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Secret Life of an Expat: Intégration

They let us keep the x-ray.

After my marriage in October, I could finally request a carte de séjour, which is a sort of resident alien card. There are different levels, some are for students, some for retired people. As the wife of a French citizen, mine is familiale and gives me the right to work, but I still have to renew it every year for the next four before I can apply for something more permanent.

To get your carte de séjour from the prefecture, you have to meet with the OFII [Office Français de l’Immigration et de l’Intégration – no need to translate there]. My convocation from the OFII (they’re really into convocations here, letters from official places telling you when to show up at other official places), came three months after they said it would, and instructed me to show up for a half day information session where I would learn about the requirements I have to fulfill in order to live here, be assigned an integration agent, and see the doctor.

Whenever an arm of the government tells you to show up somewhere, it’s safe to assume it will be a hellish morning of lines and vending machines and hard plastic seats, but surprisingly, it wasn’t too bad. We had to sign a contract saying we promised to learn about the country, be law-abiding citizens, and obtain 4 attestations proving that we have completed day long courses on Life in France and Civics in France, as well as have met the French language requirement (the DILF, if you’re wondering), and do a skills assessment so we can look for work. M believes the contract (which has only been around since 2006) is a violation of personal rights, but I figure the government has the right to make up its own rules when it comes to people moving into its territory and depending on its resources. As long as they’re fair. Then we had a doctor’s appointment where they asked us about vaccinations, made sure our glasses worked, and took a chest x-ray.

On Monday, I went to my first day long class: Life in France. Our teacher, Pierre, a disheveled man with his fly down, spent the first hour of class fighting with his computer because the projector refused to project anything right-side-up, and then spent the next two hours telling us how much life in France was going to suck.He outlined how racism and sexism worked here, as it does anywhere I suppose, well hidden beneath lies and baloney excuses as to why someone can’t have a job or an apartment (since it is now illegal to be openly racist or sexist). I guess he thought he was helping us prepare, as in, ‘don’t tell your potential boss that you have kids or are planning to or else he won’t hire you because you’ll just go on maternity leave,’ that sort of thing, but it was very depressing.

ng36Then he explained that France is laic, which means nonclerical, hence there is a separation of church and state. I’ve discussed this at length with M, and it seems to be something Americans take for granted, because, it is granted. Separation of church and state is part of our creation story, it’s in our original and only constitution, while in France they had to fight for it, and in many other countries, it does not even exist. Here it means you can’t teach religion in public schools, and now it also means you can’t wear religious signifiers to public school, i.e., crucifixes, stars of David, head scarves, turbans, etc., in spite of the fact that most national days off are Catholic holidays (sorry I just can’t let that go). I believe the purpose of it is to remove incite for prejudice and violence against other religious groups, but I can’t imagine what it must be like for people who dress traditionally based on their religious beliefs to have to change. Maybe not so great.

There’s a sort of homogenizing that takes place in the immigration process. The Moroccan woman sitting next to me had already done her skills assessment meeting, and she was advised to find work helping old people in their homes. It seemed like such a cliché. My integration agent, after learning that I was trained for and seeking work in the animation industry, suggested I look for work where they need English speakers, like at airlines or in travel agencies. It made me think of the taxi driver I once had who was a doctor in Pakistan, or the security guard at Parsons who had been a lawyer in Kenya. We’ll see what happens at my skills assessment meeting next week. Maybe I’m meant to work with old people too, I mean, the French are always right.

At my first two immigration sessions, I’ve been the only person of European descent in the room (Europeans don’t need to immigrate to France, if they are a part of the EU they can live and work here automatically), and I felt guiltily privileged and protected from Pierre’s warnings. I’ll find a job that I like, I won’t have to change my cultural values too much, I’ll blend in and cope with less persecution than my fellow immigrants. I’m moving to this country for the luxury of love, and the immigrants who come to France for a better living, to give their kids a better future, or flee from a wartorn country will probably have to work much harder to get by.

In the afternoon, Pierre went over the most basic of concepts so slowly that all I could do was check my email every thirty seconds, sneak solitaire games on my iPhone, and try to imagine what type of crackers would go best with a country terrine of chopped Pierre. I suppose I should have been more attentive, but my brain was exhausted by the task of filtering out the translator who worked in the corner of the room with a group of Indian-looking women, while trying to understand Pierre’s soft-spoken French. Maybe it was the fact that I felt so foreign, nobody bothered to speak in French during our breaks, only Arabic or whatever that Indian sounding language was, and I was dying to connect in some way. Pierre did teach us a few useful things, like what the grades in school are called, and that cover letters for resumes are expected to be hand-written. But my two pages of notes from that day are 73% doodle, and at the end of the class he gave us a handout that reviewed everything we were supposed to have learned. I could have just read the handout.