…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.)

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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…you know how to work the ventes privées

Most non-Parisians know about the soldes (sales) in Paris.  What they don’t know about, at least when they first arrive, is the ventes privées (private sales).

I know that when I first arrived in Paris, I would often see queues of well-dressed women lining up outside random, non-marked doors in the marais and be intrigued.  Being naturally nosycurious, I once sidled up and asked someone what was going on.  Was there a celebrity inside?  “Non, c’est une vente privée.”  “Ah oui”, I feigned comprehension.  And how does one access these private sales?  “Il faut avoir une invitation” (you need an invitation).  Of course.  Just when I thought I was getting the trick of the soldes, the French had to go and add another echelon of exclusivity on top.  As I watched the women emerge from the sale with non-branded white shopping bags, no doubt full of tastefully selected bargains, I knew I had to get in – and I had to get in fast.

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If there’s a queue it must be good

First, a bit about the regular soldes.  These can only take place twice a year, as regulated by law.  Let there be no doubt, the French take their shopping seriously.  The Code de Commerce provides that soldes can only occur during two six-week periods each year, the dates of which are fixed by décret (decree).  In practice, the winter sales (les soldes d’hiver) take place from early January until mid-February and the summer sales (les soldes d’été) take place from mid-June until early August.

There’s a bit to know about the soldes.  First, you need to know that there are several waves of mark-downs (démarques).  When the sales first start you have the première démarque, which is the initial mark-down.  Then, you have the deuxième démarque, when the clothes that were originally only marked down 20% might fall to 30% or even 50% off.  Then, in the final days of the soldes, you have the troisème (or often dernière) démarque, when you get the real bargains and prices can drop as low as 60%-70% off.

Working the démarques is a bit like gambling.  Often, I’ll eye a piece that I like from one of my favourite (but ridiculously over-priced) brands in the nouvelle collection when it comes out.  Then, I’ll bide my time until the soldes.  In the first démarque it might drop by only 20%.  The question then becomes whether you snap it up or hold out for the next démarque (and thus take the risk that it might sell out in your size in the interim).  Sometimes, I’ll just casually ask when the next démarque is happening and whether the piece will be further discounted.

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If you get an honest shop assistant they’ll tell you “Ça commence lundi et ce sera à -50%” (“It starts on Monday and that will be -50%”).  Other times, you’ll get the shop assistant who will pretend not to know, or who will immediately say that it’s the last one in that size so you’d better buy it, etc.  (An insider tip I learnt recently to deal with this dilemma: at some shops such as maje, they write the number of pieces left in that size on the tag of the item in pencil.  Gone are the days of the faux-threat of the “last one left”, only to find that they  magically roll out more in the next démarque!).

For enterprising commerçants, there are a few loopholes in the strictly regulated soldes system.  For example, shop owners are permitted to have exceptional, off-season soldes if they are suspending their operations temporarily, for example for renovations (“Liquidation avant travaux”).  However, they do need to make a declaration to the Mayor’s office of their intention to do so.  Like I said, shopping (or rather, discounting) is serious business in France.

Another loophole of sorts is the pre-soldes that some boutiques hold in-store in the lead-up to the soldes.  If ever you go into a store and see little round coloured stickers on the tags of the clothing, that means there is a secret pre-solde happening.  Like some kind of unspoken code, the different coloured stickers represent different levels of mark-down.  For example, gold may mean -20%, silver -30%, etc.  However, a red sticker – bizarrely, in my mind – almost always means no mark-down.

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Non, red sticker does NOT mean -50%; au contraire it means “Hells not soldé!”

This leads us to the world of vente privées (or VPs).  VPs are traditionally the private sales that brands put on for their regular customers.  Although some of the more prestigious brands still put on their own private sales, many brands now use a service-provider to put on VPs.  Basically, the brands give their surplus stock to the service-provider who organizes VPs in spaces around Paris.  Any stock that does not sell in the 2-3 days that the sale lasts is returned to the brand.  A few years ago it was Adèle Sand or Catherine Max that provided these services.  These have now been re-grouped under the umbrella of Arlettie, which puts on a VP in Paris for a different brand every week of the year (except for August, when even the bargain-hunters go on holidays).

Once signed up to Arlettie’s über-exclusive database, you will then receive emails like this:

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All you have to do is present yourself at the designated time and place (Arlettie has two spaces in Paris, one in the marais near Bastille and the other at Trocadéro) with your invite and your ID.  But then of course there is the mandatory queue out the front, complete with security guards, before finally you gain access.

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Feelin’ like VIPs doing the VPs

Once inside, working these vente privées is a veritable skill in itself.

I learnt everything that I know about VPs from my beloved friend Cléa.  A true Parisienne, Cléa knows exactly how to work the VPs like no other.   I remember going to the Tara Jarmon VP with her (one of my first VPs) a few years ago.  It was in a two-level atelier in the marais.  Cléa and I did a lap of the ground floor and then made our way up to second floor, which was effectively just an amphitheater-style balcony that looked down on the ground floor.  Cléa looked over the balcony at the shoppers below.  “What are you doing?”  I asked.  “I’m watching”, she said, “to see what people are buying.”  Once she saw which pieces were moving, she swooped.

Cléa has the golden touch of VPs.  We can walk around for 20 minutes and I will see nothing.  I will give up.  Suddenly, out of nowhere Cléa will pluck the amazing piece that nobody has seen yet from a pile of sad-looking items (at the Sequoia sale a few years ago it was an amazing blue leather tote).  Within minutes, other shoppers will ask in what part of the room she found it, whether there were others, etc.  As Cléa taught me, that’s when you know you’re onto a winner and you don’t let it go.

A contrario, if you see another shopper with a piece you want in her hand, you NEVER ask her where she found it or if there are any left.  This will only convince her that it’s a winner.  Instead, you should follow her at a distance and pray that she puts it down.  When she does, you strike.

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VP jungle in full swing 

Despite learning these tricks from the very best, I have so far only ended up with a series of duds from my dabblings in the private sales.  Lowlights include a yellow polka dot skirt that I have never worn and a maje dress with unfortunately placed frills on the sleeves.  The cruelty of the maje VP is that you are not allowed to try the clothes on (and of course there is a no returns policy across VPs generally).  Thus, I didn’t realize the frills would make me look like an extra from the Pirates of Penzance until I got home and tried it on.

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#piratefauxpas

Luckily at most VPs you can try the clothes on, but on the flip side there are no change rooms.  So you see women huddled in any free space they can find in all stages of undress (while other, more modest types try tops on over dresses, pants under skirts, etc.) and then jostling for the limited mirror space that is available.  Pas très élégant, but it gets the job done.

Needless to say, just as I had finally figured out the tricks of the ventes privées I learnt about another, even more exclusive echelon of sales – the ventes presse (press sales).  These are supposedly reserved for journalists and other fashion types and allow even earlier access to the sale items.  This is my next challenge – I just need to convince someone to give me a press badge!

…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.

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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:

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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.