Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The French Office of Immigration and Integration

As an international living in France for more than three months, I had to visit l'Office Francais de l'immigration et de l'ntegration (affectionately known as OFII - pronounced OhFee) last week. This is a mandatory, two-step process including a medical exam and an interview, and if both steps are successfully completed, then a stamp is added to your visa to allow you to legally stay in France. I had heard several horror stories from colleagues and students about their experiences, so I was rather apprehensive as I boarded the train to Paris for this adventure.

I arrived 25 minutes early for my appointment only to find a sign on the door indicating that they were closed until 1pm (my appointment time).  Now that I knew where to find the office, I went for a little walk and enjoyed the sun that had made an appearance, and then returned at 12:55pm, only to find nearly 10 people loitering around the doors. When the security guard came to open the doors, he only let one person in at a time, and it was simply a matter of whomever was pushing their way closest to the door as to who got in first. Now, we all know how much I love crowds and people pushing into my space, so I was not the first one in, but there did become some sense of order and I finally made it in. Once inside, but still in the breezeway between the two sets of doors, I had to have my bags examined.  Typically this is not a big deal; however, this is the French government (who are very particular), and... I had two bags packed for a long holiday weekend, for which I was leaving immediately after my appointment.  Therefore, when I opened my bags for the guard to check, he saw layers of neatly folded clothes, which he insisted that I remove. Now mind you, I'm in the breezeway, and everyone outside can see what's happening. So, as I begin to unpack my bag, I'm trying to be discreet about what I pull out and he keeps telling me to remove more. As I hesitate, he gets impatient and asks which country I am from, and when I tell him I'm American he immediately says it's not a problem and motions for me to repack my bags and go through.

Proud of packing light - two small bags for 5 days!

Immediately inside the doors I check in at the front desk and am directed to a waiting room where I join the others who entered before me.  We wait there for maybe 30 minutes, until every chair in the room is occupied (nearly 30 seats), and then they call seven names - one of which was mine - and we all follow a nurse into another waiting room where we sit down and wait again. When my name is called, I talk with a nurse at a little counter in the waiting room where she confirms the accuracy of my paperwork and sends me on to the next stage, which is a urine sample - although there thankfully was a private stall for this, once finished you just carry your sample out to the next nurses station and set it on the counter! Ugh! I was weighed and measured (Surprisingly, I haven't gained any weight... yet!) and then was sent to another room to do an eye exam. Next I was pointed to a changing room type stall which had two doors (one that I entered through and one on the back side). This is the prep room for the chest x-ray, and for whatever reason, they don't provide you with any sort of cover up, they simply make you undress from the waist up and tell you to wait.  Suddenly the back door opens and the doctor tells me to come out into this big x-ray room. He pushes me up against the x-ray machine, takes the picture and then sends me back to the stall to get dressed.  I exit through the front door and am once again in the waiting room.  The people ahead of me continue through the process and then leave, and I'm still waiting. Eventually a nurse comes to tell me that the x-ray machine is blocked and we have to wait a little bit longer (or at least I think that's what she said, since it was all in French). More time passes and them I'm told to go back into the changing room, where I go through the whole x-ray process again and then wait some more. There's more talk amongst the nurses about the machine being blocked, and they decide to move the next group of people through the rest of the process without an x-ray. This leaves me stuck in the middle - not part of the next group, and still without an x-ray.  Finally the nurse calls my name and sends me back into the changing room. I tell her this is my third time and ask if I really have to do it again or if they just overlooked my second one.  She tells me that the second one didn't work and so yes, I have to do yet another x-ray. Thankfully, this one works and I continue through the process.  Through all of this, I must say that everyone was surprisingly kind - we were even laughing a few times!

At this point I'm sent into yet another changing room with two doors. On the other side of this door there is a small office where the nurse makes me remove my shirt yet again, simply to take my blood pressure. Once I'm re-clothed, she asks for my medical history. This is the first part of the process where I resort to English because I simply don't have the French vocabulary for this. All goes well and I'm sent back out to the front lobby where they issue me an official form stating that I'm healthy, and then I'm directed to yet another waiting room where yet another person calls my name.... which I must say is not easy to recognize because in French it sounds like Ezeure Taileurre, and I end up in a tiny office to complete the interview.  I was really anxious about this part because of my level of French, but it was really quite simple, just some basic questions about why I'm in France and how long I intend to stay, and she was gracious enough to use some English...... and then she issued my visa stamp, three hours after I started!!!

I was exhausted but thankful to be finished with that process and excited to board the train headed down to Aix-en-Provence for a vacation in the south of France. More to come on that in the near future.

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Meandering in Paris

I finally had my first solo trip to Paris and it was delightful! Nobody but myself to worry about, no agenda, no obligations, no plan - just a free day to explore. It was a beautiful sunny day; perfect for meandering around the city, window shopping, sightseeing, café-hopping and people-watching.


I took the train in to the city and then hopped on the metro with no real plan other than to explore a new part of the city, and so I ended up in the Etienne-Marcel neighborhood. The sun was out ALL DAY and the sidewalk cafés were bursting with people, as were the streets and the parks.

I wandered in and out of shops, and found a sunny café for some tea and crepes, and then eventually found myself at Notre Dame. Once inside, I took the opportunity to just sit for a while and soak up the beauty and history.

I left as the sun was setting, and then wandered into Saint Michel, where I spent some time in various book stores before stopping for dinner at a little Asian bistro. On my way to the metro I grabbed a couple of macarons for the train ride home. It was a fabulous day of leisurely exploring this beautiful city!

The other macaron was already in my mouth before I thought to take a picture!

Sunday, February 1, 2015

"Normal" Life in France

It's hard to believe that I have already been here THREE months! Thankfully, I feel much more comfortable here as I begin to settle into some sense of normalcy (which I hesitate to even type, knowing that things are always unpredictable and changing). So, here's a little random glimpse into my "normal" life: 

I can now order an afternoon treat for myself, in French, and have been checking out all of the local patisseries and boulangeries to see who has the best pastries.

Chocolat chaud et un macaron a la framboise

....and at the farmer's market this weekend I wasn't terrified that somebody would speak to me, but instead was eager to practice my French and chatted (very briefly) with one of the vendors after I ordered my pastry. 

A beautiful day at the market
The Farmer's Market/Swap Meet/Flea Market

This week I had the pleasure of dining with some new friends in their home. A very kind couple who are a host family for our students.  They cooked a beautiful, organic dinner - pumpkin/carrot soup and a leek quiche, all made with veggies they grew themselves. But the best part is that the majority of the evening the conversation was in French, and I understood it!! They were very gracious and patient to repeat and explain things slowly, and then to occasionally clarify in English, and I was even able to respond in French (very broken and heavily accented, but still French). It was a pleasant, but exhausting evening for which I am truly thankful.

Last week I got to go to an open mic jam session - I wasn't playing, just listening. It was rather chaotic, but fun to watch the various musicians put their names on the board and then assemble other musicians to play songs. No rehearsal, just live music. Some of it was surprisingly good, none of it was awful, and all of it was interesting. The venue is an old hat factory that has been converted into a community center, this provided some interesting things to look at during the music.

The first round of musicians

Les chapeaux

We finally got snow this week! Just enough to make everything pretty, and then the sun came out and made everything even more beautiful.

Unique ice formations on a car windshield
Beautiful sunshine after the snow