Friday, July 31, 2009

Culoz, part 1

I've been working on a last-minute grant for the past ten days or so, and it's been finished since Tuesday. The only thing holding up submitting it is that we had agreed to put my boss as project coordinator, to maximize our chances of getting it, and he's on vacation. All I need is for him to set up an online account with these people and give me his password, and I can send it off. The second that's done and confirmed, I'm out the door myself.
Finally, the green light!
Somehow I hadn't expected to be released much before the end of the day. Whatever will I do with myself? The question comes to a head.
Taking a train sounds good, so I head home to pack a bag. And water the vegetable garden, and the azaleas, and the drooping rhododendron. Man, that thing sucks up water. And send off the rent check. And now it's time to round up all the cats. They catch on that something's up; it's not normal for me to be rounding them up. Fine, girls, just stay outside until Saturday, then. No, I sucker them into the kitchen with the promise of a spot of milk, and close the door. Natalie would feed herself for two days, but poor skinny little Sienne would starve, and the silky Bandersnatch would miss having pillows to sleep on.
Looking at my train schedules I realise they all expired on the first of the month. Well, let's just go to the station and see what's leaving. On the bus, I look at my train map of the Rhone-Alpes region. Lyon-Grenoble-Annecy-Chamonix and around there. I figure, Lyon tonight, just staying wherever I can near the station. Then an early start to some small town. I'll put an option on making the return the same day, or staying over.
Actually, if the schedules permit, making the return to Lyon pretty late would be ideal. I could book my room for two nights, and leave part of my stuff behind that way, instead of lugging everything everywhere. Hmmmm, clever girl. But alas, I'll have to wait for Lyon to pick up the local schedules.
The guy at the station seems surprised by my plans. He asks me: Do you know Culoz?
Not at all.
Then he tells me: There's nothing in Culoz. Nothing. A good place to fish, but there's nothing there.
Actually, that sounds perfect.
I thought of going to Paris for my little escapade. Sheldon invited me to the season's last evening of live music at the Swan Bar, and it does sound like it could be fun. Although, late nights are not my thing. Paris is not really my thing. Mmm. Some other time.
Culoz, town of nothing, it is!

Thursday, July 30, 2009

Friday Photo Shoot Out: Outdoor Food

Collecting pictures of Outdoor Food this week, I didn't get many of Outdoor Eating. So here's a group of friends having a coffee pause at one of the many many many outdoor cafés of France. In fact, most cafés and restaurants have some kind of outdoor seating. It takes up most of the sidewalk in a lot of places. You can hardly walk down a Paris sidewalk without having to weave through café tables at some point.
Not much food is portable in France. You can walk around with ice cream of various sorts, but you rarely see people with paper cups of coffee (coffee must be served in real cups, it's a ritual), or eating their burger & fries on the run.
So on to food that is outdoors. Please ignore the attention-seeking rabbit. This sweet corn is doing pretty well in my garden, and I should be having guests in a week or two to eat it. Outside. I promise pictures.
Other outdoor foods are growing on my trees in great numbers. These are mirabelles. About the size of cherries, but yellow. Rather like plums, only the pits resemble those of apricots, only smaller. I'm pretty sure there's more food outside the house than in it.
These are wild plums. They're good before they get too ripe, when they're just insipid. I've got to get mean with this tree soon - its branches scrape against my bedroom wall and also against the metal car shed whenever there's any wind.
The apricots just two weeks ago. Not a one left now!
Tomatos. I'm putting up a LOT of tomato sauce this year.
And apples. I just love apples fresh off the tree. The first ones should be ready soon.
And once they start getting ready, there will be a deluge. Perhaps I should have thinned them out even more. This year I'll be making crispy apple chips in my nifty food dehydrater, and enjoy apples all year long. Reminds me to go get some containers...
So that's all for Outdoor Food. I'm posting early because tomorrow, which is the real Friday, I'm gonna be Out Of Town. Out Adventuring. Hopping a train for Parts Unknown.
And be warned, I'll tell you all about it!

Random notes from an atheist in Rome.

