Ah, the French... Feed

Living in a foreign country...

After you live abroad for a while you start to realize it really isn't that big of a deal if you know every word in the foreign language you are speaking.  I remember my French teacher in high school saying to us that it isn't always important to know the all the words but to be able to explain yourself clearly (Merci, M. Brown!) . I can attest that I use this piece of advice everyday.

I headed to Go Sports today in search of a podometer.  Even in English I didn't know the word was for this thing. Why? No idea. Anyway,  I walked around with the sales guy from Go Sports explaining what I was looking for. It's a thing that counts your steps, you attach it.... blah, blah, blah....  And after searching the entire store he finally found one for me.  With a huge sigh of annoyance he handed it over and then he pursed his lips and looked at me kind sideways and asked how I could speak French so well but didn't know the word for a podometer? I just smiled. And then he added, now you know the word and you can ask for it directly without giving me dissertation on what a podometer does*. Ah, Mr. Brown... you would be so proud of me.

*please note that even if I knew the word, I'd still get the annoying sigh from the sales guy. I annoy them, they annoy me, this is French customer service at its best!

The strike affects me too.

As some of you know there is a rather large grève  going on in France right now.  Public transportation has been hit completely as the transport workers are trying to negotiate with our president, Sarkozy, not to take away their early retirement benefits. If that isn't enough, EDF et GDF (Electricity and Gas) de France have also gone on strike to support the transportation grievances.   And to top it off, the students are striking as well. In support for the transit workers and also to voice their opposition to privatizing their schools.

Since "my office" happens to be in the comfort of my home. The transportation strike hasn't really affected me much. Unlike the 2006 CPE strikes by the students that had me on the train to work for up to 4 hours a day and I would pass bombed out cars and see kids looting in the streets on my way to work. Today, I use heavily the line 14, the only completely automated line, in Paris and the buses. I usually take the 14 into the center and walk to wherever I need to go with Max in tow.

If EDF and GDF decide to start doing selective blackouts like they have threatened, maybe they will shut down power in my neighborhood. I'd light a candle and be okay, I think. It would get cold in our apt but we'd have a lot of cuddling going on and we have plenty of conserve (confit de canard, La Reveuse!) that we could crack into.

I am no longer a student. So, getting to class is not my main priority these days.  I have sentimental memories of the student strikes in 1995 and 1998 as I was a student in France during both of those periods. I remember my Fac being closed for two weeks straight in 1998. The doors barred and students blocking the way in. Everyday, my foreign friends and I would trek to school to have the French students tell us to go home because they were not going to let us in. I was worried about failing my semester that year but some how we made it through. I remember talking with my French classmates and being touched at how emotional they were about the student reforms. And thinking I've never even had to think about anything like this in my life. It really opened my eyes.

But as I type this I am home alone. My husband is staying at his mother's apartment which happens to be three RER stops from where he works on the opposite side of Paris.  To drive from our house to his office would take HOURS. Everyone is driving everywhere as there are NO TRAINS anywhere.  You can't imagine the traffic jams all over Paris.  This afternoon, I was in Chatelet-les-Halles, one of the biggest transport hubs in Paris, and it was eerie to be walking the halls ALONE. No one was there.  I know how stressful my husband job is and supporting us has brought on added stress, though he'd never admit it. To avoid hours of wasted time sardined on the trains,  I told him to go. Do what needs to be done and I will be alright.

So, here I am again eating dinner alone. Taking care of Maximilien alone and whispering my good nights to my husband on the telephone before heading to bed. The strike has come into my home, too. Some say this strike maybe as big as the strikes in 1995 which means it could last up to a month.  I find it a pity that the French have to resolve themselves to striking to be heard. Before I moved to France I had never seen so much of this. I hope that Sarko is willing to entertain serious negotiations with the workers so that life can go back to normal as soon as possible. But most importantly, I want my husband to be able to get home so he can be with us again.

Want to know a sure fire way to go into labor in France?

