Friday, February 27, 2009

French Resident Permit Primer

When I moved to France I was quite overwhelmed by the immigration process so I thought it might be useful for some of my readers to read about the process that MCM and I went through. Please note: none of this is intended as legal advice. Immigration is confusing because the laws change frequently and even bureaucrats may find it hard to keep up (and thus you might get contradictory advice). You might also have a particular situation that complicates the process. Follow the advice given by the French Consulate where you live, but don't be afraid to ask for clarification, written documentation, or to speak with someone else.

This is what I went through as an American passport-holder, recently married to a French citizen, without dependents or any previous marriages. The process might be very different for someone who is coming to France without a French spouse but on a work visa, for someone with a passport from a non-Visa Waiver Program country (the VWP program includes US, Canada, Western Europe, etc), or for someone who has complicated custody issues, for example.

The basic process was:
* Trailing spouse (TS) and French national (FN) must get an entry visa for spouse before entering France to live. (TS can, as far as I understood, visit France beforehand for up to 3 months, for example to look for an apartment, but not to undertake legal things like opening a bank account). You cannot get the entry visa before you are married. (There is a special, separate application if you are marrying in France).
* This entry visa is obtained on application at a French consulate in the country where TS legally resides (which, in my case, was not my country of citizenship). Both TS and FN must go in person, together, to get the visa.
* TS and FN enter France with entry visa. Within a certain period of time (3 weeks for me), TS must go to the local prefecture (city or regional hall) and apply for a residence permit, called a carte de sejour. TS may have to present the documents for the residence permit in order to get a date for an interview a few months later.
* At the interview TS will receive a temporary carte de sejour, which grants permission to work. The official carte de sejour, which is a passport-sized laminated card, will be available for pick-up three months later. You pay when you pick up the laminated card (current cost, subject to change: 270 euro).

Sounds simple? In a way, it is, especially when you hear of people spending one year and thousands of dollars on lawyers' fees in order to get green cards in the US. I found the system complicated because it was never outlined for me from start to finish (and I looked everywhere and asked everyone I could - I just couldn't get a straight answer). We would finish one step of the process and then be surprised to learn that there was another. If we had known from the beginning we would have been prepared. So, I'm warning you now! Here's a little bit about our experience...