I've been spending time in the evenings wondering what I might to with my summer vacation this year. I'm supposed to be on vacation even now, but there are some things that keep me around town. I'll take off for parts unknown to me as soon as some of that stuff clears up. In the meantime I was leafing through my old journals, and I thought I'd write up some snippets from a trip to Rome some years ago.
In St Peter's, April 2001
Inside Saint Peter's is like an indoor Boulevard of Popes. Huge statues. How strong, how noble, how mighty and just, these popes. Surrounded by angels and children, they are eternally stomping serpents and comforting the sick, larger than life.
It's an amazing place. The marble. The gilt. The tremendous amount of labor. It makes me wonder - Does the Church celebrate God? Or itself? I thought the Catholic mission was to be saved, to follow Christ, to succor the sick and aid the poor. But I never did really get my catechism.
Taking the bus in Rome can be a real adventure. There are no maps. Well, hardly any. For each bus that stops at a stop, its next stops are listed. Which is alright if you either know Rome really well or if you want an obviously-named stop, like 'Coliseum' or 'Pyramid'. Otherwise, you can easily find yourself deep in some residential neighborhood with no landmarks to grab onto. And if where you want to go doesn't happen to be on any of the bus routes that stop at the stop you have found, well, good luck.
The tramway is the nicest way to get across Rome. It's fast and fairly clean and not underground. To find out where it will take you, just go and find out.
I have a map of Rome that has about half the bus stops marked on it, and none of the tram lines. It's one of those maps that tries to show everything, but in an easily portable format. So naturally it's all reduced to such miniscule type that the printers couldn't even handle it.
However unclear the list of stops might be, at least there is one. It is, however, all you get. There is no indication as to when the bus might come around to whisk your weary feet onward. Perhaps a precise timetable is too much to expect, but there's not even an 'every 15 minutes' or 'every hour' noted. Maybe there's no service at all on Tuesdays. Maybe the last bus of the day just went by. You just get to the stop and wait. The bus might come soon; it might come late. If you don't feel like waiting, you can walk. Or get a cheap eastern-european car like everyone else.
You cannot go to the Vatican gardens. The Vatican invites you to St Peter's, and to tour the Sistine Chapel and attached museum for the price of 18,000 lira (about $9 back in 2001), but otherwise there are rather serious guards to keep you out of their city.
I was looking forward to strolling around in the greenery, taking a break from the crowds and the buildings. On my map it's quite large, with several roads through it. I imagine lawns and flowers and statuary. And benches to relax on while having a couple of cookies and the last of my bottle of water on this hot summer day. Perhaps there are such places in the Vatican garden, I don't know.
Coming out of the museum, I continued my way clockwise around Vatican City, thinking there would be some gate, some stairway, some way in. The wall is impressive. It's a retaining wall encircling the hill, not a fence; and the place did used to be a fortress, after all.
But it still is.
The pope needs his privacy.
But all that?
Well, they run the whole Catholic Church from here. It's a big thing. They've got acres of offices, and probably barracks to house all those serious church guys, why shouldn't they keep their garden private? And don't forget, terrorism has been on the rise everywhere - it's probably not such a bad idea to keep the fortress.
I am Kept Out.
That was in 2001, when I spent three days in Rome. When next I went to Rome I was deeply grateful of having made that first, footsore visit. I mean, I walked everywhere. Miles and miles. Breaking down and taking the bus only happened twice, to get to and from the apartment of a friend of a friend way out in a southern suburb for one night.
So when I landed in Rome in 2005 with two American friends and a rather large (certainly for Rome!, probably tiny by American standards, at least it was painted RED, that's what I liked about it) van, I thanked goodness that I recognised this plaza and that square, and had a sense that our destination was rather to the northwest of wherever we were. Because no matter how hard it is to get around in Rome by public transport, driving it is many times worse.
We had lucked into a parking space not too far from the Coliseum, about halfway up the Forum. Finished with those sights, we wanted to get to the Vatican. Easy. There's a major boulevard going more or less straight there from this one huge roundabout. At the roundabout, alas, the markings were for those who knew their way already, and being surrounded by Roman drivers I didn't have the nerve to risk our insurance deductable by cutting across the maniacs headed my way. I missed the exit. I figured I'd just take the next one, and work my way back. Yeah. I found myself in a maze of one-lane, one-way streets, often blocked by trucks unloading entire loads of goods. It took us the better part of an hour, but we made it to larger streets at last. (And, it should be said, this way my companions did see the Trevi fountain, and the Obelisk, and many other wonders we had been resigned to missing because of our tight schedule. Sorry about spreading car exhaust around so many outdoor cafés! I swear, we could have reached out the window and helped ourselves to cappucinos there was so little clearance.) Lesson: if you want to get there, just go around the roundabout an extra turn. If you're there to see the details, walk.
I loved Rome; it's the most interesting city I've ever been to. I love Italy. Arezzo, Florence, Pisa, Siena, even tourist-ridden Venice and crowded, dirty Naples; I've never been anywhere in Italy I didn't like. Well, maybe except for the garbage and dirt that accumulates. I gotta go back!

