Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Démarches Administratives

Okay, time to talk about all that paperwork I alluded to, lest you think my days are filled with nothing but walking down beautiful streets eating baguettes.

Monday (Oct 13th) was the day the technician from France Telecom was meant to come, but I got a message saying he couldn’t come until afternoon, so I called him at about 9 to ask if he could come before 2 pm, when my X-ray appointment was. He said he probably could, so I was all set to expect him around 1 pm. My housemate Nikki’s parents were staying with us because hotels are expensive, and at 9:30 that morning I had just lent her father, Joe, my keys so he could go to the store. About five minutes after Joe left, my cell phone rang. It was the technician, calling to say he was at the front door and needed to be let in. I said I’d be down in a minute and headed for the door. Now, my apartment door is stupidly designed, and you need a key to get out as well as in, because there’s no knob to turn the deadbolt. I tried the door in the hopes that Joe hadn’t relocked it, but he had. So there I was, still in my pajamas, trapped in the apartment with no way to let the phone guy in. I called him back to try to explain, and he reacted in the time-honored French fashion by stating over and over again that it couldn’t possibly be true, that the situation was impossible, and that I was joking. (Seriously, all French people do this. No matter what’s happening, if it’s not to their liking, their first reaction is “Non, c’est pas vrai! C’est pas possible! Vous plaisantez!” I’ve actually started to do it too, hilariously enough.) I apologized a million times and begged him to wait 5 minutes until the man with the keys came back. He said he would, but after 5 minutes he’d leave, because he had other places to be and he was a busy man, etc. Then he asked me what the person who’d left looked like, so I had to explain that he was Scottish and didn’t speak a word of French, so would not understand why a strange man was following him upstairs to his daughter’s apartment. This whole conversation took longer than you would believe, because of the technician’s frequent interruptions to remind me how impossible it was, how busy he was, and how crazy I was. Finally there was nothing to do but wait for Joe to get back, so I took the opportunity to put real clothing on (it’s much easier to be firm with French people when you’re properly dressed). Finally, we heard Joe in the hallway, and right behind him was the phone guy, who’d obviously managed to communicate something to Joe. The phone guy came in, waved a little black machine at the phone outlets, looked at our phone and told us we needed to buy a converter to plug it in, and left, after saying that his 55 € fee would appear on our first bill. So that was that.

A little later, I headed out to buy a converter (and got hit on by the security guard at the store, who then proceeded to call me three times in three days so I cut him off after that – he wasn’t even that cute). I plugged the phone in, plugged the converter into the wall, and found that the phone (which was ancient) did not work. The saga continues…

So that afternoon, most of the assistants from outside the European Union had appointments to get chest X-rays. Olesya and I arrived really early because we were worried about finding it, so we were the first ones called in. We were both put in little rooms with doors at both ends and told to take off everything above the waist. Then the woman opened the other door and told me to come into this big room with machines everywhere. Remember, I was naked from the waist up. I stepped onto a platform and then had to face a screen while she put a lead apron around my waist. Then I had to flatten myself against the screen, head up, and hold still. After that thoroughly dehumanizing experience, I was allowed to get dressed and go back out to the waiting room, where I told all the other assistants what to expect. A little later, they gave me my X-rays, which were really cool to look at (I also got a piece of paper saying they were normal, so that was reassuring). They’re really only checking for tuberculosis, because apparently everyone in France is vaccinated so they can’t do a PPD like in the US.

The cattle call continued the next day, this time for medical visits. I could make a joke about the French and their love of paperwork, but I’m pretty sure it’s even worse to try to get into the US, so I’ll refrain. I had my height and weight measured (in kilos and centimeters) and my vision checked (in French, of course – I’m really glad there were no Gs or Js on the little card because I would have gotten them mixed up and then probably been kicked out of the country) and then had to go into a little room with a man who asked a few questions, then without so much as a by-your-leave hiked my shirt up to listen to my heart and lungs. (Insert obligatory crack about buying me dinner first here.) He then proceeded to tell me that I have scoliosis, just a little bit, and embarked on a long, detailed explanation with lots of comparisons to suspension bridges, despite my assuring him that I did, in fact, know what scoliosis is. Comparing notes with other assistants afterwards, it sounds like most Americans have scoliosis, so either our screening system in middle school doesn’t work, or French people are more picky about their spines being straight. Then we were all given appointments at the prefecture of Rouen to get our cartes de séjour, which are like temporary green cards. The amount of paperwork required for that is staggering, but we’re lucky, because they set aside a block of appointments for assistants so we all got one within a few weeks. If you miss the appointment or don’t have the correct paperwork, you can’t get another appointment until February, which means that after your visa expires in December, you will basically be an illegal alien. This also means that you cannot leave France because you won’t be able to get back in. So, no pressure!

