Friday, October 31, 2008

Le Halloween

Halloween in France is definitely (and unfortunately) not like Halloween in the USA. I was looking forward to making jack o' lanterns with Gaby and his mom. It's my favorite part of Halloween. We went to three big supermarkets and couldn't find pumpkins anywhere. No Jack o' lanterns. :( Sad face.

Even worse, we didn't buy candy this year, mainly because the stores don't sell the big promotional bags of it. I kept putting it off because I didn't want to spend 3-4 euros on a tiny bag of lollipops that I would probably end up eating myself before Halloween night.

We were not off to a good start, but I supposed seeing people in costumes could still be a possibility. No. The only people who dress up in costumes are the North Americans and the Brits. That's not to say that the French don't try to get into the spirit of things. Some of my students told me they were going to costume parties. Fabulous! Then they told me they hadn't decided what to wear and admitted that they might not dress up after all. Well, okay....I can't be too critical. I don't like to dress up that much either. At least they were having parties.

And the cute little French kids would be dressing up, right? That would be good enough. No. Here, even the kids don't usually dress up, but they still go trick or treating. They might put on a little wig or eye mask and that's it. They ring the door bell and basically say, "I'm CRAZY wig head! Give me some candy."

Okay, okay, they really just say, "Give me some candy."

If you don't have candy, watch out. When the French kids go "trick or treating," they go *trick* or treating. We informed a small group of girls that we had forgotten to get candy. They yelled at us phrases that I didn't know could come out of 7-year old girls' mouths. Five minutes later, they came back and overturned all our trashcans (trash, recycling and glass). When Gaby caught them, they lied and said that some "black kids" had done it. And then when he didn't believe them, they said they would come back and do it all again and egg the house. Because we hadn't given them 2 or 3 pieces of candy. *&^$*@&% &*^*&%%$$!!!! WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE????!!

Apparently, they "trick or treat" the whole weekend. o_O

A French Halloween horror story if I've ever heard one. They won't ever be getting any candy from me. GRRRRR....

So what will this poor disappointed American be doing tonight? I'll be curling up with Gaby, a bag of popcorn and the classic Halloween horror film. That will be a good enough Halloween for me.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

French Stores

We ran out of toilet paper this morning. As I was the only one home in the early afternoon and I had already had several glasses of Evian and Coca light, I decided it would be wise to run a few errands. Of course this means walking because I don't have a car here, but that was okay. It was a gorgeous fall day. So I grabbed my jacket and wallet and headed out to downtown Achères.

As I was walking, I couldn't help but notice how empty the streets were. I figured it was normal. Everyone was at work or school right? And then as I neared the pharmacy, I saw that its little green cross was not illuminated. Closed? On a Tuesday? Was it a holiday? Just beyond the pharmacy, I could see that the small grocery store ED's was also closed, the metal cages pulled over the doors and windows. It couldn't be a holiday. Someone would've told me right?

And then I remembered. It was still "lunchtime." French stores all close for lunch sometime around noon and and don't open again until 2:00 or 3:00 in the afternoon. The pharmacy wouldn't reopen until 2:30. I didn't even look at the grocery store's hours, but instead headed back home desperately hoping that there was perhaps a stray roll of toilet paper (or Kleenex! or even paper towels!) in one of the cabinets. And I really began to wish I had skipped that last glass of Coca Light...sigh....

At about 3:30, Gaby got home and we got ready to head out again. But clouds had moved in by this time and as I was once again putting on my jacket, it started pouring outside. Too much pop, pouring rain and no TP are a bad combination. Today France was definitely against me. I missed Target. And its long hours. And my car. :(

Don't get me wrong. I do think it's nice that people get a 2-hour lunch. As someone who usually has to scarf down a sandwich between classes, I can appreciate having time to enjoy a meal and even digest a little before returning to work. That said, I still wish that there was some sort of emergency store open for people who run out of a very necessary item right before or even during the lunch hours.

Oh, and when we did finally get to the store to run our errands, we very nearly forgot the toilet paper believe it or not. Sigh...

