30 September 2009

It's Complicated

My view:

My room:

I think that all my life and training has but prepared me for this challenge: settling in France.

It wouldn’t be so difficult if it weren’t for the domino effect of services. For example, I am fortunate to have an apartment which was chosen for me by my supervising professors at the lycée, of which I have eight, all like mother hens. However, I would like to have internet and a phone in this apartment. But first I must have an open phone line, so I must go through France Télécom. But first I must have a bank account, so that I can be charged the monthly fee. To have a bank account, I must first have a certificate of lodging, confirmed by—for example—a phone bill, or say, an electric bill. But to pay the electricity I must first have a bank account and a certificate of lodging! I have yet to go through all these hoops in the US, but if this is the universal process, life is decidedly too difficult!

It wouldn’t be so bad if services were a little faster, a little more efficient. Today I was promised that my salary would come through in a month (and that's an advance), my telephone line would arrive in three weeks, my bank account would be valid in one week, and my traveler’s checks couldn’t be exchanged for two days. I wish my employer, phone lady, bank man, and landlord, would sit down together over a beer (or hard cider, the drink of Brittany) and decide to give each other the benefit of the doubt and me a bit of sympathy. Three weeks!

It wouldn’t be so trying if it weren’t in another language. The reason I have become so keenly interested in linguistic policy is because I know as much as any immigrant that language is power. Comprehension is one level of reclaiming that power, and expression is another, but real communication takes courage. It is difficult not to allow a bureaucrat to speak down to you, especially when you are not a native speaker and can be easily bowled over my practiced legalese.

It would be hell, however, if this were my first go-around in France. If I didn’t know all the services available to me, like health care and housing grants. If I didn’t have all the documents in order, my organization being my greatest asset. If I didn’t speak the language, at least well enough to say, a second time, in a sweetly insulting way, “Excuse me, sir, I would appreciate it if you spoke more slowly, if that doesn’t bother you.” It would be hell.

For now, it’s okay. I have an apartment with a view. I like the food. The pay is better than the last year I spent here. My landlord is like a grandpa, I speak the language, and the baguettes are fresh. Even the high school has ceased to be intimidating! If I can face up to a sullen French teenager, surely I can handle all these bureaucrats! Wish me luck!

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