lundi, mars 15, 2010

10.03.15: C'est terminé

OK, it's done.

I started this blog 4 years ago as a way to describe the new world in which I found myself, that enigmatic placed called France. Now, after a few months back in the USA, I can look back over some of these moments and recall what a strange and wondrous journey it was.

I had the great fortune to have:
- lived just outside of Paris,
- worked daily with a talented and welcoming bunch of French folks,
- travelled to the 6 corners of France, and many of the places in between,
- endured long evenings surrounded by people talking incessantly in a language I didn't understand,
- visited nearly a dozen other countries in Europe and Africa,
- bicycled thousands of kilometers of country and mountainous roads with the best bicyle club in all of Europe,
- tasted wines of perhaps thousands of very fine wine makers,
- missed my family,
- formed a formidable partnership to learn me French with the best prof in Ile de France,
- taken the time to appreciate midieval architecture and renaissance paintings,
- gained a lot of respect for anyone who has ever emigrated to another country,
- shared it all with a partner who didn't lose her sense of humor (too often), despite significant daily challenges,
- survived it all to tell the stories.

But, now it's done.

If you find yourself in a similar situation and have a question or two, feel free to drop me a line.

If you found anything interesting or enjoyable in this blog, remember, you too can start your very own.

Au revoir.

vendredi, août 14, 2009

09.08.14: Ultimate Tourist Experience (2): Asset seizure by foreign gouvernement

As interesting as was the hospital experience, I'm thinking having all my foreign assets seized by foreign gouvernement may in fact be a little more interesting. You decide.

Returned home from work Thurs evening, checked the mail as usual. I will say, the mailbox is usually empty, from time to time the electric bill, checking account statement, or a discount coupon from Speedy Rabbit pizza delivery. In other words, not normally a highlight of the day.

Opened the plain letter envelope addressed to me. What a surprise: Your checking account (i.e., all the funds I have accessible to me) has been frozen by the French government for failure to pay taxes!

If you want to see how this is exactly written in French, (in case you ever receive something similar, for example), see the image here attached:

So why does this happen?

A fun thing about being an expat is that we all sign contracts with our employers to outline our respective responsibilities, and then our employers honor those responsibilities, as they choose. In my case, my employer committed to manage the French tax situation. My role in all this is to provide certain tax preparers correct information in a timely fashion, and sign some forms attesting to the accuracy of said documents. I do not write checks to the frenchies. Apparently, my company decided not too either. After 3 years of this mis-behavior, I guess some french fonctionnaire somewhere decided that that was enough. Interesting fact supplied by my bank the following morning: the tax authority needs provide zero documentation to my bank for the veracity of their claim to seize my assets. Only an amount to seize, which in my case, was substantially beyond the amount in my account; in fact, substantially beyond the amount I have ever had in a checking account. Thus, my account was totally seized.

What to do?

Well, like always, get on the phone, send faxes, harass, repeat myself, send friends and family down to the local tax office to get clarification, have my accountant friend (who is on vacation in central France) call the tax authorities and explain to them the situation (in a language I am sure only they can understand) which puts them in a mood to be responsive if anyone would show up with a check for the right amount, and then oh yeah harass the ir-responsibles on 2 or 3 continents (is England part of Europe ?) to get my taxes paid and my account re-opened.

As sometimes happens, there is in fact someone who has authority and the right mindset to resolve a problem. I was fortunate enough to find such person by late morning Friday. She responded mightily; checks written, apologies not made; account re-opened Friday afternoon, with 15 minutes to spare before everyone shuts down for the 3-day bank week-end. I am out 102€ bank fees (to be discussed, bien sûr), but I can go to the market on Sat AM and buy a fresh rabbit for the grill, some Bleu d'Auvergne, and a little Languedoc for accompaniment.

Twenty-four hour diversion in an otherwise remarkably interesting lifestyle.

dimanche, mars 29, 2009

09.03.29 : Ultimate Tourist Experience; The Ides of March

So, anyway, I had been giving some consideration to what I wanted to do for my birthday this year, like a very nice dinner with some friends, perhaps with just my wife, or a BBQ in the garden or whatever, and well, I just never executed a plan, and then, as often happens, something just happens that takes the decision right away from me. That thing, was, of course the ultimate tourist-ethno-cultural-study experience .... foreign hospital!

Now that I am sort of (and I mean sort of) over the shock to my system of actually being 50, I can almost talk coherently about some of the events leading up to that moment in my now definitely-more-than-half-over life.

