…you become a French cititzen

It has been a while since I last blogged.  Nearly two years to be exact.  In those two years, a lot has changed.  Some changes have been good, others bad.  France elected its youngest ever President, Emmanuel Macron (cf. macaron.)

Emmanuel Macron on a pile of macarons
Macron on a pile of macarons by illustrator Parisian Postcards, inspired by the latest Earful Tower podcast

Colette, a favourite hang-out of fashion folk and celebrities alike, closed its doors definitively.

colette1
Where will I buy my overpriced candles now?

And David Pujadas, heart-throb of many a high school French student (or was it just me?), was unceremoniously booted from France 2’s celebrated nightly news show, 20 heures.

david-pujadas-evince-de-france-2-il-remercie-les-telespectateurs-de-leur-fidelite-video
Parting is such sweet sorrow.  And that hair – was it indeed too good to be true ?

So it’s been a big two years, full of unexpected events.  But nothing prepared me for the letter that was waiting for me in my boite à lettres upon my recent return from a month-long séjour in Australia.  The first sentence of the letter simply read, “Madame, J’ai le plaisir de vous informer que vous avez acquis la nationalité française depuis le 20 décembre 2017.” (“I have the pleasure to inform you that you acquired French nationality on 20 December 2017.”)

Accordingly, I was told that I would be receiving, in around 6 months’ time, a letter from President Macaron himself enclosing some official-sounding documents, including my French birth certificate.  (I already asked about this and no, I am not being “re-born” French and I will not get a second birthday.  From what I understand I will get a certificate saying that I was born on my actual birthday (but in France?), which apparently will come from Nantes.  And no, technically I do not think this will make me bretonne, but I will claim it nonetheless.)

This letter came as quite a surprise.  Although it’s true that I applied for French citizenship nearly two years ago, all the rumblings I was getting from the Prefecture to the press indicated that, due to the overwhelming number of British people applying for citizenship, the already sluggish wheels of the bureau des naturalisations would be slowing to a snail’s pace.  Plus, at the end of my interview to acquire citizenship (yes, it’s a real interview – more about that later), I was effectively told, “Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”  So I did my very best to “bien vouloir patienter” (a nice way French people basically tell you to shut up and be patient), put the whole process out of my mind and assumed I would get some forewarning if and when my dossier had been accepted.

But no, I did not hear a peep out of the Prefecture until I got back from Australia around half a year later (in mid-January), when I found out that I’d been French for a month and didn’t even know it.

This was all the more surprising given that I didn’t exactly pass my citizenship interview with flying colours.  I’d done my best to study.  I read the Livret du citoyen (a handy booklet prepared by the Ministère de l’Intérieur, a kind of Dummy’s guide to how to be a good French citizen.)  I highlighted the key dates.  I tried to memorize the notoriously complicated carte administrative (the administrative map of France), and then quickly gave up (much like the time my parents told me I was going to a Catholic high school and I tried to read to the bible the night before.)  I learnt the names of five rivers in France (someone told me this might come up.)  I went into the interview feeling good about my prospects of becoming French.

The interview started well.  My rapporteur (a.k.a the guy looking after my file) kicked things off by going through my dossier.  Luckily, it was generally in good order; my yearly battles with the Prefecture had trained me well.  We looked at my birth certificate, passport, lease, gas bill, criminal record checks, diplomas, tax forms, social security forms, my parents’ birth certificates, my parents’ marriage certificate (and the list went on…)  My rapporteur laughed as he tried to pronounce the names of the towns where my parents were born (Bacchus Marsh and Yarrawonga, #theypartylongerinYarrawonga.)  He had a map of the world on the side of his cubicle and I pointed out various places in Australia.  We talked about how long it takes to fly there and I told him “ça vaut la peine quand même” (“but it’s worth the trip”), as I tell so many French people.  It all felt very pleasant – friendly, even – so far.

