Thursday, 28 May 2015

Between Britain and France

In French, the Channel Islands are called Les Iles Anglo-Normandes, and that pretty much sums up why they are a funny place for a British person resident in France to visit. They speak English there, but the place names are nearly all French. You can sail there from France, but if you want to catch a plane, you'll have to fly to England first. And you can see the Normandy coast from the beaches, but don't forget to take a UK travel adaptor if you want to plug in your appliances.

Jersey and Guernsey, along with some smaller islands, were part of the Duchy of Normandy at the time of the Norman invasion of England. In the 13th century, Normandy itself became part of France, but the islands remained attached to the British crown as crown dependencies. Elizabeth II is their monarch, but Jersey has its own legal, fiscal and administrative systems and is not part of the EU.

If I had remembered all of this beforehand, I might have taken my UK bank card and a few pounds sterling when we visited last weekend. Luckily I was smart enough to take my passport, and so was allowed on to the ferry that sails from St Malo at a fairly ungodly hour of the morning.

We stayed with a friend in her beautiful flat overlooking the sea and this, coupled with the beautiful weather and the lack of outside communication (we didn't remember adaptors for our phone chargers!) meant that Jersey was something of a real paradise for us as well as a paradis fiscal for millionaires. We spent most of the weekend hiking along coastal trails and even managed a paddle, although my plans for sea-swimming were scuppered when the sun disappeared behind the clouds and the wind picked up on the only day I had my swimming costume in my bag.

We travelled back on the early boat on Monday morning and spent a day enjoying the equally gorgeous St-Malo before driving back to Paris in the evening. With my appetite for summer holidays well and truly whetted, it's been hard to go back to work this week!

Saturday, 16 May 2015

How Living Abroad Can Make You Passionate About Politics

I say "for anyone who doesn't know" because in France, the election was widely reported and discussed. It felt quite strange seeing my country's politics as headline news on Le journal de 20h.

The main reason for this is that the Conservative party, who won a surprise majority, has promised an in/out referendum on membership of the European Union. Meanwhile Scotland, which is largely pro-Europe, having rejected independence from the UK in a referendum last year, voted massively in favour of the Scottish National Party; hence all the yellow on Maggie's head.The SNP leader has already made it clear that a UK exit from the EU would be considered as a reasonable justification for a second referendum.

All of this made me think not just about my own political opinions, but about the way that they have grown so much stronger over the past ten years or so. I suspect that this has something to do with getting older and more educated about it all, but I wonder if it isn't also caused by spending so many years living in other countries.

When you first move abroad, particularly to a country with high political engagement like France, answering questions about your country's politics can be overwhelming. You go from being an individual with your own opinions to someone who is expected to explain in a few sentences an entire country's perspective, even if you happen to disagree with the majority of your compatriots. And people are not always terribly sensitive to the fact that when you are the only foreigner at a dinner party surrounded by French people who don't understand why the UK might have a different point of view on the Schengen agreement, the Euro or the Common Agricultural Policy, all that intensive questioning can feel quite threatening. (My American friends who were here during the Iraq war had an even tougher time!)

Over time, I've got better at handling those situations. It's partly because I've educated myself about the issues and I know my own standpoints better. It's partly because since the economic crisis, it's a bit more obvious to people why Britain might not have wanted to be part of the Eurozone. It's partly because I speak better French. And it's also because I understand the French perspective better, so I can explain both more clearly and more diplomatically why some British people hold different opinions, without necessarily saying that either is right or wrong.

I believe without a shadow of a doubt that this double understanding, with the ability to comprehend different viewpoints, as well as being able to make honest comparisons between countries, is one of the most valuable things that you can learn from living abroad. It takes a long time though, and it's hard work.

What do you all think? Has living in another country made you more politically engaged? How do you handle those difficult questions?

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

The Gatekeeper of the Secrets of the French State

I promised in my last post that I would let you know the sequel to us completing our wedding application dossier, so (because I know you are all so interested in French bureaucracy), here it is.

Six years enjoying the privileges of being an EU citizen with no need for a carte de séjour must have turned me into a big softie, because I found the whole marriage application process incredibly stressful. My most recent encounters with local administration had led me to believe that the stereotypical fonctionnaire was a dying breed, so it was a bit of a shock to discover after meeting the incredibly helpful person at the electoral registration office and the rapid-response team at the service des impôts that it's in the weddings department that the hardcore old-school cases reside.

We first encountered The Gatekeeper over the phone when, realising that our application process was going to take longer than expected, Understanding Frenchman phoned the mairie to get an idea of what dates might still be available. Not asking for an appointment, you understand, just wanting to know if it was reasonable to expect a Saturday, or a date in July, or if we should plan around having to wait for a Tuesday in November.

But that information is clearly classified at the highest level, because she would tell him nothing.

Then I called to ask for an appointment to hand in the application, which of course can only be done on certain days of the week between the hours of 9 and 4. The Gatekeeper offered me a time, but when I asked her if I could check with my employer about taking time of work to attend, she refused to make the appointment until I had done so. (By which time for all I knew, the appointment would be gone) When I called back later, with nothing confirmed but having decided that my employer would probably be kinder than the French administration, there was nobody to answer the phone for the next hour and a half.

So by the time the day was coming round, I was a nervous wreck. A nervous, angry wreck, I should say, as I was spending far too much time, usually in the wee hours of the morning, thinking about what I would say to her if she asked for any more pieces of paper stamped in triplicated and translated at the cost of a couple of hundred euros a time. (In reality, I would probably just have cried.)

