Book Club: A Year in the Merde, by Stephen Clarke

I read a lot of books about Paris and France before moving here and I’ve only recently realized I might do well to share them with you.  So, I’ll start with an old favorite.

It was the second week I was in Paris.  I had just gone to an Asterix exposition at the ugly BNF (Bibliotheque Francois Mitterand), with my friend Julien, who I had met in Adelaide, Australia, a year earlier (a story for another time).

“Stefan,” (this is how the French pronounce my name), “Stefan, do you know zis booke, ah, a year in dee Merde?”  I nodded that I had vaguely heard of it, but not much more.

He started laughing.  “Oh, you must read it!  It is soooo funny!  And it’s true!”  Julien is a great guy – a real anglophile to boot – though he insists that when we go on ski trips I only speak French – so I gave his recommendation its due importance and in time purchased and read the book.

It was, as he had warned me, absolutely hilarious.  One time I almost choked on my tongue while reading in the metro because I was laughing so hard.  Another time, while I was buying groceries at Franprix, I noticed that the checkout guy started to giggle quietly because he saw the book under my arm.  “C’est vrai?” I asked him, left eyebrow raised.  “Oui – tous!” he responded.

So, Stephen Clarke, the author, invented this fictional Paul West character who comes to Paris for a job and gets caught in the life of apartments, work, and love.  It’s told from an anglo perspective, and it’s particularly funny if you’ve lived in Paris for any period of time because the jokes hit on the realities of everyday life.  Some memorable lines from the book include:

Jean-Marie did the hugest shrug I’d ever seen, even outdoing the man in the electric shop.  His shoulders, arms, his whole rib cage, took off vertically in a gesture of infinite indifference.

and this

The Paris police are the best in the world at one thing – sitting in buses.”

and this

Red lights are like queues,” he said scornfully, “They are for people who have time to waste.”

It’s not a perfect book, by any means, but it’s very revealing in its takedown of the French.

Clarke was a bit taken aback, I’m sure, by his success, and has gone on to write at least two other books on this theme, which I have, unfortunately, also read.  I say unfortunately because these books go beyond the playful fictional satirical conceit of the first book and just linger in stereotype that is, over time, increasingly unfunny.

Yes, it was funny that first time – but if you want to keep going you’re going to have to go deeper.  In comedy, the analogue would be the first Austin Powers movie – the first one was funny in so many ways – the others were horrible.  Same with the sleeper Liam Neeson hit film Taken.  I love that movie.  Which is probably precisely why I hate the sequels so.

Perhaps we as moderns don’t understand that success can be solitary (witness Harper Lee being huckstered into releasing an inferior and revisionist novel in her dotage).  Success doesn’t mean having to repackage your great idea as something only slightly different.  Indeed, success is sometimes leaving well enough alone.

So, read this first one.  Skip the rest of Clarke’s catalogue.

French for “Customer Service”

“It’s not my problem”

-accompanied by a shrug, said by almost every French person ever to a customer in need of help.

The quote above is a caricature, surely, but my French friends will admit it’s pretty close to the truth.  It’s my third year here in Paris, and when your expectations are so very low, when you get surprised, you want to share it.  So, here are two such stories.

Groupama

Groupama provides my renter’s insurance, something that is helpful in itself, but is also a requirement of most of my visa visits, including my recent one to move away from visitor status to a path to citizenship.

However, they, like many French insurers, make it impossible to cancel a policy online.  You have to go in person and provide a signed etat de lieu as proof you have moved out.  Your word is not enough (same thing happens at the bank when you try to change your address).  Do you have proof?

In any event I had moved out of this place roughly 6 months before I managed to get to my insurer.  I took the blame, as other things always seemed to take priority.  Not only was the cancellation smooth, only taking a few minutes, but the agent marked the cancellation to the end of the lease, and credited my account with 6 months of premiums!

As the French write: “Waoh!”

Decathlon

The next mission was already impossible in my mind before I attempted it, but in the spirit of “try everything once” I took back two inflatable mattresses to Decathlon.  I had purchased the first one for guests who might stay at my apartment and it worked fine for months.  Until it started to slowly deflate.  I spent some time trying to find the slow leak so I could patch it, but no dice.  It was only 15€ and I hadn’t kept the receipt.  I bought another.  This one started deflating almost immediately.

