Thursday, September 11, 2008

The Original Madame

This week Grégoire's mother came in to town. Her much anticipate trip to Paris was an overall success. While she lives a mere four hours away from the capital this was the first time she's been to Paris in 18 years.

I have been enjoying a break between tours and thus have been home all day...all week... with Madame. Mrs B is the queen of domesticity. She includes cleaning as one of her hobbies in life. While I posses many interests, cleaning is not one of them. Despite this, in fear of being judged a poor choice of wife for her only son, I spent the entire day before her arrival scrubbing the apartment. It was a long day's work but I was pleased with the results and felt sure my mother in law would agree. These dreams, however, never came true. Shortly after her arrival I found her cleaning the grime stuck in the rubber seal of my fridge. I caught her red handed and she smiled apologetically saying, I just couldn't resist. 

Later that day she and I went grocery shopping for dinner. As we hopped from cheese shop to wine store, Madame gently suggested that I not waste my money on designer food and organic vegetables. Rather I should learn to bargain hunt and shop at large scale grocery stores. We did just that the following day and admittedly she made a mean dessert out of discount raspberries.

In addition to been a very good cook, Madame also cuts her son's hair, paints her living room walls according to the season, coifs her west highland terrier herself and sews like a professional seamstress. During the week she tried to pass some of these money saving household skills on to me. This week we made white linen curtains for our living room and bedroom and three cushions for our couch! While I did play a big role in selecting the fabric, for the most part I was not allowed to touch sewing machine. 

I am looking forward to Christmas this year. I can see Madame made a long mental list of things that I simply must have, ranging from microfiber dusting towels to scissors that actually cut. 

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Unofficially French

Even though the French government may disagree I am feeling more French than ever. The proof? I now own and frequently use an outrageously small oven and I dry my clothes to crispy perfection on a drying rack the size of a golf cart.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008


Americans can enter Europe without a visa. All they need is a plane ticket and a passport. They can travel freely from country to country without going through boarder crossings, thanks to the European Union, and can stay in any Schengen state (which includes almost all European countries who are EU members) for a combined total of 90 days as a tourist. If you leave the Schengen states for a certain period of time and reenter then you get a new 90 days. 

When I arrived in France no one stamped, scanned or otherwise marked my passport. They just mumbled bonjour and waved me and the rest of my flight through the gates to France. While touring I have visited many countries both in and out of the Schengen states but since we were crossing the boarder as a tour group there was no one there to stamp my individual passport and thus document my exit and reentry. 

Being married to a French person means that ultimately I am allowed to be here, I just need to tell the right people, in the right order, with all the right forms filled out, in the right color of ink etc. Since I have been on the road so much I haven't had a chance. My 90 days came and went and before I knew it I had been here almost 150 days.

Thanks to a very last minute trip to Egypt (see separate posting) I exited Europe and reentered with a brand new stamp from the Italians dating my arrival in Europe last week. Now that I have some time off from touring I started to look around online to see what I need to do next. 

According to the various websites I found, I am in trouble. Supposedly you cannot change from a tourist visa to a long-term visa without going back to the US and applying from there. If you are already in France without applying for a long stay visa then you must present yourself within seven days of your arrival in Europe to the Prefecture of Police. Gulp. 

The office which handles immigration paperwork is conveniently located in the police station of the 17th arrondissement. Genius if you ask me. That way illegal immigrants who need to be detained are already in the right building. 

I get my paperwork together and start walking towards the police station to turn myself in. I turn down a dark street and see a massive brick building with lots of little windows. As I am walking I prepare myself to be stuck behind one of those little windows assuming those are the jail cells for illegal immigrants. As I approach the building, I breath a sigh of relief, it's just an elementary school near the police station. Not a jail. Phew. 

After passing through the metal detectors I take a number and have a seat. 171. They are only on 125 and I prepare myself for a serious wait. There are a few other immigrants in the room. Some from the Philippines, most from North Africa and one fellow American who is chatting with the person next to her talking about her cats and dogs and what she does for a living and how she ended up in France. In true American style she is telling her life story and sharing personal details with anyone who will listen. To my surprise the numbers are ticking down quiet quickly and 171 pops up on the screen in no time. 