Like a lot of Sunday mornings, I started off on a bike ride with the local cycling club. On the climb up the first hill, the famous little colline to Ormesson, I said to myself: Oh shit, this is not going to be a good day, as my little heart pounded rather strangely. Ouup, demi-tour, after 15 km, returned home, and then about an hour later, decided to go to the hospital for a little EKG and relaxation, with the idea in mind to be home in time for dinner. Well, even if you don't speak much French, it was obvious from the 2 doctors, 1 nurse and 2 technicians circling my little roll-a-bed in the emergency hallway: You are not going home today. As they pointed out to me: Hey, you're lucky ... we even have an open bed today.

I had never spent a night in a hospital in my life, and I get to do it on the 8th floor of the very celebrated public hospital Henri Mondor of Créteil, just outside the frenchy confines of Paris.

On the cardiology ward, there are only old men, and me. Fortunately, I have a shared room. Fortunately, my roommate, about 75 years old, not only has a heart problem, but perhaps slight hearing loss also, and of course, the remote control for the TV. I know this is just a bad dream, but I swear, as I am trying to catch a little nap in the afternoon between EKGs and injections of I-don't-know-what, I swear my wife is answering questions to a French game show that is blaring on the TV. I doze off and my wife jumps up says: "Utrillo! Yes!" Is this really happening? More drugs, please. The best show on TV of course was saved for after dinner: Demain n'arrive jamais. In other words: 007, Tomorrow never comes. I didn't know Pierce Brosnan spoke so much French. The only segments not dubbed in French are all the segments not in English ... so when they speak German or Chinese, they sub-title in French. When they speak English, they dub in French. Logic. Anyway, there is a lot of blowing up of planes and ships and rockets and stuff. The volume was enough to make your heart stop.

I have heard a lot of French people comment on the American health care system, and apparently our desire to define payment responsibilities and methods prior to providing treatment. I was in my little hospital bed on Mon AM, when the admissions desk calls me to discuss their concern with my insurance. "Can you come down to admissions to discuss this with us?" I'm in a hospital bed, with a drip line connected to my arm. Sure, I can come down; I'm not doing anything up here. So, I throw on some jeans, pull my drip line thru my sleeve to put on a shirt, and walk down to the elevator with my drip bag on a pole with 5 wheels, of which one wheel actually rolls, while the other 4 do not, requiring me to carry the roll-a-pole system.

There are innumerable pleasant things to say about French people. This is one of their charms: they live for themselves. Example: With my roll-a-pole and drip bag, I try to enter the elevator to descend the 8 floors to discuss the medical payment plan. This is one of those big elevators that is used to transport the hospital beds, I imagine you can comfortably fit about 8 or 9 people without crowding. There are 4 people in the elevator, all standing by the door. Not one moves to allow me in. I have to bap the first man nearest the door with my drip bag pole to get him to back up. A few minutes later, standing in line at admissions with my little bag-on-a-stick, one woman nearly runs me and my poled bag over to cut the line in front of me. The world rotates independently around each French person. 60 million little suns and planets and universes. Watch out for the black holes. We make some phone calls to the US to discuss the insurance plan, which seems satisfactory to the admissions. She actually speaks some English. The only person in 2 days who speaks English to me is the one collecting the money. Go figure. I notice on the way out she speaks Italian to someone on the phone. International language, that money thing.

The nice cardiologists eventually allowed me to leave the hospital. Armed with a prescription to protect me from my new found arrythmia, I have permission to do whatever I want. We’ll see how this goes.

Beware the ides of March.

Some are you are already 50; some, like Jay, very soon to be.

For the rest of you, be very afraid.

Happy Spring and Easter and all that,

mercredi, novembre 05, 2008

08.11.05: La nuit américaine

Dear Mr. President-elect:

It is 0630. I just left a bar in the 8th arrondissement of Paris. You just finished your speech recognizing that you are now the president-elect of the most powerful nation on earth.

There is, and has been for the last few hours, rejoicing in the streets of Paris. I was in the Sherwood for the last 5 hours watching the results come in on the big screen. When Ohio went your way, I told them you had the election, no doubt about it. Harry’s Bar, next door, was jam packed, as was the bar across the street, as was the street between these three bars, a small street, deep in the heart of Paris, crammed with people from all over Europe, watching the big screens, smoking their hand rolled cigarettes, drinking alternatively beer and champagne, speaking alternatively french and franglish, all the while hoping, and yes even praying, that you would win the election.