We looked at my pay slips and got chatting about my recent change of jobs.  I explained that I had recently moved from an American company to a French one; big change of culture, yada yada.  Without looking up from the papers he asked me if I had many French friends in my entourage.  I started explaining, “Obviously, having worked in an American company for so long, I have a number of expat friends…”. He looked up at me with a look that said, “WRONG ANSWER”, at which point I quickly corrected myself to add, “But I have lots of French friends, too.”  Relieved, he looked back down at the paperwork and I understood that the official part of the interview had begun.

Then the questions came.  “What are the values of the French Republic?”  Liberté, égalité, fraternité.  “What does each of them mean?”  Freedom, equality, yada yada yada. “What year was the French Revolution?”  1789.  So far, so good.  Then came, “Which King was overthrown by the Revolution?”  I panicked. Was it Louis XVI?  Or Louis XIV?  I should know this.  I took a gamble on Louis XIV (which, I know, makes absolutely no sense.)  My rapporteur gave me the same, “WRONG ANSWER” look.  He dropped his gaze, took a note and said, “Ce n’est pas très grave.”  (Which means, “It’s not very serious.  But it kinda is.”)

We carried on.  He asked me to explain what laïcité is.  I rattled off something about separation of Church and State and tried to suppress flashbacks to Arrested Development.

3x04_Notapusy_(47).png
Church ‘n’ State Fair, home of the Father-Son Triathlon and the “Miss Inner Beauty” Pageant 

Then came the million Euro question: “Why do you want to be French?”  I faltered.  I hadn’t prepared an answer for this.  I blurted out, “Parce que j’adore la France.” (“Because I love France.”)  He gave me a look that said, “Well, duh,” and asked, “Pourquoi adorez-vous la France ?” (“Why do you love France?”)  I drew another blank and started reeling off the first random things that came into my mind, “Son histoire, sa culture, sa cuisine…” (“Its history, its culture, its cuisine…”)  My rapporteur looked intrigued.  This must be the moment they prepare you for in French citizenship-testing school – get ’em to make a grand statement and then drill ’em with follow-up questions until they break.

“Well then, what is your favourite French cuisine?”  My mind went blank – it was like Louis XIV all over again – I know so many French dishes but in the moment I couldn’t think of any.  I wanted to say “beef bourguignon“, but I was too scared I wouldn’t be able to pronounce it properly.  Then I thought of “steak frites“, but that’s probably the least French dish going around.  I had nothing.  “Fromage ?”  I said tentatively.  “Ah bon”, he said, “How many French cheeses do you know?”  Again, my brain checked out.  Why did I say cheese?  I cursed myself.  I don’t even like cheese that much.  I started talking to cover my panic, “Well, you see actually I don’t like blue cheeses or soft cheeses, so that limits things somewhat…”,  I trailed off.  My rapporteur looked unimpressed.

For some reason my mind went to the mountains (it was the middle of July and the sun was shining outside on the Île de la Cité, so there was no logic at play) and I started thinking about Alpine cheeses.  “Well there are some very good Savoyard cheeses like reblochon, beaufort and raclette … we like to ski, you see, and I love having raclette after a day of skiing with cornichons and some white wine…”,  I trailed off again.  For someone who said they want to become French for the fromage I wasn’t doing a very convincing job of this.  But for whatever reason my rapporteur decided that he had exhausted that line of questioning and, miraculously (as I now know), that I had apparently shown sufficient knowledge of French cheeses to become a French citizen.

IMG_5703
Nothing like a steaming hot chunk of melted cheese in the middle of July #sonotFrench

Next my rapporteur pulled out a contract that I had to sign.  He told me that it said, amongst other things, that if and when I acquired French citizenship then, if asked what nationality I am, I would always have to say French.  I looked at him quizzically.  I simply could not fathom telling French people with a straight face, “Je suis française.”  They would hear my accent, take one look at my outfit and know that I don’t come from here.  He seemed to understand.  “You can say you’re Australian, too,” he assured me.  “But when you’re on French soil you must say that you’re French first.”