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Non sequitur of the day:
You are not your name, your job, or the clothes you wear. Scientology.
Hmmm. I'll agree with the first part, but why does it lead to the second???

Saturday, July 25, 2009

List Mania

Warning: rant ahead.

Ah, no, here's another one. Another one of those lists that circulate.
It's not even a new one, but the second time around from a friend who loved it the first time and just wanted to be absolutely certain that all her friends had been exposed.

To mime countless facebook quizzes, there are two kinds of women in the world. Those who read women's magazines and those who don't. Those who love romance novels, and those who flee from them, looking for either literature or for something truly X-rated that leaves all the mushy stuff in the editor's wastebasket.
My friend is of the first kind, I am of the latter group. She knows this, but sometimes I just get kept on a list when she sends something around to everyone. I don't mind. It makes me feel included.
But god, what tripe!
Come to think of it, of all the women on the address line, I'm probably the one who least appreciated the message and also the one who thought about it the most. If you like that kind of stuff, I guess you sigh and think 'How true' but you don't print it out and tape it to the bathroom mirror with certain parts picked out in green highlighter.

OK, I didn't print it out, I did that part mentally. I trashed it. And then I thought, Grrrr, What nonsense. Haven't women moved beyond this??? Something must be said. So later I figured I would vent my spleen here.
It's just one of those lists, one of those Ten Essential Steps toward Happiness, or How to Reach Your Inner Self, of What makes a Modern Woman.
"What Every Woman Needs". Yeah, that was it.
There are 27 items on the list, which a woman (an American woman, obviously) needs to either have or know. If we pretend to be first-world, 21st century, emancipated women, not one of these things is specific to females, except (perhaps) the black lace bra.
Now that I live in France, I actually have some very nice lingeré. None of it is all-black; not that I would object to a black bra, I just haven't tried one on that I liked, found comfortable, and could afford. (I swear, most of that stuff must be designed by people who don't ever have to wear it all day! As bad as women's shoes!) Every woman needs a black bra? WTF? Are we lesser women in other colors? Whatever happened to going bra-less?
That's number 9, grouped with numbers 7 and 8: ownership of a set of screwdrivers and a cordless drill. Screwdrivers I have, also a hammer and various allen wrenches and pliers. Also various pointed objects destined to be driven into hard surfaces (I really like that sort of thing), and a saw. I feel no urge, however, to invest in a cordless drill. If one day my cord is too short I'll hook it to the extension. And what's this with a drill, specifically, anyway? It's not the first thing you put in a toolbox. Is it shorthand for having a decent tool assortment, since if you get down to 'drill' on the list of essentials, you've got a fair number of things already? In that case, why not just say 'collection of useful tools'? And why is just owning them enough?
Let's not get into the details of my not choosing a particular color of underclothing or the contents of my tool drawer. It's just the whole thing.
Every woman should know...how to fall in love without losing herself.
Buerk! (and let's have another little aside here. Losing yourself in a certain sense I think is an essential part of falling in love. It's the part where you finally open up to share your soul. Don't lose yourself altogether, of course, but yes, lose yourself in moments and days!)
Every woman should have... something perfect to wear if the employer or date of her dreams wants to see her in an hour.
In a way, it's hard to say it's a stupid list. It's not bad advice. I wouldn't object to having... a good piece of furniture not previously owned by anyone in my family (but what if I'm related to royalty and my family has truly fabulous antiques?), nor to having... a feeling of control over my destiny. In fact, I actually have those particular two. How expensive does 'good' have to be? And why do the eight matching plates in #13 have to match? or number eight? or be complemented by stemmed wine glasses (and I've yet to see stemless wine glasses - those are whiskey glasses, or tumblers)?
When I have people over, my friends are honored by the simple fact that we're eating food I prepared myself. Nobody cares that the glasses don't all match or that the plates are a bit diverse or that we're drinking iced tea. The individual plates I pick up at the flea market are in fact my most interesting. Shouldn't that whole item be changed to: Every woman should invite her friends over and give them something of herself? What's the good of having matching plates & glasses if they sit in the cupboard all year?
And then there are plenty of items about knowing what you want, not settling for less than you deserve, some experiences to go through...
I get it, I get it. The message is to have self-confidence, to be self reliant, to deal with it, get over it, keep your eyes open, and be realistic. (And, apparently, become at least middle class while you're at it.) Do I need a list to tell me all that? What I need now is a good shot of insulin.
Personally, I think the list should have just one item: Every woman needs to know... that she doesn't need a list to tell her what she needs to know, or own.

