The waiting room of the Côte D’Or préfecture de police has but one open seat.It’s beside a mustached older man in a knit cap holding a green passport.Around the intimate space of plastic chairs arranged to allow for the minimum amount of leg room, I see other green passports along with various shades of red.Mine appears to be the only blue.  I don’t get the sense that any one member of this colorful international coalition desperately wants to obtain the brown passport emblazoned with the words République française.But this is what has brought us together.

We are not expectant, we’re resigned.Whether we think procuring the right to stay in this country is just a matter of procedure or whether we assume it’s almost pointless to try, we wait for our number to be called.I’ve torn “46” from the machine at the door.I sit down with it and my own renewed doubt about my prospects here today.

I sit down, in fact, borderless.My little blue book says I was born in Pasadena, California and I can barely remember what it looks like from here.I can’t remember if the Cleveland Browns are bad again this year, or what a pile of raked maple leaves smells like or if the purple mountains majesty still stand or why we were lucky enough to have elected one of the most broadly intelligent and dynamic leaders in our history at exactly the time we needed it the most, but still sulk and shriek that the government is stealing our money when the country sets to righting its course.I’m unable to predict where this is all going. I don’t know actually if I’m still allowed to predict or offer opinion.I never signed on to being a part of an empire, or a Pax Americana.I just went to school in a yellow bus.

Meanwhile, I can’t get jazzed about acquiring new identities, whether on a card or in a disguise.I can’t summon a yearning for a French dream, even if I could name one.I’d like to keep my little blue book. I’m really just here to get the ten-year French residence card, une carte de séjour.I need to pick up my kids from school in two hours and find out how my daughter did on her test today in orthographie.This seems a bigger milestone to me than any hoop I’m about to be asked to jump.I’m encouraging myself to stay put.

A bell dings and the number “11” flashes over the only window booth, among three possible, with a person in it.Prepared for the wait, I make great pains to hide that the fact I’m holding a copy of Newsweek magazine.I flip through the pages quickly, catching an article about bank bailouts, the Tea Party, and how John Boehner might be okay, interspersed with a paid advertisement for a bold, new insulin delivery system and a non-ironic ad whose slogan asks “Do you love your bank?”I’ve never read anything more engrossing.It’s a glossy map to a theme park that never closes and whose attractions grow more death-defying by the week.

The bell dings again and “12” blinks.Still the number doesn’t change.The room sighs.

It’s an early Fall day warm enough to keep the window open.From the street the sounds of a strike, the third day in less than a month, grow louder.It’s the lycéens, the high school kids, protesting the French retirement age that’s been bumped up two years to 62.No one in the waiting room bothers to look at them.The people here seem not to notice the bullhorn and the chanting call and response.Though the crowd outside sounds angrier than last week, and the week before that.We hear a clang like garbage cans getting thrown out of first-story windows.I identify the scene as likely bedlam.I wonder if any of us will be joining the protesters afterward as part of a French assimilation exercise.

Monsieur Missildine?”My name is mispronounced to the room.The thirty-four people with lower numbers than mine look up as I stand.The official on my case, who looks like an old math teacher I once had, motions for me to join him.He has said the name Missildine, with the deen ending, as opposed to the correct ending with the verb for eating in the evening.The French aren’t wrong, per se.It is, after all, the same language that names the lead singer of the Rolling Stones as Mike Jagger or the Star Wars villain as Dark Vader.

I follow the department official into his office where the blinds are drawn.He explains my case is by appointment, which I knew, though I assumed the other forty-five hopefuls all made the same appointment, hence the taking of numbers.But he impresses upon me so that we’re clear that I, indeed, was mistaken.

He takes a seat behind his desk beside a single abstract watercolor painting intended to brighten the place, though it only makes the mood sadder as the overwhelming blank beige of the office swallows the painting whole.The man accesses my file on his desktop computer.This is the interview that will grant me the right to work and live for ten years on this soil, where I will obtain the privilege of paying taxes that go to this monsieur’s salary, among other things like a new tramway for the city of Dijon or subsidized art house cinemas or 24-hour doctor house calls whenever one of my daughters is sick.Still, complaining helps me fit in around these parts.

