Wow. So today has been my fullest and most interesting day in France as of yet. I got up early, at 7:15 even. Hit the snooze a couple of times before this, of course. As usual, ate my apple and had a cup of coffee before heading off to a class at 8 in which I was a student (again!). It was a translation class with an English teacher named Fevrese. This is the guy with whom I got drunk and played soccer at the party with all of the other English teachers, mind you. He is absolutely brilliant and witty, and if I teach high school or even college, I hope I am as smart as he.
Anyway, it was a translation from English to French, and he of course taught the class in French, so I learned A LOT. As I found later, it was a great way to start my day because I was already warmed up with the French in the morning, and prepared to speak and listen in the language the rest of the day. The class was two hours long, and in the middle there is a five minute break. At the break a whole bunch of (female) students crowded around me and asked me questions, which I replied to in French. They wanted to know how long I’d been here, if the class was easy, etc. One even complimented me on my French, and asked me if I could record my voice sometime for help with translations, and also if I’d like to have conversations so they could talk in English. I said yes, and we shall see if I follow through. I saw through their interest in learning a language as their interest in the young AMERICAN assistant, which is something that happens to me a lot here. I’ve been asked for my phone number by students twice, and both were about fourteen. Ew. On the other hand, there are some 18-year olds here that I have a hard time reminding myself to not finding attractive, which confuses me and makes me feel like a pervert in some ways. I did, not only a year ago, date an 18-year old, however.
After the translation class I had to go to the prefecture to get this thing called my Carte de Sejour. It’s basically a long-stay visa that allows me to get health insurance. The prefecture is a level of hell, actually, that Dante forgot to add in between the 6th and 7th. We’ll call it level 6.5. It’s where all of the foreigners go to receive their various documents necessary to live in France and not be harassed by the French immigration officials. Needless to say, there are a lot of paper hoops to jump through, so much that my friend Tatiana has termed this process “bureaucrap.” This is the 6th time I’ve been to this place. The times before I had to go simply to set up a meeting to be seen another time.
That other time was last Thursday. See, you bring all of these documents and photocopies, and they give you this shiny little sticker in your passport. Well, they called all of the other assistants to go last Thursday as well. However, after showing all of my documents and such, waiting twenty minutes for the lady that was helping me to talk with her fucking hands to her co-worker, I was told that there was nobody there that could sign the sticker for me, so I had to come back. This is what I did today. I went at eleven in the morning. Silly me, the part that services foreigners is not open until 1:00. Of course! Why the hell would it be open at 11 on a Tuesday?
Fair enough. I went to the library and finished The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood, an absolutely brilliant and scary novel about what could happen to women in the U.S. if we are not vigilant about their rights as human beings. It’s very distopian in so many ways, and poignant in the sense that it draws on existing controversies and events and posits what could happen if they continue on the same vein. Very dark and even difficult to read at points, but it makes one morally outraged enough, I think, that they should have no choice but to act in the defense of human rights in general, women’s rights in particular. Blah, sorry. There will be a review of the novel later, somewhere else. By me.
In any case, I went to the library and finished this book. Following this I went to a small kebap restaurant close to the library and prefecture where one may purchase a vegetarian sandwich with an asston of french fries for the small amount of 2.40 euros. I took it to the Hotel de Ville, a central building in the town with a huge park and fountains in front of it, and did some scarfing. There was a seagull there that just hung out around me while I ate with some pigeons and a barn swallow. They watched me eat, hoping that I’d drop some fry crumbs near them. I took one fry that I had dropped near my foot and threw it over to them. I have never seen a bird move so fast on land. The seagull seemed to teleport over to where I threw the fry and gobble it up. After a few minutes of waiting, all of the other birds left. The seagull just stared and stared at me, figuring if I was nice enough to bestow upon him one fry, I’d be benevolent enough to do it again. He kept picking up receipts and pieces of plastic on the ground, tasting them and shaking them in his beak to see if they were food. I gave him some cabbage from the kebap. When I left, he scurried over to where I was sitting and ate the rest of what I had left on the ground.
I went back to the prefecture, waited in line outside in the cold, waited in line inside, got a ticket with the number 37 printed on it and sat down. They started calling at 20, and almost exactly one hour and thirty long fucking minutes later, they called 37. I went up, explained thoroughly and precisely what my situation was in French, and the guy punched up two things on the computer, got my carte de sejour from a little box, had me sign it and that was it. I waited 1.5 hours to say twenty words and spend one minute with the guy, tops. This made me need something to quell my frustration with the stifling bureacracy for which France is renowned, so I went to my local bakery where the lady knows that I buy a baguette almost every time I come in. “Not today,” I said when she asked if I wanted a baguette. I bought a croissant and a pain au choclat, which is a croissant with chocolate inside of it. I ate them both with some coffee in my room, and it gave me hope that being in France is worth all of the pain and suffering of the prefecture.