* Regarding weddings: French law changed a few months before our wedding. (I know better than to do this, but in the stress of wedding planning, job hunting and moving, I didn't check to see that the laws hadn't changed). It used to be that, if you are French, you could get married abroad and then get the French consulate to just translate your foreign marriage licence after the fact. Now, you must actually notify the French consulate in the place where the wedding is being held, before the wedding, and they must issue you a livret de famille (equivalent to a French marriage licence, but it is a small book, also used for recording births of any future children, etc). We didn't know we needed this until after we had an appointment for an entry visa, and we lost about a month and incurred the wrath of the French consulate in the American city where we had been married. There were some very stressful phone conversations with Consulate Lady saying, "But how could you! How could you disrespect the laws of France! Your consulate is here for you and you didn't even call!" Next time, we'll send a postcard...
* Had we known that we needed to do this, we would have gotten copies of our marriage licence before we left the US. Our state is in the process of digitizing and rewhatevering all its public records and you need to wait 6 months to order them by phone or internet. My long-suffering, ever-patient parents had to go and get a copy for me.
* Note that you cannot move to France and apply for an entry visa once you get there. Note also that you must be married to get the entry visa as a TS. So, you can't get married in the US, immediately go to some other country for your honeymoon, and then go directly to France. You would need to return to the US to get your entry visa. And you need an appointment for that. And...
* Getting information out of the French consulates regarding entry visas was near-on impossible. This was, without a doubt, the worst and most frustrating part of the whole process. I couldn't figure out if I was supposed to go to the US or the UK. The consulate in the US did not answer my emails or provide a phone number for visa enquiries. I finally figured that I should get the visa in the UK (my last country of residence), and then I spent 3 weeks phoning every morning from 9-12 to try to get an appointment. Finally, I wrote to them and they wrote me back with an email address. I sent an email and got an appointment for two weeks later. That's when I learned that I needed the livret de famille and I had to reschedule the appointment. I started calling the first week of August and had my appointment in the middle of October (I could have had it at the end of September had I not screwed up the livret de famille thingy).
* We got to the consulate in the UK at 7am for our 8.30am appointment and there were already about 200 people in front of us. Fortunately, they were nearly all from non-VWP countries and were just getting tourist visas. When the staff at the metal detector realised that MCM was French, they were ridiculously nice to us, shuffled us to a special desk, and we didn't have to wait at all. We were out of there at 9.45. That was a great feeling!
* I went to my regional prefecture, one of the busiest in France, and waited in line about an hour to get an interview date. The interview date was scheduled for January. I asked if there was anyway to have it earlier (no interview, no work permit!) and was told that they took "urgent" walk-ins most mornings, and to get there early. The FN must accompany the TS to the interview.
* It turns out that they only take 15 walk-ins each day, and that you have to get there at 7am at the latest for a chance. We made the mistake of arriving at 7.30am the first time and were turned away.
* We got it on the second try: arrived a little bit before 7am, were let into the building at 8.30, waited in another line inside, then took our seats and waited in a large hall on plastic chairs for about 4 hours. This was fairly unpleasant: unfortunately, a lot of the people who want to move to France come from countries with rather unenlightened ideas about women. We saw some really shocking behaviour from some men towards their wives.
* The actual interview took about ten minutes and the staff member was nice and polite. One of the documents I had to produce was a letter stating that I had married MCM out of my own free will and he did not, to the best of my knowledge, have other wives. (In the context of the waiting room, this made sense). We were successful and I got my recepisse de carte de sejour (a temporary card - like a formal receipt). We left around 12.45pm.
* Three months later I went and got my official carte de sejour, valid for one year beginning on the date that I had the interview. I was elated to get my card, until I realised that they had me down again as Mme Mari - not Mme Smith-Mari. I went back to the desk and explained that this was not my legal name, and that I came from a country where a married name is a legal name, not a "borrowed" name. She just shrugged and said, "That's the way we do it in France." Yeah. You just change peoples' legal names. Now that's a slippery slope - why not Francicize the rest of my name, too? I was still upset from the bank episode and didn't know what to do, so I just asked, "Am I allowed to use Smith-Mari as my name?" She shrugged again and said, "You can do whatever you want." Well, there you have it! MCM and I debated whether or not we should contest this, but worried that it would means months of waiting and additional fees, so we haven't. Hopefully we won't regret it down the line.
* In theory, renewing the carte will be quick and cost 70 euro. But by November, it all may have changed...

In the grand scheme of things, it wasn't too lengthy or expensive a process, but it didn't feel like it at the time:

Total amount of time, from trying to get entry visa appointment to getting actual carte de sejour: about 6 1/2 months.
To getting the recipisse de carte de sejour, which allowed me to work: about 3 1/2 months.
Total cost of getting official forms, cartes, postage, etc, private insurance while you are not legally resident and therefore not allowed to be covered by the French system, plus making brief budget trip to a consulate: around 800 euro.
Lost income: 3 1/2 months.
Not having a clue what you are doing, panicking and worrying that you will be deported or never be allowed to work: priceless!
Getting that carte de sejour in your hands: utterly fabulous.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

More learning experiences

Some things that I have learned recently:

1). I can buy episodes of What Not to Wear on Itunes and watch them on my computer here. That probably sounds pathetic - move to France to watch American cable TV! - but MCM has had a lot of work events in the evening, and it's nice to have a little break. If we owned a TV I would watch something in French.

2). One of my students, a manager in his late twenties, believes that hiring discrimination is only right and natural. After all, he wouldn't want to hire someone who was different from him - in particular, it would be "impossible" for him to manage someone who was older than him. And he wouldn't want to hire a woman who might get pregnant. (This came up in the course of a discussion of French vs UK/USA resumes and CVs, and I explained that in the English-speaking world you should not list your date of birth, marital status, gender or nationality on your CV as you do in France). I am not suggesting that this is necessarily a widespread attitude in France, but it was a shocker nonetheless.

3). One of my other students discovered that the song Total Eclipse of the Heart has a number of phrasal verbs in it. (A phrasal verb is a two-part verb - usually verb+preposition - which has a distinct meaning from the verb on its own. Examples: throw vs. throw out, drop vs. drop off). He then performed the song for me, complete with hand motions.

4). We probably won't go out to celebrate the end of Book 1. MCM has been feeling weird for a number of days: it's probably nothing, but there's a chance he may have gallstones so he is having some x-rays done tomorrow.