I called it a day on the inflatable mattress plan and bought a Japanese-style fold out bed at Castorama.  No deflation possible!  But I still had two non-functional inflatable mattresses.

I suggested to a couple French friends that I would try to return the beds without a receipt (I had idiotically not kept the second one, either).  They laughed derisively.

“I’ll just play the dumb American,” I said.  “Plus, I’m willing to accept store credit.”  Turns out I didn’t have to.

I arrived at the enormous subterranean Decathlon near the Madeleine (Americans, think Dick’s Sporting Goods or Sports Chalet) and got into the returns line.  When it got to be my turn I explained that I didn’t want an exchange, but that I wanted to return these mattresses for store credit.  The young girl called a colleague over, who then walked with me to the camping department, where the inflatable mattresses lived, in order to observe the malfunction.  And to my dismay, the same thing happened as whenever I brought an Apple device to an Apple store for troubleshooting: nothing.  I almost wonder if the Apple Store is a stern father figure for my Apple devices and they suddenly “behave” when they are at home.

I watched, bemused, as the inflated mattress which had deflated over and over in my home held the air intact.  We even tried sitting on it to force the leak.  Not a peep.  Resolute as Churchill on the beaches.

The kid read my incredulous expression.  “Don’t worry,” he said in French.  He walked me to the counter, got me a gift card for the value of both mattresses, and as I walked out of the store and held the gift card in my hand, contemplating the imposing facade of the Madeleine, I smiled.

Maybe there is a French word for “customer service” after all.

PS  Don’t worry, I have a horror story to share in the future for those who wish to further the paradigm of “the French just don’t care about customer service.” 🙂

 

Picard: a dirty little secret of the French

So before we arrive in La France, we non-French perhaps imagine that all French people have an advanced knowledge of wines and cheeses, and while we don’t expect the full Julia Child/Jacques Pepin experience, we expect that most native French should be able to make a few classic French dishes from scratch, from maman‘s recipes or perhaps from grandmere.  This is not an unreasonable expectation.

What you don’t expect, what you can’t possibly believe, is that a store like Picard exists.

picardIt only sells frozen food.  To be warmed up in an oven or microwave.  No, this isn’t some monstrosity dreamed up by an American.  This. Is. In. France.  And it’s wildly popular.

“I, I just can’t believe Picard exists,” I sputter to my French friends.  A slow smile often creeps into their mien – but Stephen, it has good food, bio (organic), you know – I wave my hand dismissively.  “Do you realize your word for kitchen (cuisine) means, essentially, thoughtful or good food in my language?  And then I find out that you guys are warming up premade food?”

“Oh, but Stephen, you know, no time, metro, boulot, dodo, etc.”

“In the land of the 35-hour work week?” I ask plaintively.

Now, I’m being a bit unfair about that 35-hour work week as I’ll explain in a future article about the work lives of the French.  Suffice to say I have more than one French or expat friend who works until 20h00 on weeknights, so I fully understand and believe the, “I’m too tired to cook” response.  I know, because I’ve been there.  I’ve come home later than 22h00 many nights when I lived in America.

But when life becomes a succession of warming up food (or buying takeaway), what is the point of living here, or anywhere, for that matter?  One of the things I enjoy so much about France is the superabundance of fresh food and produce; butchers, fishmongers, cheesemongers, produce sellers, bakers: they are out at all hours, replicating what has been done for centuries, giving you the key ingredients to make food for yourself.

The thirty minutes you spend warming up some second-rate boxed lasagna, organic or not, could be spent making an omelette or a salad.  Or pasta.  Or grilling some veal, or rabbit, or lamb, while boiling some potatoes or steaming some veg for garnish.  In fact, 30 minutes would be long for “end of workday” versions of any of those suggestions.

I don’t expect all to take as much pleasure as I do in buying food, making my mise-en-place, and delighting in the cooking process, down to the colors of my food in correspondence and interplay with whatever season we find ourselves in.  But I do expect those who inhabit a country conscious enough of their own pride in everything to put a cock on the crest of the national sports teams to live up to the inheritance, the patrimony, they have been bequeathed, and has been bequeathed to the whole world.  The whole world looks to France as a (perhaps the) standard of cooking.