Friday, July 24, 2009

Friday Photo Shoot Out: Reflections

Some reflections around town for you. I only wish I'd had more time collecting them! But what can you do. I can't let the Friday Shootouts take over my life. They're already taking over the blog.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Cat of the Month: Priscilla

So many cats! A childhood filled with cats coming and going and purring and playing.
Priscilla arrived at our house as an adult cat, long and sleek and black with white patches.
She was very timid, hiding in closets and disappearing around corners as soon as anyone approached. She was used to Walter, but ill at ease with the proprietess, Errnestine. Though Ernie, for her part, was a welcoming enough hostess.
Priscilla fled from everyone but me. I she chose as her special safe person and friend. Ernie was lots of fun, but she liked everyone. Priscilla was the first cat I had just for me. The one who slept on my bed and nobody else's. She's the one who showed me that cats can pick their favorites too.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

Friday, July 17, 2009

Friday Photo Shoot Out: Yard Stuff

This weeks' theme sounded pretty easy at first, but walking around with my camera I realised that taking pictures of other people's yards, unless you're good friends or something, just isn't done around here. Yards are your private space, even the part that's visible from the street. Lots of people put up fences or hedges, but when they don't it doesn't mean feel free to photograph. I've even been stopped in the marketplace because certain vendors didn't want to share the rights to their image.
Irises next to my driveway.
My front yard, with the roses overgrowing the path to the front door. I never use that door, so it tends to get pretty wild.

Then here's my dad, mowing his yard in Arkansas. No pix of the front yard. It's more lawn, under trees. All the fun stuff is in the back yard - the vegetable boxes, the waterfall under construction, the birdfeeders...

Thursday, July 16, 2009

End of the apricot season

The apricot harvest as of Tuesday (plus a jar of crème de menthe in the works). In the back are two big jars of dried apricots, which actually represent as much fruit as the rest of the jars and bowls together. I may be set for jam, and it's not even blueberry season yet.
We had a pretty violent thunderstorm pass through in the night, leaving the ground carpeted in apricots. They rot so fast once they touch down, there was nothing to save in the morning among the windfalls. Jérôme came over and we harvested many kilos more fruit - about 6 kilos to distribute to friends and colleagues at work, another 8-9 for him.
This branch full of the most lovely fruit is alas on the damaged side of the tree, and will have to come down.
Here we are with the downed branch cut and cleared away. That whole part of the yard is much sunnier! My rhododendron isn't going to be happy about that. About a third of the tree is gone.
Close up you can see the damage. The rotten wood and fat white worms go pretty far in. There's no way to cut it out without just cutting down the tree.
On the other side, there's a major limb that was taken off before I moved in. We couldn't tell how unstable the remaining branch is.
I've had such delicious fruit from this tree! But I doubt it can be saved. It's time to call the rental agency and tell them one of their trees needs professional help. Up to them to fix it or pull it out or just leave it to fall over one day.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Navigating the French Administration.

Just out of curiosity, to remind myself what it was like at the time during previous paperwork episodes, I looked this up in my journal:

Well, it's September (2000), and that means it's time to renew all my paperwork. I have a new contract with the University of Auvergne, and my visa needs to be renewed. Previously it wasn't a big deal to renew my papers. This year I throw moving into the works. Not a long move, just across town, but what a complication!
It's been a very busy month at work. I've written a major paper (major to me. fingers crossed, fingers crossed), then I spent a week in the UK with my brother, and I wrote a grant. Grant-writing always takes much longer than anticipated, but I've done the visa thing in a single day before. So I figured, no problem. The grant is due the 25th, my visa expires the 26th. I'll just get the grant out the door and take the next day off to do my paperwork. I won't be late. Last-minute, yeah, but not late.
September 14. I have everything I need to start my new contract except for a valid Work Authorization. Normal: they only grant an authorization for the duration of a contract. New contract, new blue card. So it's off to the Bureau of Labor.
The woman there recognizes me. She's happy with my new contract, but I have to renew my visa first.
OK. Off to the Prefecture.
Take a number. You can't get even the simplest question answered without waiting in a long queue. I bet they won't even tell you where the toilet is. And what I'm waiting for really is for my number to come up to get to the window where they will give me a new number to take up to the third floor to wait in a different office. Take a ticket to wait to take a ticket.
It isn't too long a wait, and at the window I'm issued the usual list of items I'll need (this list, you think you could just keep it from one year to the next, but just when you do that they'll change something. So you need the current list, and you have to wait in line to get it.), and I notice that if I have changed my address I'll need a form from the Commissariat of Police saying so. The police want to know I've moved?
So I take the bus to the Commissariat. Which isn't the police office down the street, but some office tucked away at the edge of our local military installation. Approaching, I'm sure I'm in the wrong place, but no, it's here.
The guy at the reception desk gives me a whole list of stuff to present to get my official change of address. And I thought notifying the post office was enough! Luckily, I happen to have it all with me because of my preparations for the Prefecture. This way I get my new visa with my new address. Okay.
Just when I think I can get this all in order, the receptionist for the person I actually have to talk to tells me that there's nobody in. Still on vacation. Back Thursday.
Thursday at 1 I have a train to catch to finally take my summer vacation with my brother. I have a ton of things to do that morning, and I figure I'll have time when I get back to take care of my papers, so I blow off Thursday morning at the police.
Back from vacation the grant is becoming a crisis. My French friend Olivier is not available to help me with the language. I work and I work and I figure I can do the rounds of various bureaus after I send it off. No grant, no money to work, after all.
The 26th the grant is out, and I get to the police offices at 9:30, half an hour before they open. In typical French bureaucratic fashion, it's an hour before I make it up to the right office, but things are finished quickly and I leave with a nice receipt.
On to the Prefecture!
Take a number.
Just before noon I get to the window. I've got everything on their list. Umm. Hmmm.
The woman at the preliminary window wants to see my work contract. This contract has not been signed by the Dean of the University because he needs my Work Authorization first, and the Work lady needs a visa valid for the duration first. I'm here to get that.
The preliminary clerk considers this. She asks to see my other papers. I volunteer three or four, and we get to my change of address.
I can't take this. It isn't any good.
But at the Police Commissariat that's what they gave me.
Makes no difference. They had no business doing it. You have to get your address changed in your new community. Chamalières, not Clermont-Ferrand.
I think - you'd think they'd be aware of that over at the office I just got this from. It's their job to know that stuff. But two strikes against me I can see there's no way that this stern, forbidding woman will give me a ticket to the third floor.
All government offices are closed from 12 to 2, so I go to work. My colleagues laugh when they find I'm trying to regulate my papers in a single day. Hey, I actually started on this weeks ago. Things were closed. I was away. I'm working on it.
So where is this Commissariat of Police in Chamalières? Nobody knows. Stephane lives there, and he has no idea. Real French people don't need to notify the police when they move.
The phone book says 15 Place Sully. Place Sully? Nobody's heard of it, either.
Alright, I will just go to Chamalières and find it. It isn't that big a town.
So I go. And the Commissariat is right behind the central shopping plaza, next to the church. And I'm lucky - they're open. Clermont-Ferrand is big enough to have an office dedicated to foreigners, but small enough so that office is only open two hours a day. Small town Chamalières just up the road deals with the occassional foreigner as they happen by.