5). There is a great service in France for home visits from doctors. When MCM got home after midnight last night with nausea, a sudden pain in his neck and a headache, I decided we should call the "SOS Medecin" hotline. The doctor arrived in under 10 minutes and decided that MCM did not have meningitis. (No, I didn't believe that he really had meningitis, but it's serious enough that you should rule it out. I was perhaps conditioned to react this way by Nurse Siobhan, the nurse at my high school, who was hypervigilant and routinely screened for meningitis and tropical diseases). The doctor's callout cost 77 euro, nearly all of which will be reimbursed by the Securite Sociale. The rest should be covered by our new mutuelle.

5). There will be serious delays on my bus line over the next few months due to construction. I may have to start cycling to work, as it just seems ridiculous to spend nearly an hour travelling 5 kilometers (3.1 miles).

Monday, February 23, 2009

Book 1 is Done!

Book 1 is done! I finished on Saturday and mailed it out around 12.15 (the post office closes at 12.30), and am just filling out a few publicity forms to email to my publisher right now. In the end it was 358 pages and 4 1/2 years of my life. In a few months I should get proofs from the publisher - to approve the copyeditor's work and compile the index - and it should be published in 2009. I'd tell you what it is but, not only is this an anonymous blog, it's a specialised book that few of you would want to read anyway. I'm just being realistic, not modest, here.

At the moment I just feel tired and a bit stunned, when I suppose I should be more like... Hooray! Champagne all round! In fact, there has been no champagne yet. MCM was away for the weekend. On Saturday evening I went over Mazarine's place for a casual dinner and pretty much collapsed as soon as I got there (yes, I'm a blast); Mr Mazarine came to my rescue with a soothing glass of a fruity Roussillon wine, and we had a nice, fun, chilled out night. Just what I needed.

MCM thinks we need to plan a decent night out to celebrate, and I am trying to figure out where to try to book a table. We want someplace reasonably priced and delicious, and probably more hearty than refined. Cafe Panique sounds good and is right near MCM's office, but I wonder if it looks a bit austere for a celebration. Bistrot Paul Bert comes up on everyone's list of most wonderful places - including NYC-Parisian goddess Dorie Greenspan's website - but I've also read a lot of bad reviews from "ordinary" people who claim that it has lost its sparkle and standards have plummeted. We shall see. I really love the idea of a great big steak frites, a robust red wine, and a yummy dessert. There is, though, a chance that MCM will be away this coming weekend, too, in which case I will probably dine Chez Picard. Such is life.

But if you, on the other hand, have been struggling to find an excuse to drink champagne, let me humbly suggest that you drink to my book. Hey, glad I could help. (Try this - we love it. You won't find it in a wine shop so order directly from them by the case; it's a light, agrume [citrusy] champagne that's very nice as an aperitif.)

Finishing Book 1 (and please don't ask, "Then when will you finish Book 2?") has brought into focus some of the big existential questions I've been asking myself - and most people within earshot - about my life and career. In theory, I'm an academic: I have a terminal degree, a book in press with an academic publisher (wow! That's still sinking in), and I am actively applying for academic jobs. The problem is that I live in Paris. And I have had a major epiphany: I like Paris. In fact, I don't really want to leave. But there is very little chance of getting a serious academic job in France: it's a very closed shop, my subject is not taught in many places, and the jobs that do exist are not comparable in terms of pay, benefits and responsibilities, anyway. Over the past few months French university staff, faculty and students have been going on intermittant strikes over pay, teaching, facilities, whatever. I am pretty sure that I do not have a serious future in a French university - I might be able to get temporary or part-time work through some serious networking, but I don't think I could get something equivalent to a US assistant professorship or a UK lectureship.

I therefore have the following options:
1. Keep applying like a maniac for jobs outside of France, and if (big if) and when I get one, take it, knowing that I might be going it alone at first, if MCM has a job here and can't find anything in a new location. The pros and cons are quite obvious here.
2. Give up on the academic job search and choose to do something else. The problems are that I love academia, I don't know what else I want to do, and I'd feel like I might be wasting my education and/or talents. I considered other paths before I went to graduate school, and if I had wanted to be a diplomat/administrator/lawyer/NGO worker, I would have just done it then. But I am trying to be open-minded.
3. Be creative and try to carve out my own intellectual life involving part-time teaching (maybe at French universities), occasional lecturing, consultancy, and trying to write more accessible, commercial books. This sounds like the perfect compromise, but it comes with major drawbacks: no colleagues (which I really miss), no job security, and always having to hustle for work. Being self-employed sounds wonderful to people who've never tried it before - all that freedom! working at home in pajamas! - but in reality it also demands huge amounts of persistence, imagination and determination. It means never getting paid vacation and having little control over your long-term planning. You have to accept that you could work as hard as you can and still end up with nothing but a very strange tax return.