Which means Picard is simply not good enough.  Ever.  Generations who worked in the fields and offices long before Picard existed managed to cook and eat well.  You should too…whatever country or galaxy you live in.

6045169177_5413fb81b3

Postscript: I should note that it’s simply more expensive to eat processed food, both in terms of financial cost and health cost.  However, I tend to see these as “last ditch” arguments.  People should accept the premise that cooking their own food is a good to be desired in and of itself.

I live in a different Paris than you do…

“And you know, Paris is all metro and work and the run-around.”

He used the famous idiom “Metro-boulot-dodo” which is a colloquialism that is literally “subway-work-sleep” that indicates the grind of life for many in the City of Light.  We were high in the French Alps, not far from the Italian border, but quite a distance away from home, and yet the complaint was similar: “I used to think Paris was magic, but now it’s just a place I work and pay bills.”

I tried to hide my dismay at hearing this, because no one should live in a place that one doesn’t love, if it can be avoided.  It’s socially acceptab2014-04-08 13.57.40le to tell people you moved to a dreadful city for a job but it’s some revolutionary concept to tell people you moved someplace for the city and who cared about the job?  It would come.

Now, I’m not pretending that everyone can have a great amount of time wealth/lifestyle in the world’s finest cities, but if you are going to bother to live there, to “put up” with the cost of living, it’s surely a great shame if you can never enjoy it.

Now, the first time I heard this complaint was from a lady who attended my Paris Culture Lovers meetup who rather sourly 2014-03-28 13.24.00complained about her schedule as I described my own, which included grocery shopping, visiting parks and museums, and riding a Velib during “off hours” – when everyone was at work from 9-5.  While I was a bit taken aback at her tirade, even though I’ve become very used to the French complaining (it’s a national art and sport), especially since she chose to move to Paris 15 years ago – for work – I avoided what would have been a typical American retort: “Well why don’t you do something about it instead of just complaining to 10 near-strangers about it?”  I said it another way to my friend Julia last month: “The French as a people would rather complain about what they don’t have than take responsibility for building their dreams.”  Instead, I just managed to stutter, “I guess…I guess I just live in a different Paris than you do.”

Since my current conversant was French I decided to take a different tack and asked him how he planned to break the cycle.  He shared some great ideas, but unsurprisingly, had not done any real research into those ideas.

2014-04-14 12.29.22***

Okay, Stephen, so people quit their miserable city jobs, then what?  Look, I don’t know.  I’m not advocating that everyone quit his/her respective jobs.  I’m just asking the serious and adult series of questions: what is the life you want for yourself?  Are you living it now?  If not, why not?  Do you have any plan or timeline in which you will be living the life you want?  Does it solely hinge on money?  Have you rethought that?

Surely life is more than paying rent or a mortgage.  Our time on this magnificent planet is too short and brief to spend focusing on the life you don’t have.  Start creating the life you desire and marvel at how much the journey alone will prepare you to enjoy what awaits your sacrifices.  I’m reminded of the words of Marcus Aurelius:

The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.

The obstacle is the way.

2014-04-18 19.48.52-2The photos are all ones I took this time last year, when Spring had definitely arrived.  For now they are consoling me that we are almost there, as Winter is staying too long this year.

Learn French in France? Not so fast….

I often tell people that I studied French prior to coming here but I truly learned French whenever, over the years, I was in an immersive French environment (as in during my teenage visits to Montreal).  For those who think simply being here will make you fluent in French, I need to warn you: it won’t.

Apart from what fluency really means, there is the issue that language studies take five ingredients to make strong and serious progress.  If any of these ingredients are missing, your progress will be slowed considerably.

The first ingredient is perhaps the most obvious: money.  Whether you choose the path of a private tutor (25-40€/hour) or a large class at a school like Alliance Francaise (11-20€/hour) you will need thousands of euros to progress to any level of satisfaction in this language.  You can go to all the free language meetups or do all the duolingo you please (I know, I’ve done both) but they are night and day from serious study of this language.

The second thing you need is time, and its handmaid, patience.  Just as Europe can’t really be seen in the madcap 30-countries-in-14-days dash that Americans are so infamous for putting themselves through when not better advised, French is not a language that can be “hacked.”  The pronunciation, exceptions, and nuances of the language demand more, even from English speakers who speak a tongue which is heavily influenced by French.

