Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Thursday at 4 o'clock

Getting things done in Paris isn't easy. If you have an important errand to run or someone specific you need to talk to, like your banker or your hairstylist, I have determined that the best time to get these things accomplished is at 4 o'clock on a Thursday.

Due to the restricted work week and the French respect for days of rest, the shop, restaurant or business you are looking to get a hold of could be closed any day between Friday and Tuesday. If they are open Friday and Saturday then they are surely closed Sunday and Monday. However some places are open Saturday and Sunday which means they could be closed Friday an Monday or worse, Monday and Tuesday. These days off are unapologetically scheduled and are hard to predict. Therefore essentially 5 out of 7 days in a week you can easily spend time going someplace only to arrive and have it be closed and all you can say is of course, it's Tuesday. Wednesday can also be problematic. Many young school children have half days on Wednesdays so parents sometimes work from home those days or close up early. So then you are down to one day, Thursday. 

The timing of your call or visit is also very important. The average French work day starts around 10 o'clock. You show up at work, open your computer, have a coffee and a cigarette, visit, then eventually head to your desk for a couple of hours of work. Before you know it it's 1 o'clock and time for lunch. Lunch can last as little as 45 minutes and as much as 120 minutes so no use calling or dropping by during those hours, even if ironically that's when you have time because you are on your lunch break. By 3 o'clock everyone is settled back in to work, shops are open and people are picking up their phones. This window of time lasts until roughly 7 o'clock but after a year of trial and error I am telling you 4 o'clock on Thursdays is the only sure bet. 

Thursday, March 19, 2009


I now am a card-carrying member of French society. My Day of Welcome was a success and aside from a slight misunderstanding involving €300 I would say it was even easy.

I arrived early to my appointment and found the very same crowd at the door that I saw on google map's street view, I suspect their door is permanently surrounded with people. I stood with a group of 40 or so immigrants outside the agency, which was closed for lunch. Everyone had the same appointment time, one o'clock, and everyone had to stay for the entire half day session so I found it baffling that everyone was banging on the door and pushing and shoving their way in. I was seriously concerned about being crushed so I stepped back, watched and waited for the craziess to subside. It occurred to me that maybe these people were emigrating from countries where you have to push and shout and shove to get your way.

Once we were all inside we waited in a more orderly line, handed in our paperwork and then filed in to a kind of classroom. At one end of the room there was a large flat screen television and the bust of Marianne (a symbol of French freedom, sort of like our eagle, but topless and a woman). A Franco-Chinese woman welcomed us to our Day of Welcome and switched on the video. We watched a 20 minute presentation about the traditional pillars of French society, Liberté (Liberty), Égalité (Equality), Fraternité (Brotherhood) and they threw in the additional pillar of Laïcité (Separation of Church and State). There was a long portion dedicated to women's rights. Explaining to the women in the room that in France they have the right to circulate, work, marry, divorce and get an abortion without their families or husbands consent.

The video focused on the importance of learning the French language and embracing French cultural values. The film featured loads of long beautiful shots of French châteaux, vineyards and the eiffel tower. The image that was presented of France, was of a unified and clearly defined monoculture. The message was clear, we are welcome to join the French in being French if we like but that subsitutions, modifications or additions to this culture are not encouraged or appreciated.

After the video we were called up one by one for an individual interview. I met with an immigration adviser who was pleasant and efficient. We chitchatted about my work and why I moved France. As we talked she was evaluating my French and after filling out a quick vocabulary test (ie. matching the word stamps to the sentence saying "At the post office you buy BLANK to mail your letters") she gave me a waver for the state run language lessons and since I already have a job she also gave me a waver for the day of learning how to get a job in France. The only day that I did not get out of is the day of civic rights and obligations. This is a full 8 hour session which includes a free lunch, where all of my new freedoms and duties will be explained to me. From how to sign my future children up for school to how to get medical help should I break my arm. I actually think it sounds pretty interesting.

Then it was on to the medical portion of my Day of Welcome. I stood in a cattle call type line up and was weighed and measured. Then I was escorted into a small booth with two doors. The woman said to lock the door behind me and get fully undressed from the waist up. I glanced around the phone-booth sized room, there was no paper gown, no robe, just a hook to hang my top and bra on and large poster explaining in several languages that you should get undressed.

