5 Lessons Learned from Perseverance at the Prefecture

I’ve been MIA, I know. But before I delve into the roller coaster of emotions/events of the past few months (BIG changes on the horizon), I figured I start with something concrete- life lessons I’ve learned from the prefecture.

‘What the heck is a prefecture?!’, some of you might ask. To which I would respond that it is the hellmouth, the keeper of your future, a cirque du soleilesque mental challenge of your emotional strength, or as some people like to call it ‘the administrative building for visas and other important documents’. And for those of you who know what it is, I’m sorry. Let’s take a minute to hold hands, sigh, and let go of what we cannot control. Life lesson number one.

photo (18)

For those who need a visual

Which brings me to: 

Five lessons learned from prefecture pain and perseverance:

#1- Learn when to let go of things you cannot control. I’ve learned this the hard way, but when dealing with administration, it’s important to check your desire for controlfreakyness at the door. Once you step through those big wooden frames, you are a mere puppet at the mercy of French hands. Building a bubbling rage over a desire for the line to be shorter, the weather to be less miserable, the French people to be less rude, or the process to be less inefficient, won’t change a thing. It only makes the time painfully slow and your mood increasingly less pleasant. Feel that rage for a moment if you need to, and then breathe it out. The line will move, and you will get to your destination.

#2- Expect the unexpected. Just because you have all the right documents, or you waited the allotted six weeks (or months), does not mean that you will leave with a smile of success. In order to release, or at least aid, that desire for control, you must expect the unexpected. Prepare for a multitude of possibilities so that your emotional armor is strongly in tact when you leave. Don’t assume anything. Because trust me, no one wants to see a frustrated sobbing mess crumpled in defeat just outside the gates. It’s awkward. On the flip side, when you do have that rare moment of prefecture success, it tastes all the more sweet…especially when you weren’t expecting it.

#3- Kindness Kills. Ok, so this is a strange expression, but it never hurts to appeal to a person’s humanity. Don’t over do it- especially with the French. But a simple smile, a polite ‘how are you’, or a preemptive merci can work wonders. This is not to say that you should avoid being firm when needed, but rather don’t come in with guns ablazing and silent rage bubbling. After all, these are the gatekeepers you’re dealing with. Make eye contact, be confident, but most importantly be kind.

#4- Be creative, don’t despair. If things don’t go your way, don’t crumple in awkward panicked defeat. Allowing your first thoughts to be your worst thoughts is not only unproductive, it’s unrealistic. There are always options. Maybe let a few frustrated tears fall if that’s what you need, but then get back to the drawing board! Did you ask all the right questions? What would happen if you went again? What would happen if you talked to someone new? 9 times out of 10, plan B has had a weird way of working out.

#5- If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again…and with different people. Piggybacking off of the whole being creative thing, is the need for some good ole fashion perseverance. Keep trying. As my grandma loves to say, “Never surrender! Never give up!” (yes, I know that she mixes the order- it just adds to the delightful quirkiness of her shouting it).

My French coworker once said to me, “French administration is a labyrinth. You can get in, but you can’t find a way out.” While it is indeed a mental maze and at times you might find yourself in a pit of despair, a release of control, a creative outlook, a little kindness, and a lot of persistence are excellent tools for navigating that labyrinth.

…and if all else fails, grab a tea or coffee at the nearest cafe with a supportive loved one and prepare for round 2…or 20.

Advertisements

The Waiting Game

I wrote this a while ago, and while I’m finally back in France (and travel stories will ensue), I wanted to share.  

The thought of entering that waiting room terrified me. Because then it was real. Then I actually had to face the fact that my grandma was undergoing intense surgery. That the tearful laughter we shared the night before in the hotel lobby, might just be the last time we laughed together.

That was a possibility that no part of me was willing to face.