Finally, you will need practice and its champion, perseverance.  If you work in and speak English all day on a daily basis (as I do) you simply have less time to practice.  It also means you should do as much as you can in French – be it making your grocery list in the language, or speaking with your French friends in it, who will be anxious to speak to you in English and help you as you struggle (classic example – this weekend I was trying to deconstruct a very funny expression with my friends – the French equivalent to “when pigs fly” is “when chickens have teeth” but the verb used was in the subjunctive, which I still 6a00d83451bab869e200e54f4edd828833-800wihaven’t learned, so we were discussing the change in stem and the various endings).

I have run into people who have lived and worked in France for 3-5 years who have a low level of competence and a horrible accent in the language (think “merci” pronounced “mercy”).  I used to despise them but as time has gone on and as I’ve faced my own roadblocks in the last 16 months (I was low on money, I was impatient, I didn’t make time to practice) I’ve come to accept that language studies, when not required for a job, are not persevered in without an overwhelming passion for the language in question.  In the United States, Spanish is universally the “practical” language to study in school but only a small handful of my friends, even the AP Spanish ones, have pursued their studies more seriously than being able to get around Mexico or South America.  The common denominator?  They all genuinely enjoyed speaking Spanish and connecting to that marvelous world.

I told you in another piece that the visa process weeds out many who just consider France a romantic possibility but don’t have the bottle to get through the hard work.  The reality of studies beyond, “Comment t’apples-tu?” is a language rich in exceptions and irregular forms.  You’re going to have to love it.  Thankfully, j’adore le français.

* * *

One of the distinct advantages of being immersed in French is having pronunciation modeled for you 24/7.  All my friends tell me that my pronunciation now is night and day from this time last year.  But you also hear things in oral situations that you have to unpack later.  Three examples:

1.  “Voici.”  It is customary to say goodbye when leaving a cafe or store – be it an “au revoir” or “bon weekend” or “bon apres-midi,” etc.  People would occasionally call out what I heard as “voici” (pronounced vwas-ee) after me.  After some time  thinking on it I realized they meant “a vous aussi,” “to you as well.”  Parisian speech is traditionally fast, even among the French, and the French love to shorten things so no surprise that “a vous aussi” elided to something that sounds like “voici,” at least for some people.

2.  “Chef.”  I’ve encountered this before in varied situations, but usually from strangers around sporting events.  We don’t have an exact equivalent in English, but it is akin to someone young saying “sir” to someone else their age or younger, either as an artifact of their speech (as some 20-somethings are wont to drop putain into their syntax just as a placeholder) or because they want something from you and calling you “chief” is part of the “flatterie.”

3.  The disappearance of “ne” from negative statements.  In French you need to put a “ne” in front of the verb and a “pas” after it.  Since almost medieval times the French have been dropping letters from their text and speech and I happen to be living in an era when “ne” is disappearing in speech.  Since my tutor assigns me written homework my written French has to be “by the book” so this was a perfect example for me to learn by recognizing the difference.

Proper French: “je n’ai pas d’argent.” (“I don’t have any money.”)

Colloquial spoken French:  “j’ai pas d’argent.”  (“I don’t have any money.”)

As I queried my French friends about this they explained that it was similar to the English tendencies of using “gonna” as an elision of “going to” and “gimme” as an elision of “give me.”  It has that “slangy” sound to it when it’s used, but no one properly educated would think it would be correct to write using that format.

This tendency is a cause for alarm among the chattering classes that favor the (very reasonable) power of the Academie Francaise.  For the person in immersion, it’s reassuring proof that, more and more, you are “getting” the nuances of this lovely and storied tongue.

How to Renew Your French Long-Term Stay Visa

The heavy, ancient printer started printing my recipisse.  I closed my eyes.  Whenever the old printer starts running in a French immigration office, you’re in the clear.  I had done it.  I had survived my first year in France and I had just renewed my visa too.  The relief and triumph wasn’t nearly what I felt when I first got one or confirmed it.  But it was relief.  Palpable relief.  I could go on about my year without having to think about this again for a while.