So I stand, tatas in the air, waiting to see what happens next. The door on the opposite side of the stall opens and a woman asks me to enter the x-ray room. She pins me against the wall of the giant x-ray machine and tells me to stay still as they take an x-ray of my lungs. I ask her why we need to get a lung x-ray and she answers, "Because it is the law." "Right" I say, "Of course Madame. But what are you looking for exactly?" She points to the changing room and says to me "Tuberculosis, now get dressed and go back to the waiting room."

A few minutes later a doctor in is late sixties calls my name and asks me to follow him. He has my x-ray in hand. We go in to a more traditional looking doctors office and he puts my x-ray on the light board. "Ooooh! Is that me?!" I say. He looks at my seriously and says, "Non". I can plainly see my name at the bottom on the x-ray and in seeing my confused face he takes my hand and says, "This (my hand) is you. This is just a distant image of you. This. This is you.". He looked like a cooky old philosophy professor so I smile and nod and try my best to humor him.

He says that my x-ray looks good. Although he can see that there are some gas bubbles in my upper intestinal track. He asks my nationality, I say American. He nods knowingly and says, "I imagine you drink lots of soda then? Coke probably?" "No, no I don't" I say, turns out I don't like the stuff. "Oh, do you drink a lot of alcohol then?" he says, "Alcohol? Oui" I say. "The gas must be caused by all the beer you drink then" he concludes. I assured him that I am more of a red wine kind of gal and he just shakes his head and shrugs in an I am not sure why you (an American who doesn't love beer and soda) has gas then. I paused here to make a mental note to write a separate blog entry about the French and their affinity for discussing and analyzing bodily functions.... which has since been written here.

I was tuberculosis free so all he needed to do was take my blood pressure and listen to my heart. I had put my shirt back on so he asked me to pull it up and he tucked his stethoscope AND his hand inside my bra....not sure if everyone gets this kind of warm welcome...and then sits down and tells me he thinks I am beautiful. He says, "I know that your country and my country don't always agree but I want you to know that I know how to differentiate between a beautiful young American like you and the choices that her government makes. After Obama got elected all I want to do is give the Americans I see a hug and thank them for having the courage to make such a bold decision." At that point I was fairly sure he was coming in for a hug so I pulled my shirt back down, stood up and said, "Great, are we done here then?". He escorted me back to the waiting room without hugging me.

Medical visit done, language test complete and video screened. I was ready to pick up my visa. I am called up and they pull my file and ask for my temporary visa and 300 euros in fiscal stamps. "Excusez-moi? What €300 are we talking about here? And what is a fiscal stamp?". I was sure that this whole process was free. No one during this whole ordeal ever mentioned anything about any kind of fees. I had twenty euros in my pocket, a 300 US Dollar daily limit on my American ATM card and no French checkbook or card because you need a Visa in order to have one of those. Grégoire was in NYC on a business trip and he is the only person that can withdrawal from our checking account (side note the bank is happy to put my pay checks IN I am just not allowed to take any money OUT unless Greg is there) so I tell the guy that I don't have the money. He says it is no problem and that I can just come back later. Later. Ugh.

Greg returned from New York on Wednesday and with €300 in hand we walked down to the local Tabac (shops that sell cigarettes, magazines, lottery tickets and fiscal stamps) to buy our stamps. I am still trying to wrap my mind around the concept of fiscal stamps, they look like postage stamps and are sold in varying amounts (€5, €15, €35 and €55) and used to pay for parking tickets, license renewals and visas. They are like money orders for government fees. Why they are sold at privately owed cigarette shops? I don't know. We went back to the immigration offices, handed over the stamps and in turn was handed my carte de séjour!!

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Batten Down the Hatches

Spring should be showing up any day now but for now it is still fr-fr-freezing in Paris. It's hard to say if it is colder here than in Seattle or if it just seems colder since I now spend more time in the elements. Growing up in Seattle, one of the rainiest places around, I never owned an umbrella and owned a few warm coats but never needed to use them on a daily basis. The 10 steps it took to get from my front porch to my car, then my car to my office and back again could be done with a light weight jacket. However in Paris, you are constantly exposed to the elements! A 10 minute walk to the metro, a 20 minute jaunt to work or to the shop, then outdoors again at the market, not to mention the daily 5 minute walk to the wine shop. All this adds up and all of this requires a warm jacket, a hat, gloves, and a scarf.
Parisians have adapted well to the winter weather season. They break out their furs, start mulling wine and wrap their necks up tight with never-ending layers of scarf. During the winter Parisians are willing to give up some of thier habits, like sitting along the banks of the Seiene or playing chess in the park but they are not willing to abandon the sidewalk café. The cafe owners prepare their terraces for the season by rolling down flaps made from tarp, revving up the heaters and handing out thick blankets to its clientele. Not quite inside and not quite outside these toasty little café campsites are warm and welcoming. Hauled up in one of these little tents I am happy to watch the world go by through the wavy tarp flaps and wait for spring.