Go and take care of something administrative at the Social Security office.

I've been on congé maternité since February 6th.  I was supposed to receive a payment from the social security at the end of the February. Well, February ended and nothing showed up.  I didn't worry too much about it since this is France and things take a little longer to happen.  Also, living in Paris, it seems like administrative offices take a bit longer to process things.  A week ago, Julien asked if I had been paid or not by the social security. I check my bank account and still nothing.  I started to sweat a little because this meant that I would have to call them to see what was going on. I hate calling administrative offices to ask questions.  I always seem to get the one person who doesn't know what's going on, or I end up being on hold listening to elevator music at 15 centimes the minute.  I think Julien saw the fear in my eyes and said he'd do it. Whew. Later that evening he came home with a short list of documents that my dossier was missing.  And that was why no payment had been  made. Why they didn't write a letter to tell us that something was missing?  We don't know.  And Julien and I had no idea that we were supposed to send in these specific documents either.

So, I ask the question. How are you supposed to know what to do and when?  I'll have an answer for you in just a second...

I had lunch with a friend today which motivated me to go to the Social Security office and complete my dossier.  I had to present myself in person because they do not take mail ins for this kind of administrative task.  I took my number and waited. and waited. and waited. and waited.  It was hot. And I continued to wait and wait. At least I was sitting down. Finally, after about 45 minutes they call my number.  I head over to the desk with my number flashing and explain why I was there.  The woman pulls up my file and starts listing off the documents she needed.  It is a different list than the one that Julien gave me the night before.  Well, slightly... there was one attestation that wasn't on the list and a certificate that I no longer had possession of because another administrative office had taken my original and not given it back to me. and this certificate happened to be the most important thing on the list according to the lady.  Luckily, I had the attestation with me. But the certificate was another story.

Sweat started to bead on my forehead.

For 15 minutes the woman behind the desk went back and forth on why this one certificate was so important. All the while she grew more and more rude with me.  I asked her if we could call the other administrative office  and have them fax over a copy. She rolled her eyes and said, "oh we don't talk to that office directly. You have to go over there and get it and bring it back to me"  (!)

Finally, she told me she would not make my dossier because I was missing this certificate. And then she exclaimed, "Point finale!!" Incredible.  She started to type the next person in line's number to call them over to her desk when  I looked at my stomach and then looked at her square in the eyes with a bit of psycho rage and said (rather loudly) "I am going to have my baby in 5 days, you expect me to go to this office get this form and then come back here and give it to you so that you can just make a copy of it for my file?" 

I felt my stomach contract. Hard. A trickle of sweat ran down my face.

The room became very, very quiet. The woman at the desk next to us peeked over the cubicle divide.  I had the lady's full attention. I asked her, "what is on this certificate that is so important!?"  She muttered something about dates, starting dates of work and ending dates, blah, blah, blah... I quickly flipped through my file folder and pulled out another document that had exactly what she wanted. It wasn't the exact certificate she was asking for but maybe it would work? It was a document for another administrative office, the one she said that her office doesn't talk to.  I pushed it across the desk to her. She peered at it over her glasses. Pursed her lips and then called her boss.  A minute later she hung up and said, "OK, c'est bon!"

She smiled at me and started typing away at her computer.  I sat back with a big sigh.  I did it.  I've done the one thing that other foreigners talk about happening but had never happened to me.  I got someone to break the rule, just a little bit, for me! Whoa...

Five minutes later, her tone had completely changed. Where earlier she was talking to me like I was this huge annoyance. Now, she was smiling. Asking me if I was having a boy or a girl. Wishing me a happy delivery and informing me that in 14 days I would receive my payment.  She was being genuinely nice to me.


I come from a culture where you are nice to people and they are usually pretty nice back.  I would have never of raised my voice and lost my cool talking to someone like that in the US.   I called Julien and told him my triumphant story and he just said, "You see, you're understanding the French better".  I guess you have to raise your voice and lose your temper a little bit for them to take you seriously and respect you, just a little.  I wish I could have recorded myself talking to this woman, hearing myself in my head I amazed myself at how easily it came out.  Maybe I am becoming a little French...