And one that is not an option:
4. Just put this all out of my mind and try again in a few years. Sorry! Unfortunately, academia doesn't work that way: it's hard enough to get a job when you're "in" the system; once you're out, it's nearly impossible. In order to get a job you need to publish like crazy, too, so if I would need to keep writing anyway. This might be my one and only shot at getting an academic job, and if I don't get one within the next year it's probably time to give up.

At the moment I am doing a combination of 1 and 3. I'm still applying for jobs but I'm also trying to be entrepreneurial. It makes it difficult to live in the moment and enjoy Paris now; I'm afraid I'll spend all my time here applying elsewhere and fretting, and then it will be time to leave and I won't have profited from Paris. At the same time, I don't want to make a decision that will negatively affect my career for the next 35 years, all because I wanted to have fun in Paris in 2009.

Fun. What is fun? I need to get me some of that. Where did that Champagne go...?

Friday, February 20, 2009

Pain au Chocolat "Situation"

Folks, we've got a situation here. It involves my pain au chocolat supply.

It's vacation/holiday time in France. Due to the powerful ski lobby, schools are divided into three groups, each with a different two-week break; this is to ensure 6 weeks of business for the Alpine resorts. MCM thinks this is scandalous. I'm more concerned about this scandal: the boulangeries also take a two-week holiday! At the moment my favourite boulangerie is closed, and my second favourite is, too. The boulangeries that are left open are, in my professional opinion, completely inferior. Case in point: at right, here's a bag of croissants and pain au chocolat purchased recently from my favourite boulangerie.

Wow, those look good. How about a flakey close up? Ohh yeah....

Now let's have a look at the alternative pain au chocolat, purchased from a chain bakery in my neighbourhood:

Note how dense, almost bready it is, and the heavy-handed egg wash. Certainly edible, but definitely not at the standard to which I have become accustomed. This is no small matter: I am thisclose to finishing Book 1, and those pain au chocolat are much needed motivational rewards.

In unrelated news, two of our loveliest friends, who I will call The Piano Man and Miss Mousse, have booked a trip to visit us in April. We're absolutely delighted and, yes, we'll make sure they get lots of lovely pain au chocolat and croissants, not inferior substitutes.

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

On the Bus

MCM has recently begun working in Paris proper and is really enjoying it; before he was, like me, working on the fringe of the city. I hesitate to say suburb, which translates as banlieue in French and suggests some pretty tough areas. This is because large housing projects were set up in the suburbs after World War II to house the workers in factories - many of them recent immigrants from former French colonies, particularly Algeria. Those communities remained when many expected to them to go "home," and feel marginalised and victimised by discrimination. This was most obvious a few years ago when rioting broke out in some of the suburbs, and immigration and assimilation are two of the hottest and most controversial topics in French society today.

It's a far cry from the suburbs I ride through on my bus to work as an English teacher: Neuilly-sur-Seine (where Nicholas Sarkozy used to be mayor) and Levallois-Perret. This is an entirely different side of the Parisian region: one that some might decry as not the "real" Paris, if real means working class. Neuilly and Levallois are ultra-bourgeois. The bourgeois aesthetic is quite close to that of the New England prepster, although without the whimsy and humour that you find in preppy clothing, for example. I get a kick out of the Neuilly people on my bus. In the mornings there is usually the same frazzled father who takes his daughter to kindergarten; he is sloppily dressed in very expensive clothes, his tie askance, a shirt button in the wrong whole, trying to juggle a small tupperware case of Cheerios and an Hermes briefcase. The Neuilly women wear quilted jackets and silk scarves and have thick, bobbed blond hair held back with oversized velvet headbands. In the afternoon, their children ride the bus with their North African nannies, who are much better at controlling the kids than the bourgeois mums themselves. I'm amused by the twin boys, who must be about four, who wear matching round tortoiseshell glasses and navy wool peacoats. Elderly women in brown fur coats board, some of them carrying their poodles on their "walk." I'm most struck by a young woman who rides the bus in the morning. She appears to be of Polynesian decent, and she has been reading (and is almost finished with) a gigantic tome on Henri IV. The peaceful look on her face as she reads reminds me of Gauguin's Tahitian paintings, and I find this to be a delightful synchronicity, observing her enjoying a biography of the seventeenth-century French king who, in his own time, promoted tolerance and social inclusion amongst the wars of religion.