"Bonjour! I am here to ask for a carte de séjour." "On what grounds?" the lady behind the desk asks me. "Why, I am married to a French man" I say and I hand her the yellow folder of paperwork the website told me I needed. She shakes her head and says that she needs proof that we have lived together in France for at least six months. I told her that was not on the list online and that she can plainly see on our wedding certificate that were married in August of last year so we have officially been living together since then. That did not impress her and she said I needed to bring in six months of bills or rent checks that show both of our names on it. "Should I get them now and come back today?" I ask. "Do what you want lady" was her reply. The whole interaction took about a minute and I now understood why the line moved so quickly. It doesn't take long to be told no and sent away. 

Based on the indifference shown by the lady behind the counter my fears of been arrested were somewhat soothed. Earlier this month I was watching the news and saw President Sarkozy give a rousing speech on immigration, pledging to crack down on les sans papiers meaning illegal immigrants who are living in France without the proper paperwork. Grégoire and I were discussing this news story with his parents on skype who both agreed that while I officially fit in that category I was not the kind of sans papiers Mr Sarkozy is looking for. But still, I was breaking the rules and as I returned for a second time that day to the police station, I remained concerned that they might haul me upstairs to the jail cells and force me to fly back to Seattle. 

Turns out the second guy was just as indifferent as his co-worker. He told me that the paperwork I brought in wasn't enough. Grégoire and I started renting this apartment in May so we only have paperwork proving we have been living together for four months not the required six. He told me I should come back in November when I have the necessary six months. Not wanting to rock to boat, but dying of curiosity, I asked him a few questions, "Ok. So then what is my current status? I mean, how can the French government ask me for proof that I have been living in Paris with my husband for six months when technically I am only allowed to be here for three?". The guy shrugs and says appologetically, "I know, it's not easy". Then I carefully confirm that what he is suggesting I do is to continue living here illegally until November when I will have six months worth of rent checks and then come back to this office? He stares at me blankly and says, "Oui". And I ask again, "So then how would you define my current legal status?". He replies, "Bah, rien quoi" which roughly translates to, "You don't have one". With that I take my yellow folder and ride the metro back home. 

It appears that the French government is using a don't ask don't tell policy with me. As long as I am not looking for a job (thankfully I am employed and paid by a US company) and willing to pay for my doctor's visits in cash, they don't really care that I am here. Instead of arresting me when I presented myself as an illegal resident they simply suggested that I get my paperwork inline so they get me out of their office and pass me along to the next one with as little hassle and additional work for them as possible. For the time being the uniquely unmotived French workforce is working in my favor. Stay tuned for the November installment of Immigrating. 

Monday, September 1, 2008

Visiting the Doctor

As I was packing up my toiletries kit for my last tour it came to my attention that I forgot to reorder my birth-control pills. With two days before the August vacation season and a quarter of a package left I realized I need to move quickly if I wanted to remain unpregnant this summer. During the month of August ALL city dwelling Europeans run for the hills and the beaches to enjoy some of their copious government sanctioned vacation time. Cities like Rome, Paris and London simultaneously empty as signs are posted in windows saying things like "Vive les Vacances! Closed!" and "Fermé! See you in September!". During August most tourists don't see a difference since all major sights and shops are open, but if you live here and are in need of a dentist, mechanic, hairdresser, or attorney then you are fresh out of luck. So I quickly googled doctors in my neighborhood and found Dr Delfieu whose office is just two blocks away. 

I dial the number and as it's ringing I am trying to figure out the best to say, Hi I'm an American and I don't have health coverage (as a matter of fact I am not legally living in your country) but I would really like some birth-control pills and am willing to pay cash and so I need you to write me a prescription and I know you are going on vacation this week and therefore are surly very busy but I really need to see you this week. One of the cardinal sins Americans make while trying to communicate with the French is over sharing. Giving far too many details and information about our personal lives. Grégoire has gently, and not so gently, reminded me of this many times and yet most of the time I just can't help myself. 

