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Inside my head...

Fifi the Immigrant, part II

Mirabelle, my instructor.
Saturday morning at 8:30 AM. My Frenchie bets me that I can’t keep my mouth shut as I promised I would in this class of immigrants. We have all signed our contract with France and promised to attend this daylong explanation of our responsibilities as new citizens.

“I’ll be the only one who can’t speak well enough,” I complain as the Frenchie pulls up to the building.

“No you won’t,” he answers. “Look around.” He gestured to a group of Chechens who banter among themselves in guttural Russian. “Besides,” he added, “you speak better than I do.”

He’s referring to the fact that my French is often grammatically correct. What he doesn’t mention is that I have no nuance, no slang, none of the particular shortcuts that a native speaker makes, even if half-asleep.

And I misuse words that sound alike. I once tried to say: “no more pain,” and finished insisting: “no more bread.” Certain sounds are impossible: the double “l,” a certain “ouille,” and many variations of “u.” No matter how I try, summoning the sounds with my eyes shut so I can focus, they remain impossible. I tell stories instead of jokes. I nod smiling when I don’t understand. I envy every foreigner who sounds better than I. In short, when it comes to other people’s well-spoken French, I can be an angry, jealous woman.

“Well, I’m not going to say a word,” I remind him.

He looks at me as though I’ve told the greatest joke he’s ever heard.

These classes were once held at a fancy hotel on the Promenade des Anglais, the broad street that rolls directly in front of the sea. In the old days, the wealthy English who journeyed to Nice for the winter (the “season” in those times), would march, or pardonez-moi, promenade up and down, taking the air, holding onto their hats and bonnets, and looking good. A brisk sea walk was considered important during the glory days of the Age of Innocence, the late 1800’s. Of course, it was necessary to look good while doing good. You can find postcards of those days, showing the women in their white linens, the men in waistcoats, walking together in the gentle sun of the very mild winters in this microclimate. (Nice sits in a lovely pocket formed by the Alps and other ranges, so it boasts 300 days of sunshine. When it does rain, people believe they will go insane).

But back to the Fifi story.

No fancy hotel setting for us. The government has just switched that location for a not-so-new building in the north part of the city—far away from the temptations of the sea, and eliminating the possibility of thievery that seemed to happen too often. In other words, eliminate temptation and you’ll create better citizens.

And I have to talk as soon as I walk in.

The room has just been painted and is noxious, I can use no other word. Fumes fill my lungs with each breath. I approach the leader, an exquisite young woman from, I later find out, Togo. My asthma spray in hand, I beg for the windows to be open, because the air conditioning is circulating only the fumes.

“You can leave, you know,” she answers skeptically, as if I were only trying another of the many excuses she’s heard. “But if you do, you’ll have to come back another day. And I’m on vacation for a month.” That means,” she consults her pack of papers, that you can’t take the class until the beginning of September.”

I am properly chastised. “Non,” I answer, of course, “I’ll stay.”

I creep back to a seat near the open window, relieved by the circulating air, but now attacked by the unrelenting sun. It is easily 90 degrees even before 10 AM.

We start with a sentence about ourselves. Most people say their names and where they’ve come from. I announce all that plus 1) I’m not looking for work because I’m a writer, and 2) I’ve been married to a French man for nine years. I suppose I did well enough because, Mirabelle, the leader, is smiling at me.

My next challenge comes with her question: “What drew France into the Second World War?”

I’ve been able to get through one hour of French history without temptation. But this question is too enticing, especially because no one answers. Not the Chechens through their translator, or all the others from North Africa.

“No one knows?” Mirabelle asks then insists. “No one?” She is looking at me.

I do know, of course—I’ve written about those first days of the war. Now I don’t even have to argue with myself. That long arm of mine is in the air. I think I even wave it a bit.

“Oui, Fifi, j’ecoute.” I’m listening.

“C’etait l’invasion de Pologne,” I answer. Germany invaded Poland, set off an international ultimatum and got exactly what it wanted: war.

My teacher is happy with me. “Exactement,” she says. I get an A for knowing some history.