I tell them I want to change the address on my visa.
I want to renew my visa?
Yes. You can do that here?
Sure, and they give me a list of documents to present. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I've got all that, only they want black and white photographs, not color. Sheesh, another errand. Why can't they all want the same things? And what's this one "Fichier Familiale d'Etat Civil"?
It's a fichier familiale d'état civil. A form describing the familial civil state.
Of course.
You can get it at the mayor's office.
Alright, city hall is only a few hundred yards away.
Once at city hall, a "Fichier Familiale" is a bizarre thing for me to want, evidently. Am I married? No. Do I have children? No. The girl thinks about what family is meant to go into this form, so she asks if my parents are married. Yes. Well, then she needs their marriage certificate.
Are you kidding me???
France can't seriously want me to call up my parents and have them fax me a copy of their marriage certificate. They're likely to be spending the next few odd weeks on the road in their camper, anyway. And if I had the chance to get ahold of them right away, what are the odds they'd have this 39-year-old document at hand?
Well, maybe she doesn't need it after all. My birth certificate will do for a Fichier Individuelle d'Etat Civil. That will have to do.
Thank goodness!
There's a document I can get my hands on. I have a translated copy in my desk, so it's back to the lab.
And since all government offices in small-town France close at 4 pm, that's it for the day.
In the morning I have:
- a photocopy of my translated birth certificate
- a copy of my lease and my receipt for the first month's rent
- my latest pay stub, photocopied
- a copy of my electric bill
- copies of several pages of my passport
- copies of my new (though unsigned by the dean) work contract
- four ID photos in color - damn! forgot to get b&w's made!
City hall first. A different clerk is fine with my request, but she wants the original translation of my birth certificate.
Who knows why. Off to the lab. I knew I should have brought every paper ever associated with me. Sometimes they want to keep a copy, sometimes they just want to glance at the original. I stop to get my picture taken again and while I'm at it tear through my apartment for the original original birth certificate (actually, my second replacement) from the great state of North Carolina. In English. You never know.
Later I am armed with a Fichier Individuelle d'Etat Civil. All it is is half the information from my birth certificate copied down again, the box marked "single" checked, signed and dated. (Looking at this, I congratulate myself for never admitting to being divorced. They'd want my marriage certificate, four teeny photographs of my ex, and the divorce papers, none of which I can come up with, all to say I'm currently single!) Well. I'm glad my civil state has been sorted out.
The police guys, the same ones from yesterday, gather up all the right forms, and the older one says he'll send it on to the prefecture.
Send it on? How long will that take?
Two, three weeks.
Two three weeks! Will it be faster if I just go there in person?
No, not at all.
I consider this. What's a few more days? The mail is fast, but it's still a day each way. I'm already a day late. And I hate waiting around for hours at the prefecture. Personnel at the Center will already be paying me retroactively next month anyway. I'll explain to the nice office ladies in my broken French that this infernal bureaucracy is holding things up. They will nod and understand. I just really really don't want to spend the afternoon at the prefecture. At 10:30, it's already too late to get into the morning group.
So I say, ok, send it on. They take my phone number. They'll call me when they get my visa.
I get home at 8pm, and I have a message on my answering machine. Call the police guys.
What now?
Since my French is useless on the phone, bright and early I present myself at the police office again. With all my collected documents in hand, just in case.
It turns out that they have noticed that I have changed my address.
!! no kidding !!!
They need to fill out another form for that. And they need a copy of my electric bill. Or the phone bill. Whichever.
I happen to have my latest electric bill in my packet of forms. Do they have a copier?
No, there's one at the newsagents.
Yeah, ok. So I do that and they fill out the form that I had originally come in asking for. They give me a copy and tell me to keep it with me at all times, along with my passport and visa. (even sunbathing at the municipal pool??)(really: I am meant to carry at all times a slip of paper declaring that the cops know I live in the neighborhood.)
Eight days later I'm told to come get my visa, and I see it's only the temporary 3-month kind. The full-year one is coming. I take my official paper to the Labor office. Madame is not in; come back tomorrow. Tomorrow Madame is happy to see me, and gives me 3 months work authorization. Enough to get me my paycheck at the end of the month.
And that's almost it for this time. The 3-month bit is for my papers to go to Lyon, come back requesting a chest x-ray and medical exam, back to Lyon, and finally the pretty little paper is mine. For a while.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