Monday, March 16, 2009

My Day of Welcome

Today is the BIG day. My day of Welcome. Today is the day that I will undergo a medical exam, be tested on my langueage skills and view a film about how to intergrate in to French society. At the end of this little event I should receive my Titre de Séjour which means I can live here in totally legality for a year.

In preparation for today I googled the address and when I clicked on the street view this is what I saw...
Note to self, be early to avoid this line.

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Mr Stephan Justtellhimthat

My life as a receptionist vacillates between being a comedy and tragedy. One moment we are all laughing and the next moment I want to crawl under my desk and hide.

When I speak French I prefer to do so face to face, so I can look at your lips and read your facial expression and use hand gestures when my words fail. Of course, all of these methods are unavailable when speaking on the phone.

Unfortunately the vast majority of my job is answering the phone. I have to find out who it is, where they are calling from and who they would like to speak to. Then I make sure so and so is available then I transfer the call or take a message as the case maybe. We have no answering machines so all messages are hand written by moi. If speaking French over the phone is the hardest part, then the second hardest part is having to write in French and a close third is having to listen to someone spell out a word or give you a phone number in French. In French i sounds like e and e sounds like i and g sounds like j and j sounds like g and é sounds like a. If that isn't challenging enough, the French failed to come up with a word for seventy and ninety. So if your phone number is 01 93 88 75 60, it would sound like this "zero one, eighty plus thirteen, eighty eight, sixty plus fifteen, sixty" by the second plus 15 my brain has turned to mashed potatoes and that person better hope their number is already in this person's rolodex.

Most callers enjoy my accent; I think I am even starting to have a small following of people who save their calls until the afternoon just so they can speak to me. People have told me that they feel like they are traveling to some exotic land when they have to call us now. Others are less entertained, and several are flat out rude, assuming that I am either hard of hearing or stupid as opposed to foreign and fun.

In the hip design world of Paris lots of English words are used. This trend both helps and hurts my cause. Our company has an English name so when picking up the phone I muster up my most clear and American accent while saying our name, then move in to a smooth and sultry bonjour in hopes of announcing my American origins but communicating to the person that I do speak French well. However, on the other end of things, I have a terrible time understanding Frenchafied English words and am often left at a complete loss.

Last week a couple of young guys came in the agency for a meeting with the boss. I ask for his name and where he works before I call down the boss. He tells me something that sounds like Starrr Tracks....knowing that we work with tv shows and movie stars I think ok this guy is an agent or a pr person for some actor so Star Track seems like a legitimate name. Before I call the boss I wanted to be tippy sure so I repeat is back to him and he says, "Non non c'est StarTrek". "Ohhhhh" I say, "of course you said Star Treck! With the stars and the rockets and Spock!" assuming he worked in special effects, I say "Great company name. Love it.". Since he was standing in front of me I supplement my new understanding with pantomime, as I pointed to the stars and transformed my ear in to Spock's pointy lobe with my fingers. I am laughing and having fun and he looks lost and a little disturbed. I stop. "What? Quoi?" I say as I lower my arms. "No no no", he says while grabbing a post-it he wrote down the name of his company, "Start Rec. You know like on your VCR remote?". Wow. I would have never guessed that, not in a million years and not with all the hand gestures in the world.

Another recent incident involved a phone conversation. A man calls asking to speak to François. I ask for his name, he replies Stephan, I then ask for him for his full name. He is in a hurry, I can tell because he is talking so quickly, and he says, "It's Stephan Justtellhimthat" or for my francophone it sounded like this "C'est Stephan de Louisa". I say, "Ok Stephan Justtellhimthat, I'll see if François is available." Stephan then bursts out laughing, he is laughing so hard he can barely speak. After a few seconds he says, "Oh la la, no no no sweetheart, I said my name is Stephan just tell him that!". Terribly embarrassed, I laugh a little with him and quickly transfer the call. A few seconds later I hear a burst of laughter coming from the editing department where François sits as I am sure he is getting the full story from Stephan.

Lordy. There will without a doubt be more stories like this share with you all soon.

Monday, March 9, 2009

I have been Bamboozeled!