I was in Paris, also, in April 2003. Just a few weeks after the war in Irak began. Before the big election this year, I reviewed my photos of the buildings around Paris from that time, adorned with 2-story banners, proclaiming the illegality of the american guerre en Iraq. I still have some of the stickers the french gave me at the time: Halte la guerre en Irak. I remember thinking how odd it felt to be american in france, and being uncomfortable when people asked me where I was from. I heard other Americans at the time say that they were canadiens, just because they didn’t want to be hassled.

This morning, I can tell you, in the streets of Paris, everyone is an american.

The little parisienne socialiste next to me explained how your victory was the only way for the US to move forward from the heavy chains of the soon-to-be former administration. The young french guy, american flag draped over his shoulders, dark aviator glasses, raised his fist in victory and chanted: on y va; on y va; oui, on peut; oui, on peut. The tunisenne, tears streaming down her cheeks, kissed me (hey, you weren’t there) explained to me what it means to see the USA elect a black man president. If it can happen for us, just think what the Algerians and other North Africans can accomplish in France. Just think about what every minority can do everywhere. Hope can come from anywhere. Hope is needed everywhere. Hope is more than a small town in Arkansas.

So, as I left the bar with Fréd the neighbor, headed home to catch a few hours sleep (it’s still a work day for me), here is what I hope for the short term future:

  1. Abandon Iraq. Cut our (and their) losses and let’s move on. Sorry.
  2. Send all of our troops to the Afghani-omni-Stans. I don’t know how many –stans there are, but we have unfinished business there. We let our resources get diverted to Iraq. I’m tired of thinking that any individual, any group, can attack the US and still be in existence 7 years later. Finish the job. Ask for volunteers. Ask for what it takes. Get it done.
  3. Close Guantanamo. Period.
  4. Oh yeah, we have a few economic concerns. We can work our way through them. Let’s clean up our external mess, and the internal will sort itself out.
  5. Let’s treat each other like compatriots, neighbors, fellow americans again, working together to resolve our common problems.

Congrats. Thanks.
Let’s go. Let’s not lose the moment.
It feels good to feel good about being american.
I left the US after the last election, living in Europe for more than 3 years now.
It feels good to think about coming home again.

Let me know how I can help.

samedi, novembre 01, 2008

08.11.01: La preuve

Just to prove that I really did do my homework, studied hard, showed up on time, and have a really good french teacher, and that all of that is now officially recognized by the Minister of Education of the Republic of France ...

vendredi, octobre 31, 2008

08.10.31: DELF B2, de plus: scariness in the modern world

So, anyway, I succeeded in passing the DELF B2 back in July. They notified me of my great success at the end of August. Seemed perfectly normal. They also told me that I would receive a fancy nice diploma from the French Ministry of Education and Other Important Things.

It's the end of October. It's Halloween, in fact, and I have not heard a word from them. So, I called l'Alliance Française to ask them if they had forgotten about me or lost my mailing address.

I said: Hey, I passed the DELF back in July and have not yet received my diploma.
She said: Normal. Tout à fait normal.

This is a phrase I hear often enough to explain situations that I still don't find at all normal.

She then went on to explain the tortuous path that this diploma must travel before it ends up in my mailbox, probably five months after the exam. This little piece of paper will criss-cross France and visit several important gouvernemental offices through bureaus of only the most qualified diploma signers in France. And then, and only then, will then send it to me. I find that a little scary in this 21st century.

That is how I know this little diploma is very, very special.

Happy Halloween.

mercredi, août 27, 2008

08.08.27: DELF B2, Results, Réussite

It's official ... I passed the DELF B2.

75/100, quand même! ... that should get a mentioné 'bien' by any normal french standard.

I am now certified by l'Alliance Française, and I suppose the Ministère of Education of the République of France, to possess a certain degree of independence within a franco-phone environment and ... to be capable of correcting my own mistakes!

(At least in the realm of minor grammatical french errors, at any rate).

I suppose for the serious mistakes, I'll still rely on you to point them out to me!

I think I'll celebrate by throwing a little chicken on the grill, eatin' one of my very own home-grown tomates with a little Mozzarella, and, well, maybe a glass of Bourgueil (why not).

Bien mérité, even if I have to say so myself.

jeudi, juillet 31, 2008

08.07.31: DELF B2: Epreuve Production Orale

Last day of DELF-ing exams arrives.

Just to add the next chapter of the story, here is how it goes ...

Arrive at l'Alliance Française 1/2 hour before scheduled exam time. Sit in the hallway for 1 hour with other prospective delf-ers. Young woman sitting next to me is Italian, needing to demonstrate a level B2 Delf to gain admission into a university in Angers. Didn't ask what she is going to study, instead we joked about the high level of dis-organization that is Rome. She also commented that it was likely significantly more difficult for an anglo-phone to learn french than an italo-phone. We all start from somewhere. That knowledge helps me not at all today.