All you have to do is nothing.

It's been a good long time since I've written about the circus of keeping my visa current. It's not that everything is just fine, but rather my method for the past couple of years has been just to do other things. That's always been my method; it's just that this time I did nothing for quite a long time.
I've been late before, regularly in fact and usually by a month or two, and each time I get chewed out for it by the woman at the Visas department of our local prefecture. She really detests me. I think she detests just about everyone who shows up at her window, but she has a special reserve of ill feelings for me. She particularly hates the way she can't really refuse me my visa, given I press all the right buttons: I'm of that most-favored nationality, I'm highly and uniquely qualified for my job, and I have a job - a full time, permanent one. When I slink into the waiting room with my number, trying to sink into the decor, then sidle up to her window when I'm called, all folded into myself and quite pale, she seems to see a prima-donna, waltzing in without a care.
Visa Woman is one of the reasons I drag my feet so long going to the prefecture. And I'm not even supposed to go to the prefecture. I'm supposed to go to the police station in Chamalières, drop off all the papers and a SASE, and wait for the mail. You only go to the prefecture in person if you have a problem, or if you live within the city limits of where it happens to be.
Well, I did it the 'right' way for my last renewal, and in good time. And I waited. And I went down there, but there was nothing for me. The guy there just shook his head like I was crazy to think it would be there. So come the week my visa would expire, I gathered my courage and with a new set of photocopies did the waiting thing at the prefecture.
Took my number.
Waited with the subdued crowd of chinese, algerians and senegalese.
Took my turn with Visa Woman. Who took one look at my papers and told me NO; I live in Chamalières, I have to go to Chamalières. GO AWAY.
So I did. And I waited, and I checked in, and there was nothing for me.
And then I did what I do best. I did nothing.
Actually, I did plenty of things: worked excessively, went travelling, watched TV, knitted sweaters. The only thing I didn't do was go back to the prefecture to renew my visa.
It's surprisingly easy to become an illegal immigrant, and to get away with it. I'm not proud of it at all. I'm deeply ashamed. I just want to explain.
While I'm told all the time that anybody can be asked for their identity papers at any time, this has never happened to me in the past 13 years (except in airports, where you expect it). The personnel department might send me an email once in a blue moon, and I say, oh, yeah, I'll get that for you. And really, I mean to take care of it in the morning, the next morning, next week once some class is over or some grant out the door. And since there's never any follow-up from personnel, the question fades into the background and gets forgotten.
Nobody else ever wants to see any papers from me. I don't have a car, or a european license. When I do rent a car, I show my California license, which is perfectly valid, and off I go. I've never been sick, I've never made an insurance claim. I've never bought a house. I do my banking, I pay my bills, no problem. I pay my French taxes on time, the TV tax, the habitation tax. I behave in all those ways. France doesn't seen terribly concerned about my residency status.
Leaving and entering France has never been a problem either. Business or pleasure, most border agents take it for granted that the California address is my regular address. I just walk on through. When I have been asked a more specific question, I've admitted to living in France, but I seem to have forgotten the laminated visa card at home. Each time it's no problem. Each time I kick myself and promise I've got to get that taken care of just as soon as I have a morning to waste at the prefecture.
But when does anyone ever have a morning to waste at the prefecture when there's so much fun science to be done?
It's not like the State Department is unaware of my living here - I've declared myself an expat - so it's surprising that with all the fancy technology in place that scanning my passport in their machine (either coming or going or wherever) wouldn't call up my status. I thought that's what all that stuff was for. It should at least be clear, if each entry in each country is recorded, that I spend 90 % of the year in France. But only once in four or five entries am I asked for my visa (and I've usually had it, it's only recently I've been illegal). It's a pretty lax system.
So anyway. During my last trip to the US, the folks in Personnel noticed they didn't have valid papers for me, and there was a crisis waiting. They wanted my papers and they wanted them right this minute.
Well, it was a rather scary thing. No way could I pull a rabbit out of a hat. I could be fired, and probably should be. This is deep shit.
I gathered up all the usual papers and steeled myself for a very difficult morning at the prefecture. It's not at all assured that I'll walk out of there with any kind of papers, I realised. This time it's been more than a year.
And then, my friend and colleague JF mentioned my predicament to another colleague YD, whose father BD works in the mayor's office. Give him a call; he'll know what to do.
Ooohhh. second to visiting the prefecture on my fun-list is phoning. I'm a real phonophobic. It's a problem.
But I phone anyway. Answering machine! whew.
BD calls me back and he agrees to meet me in his office in the morning.
So there's BD, and his assistant, and I explain my problem. It's all my fault. It's stupid, really, I've been an idiot. There's nodding and smiling all around. How big a problem could it be? People renew their visas late all the time. Then we get to exactly how long I've been on the wrong side of the law, and their eyes kind of bug out, and the smiles turn to incredulous laughter. Two and a half years. Um, hm, two and a half years?? It's so outrageous I can't do anything but plead hopelessness.
And here's the woman who will liaise with the prefecture. I know her. She works with us all the time on the financing and organisation of certain major projects. Heh heh. Um, Hi.
She gets on the phone, and wheels turn, dossiers are called up, nervous grins are exchanged. In twenty minutes I can go pick up the necessary papers. Fill them out, attach the requested documents, and you'll be notified of the next step by the end of the week.
Just like that.
I'm not done yet, of course. But things have been started. BD is happy to vouch for me. I'll be skipping the dreaded roomful of hopefuls and the plexiglas window with Visa Woman behind it.
I'm not one to pull strings. Cronyism is a dirty word to me. It's not fair, and I don't like things not to be fair. I feel it isn't right to take advantage of an accident of birth - to be born white middle class American. But damn I'm glad to know somebody who's related to somebody who's on good terms with somebody else! Walking into Visa Woman's lair on my own two and a half years late, I'd be on the next plane to the USA.
It's still not over. I filled out my papers and received an appointment for this morning with instructions to bring every single pay slip since October 2007. Which I miraculously have in a desk drawer, not a one missing. I'm prompt. It's a shared office, and who is there at the next desk but a promoted Visa Woman. She's had plenty of time to go over my dossier with her colleague. It took them ages to find it, too, because it had been pulled way back when I was waiting for word in Chamalières. My visa then had been waiting for me. I just never knew it.
Visa Guy (who is usually Asylum Guy but he's the contact from the Mayor's office), is not pleased. Visa Woman is even less pleased, but thank God I'm not her case today. I get the dressing down of my life so far. I'm absolutely certain that, were it up to them, I wouldn't be taking the short track to good papers today. I'd be starting over, and since it takes about three months to make the papers authorizing somebody to work, that would be a serious problem for me and my employers. As it is, I'm not sure what sort of penalty my employer will incur (if any). Nor whether they will be sufficiently angry with me to fire me. That could happen.
I leave the prefecture with a receipt for my visa, valid for three months. Soon I'll receive an order to get a chest X-ray and a medical appointment, the tuberculosis-free results of which will go through offices in another city, before everything is finally in order to issue me a new card, good for one year. Don't even think about asking for a longer visa; not until I've been good for a year or three.
I swear, this is the last time for being late. I'm a natural procrastinator, but this can't go on. It won't work next time. Visa Woman was practically foaming at the mouth - next time she'll take me into a back room for a little one on one. And really, it's dumb. There's no reason to be late. Sure, I have classes to prepare, and trips to take, and grants to write and meeting to hold. But I can file papers too.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Friday Photo Shoot Out: Texture

