Hermie Fits In, Part 1

So yeah, pretty big day. Today was my appointment at the French Office of Immigration and Integration.

The rules are, if you plan on staying longer than one year, you have to start immediately the process to become a legal resident. It’s called a titre de séjour, and it’s the card that really puts you on the map: it gives exactly the same rights as any other frenchy, with the exception of being able to vote. This means you’re able to work legally, enter into the warm arms of French healthcare, and begin the path towards legitimate citizenship.

This office sends you ahead of time a list of (a) what you’re going to do on this magical day and (b) all the paperwork you need to obtain, including a pile of specialized stamps costing up to €55 ($70) each. With my application fees alone I think I’ve subsidized a week of ICU for some needy soul currently in those warm healthcare arms. This prelim paperwork also serves to scare the merde out of you in anticipation, promising tests of your French, long interviews in front of a jury to again test your French and make a case for why the hell you’re here, and even some x-rays. Maybe they want to ensure you smoke on at least a recreational level before accepting you into France.

So back to present day, or rather present last night, where I got 20 minutes of restful sleep and had to be up at 6:30 to prep for a long bus ride, my first ever in fact. There was no real room for error transportation-wise this morning, so I had to be on my toes. I definitely wasn’t. I missed my friggin’ transfer point by 2 or 3 stops, and after listening to my frantic half-coherent sentences, the best the driver could do was point in the general direction of where I should’ve gotten off 15 minutes ago. Dammit, why today…

My life then turned into part sloppy marathon, part educational video on how to ask strangers for directions in French. I knew the bus driver’s half-hearted gesture would never get me exactly where I needed to be, so I stopped every person I passed along the way hoping to narrow down my options of left/right/straight at every intersection. The lack of sleep, the nervousness, and the fatigue of the run rendered me just short of full vomit mode, and a moment too late to make my connecting bus. It was decided: I was gonna be late, sweaty, and pukey for my most important appointment in France.

Arriving 30 minutes late, I was happy to see that French government workers move as slowly as American ones, and I was able to slip in just before things got started. It’s definitely a cattle-herding situation at the start: a non-descript conference room housing round, aqua-green tables that could easily be sharing their time with the local kindergarten. Random posters devoid of any creativity or design are haphazardly hanging around. But the tables didn’t bother me much, nor did the fact that I was one out of 40 others in this space. What bothered me was I was surrounded by 39 other immigrants who seemed to be speaking fluent French to each other! My confidence was instantly shattered, and I could see that most of my fellow applicants were from other French-speaking areas like Tunisia or North Africa, and would have no problem with the language. My eyes scoured the room for someone, anyone, who might be a friend or confidante, maybe for a little head nod or a quick “good luck” in English. I didn’t find a single one. Even the small group of Asian teenagers had French spewing out of their mouths.

A woman enters to welcome us all, and I can see right away I need to bring my linguistic A-game, and right now. There’s no holding back with this lady: she’s sputtering along in French as rapidly as if we’re a classroom of native grad students chatting about dissertations. Again I scan the room to see if anyone else shares my facial expression of sheer concentration and strain, but again, dammit nobody. Where am I? I expected a bit of effort for those of us who don’t have French as a native tongue, maybe a few English words thrown in here or there, but nothing. It’s clear from the start they’re not interested in pansy-footing around the language thing. You don’t get your residency card until you can speak our language, end of discussion.

During normal, everyday types of conversations I have at least a fighting chance in French. But it’s all a question of vocab isn’t it. No matter how much you know about, say, 18th century poetry, you’re still gonna look like a dub if you find yourself in a mechanic’s garage talking transmissions. With that in mind, it’s hard to find an “Immigration Office Procedures” chapter in your average phrase book. After her welcome speech, we’re shown a short “Welcome-to-France” video. We may be tested on it later she mentions. She pushes play and walks out of the room. Not only is the volume barely audible, but the dvd keeps cutting to black every 5 seconds, leaving intermittent voids in the audio and video. She tries waving the remote at the tv, but it does nothing. She asks the group if it’s bothersome and a couple bastards yell out “No, it’s fine, just losing a bit of sound that’s all”. In retrospect this is probably the low point of the day for me. A video that I may be tested on, telling me about a foreign government and tax system, all the while glitching so that only part of it is audible.

After that perplexing experience, the woman hands us over to a colleague, another very nice lady, but I’ll be damned – she’s African and is speaking with a heavy accent. Somebody behind the curtain has a difficulty dial and just keeps crankin it up. Luckily she’s only saying in a long-winded way that she’s available for questions if we need her. Sure I have one or two, but I’ll keep them to myself for now thank you very much. Right about now I’m hoping my own personal video will cut to black for a while, returning at a later date.

(continued in Part 2)

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