Sunday, February 15, 2009

Happy St Valentine's Day!

Dessert chez the Accidental Parisian: chocolate, raspberries and a bit of love from Beaujolais. Enjoy!

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Wine Post #2

Last night MCM and I did indeed check out Le Garde-Robe, a wine bar that is mentioned in more than one of my most-trusted Parisian guidebooks (that's their business card on the right, although the website listed doesn't seem to work). Success! It's a cute little place within a few minutes' walk from the Louvre on the same street as O Chateau. The layout is straight forward: a small, rectangular room with a wall of wine on the left, a small bar with a few stools on the right, and four tables at the back. When we arrived, around 6.30pm, there were two guys at the bar and a table of four women. The atmosphere was relaxed, "but a bit bobo," MCM remarked. (Bobo is short for "bourgeois bohemian": French people who are wealthy but make a very self-conscious, often ridiculous, effort to seem bohemian). By the time we left it was full; if you want to sit at a table I'd advise you to call ahead and reserve. It's also not the kind of place where you can be shy because it's too small: you just have to walk in a give a big, friendly bonjour. MCM was tired and "feeling like a provincial", so this was left to me. If you're feeling wimpy, remind yourself: what would Julia have done?

Rather than picking one of the wines from the wall we each chose from the short list of those available from the glass, and took a seat at a wooden table in the back. I asked the sommelier/bartender for red wine without too much tannin and he suggested two - I ordered the Gravier for me and a Savoie for MCM. I've since learned an important lesson: if I am going to educate myself more about wine, and I certainly want to, I need to start carrying a little notebook to jot down what I try and what I like. I don't remember the exact names or appellations of either the wines we chose. We enjoyed both wines: they both had very pronounced noses but tasted more mellow, and were fruity without being sugary. The Savoie had a beautifully rich and fruity nose but it didn't fully carry through in the taste; that is, it had this amazingly complex smell, but the taste was not as rich and full as the smell was.

We opted for an assiette mixte with our wine: a wooden platter with some sliced charcuterie (sausages/ham), cheeses (a very tangy blue, a Tome de Savoie, a goat's cheese) and a hunk of baguette. The baguette was very good - was it a Kayser? The bill came to 23 euro: 12 for the assiette, 5 and 6 euro per glass of wine, respectively. In terms of value for money, there are certainly cheaper aperitifs to be had in Paris, but this was high in quality and high in ambiance. If I were a tourist looking to eat memorably on a budget I would happily opt for a long, lazy, filling and relatively inexpensive bistrot lunch, then finish my day with a drink and assiette in Le Garde-Robe. It's certainly the type of place that non-Parisians imagine in Paris. It's good to know that sometimes the fantasy exists in reality.

Friday, February 13, 2009

My, what big teeth you have!

First of all, thanks to all of you for the messages of support. I feel a bit stupid complaining about my wisdom tooth when there are people with serious illnesses out there. Thanks to you, I felt license to whine while eating Nutella with a spoon.

This morning I went back to Dr Groovy to have my stitches removed. Having woken up with throbbing pain I was rather sceptical, but he is just so, so nice. Removing the stitches barely hurt, he told me I was healing perfectly, and he also gave me an anti-inflammatory. He told me that I should gradually get feeling back in my chin ("within three months." Greaaat). But I can eat whatever I want. I feel much better.

I asked him why I've had such a tough time of it (Mais, je ne suis pas fragile?) and he told me it's because I have very, very large teeth with very, very long roots - rebel roots that cavort with nerves and do dangerous things. In fact, he got quite giddy talking about my teeth:

Dr G: It's amazing. Your teeth are so big!
AP: You mean relative to the size of my mouth?
Dr G: No! Overall. That's what's so incredible! They are probably in the top 1% of all teeth, on all people.
AP: Are you serious?
Dr G: Usually the moment someone walks into my office, I can tell if they'll have big teeth. But with you, it is even more amazing. It is incomprehensible that someone your size should have such big teeth. The X-rays were such a shock. Amazing! We couldn't believe it!
AP: Ummm.... Thank you.

I feel strangely proud that my plus-size teeth brought my dentist such glee. He obviously relishes a challenge; he was, after all, wearing black leather pants with his orange dentist jacket.