One-by-one we are called into the exam prep room. The examin-atrice asks me if I received her e-mail, which previously required 10 mintues of telephone conversation. I said: Thank you very much. I am given a command to choose one of 6 face down blue cards. The card I choose happens to have the numbers 9 and 10 on the face side. The examin-atrice then shows me 2 titles corresponding to articles 9 and 10, and commands that I choose one of the articles for my exam topic du jour. I choose bio-diversité in the title. The subject of the other was not immediately obvious from the title.

I now have 30 minutes to prepare myself to talk for 20 minutes. In my 20 minutes épreuve, I should demonstrate that I well understood the point of view of the article, that I have my own opinion about the subject that I can express well in an organized fashion, that I can understand and respond to topical questions from a bona-fide française, and that your average french person would not have extreme difficulty to understand my admittedly heavily anglo-phonic accented prononciation of french words. Whatever.

I did the best that I could. I spoke for 10 minutes non-stop at the outset to express my point of view. At which point the examin-atrice said:
    "OK, that was perfect."
I didn't know if this was just another sort of cute meaningless french phrase, intended to put me at ease, or if in fact she was commenting on my presentation skills. I said:
    "That was perfect?"
She said:
    "Yes, that was 10 minutes, perfect. Now I need to ask you some questions ....."

OK, all in all, not a complete flop, from my point of view.

Scores available at the end of the month. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, here is the text I was presented as the basis of my impassioned discourse on the why-we-don't-need-yet-another-org to say what is already being promoted by several other important scientifique organizations ...

Happy reading,

Un appel international en faveur de la biodiversité
Caroline de Malet 15/10/2007 Mise à jour : 16:35 Le Figaro
LA TERRE est «au seuil d'une crise majeure» ! C'est en ces termes que dix-neuf scientifiques issus de treize pays lancent un appel à la communauté scientifique mondiale, en l'exhortant à parler d'une même voix pour orienter les politiques mondiales de la biodiversité. Publiée aujourd'hui dans la revue Nature (1), leur déclaration exige que soit «comblé de toute urgence le fossé entre les sciences de la biodiversité et les politiques». Car, soulignent les auteurs de cet appel, «la quasi-totalité des domaines concernés est en forte régression et de nombreuses populations ou espèces risquent de disparaître au cours du siècle. Malgré cette évidence, la biodiversité reste largement sous-évaluée et insuffisamment prise en compte par les politiques publiques comme par les entreprises».

Les signataires de cette déclaration proposent donc que soit mise sur pied une instance qui fédère le point de vue de la communauté scientifique et oriente les décisions politiques.

jeudi, juillet 24, 2008

08.07.24: DELF B2, Epreuves écrites

So, the first of two days of épreuves arrives. Today is the day that I get to demonstrate my french skills in written comprehension and also in producing a coherent written argument of my own making.

The exam begins earlier than anticipated.

I arrive at the appointed address in the 6th, just off métro stop Notre-Dames-des-Champs, about twenty minutes early. In the lobby is a sign posted: DELF B2 8ème étage, prenez l'ascenseur with some little arrows pointing to the left. I followed the direction of the arrows to find the elevator, with a small hand-written piece of paper stuck on the elevator doors: H-S. This is a sort of pop-quiz. H-S means hors service ... the elevator don't work, in other words. OK.

I climb to the ninth floor. Enter a classroom, where there is a guy already in the room, with a crutch laying on the floor next to him. I said: Did you take the steps? He replied: Was there a choice? So much for handicapped foreigners. Can't walk up nine floors in a non-air conditioned building in mid-July? Guess you don't get to pass the exam.

About thirty additional potential ‘independants’ arrive by the same path. After all of us have entered the classroom, the examiner arrives and states: “It is clearly marked on the door not to enter. You need to leave while we arrange the room for the exam.” We did not point out to her that it also is marked on the door: Exam in process.

We thirty shuffle out to stand on a platform at the top of the stairs that is large enough for five. The rest stream down the stairwell in the July afternoon heat. Ten minutes later, our examiner opens the door and begins calling us into the room one-by-one. Names of origins from around the globe, all ready to demo our newly acquired French skills. Some for citizenship, some for university entrance, some for job advancement. Show ID. Sign the log. Receive seating assignment for the day. Enter the next potential victim. The guy taking the test next to me is German, looking to establish his 3rd language competency to allow the next level promotions for his fonctionnaire position with the EU.

After all 30 of us are signed-in, seated, and nearly sedated from the heat, it is time to begin the actual exam.

