Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Being a legal alien, OR how France literally took my breath away

Good news: I don't have tuberculosis. Oh, and I am FINALLY a legal resident. Yes, after many months of waiting and a convocation letter that arrived a week after the appointment had already come and gone, they finally managed to schedule me in to get officially frogged. Bascially, this means that I'm now eligible for socialized health care and financial housing aid. It is also now that much easier for me to extend my stay--an option I'm considering more and more as time goes on.

Ironically, this act of acceptance from my adopted country came on the eve of a surge in American pride: in the last month, we have taken a stand against Israel's abuse of our protection, legalized gay marriage and are considering legalizing medical marijuana (both in Washington DC), and now, passed the health reform bill. Although this still means that my level of health care will drop drastically when I return to the States, it does afford me the right to stay on my parents' insurance plan a little longer (which, considering the current lack of jobs with benefits for college graduates, is nothing to sneeze at).

Anyway. The whole residency process was painfully French, which is to say needlessly inefficient and bureaucratic. After receiving my letter with a non-negotiable appointment time (right after my last midterm, as it turned out) I was instructed to go out and buy a stamp. Not just any stamp, mind you, but a 55 euro "civic stamp". And no, of course you can't buy the stamp at a post office, but only at Tabacs (tobacco stores), and even then only at certain ones. The idea is that the appointment itself should cost 55 euro, but why they can't just eliminate the needless middleman of the stamp and just take a credit card (or at least make the damn stamp available for purchase at the actual appointment) is beyond me.

Once I arrived at the office I began the long chain of steps that went something like this: wait in line to submit paperwork. Sit and wait. Be called up to get more paperwork. Sit and wait. Be called to be lead to a different waiting room. Sit and wait. Hear your name, get some paperwork collected, have an eye exam and a height/weight check. Sit and wait. Read leaflets about diabetes help for Arabs and pregnancy advice. Get called up to wait in line. Be given free condoms and dental dams (does anyone use those things?). Enter a closet with a door on either side and lock the door behind you. Strip down to the waist, then stand for ten minutes clutching your breasts in semi-darkness, debating which is a more real-seeming fantasy: that the door in front of you will open onto Narnia, onto the waiting room a naked David Sedaris described in "When I am Engulfed in Flames" or onto the glass panel of a stripper booth. Suddenly the door opens and two fully-clothed doctors direct half-clothed you to shove your bare breasts against a cold metal plate. Breathe in. The whir of an x-ray. Breathe out, go put your clothes back on. Sit and wait. Get called to admire your x-ray with a doctor, who asks you some questions about smoking/asthma before informing you that you do not, in fact, have tuberculosis. Sit and wait. Get called to a desk, only to be lead back to the original waiting room. Sit and wait. Finally, a full two hours after you first arrived, get called up to get your shiny new carte de sejour (a French greencard) stamped above your visa. It looks a bit like a post-it note, held down with some of that holographic paper you used to cover your books with in elementary school, except applied much more carelessly, without your exact ruler lines and exacto-knife cuts. Congratuations. You passed the French bureaucracy endurance test, you proved that you're not poor or homeless and you don't have tuberculosis: you're allowed to stay.

I celebrated my new-found legality with a late lunch in the company of my fellow immigrants at Tin-Tin, my favorite Vietnamese restaurant up at Belleville. I realized that this is the first time I've ever eaten a meal by myself in a legitimate sit-down restaurant, and I was pleased to find that the experience didn't make me feel self-conscious at all; to the contrary, it game me some much needed space to think. As I scarfed pho and nem I pondered what it is to be an alien vs a citizen and considered the arbitrary nature of what qualifies one for either status. Those lusting after American citizenship have to take a knowledge test to earn the right; I still remember placing my chubby child's hand over my heart to pledge allegiance to the Queen to earn my New Zealand passport. If it were up to me, a French citizenship test would require you to be able to do the following: identify at least five unmarked pastries in a boulangerie by name, use your elbows and your bag to carve out a niche in an already-full metro car (elderly ladies be damned!), direct a waiter how to cook your steak to order then chase him down for the check, perfect your ability to ignore metro musicians, beggars and tourists, know to weigh and price your fruit before you get to the register in a grocery store, and most importantly, be able to laugh at yourself when you're done. That last step is probably the least French thing you could do, but the longer I'm here, the more I realize that I will never be French. If you can't join 'em, at least learn how to enjoy them.

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