By lunchtime, I am a star. Whenever Mirabelle has a question, she looks my way. And I accept my responsibility to keep the class going. The Chechens are mumbling in Russian among themselves. The North Africans look like they could care less. I am taking notes, filling pages and pages about France. And asking very important questions—“Why is Marianne, the French symbol of revolution half-naked?” (A mystery, I’m sure has tormented all Americans. My Frenchie once told me that it was because she simply was French).

The right answer: Because she is the mother of her country and her exposed breast is a sign of succor, food, aid, and inspiration for all of France. Think breast-feeding. As my husband said, remember it’s France. Could you see the Puritans choosing a half-naked woman as their emblem?

Why did France give in so quickly to the Nazis? I ask another time. Because they were shocked by the quick attack. But there was the underground.

At lunch I sit with Mirabelle and two other women; one from west Africa, who smiles shyly and is mostly silent, the other from north Africa, who has ditched the veil and dresses like every other French woman. Over French fries, fried calamari, I chat happily. I feel like the teacher’s pet.

That afternoon, however, turns serious, and for me, becomes a real indication of what France is facing in welcoming these strangers.

Mirabelle begins to list the LAWS of conduct for every citizen. Seriously she reads aloud:

A man cannot hit his wife.
A man cannot keep his wife in the house.
A man cannot keep her from working or force her to work if she does not want to.
A man cannot beat his children.
A man cannot force his daughter to leave school.
A man cannot force his daughter to marry someone she does not want to marry.

And on and on. Pages and pages of what Westerners consider anathema to women’s rights.

Finally, Mirabelle explains the European Union. “What is the official anthem?” she asks.

A theme song? I look around to see if anyone responds.

“Does anyone know Ode to Joy?” Guess who she’s looking at…

I raise my hand.

“Can you hum it Fifi?”

Now, there’s a lot I can do with ease—give a speech, make a dress, decorate a room or a cake, diagram a sentence, dance like on TV, speak OK French. But the one thing I CAN NOT do, never in my life, no matter how much I want to—is keep a tune. I can NOT sing.

She is smiling at me. The class is looking at me. And before I know it, That Fifi, who can’t keep her mouth shut, is humming. Loudly. And Mirabelle is humming with me.

Mon dieu!

“How did you do?” my husband asks when he picks me up.

I show him the signed certificate. I show him Mirabelle’s number because she wants to keep in touch. I show him the pages of notes I’ve taken about French history, French laws, even about French symbols.

“And did you speak up?” He is laughing.

“Not much,” I answer.

And armed with that certificate, and after an entire morning in another office, I am officially awarded my Carte de Sejour that is good for 10 whole years! Of course, I had to wait a month for the laminiated copy.  Read More 
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Fifi, the Immigrant

One part of the LINE!
Fifi the Immigrant

In 2003 it took one month of hard work to marry my Cheri in Nice.

All my papers had to be translated into French and stamped by an official translator, and we spent days running from translator to stamper. My birth certificate, the short one that decades ago had gotten me married in America, wasn’t enough for France and was rejected. After three appointments with the American embassy, where I begged for them to do something since I had this wedding planned, the officials finally certified that I was born Phyllis Carol Agins, daughter of Marvin and Marcia, both of Connecticut. That, too, needed an official stamp and translation.

Finally, on a Saturday morning at 8 AM (while everyone will still be fresh, Madame), I was allowed to go to the mayor’s office and have someone read out the above information. In her clear, perfectly executed, official voice, the deputy mayor also proclaimed my birth date so everyone there would be sure that I am ten years older than my Frenchie husband (well, good for me!).

I was given a livre de la famille, a notebook that lists all the important information, and also offers nine pages for the names of each of my future children. With the French desire to keep things clear, spaces for their dates of death were included, as well.

I looked at the official. Both of us were well past thinking about babies. She smiled at me knowingly. Surely, her eggs were dead, too.

Last summer, I decided it would be prudent to be able to stay longer than three months at a time in Europe (What if my Frenchie needed to be there? What if he needed me to stay with him?). I collected all my papers and applied for le carte de séjour, the step before French nationality. (Really, Fifi, une française!)