So, I asked the question earlier how do you know what to do and when in France concerning administrative offices?  I asked this exact question to the woman before I left.  She just smiled at me and did the little French "pffffft", puffing her cheeks out and said "I don't know, you just know."

Ah, La France...

It's almost that time of the year again...

Les Soldes! 

If you were to ever travel to France for the shopping this would be the time to come.  July 5th through August 15th.  For a little history pop on over to Mrs. B's bloggie.   Be ready for it to be hot. Forget about there being AC at les grands magasins like Gallerie Lafayette or Printemps.  And be ready to be ruthless because everyone will be out with one thing on their minds: bargin shopping. I'm talking the first week you might see sales up to 40% off and near the end of les soldes there will be items marked down as much as 70% off.  I've known colleagues to take the day off for the first day of les soldes just so that they'd have the pick of the best things.  I'm not that dedicated to shopping to do that.  Every year since I've moved to Paris, I've picked out one thing that I need (or so I have convinced myself).  This year, I've got my heart set on a new wallet. Currently my wallet has too many things sticking out of the top of it because it's too short to house my over sized  French driver's license and my carte de resident. The wallet is from Brontibay.  It's pink and totally girly.  Something inside of me is saying; must. have. it. But only if it's on sale... :) I might budge on the pink. On verra...

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So, things that I will not shop for during les soldes? Bras. Bras, and Bras. I'm still very traumatized from the last time I tried to buy bras during les soldes.  The French sales women have a very uncanny touch sensory for realizing your bras size that just too weird for me.  Victoria Secret ships internationally. I'll pay for the extra shipping, thank you.

What can you have for breakfast, lunch or dinner?

Une tartine!

This is usual dinner conversation at our house. Hubby comes home from work, we discuss the days happenings and I usually ask, "What would you like for dinner, dear?"  "Une Tartine, please!" he responds. 

Quick, quick! Type in your dashboard widget to see what Tartine means in French!

Yeah, so he wants a slice of bread for dinner! A slice of bread!?

But in France, La tartine isn't just toast, my friends...  A tartine for breakfast sounds good to me. Toast? Check! Nutella? CHECK! Yummy in my tummy? Mmmmhmmm.  But my husband has taken me on a tartine adventure let me list off a few that come to mind:  tartine de saumon et créme fraiche, tartine de filet de thon au muscadé, tartine tartar, tartine au thon et whisky, tartine chorizo et basilique, tartine beurrre au sel de guerande et confiture de maman, tartine au jambon et fromage, tartine a l'ail and the list goes on and on.... your little desk widget is getting a lot of use, non? :)

Tartine au beurre de cacahuéte et bananes

A couple nights ago, I had a hankering for some peanut butter.  Good old Skippy creamy peanut butter to be exact.  Be careful buying peanut butter here because the French version has no sugar and talk about serious tongue stuck to the roof of your mouth too! Anyway, I made myself a tartine au beurre de cacahuéte et bananes. Side note: I hadn't discovered peanut butter and banana sandwiches until one late night of studying my last year in college and I happened to see one of my residents in the scholarship hall making herself a PB&B sandwich.  So, I toasted myself a few slices of Pain Polka and spread the peanut butter on the warm toast and sliced bananas.  J was looking over my shoulder unsure of what I was doing? I asked if he'd like one and he shakes his hadnsome French head and said "non, merci" in a very dismissing way.  The French are very much against the idea of peanut butter. As my husband says, they have Nutella, why do they need peanut butter, too? I took a few bites as my husbands curious look turned to I-wish-I-could-have-a-bite look.  I offered it to him and he took a large bite and smiled and muttered mouth full of PB&B, "Pas mal!" Je vois que tu comprenne bien la concept de la tartine, ma cherie"