Sunday, October 19, 2008

La Formation Civique

I was not looking forward to this class that all foreigners are required to take to learn about living in France. For one thing it would last from 9:00 to 5:00. For another, most of the session was to focus on "Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité." Eight hours of brainwashing straight out of George Orwell's 1984. I was sure of it.

I arrived 15 minutes early and joined a few other shy-looking foreigners outside of a building with the sign INSTEP posted on its door. I guess INSTEP is the private company that does this formation. Close to 9:00, a young woman greeted us with a friendly "Bonjour", invited us to come inside and offered us some coffee. This was not what I was expecting at all. Once we were in a small classroom, she introduced herself as Clotilde and told us she would like us to introduce ourselves and tell how long we had been in France and where we were from. A lot of people were from Africa, mainly Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, but also some people from Mali, Cameroun, and the Ivory Coast. Others came from all over. There were people from the Philippines, the Ukraine, Mexico, China, Argentina, Brazil and Haiti. I was the only American and I had been there the shortest amount of time out of everyone.

Everyone was really nice, including the teacher. We started with a short history of France, all the way up to the present day. That was okay. But then we talked about living in France, French government, voting and some French laws. I had thought that France was pretty much just like the U.S. when it came to some basic freedoms. But apparently the freedom of speech is a little more limited. For example, it is against the law to spout off neo-nazi ideas. In the U.S. we can totally say those kinds of things no matter how awful they are.

We also talked about really practical things like finding an apartment, signing up kids for school or finding daycare. (In France, you have to apply for a daycare center when you're only 2 months pregnant. Otherwise you won't get a spot because there's just not room.) The teacher also helped us know what to do if we ever found ourselves facing any kind of discrimination or even spousal abuse. She gave us numbers to call and everything.

One of the most interesting aspects of the whole thing though was hearing about everyone else's countries. We did a lot of comparisons and people asked a lot of questions. Some of the Maghrébins (people from Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia) were shocked and kind of upset when they found out that people from the USA and Mexico didn't need a VISA just to visit France. Considering their histories with France, I would have been kind of mad too if I were them.

The formation lasted until 4:30--we got to go a bit early. Before we left, the teacher congratulated us and then presented us with blue certificates stating that we had completed our formation civique. Yay! Now we just have to keep the certificates and bring them with us when we renew our green cards.

All in all, although I still would have preferred to do my own work that day, it really wasn't a bad class to have taken. Or maybe Big Brother just got to me. o_O (wink)

Friday, October 10, 2008

Faubourg 36

Faubourg 36 is a film that exemplifies what I associate with traditional France: the winding streets and stairways of Paris, the strikes, the cabaret-type spectacles with a sprinkling of accordeon music, and of course, the love story. The delightful music, costumes and sets certainly make Faubourg 36 beautiful to watch on the big screen, but the film is not simply a superficial show of song and sentiment. It offers much more. Set in 1930s Paris at the election of the Front Populaire, the plot revolves around a small working class group of people--three men and a young woman--who try to find stability in their lives by occupying and eventually reopening their neighborhood theater, le Chansonia. The characters' personal stories and their collective struggle against the right-wing mafia-esque theater owner illustrate some of the political, social and financial hardships faced by many during the Great Depression. With its beautiful presentation and touching story that is more profound than the previews would suggest, this film is a must-see at the cinema. I can only hope that it makes it to the United States.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

La Bretagne (Brittany)

We traveled to Brittany at the beginning of September (yes, this is a late late post). Anyway, it's a lovely part of France known for its crêpes and galettes (savory buckwheat crepes). After visiting the English Channel seaside or La Manche (the sleeve), as the French call it, we enjoyed some of those crêpes and galettes at a little restaurant nearby.

