france: there’s a form for that

Unauthorized Burgundian Lounging

Burgundian Lounging: Better Get a Permit

Living in France requires an occasionally stunning amount of paperwork, with untold registrations, validations, and certifications, all signed, countersigned, and filed in triplicate with the proper authorities, of which there are many. No matter what it is that you want to do — skydive, tiger fight, eat breakfast — the likelihood is that you’re going to need to fill out a form or two before you can do it. You might have to do it in someone’s presence. You might have to receive a registered letter at your purported address. You might even need to get screened for tuberculosis or sing a credible version of la Marseillaise (true on the former; not so much on the latter…yet).

We were hipped to this early and often during our stay here, starting with our first abortive attempts to open a checking account. In the US, opening a bank account requires little more than ten bucks and a pulse. You’re in and out with a checkbook, 30-year mortgage, and home equity line in under 20 minutes, possibly with a free toaster for your troubles. Not so much in France. Instead, you start with polite letters of introduction indicating your interest, after which you are granted an audience some several weeks in the future. This is despite the fact that the relevant bank official’s calendar is completely open that afternoon and every afternoon between then and the proposed appointment two weeks hence. That’s just how it’s done – it wouldn’t be proper to rush into these things. No, no…it’s far better to have a certain seductive quality to your bank account opening, unfolding tantalizingly over time. Watching your debts accumulate and struggling with your inability to acquire electricity, power, and cell phone service without a checking account only adds to the sweet suffering.

Dancing Without a License

Dancing In Public: Not Without a License

When the day of the appointment finally arrives, there are many pleasantries and bon mots exchanged, with small gifts for your children and discussions of vacation plans future and past. Then, you limber up your wrists with some light calisthenics and start signing stuff. Lots of stuff. Stuff you didn’t even know existed, with promises and waivers and sheafs and reams of paper. You get insurance you didn’t you know you needed…at least two kinds. You actually do need it, you’ll find out, when it comes time to enroll the kids in school. Our initial appointment took two hours and a box of Bic’s best.

Once you finally wrap up the initial appointment, you’re given to understand that a registered letter will be sent to your address. There’s no telling when it might come exactly…sometime in the next 10 days or so. Your account will not be valid until such time as that registered letter reaches you, is signed by you, and makes its way back to the bank. If you miss the registered letter, the whole cycle starts anew, except with much disappointed tongue-clucking from your bank representative and an admonition that one should always be at the house to receive the registered letter and more discussion of vacation plans and in-person bank visits. I’ve spent more time in bank offices during this year in France than I have in the previous 10 in the USA. I feel like I should have a little parting gift for my bank representative, Madame Revelen, who, in all seriousness, is a charming soul, always quick to comment on our improving French language skills during our many visits over the months. Did I mention that she went to Senegal for vacation this year? It’s true. Had a great time, too. And, yes, her husband’s health is improving…it’s kind of you to ask.

We went through this fun little registered-letter rigamaboogie two times before the hotel manager at the residence hotel where we were staying just up and signed the thing for us (it has to be done in the postman’s presence) with an illegible symbol of some sort. That was enough to get us back on Madame Revelen’s calendar for the long-awaited closing, the day when the registered letter would attest to our physical presence-hood and enable us to get an ATM card, a checkbook, and a standing monthly lunch appointment with Madame Revelen herself.

Unapproved Dessert Sharing

Sharing Desserts: Requires Form

Having a checking account is not a trivial thing in France. As I alluded to earlier, you cannot really live here without one – the fondness for all things paper creates a steady stream of check writing. For example, Quinn was in a fencing program this year. Rather than pay for the whole thing up front, the standard practice was to write five checks and give them all to them at the start of the program. Then, they’d cash them as the months went on, most likely after calling Madame Revelen to confirm that we were who we said we were and not a family of dastardly fencing-program thieves, bent on cheating the sabermaster. We did the same for Kinsey’s basketball program, Quinn’s baseball program, our French lessons…on and on in a ceaseless orgy of furious check-writing, until I finally learned how to spell all the numbers in French when written in longhand. “Ceaseless orgy” may be pushing it, but you get the picture.

On the day of what we foolishly thought might be our last appointment with Madame Revelen, we practiced up our best French greetings, debated and agreed that we wouldn’t faire les bisous with her (the French cheek kiss exchange), and showed up five minutes early to ensure there were no mishaps. All-too-predictably, an easy 40 minutes of fresh paperwork ensued, followed by the moment of truth – the validation of our signature on the registered letter.

With a dramatic flourish, Madame Revelen unsheathed the signed registered letter from her daunting hillock of materials. Donning her reading glasses, she held it up to the light, probing its authenticity for any crannies of doubt, turning it this way and now that. She may have bitten it once. Then, with an approving nod of her head, she gave us the coveted, “Eez good,” snapped her fingers twice, and we were in. Strobe lights flashed, a disco ball descended from the ceiling, and fresh flutes of champagne found their way to our hands. The lights dimmed, and Madame Revelen presented our checkbook and ATM cards, beguilingly perched on a crimson, velveteen pillow. Clearly, this was the France we’d been missing!

So much paperwork, they tick themselves off

Properly Permitted Photo

Properly Permitted Photo

It’s not as if the French aren’t self-aware about this excessive administration syndrome – heck, the only thing they love more than filling out forms is complaining about having to do it. It’s practically a national sport, with entire television channels given over to titanic tantrums and tirades chastising the powers that be for being so, well, French. And, yes, it’s fairly certain that you need to fill out several forms to participate in those forums, but, as always, you’re encouraged to kvetch about it the entire time.

We were reminded of this Phrench Phenomenon a few weeks ago when our fifteenth anniversary rolled around. Neither the lunch reservations nor the exchange of gifts required any sort of paperwork, though perhaps they should have, given that the hostess at the restaurant checking our reservation straightfacedly misheard my pronunciation of “Monsieur Heaton” as “Monsieur Chicken,” occasioning no small amount of barely stifled guffaws from Kristanne. Turns out people who grew up with the last name of “Bohner” have a rather schadenfreudesque outlook on embarrassing mispronunciations of other people’s last names. Fair enough. Mr. Chicken gets it.

Don't Worry: She's Licensed for That

Don’t Worry: She’s Licensed for That

What did require a license, however, was golfing. Frankly, we should have seen this one coming, given that every other sport in France labors under an unrelenting set of exacting tests and achievements designed to chart your progress towards presumed perfection. We saw this with skiing, with the six or seven different levels kids pass through on their way to the coveted Etoile d’Or (“Gold Star”). Quinn had a similar system with fencing, as did Kristanne and I with our mastery of the French language (we topped out at the “Tin Asterisk of Slightly Less Embarrassing Accents”…not bad!). So, yeah, of course golf requires a license and naturally there are tests you can pass to document your knowledge and skills, progressing through different colors of “Flagstick” badges that you can wear on your lapel as you play or just perhaps point to and make “neener, neener, neener” noises when confronted with someone whose flagstick badge is not quite up to your own level. Maybe that’s just me.

Lucky for us, the license wasn’t hard to get – in our case, it cost the usual embarrassment of some bad French, which we are quite used to by now, thank you very much, plus five euros each, and, naturally enough, a couple forms wherein we declared our vitals and our non-intention to do the game of golf any harm, now or in the foreseeable future. Easy-peasy and good enough for a lovely nine holes in the sun.

And that seemed to be the end of it, until just last week when our official French Federation of Golf licenses arrived in the mail, complete with that snazzy “Mr. Chicken” logo in the middle. Still not sure how they found out about that. Kristanne may be taking the schadenfreude a little too schadenfar.

Mr. Chicken Loves Golf

You can’t imagine how exciting this is. Not only are we now fully licensed to play anywhere in France (and any countries with exchange policies and similarly fussy attitudes towards requiring licenses to play golf), but we also get discounts on rental cars, Ryder Cup gear, and bank accounts with Société Générale bank…as if Madame Revelen would ever allow that or forgive us for trying to leave the family there at BNP Paribas. Yep, it’s all looking pretty good for us now. Just have to get one more form filled out by my doctor and submitted to my club for it to be all official-like, as you can see in that picture below. And, of course, there’ll also be the forms needed to secure and undertake a doctor’s appointment. After that, it may be time for Mr. Chicken to take his bad French skills on one of those TV shows and unleash a few pent-up demons. With Madame Revelen’s approval, of course.

It's Blurred Because I Cannot Have My French Golfing Identity Compromised

It’s Blurred Because I Cannot Have My French Golfing Identity Compromised

what’s going on?

Kind of you to ask, and as you might expect, it involves filling out forms and checking off boxes. We’re solidly in the end-game here in Grenoble, packing up the apartment, filling out the customs forms at the post office, filling out the end of service forms with the gas, electric, water, internet, and TV companies. I think even my one-time nemesis, the baker, is hoping to get some sort of quick certificate of departure out of me, no doubt as proof to the government that his pain au chocolate sales are about to decline precipitously, entitling him to a short-term support payment from the Aid to Bakers with Dependent Families fund.

We’re also saying our goodbyes, and trying to get our heads around starting an old life anew. It’s a surreal feeling, but there’s so much to do, there’s not a lot of time to process any of it. We’ll be here in Grenoble through 7/19, after which, we’ll spend 6-7 days wending our way over to London for a quick visit with the Travelator before heading back to San Francisco on 7/30. Full circle. Hopefully, there will be time to add a few entries along the way!

See you next time…on the Odyssey!


we’ll always have paris, unless dad screws it up

A Night at the OperaTravel’s a humbler. Just when you think you’ve got it all figured out, that you know which train leaves from which platform, which color gas pump dispenses diesel, and which cheek to lead with when doling out the compulsory French air kisses, well, that’s when some random grandma in the post office slaps you in the grill for playing Post Office. Sorry, ma’am – thought I knew you.

Of course, I’m speaking metaphorically here, though lord knows I’ve regularly made an ass of myself with the whole air kissing thing. You really are supposed to lead with different cheeks depending on where you are in the country, though it’s important to remember that they are always face cheeks (and no, I haven’t made that particular mistake yet, though I sense the reader’s lack of confidence here).

Fontenayyyyy....hohhhhhh....hayyyyyI’m never sure how well I need to know someone before I throw down with les bisous (French for the aforementioned air-kissies; apparently passing acquaintances work if you haven’t seen them for a couple weeks), how much lip contact you make on ye olde cheek (zip, zilch, nada), and how loud a smack you’re supposed to make when getting smoochy with the atmosphere (apparently not the Miss Piggy-esque lip fart I’ve been known to blast into unsuspecting ears). Throw in my lack of confidence on the question of cheek contact and you’ll understand why most social situations find me quavering under the buffet table, rocking back and forth while hugging my knees. Continue reading

french: not as easy as I think

One of the biggest benefits of being an iffy French speaker in a French-speaking country is that when reading or hearing French, you can usually persuade yourself to place your full faith in whatever translation best suits your particular needs at any given moment. You’ve got the English speaker’s appreciation of cognates, a few dimly recalled Latin roots in your back pocket, and possibly the benefit of being highly self-suggestible (viz. that whole La Grande Dangereuse episode from a few weeks back).

Hey, I Like Rivers!

Hey, I Like Rivers!

This willingness to believe what needs to be believed can be both an advantage and a liability.  Take, for example, that sign at right with the scary red circle and the daunting “SAUF RIVERAINS!” slogan and imagine it at the entrance to a charming little alley with a delightful little pastry shop at the other end. Perhaps they’re passing out free samples of all manner of buttery baked goodness, or perhaps it’s Free Red Wine For Americans day, it doesn’t really matter. The point is they have it, you want it, and you can’t get to it because of that pesky little sign.

Now, a French speaker knows that “Sauf Riverains” means “Except Residents” and that only people who live there can drive down there and eat the implied free croissants and drink the theoretical free red wine. I, however, know that “sauf” means “except” and after that things get really hazy really fast. However, with the Magic of Misplaced Confidence, I can easily convince myself that “Sauf Riverains” almost certainly means “Except People Who Like Rivers” or “Except People Who Have Been To  A River When It’s Been Raining,” or even “Except You, Sid…Come on Down!” These are all in play.

I try to learn French, I really do, but frankly, it’s more difficult than I anticipated. Not only do they have words for everything, but most of those words appear to be pronounced in exactly the same way with meanings that can only be divined by context.

Cute Kids Eating Ski Food Don't Have to Be Mentioned in the Text to Get on the Page

Cute Kids Eating Ski Food Don’t Have to Be Mentioned in the Text to Get on the Page

Perhaps French people have furtive little hand signals designed to throw off non-native, would-be French speakers that they use to tell one another what they’re on about. For example, an elderly chap walking into the local boulangerie might throw a little old-school hand-jive as he enters to indicate that when he says “Je voudrais deux chaussons,” he means he’d like the chaussons one might eat for breakfast and not the ones he might wear to keep his feet warm around the house (or even the hunting trip he’s going on next week, the word for which also sounds quite similar to my calcified ears). Or perhaps a normal person would clue into the fact that someone in a bakery is likely not asking for a pair of slippers or the best way to field dress a wild boar and probably just wants a nice jammy pastry. Perhaps.

I think I had it in my head that with the proper tilt of my theoretical beret and perhaps a bit of Gallic flair in my carriage, well, it’d be a simple matter of just adding a suitably cinematic French accent to some implausible high-school Spanish and I’d more or less be kicking it Flaubert-style. Those rosy expectations have proven to be, shall we say, overly optimistic, often comically so. Also, did you know that most French people don’t use the term “kicking it Flaubert style,” either in English or in French? It’s true.

Not Actually a Member of the Worker's Party

Left-Handed Batter, Not Actually a Worker’s Party Member

So far, I have told a matronly innkeeper that I loved her (to be fair she had just brought us a really tasty rhubarb crisp), complimented a young woman realtor on her high availability, and, memorably, spent an entire baseball game yelling “Communist! Communist!” (“Gauchiste!”) at small children whose only transgression was to bat left-handed (“Gaucher,” alas). Figuring that last one out really went a long way towards explaining some of the looks from fellow parents in the stands. Apparently, when the French say “potato,” I say “Bolshevik.”