Relieved, I signed the contract and was told that if my dossier was accepted I would receive a convocation (a scary-sounding invitation) to a ceremony where I would sing the Marseillaise and receive my passport.  I asked when this would be?  He said it was hard to say, maybe 6 to 8 months if everything was in order.  But, he said, et ça c’est très important, there was no need to call him, write to him, or come into the office before then (“Ça ne sert à rien.“)  I would just need to “patienter“, he told me, and wait for the letter to come.  I nodded.  I’d heard this word many times during my time in Paris; on the phone, in the metro, in shops.  Being patient is not one of my fortes and in France it is a verb.  But for whatever reason, I did patienter.  And then, as if by magic, the letter came when I least expected it, proving that perhaps I was ready to become French after all.

Advertisements

…you get used to seeing dogs in restaurants /shops / public transport

As anyone who has spent some time in Paris will know, dogs have a special place in Parisian society.  Most striking is the way that dogs accompany their owners to places usually exclusively reserved for humans, such as restaurants, shops and public transport.

Sure, we have all seen the exaggerated version of this cliché in films and TV shows, but there is a difference between seeing Carrie Bradshaw propped up beside a drooling Mastiff in a fancy tea salon and actually seeing how Parisian dogs trot about town on a daily basis.

SATC
Excuse me, but I believe this is a non-smoking area?                  (Photo credit: HBO)

Popular dog varieties in Paris seem to include little scruffy terrier varieties (Jack Russels, Yorkshires, etc.), pugs (carlins), dachshunds (teckels, particularly the wired-haired variety, teckel à poil dur), bull-dogs (bouledogues – apparently the Academie Française was not feeling particularly creative that day) and, of course, poodles (caniches). 

When you see a dog attablé in a restaurant for the first time (note: I recently acquired the fabulous verb attabler, meaning to be seated at a table), it may come as a bit of a surprise.  Like this little guy (an adorable teckel à poil dur), who I spotted just casually sitting up after dinner at the super cute Bistro Ernest:

Dog resto 1
Qui prend un digestif ?

Far from his usual hobbies of chasing wild boars (sangliers) and digging holes but seemingly not bothered by it, this little teckel was more interested in deciding whether to have a dessert or just take the café gourmand (“C’est plus léger, non ?”).  This was a truly Parisian dog.

Where I come from, dogs are not allowed in restaurants.  When I was home in Melbourne for Christmas recently, I was shocked that a café would not even let my dog sit on the terrasse out front of the restaurant, citing “Health and Safety regulations”.  Instead my poor pooch, much to his horror, had to be tied up on the other side of the footpath.

Rory coffee
Sorry, but I actually ordered a soy latté?

Why are things different in Paris?  One reason for the heightened canine presence (and acceptance) might be the size of peoples’ apartments.  When your doggy is cooped up in a 30m2 apartment all day (and with no backyard), it’s only natural that you would want to take him out and show him the town.  Hence the presence of pooches in shops, offices, hair/nail salons, and everywhere in between.

dog colette
Which way to the ladies’ shoe department?
nails
I’m a gonna get my nails did

But dogs don’t have free rein over the city, either.  Rather, as I learned from chatting with a dog-owner recently, dogs are, somewhat ironically, banned from a majority of the city’s parks and green spaces.  This might be another reason why they are allowed just about everywhere else.

Panneau
NO happily jaunting with your dog, NO feeding the ducks and NO walking on the grass (can’t you see it is sleeping for the Winter, YOU IMBECILE?!)

Why the ban in parks?  Well, from the dog-owners I have spoken to it seems to be the related to the petit problème of dogs doing their business.  This seems like a plausible explanation.  Parisian gardens are so beautiful, perfectly symmetrical and aesthetically pleasing, I can well imagine the authorities not wanting to tarnish that image with unsightly crottes de chien.

And let there be no doubt, the Parisian authorities feel strongly about this. The fine for not picking up after your pup, at least in theory, is up to 450 euro.  To put that into perspective, that is ten times the fine for not having a valid metro ticket and nearly thirty times the fine for parking your car illegally (at the moment you face a fine of only 17 euro; this is set to rise, but apparently now not until after the next Presidential election, #France).

