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.