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Inside my head...

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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