I was terrified that the waiting room would be sterile, dark and bleak. That it would feel oppressive and daunting. And that the hard shell of denial that I had so diligently worn for the past month, would crack in seconds. But I was surprised to enter an area that was spacious and open, filled with sunlight, and the buzz of cheery conversation.

Feeling mildly relieved, my family settled in with our breakfast tacos and nervous chatter about the weather and how long we thought we’d be in the waiting room. Would it really be over in 8 hours? Could it possibly be shorter, with good news that would end this unsettling wait? Continue reading

Adventures of Language Learning

I’ve said this before, but learning a language is difficult. So much so, that the other night I started having an existential crisis about conversation. Or dear god!- maybe I’m beginning the transition into Frenchdom.

language-barrier

thanks ilmkidunya.com for the visual representation of my emotions

As I sat there, lost in translation (aka French slang), my mind drifted from “what are they talking about?” to “why do we even talk, postulate, argue, discuss? What’s the point of it all?” I guess things can get a little grim when your confusion turns to silence and your silence turns to the wanderings of your own mind…

Needless to say, that was a bit of a wake up call reminder- learning a language is hard and I need to saddle up. Apparently for me, it’s easier said than done. Learning a language is not like riding a bicycle. The wheels of language knowledge don’t magically set in motion when you summon them. Unfortunately if you don’t use it, you start to lose it. I’ve plateaued with French before and apparently I’m doing it again. Continue reading

Return to Avignon

Image

As soon as I stepped off the train in Avignon, a surge of flashbacks flooded my brain. Like the weirdest hybrid of sheep-meets-cricket noises I heard in the night. Or getting lost in a hellish loop of a drive through the vortex trapping maze of Orange. Or the time my friends and I almost slept on the streets, got murdered, and ultimately stayed up til three in the morning watching gay porn. Ok. So that might be a tad over-exaggerated. Except for that last part. That totally happened.

My second time in Avignon went much more smoothly than the first. I stayed in a lovely hostel (Pop Hostel) right in the center of town. I had time to enjoy the town, see its sights and feel summer. It’s great to feel summer- eating homemade passionfruit peach ice cream bars, earning more freckles, sitting in a park and soaking up the sun, spying on potential flashmobbers, unfolding people’s secrets (literally) and having an adult playdate- where you talk, picnic and day drink.

But let me talk about the first time because there’s a lesson here.

I first set foot in Avignon four years ago, as my friends and I stepped off the TGV and into the warm summer night filled with…bizarre guttural noises. Those sounds signaled the start of a strange evening. As we tried to get our bearings out of the labyrinth that was the TGV station (which we later learned was on the outskirts of Avignon), the guttural noises got louder and more nasal. Crickets? No. Too loud. Birds? No. Too bizarre. Suddenly the strange noises surrounded us and as we peered into the night, we noticed what looked to be the faint glimmer of water. As I cautiously creeped closer to the waters edge, a small figure moved. And another. Frogs! Frogs with the weirdest assed mating calls I had ever heard.

Happy to have identified the bizarre sounds, and know that potential murder #1 was out of the way, we trekked on into the night with only a print out of directions to our “close” hotel. Long story short- our hotel was not close. We got lost. We wandered through back alleys and parking lots. And we wondered how we could possible avoid potential murder #2 until we finally made it to our sketchy hotel (in the middle of fucking nowhere I might add)…and discovered we were locked out. Another long story short- several phone calls, some lock picking and gate jumping attempts, lots of exhaustion, despair and a resignation to sleep on the streets later, we miraculously managed to get a hold of some one and get in….to our shoebox of a room. Seriously. If you opened the bathroom door, you hit the bed. Correction- if you cracked open the door, you hit the bed.

Too exhausted and traumatized from having endured a long day that ended with surviving three potential murders, we decided to stay in our shoebox, watch some t.v. and venture out when we could see the light of day. We flipped through the 10 channels on our tiny télé, among them there was that lion movie with that 6th sense kid (which was even more annoying dubbed), some news, and…gay porn. At first we watched it out of awe that such a thing could exist within 10 channels, and then changed the channel out of awkward awareness that others were in the room.