What a trip it’s been. My Frenchie rails daily against the bureaucracy that has created thousands of jobs for officials (called les fonctionnaires), about all the pieces of paper, and about the Very Important Documents he has needed to accumulate to prove that he is French and that I am his wife. He insists that one office doesn’t know what the other is doing, and that all those papers and all that work were just plain silly.

Moi? I’m enchanted.

When my Cheri got his green card, my immigration lawyer son arranged an escort for us to the Paris office of the American Embassy. All over in ten minutes of lively conversation and photo sharing. I can’t imagine how arduous the experience might have been without that personal connection.

But on the first day of my immigration process, I was sent to an air-conditioned room (happily after a 90 degree heat wave), along with dozens of others seeking official status in France. There several officials greeted us. The first, a social worker, explained our rights: to social security (yaay—health care!), and to help finding jobs and apartments. France, in fact, wanted to help us with everything necessary to create a new life in our new country. The government wanted us to succeed!

The second, the directrice who came from a French island somewhere in the Pacific (and who wore the most gorgeous Tahitian pearl that I’ve ever seen), told us of our obligations. We needed to pass a test in French, and, if we failed, we’d have to take a language course or two. We all needed to attend a day of lectures on French civic responsibility. She warned that we weren’t allowed to skip it—or to swim in the ocean or sun at the beach, instead. We were to be on time because if we preformed well enough and promised to be good citizens, we’d be given a contract with France, itself. People around me looked positively panicked.

When it was my turn to be interviewed, I babbled on, hoping I had the right tense, the right word—that I was actually making sense.

“You speak French well,” woman said at last.

Merci, Alliance Française, I told myself.

My Frenchie wore his I-told-you-so face.

The rest, a quick visit with a doctor, a chest x-ray, and a conversation with another woman in English (because I was her big chance to practice) about my height and weight (good after the French Dukan diet). Finally, I received my stamp of approval only to learn that I had to appear at another office ASAP before my visa expired in a few days.

At the Prefecteur (the official depository and source for all French forms), we waited in line for hours. That line started forming at six AM, long before the doors opened at nine. When we arrived, coissants in hand, the line was four deep, and so long we couldn’t even see the door we were to enter. Around us, waiting to be deposit their papers, were all the immigrants who hoped for the same result. Everyone wanted to win that same piece of paper--the one that allowed them to live in France.

There were Africans from former French colonies—Senegal and the Ivory Coast; Islanders from the Pacific--Tahiti and New Caledonia; Arabs from Tunisia and Algeria; a British couple who had bought a vacation home; and Chechens—the women in kerchiefs and long patterned skirts, the men in tee shirts covered with Russian words. Around us mothers from everywhere carefully guarded their children in strollers or bundled babies tightly against their chests. When the doors finally opened, the line of quiet people broke into a multitude running in different directions, only to be caught in new lines inside. There was no getting around the French penchant for lines and paper.

Finally, three hours later, we finally approached the window to find out which new line we needed to join. But that official informed us that we needed more pieces of paper, more records, and more expressionless (remove all jewelry, Madame, and, s’il vous plâit, do not smile) photos to finish the task. Two more visits and I had everything in order. With only one day left on my visa, I was finally welcomed to France.

I gained one certificate that states I speak French well enough, another that ensures I’m not searching for work. But before I could win that plasticized carte de séjour, I needed another certificate that promised I accept my French responsibilities. And that would take a daylong, Saturday session, given in French. With lunch provided, of course.

I dressed conservatively for that solemn day—long black dress, modest décolleté and simple earrings. I was determined to show I took the process seriously, proud American that I am.

“Are you going to talk in your class?” my Frenchie asked when he dropped me off.

“Not a word,” I swore.

My husband laughed because he’d never known me to be silent.