After that ordeal, we went and got kebabs and sat in a park to eat them. Kebabs are basically Europe’s answer to fast food – there are little hole-in-the-wall kebab places everywhere. They basically spear a bunch of raw meat on a gigantic vertical spit, then let it sit there cooking all day, occasionally scraping the outer layer off to feed to their lucky customers. When you order one, they split a big ol’ roll open, put sauce and lettuce and tomatoes and meat and (this is my favorite part) French fries on it, and hand it to you, whereupon something invariably falls out. If you’re lucky it’s only a French fry. I hadn’t had one since Paris, and I’d forgotten how amazing greasy mystery meat is… Hamburgers don’t even come close.

On Wednesday, Emilia and Pepetonio (nickname for José Antonio, I think – he’s an assistant from Mexico) and I went to the Musée des Beaux Arts, which is only 2€ for students (my Tufts student ID just says 2008, so I plan on taking full advantage of that). The museum is lovely, and the best part was the Impressionist section, where they have one of the Monet paintings of the cathedral (of course) and that Monet painting of a street in Paris on a national holiday (celebrating the Exposition Universelle of 1878, as some quick internet research tells me), with all the flags so it’s all blue, white, red everywhere. I really like that painting, so it was great to walk around a corner and find it. We got museumed out before we’d seen everything, so we’ll have to go back.

Thursday was another training day, this time for the English assistants only. Mostly it was boring and not very helpful, but I did meet an English girl called Nicola who was very nice, so it wasn’t a total loss. Also, I discovered that most of the Brits, Australians, and New Zealanders who are assistants are actually in their third year of university, when people in their programs are required to go abroad (like Nikki, my flatmate). The Americans and Canadians, on the other hand, have mostly finished college and are doing this because it’s a cheaper way of putting off the real world than grad school… I mean, because France is a beautiful country, full of wonderful people that we want to get to know and intelligent students to whom we want to teach our mother tongue. So in general, the North Americans speak better French and know what they’re doing more than the others, which hopefully will combat some American stereotypes.

Thursday evening, Emilia had the brilliant idea to go see Giovanna d’Arco, by Verdi, at the Théâtre des Arts. Similar to student rush in the US, tickets can be had for 5€ right before the show. So we dressed up (I wore that lacy skirt that makes my mother call me a whore) and waited in line (where most of our fellow cheapskates were wearing jeans – Paris this is not) and got tickets! I hadn’t done any research beforehand, so I was quite surprised when a horse walked on stage in the first 15 minutes or so – this production was very livestock-happy (horses, goats, doves, chickens, and a dog all made appearances). There were supertitles in French, so despite not knowing the story I could follow along, and I enjoyed it. I did occasionally wish that the characters would just get on with whatever they were doing, rather than singing about it for 10 minutes, but that’s par for the course with opera, I believe. At any rate, I felt very cultured, and that particular opera was very appropriate, since Rouen is where Joan of Arc was burned at the stake (about which the city still feels guilty – there are all sorts of plaques marking where she was burned, where her remains were finally taken, and other things like that, as well as a gigantic church named after her).

Friday I had three classes with a professor who is very nice but hasn’t the foggiest idea what she’s doing. This is her first year teaching, so she tends to think that we can come up with something to do in the 15 minutes before class starts, which we can’t because I have even less idea what I’m doing than she does. Happily, I only have two classes a week with her ordinarily, Fridays being only when I want to. The classes weren’t a total disaster, and I did get the kids talking a little bit, but it seemed very spur-of-the-moment and I wasn’t totally comfortable. The students were supposed to talk about what they would like to say to Sarkozy, which sparked a lot of interesting and funny reactions. One kid wanted to tell him that all his promises were just a “pack of lies” (I don’t know where he learned that phrase, but I encouraged him to use it).

Okay, now off to London for a week! Things will get less chronological because I'm going to try to post about London while I'm there, then come back and fill in the missing week or so. I'll eat some fish and chips for you all!


  1. You're prolific! I can't believe you've written so much.....I kinda restarted my pathetic blog (I can sympathize with you on the unerring love of bureaucratic paperwork here in Japan) but I haven't posted anything substantial yet. Stop making me look bad!

  2. Damn I wish my life was that interesting. I get all the paperwork and none of the fun! Go see some more theater for me, will you?