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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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!