But then it became a thing of it’s own, as we watched on in fascination of what kind of french soap opera gay porn drama plot line was unfolding before our eyes. And then all of the sudden it was three in the morning and we all looked at eachother with a “holy shit did we really just stay up until three in the morning watching gay porn even though it started off as a joke and then turned into a thing of its own, and now we have to get up early because we can’t justify sleeping in and missing our one day in Avignon because we actually stayed up until three in the morning watching gay porn” look. Or something like that.

Except we did sleep in. And we barely saw Avignon.

Moral of the story- if it’s an option, and especially if you’re visiting a small or old touristy town, stay in the center. Unless you wanna watch gay porn in a shoe box.

But Avignon really is beautiful. I’m happy I got a second chance to see it. It’s definitely worth a visit!

Off to Aix

*Disclaimer- first time posting with phone so excuse typos.*

Today I’m off to Aix for what I described on facebook as “birthdays,beaches, burritos, and much more!” Except for today the SNCF,or the french train system, got in the way.

After waking up early, taking two trams and still arriving with ample time, I figured I was set. I could cozy up with a book and wait for my voie to show up. But the French system never quite works that way.

Five minutes before departure with still no voie information, I realized something was wrong. Long story short- because the voie never appeared, I missed the train, had to pay a fee for new tickets, and take the only option left of catching a bus that arrived 4 hours later and took three times as long as the original train. Merde.

In situations like this, there is always a choice. I could bitch and moan and furrow my brow in anger or I could let go and embrace my predicament.

My first response- Fuck. THAT.  I’m pissed off. Screw waiting in this weirdly cold weather, screw these rude Frenchies all up in my space, and screw you stomach! As I looked at my tickets and the lack of time for lunch between trains, on cue, my stomach started growling as if to say “Oh whats that? I’m not gonna get lunch? Then I’m gonna be hungry now!! At 10 in the morning by the way. Sincerely, fuck you.”

After I sent venting texts and my body tightened in anger and my head filled with a slew of internal cussing, I stopped myself. I needed to take the path of least resistance and calm down. It was difficult to let go of the principle of the matter- what a waste of sleep, of time, of money! But I reasoned with myself and realized that being angry wasn’t going to replenish those things and it wasn’t going to transport me to Aix any faster.

I’ve learned this lesson before and I guess I’m gonna keep learning it- Perspective is essential.

So I don’t have my high speed train and I lost some time, but a bus to Aix is still a bus to the South of France and friends. And that’s totally worth it.

il_570xN.91061364

Is this really happening??

The Visa. This has been the bane of my existence and a source of stress for far too long. After many trials, much waiting and feats of patience and perseverance, I finally got a foot in the door! If all goes according to plan, I will have a long stay visa in a month! The papers have been accepted!

But let me tell you about the wonderful world of French bureaucracy; it is long, it is difficult, it is inconsistent, it doesn’t care about being polite, and it is designed to turn you away at any given opportunity. The entire process felt like training for a military course- be the fastest- get there first! Be the most cunning- cover your ass with legal documents. Be stubborn and strong- endure the painfully numbing cold and hold your place in line. Use connections to get to the top, use determination to get back up when they push you down, be resilient, be persistent. And if you’re especially lucky- have a kick ass French boyfriend.

I got my first taste of the inconsistency that is French bureaucracy when I first arrived in France. I was about half way through the TAPIF program before I even officially received my health insurance. But it wasn’t until I noticed that my working visa expired 10 days before my work contract, that I became aware of the bitter reality of bureaucracy. Though a pain in the ass to deal with the Boston consulate’s mistake, I figured, “Good. I can extend this visa and bide more time time for the next visa. Easy peasy.” Except it wasn’t. And I never say easy peasy. Even with the little knowledge I had about the system, I knew one thing- come prepared with a native speaker. So with ma responsable at my side I headed to the Montbeliard préfecture- confident and naïve. They took one look at my visa and the fact that it was only a 10 day gap (which in their eyes was comically small), pushed my passport back though the window with a reply, “You vill juste ave to fenesh avant.”

