On being broke and unemployed in France

When my TAPIF program ended 8 months ago, I looked ahead at my unemployment with wide eyes. I had a bit of savings left, a whole summer in Europe, and the world as my oyster.

…Until that oyster turned on me. A year after submitting my visa paperwork, and 8 months of waiting for the prefecture to grant me the right to work, and I could no longer deny it- Je suis a sec. I’m dry, or as we say in the States, I’m broke.

True, at times, being unemployed had its perks. I had the freedom, and flexibility (and privilege), to paint, to travel, to create my own schedule, to launch my website, take care of random tasks, wander the streets of Grenoble, and catch up on far too many American series. I was lucky to have a savings to fall back on. I lived like retirees- sitting in the park in the middle of the day; enjoying the sun as it warmed my skin, and smiling at the elderly women in their fancy coats. (I sound like an old bachelor). I verged ever so slightly on crazy catladydom as I snuggled up with my soft Sasquatch, and took far too many cat pictures. I read more. I cooked more. I did some yoga and generally failed at inner peace. But I also lived the life of a retiree- at 25– and there was something unsettling about that.

As the cold of winter limited my free/outdoor options, and my bank account increasingly dwindled in size, unemployment did not feel so enjoyable. Walking around the streets with dry pockets was frustrating. No, I can’t go out for a tea with friends. Sorry, I can’t afford to buy vegetables this week. Homemade birthday present it is (fortunately I’m good at those). I coveted coins like a greedy gollum creature, and looked at everything as if it had a big price tag stuck to it. I became bound to the home and referred to as the ‘cave creature’.

But worse, I felt disconnect and displaced in France. What was my purpose here? Have you ever noticed how one of the first things people ask you is, “What do you DO?” Trying to explain that I’m waiting for my visa seemed invalidating. “But what do you do??” Fortunately I got two tutoring gigs, and some art business cards to calm the skeptical looks. Legitimacy and self-worth improvement, check. I felt trapped by lack of knowledge or control- can I commit to a plan in a month or will I have a visa by then? What kind of job will I be able to get as the school year reaches its midway mark? Will they even give me a working visa? What happens if they don’t?? I couldn’t escape the knowledge that if I was in the states, I’d be proactive. I could go out, submit resumes, be successful in interviews (if not solely based on the fact that we were speaking the same language), and take charge of my life. But this waiting, this not knowing, and this feeling of my fate belonging to a disorganized, inconsistent, and slow administration was starting to feel unbearable. That and the whole having no more money and turning into an antisocial cave creature thing.

Last Thursday marked the make or break point. As I waited in yet another long line, nerves knotted in my stomach, I went over my non-working visa options: Under the table waitressing? Nannying? Prostitution? You know I’ve hit bottom when I start considering prostitution. But then, as if the Prefecture gods heard my prayers, at the height of my desperation, French administration actually came through!

As I clutched my ticket and intently watched the woman pull out my file- my life- I couldn’t believe what she actually slid back through that sliver of window space. It was my VISA!! Not just any visa, but a carte de sejour- a right to work!! I could barely hold back tears of happiness, of utter relief as we exited the prefecture, so instead I ran circles around Antoine singing the joyous ‘I have a visa!’ song. I grasped the card firmly in my hands and stared at its pink and gold shininess. Even my scary black and white mugshot looked fantastic printed amid the crisp french words. I don’t know if I have ever seen such a beautiful piece of identification. I don’t know if I ever will again.

And while I may still currently be broke, I have hope. I have a newly instilled sense of purpose, of prospect, of perspective.

Living in another country comes with its complications. Day-to-day life  and simple tasks are that much harder when you don’t know the language or customs. And navigating the labyrinth that is the French administration is enough to make anyone question their sanity or self-worth (true story- while waiting for my visa, people broke out into a fight over line cutting). But out of the struggles comes those wonderful moments of success. And because you struggled and you suffered, the celebration of that success is all the more delicious. And out of those efforts you gain clarity; you realize that hanging with snappy old ladies and cats can wait, and you won’t ever again let your bank account get so low in a foreign country that you consider prostitution.

It’s good to have hope.

Happy Thursday! Here’s the happy song I couldn’t get out of my head on the glorious visa day!

8 thoughts on “On being broke and unemployed in France

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