So the incentive is there (at least when it comes to poop scooping), but do Parisians actually respect the rules?  Well, judging by the amount of crottes that litter the footpaths it seems not.  And you do occasionally see dogs in the parks where they are supposed to be banned, like this adorable little rule-breaker Henri who I saw out strolling in the Place des Vosges:

Henri
#thuglife

I was told by Henri’s owner that if you break the rules and walk your dog in a garden where they are banned, you usually have around 7-10 minutes before the gardien (caretaker) of the garden comes and kicks you out.  In theory you could also face a fine but, like lots of good French rules, it seems that this is rarely enforced.

As for public transport, Parisian dogs are allowed to travel on the metro if they pass the basket test.  Basically, if you can fit your dog into a small bag or basket (panier) then he can travel with you.  Just ask this little panier-sized guy, out for his morning commute in his raincoat:

Dog in metro
Métro-Boulot-Dodo

Or this little one out riding the rails on a Saturday afternoon:

metro
If you’re gonna put me in a basket it had better be pink!

The basket test also applies for SNCF trains outside of Paris, except the dog must also weigh 6kg or less (otherwise he has to be on a lead, muzzled and pay half the price of a regular ticket).  A similar rule applies for Air France flights (the dog must weigh 8kg or less to travel in the cabin with you).

Now the French are famously tetchy when it comes to privacy and droit à l’image generally (literally, the right to control your “image”) – just ask the guy who is being sued by Jean-Marie Le Pen after snapping a selfie with him while he was snoozing on a flight from Paris to Nice.  But not so when it comes to Parisians and their dogs.  They are only too happy to have their pooches photographed and to parade them around until you get the perfect shot, as I discovered on a recent balade in the marais.  After their posing efforts, it would be entirely remiss of me not to include them all here (and also they are just too damned cute not to be shared), so here we go: 

ChichuauaYorkshireShiaszuJack russelSausage dogIMG_1733IMG_1734White dogSt bernardNapoMaraiscavoodleBull dogpuppyPuppy2

All of this leads me to believe that my very photogenic dog Rory (pictured above avec latté), who is currently living in Melbourne, would love to live in Paris.  He loves nothing more than sitting up at the table for the chats after a meal.  He does not tolerate the company of other dogs, but instead prefers to hang with the human folk.

So there is no doubt in my mind that Rory would love la vie parisienne.  He just needs to lose a few kg’s so he can fit into a small basket.

…you get excited when you find a supermarket open on Sundays

Living in Paris you quickly learn that Sundays are rest days.  Largely thanks to the ever-present unions, trading on Sundays is for the most part banned in France.  Some people also cite respect for “traditional” family values as justifying the ban on trade, which makes some sense.  But it is damned annoying when it’s Sunday night, you have run out of toilet paper and all you have in the fridge is a mouldy piece of comté.

In any event, this explains the eerie silence in the streets of Paris on Sunday mornings.   Sundays in Paris are left for nursing hangovers, brunching, wandering, catching up with friends, sitting en terrasse, footing, going to expos and that wonderful gallic tradition of Sunday night ciné.  Even I’ll admit that, despite the inconvenience, it’s nice that Sundays are left for family, friends and downtime.

That said, some areas of Paris have eluded the ban on trade, e.g., the marais, the historic Jewish quarter and super trendy place to be seen.  It is largely business as usual in the marais on Sundays, the sabbath having passed.  On top of that, the streets are pedestrianised.  This means the marais is always buzzing with people out for their Sunday balade, eating falafel sandwiches (on that note, if you find yourself in the rue des rosiers and tempted to join the queue for a falafel, go directly to Miznon in rue des écouffes, see below if in doubt) and admiring the over-priced (yet totally worth it, boyfriend, if you are reading) clothes at Sandro, maje and Claudie Pierlot.

IMG_7765
Poisson doré at Miznon.  Hell. Yes.

Although the  French government passed a law last year allowing further exceptions to the ban on Sunday trade (part of the Loi Macron, named after the French Minister for Finance, Emmanuel Macron, who proposed the law), finding a decent supermarket open on a Sunday remains damned near impossible.