To make a long story short and provide a concise overview of the French administrative system, it went a little something like this: get reject by préfecture. Contact head of program. Use information to contact American Consulate in Strasburg. Get sent to French Consulate in Boston, where I am told to contact the very préfecture who originallyrejected me. Contact head of program again- told there is nothing they can do. Bienvenue en France.

So instead of easy peasy, I now had a fire under my ass with time ticking away. I was left  not with an extension, but a deadline- get pacsed, and get a visa FAST. All things considered PACSing went relatively well. But the success was temporarily blinding as I thought it would be easy enough to wake up early and stand in line outside all just to ask for papers to begin the visa process. Silly Anna. That was a test and you failed. Antoine and I left the Grenoble préfecture confused and angry. Why did they give us the wrong papers? Why didn’t they just listen to us?? Simple- because they don’t have to.

But this time we came prepared. Antoine returned with legal paperwork in hand and obtained the proper documents. We then spent the next week and a lonngggg night meticulously preparing the folder with originals and copies and “just in case” papers. We showed up before it opened in the bitter cold, ready for round 2. We waited and watched as people used babies to cut lines (But really what are you gonna do? Create a scene? Make the baby wait in the cold like the rest of us?) until finally, we made it to the window. We gleefully opened our folder and presented it to this woman of fate. “Do you have the originals and copies?” “Yes, yes we do!” This was it, the moment of truth! “Ok. Here’s your ticket.” “Our whaa?”

So yes, we waited in line for the préfecture to open, only to freeze and wait in another line to get a ticket, only to wait in yet another line. I clutched my ticket- C407 and stared at the monitor. It was gonna be a while. It was fascinating to watch as people from all over filtered in and a variety of languages filled the space. We all shared in a communal desire, feeling both frustrated and nervous as our eyes darted back and fourth from the screen.

I don’t know if it was my imagination, but as time drew closer the volume and excitement of the room seemed to increase…as did my heart rate. It felt like back when I did theatre in highschool- nerves and excitement welling into nausea right before the opening show. How would this performance be received?

Except this wasn’t a show. This was real life. And fortunately sometimes real life can go your way. Antoine and I made it to the window, presented our folder, showed the legal document to prevent being turned away and actually left with success! True, had we not been extra prepared, we might have been rejected (blog post with required documents to come). But we learned from our past experience and knew that we had a small window of all or nothing.

So for anyone ever battling the hell that is the visa process, know that it is one rife with landmines and designed to trap or scare you, but with perseverance, the right documents, and amazingly helpful people, it can be done.

Antoine and I left the prefecture in shock. I couldn’t help but think, “Is this really happening? Did we actually do it?!” We exited the building and crossed the street for coffees at a cafe. As we sat down, I looked at my war buddy and with a sigh of relief, we smiled. It was over.

…at least for now

Learning a Language is Hard

P1020425

I might be stating the obvious here, but I haven’t really talked about the cold, hard, truth that learning a new language (especially as you get older) is quite frankly hard. Once you have a general understanding of the language it gets increasingly more complicated. Direct translation no longer works. Slang and regional speak rearrange everything you learn (Ex: Je ne sais pas = Chai pa). Studying and learning in the classroom environment always worked fairly well for me. But as I have repeatedly discovered during my time here, comprehension and speaking (ESPECIALLY speaking) are a whole different ball game.

At first it was exciting- like a game or puzzle. “Oh! I understand that! That word plus that word equals that sentence! I know this fits here! Yay me! I understand!” My entrance into France was a quick swim or drown scenario as I was plunged into paperwork, adult tasks and navigating a new area, and as a result my French rapidly increased.

