This is the face of a legal alien in France.
This portrait of pride and jubilation in my new-found homeland was taken during my latest half day stay at a prefecture somewhere in Paris. After 15 months now of mairies, prefectures, administrative mistakes, paper shuffling, office shuffling, people shuffling, interviews, blank stares, feigned comprehension, total confusion and a new understanding of what the word "system" really means, I have received my holy grail...the carte de sejour. I'm legal, man. Before I set off on my half day adventure (for what I thought was just a chest x-ray appointment) I jokingly made a guess that I would end up having to talk to at least 12 different people in French and would most likely cry for three of them. I was off by one. It was 11 and I only cried for two.
The morning started off great. My eyes opened at 8:12AM for an 8:30AM appointment across town. Flurry of SHIT SHIT SHIT SHIT, run to the metro with my giant GET LEGAL folder and off to yet another prefecture. The hives started the moment I left, by the time I got there, the tears were lined up and ready to go. French language skills out the window. Check, check and check.
DESK ONE: Sign in. Woman points to desk next to her.
DESK TWO: Two women talking animatedly with each other outside a room filled with foreigners. I step up nervously and show my convocation. She asks where I am from, after blanking I choke out "New...York"
FRENCH WOMAN: "Thank you! To enter, you have to buy my friend and I a plane ticket."
ME: (mind racing crazily....she couldn't possibly have said what I think she said) "Uh...."
FW: "Two plane tickets please!"
ME: "I.....uh...(panic panic panic) I don't understand....you want uh..my plane ticket?"
She laughs and whisks me into the room, I take a seat off to the side and look around at the 50 or so other foreigners, all speaking French. She goes to the front of room where there is a video screen set up and takes out what looks to be a remote control and announces to the class in English "WHERE IS THE NEW YORK GIRL WHO DOES NOT UNDERSTAND?" I am officially dead inside. I slowly raise my hand as all eyes are now on me, the New York girl who does not understand. She comes and gives me the remote control and tells me to push it when I see the Eiffel Tower on the video. What? Huh? Why has she given me this? Why am I the one running the video? Why do I feel special now? She starts the video, I push the green button and I jump as a loud English voice comes out of it.
Only then does it hit me.
It's a frickin' translator.
Not a remote control, you moron.
After watching a video strangely focused on "women have a right to work here", we sit waiting to be called in for interviews. No one talks to me. Quelle surprise.
DESK THREE: I am interrogated for 30 minutes by an older woman in a small office. Sweating profusely, my French is coming out in horribly spoken spurts of chewed up garbles mixed with fighting tears back. Then she pushes me over the brink when she passes over a short French test for me to take. OHMYGODOHMYGODOHMYGOD stop it OHMYGODOHMYGODOHMYGOD just read the frickin' questions OHMYGODOHMYGODOHMYGOD ok name, got it OHMYGODOHMYGODOHMYGOD lieu de naissance OHMYGODOHMYGODOHMYGOD ok birth, naissance means birth 9 juin OHMYGODOHMYGODOHMYGOD.....and so on.
I pass the paper over, she glances down over her glasses for a moment before sighing and asking...
HER: Madame Boulé, what does the word lieu mean?
HER: And lieu de naissance means...
ME: Um...place of birth.
HER: (looking me over) Then why have you written June 9?
ME: (tears well) Um..I don't know. Sometimes I have crisis of nerve.
HER: (She looks at me) OK, you need to calm down. Breath.
ME: I know. My whole life is this since I am child.
Before I can burst into more tears and ask her to be my Mom, she gives me THREE more convocations for THREE more interviews and classes I am required to take, shuffles me out the door and walks me down to the medical office....
DESK FOUR: Sign in while crying.
The medical area waiting room is in the middle of about 8 doors which open and close in a flurry of doctors coming out, x rays being stacked, people shuffled in and out of one room after the other. In the next hour I would see five people in white labcoats. In one door, check eyes, passed to different labcoat guy, check weight and height. As he writes the numbers on my chart, I suddenly say in English loud and clear, "Wow, must be those delicious French donuts!" I realize my crisis of nerve is really kicking hard now. He doesn't even look at me as I internally chastise myself for making some sort of Turrets inspired wisecrack about French donuts. WTF IS A FRENCH DONUT?...YOU FOOL...YOU IDIOT..WHY WOULD YOU SAAAAY THAT? TO WHO? IT WASN'T EVEN FUNNY ANYWAY....WHY WOULD THAT BE FUNNY?
"OK go into the hallway and wait for one of the doors to open, go in and lock it, take your shirt off and wait for the door on the other side to open."
Uh....alrighty. But like, all these doors keep opening and closing, who is on the other side? Some dudes? I go in, lock the door, whip out camera to take a portrait of my self esteem being smashed to bits in a maze of incomprehension and crises of nerve.
Door opens as I stand there half naked with a camera in my hand.
Uh...hey guys, just uh....getting one in for the books here....heh...heh...have you heard the one about the French donuts?
I am smashed against a screen as two technicians take the chest x ray and shuffle me back into the room and out in to the waiting room.
Wait wait wait wait.
Shuffled in to see Doctor who asks a barrage of medical questions including..
DOCTOR: Are you depressed?
ME: Why? Do I look depressed?
DOCTOR: Just answer the question.
Back to DESK 4 to check out, shuffled down hall to pick up carte de sejour only to be told I have to pay 275 euro in stamps only, not money (cause that just makes soooo much more sense) and they of course only sell the stamps down the street at the Tabac but it is 1:23 and their office is closing in five minutes so if I cannot make it back in time, I will have to return later. Or tomorrow.
NO WAY, compadre.
After all this I AM walking out of here with my carte.
I race down the street again to get the stamps as I know how serious the French administration are about their lunch hour and if I come back at 1:31PM, it's game over for me. I ponder briefly the irony of how I always seem to be running somewhere for an administration that took 15 months to process me. Panting, I rush up the stairs where finally.....I receive my carte.
Next week...off to the local prefecture in my arrondisement to explain my work situation for apparently four hours. Hmmmmmmm......