Hence our excitement when the supermarket downstairs recently put up this sign:

IMG_0233
Who would have thought one little piece of paper could change so much?

This was a game changer.  Not only was the franprix open on Sunday, it was open on Sunday evening until 20h.  No more going to the overpriced alimentation générale  (the equivalent to a general store, or a milk bar for the Australian readers) to get toothpaste for the week.  No more staring down the barrel of Monday morning with no breakfast goods.  First world problems, certes, but little things that make the Sunday night blues that bit more bearable.

…you find yourself saying “Oh là là”

It’s one of the biggest clichés about the French.  In addition to wearing Breton stripes (which happens surprisingly frequently), riding bikes carrying baguettes (which happens more often that you’d expect) and wearing berets (which almost never happens), any caricature of the French will inevitably involve letting out an oh-so sing song “Oh là là“.   The best thing about this cliché is that it’s actually true.  Living in Paris you hear it at least once a day, probably more, and after a while you find yourself saying it almost as much.

It comes in many different forms and its beauty is that it’s used by all – women, men and kids alike.

There is the “traditional” method, most known to foreigners and often (though not exclusively) used by women, which is the prim and proper “Oh là là“.  This is used to express admiration, almost in the same way we anglophone girls of a certain age use the phrase “Oh my god”.  For example, you show someone your new ring and they say “Oh là là c’est trop jolie !” (“Oh my god it’s so pretty!”).   It is high, light and happy.  This is a good “Oh là là”.

Then there is the bad “Oh là là“.  Perhaps predictably, the French often employ the bad “Oh là là”, used more in the sense “Oh my god that’s freaking annoying” (“Oh là là ça me saoûle !”).  For example: a car burns through a pedestrian crossing nearly knocking you over or just doesn’t stop to let you cross the road generally; a biker rings their bell at you (don’t they know it’s OK for me to do it when I’m on a bike, but not them?); someone cuts you off in the cojean line; the cashier at the supermarket tells you “je ferme ma caisse moi” (“I’m closing my till”) even though the queues are huge; you have to wait more than 3 minutes for a metro (“Oh là là – 4 minutes” ?!); people start getting into the metro before letting you out; the metro driver says the train will be stopping for a moment for the “régulation du trafic“, etc.  This “Oh là là”  (or even “Ho là là”) is low, baritone and disapproving, often muttered under your breath.  I use it a lot. (Note to self: I should really stop taking the metro).

12745799_10153321583096892_8044445974463828017_n
Standard morning commute on Line 8 (photo credit: Le Bonbon)

Then there is the pièce de la résistance (which, incidentally, is not something the French say.  Go figure.) – the “Oh là là là là là là“.  Yes that’s right.  Six ““‘s – no more, no less – in quick succession.    This is bad.   This is very bad.  Not to be bandied around lightly – this is reserved for those head-in-hands, all hope is lost kind of moments which, again perhaps unsurprisingly, happen in Paris more often than you think.

This is used when the French miss a crucial goal in the (soccer/rugby/other ball sport);
when you get halfway home from CDG and realize the cab driver doesn’t take carte blue; when you are told the musée will take no more entries for the day even though you’ve already spent an hour in line; when the sandwich guy (that’s him below) at the Marché des Enfants Rouges says there’s no more parsley so he cannot make the sandwich you want (he will only make a sandwich if he has ALL the necessary ingredients, or else he would not do it justice.  Begrudging respect for the principle, but I want my damned sandwich); when your downstairs neighbours come home at 6am and start testing their sub-woofer sound system; when you spend half an hour on the phone listening to crappy music waiting to be connected to someone at [insert name of French administrative body here] and then the line just cuts out.

Chez Alain 2
Chez Alain Miam Miam nearing the end of his parsley stock

These are the moments when “Oh là là là là là là” is really the only way you can express your frustration/anger/hanger (hunger + anger).  It is satisfying.  If you live in Paris long enough, it will become your reflex.  And that’s when you’ll know you’re turning Parisian.