After this I went to the school and did some boring things on my computer. It was getting on the time when I was supposed to meet a couple of other assistants, Anne and Meg, for our traditional Tuesday-night kebap at our favorite Lebanese restaurant. Yes, I ate a kebap for both lunch and dinner. And French fries. Don’t judge me. We showed up a little early and waited outside in the cold, before Danny, the guy that works behind the counter with a disarming smile and this white frock with big buttons up the front (a chef’s coat) opened the place up. Each time we come he is so very, very nice and we make jokes in French and English and in general just have a good time eating hummus. The hummus there is like what I make in the U.S., so I have an orgasm every Tuesday night. In any case, Jon the Limey showed up and we got to catch up with him on his weekend in England with his girlfriend.
Now, Anne, Meg and the assistants from my Lycée, Mirja and Samah, went to see an American movie called In Her Shoes. I, however, didn’t want to spend the money on said film, or watch something in English on a day when my French was at a passable level both on the comprehension and the speaking sides. So, I went to this little café called “Les Yeux d’Elsa,” which means “The Eyes of Elsa,” or “Elsa’s Eyes.” There was a presentation there on the Sioux Indians in America, their history, and their current state of living. The guy from Le Havre lived on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, of all places, for the summers of 2003 and 2005. Now, Pine Ridge is not 30 miles from Rapid City. So everything and everywhere he was talking about, even though it was in French, made a lot of sense to me. He had photos from the Badlands and the Black Hills, and it really made me somewhat homesick. There was a discussion after he talked about the different Sioux tribes, their history, the history of how us white people butchered them and forced them onto reservations, only to continue to starve and exploit them to the present day. If it isn’t obvious, I think the problems that exist on reservations in the U.S. are the fault of my ancestors and the continued racist attitude that white people have towards Native Americans. Of course it’s complicated. They want sovereignty, but also reparations, and the U.S. government wants to assimilate them completely into the states to get rights to their land. They are in this sort of limbo where they are a separate nation, but within the borders of another larger, more powerful nation. It’s too complicated to outly here.
So, this guy talked about where I came from and the people and cultures that I grew up knowing about, albeit less than I really should. Afterwards we talked a little bit. (I didn’t admit where I was from because I wanted the discussion afterwards to be completely uncensored by my presence. In other words, I thought that telling people right off that I was from the U.S., and from this area, would make them hesistant to badmouth it, etc., and I wanted to see what they really felt. It turns out that they weren’t too anti-American, though there was a bit of that sentiment.)
It was interesting to talk about where I’m from with someone who actually knows. Since I’ve been in France, every time I say where I’m from people have no fucking clue. I have to explain that South Dakota is in the middle of the U.S., and I usually don’t even say which town. But this guy had been there, so I was able to talk about what he had touched on, verify that it was both true and sad how the Indians were living in poverty on their reservations inside an excessively rich country, etc.
After this I talked with the two guys who work there, or maybe even own the place. Akim and Derek are their names, and they were fascinated by the U.S., my experiences in France, etc. Mind you this whole evening was conducted in French, and I got about 90% of what was going on. Derek and Akim made me feel really welcome there, and I know now that I will go back as often as I can for their events, and maybe even to just read and write in their literary café.
Looking over what I have just written, it seems like a pretty normal day. I think, though, I’ve had a number of epiphanies. The first is that I can actually be understood and carry on conversation in French. The second is that instead of going to movies in English with people I already know and see all of the time, I ventured outside of my comfort zone and made a couple of friends. This is something I plan to do more often. Jon talked earlier in the evening about meeting French women, and I wanted to say that it’s possible but it takes both time and fortitude of character. I haven’t been taking the opportunities presented to me to meet people. I usually keep my mouth shut for fear of making an ass out of myself, but tonight I didn’t. I made my mistakes and I live by that. My day was brightened by Akim, Derek, Danny and all of the people at the talk that took an interest in me because of my country of origin. As a side note, the amount of Arab-French people that I’ve met and talked with is about even with the number of actual French people I know. The difference? All of the Arabs are in the service industry (save Samah, of course), which, in all honesty, I have more empathy for than the French teachers, since I just left two jobs in the same field.