I have been bamboozeled this week, not once, not twice but three times!! When I was working as a tour guide I had a standard speech I gave to clients about pickpockets. I taught women how to hold their purses in the urban underarm clutch, I warned men to move their wallets from their back pocket to the front and I scolded kids for leting their ipod ear-buds dangle out of their pockets. I delivered this lecture with gusto but having never been pick pocketed myself, it admittedly had a smug, only silly or careless people get pickpocketed undertone.

Well I take it back. I was totally blindsided this week and got a debit card stolen from right under my nose. My best friend Katie was in town visiting last week. This was her first trip to Paris and so as we rode in to town from the airport on the RER I gave her a quick speech about pickpockets which was followed by a philosophical conversation about frequent non-violent crime which abounds in Europe verses infrequent but disturbingly violent crime in the US.

The very next day we were looking for an ATM machine to pull out cash for Katie. The bank closest to my house didn’t work so we walked a little father a field and found another bank. This bank is in Barbès on a corner that is frequented by young Parisians with for the most part North African origins. On this particular corner you almost always see large groups of young men just hanging out. Sometimes they will try to sell you fake packs of Marlboros or faux Dolce & Gabana belts but generally speaking they leave passersby alone. With that said, there was no motivation other than race or age discrimination not to use this bank, so being the open-minded urbanite that I am, Katie and I marched on in.
The ATM machines were housed inside a bank but the bank was closed because it was Sunday, so we were in a little room off of the sidewalk but not in the bank either. A few seconds after we entered a young man came in and stood right behind us. I think, “what a nut, there are 5 other machines in this place why does he want to use this one?”. I turn around and he says to me, “Mademoiselle, these machines are broken! Your friend isn’t typing in her request the right way!”. I assume he is trying to help us poor tourists figure out how to use the machines in hopes for a tip. So I say to him in French, “Thank you, but I speak French and know how to use a cash machine.” He starts beebopping around saying, “ No no the cash machine is broken. She needs to push the buttons harder. Etc etc.” I say, “No really, we are fine so get out of here”. He jostles us and I push him away and in a flash he pushes back, reaches over my arm and touches the screen. I give him a shove and backs away looking surprised and saying, “Wow well I can see I am scaring you, so if you are scared then I’ll just leave”. His tone was indignant, implying that I was either racist or ungrateful for his help or both.

I turn to Katie, who doesn’t speak French and wasn’t sure exactly what was going on but knew it wasn’t good, to see if she still had everything. She says, “Yep. I hit cancel button and am just waiting for my card to pop back out.” I look at the screen and read Welcome to BPN, please insert your card. At that point it dawned on us that he had hit the cancel button, grabbed the card and ran. All without us seeing a thing!
At that very moment his crony comes in, overhears us cursing the machine and the situation and he says, “Hey ladies, I think these machines are broken so it’s not surprising that it ate your card.” This sneaky Pete was hoping to buy some time by convincing us the bank had our card and that we should just wait until the bank opened back up on Monday to ask for our card back. While I was royally fooled by the first guy this second one did not win me over.

So Katie and I walk back home to call her bank to cancel the card. In the 10 minutes it took us to get home the guy had already withdrawn 200 euros. He must have seen Katie enter her pin number so he was able to withdraw at will. Katie, luckily lives in a land where the customer is king so her bank canceled her card and will reimburse her for the fraudulent charges.

As Katie's visit cotinued, so did the bamboolzing. That week we were twice tailed in the metro by nerdowells. The first incident culminated in a man's hand sliding delicately into my pocket. Unfortunately for him, all he got was a used tissue and a very dirty look from me. The second incident began just like the first, a young man was following us far too closely in the metro, except this time I turned to him and told him to pass us if he is in such a hurry. He looked surprised and said he wasn’t in a hurry, and since he spent the next 15 minutes hitting on us and following us half way home I suppose he was telling the truth.

Traveling around Paris on my own or with Greg or French friends I seem blend in to the Parisian backdrop farily. Maybe it is because of my clothing, or my manner of walking or the fact that I am usually reading a French newspaper, but typically people leave me alone. Moving around the city with my beautiful friend Katie, taking pictures, giggling and talking at an American volume level we suddenly became highly prized targets. The difference was shocking.

In the end, I am sorry for the hassle it caused Katie and for the tainted view of Paris she now may have. I also feel sorry for the youths who are drawn (or pushed?) into a life of crime by the society which surrounds them but doesnt always accept them. Looking back on it I see it as a highly educational, albeit disturbing, experience.