The questions begin, starting with my entry dates in France and graduating to details about where I met my wife, a lifelong holder of the brown passport.I answer simply, while trying to decide whether the questions my wife is subjected to in the U.S. are more menacing.

For comparison purposes, I decide to juxtapose the two set questions, those I answer in this beige room and those my wife answered in the new travel authorization system prior to a recent visit to the United States.The questions alternate between invasive condescension and hysterical, cinematic paranoia.Together they form a kind of dialogue of sweet nothings.

FR:“Do you speak French in the home?”

US:“Do you have a communicable disease, physical or mental disorder or are you a drug abuser or addict?”

FR:“Do you believe in the equality of the sexes?”

US:“Have you ever been arrested or convicted for an offense or crime involving moral turpitude?”

FR:“Do you believe in a secular society?”

US:“Have you ever been or are you now involved in espionage or sabotage?”

FR:“Do your neighbors speak French?If not, what language do they speak?”

US:“Have you ever been involved in genocide?”

FR:“Does your wife wear a veil?”

My wife managed to enter the U.S. on our trip, despite her momentary doubts on the genocide question.In a separate point, she doesn’t wear a veil.

But for my dear official, I’m struck with the urge to surprise him and say that my wife never leaves the house without her burkha.Make that wives.Where does that leave my application?

I assumed I’d have to answer queries about Sarah Palin, Subway sandwiches or how to translate the word “Facebook poke.”I was looking forward to getting into why the French love a suave cartoon cowboy named Lucky Luke, the fastest draw in the West that still is alive and well, or why deified French star Johnny Hallyday sings the blues in songs called “Tennessee” or themed his latest tour around Route 66, despite that no one in the U.S. has ever heard of him.I thought in this interview I might need to proffer reasons why the American dream still lives from France and explain why I’ve succumbed to this dreaming myself, while also understanding how thoroughly false it is.I thought I might have to account for the Newsweek.

Instead, I’m asked to choose sides in a cultural struggle that doesn’t involve Americans at all.So I give straight answers.My official looks displeased nonetheless.While he fiddles with his computer and then suddenly steps out of the office without a word, I wonder what the next stage will be now that I’ve been suspected of trying to usurp French culture and language from within.

C’est bon,” he returns to say.He tells me I’ll have my new ten-year residence card in a few weeks by mail.That will be 110 euros.

The interview ends that abruptly and better than hoped.And I don’t think I even used proper French verb tense.

So I was right that it was just a procedural step.

On the way out, I pass the others with more complicated answers.The man with the knit cap and the green passport genuflects at the window booth without an appointment, rifling through a stack of papers.

Outside in France, the demonstration continues.The unions have followed the students.The strike is now a river pouring through the streets.It’s probably ballooned in purpose to be about much more than just the retirement age, or Nicholas Sarkozy or fighting the power or reliving once more May 1968, which most of the boomer-age strikers are doing as they sing and sway arm-in-arm like this is a fraternity almost half the country joined way back when.There may be others marching over the new burkha law.  There might even be people shouting that France and America should just kiss and make up.I could join in, but haven’t shaken the borderless feeling just yet.Though I have a stake in the issues, I can’t get riled up about any side.

I go home.I have a few minutes before I need to pick up my daughters for lunch.Again, I’m far from being French, perhaps farther than the week I first showed-up on this hexagon, mute and wide-eyed.I’m, despite myself, American.It alone among countries on the globe can rile me.

On the kitchen counter rests my U.S. mid-term election absentee ballot.Before I must attend to everything else, I fill it out.I mail it on the way to school, with the hope that my patriotism survives at least another decade.

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NATHANIEL MISSILDINE lives in Dijon, France with his wife and two daughters. He is the author of the 2012 travel memoir SAVE FOR FIREFLIES as well as a recently completed novel. Online writings, by turns comical and puzzling, are on display over at nathanielmissildine.com.

