There’s probably hundreds of articles and books written about moving to France by people of varying nationalities (Peter Mayle has probably cornered 5% profitability on that topic alone). Totally unoriginal, I’m now going to be one of those people. Don’t say I didn’t give you fair warning. Not that I think my experience is unique - far from it - but there is something about moving and living in France that appeals to my sense of humor and irony.
As the immigrant wife of a French national, I found out that I needed to register with the Office of Immigration and Integration to begin the journey becoming a full-fledged French citizen. This is a pretty amazing thing, to move to a country where you don’t understand a damn thing and get a crash course on living and working there, along with 100 hours of French lessons. It makes the transition a little bit easier, especially if you’re not as lucky to get the kind of support I have.
But for anyone about to do the same transition, the hardest part is figuring out how to get to that integration course. There’s nothing really laid out online with clear instructions where to go and who to talk to. Coming from the US, where efficiency was just crazy good, down to the last second (the DMV in Boise was insane. The counter at one point said there was 30 seconds of a wait. What a dream that would be for the Philippines). In contrast, French bureaucracy can best be likened as being pingpong-ed back and forth from various departments, with bureaucrats being nicely apologetic but totally confused about your status and why you are coming to them in the first place.
When you do finally get to the first step, it involves signing a contract of your commitment becoming a citizen of France, plus a medical test that settles everyone’s mind at peace that no, if a tuberculosis outbreak occurs, it did not come from you, immigrant. This perfect bill of health makes me feel one with migrants passing through Ellis Island in the early 1900s, in search of a new life in America. Times have so obviously changed since 100 years ago that we still need to get that tuberculosis check - once cleared, file right through that door to your new life of promise and opportunity!
And then there are the seminars. In the span of a morning, I received the very, very summarized version of French history. Imagine centuries of history condensed into one morning, mixed in with a briefing on the political system and values of France (Viva, Liberté, égalité, fraternité !), along with the threat that my citizenship test would include singing a verse of the national anthem. ‘La Marseillaise’ is a bloodthirsty call to arms, while my native anthem ‘Lupang Hinirang’, when translated in English has very religious phrases like ‘behold the radiance, feel the throb’ as well as the pretty faulty phrase of “never shall invaders trample thy sacred shore” (too late, thy sacred shore was invaded by Spaniards for 3 centuries, among others).
To support the lecturer, we also got an English speaking translator, this huge heavy metal Swede with a ponytail, tattoos and biker vest, who very ironically, also weirdly looks like Santa Claus (if he was into death metal). And because they obviously don’t know each other well, they don’t have the rapport of friends. As the French lecturer spoke excitedly and rapidly in half English / half French, without waiting for the Swede translator to catch up, the latter didn’t seem too interested in translating every single thing being said. Half the translations somehow ended in variations of “what he said”. Well, yes, but what did he say? It doesn’t take a genius to factor in that when someone speaks in a foreign language for 5 full minutes and the translation is the equivalent of a minute, you are missing out on quite a bit of information...
On a serious note, probably the most useful course is working and living in France. When laid out in its entirety, there is something really impressive about how rights-based France seems to be, with a big emphasis on equality and even entitlement - not entitlement in the bad sense of the word but entitlement in that the French are very sure of their rights and very aware on how to claim it. When viewing la grève (a strike) in this way, it goes beyond the knee-jerk reaction of “oh, how very French!”, but also gives me an appreciation of how advanced their democracy actually is. That they can claim their rights and challenge the establishment in righteous indignation is more than I can say for the Philippines, where there is a tendency to smile when being imposed upon and apologize for someone else’s mistakes (although I really hope this changes with the way our current administration is taking advantage of us left and right).
One thing I really liked hearing about was how France handles maternity. It’s not the best country in the world for women’s rights, but it’s definitely closer to that end of the spectrum. Coming from Asia where you get your support from family and ridiculously cheap labor (for maids, drivers, cooks, etc.), I grew up thinking I’d have to swing from one extreme to another - either give up my career to be a full time mother for a period of time or give up being a full time mother to have my career. My mother took care of us full time, we had numerous titas and titos (aunts and uncles), plus maids and a driver - the epitome of ‘it takes a village’ yet all of that was on my parents’ resources, not government support (except a tax deduction for each child but let’s face it, having kids outweighs any deductions you can possibly claim). This never made me very comfortable adopting that system for myself, to have full time live-in help. It has been really eye-opening to see this working system where you don’t have to sacrifice too much for either your career or your kids. In France, there are a variety of options for you to decide on; from nurseries, nounous (nannies), time sharing, etc. I love my career and would never want to sacrifice what I do for myself for my children (sorry not sorry, future kids!), but at the same time, would not want to know that my kids are being raised full time by someone else. So this system, though it may never feel perfect, is still a great compromise to having as much of it all as possible.
Last of this crash course on becoming French was the debacle of the French lessons. As OFII is just a department, they outsource the language lessons to different schools and I happened upon a truly excellent one that shall remain nameless due to the heavy sarcasm. One of my pet peeves is when people ask illogical questions and expect an actual answer out of you. For example, calling me over the phone, speaking for 5 minutes in French while I am totally unable to get a word in edgewise. And then when I am finally able to butt in to say “Je ne comprends pas. Je parle un peu français (I do not understand. I speak little French)”, adding a very pregnant pause at the end, which speaks volumes of “well, this is why I need those 100 hours of French in the first place!!!”, the response is a pause from their school representative and then the dial tone. She hung up on me!!! A promising start for the French classes. I know it’s fairly bad when my very even-tempered husband starts to talk to them on the phone like they’re idiots. For the record, I have not done the lessons yet because I work so I still am legitimately terrible in speaking French.
Basically the goal of all of these courses is to finally get the official carte de séjour to replace the OFII stamp that is currently allowing me to live and work in France - which is not the most useful thing because literally no immigration officer in the world has seen this stamp and can’t tell that this is a resident card on its own. Now that I’m coming up to a year of living in France (well, sort of, minus all my deployments), I’m now back to being pingpong-ed back and forth in my application for the CDS. We spent one cold, cold morning lining up at the prefecture, only to find out after an hour of wait that we needed an appointment and had just wasted all our time - but again, the bureaucrat was nicely apologetic. But this is all part of the experience! I admit to feeling a terrible pleasure at seeing my husband get visibly more depressed the closer we get to any government building, like it is his equivalent of a horror movie.
Well, that’s what you get for marrying a foreigner and bringing in an immigrant to your mother country.
Abbi is a petite human, blogger, amateur photographer, permanent humanitarian, avid traveller, culture addict, giant bookworm and impossible foodie.