When we arrived at the town hall, we spoke to the nice lady at reception, spotted the helpful man who had given us all the information when we first went to ask about the dossier ... and then we saw her. Although we had both only spoken to her on the phone, she had the forbidding demeanour of a brick wall topped with barbed wire, and we knew it was her.

I don't know if the appointment we had was supposed to be an official audition, but basically all she did was check that the information we had written on our forms matched the paperwork we had given, and hand-wrote it all on another form. She questioned our letter formation in a couple of words, told UFM that what he had written for his witness' profession was not a proper profession, changed Royaume-Uni to Ecosse, and that was about it.

And then, we were finally given access to the precious calendar, which turned out to be an A5 diary with appointments written in in biro. There were plenty of Saturday dates, and even Saturdays in July. It was looking hopeful.

But there was one last piece of paperwork to be filled in. Foreign citizens have to sign a declaration that they are not already married, and the version we had in our dossier was an old one. I would have to go back, and in fact we might both have to go back. She said she would phone me.

In the meantime, however, she would put a wedding date in the diary for us. (Big sigh of relief).

In pencil, of course. (She told us that three times.)

So I have to go back and sign another document in order to have the privilege of having our wedding date written down in ink. But the funniest thing was, when she phoned me back to confirm that only I would have to go, she was very cheery and actually wished me a happy birthday, saying, "I didn't realise when I looked at your birth certificate before."

So that was my present: a wedding date from the mairie.

Written in pencil, of course. 

Friday, 8 May 2015

Putting Together a French Marriage Application

This is going to be a bit of a boring post for anyone who's not looking to get married in France any time soon, but just in case anyone is, I'm putting it out there. When we were putting together our application, I actually found that the information provided by the mairie was very clear, but my own ignorance/incompetence slowed down a few stages in the process, so maybe you can learn from my experience.

We collected our application file from the mairie in person, which was worthwhile, because the section for foreigners has a few things that you don't necessarily need, and the man we spoke to told us what they were. There are three forms to fill in: personal information for each of you, plus details about the witnesses. You also have to provide proof of address (1 document each), which can be an income tax invoice or an EDF bill, a copy of your passport or ID, and copies of the witnesses' ID. French people also have to supply an up-to-date birth certificate (ie issued less than 3 months ago).

As a side note, British people find the idea that a birth certificate can be out-of-date hilarious, but in France,  marriage and PACS are added to your birth records, so the information can actually change and the certificate proves that you're not trying to commit bigamy. What I found much more amusing was that while my certificate copy is printed on thick official paper with an embossed stamp, Understanding Frenchman's resembles an extra-long dry cleaning ticket which could easily have been forged in someone's living room.

Being Scottish, I had to order an official copy of my birth certificate from the registry office in Edinburgh. You can do this over the phone, it costs £15 and takes about a week to arrive. The copy has a date of issue on it, which solves the problem of the original certificate never going out of date. I then sent the copy to the British Embassy in Paris and they used it to supply me with a Certificat de Coutume, a highly expensive (98€) and to me somewhat unnecessary document which basically says that UK law allows me to get married without my parents' consent and that it won't cause me to lose my British nationality.

After that, I sent the official copy of my birth certificate back to the UK for an apostille. This is an extra document which is attached to the certificate and confirms that the signature is genuine. So for £42, a UK civil servant signed a piece of paper which says that another piece of paper signed by a UK civil servant is not a forgery. (I guess it keeps unemployment down.) I found this part confusing, because I thought an apostille was a stamp which could be added after translation, but in fact it's another document which needs to be translated at the same time as the certificate.

Finding a certified translator was reasonably easy, but finding the time to take the document to an office in Paris when I work office hours in the suburbs and then spend an hour on the RER held me up a bit, followed by the above confusion over the apostille, but when I finally got the whole lot back from the translator (66€ this time), we were good to go.

Until, that is, I looked at the information from the mairie again and realised that you have to make an appointment to hand in the dossier. But this post is getting long, so the story of our encounter with the administrative gatekeeper with a heart of gold will have to wait for another day.

Tuesday, 5 May 2015

Dans le Bugey

If the region of Le Bugey were located anywhere other than the south-east of France, nestled between Lyon, Annecy and Chambéry, in the metaphorical if not the literal shadow of the Alps, it would probably be really famous. Understanding Frenchman and I discovered it by accident, the year my car was nearing the end of its useful life when, unable to drive at over 100km per hour, we abandoned the motorways for the tranquility of the routes nationales. We stopped for a lakeside picnic on the way to Grenoble that summer, fell in love with the scenery and promised we'd be back.

It took us a while, but last weekend, we finally went. We stayed in a gîte in the village of Ceyzérieu and hiked in the nearby mountains. The first day was wet, but our four hours in the downpour were compensated for by this beautiful waterfall at Cerveyrieu. On the second day, we climbed the Grand Colombier, the region's highest mountain at 1538 metres. I would have preferred to stay in the area on the Sunday, but the friends we were with preferred to visit the town of Aix-les-Bains. Although it wasn't a hugely inspiring place, especially on a rainy Sunday afternoon, the lake scenery is beautiful and I was charmed by a mother crested grebe paddling around with ten little babies who took turns to rest from swimming by clambering on to her back.

So there you are: the secret's out. Get there before everybody else does!