Anyway, this whole tooth drama has, bizarrely, made me appreciate Paris more. I want to chew! To crunch! To feast on France! Having been restricted to mushy stuff for a week, I have a new desire to, well, stuff myself. MCM and I have two parties to attend tonight - one with my colleagues, one with his former colleagues - and I have planned a rendez-vous beforehand for a light dinner. The plan is to meet at the Louvre and walk to Le Garde Robe, a nearby wine bar I've been wanting to check out, have some wine, cheese and charcuterie (see a cheese and charcuterie shot here, on Chocolate and Zucchini), and then have a little stroll across the Seine. I will report back!

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

A New Regime

What a yucky week. My groovy dentist completely lied when he promised me great drugs, no pain and a quick recovery. Five days after my wisdom tooth removal, I still have throbbing pain. I also have a bruise along my jaw that's turned the colour of Dijon mustard. Cute! At least my students have been very understanding, with some allowance for condolences directly translated from French. One of the students in my advanced group walked into class today, stared at me for a moment, blinked hard, and then said, "You are not alright. I see your face."

As a result, I've been subsisting mostly on yoghurt, pureed fruit, juice, milkshakes and apple sauce. I have discovered, to my delight, that while I can't yet handle crispy baguettes, I can nibble on brioche, a soft bread made with lots of eggs. MCM also prepared a vat of vichysoisse for me - a French creamy potato and leek soup that can be served warm or cold. He used this recipe from one of the all-time great French chefs, Paul Bocuse.

The lack of food is, however, making me bitter and grumpy. Walking down the street today in my "Parisian outerwear disguise" (long black puffy coat, black leather gloves, black beret, black leather boots) and a deep scowl on my face, I kind of felt like I blended in.

In the meantime, MCM has decided, perhaps in a belated New Year's sentiment, or perhaps because Paris has felt a bit spring-like in the past two days, that he needs to begin une regime. A diet. Yes, the French do diet. So far this has meant that he has been cycling across Paris to work (a bit scary but excellent exercise), refusing extra bread for dinner (oh, the sacrifice!), and hopping on the scale twice a day (not very encouraging yet). This is a scale that we only purchased so that we could weigh our luggage and avoid excess baggage charges on Ryanair. Which, by the way, my students think is a British company. When I told them it was Irish, they first didn't believe me, and then they argued with me that Irish and British were actually the same thing, maybe even the same place.

Maybe I need another milkshake.

Friday, February 6, 2009

Wine Post #1

I am modestly titling this Wine Post #1, as I expect there will be others.

Those of you who are visiting Paris soon, listen up: you must go to a wine tasting at O Chateau. I was invited to attend one on Wednesday with members of my undergraduate alma mater's alumni club in France, and it was great. The tastings are located in a 17th century cave (that means cellar or, more specifically, wine cellar) on a small cobble-stoned side street between the Louvre and the Pont Neuf. The cave was used by the French kings' sommelier, back when the Louvre was a palace and not an art museum, and doubled as an underground, labyrinthine escape route for the king in times of crisis. I suppose it will hold special appeal to those of you with Dan Brown-type fantasies. Anyway, to get to the cave you pass through a used book store (be still, my beating historian's heart!), down a candlelit cobblestone alley, and descend a spiral iron staircase. The interior is a mix of 17th century and 21st century - exposed stone walls and low doorways, with leather banquettes, votives, a delightfully minimalist table setting, and some bawmp baw daw bawmp bawmp music piped in.

Olivier, our sommelier, talked us through 6 wines: to start, a rose Champagne from Epernay; a Sancerre, a very dry white made from sauvignon blanc grapes; a Burgundy chardonnay; a... ummm... I was drinking the wine, not spitting it out... a Crozes-Hermitage, made from Syrah grapes, which was very good but my least-favourite; a Pomerol, which is a red Burgundy; and my favorite, a Cotes du Rhone Villages. Our wines were accompanied by cheese platters, breads and Olivier's spirited delivery, which focused on the major French wine regions. He held his own against a few wine snobs in our group and congratulated us for arguing about wine with the passion of the French; for me, it was also like a trip back in time to my beloved alma mater, where classes were very participative and students were known for being, shall we say, jesuitical.

The class cost me 40 euro (there were 20+ of us so we may have had a special rate, I don't know), which I had thought was a tad pricey but turned our to be fabulous value for money, in terms of the atmosphere of the place, the quality and range of wines sampled, and our exuberant and passionate host. Highly, highly recommended - it will really make your trip!