But then it plateaued. True, I was speaking less French on a daily basis as I teach English classes, have friends who all speak English and don’t have many (or really any) opportunities in Montbeliard to meet French people my age. But I also reached a level where learning was becoming increasingly more difficult. I no longer had the excuse of speaking like a two year old, I had upgraded to elementary school…possibly even middle school and it felt difficult. I had to push myself to advance, which I rebelled against by becoming slightly lazy. I entered a plateau funk where I felt lazy and disheartened- frustrated at my lack of improvement but stubbornly resistant to making difficult efforts to change…until New Years rolled around. I used resolutions as a springboard to kick my language learning into gear. I bought a French magazine, listened to the top French songs (which actually wasn’t too helpful as the vast majority of them are American), reviewed French lessons online, revised my vocabulary notebook, watched movies in French with the other assistants and forced Diego (he’s a French professor in Mexico) to give me lessons. And it helped. I was amazed at my ability to watch a movie in French with French subtitles and understand.

But unfortunately life’s not quite like the movies- there are no subtitles, no previous plot to provide context and accents aren’t always articulated. I was confronted with this as I visited Antoine for February vacation where I was fully immersed in listening and speaking to French. And while ultimately it was amazing for learning and the best thing for my improvement, I’ll be honest- it freaked my shit out. I realized that my time in Montbeliard has been cushioned. I speak French with my professors and the other assistants, but I can always fall back on English. And unfortunately, most of the time, I do.

Similar to the start of my time in France, I treated the opportunities for conversation with Antoine’s friends like a game. But this time the game had changed. I was with people my age, people speaking fast and in slang. As I stood outside of a bar with Antoine and his friends, I got lost in a sea of French. The surrounding French seeped into my ears and I actively had to try hard to regain focus on the conversation at hand. “Ok. What are they talkin- Singapore! I know that word. Easy. Yay! I understand! But wait. Why are they talking about Singapore? What they hell are they saying about Singapore? They’re not even talking about Singapore anymore, are they?!” Luckily I had Antoine there to help with translations and his friends were nice enough to slow down or say a few words in English. But needless to say, it was difficult.

When I met Antoine’s family, it was all French all the time. I was pleased to comprehend the lengthy family discussions but apparently I spent too much time on self congratulation to speak. As they shared stories on childhood memories, I not only ignited with internal excitement on my comprehension, but also in the formulation of my own story! At last! I could partake in my own conversation! I crafted the beginning of my memory, adding details and humorous remarks to this story that I would engage them in. But as I prepared to regale them with my tale, the French filtered back in and I realized that the time for that tale had long since passed. And here I was, lost in translation again. Dommage.

I can only imagine how immigrants to a new country felt or feel. Immersing yourself in a new language is challenging and alienating at times. To not have your voice, to feel lost and tongue tied and unable to express things that were once so simple can be disheartening. I at least have had cushions, a translating boyfriend and a prior basis of the language. 

I have realized that I am not the most patient of people. I don’t like not getting things. I don’t like being unable to communicate. And I don’t like feeling lost or stupid. But who does? These are the things that test us, that help us evolve. Learning something completely new and foreign is not easy. But growing is so rewarding.

So here’s a little learning language advice:

1. Start with the essential basics. Learn what can get you by- hello, goodbye, excuse me, I don’t understand, and food.

2. Immerse yourself as much as possible- listen to music, read, watch movies, write

3. SPEAK. To yourself if you have to, but practice speaking. Practice is the only was this will happen

4. Have patience. Be kind to yourself. Celebrate the growth and accomplishments rather than the roadblocks. As the French keep telling me “Ca viendra”. It will come.

Je suis pacsée

Finally! (Isn’t their book cute?)