The exam was … as advertised.

Oral Comprehension … 2 extracts from radio interviews to listen to, then questions of true/false, multiple choice, short answer. Always difficult for me to understand the nuances.
Written Comprehension … one text from an advertising company touting their ability to provide marketing strategies for the adolescent market; second text an editorial from Le Point about the changing political landscape in environmental concerns.
Written Production … write a letter requesting financial support for a bicycle rally that is promoting increased bicycle use in our daily living. I sense the checks are already in the mail coming my way.

2 ½ hrs of concentration in French. Brasserie around the corner to suck down a cold beer after.

How did I do? Dunno yet. Feels like more than 50% correct to me, the minimum for success.

Next week is round 2.

For an example of the level of written comprehension expected, see the following:

Two example questions:
Define what is meant by: corvéable à merci
Describe the significance of the word “ mutant” in the last paragraph.

dimanche, juin 29, 2008

08.06.29: DELF B2, Problem Solving 101

Two subjects: demonstration of foreign language capability; basic problem solving skills.

I decided that after 2 years of french lessons and, oh by-the-way, living in a francophone country, perhaps I should officially document the level of french language proficiency that I have achieved. (And I'm not even completely sure that last phrase is grammatically correct in english). There is an official exam, recognized by the EU, for example, and administered by le ministères français de l’Éducation nationale, which is called the DELF/DALF. Multiple choice for which level you would like to demonstrate: A1, A2, B1, B2, C1, C2, from lowest to highest proficiency.

I decided to go for the B2: "Independent." Has a nice ring to it. I am no longer completely dependent to rely on the kind graces of the local population to survive. I can perhaps, from time to time, express my own wants and needs with my own poorly pronounced words and phrases. Powerful. This is the official description: The B2 has acquired a degree of independence that permits her to argue, defend her opinion, develop her point of view and negotiate; demonstrates an ease with social conversation and self-corrects her errors. Also, this is the level needed to enter french universities or to attain certain levels of employment within the EU.

I sent in my check and registration at the end of May to Paris office of L’Alliance Française. My check was cashed within days.

I begin the preparation with my french teacher. In the last few weeks I have written and presented argumentative essays to solve most of the world’s problems: I have defended the rights of spammers, argued for the continuation of the tradition of bullfights in southern france, deplored the promotion of anorexic models in modern society, and campaigned for the adoption rights of homosexuals. Well, whatever. I signed up for this.

Problem solving.

We note often that there is a significant gap in demonstrated problem solving skills between americans and french. Seems like in the US, when you explain a simple problem to someone who is in a position to change a little something, they make the change. In France, often seems like the opposite. The more solutions you propose the more intractable becomes the problem.

I called L'Alliance Française this week to find out the times for my exams. I spoke to the woman who prepares the test material; she does not arrange the scheduling. Brief synopsis of our phone conversation:

  • I cannot help you. My colleague does the scheduling. I doubt that she can call you back; she is quite busy with all the planning, you know. You can come to Paris after the 10th of July and look at times posted on the board to find the schedule.

  • I don't live in Paris.

  • You don't know anyone who lives in Paris who can come to our office to read the posting for you?

  • No.

  • You don't know anyone in the suburbs who can ride a train into Paris to look at the posted times on the board?

  • No. Do you think you can mail me the information?

  • Oh, that is not possible sir. Then we'd have to mail one to everyone.

  • Hey, how about you could post the info on your web-site?

  • I agree that that is a good idea, but I don't have access to post info on the web-site?

  • Perhaps you know the person in your organization who manages the web-site, and you could request them to make the posting for us?
(After she corrects my pronunciation of 'twenty-first century')...

  • Well, certainly I know very well the web-site manager, but it's very, very difficult to make changes to the web-site, and with summer vacations and the other responsibilities, and believe you me, I agree it's a good idea, but I am sure there is a very low probability that that will happen. Did I tell you that I only manage the test material; our tasks here are very well defined and separated into little tiny boxes. My colleague takes care of the scheduling; my other colleague manages the web-site. We don't overlap on tasks.

  • Do you think you could send me an e-mail?

  • Weeeeell, exceptionellement, perhaps I could do that.
She notes my e-mail address, which I spell for her about 3 times.

  • I will try, this is not guaranteed, and you know, sometimes e-mails don't go thru. But very exceptionally for you, I will try.

Oh-la-la. Crisis averted. And I had that whole conversation in french.

Can I have a few bonus points for the upcoming exam based on this phone conversation?

Some links for amusing yourselves:
Info about the DELF/DALF:
L’Alliance Française: