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!


captains outrageous

Up on a Plane, at 8mphAfter ten hard-charging, pile-driving, train-feng-shui-ignoring days on the road in Italy and Provence, your Extreme Telecommuters were a well-oiled, performance-tuned, fire-snorting beast of a sightseeing machine. We could knock out a UNESCO site in the morning, blaze through a Plux Beaux Village in the afternoon, and complete a week’s worth of grocery shopping in the 90 seconds before the local Carrefour grocery store closed for the evening, leaving a trail of stunned clerks drooling in slack-jawed amazement in our wake.

With that level of performance at our beck and call, it was a bit of a shame that the whole experience had to be put out to pasture for a week, temporarily mothballed and otherwise back-burnered while the kids went back to “school” and I did my “job.” I’m sure I’m not the only one who will remark on this, but there’s an almost eerie resonance here with the career arc of one Michael Jeffrey Jordan. Yes, that Michael Jordan. Ah – so you see it, too. Almost Exactly Like ThatYep, it’s almost exactly like that time His Airness abruptly retired from basketball in order to play baseball, doing it when he was at the absolute apex of his career, coming off his third consecutive championship, and still able to dominate legions of would-be contenders effortlessly. As you can see in the picture, there are some strong parallels between Air Jordan in a baseball uniform and, say, Air Calvin & Rosalie taking the kids to the library in Grenoble instead of taking them competitive bodysurfing in Cannes. Fish out of water, all of them.

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laying touristic waste with les beaux-parents

 (road trip with the in-laws)

Oh, A Grand Canal, Indeed

Catch-up time here on the Odyssey, as we attempt to process and distill the last – ahem – two months worth of hijinks into one neat package, suitable for rapid digestion, like a little Extreme Telecommuting power pellet.



Roll up for the Mystery TourI must warn you, however – things are about to get a bit addled heresabouts. Scattered, even. Today’s Odyssey forecast is calling for non-linear flows, unexplained narrative gaps, jarring transitions, and a face-melting pace, possibly not suitable for those with weak stomachs or a predisposition to vertigo. There’s also a strong chance of multiple forays into the downright nonsensical as we blaze a heroic swath through Italy and France with Kristanne’s parents, Calvin & Rosalie…who, frankly, should really have known better by now. More on that later. For now, lace ‘em up, strap ‘em on, and step into that not-at-all foreboding doorway there at the left – it’s time to hop on the Tilt-an-Odyssey with les beaux-parents!

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the jazz advantage

When we pulled up stakes in California and lit out for the territory for a year in France, we had some tough decisions to make about what found its way into the suitcases and what did not. Once you get past the bare necessities – clothes, toothbrushes, and ukuleles – that’s when the hard decisions start.

This Has Nothing To Do With This Post

One more thing not in our suitcases — hot air balloons.

For example, despite a crafty late-game, end-around maneuver from Kinsey, pets were pretty much off the list. And, to be fair, from the sounds of it, our cats didn’t much appreciate being zipped into that rolling suitcase, anyway.

For my part, refried beans had barely made it onto my list before they were summarily dispatched…another early casualty of Kristanne’s controversial – some might even say draconian – “One Heaton, One Suitcase, Zero Dissent” policy. As we enter Month Eight here in the Burrito Wasteland of France (not its official name), with its green bean “salsas” and “sour cream” that looks and tastes suspiciously like yogurt, I do believe ole Chairman Mom-Tse Kristanne may be rethinking that particular Great Leap Forward. Fortunately for us, the impending (not to mention long-awaited) arrival of Grandparents Rosalie & Calvin and their clanking suitcases full of Rosarita’s finest should be cause both for celebrations here in Grenoble and a whole lot of puzzled Customs Agents in Paris.

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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!