NEXT—Can Fifi keep her promise?
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Even Doctors on Wheels

Doctors' names on apartment buildings

I’m sitting in my doctor’s office in Philadelphia, reading one of those medical magazines meant to keep patients happy while they’re waiting. On every page there is advertising for this vitamin and that drug, and for various doctors, both MDs and DOs, who are waiting for you—their next patient.

In one photo, a doctor stands in the middle of all the female help. He wears the proof of his medical degree--his stethoscope around his neck. Everyone else is dressed in colorful scrubs but carry no stethoscopes. And everyone is smiling. The ad lists the doctor’s address, phone numbers and the fact that he is board certified.

It’s a very typical ad for America and one that I’ve never seen in France, where medicines aren’t advertised on TV and doctors don’t solicit patients.

I know, I know, how much has been written about the perils of “socialized” medicine that threaten the American way of life. How people are suffering in Canada and England, and how they long to come here to be treated. I also know what I pay every month for health care insurance, even though I belong to a large group. The costs, despite a recession and new health care policies, keep going up.

I’ve also heard about terrible medical practices in all those other countries that have “fallen by the way” by adopting socialized medicine. I can’t speak about the health care system everywhere else, but I can describe my experiences in France.

For a long time in France, I paid my own fees as an outsider from the system. Now, of course, I’m connected to my husband’s social security benefits and pay little. I even have my own card with my unsmiling face (no happy expressions allowed), stamped on the front. Read the examples below and let me know what you think.

For the most part doctors’ offices are inside regular apartment buildings. There are few medical complexes. You take the elevator and enter an ordinary apartment, where the living room has become the waiting room. Ordinary chairs wait for you. Very little is color-coordinated. Everyone who enters says, "Bonjour," because that’s considered polite. Sometimes there’s a receptionist in a little alcove in the hall, sometimes not. The doctor often does his own scheduling.

The doctor comes out to greet you and you follow him/her into the office (one of the original bedrooms). If you’re a French citizen, you have a medical card that the doctor swipes in a computer terminal. All of your medical information is instantly available to him. The doctor types the reason for your visit that is instantly added to your history.

Then you’re examined, right there on a table that is usually in the same room as the office. The doctor doesn’t hop between patients. No assistants jump in to take your vitals. You are with only the doctor for the whole time.

My husband visited a cardiologist. As part of the exam, the doctor did an echocardiogram during the same visit. He showed my husband the screen and explained all the sign posts of healthy arteries. He even did a “Marie Antoinette,” as he called laughingly it, to produce a cross section of my husband’s carotid arteries.

“All clear,” he pronounced.

We didn’t have to make an additional appointment to see a radiologist and then wait a week (full of anxiety) for the doctor to call with the results.

One summer, my son visited us in France and complained of pain in his back. I did the normal Mother thing. Doctor’s appointment. Long conversation.

“I’d like to do an x-ray,” she explained.

“How long will that take?” I asked anxiously, remembering how things were at home.

“Just walk two blocks to this office,” she wrote down the name. “And I’ll call them for you. But there’s no emergency.”

We walked. We waited 20 minutes. He had the x-ray. Another 20 minutes. The radiologist invited us to see the film.

“Nothing to worry about. Just muscular,” the doctor explained, pointing to clean areas in his back. She gave me the films to take home.

The cost? 120 euros. For the doctors, the x-rays, the explanation. Over in one hour.

Then there was the summer when I grew more and more dizzy. I’d walk down the street with my head spinning, as though my equilibrium had been thrown away with the morning trash.

I was scared. Immediately that imagination of mine took over, conjuring up every dread disease known to man.

My husband called a specialist, an ENT doctor. “Let’s start there,” he insisted.

My appointment was scheduled for the next day. The doctor greeted me, went through my history, listened to my complaints. Then he led me to a small room fitted with audiology testing equipment.

No assistant appeared to run the test. For the next half hour, the doctor dialed the sounds as he formulated his diagnosis. Swelling in my inner ear was causing the dizziness. Ahhh, I breathed out.

His charge—60 euros.

My next stop was to the pharmacy where someone taught me to operate a breathing machine that would deliver medicine to my inner ear. 30 minutes. 75 euros to rent the machine, half of that only a security deposit.

