Of course, when I say fabulous, I mean long, drawn out and at times, miserable. This day long seminar is organised by the Minister of Employment and the Department of Immigrations and brought me out of my warm bed and out into the bitter cold morning, wandering around the streets of Colombes, trying to find the meeting place. Since our address isn't in Paris proper (yet a 5 minute train ride into town), all my paperwork goes into the Hauts-de-Seine Prefecture instead of Paris. Remembering the fun that was getting my titre de sejour in Paris when I was here as a student, I thought working with another prefecture would be easier. Less people! Maybe even a tolerable staff! The only thing that is different is that now when I have to wait in line at the Prefecture, I'm the only woman who's not wearing a veil. My dad suggested I go wait in line wearing a big sombrero, just to mix it up a bit and show my culture. I didn't go for it.
The beginning of our Journée Civique was directed by a small, wiry woman who needed hair gel. She began with a quick, roundtable introduction where we said where we come from. It went like this:
Before going into her day long lecture on how to live in France, the director said that despite the cold, we would have to open the windows every now and then otherwise everyone will fall asleep and she would be the first. Very motivating introduction.
Throughout the day, she touched on some points that I agreed with (it is important to know the history of your host country, when you live in a new country it is you that conforms to the standards not the other way around, etc.). But there was the occassional moment where her mind shifted from logical discussion to soliloquies from left field.
"When they Bastille was stormed, do you think there were six or seven prisoners still locked inside?...Interesting number, six... you turn it over and it becomes...nine...""Now, a juge de proximité handles small cases up to 1,500€, cases such as a dog who bothers your neighbors. (Pauses for dramatic effect) And when the dog goes mad... we put him down...(Another pause) Anyway, the juge de proximité..."
This talk was already not your usual professional presentation, yet things got worse when she talked about the internship she had done in Louisiana. Oh, America... it seemed to have quite an effect on her. This must be why she talked about the States almost as much as she talked about France. And every reference to America was accompanied by a wave of the hand in my direction.
"The cost of health insurance is incredibly high in the US!"
All 20 heads in the room turn in my direction.
I have gone from immigrant student of the French administration to unwilling symbol of the American system.
At lunch time, I chatted with Baba from Mauritania, who seemed surprised that an American had to go through the same formalities that he did. I admit that, while unfair, I know some things are easier. I left France for California in September when I was still waiting for my carte de sejour (which I technically didn't have the right to do). The comatose customs guy at Charles de Gaulle barely looked at my passport when I came back to France. I think I could have replaced my photo with a portrait of me drawn by my three-year-old niece and he would have let me pass. Baba said that it wasn't the same story for someone he knew who had tried to visit back home.
Then, we got coffee (two each) and regrouped back in the room for the last few hours of dramatic pauses and references to America. Finally, at the end of the day, we were given the necessary certificates of participation and a website that lists all the information we had spent the day going over. As in, the website that I could have read instead of getting up and hitting the streets in the November cold. For some reason, I am not surprised.