Enfin! The day has arrived- Antoine and I are officially PACSed!! Most of you understand what a long and grueling process this has been, but for those of you who are like “PACsing?! What the eff?” I’ll elaborate…

First let me start with- I’m trying to stay in France for another year. It’s a dream of mine to become fluent in the language, I’m enjoying my time here too much, oh and then there’s the whole French boyfriend thing…. all are among the many reasons why come April I will not be ready to leave. And hopefully I won’t have to. Which leads me to PACsing…

The PACS began as a way for same sex couples to have similar benefits to married couples, but soon became appealing for heterosexual couples as a way to be legally recognized by the government as a couple, without all of the legal seriousness and complication that comes with marriage. Or in my case, PACS = Better chance of getting a Visa.

However, this is not an easy route. France makes it very difficult for Americans to obtain a long stay visa. In their eyes, they have enough EU immigrants to worry about and don’t want Americans added to their list of concerns. Student visas are probably the easiest to obtain, but unfortunately my French wasn’t quite up to par/I’m not quite ready to be a student again. Which led me to PACSing. Fortunately I have a French boyfriend who helped me immensely through this process. He read the french paperwork, talked to people in the field, researched and downloaded necessary documents and took time out of work to talk one on one at the Grenoble tribunal about exactly what was needed. I cannot stress this enough- whenever possible, go directly to the source. Talking to people is so much easier (and better for your sanity) than sorting through the insane amount of information on the internet. Unfortunately, French bureaucracy is inconsistent and really depends on who you talk to and how they’re feeling that day (something particularly infuriating to an efficiency obsessed American).

What we ultimately needed:

PACS Contract– easiest part, download from the site, fill in your information, and print

Attestation Conjointe- download and print from the site, one that swears that we are not related (why they need to know that??), and one that establishes a common residence

Copies of ID (Passports for Americans)

Copies of Birth Certificates- I needed a birth certificate less than 6 months old (some tribunals will tell you 3), a translation, and I threw in the apostille for good measure

And then there’s the stuff you need as a foreigner:

Certificat de non-PACS/non-engagement- This had to be sent to Paris to prove that I am not PACSed already. (note: only valid for one month)

-And finally the Certificate de coutume and certificate de célibat – to prove that I am of age and not married in the States.

Oh obtaining these documents was fun.

First I had to call the American consulate in Lyon to schedule an appointment. Then I had to take 2 trams, a train (from Grenoble), and 2 metros to arrive at an ambiguous building. Of course the consulate was not well marked and I had to follow a man into the building and guess a floor at random to start with. (Note: French administrative buildings are often not clearly marked. Always have address in hand. If in doubt, check address and ring bell. Don’t be afraid to ask for help). After asking the wrong office where to find the consulate, I traveled up a flight of stairs to find the tiniest sign in the corner of the big wooden door. You have to really want to find the consulate. I buzzed in, waited for roughly 8 locks to be opened, and gave my name through the crack in the door. I gave my name, my passport, and my name again before being allowed in the first chamber. There, I had to empty my purse of my phone, camera, usb, key chain, and umbrella. I had to prove that my water was not poison by sipping it, and then after each bag was individually x-rayed and checked, I was x-rayed and checked… Finally I was allowed entrance through the next set of doors, where I was greeted by a life size cut out of Obama that nearly scared me half to death. The actual paperwork process was easy- filling out forms in French and painfully forking over $100 for two documents with official American consulate stamps. Et voila! The paperwork process is fini!

Antoine and I gathered our folder together last night, woke up early this morning (and amazingly enough avoided the long line), and got PACSed. We had every intention of making an appointment, but the woman informed us that she could do it at that moment, so we happily handed over the folder. The actual PACSing process was quite painless (and more low key than expected). No judge, no separate room, no bizarre declarations, witnesses, or proof of French abilities- just a friendly and quite smiley older French woman who was more than happy to legally unite us.

Step 1 of a very longgg process- Complete! Now onto the ultimate task- obtaining the visa.

But for now, I have one more week of vacation, some celebrating and some snowboarding to take care of!