea. A raft of agencies, at the local, state and federal levels.

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That’s not to argue Europe is without its “over-officiousness.” Far from it. Britain certainly has its fair share.

For instance, the local council has told my in-laws it will come to trim a huge tree overhanging their back garden; the tree has a “preservation order” on it, and is on property belonging to an apartment complex next door. Long branches aside, it is now also being strangled by ivy. Thus while local government dithers, a tree with a “preservation order” on it ironically may die sooner than it should because only “officialdom” may look after it.

Even continentals are quick to bemoan what might be termed their own “officiousness”. When we rented a private home in France for a summer vacation a few years back, checking us in the landlady took me outside and explained how the garbage was collected. It was much like most places nowadays; there were several bins for refuse and recycling, and different bins went out on different days. Routine enough, I thought initially.

We stood by the curb. The woman’s English was limited and my French is a level where I get a general gist, but a lot can go by me. She knew that, but we managed to make ourselves understood to each other. (She was also amused at me being an American and married to an English woman.)

She instructed me that all of the bins needed to go “Ici, pas là.” She did so while pointing down at where we stood, and, shaking her head, indicating they must not be placed over at what seemed another reasonable spot about ten feet away. Smiling, she repeated herself, gesturing down again at where we were standing. “Ici,” she emphasized firmly once more so I understood that they would not be emptied if they were not placed exactly where we stood.

I acknowledged that, and thanked her. She warned me also that there might be a one-day strike that first pick-up day. So the rubbish might not be collected at all, she shrugged. As we began to walk back into the house, she touched my arm, chuckled and exclaimed, “Vive la France!”