To Bises or not to Bises?**

**To kiss or not to kiss

French Kisses

 As you know the French kiss when they greet people they know and don't know.  I'd say in the last year I can't remember the last time I shook hands with someone in France.  When I was an exchange student in Besançon in '98 I hung out with a lot of exchange students from different European countries and some Asian countries. We never did les bises.  We shook hands if we met someone new. I felt comfortable with this because this is common practice in the States.  My second stint in France in 2000 (the year I met J) I started to hang out with more and more Frenchies and still instinctively held out my hand when I met people.  I learned from J that handshaking really isn't done especially at our age. It used more when you greet older people for the first time or business contacts, colleagues, etc... Everyone our ages does les bises even good guy friends will instinctively gives kisses when they greet each other.

Tonight, we went to a apéritif dinatoîre* at our friend, Nath's apt, and comme d'hab* I was the only Anglo there.  About an hour into the conversation or so someone realized that I had used a le instead of a la and a de instead of a du (because those of us who speak French or have studied know that this just happens sometimes). The guy I was talking to came to me while I was filling my champagne glass in the kitchen to ask me in a low voice if I were French? Mais non! I responded. He just stood back on his heels and look at me. We had that oh-so-familiar exchange of where I was from and Comment ca se fait que tu parle si bien le francais et patati et patata* and he stated that he thought all Americans only shook hands and were not comfortable kissing. This is exactly what he said.  Well, of course I set him straight and said we love to kiss but it's just a question of habit that's all! We don't greet one another with kisses more often with handshakes or hugs, if we know the person well.  I love little culture exchanges like this.

J said that I used to do the cutest thing I would stick my hand out to shake and pull the person towards me slightly to do les bises. It must of been in my transitional phase from hand shaking instinctively to doing les bises naturally.


*Apéritif Dînatoire - Before dinner drinks with heavy hors-d'oeuvres that take the place of dinner, very social setting and mobility for invitees to mingle, drink et manger!

*Comme d'hab- or Comme d'habitude, meaning like usual or usually.

*Patati et Patata- could be interpreted as how we'd use blah, blah, blah or and so on.


Crash course on how to swim in a French public pool

Rule 1: No mercy! - There's no concept of swimming in lanes in this country. It's a free for all in whatever direction you like.  Today, I got kicked in the boob by this old lady and she just turned and asked if I'd move? I looked over to the Sens de la Nage or Direction to swim and this woman was obviously going the wrong way!

Rule 2: Be prepared to see old men wearing speedos. *shudder*

Rule 3: Must wear swimming cap. Ok, I can appreciate this rule because chlorine is terrible for your hair. I get a kick out of the people who don't know how to put on a swim cap and you see if just sitting on top of their head with all their hair practically hanging out. So much for the swim cap rule. I did once see a bald guy get stopped and told that he had to go and put on a swim cap before entering the pool.

Rule 4: The dressing area is unisex. This doesn't bother me so much but the little boys who were runnning up and down the dressing area popping their heads under the dressing room doors did bother me just little bit.

If anyone else has experience the French public pool, please feel free to add on to this list. :)

Where did you go on vacation?

This is a safe question to ask any French person and they will be more than happy to respond and equally happy to hear your response.  Vacation time is something taken very seriously in this country.  I am used to my 2 weeks plus stretching it to perhaps 3 weeks of vacation if I can call in a "sickie".  The French get 5 weeks.  FIVE WEEKS, People! Some companies just shut down for the month of August and force you to go on vacation. Of course, my company isn't like that being a Korean company. But still... there are French people here who are milking their vacation for all it's worth.  I must learn the way of the French vacationing.

Just today, walking to lunch I saw a couple colleagues that I don't really talk to very much but they stopped and did the obligatory bises (kisses) with me and then there was the split second of 'what-do-we-talk-about-now" when one of them piped up, "Tu pars ou en vacances?".  I explained where I was going and ended the conversation very promptly by saying that I was already on vacation in my head. Mutual laughs from both parties as they agreed they were too mentally on vacation and we parted ways. 