A flu shot at the pharmacy in France? 4 Euros. Here at RiteAide--$30, even with health insurance.

If you need a doctor right away for an illness that doesn’t require the hospital ER, you simply call SOS Medicine and a doctor will arrive—most often on scooter. And there’s something wonderful about being treated in a polite atmosphere, where no one is rushed to see the next patient.

The French believe that everyone is entitled to health care. Yes, they pay high taxes—a sliding scale up to 50 %, for the rich, rich people, based on what people make. My husband says it’s not an exact science. Social security gives you 75% reimbursement for medical care, but if you have no money, the government pays everything. Some decide to buy an additional private policy for the rest. The French also get retirement, disability insurance, and free education for all their children—even to the Sorbonne, if the kid is smart enough to get in. Medical doctors are trained for FREE. They don’t leave medical school with more than a hundred thousand dollars of debt.

Finally, I just read an article in AARP magazine about expats living in foreign countries. They quoted WHO (World Health Organization) that listed the French system as the best in the world.

One person’s experiences. I have skilled, caring doctors here in Philadelphia. But I often wonder why we can’t be more like the French.  Read More 
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A question of underwear.

A typical store window.

Silk underwear from the 30's in Nice's antique market.

I turn right and left, glaring at my reflection in the mirror, working hard to hide my bra straps behind my dress. “The straps are showing,” I complain to my husband.

“Et quoi?” And what, my husband asks. “You’re in France.”

He’s right, of course.

In France, bra straps are never a problem. In fact, breasts can be seen everywhere. Forget that the beaches in the south of France filled with semi-exposed bodies because women detest any form of tan line. Even television commentators bare their arms (way before Michelle Obama did) and ignore the American penchant for suits. French presenters aren’t afraid of low cut blouses or dresses. And then there was the woman I recently noticed. With three young children following her, she nursed her newest baby, who was draped in a sling, from her totally exposed breast. In America the brave mother uses the latest “hooter hider” when nursing in public.

Something is very different in France. After all the symbol of their republic is the half-naked Marianne raising the flag over a battle, while ours is an eagle.

“That’s why we like her,” my husband jokes.

I realized how different the women were my first time in Paris, way back in the 70’s. There was something so unusual, I marveled, about the way they walked, how they hung a necklace around their necks, tied a scarf along with that necklace. What was it?

My second investigation came during a week in Aix en Provence ten years ago when I walked the narrow streets with my grown-up daughter by my side. Even she agreed—the women were so beautiful. Narrow-hipped, silk dresses kissing their knees, their high heels clicking on the cobblestones, baskets balanced on their arms. And they were only shopping for the day’s groceries!

For ten years, then, I’ve been trying to understand.

One thing I’ve learned is that French women love their lingerie and will find any excuse to show it. Thongs show through skirts and tight pants. I even saw a woman in her 40’s wearing a black thong under white pants.

“Is that really necessary?” I asked my husband.

“She’s not shy,” he admitted, laughing.

It was true that the woman had a tight bum and walked in tantalizing high heels. But black underwear, of any size, under white?

A definite faux pas in America.

In France, bras peek through fabric, above dress lines and no one seems to care.

Straps are publicly displayed with pride, crystals march along some straps, bows are added with abandon. A pair of underpants there can cost 60 euros—or $80, a bra over 120 euros—or $160. The women find a way to pay for these luxuries because the underwear does more than the obvious— it seduces, it proclaims womanhood. It makes the wearer feel good.

The women here are proud of their femininity in ways that would make Americans shocked or envious. They wear dresses all summer. I’ve never seen a French woman walking in town in shorts and flip-flops—never. Here, even the older women show their décolleté, wrinkled or spotted and old. Even the older women, heavy or thin, wear their fancy lingerie, the lace visible through light summer fabrics.

On my first trip to the south of France all those years ago, I went to Cassis, and saw the women marching along the beach, clad only in bikini bottoms. There, I tried my faltering French on a friendly older man in a café by the beach. He was happy to tolerate my bad French and my naïve questions.