Because I had originally moved to Paris in December 2013 my one year visa was up that same month in 2014.  Trouble was it was around the time I needed to go back to see my family, take care of some business, etc.  I could have chosen to renew it earlier, or I could have just chosen to move to France sometime other than in December, but there it is.  Think about where you will be in one year whenever you do apply for your visa.  I think December and January make a lot of sense for many, though, because the move has all the notes of “new start” and you give yourself a whole year of runway (although some of our readers need only two months!)

To be fair, I had to make two visits, because they asked for some things I didn’t have on hand the first time.  Let’s start with that list, shall we?  You can find it on the Paris Police Prefecture website, right here.  You can also make your appointment for renewal online at this link.  I should make the point that I am speaking to people applying for a long-term visitor visa.  Students and workers should consult their own subcategories when preparing their dossiers.

So, my dear long-term visitors, if you clicked on the link you came to a page that listed your requirements.  Let’s start at the top.  Notice that they want the original and 1 photocopy for each of these documents.  If you have forgotten or the copies get damaged there are large commercial copying machines that charge you 10 cent(imes) per copy in the vestibule of the office you have to go to.  There’s also two photomaton booths to take your pictures should you have forgotten them.  They honestly do have your bases covered here.  When I say “here” of course I mean this building below:

1212px-Paris-prefecture-de-police
It faces Notre Dame directly and is easily accessible via the Cité stop on the Metro.  Bring water, snacks, a nice book to dig into, charger for your phone, and block out your whole day for whenever your appointment is.  Some say mornings are better, others afternoons – I only chose afternoons because I’m not a morning person and in both instances I “checked in” an hour before my appointment which allowed me to actually be seen only 30 minutes after my scheduled appointment time.  Be early – or you may not even get seen that day.  I’m serious.

Paperwork you MUST have:

1.  A copy of your original titre de sejour as well as the passport which contains it.  This is the sticker you would have gotten on your follow-up visit when you first arrived in France.  For visitors your first year titre de sejour resides simply in your passport.  Come renewal time, you actually get issued a card.

2.  Your birth certificate.  You’ll need a certified French translation of it.  Mine was written in English by the Singaporean government and the French translation cost 72€.  If you need the translator’s contact info, simply ask me.

So, about that birth certificate.  If you’re like me, you keep all your important documents in a folder somewhere.  The trouble was, up to the point when my eyes first looked upon these requirements, I thought I had brought them with me to France.  My birth certificate, immunization record, baptismal certificate, all that jazz.  After the search that starts with, “I’m sure it’s around here somewhere,” turned to, “Goodness, did I actually not bring it to France?” I ended with the eye-closed panic of, “Oh no, it must be with my stuff in storage.”

Before I went to the nuclear option of having to order new copies I called up reliable people in my life – a business partner, a sister, and my mother: “Did I leave any documents with you or do you happen to have a copy of my birth certificate?”  They all replied in the negative.

The boxes of “stuff” that comprised my life when I had an enormous townhome in the United States were currently peacefully residing in the spare room of a dear friend in Kansas City.  It was already enough that he was storing these things for me at no charge.  I wasn’t going to ask him to do the dreaded task ahead: go through all the boxes looking for a manilla or green folder that has a bunch of important documents in it.

Who could I call?  My ex-girlfriend.  I know, this sounds odd, but hear me out.  She is one of the sweetest, best girls I’ve ever dated and she can tell you herself that the move to Paris was perhaps the biggest reason we broke up.  So, could she now assist me in helping to prolong said stay in Paris?  Yes, she’s actually that awesome.

After work one day she drove 30 minutes to my friend’s house and audibly inhaled when she saw the roughly 20 boxes and rubbermaid tubs she had committed to going through.  She called me.  “You’re kidding, right?”  Chagrined, I replied, “Look, if you find it, great.  If you don’t find it, I still owe you.”  Various words of affection were exchanged and she commenced.  Two hours later, no dice.  She hadn’t found it.  (Postscript to the story: when I visited last month to clear out those boxes I found the documents, in a green folder, in a box closest to the doorway.  It might have been in a state of fatigue that she missed the closest possible option.)

So I was officially out of luck, and given that I had only pulled up the requirements 6 weeks before renewal (how hard could it be, right?  Wrong!) I now had to convince either the American government or the Singaporean government to get me a certified copy of my birth certificate.  Why would both of them have one?  Well, I was born in Singapore, so that’s why the Singaporean government would have one.  But I was born as an American citizen abroad, by virtue of my father, so we had a Consular Report of Birth Abroad as well.  Either would suffice.  I decided to bet on both simultaneously.