24 responses to “Republic Affection”

  1. Andrew Nonadetti says:

    “Complaining helps me fit in around these parts.” Less borderless than a citizen of the world, with that skill set ;). And I chuckled at “joining the protesters afterward as part of a French assimilation exercise”. You made a functionary’s office entertaining, Nathaniel. Well done.

    • Thanks, and yes, I suppose complaining is a little more universal than I let on here. “Goddamn functionary” has a literal translation everywhere.

      And I think I failed to reply to you on a question about this before, but call me Nat, by all means. It’s pronounced the same in French and in English. And Rocky Mountain-ese.

      • Andrew Nonadetti says:

        Très bon, Nat! By the way, I forgot to mention I love the title of this piece. Clever bit of wordplay, there, and I’m a sucker for clever. I was the only parent in our trick-or-treating shepherding team to guffaw at the jack-o-lantern with the pi symbol carved into it. Pumpkin pi. I love it.

  2. Matt says:

    What I strange, odd series of questions.

    I’m honestly curious as to what the outcome would have been had you (or your wife) answered, “Well, yes, I have been involved in genocide.”

    • Precisely what we were thinking. It’s like a perpetrator of genocide (or espionage or sabotage) is keeping fingers crossed on the plane hoping they won’t ask about it and then sees the question on the form and says, “Damnit. Yes, I’m a genocidal maniac. You officials trip me up every time.”

  3. Irene Zion says:

    Nathaniel,

    I love that all the time you’re doing this there are teenagers with bullhorns shouting outside.
    Weird situation.

    • Yes, the mood outside and the mood inside were different enough to make the whole experience very weird and very comical. All waiting rooms should come complete with the sounds of mild political turmoil coming in through the windows.

  4. Don Mitchell says:

    I’m with Matt about those odd questions, but it’s easy to see what they’re after.

    As in so many things like that, one wonders whether the people who created the questions actually said to themselves, “This is how we’ll trick them into revealing themselves . . . . ” or were unconsciously revealing their own fears and biases. The former, I suppose — but you never know.

    I got a speeding ticket once and had to take an on-line safe driving course to avoid points on my license. It was an interesting experience. The course had what I thought was an appropriate amount of alcohol/drug-related material, but the final exam questions were probably 35% alcohol/drug questions. I was surprised and disappointed. I don’t discount the carnage these substances cause, at all, but where were the questions on rules of the road, car handling, etc. etc.?

    I concluded that the test creation people were explicitly loading the test questions to test knowledge of what they thought were the most serious issues, no matter whether the course gave them much play or not. And that made no sense to me. I could see loading the course itself with that material, for that reason, definitely. But loading the exam and not the course? I didn’t get it, and still don’t.

    Dwoz knows a lot about testing. Maybe he’ll call in here.

    • I tend to think these security questions reveal fear or bias, too, though that may be too quick an assessment. They create a mood of fear and danger regardless, intimidating the foreign visitor by making them entertain the possibility that they could be criminals. The questions tend to make a person sit up straight and tell the truth even if they’re just carrying fruit with them.

  5. Judy Prince says:

    A wonderfully humourous, and apt, juxtaposition of the two cultures via interviewers’ questions, Nathaniel.

    You have nailed, as well, the complexity and confusion of feelings one carries as baggage from one country to another, pointedly described here:

    “My little blue book says I was born in Pasadena, California and I can barely remember what it looks like from here. I can’t remember if the Cleveland Browns are bad again this year, or what a pile of raked maple leaves smells like or if the purple mountains majesty still stand or why we were lucky enough to have elected one of the most broadly intelligent and dynamic leaders in our history at exactly the time we needed it the most, but still sulk and shriek that the government is stealing our money when the country sets to righting its course. I’m unable to predict where this is all going. I don’t know actually if I’m still allowed to predict or offer opinion. I never signed on to being a part of an empire, or a Pax Americana. I just went to school in a yellow bus.”

    That last sentence was innocent icing on a thoroughly baked cake.

    A well written and thought/feeling-inducing post, Nathaniel.

