Monday, September 28, 2009

Good morning, Teacher, please take out a sheet of paper... and another...and another...

Ostensibly, I'm here in France to teach English, so I took a break from strolling along the sea to make an appearance at my high school to fill out paperwork.

Both "high school" and "[French] paperwork" are places you don't want to go, but surprisingly, it was the most encouraging few hours I've spent yet this week. (Perhaps being the most relevant...)

I went with Elizabeth, who is a retired English teacher and, as far as I'm concerned, a superhero. She has dedicated herself to helping us language assistants settle in, and I haven't had to do much on my own yet, thanks to her -- she helped me open my bank account (THAT is an epic tale of paperwork in its own right), buy phone credit (omg, SO circuitous), and fill out forms that allow me to be paid. She's a kind woman and easy to chat with, which counts for plenty when all this is going on in your second language. It's encouraging to see her perplexed by the same peculiarities of French systems that perplex me.

The forms she walked me through at the school were not unduly complicated; the glory of French bureaucracy is in the photocopying. There are currently enough photocopies of my passport to wallpaper France, except of course you couldn't really, because each copy is in some very important government folder in some very important office. (The phone store has a copy, too.) The bank was even better. The clerk could sign those papers like nobody's business (it wasn't until the third page, when the official stamp came out, that I realized he wasn't just testing the pen; and believe me, he was barely warmed up by page three), and the pages kept churning out of the printer. For simply opening a bank account, I have an entire booklet of papers. Sorry, trees...

Lest it become Kafkaesque, everyone realizes the absurdity of what they have to do. It's not the bank clerks or the school secretaries who require book-length bank accounts, and, maybe self-conscious in the presence of a one-click-banking American, mockery flew freely as the photocopies.

So navigating all that at the bank last week and at my school this morning was no small victory, and I emerged unscathed.

Having taught for years at my lycee before retiring, Elizabeth showed me around a bit -- library, what seemed to be the teachers' room. It's quite high-school-like, but otherwise fine. I met a couple secretaries (one of whom kept referring to me as the "little American" -- is that a compliment, or to distinguish me from the rest as she imagines us...?), the librarian (eccentric, phew), and an English teacher.

I don't know if they were surprised that I could speak any French at all, but most of the people I met told me I speak French well. I know it's shallow to feed off of compliments, and I should have self-confidence independent of other people's opinions of me, iknowiknow, BUT I speak French ten times better the instant a real French person tells me I speak well. (Even if they're being polite... or just straight up lying...) I ended up being immersed completely in French for the entire morning, and it felt wonderful. Especially so, having understand as much as I did, and having left with the sound of French lingering in my ears.

And finally. In retrospect, the girl may have thought that I was a new student arriving at the school, but when the librarian showed me the shelf of English and American plays, one of the students nearby gave me a wonderful, sincere smile. ah. :-)


  1. I'm only just catching up on your entries here, but I want you to know that for my Nepal Telecom SIM card, I had to give the name of my father and grandfather, and my fingerprints, except that the right hand goes in the left box and your left hand goes in the right box.

    I think Nepalis can beat anyone when it comes to ridiculous paperwork.

  2. haahahahahaa. wonderful. you win. patriarchy much? what does it say about nepali culture that you are so linked to your father & grandfather?