I went to the American Embassy the Monday after Meghan’s unsuccessful search and got a notarization for a request for the certified copy of my consular report.  I enclosed an American check with the $14.95 overnight mailing fee.  The Singapore process was a little more complicated, but more automated.  I would have to request a copy of my birth extract, which would contain my birth certificate number.  Then I could use the birth certificate number in conjunction with other documents to request a certified copy of my birth certificate.

What had my failure to bring this single document to France with me cost, apart from the emotional distress of waiting?  Roughly 300USD.  So, don’t forget, kids.

Ultimately, Singapore won my bet.  A registered letter containing my birth certificate arrived the day before my appointment at the Prefecture.  The American one had arrived at my American post office box (I use US Global Mail to receive mail and packages while I’m in Europe) a day before but because it was around the Thanksgiving holiday I would not get it overnighted to Europe in time.  And you can’t ask them to ship your certificate outside the US.

3.  3 photos of standard size.  As I said in previous articles, you can find these literally all around Paris and even if you don’t, they have two machines out in the vestibule you can use.  5 euros gets you 5 photos.  Keep the photos.  You’ll need them for other documents and applications while here.

4.  If you are married or have children you will need proof of marriage as well as the birth certificates for your whole family.

5.  EDF or QDL.  EDF is short for “Electricité de France,” the monopoly state-run organization who provides you with a bill you can use for pretty much EVERYTHING in France.  If you rent, like I do, you might not get an EDF, so you’ll bring an up-to-date Quittance de Loyer which is simply proof from your landlord that you are paying rent and have done so faithfully, etc.

So those are the basics for all visas.  Now, let’s look at page 2 and what we long-term visitors additionally need.

6.  12 months of bank statements.  I hope you saved yours or get them digitally.  This could be either a French bank account or an American one.  If the former, you need to ensure that you are not receiving any income from any French companies.  Make sure any wire transfers that come in come from a corresponding account in your name.  Remember that you signed an attestation when you got your visa that you would not do work while here and the careless forgot that (or just stupidly got jobs) and the careful civil servant may look at your statements line-by-line.  You are not required to have a French bank account but I don’t see how you could tolerably live here for one year and not have one.  All my paperwork had been in order up to this point so when my agent started flipping through my bank statements she looked up and asked, “where do you get your money?”  “I tutor on the internet and I also write.”  She nodded, flipped through to October 2014, which was the last statement I could provide, and promptly turned them all over to her “done” pile.  If you don’t have sufficient cash flows in said bank account (they like to see a minimum of 1.5-2k € a month of revenue) you may have to produce other evidence of means – be it a savings account, etc.  As I’ve written before, a simple letter from your bank will not be sufficient.  They will want statements.

7.  Health Insurance.  When I was in America, it was okay to provide proof for this in English.  Not now.  You’re in France now, so just as my birth certificate needed an official translation, I needed one for my medical policy as well.  I had originally selected Cigna Global and while I only found out later that they did have French translations of all the relevant documents, the agent on the phone told me that the “front page” of declarations would be sufficient.  Unsurprisingly, it wasn’t.  The cost of translating my whole policy would have been more than simply buying a French policy of health insurance for foreigners.  So I did just that, and in my cancellation call with Cigna (with a very courteous and apologetic Irish girl) I was told that they did indeed have French docs.  Sorry, I told them.  Maybe next year.  If you want a French policy, I can put you in contact with my agent.  Great lady.

8.  Renter’s insurance for my apartment.  Ohhhhhh.  Well, despite the fact that my lease had stipulated that I carry this, I had simply forgotten.  This held me up at my first appointment and led to a “follow-up” at which time I would bring said documentation proving I did have it.  Rather than admit straight out that I didn’t have such insurance I simply said that I didn’t bring it, which was true – I hadn’t. 🙂  We scheduled a time 7 weeks out, when I would have been safely and actually back from my Stateside visit, and when I came back, having secured insurance (if you need that, my guy is great), I handed said docs to her.  She stamped a couple things, had me sign the document for my new carte de sejour and the old printer started printing.