“Why do the girls walk around here half naked?” I asked. My daughter sat beside me whispering, “I don’t think I could ever do that.”

“Ah,” he replied, “they are so beautiful at that age, non? And so confident with their gifts.”

“And the older women,” I asked, carefully motioning toward a woman easily in her 60’s who crossed the beach, her flattened breasts exposed for all to see.

The man laughed. “Because it still feels good—the sun and wind on her skin.”

“Even if she’s not young?”

“For her, she is still beautiful.”

I’ve always thought that that conversation spoke of the difference between us. There have been so many books published lately about the mysteries of French women who age so beautifully, guarding their silhouettes and skin, their sublime femininity.

But I have finally discovered the truth. “Elles sont bien dans leur peau.” Translation: “They are good in their skin.”

No matter what the books proclaim, it’s not what they eat, or that they still smoke, or that they walk everywhere. It’s pretty simple, and for most of us, pretty complex.

French women simply like themselves.

Straps that are meant to be seen.

Next time: My experiences with “socialized” medicine in France.
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Why I love phlox, Majorelle blue, and other tales from a Marrakech Garden

I’ve always had a love affair with phlox. Wherever I’ve lived—Framingham, Massachusetts; Durham, North Carolina; Philadelphia and its suburbs--wherever I’ve had a garden or just a pot of dirt on a step, I’ve insisted on planting a clump of the tall fragrant, flowers. I never minded that the leaves are easily covered with powdery mildew in the moist summers. Above the discolored leaves, the small flowers soar, pinks to purples, whites with purple centers, sometimes oranges or even reds, clumped together to form large flower heads.

But this winter was particularly harsh with my roof top garden. Only a few stalks have appeared, and only a few flowers at the ends. Still I cup my hands around the delicate flowers and breathe deeply. Like Proust discovered with his beloved Madeleines, the flowers transport me back to my jeunesse—that time called childhood. Long ago, I discovered that the tiny flowers could be removed intact and still leave dozens more for the next fantasy. Then, with a needle that my mother had threaded, I strung the blossoms to make the most wondrous things—necklaces, a crown, the flowing end of a fairy wand.

But recently I’ve been introduced to another garden pleasure. Marrakech guards the famous Majorelle Garden that Yves St Laurent rescued in the 80’s, made his home, and eventually chose as the place to scatter his ashes. The garden was originally designed in the 20’s by art deco painter, Jacques Majorelle, who concocted the most extraordinary shade of cobalt blue.

In Marrakech, the blue is paired with red, a shade of green and another shade of yellow. Because the climate is arid, succulents and palms abound in painted pots that line the walkways. But even there, turtles crowd around a pool, and people rest in the shade, sheltered from the Moroccan sun.

I was so moved by this blue—I can say it no more emphatically—that I had to discover how to own it for myself. I bought a small souvenir in the color to take home. After that first trip, my husband and I visited French paint shops with computers that guaranteed to reproduce ANY color in the world. The blue was a mystery.

Another man, who actually owned a paint factory, bragged that he could do a Majorelle blue without any trouble. The result was a huge pot, large enough to hold a grown tree, that he kept throwing red and blue into, mixing and stirring, and finally sweating and swearing (in French, of course), because he could NOT get the color right.

We had to go back to the gardens. On my second trip, I spotted a work shed tucked away behind a grove of bamboo. And behind the shed, were empty pots of Majorelle blue. And on the pots, as any detective would surely discover, in tiny writing, half in Arabic script and, thankfully, half in French, was the address. Majorelle blue. Devoid of white, that was the secret, mixed with a mysterious base that produced the color.

The shopkeeper promised to send our just-heavy-enough quart to France (because taking it on the plane, was, of course, impossible). And sure enough, two weeks later, opened and resealed, dented and scratched, our blue arrived.

I stole some to bring home to my garden in Philadelphia. Now I guard the small amount that remains because I’ve painted several pots and keep just enough for touchups. In the light or in the shade, the color excites just as much as a small flower that once called forth the fairies. Read More 
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