Character Forming

I've had a busier week than I anticipated and have not had the chance to blog. I went to a great wine tasting on Wednesday (it will get its own post in a few moments), where I made a potential new friend (you know how it is - I'm still administering the psychometric tests and checking her references) and found out about some potential work for the autumn. I really like my current job - teaching English to adults - but I would much prefer to have a job teaching my own subject in a university setting.

Today I had an experience that I am going to use to start a list entitled, "Things I have to do that are probably character-forming, but really, how much more character do I need?" Item number one: having oral surgery in a language you don't fully understand.

I've been having occasional pain in my jaw for the last 2-3 years and my British dentist attributed it to stress, reasoning that I was probably grinding and clenching my teeth. He even made me a £60 rubber mouthguard to wear at night. When, in November, one of my wisdom teeth began to emerge, painfully, I summoned the courage to go to a French dentist. He laughed at the rubber mouthguard and told me that the wisdom teeth, not stress, were responsible for the pain. Basically, I've been teething for the past few years, and the British dentist might as well have given me a rattle dipped in whiskey. Gaaah.

So, after a series of appointments, x-rays and an MRI, I had the first of two bottom wisdom teeth extracted this morning under local anaesthetic and a "relaxation" pill. The surgery itself was not too bad. I had quite a bit of pain this afternoon as the anaesthetic began to wear off. MCM collected me from the dentist office (in my relaxed state, I wouldn't have made it home alone) and has been preparing me cold, liquid, non-alcoholic meals. So much for the diet of coffee, wine and bread! Mazarine has offered to come by tomorrow for an afternoon of girly movies and smoothies.

My impression of French dentistry is that the level of care is quite good, and that if French people don't have good teeth, it's because they don't really believe in preventative care and only go to the dentist when they have a problem, at which point it's often too late. My dentist, for what it's worth, is a kind, young and pretty groovy guy. He wears bright orange scrub tops with jeans and cowboy boots and has a Louis Vuitton man-purse in the corner of his office. He's also good at explaining things. I got to keep the ginormous tooth, which I'll put under my pillow for la petite souris (the little mouse - French tooth fairy).

Speaking of health and characters... yesterday afternoon I spent a few hours searching for a mutuelle, the private health care that most French people buy to bridge the actual cost of health care and what is covered by La Secu, the national health service (usually 20-30% of actual costs are not covered). MCM had done most of the research but we couldn't do anything until we received my social security number, which happily arrived on Wednesday. I finally settled on a plan and ended up having to purchase it over the phone, which was pretty tedious for the insurance saleswoman (I had to give all our bank and personal details and social security numbers, and I struggle a bit with French numbers. For example, 92 is read as "four twenties and twelve). But, hey, I did it!

I felt a bit drained after the long conversation and decided to walk to the grocery store to get some dinner, taking my shopping trolley and a big bag of bottles to put in the glass recycling bank on the way. Somehow, though, halfway down the three flights of stairs in my building, I tripped and dropped the bag, sending bottles flying. I ran got my broom and, floor by floor, started cleaning up the mess. When I got to the bottom one of my neighbours came through the front door and I tried to apologise and explain the situation. This neighbour is an elderly, somewhat shrunken North African man, who wears a long, dark-green hooded robe, a crocheted prayer cap and leather slippers. I've heard him praying in his apartment before and I'd seen him shuffling around the entrance to the building, but we'd never spoken much before. (In general, the urban French like to keep their neigbours at a distance. When I moved here I asked French people if I should go around the building and introduce myself, and they were horrified).

Our conversation was somewhat limited by both of our accents (although maybe less so mine - he seemed to think I was another elderly neighbour's daughter), and the fact that he appears to be working with just one tooth. It went a bit like this:

Me: Oh, I am so sorry; I fell and dropped bottles; I am so sorry!
Neighbour: Mumble mumble mumble?
Me: Uhh, sorry? I... I had bottles... I was going to the recycling center?
Neighbour: Mumble mumble!
Me: Uhh...recycling?
Neighbour: Bwahahahah! Empty!
Me: Oh! Yes, yes! Empty bottles! Yes! Empty!

He then went into this apartment and emerged with a second dustpan and broom and proceeded to take over the cleanup. For a guy who normally walks with a cane, he was surprisingly agile and handy with a broom!