Saturday, July 17, 2010

Chapter 8: Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse….

So, I have been going into work, teaching merrily away and enjoying every minute of it.  I love teaching the new students, who are so nervous.  I like to make them laugh and feel comfortable, I often do something stupid (not on purpose, it just comes naturally to me) like dropping my glasses or losing the white board pen and, I think, these foibles make the students realize that no one is perfect.  I like to teach the more advanced speakers.  They have so many interesting things to say and can tell me all about great restaurants and things to do in the area (ha ha!).  I like to play Pictionary and penalize people for chattering in French.  I like to learn more about French idioms and the tricks and traps of my own crazy language.  I like having a break from my ‘normal’ life of family and kids.  I like it, I like it, I like it!

And so, I head for the Prefecture (André with me this time) with my dossier.  I am filled with hope that this will work, that they will change my carte and my life can move on as planned.  Go to work, take care of the kids, have some extra money….

In fact, things went pretty much as expected when we got to the prefecture.  The employee (another new face) asked me in that typically cold and brusque Prefectory way: “A change in status?  Why do you want a change in status?”  When I explained it was because I wanted to work in France, she immediately looked at me with new eyes and said:  “Oh….. you have been here before many times.”  I guess I am a topic of conversation around the Prefecture water cooler or something.  Yep!  That’s me – the thorn in your side!  She left abruptly for ‘the back’ and was gone for about 10 minutes.  I am wondering if they give classes on this cold behavior in their training program.  You know, like show them sad movies like Steel Magnolias or maybe those “save the children” pictures of starving kids in Africa.  They need to watch these tear jerkers and show absolutely no emotion.  They probably do role plays where their partner is pretending to be a poor crying immigrant with a sad tale of woe.  When they feel themselves weakening they can practice the abrupt, wordless departure to ‘the back’.  Probably there is also a workbook to help them learn helpful phrases designed to intimidate – tone is as important as word choice here.  “And why do you want to work?”  “Maybe you should just go back home”  “You know, you are only supposed to be a visitor!”  “That can’t be true, Americans are all rich!”  “Who told you that?” I never said that!” etc… etc…

I know I have mentioned it before, but going to the Prefecture makes me feel physically ill.  The entire process is designed to discourage and intimidate me.  As my loyal readers know, I am never one to give up or back down easily – also, I tend to have great suspicion and often disrespect for authority.   You would think this would make this fight easy for me, maybe I would even relish it.  Frankly, that’s not true.  Even I don’t want to go to that place. It is only my determination to work and get a fair shot that keeps on driving me. I can’t imagine how some immigrant who is truly an undereducated or just plain shy person could find the strength and courage to deal with this ridiculous and unfair French system! 

Lest you think this is only me this is happening to, I have a few stories to tell.  I told my ASEP class all about this and one person said a very similar thing had happened to him.  He had a 3 month work permit that was set to expire.  He went to the prefecture to see about extending it and they told him to just bring in a new contract and they would renew (sound familiar?).  He did exactly what they asked and they refused the extension.  Of course, that’s after he already promised his employer he would work additional time.

And, less directly related to me but still in the ‘abuse to immigrants’ column, are the horror stories I hear about the prefecture all the time while at ASEP with my international counterparts.  If you are a political refugee, you have to prove why you shouldn’t be sent back to your own country.  They ask questions like: “Why did you leave your country?”  “What was so terrible there?”  You also are required to prove what value you can bring to France.  Questions here include: “Why should we let you stay here?” “What value can you bring to France?”    “What have you done to integrate into our society?”  You are also required, very quickly, to learn to speak and write French and even know things about popular culture.  One person came into class very upset after the prefecture called her in suddenly.  (They can do this, at any moment, with no warning)  Apparently, she was doing well until asked to name 5 famous French actors.  She choked and, as a consequence, she is on probation and may be sent back to where her abusive husband will likely kill her.  All that, for the want of a movie star’s name.  Frankly, I couldn’t name 5 famous French actors if my life depended on it either.  I’m just lucky it doesn’t.

I am not a political refugee.  I am a visitor.   But is this how you treat your visitors?  I guess us Americans are so rich and privileged we should have lawyers that take care of all these details for us, or maybe even slaves.   I guess, since André was slated to work for a French company, they cared a bit more about integrating him.  He was required to attend two days of integration training (blogged about here and here) where he was placed in a room with lots of other immigrants and told lots of things, including how France was actually where the first car was invented.  I was not invited to these titillating events.  I am only a visitor.  I tried to go with him for the first one and got kicked out.  He was told things like “You have the same rights as a French citizen.”  Hmm…. yeah, except for the right to vote, to drive, to have my wife work, to receive government benefits for my children….” Did they tell him how to change the status of a carte de sejour?  No.  Did they help him understand how to fill out our pharmacy reimbursement receipts?  No.   (We lost over 100 Euros in reimbursements since we didn’t know we had to keep a sticker off the boxes of medicine – apparently the receipt is not enough in this world)  Did they tell us we had to change our US driver’s license to a French one within a year of arrival or face breaking the law?  No.  How about how to navigate the French school system or culture?  No…. Was there anything useful at all?  Not really….

But, back again to my own private hell at the prefecture.  As you may recall, we went in to drop off my dossier.  The employee returned from ‘the back’, took the rest of my papers and told me I’d hear from them by mail.  How long it would take was never mentioned by her, and I didn’t ask.  This was since, we were told through the grapevine, that pisses them off and makes the process even slower.  Nice, right?  Once again, my fate is in the hands of the prefecture – and who knows how slowly the wheels of justice will grind this time.  I hate waiting….

When I got home, there was a ring at the doorbell.  It was, supposedly, my French driver’s license (Hooray!).  I opened up the packet and, lo and behold, my US license fell into my lap.  Yep, you’ve guessed it.  They have rejected my application to get a French license because I didn’t do it within one year of arrival in the country.  Of course, I still have the temporary license they gave me which is valid for the next two months and my valid international drivers license, but is that enough?  We fear that this means I am actually will be unable to drive after the temporary license runs out (in two months) and, frankly, life here is not worth living without Mr. Liberty.  The fact I might have been driving illegally at the beginning of the year is moot – I didn’t know I was driving illegally back then.

Well, you might think, just go get a new license!  Ha, ha!  This is no piece of cake in France.  You have to take driving lessons (like 20) and also a course and it takes months – and it is all in French and very difficult and it costs about 1000 Euros.  Needless to say, we don’t have a spare 1000 Euros hanging around, even if I had the time to take these courses or the desire to do so.

Without Mr. Liberty I can’t work, I can’t take the kids to therapy, GRS or theatre, I can’t go shopping easily, I can’t take my French language lessons at ASEP.  Those are just daily realities.  And how about the fact that we plan on many more little adventures, practically every weekend between now and… hmmmmm…. FOREVER!!!!  How can I go to Dole or Dijon, the southern coast of France and whatever else might come our way?  The life I lead now is centered around a car.  HELP!!!!

For the first time, I am feeling what I think is despair.  If I can’t drive and I can’t work – how can I continue to live here????  I realize I did just that the first 9 months or so – but those were what I think of as ‘the dark times’.    Now I am stepping into the light, trying to fly.  If only the system here would stop trying to clip my wings….  I just feel so unwelcome!!! Grr…..

Bellyaching and Blathering and Blundering onward in Besancon but who knows for how much longer….. next update when I learn more about either the license or my carte… I’m sure the saga will continue – whether I like it or not!

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