Brittany also has more than a few walled in medieval towns (cités fortifiées), and we visited one by the name of Moncontour--taking this picture was the only way I could remember the name. (blush)

I thought this little passage looked really pretty with the flowers growing out of the walls, the little lamp hanging down and the red Tudor-style house in the background. Gaby's used to this sort of thing I imagine, but we stopped to get a picture for me. His mom took this one. :)

This is the same passage from the other side. I don't know who those people are, but that woman's sweater seems to complement those flowers on the right and adds a nice little splash of color.
Okay, I know they're just houses, but to me they look cool and so European with the stone and shutters and flowers in the window boxes. And can't you just imagine French people leaning out the windows and breaking into the opening "Bonjour, bonjour.." song from Disney's "Beauty and the Beast"? No? It's just me? Okay. Sigh....

Another walled passage on our way out of the town.

At the end of the passage, I had to stop and admire the hydrangea, a flower that I associate with Brittany because I always see so many of them there.

And finally the French countryside on the way back to Achères. If I didn't know better, I would guess that this picture was taken in Kansas. place like home. Good thing France reminds me of the Sunflower State in a few little ways. ;)

Monday, October 6, 2008

La Carte de Séjour (the French Green Card)

I got my receipt for my French green card (mon récépissé)!! Anyone who has been through the trials and tribulations of immigration bureaucracy knows that this is reason for celebration. Getting the récépissé means I can get paid. I should buy some champagne and some of those little crackers with bacon in the middle.

You might wonder how bad it can possibly be to get a carte de séjour. VERY VERY BAD. When I tried to get one four years ago, I must have made little mistakes every step of the way because nothing went right. I didn't get paid for over 2 months. Later I got my pay cut for 2 weeks because I'd forgotten to get my work authorization card. After I did apply for it, it got lost in the mail and I had to beg for a new copy.

This time was much easier because I'm not living in Paris and do not have to go to the crowded Paris prefecture where they process these documents. Instead, I'm living in the small town of Achères in Les Yvelines, a suburban district west of Paris. This means I get to go to the Versailles prefecture--yes, that Versailles with the famous château. I also have the amazing advantage of having my own personal French guide to support me along the way and interject when necessary in perfect French. Thank you sweet Gaby!

This is not to say that everything was rosy just west of Paris. First, we went to the wrong prefecture which was over an hour away by train. There, the fonctionnaire told us that their office processes cartes de sejour only for foreigners married to French citizens. Huh? We would have to go to the Versailles prefecture which opens at 8:45 everyday. Since they accept only about 20 applicants a day, it's best to arrive early to get a spot. About 5:00 a.m. would be fine. Sad face. We got up in the middle of the night and arrived at the prefecture at 5:30. Not a soul in sight. So we were first right? But after two hours, there was still no one else. Something was not right. At 7:30, the doors opened, so we went inside to ask about my green card. The receptionist informed us that the carte de séjour door was in the annex 2 blocks away. Indeed. Fifty people were in line ahead of us. So much for getting up early. I began mentally preparing myself to come back the next day.

The doors opened, the line moved quickly and we were inside by 9:00. And then the unexpected happened. At the reception, I found out that there was a special window for salaried workers like me (guichet 25) and that it would open at 9:30. There had been no need to arrive so early after all since not many salaried workers were asking for their green cards. What??! We could have come at 9:30 and been fine?? I could hardly complain though; I would have an appointment that day. In the end, the line was very short and the woman working at window 25 turned out to be okay. She gave me a list of all the documents I would need and told me to mail them to the prefecture. I told her I had all my documents with me and couldn't I just leave them there with her? She repeated that I needed to mail them. Gaby stepped in. She told me I could leave my documents there. Whew!

Several days later, I got a letter in the mail saying my file had been accepted and that my receipt was ready to be picked up. This meant going back to Versailles prefecture, but at a reasonable hour (ahem, 10:30). Everything went smoothly, I got my récépissé and now I will finally have money deposited in my new French bank account.

I consider myself lucky because despite the little inconveniences, Versailles got things done quickly. My poor American colleagues are still dealing with their nightmare prefectures in Paris and Nanterre and may not get their récépissés for least 2 or 3 more months. This means no pay for 2 or 3 months. These are the conditions for salaried workers who have work contracts. And for immigrants who are still looking for work? I imagine they're forced to waste precious time waiting in line every morning at the prefecture trying to get an appointment. And that's only the beginning.