What was printing was my “recipisse.”  It was a “temporary ID” that was valid for two months.  In two months I could come back to the prefecture, drop 106€, and pick up my permanent card (which I’ll have to renew again).  This was the final separation of my passport from the act of flashing “ID” when asked in France.  To be honest, my American driver’s license worked most times.  But if you’re writing a check, they will prefer a French ID, though some smiling and hand wringing will usually allow for the exceptional passport to be used as proof.

I was, of course, relieved.  I didn’t do this entirely by myself, though.  I consulted with someone who specializes in helping expats, Jean Taquet.  I first started speaking to him last year as part of a long-term strategy to build a business and stay in France.  If you want he will hold your hand every step of the way through the titre de sejour process, up to and including coming with you to the Prefecture.  It’s not free – but I’ll leave it to you to discuss fees with him.  I’ll also talk more about Jean and his help for those who want to make a long-term living here in a future blog post.

As always – remember that if you have your stuff in order and are polite you’ll have success.  Speak the French you’ve hopefully been learning all year with even a measured diffidence, and you’ll go further.

The myth of “fluency”

Americans abroad sometimes beat ourselves up – often on behalf of our fellow countryment – other times because of our own perceived shortcomings.  One of these is the famous lie: “Well everyone in Europe speaks at least 2-3 languages fluently.”  I’ve found this to be mostly a myth, for any number of reasons.

It is true that Europeans take up a 2nd and sometimes even a 3rd language outside of the language that they speak at home.  But Europeans are humans, like the rest of us, and fluency is like anything – once attained, it must be maintained.

On the ferry from Morocco back to Spain some years ago I struck up a conversation with a Danish family.  We talked about socialized health care (Obamacare was much in the news at the time) and came on to education.  “What is she learning as her third language?” I queried.  “German.”  I was surprised – I know they are geographically proximate but German is really only spoken in a couple countries.  I didn’t want to ask why so I simply asked how she was doing.  “Ask her,” the father smiled.

“How’s your German?” I asked the 11 year-old.  She answered haltingly in her 2nd tongue, English: “I…it’s okay.”  “Do you practice with your friends who are also learning German?”  “No,” she admitted honestly, making a face which betrayed only slight shame, almost as if to say that practicing a non-native tongue with friends learning that same non-native tongue would be unusual.

Fluency, strictly speaking, is the ability to converse quickly and at a high level, within a language.  Fluency comprehends a large vocabulary, appreciates and can deliver puns, and has fun with wordplay.  It also has the ability to engage in high level discussions – say about the existence of God or the start of the universe.  I would never call someone fluent in a language who kept asking me the word for “planet” or “cosmos” or “uncaused cause.”

I might call them conversational – those who can express themselves enough to order food, ask for directions, or talk about basics about themselves.  Sometimes this brings with it a semi-literacy – an ability to read signs and some announcements, but not enough to read an editorial in the local newspaper.

My most recent trip to Vienna left me with a few new friends, one of which was now a teacher in Vienna who confessed to me during our 30 km bike tour of the city that he had learned Italian and English in school but had lost them both.  I told him quite emphatically that his English was very impressive for his not being a regular speaker.

WordCloud_FRWhile a big part of my mission during my time in France has been to attain fluency in this language, I have over the years come to appreciate even knowing a few words in any language.  The doors to another culture can open themselves so widely in just a few words.  We talked about the fact that the ß (eszett) in German is not often used.  “Indeed,” he replied, “the Swiss use a double s in its place.”  This is true, the Swiss are quite practical.  They use septante and huitante and nonante to denote 70, 80, and 90, respectively.  What do the French use?  soixante-dis (60 and 10, literally), quatre-vingts (four twentys, seriously), and quatre-vingts-dis (yup, four 20s and a 10, like you’re counting out change).

What I mean to get at is if you cannot attain fluency in a second language (or a third, etc.), don’t beat yourself up.  Many claim fluency in a second language, but what they mean is that they are conversational.  Someone who can seamlessly transition from language to language, preserving an accent native to that language, is rare.  And they are probably in diplomatic work.  The rest of us make do with “comment dit-tons” until we can get there.  And hey – what’s the harm in working on fluency in your native tongue?  I daresay we’d see better grammar and spelling in our business and personal emails if we put that effort in! 🙂