Saturday, January 17, 2009

Keep the Change

Yesterday MCM and I finally went to open a joint bank account. We had been in a bizarre Catch-22 situation for most of the autumn: I couldn't open an account without my residence permit, but without a bank account I couldn't go through a number of other administrative processes. Anyway...

We selected a major international bank that has a branch in our neighbourhood and scheduled an appointment. We decided in advance that MCM would do most of the talking. The bank employee was a woman in her thirties; she was brisk but seemed competent, and quickly began typing our personal details into the computer and running off photocopies of our passports and pay stubs. Throughout the meeting she addressed all of her questions to MCM - not surprisingly, since I wasn't speaking much anyway and I wasn't at my most coherent in answering the one question she directed at me. She occasionally referred to "Madame", jerking her head in my direction.

When she had finished setting up the account and gave us the documents to read and sign, I realised that she had given me the wrong name. When MCM and I got married last summer, we decided to hyphenate our names together: my "maiden" name followed by his "master" name. I have changed mine on my passport; MCM has not yet because it would have meant waiting ages for a new passport at a time when he was stuck in much bureaucracy and had upcoming travel.

This has been a source of confusion in France. Legally speaking, French women do not change their names when they marry. Their married names become common usage but it's not a legal change the way it is in the US or the UK. Although many French people have hyphenated names, I have difficulty explaining to people that my name was legally changed in the United States, and that the French cannot simply call me something else because my name falls outside their social conventions.

Thus, the following conversation with Bank Lady:
AP: Actually, my last name is not Mari. It is Smith-Mari.
BL: But Smith is your maiden name. You are Madame Mari, no?
AP: Yes, it's my maiden name, but my legal name is Smith-Mari. Not Mari. I don't have any kind of ID that has just Mari on it.
BL: But, you are married to Monsieur Mari.
AP: Yes, but I'm not French. I changed my name in the US.
BL: But we can't put Smith-Mari on the account. For a joint account it must be Monsieur's name on the account.
AP: But Monsieur is also changing his name to Smith-Mari.
MCM: Yes, this is true.
BL: What? Are you kidding? [Stares at MCM with her mouth hanging open]
MCM: No, I'm serious.
AP: [attempting humour] You see, we believe in equality for men.
BL: Well, I can put Smith-Mari down for Madame, but you probably can't get a card. It's too long. It won't fit. I'll have to speak to my colleagues. But the account must be in Monsieur's name.
AP: Okay, well, uhh, thank you. We appreciate that.
BL: Right, if you'll just sign here, at the bottom of the page.
AP: Of course... wait, don't I sign here, at the top of the page?
BL: Well... yes, actually! Sorry, my mistake. I always put the man's name first, but there I didn't.

Although I'll admit that I enjoy the status that comes with "Madame" - I'm certainly treated better than when I spent time in France as a "Mademoiselle" - it's very frustrating to feel that my public identity has been reduced entirely to "Wife of Monsieur." I fumed on the way home from the bank, blamed my clumsy French, blamed myself; MCM comforted me and blamed ingrained sexism in French society.

Was I too sensitive? Fully realising that I cannot change French society, I don't know how to get my head around this situation.

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