After speaking with another a very good friend of mine who happens to be an expat, we both agreed that this is one topic the French will never get tired of. She even has a French friend who keeps an excel document with all his friend's & colleague's vacations listed so that he knows when so-and-so is out of town and to keep track of who he's had the vacation conversation with.  I realized how handy this was after I asked another one of my colleagues yesterday (who I see rarely) where he was going on vacation and he said that the last time I saw him I had already asked him that.    So, after snickering about how the vacation excel document was a silly idea, I'm starting to think maybe it isn't that silly.

Had a run in with a fonctionnaire today...

and I lost.

Fonctionnaire: A state servant or employee; government official, civil servant; local government officer or official.  (Collins French/English dictionary)

There is something to be said for the people who can manipulate a fonctionnaire into doing what you want them to do, erm... I mean make them do what they are supposed to be doing.   I being an American am not completely convinced that a fonctionnaire does anything at all except look grumpy all the time and talk to you like you're the complete idiot and not them.

Anyway, I had to make a visit to the Caisse Primaire d'Assurance Maladie (CPAM) this morning.  This would be the equivalent of a Social Security office as far as I know. This is the first time I've had to make a visit like this before.  I arrive and there are about 40 people ahead of me. The office had been open for 22 minutes according to my watch. I was mystified as I looked down at my ticket with the number 38 on it and quickly bee-lined it to a seat that was open  in the back corner.   

I sat and waited. and waited. and waited. 1.5 hours of waiting as ONE PERSON worked the crowd.  I glanced around the room and started to see agitation grow on the faces of the people around me. I plugged my iPod in and relaxed to Mike Mills by Air. "I will not get let this situation get to me", I told myself.

Finally after nearly 2 hours of waiting they were serving number 37.

I put away my iPod and waited patiently for 38 to flash on their number screen. 


& Waited...

30 minutes later, my number rang through.

I calmly walked up to the desk I had been summoned to and began to explain my situation.  A bit of mis-communication on the part of their office and perhaps on my part but I was sure I followed their instructions to the T. But before I could go into the details of the mis-communication I was shooed away (hand flick and everything!) and told to wait for her colleague.  Told to wait AGAIN.

I slumped down into a chair facing the woman who would decide my fate. And she was on the phone talking in hushed voices. I suspect it was with her husband or child. 

I wait.

and wait.

and wait...

And finally she hangs up the phone and looks at me. And gives me a condescending hand wave to tell me to approach.

I quickly explain my situation and she looks at me like I'm speaking Korean to her.  I ask if everything was ok? And she looks at my dossier and then at me and then again at my dossier and finally says that she's can't process this without the missing forms.

Missing forms? 

"Quelle fichiers?" I ask politely. And then she drops a verbal bomb on me as she goes on and on about  how she doesn't have time to deal with this and that if I would have listen to her colleague explain this to me on the phone that I would have known what I was supposed to bring and that what they do in their office is REAL WORK and that having to explain to me face to face like this is a complete waste of her time. 

I had to sit on my hands so that I wouldn't smack that fucking smug look on her face.

I was frozen in my seat. The blood rushing to my cheeks.  I pulled my dossier together and placed it back in my bag, stood up and clicked my heels Dorthy-style and walked right out completely mortified.

They should have taught you in French class how to deal with these putain fonctionnaires but alas, they do not.

I wonder if I would have said Je vous en prie a few more times or if I would have smiled a bit less; would that have changed the outcome of todays visit?  I don' t know.  It is seriously that touch-n-go with these fonctionnaires.  I have yet to have had a good experience with a bureau de fonction publique.  But I know that it does happen

So, still after living in France for 2 years, I feel myself going throughculture shock today.  The initial sting of this today's encounter at the CPAM has pretty much worn off now.  I guess I  just have to remember that this is part of what it's like living with the French and all their idiosyncrasies.

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