    • Thank you, Judy, for these very kind words. Ex-pats do carry around quite a lot of baggage and I only touched on it really. But I’m glad you found that this baked cake had some innocent icing. That’s a lovely description in and of itself.

  6. Joe Daly says:

    Nat-

    I love your observations and perspectives from abroad. You deliver the flavor well, and the post above is another great reminder of how deep the social divides can be between EU and US cultures. Yeah, we’re both listening to Lady GaGa and obsessing over Harry Potter movies, but as the questions above indicate, notions of privacy and propriety can be enormously different between countries.

    Thanks for the chuckles and another typically enjoyable piece.

    • Thanks, Joe. You have an excellent point about the divide between the cultures. We share a pop culture more and more, but still come at it from very different angles. I’m often surprised at the explanation from French people as to why Desperate Housewives is entertaining or what about Kanye West is cool. The interpretations can vary wildly and it’s frequently amazing to me that we’ve still managed enjoy the same things.

  7. Zara Potts says:

    Another lovely, thoughtful piece from Monsieur Missildine.

    (I’m glad you cleared up the pronounciation – I have been thinking of you as Missildeen..)

    You have such a gentle, poetic way of describing your experiences in France. I love it.

    And I thought the questions were great, just like this piece.

  8. Greg Olear says:

    Formidable, Nathaniel!

    Love the juxtaposed questions.

    Also: I was pronouncing your name right. And the Cleveland Browns ALWAYS suck.

  9. Gregory Messina says:

    Hi Nathaniel,

    Coincidentally, I also went to the prefecture recently to request my 10 year titre de séjour. It’s so interesting to read about your experience because mine was quite different. To start with, my co-joint’s attendance was required to prove that we’re actually together. And no questions were asked, at all. I just had to provide all of the requested paperwork…pay stubs, tax forms, EDF bills, etc…and that was it.

    I love that you mentioned Dark Vader!

    • Thanks, Gregory. I’m starting to realize that the procedure for obtaining these things varies greatly from person to person, where you’d think it would be exactly the same for everyone. I had to bring my wife to sign in person as well, along with the paperwork you mentioned. That was followed by the procès-verbal appointment that I describe here. The French state works in mysterious ways, I don’t know if anyone fully understands it, including the functionaires.

      Always good to hear from you, as you understand well where I’m coming from. Good luck with future endeavors at the prefecture and may La Force be with you.

  10. Great little slice of Dijon life, Nat. Yes, the Browns suck this year. I may not have heard Johnny Hallyday, but I have seen him in a few execrable movies. How did your daughter do on her test?

    • Thanks, Sean. Like I said to Greg above, over here I can cultivate a fantasy world where the Browns are, and always were, good and would never even consider moving to Baltimore. I’m not, however, able to avoid the music of Johnny Hallyday, which is every bit as bad as his movies. Still with the possible exception of Charles de Gaulle, he might be the most beloved figure in France.

      My daughter’s test turned out well, thanks for asking. Her verb conjugation is surpassing mine at an alarming rate.

  11. Simon Smithson says:

    It’s an intriguing feeling, isn’t it, hopping countries? They don’t tell you about it in high school – Oh, and by the way, this is how you’ll feel if you’re ever sitting in an office and transferring this identity we’ve been giving you, one way or another, for most of your life..

    The interview for a US visa took all of about two seconds, three questions. I couldn’t believe how easy it was (that being said, I had a job lined up, which no doubt greased the wheels).

    I liked your implicit comparisons between France and the States throughout this piece, Nathaniel. And, like Zara, I thought it was ‘deen’, also.

    ‘dine’ is much more Australian, so I, as a matter of course, assumed it was incorrect.

    Double-bluffed!

    • Yes, hopping countries can be exhilarating and intriguing and, after you do it for awhile, cements in the expat the deep absurdity of borders.

      Glad to hear that your US visa was a breeze, even my visits back these days involve more questions before they let me in. But I have the feeling immigration and Homeland Security are more suspicious of citizens living years away and trying to come back as tourists, than they are of Australians. Maybe I should try to pronounce the last syllable of my name to them more often.

      Thanks as always, Simon, for the comment.

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