So, the phone rings and a man picks up and says, "Allo". Not "Bonjour you have reached Dr Delfieu's office" or "Hello this is Dr Delfieu's office, how can I help you?" Just a man's voice saying hello. I reply, "Hi, is this Dr Delfieu's office?" He says, "This is Dr Delfieu speaking". Oh my. I have NEVER ever called a medical institution in the US and had the doctor pick up the phone. There is usually an army of nurses, medical assistants, receptionists and recorded messages to keep the public far far away from a medical expert until it's time for your appointment, so I was shocked silent when the doctor himself picked up the phone. I tried my best to be brief and explained what I needed and he says, "fine, come in before five" and hangs up the phone without asking my name or contact information or anything. 

It being one in the afternoon I wasn't sure when between now and five he was hoping for me to arrive so I split the difference and headed out at three. At three o five I run in to my first obstacle. The front door. This office, like many offices in Paris, is part of a larger building 
of other offices and apartments that are hidden from your average passer by. I see two tiny plaques on the wall indicating that the doctor's office is in the building but not indicating how one enters the locked front door. After a few minutes brainstorming I give up and call the doctor from my cell phone. Since he didn't ask for my name earlier and in a effort to not give not much personal information I didn't volunteer it, so now that I needed to call back and I had to introduce myself as the American that needs birth-control who is now standing on the sidewalk and cannot figure out how to open the door. The doctor explains that I just need to hit the big black button next to the keypad. I do so and the door opens and it makes me wonder why have a lock and password panel if all you really need to do to get in the building is press the back button but those thoughts were quickly chased from my mind when I realize there is a second locked door and again no obvious way of opening it. Just as I think, oh god, I am going to have to call him again, a lady exits the doctor's office and I sneak in behind her. 

There is no one to greet me. Just a small hallway leading to what I assume is a waiting room and then a big door leading to what I assume is the doctor's office itself. I join the other two people in the waiting room and try to blend in. After 20 minutes the doctor pokes his head in the door and the lady sitting next to me stands and follows him. Hmm, did she have an appointment I wonder? Do I need to tell anyone that I am here? The second question answered itself because there was no one to tell. So I wait. And wait. The man next to me either gives up or leaves to run an errand. A few minutes later the doctor comes into the waiting room and points at me. I follow him into his office. 

Before my bottom hits the chair opposite his desk I am halfway through telling him my life story in true American style.  I start to trail off as I look around his desk. It is pilled with unusual objects. Animal skulls, feathers, African masks, porcelain vases, ancient books, stacks of paperwork, large pieces of coral and a carved wooden ape who is holding on to its pink painted penis. 

At this point I gaze up at the doctor to get a feeling for who this man is that has choosen to decorate his office with these kinds of treasures. Dr Delfieu is a man in his late 60's with wild wirey hair, thick round black glasses and bad teeth. Around his neck is a silver necklace with a whale's tail charm and he is wearing a Chinese style white linen shirt and an unbuttoned blue vest. Since I could not figure out how to discreetly take a photo of the scene, I drew it from memory. Please note the ape on the left hand shelf above the computer. 

I handed him the package of the birth control pills I am currently taking and he sighs as he reaches for a giant book. While he has a computer on his desk I got the strong feeling that it doesn't get much use. This book, he tells me, translates medicines from American brands to the closest French equivalent. He finds just the pills for me, writes me a prescription and asks for €23. "Vraiment? Really?" I say. He says, "Oui, désolé, but since you don't have state coverage you have to pay in cash, I'm sorry it's so expensive." I smile, thinking that it costs me more to see a doctor in the US when I had insurance, and hand over the cash. 

As I get up to leave I can't help inquire as to whether or not he has a receptionist. During our visit his phone rang several times and he had to answer each call. He says, "biensur, I have a receptionist, she works from 9:00-2:00 three days a week. If you need an appointment you need to call her, otherwise you can just show up for the open appointment hours like you did today". "By the way," he adds "when you get your paperwork all sorted out and need to choose your permanent doctor here is my card".  Still disturbed by the ape, I thanked him and left.