I didn't go far for this week's post. Mostly I stayed in my own yard and played with the macro adapters!
Old snow from the archives.
Unmowed grass.
Grilled sesame seeds.
Paving in the back yard.
A bench I painted last year. It said it was outdoor paint....
A recently disturbed ant nest.
Black currants just before harvest to try a yummy-sounding crème de cassis recipe.
Laars's fur.
More grass in the yard. Blogger is turning my pictures wrong again!
A bug on the Queen Anne's Lace.
Termite damage at the broken apricot branch.
One of the fabulous apricots still ripening on that branch. Which I'll be cutting as soon as the fruit is done.


Monday, July 6, 2009

Finally ripe

Apricots are such pretty fruit!
Even the branch laying on the ground (still slightly attached to the tree) is still alive and ripening.
Jam. Tarts. Dried. How many ways to eat them...

Friday, July 3, 2009

old families never die

The thing about a genetics lab is, you're never "done" with a family. If you find a mutation, you follow it through the generations and the far-flung third cousins. If you don't, you retest that family every time a new gene comes up that might be involved somewhere somehow in the pathology that led the family to you in the first place.
For these new genes, it's often important to know 'Yes, we looked for it. No, you don't have it.' Most of those results just stay in the family file. No need to be calling them in each time some negative result comes up.
More rarely, the result is 'Hey, there's this new gene out that we thought might be relevant, and it turns out...' Those are the ones that keep you interested as a scientist. There are families we've studied for ten years before hitting on the right gene.
Just recently, there was an unusual mutation in one of the major genes we study found in the Portugese, a mutation that could be missed by our standard techniques. So we developed a specific test for it, and then it was time to make the rounds of every case we had ever studied for that gene and gotten a negative result. Not just our patients of Portugese origin, but everyone. You never can be sure what happened generations ago. They're a traveling people, the Portugese.
1063 'yes we looked, no you don't have its' later, I'm finally done writing reports! I've been writing reports on DNAs we received twenty years ago. Reports for people who are now surely gone, but whose families are still concerned.
And yes, there was one positive result. One family for which we could finally figure out who's really at risk of breast cancer and whose risk is low. Yea!

Friday Photo Shoot Out: Celebrating Life

Marie-Laure, PhD!
A little crepe party after a day of blueberry picking.
Old friends refound.
With my parents and some of Mom's cousins a couple of years ago.
Birthday presents for Jérôme.
Liz with two of the dogs.
Bandersnatch lies in wait.
Sledding at Lac Pavin.
Bovine life.