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rolling with the chateauxmies in france

not actually chronologically appropriate

Winter took breaks in the fall, too, back when this picture was taken. That’s the Chartreuse in the background.

Winter took a short break for a few days last week, giving us a chance to dust off our bicycles and hit the dusty rue. Kinsey has been crazy for biking recently, putting it right up there in her Personal Pantheon of Pleasant Pastimes with swimming and playing Hack-A-Mom defense on the basketball court, much like she just did in that picture over there – dig Mom’s pained wince.

Grenoble, despite being surrounded by vertiginous Alpen wonder much like that shown in the background of the photo above, actually claims to be the flattest major city in Europe, a title I didn’t realize anyone was actually vying for until just recently. Couple this with the staggering abundance of dedicated bike paths and it’s by far the easiest place to get around on bicycle I’ve ever visited. That’s right, Amsterdam and Copenhagen – step off.

Even with so much valley floor to explore, there are the few odd hills places where you could put a ball down and it would actually roll. Kinsey and I were entering hour two of our Sunday pedal when Quinn and Kristanne joined us after wrapping up an epic homework session. Together, the four of us climbed one such incline where we’d never been before. There, hanging out at the top of the “hill” were those two cool cats you see below, styling and profiling in their Ferrari and their Jeep, rocking a look so ice cold that you just knew there was a whole chateau full of similar rides back home, each one kicking it on the same 1:8 scale, boasting full foot power, and miles of plastic chassis that just won’t quit.

Ferrari Rolling

this one’s mine…you gotta get your own down at king jouet, bro

The best part about these guys was their stone confidence. They were just parked in the middle of the bike path, not moving for no one. Sure, they’re both at least 5 years past the target demographic for these cars, but that’s not stopping them, not one bit. With the right pair of sunglasses and the right pose, they positively owned what they were doing.

got any over-stretched analogies you can pull from all of this?

i'm pretty sure this is how we got into vietnam, too

i’m pretty sure this is the look that made the US want to go into vietnam, too…

It worked, too. They actually didn’t seem ridiculous. They even kinda made me want to get a car like this and hang out on bike paths with my buddies, too. This is sort of the apotheosis of French cool, where you can take something inherently ridiculous, something that works on no logical level, and then, by virtue of your own irresistible and undeniable savoir faire, sell that vision to the world. Hence, for example, the life arc of Napoleon and, the, uh, enduring popularity of Gérard Depardieu.

see ya next time!

We’re hanging in le G this weekend, hammering out a full slate of kids sports and skiing. See ya next time on the Odyssey, when I’ll potentially address Kristanne’s purchase of a Celine Dion album. It’s still too early for me to talk about it. Bon week-end à toutes et tous!

you are a foreigner

Palace of the Windsthe past, blasting

Wait, aren’t we in France? Shouldn’t we be wearing berets, pounding croissants, and randomly going on strike? What’s up with the sudden appearance of earth tones and sunshine in that picture above? Why does it look like we’re living inside a giant brain? And, most importantly, what’s up with the whole family suddenly wearing pajamas in public?

More people should try wearing pajamas in public, frankly. Not only are they extremely comfortable, it’s also hard to get mad at someone cutting you off in traffic when you’re wearing jammies with feet. Road rage would plummet, comfort would soar, and best of all, we’d all be somewhat flame-retardant. Hmm. I’m pretty sure this paragraph has officially passed  into tangenthood. Let’s move on.

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all that jazz…

Well, fresh from the “never thought that would happen” files, I seem to now be the new drummer for a French jazz combo! I had my first rehearsal with them last night and, aside from the novelty of counting off songs with “un, deux, trois, quatre”, it seems like music doesn’t need much in the way of translation.

The group is part of an “Open Doors” continuing education program at the Ecole municipale de musique, one of the many popular social programs made available to the community in France. It’s led by a kindly old cat (yep, I’m talking “jazz” here) of maybe 65 years, or so – a real sharp dresser with an artfully draped scarf, a wee, pointy goatee, and, yes, the requisite beret. He had a great way of alternately chiding and encouraging the players on their shortcomings and successes. Most of this was in French, though after one memorable dressing down of the two clarinetists, he paused long enough to glance at me and remark with a perfectly dismissive air, “I tell them they play like goats! Hahaha! Like goats!”

I love my new French jazz combo.

Can’t post without a picture, so here’s a lovely Kristanne enjoying the slopes up at Chamrousse. Yes, this has nothing to do with my new jazz combo, but you have to admit that it’s a refreshing break in the day.

A Postcard from Chamrousse

A Postcard from Chamrousse (Photo: Mark the Shark)