My newest addiction in Paris is catching the bus. I never would have thought I’d get so much joy out of riding in a huge chugging machine, its velour seats peppered with chewing gum and where straight faced humans sway to the beat of the driver’s controlled skuttlebuttery teamed with a finely crafted use of the breaks.
But I am, and I love it.
In Paris, the buses travel at murderous speeds – as if they are running away from a long kept, dirty secret, and I find this an exciting way to discover new arrondissements from above ground and at pace. On the metro, I observe the same human behaviours unique to public transport (shopping trolleys used as a device to stabilise grey faces atop swaying bodies, as eyes stare blankly ahead oblivious to sudden stoppages), but being restricted to the underground where the air is stuffy and the ‘clack clack clack’ of the wheels on the tracks as the black tunnel walls shutter by, doesn’t have the same appeal as an open sky where I can observe people going about their daily lives. Even if I can hardly see them, thanks to the speeds at which we are traveling.
Thursday afternoon saw a meeting at the Office of French Immigration and Integration, one of two tick box exercises that come with gaining a carte de séjour and, with this first appointment being the medical element of the interrogation.
I prepared for Thursday’s meeting by ironing a sparkling clean favourite white shirt (in a collection of seemingly thousands) to be worn with clean hair newly blow dried (heaven forbid one would ever leave an apartment in Paris with wet hair). Flinging a nice, blush pink anorak over my shoulder in a move so sensible I almost frightened myself (I had a coffee meeting later that day, and the forecast was suggesting the last day of summer was to turn cold), I clicked the apartment door shut behind me before whizzing down the stairs and out onto the street- double, triple and quadruple checking that I had everything from medical records, to passport, to evidence that I was ever born- as if the white shirt wearing/clean person skipping down the stairs wasn’t evidence enough. Breathing in the cool air, I also noted that I had three hours until my appointment, which allowed plenty of time for a trip to the print shop where I would make duplicates of each document carefully filed into a plastic folder, now tucked neatly under my arm.
St Sulpice is one of my favourite places in Paris and, only moments from home, it lies on a frequently walked path from places such as the copy shop, Jardin du Luxembourg and the Sunday market. I love watching the pigeons fluttering in the fountain before fighting for baguette crumbs and sometimes, I take a seat and just take in all that happens around me- losing track of time as I do. I’m a hopeless meditator and I have a terrible time of letting go of thoughts, a skill which allows the mind to just ‘be’ in the moment, but sitting under fountains with pigeons and masses of people seems to be doing the trick, and in this city I’m spoiled for choice.
After reaching St Sulpice on Thursday I had just under three hours until my appointment and I didn’t want to risk running out of time, so I pushed on, walking under the trees lining the forecourt of the magnificent church, before feeling that unmistakable ‘flutter, flutter, fah, fah’ unique only to a pigeon emptying its breakfast on me. Not daring to move a bone, I strode in military style and not without complete caution, to a shop window where I stared at the endless volumes of books which lined the walls inside while observing my reflection, eyeing a huge green dollop on my very white collar as I became caught up in literary wanderlust. As I left the apartment only half an hour earlier, I’d toyed with the idea of carrying a packet of baby wipes in my bag- not for any reason other than their full proof ability to remove anything from clothing (something that makes me wonder what on earth they are doing to babies bottoms). Babywipeless, I stood helpless after ‘pigeon gate,’ with just a metro ticket not yet used, as my only vice available to scrape the remnants of pigeon intestines off my clothing.
A trip to the pharmacy later, I had a newly acquired packet of wipes spilling out of my handbag and taking up the space I’d allocated for a bottle of water should I get a dry throat throughout the day (inevitable). I arrived at the print shop in a renewed state and smelling of chamomile essence, and I made a copy of every document carefully clipped into my plastic envelope- visa, passport, birth certificate, proof of residence, dental, medical and bank records and most importantly, the documents from OFII that were to be stamped once the appointment was complete. These documents are my ticket to the final meeting to be had in two weeks time, so as I sipped a good, strong café allongé moments later, I guarded them with my life as they sat, valuable as a nugget of gold, on the tiny café table.
Montrouge is a huge arrondissement which sits just outside the fringe of the périphérique and it is half an hour by bus from where I live. Once aboard the no. 62 bus, I took in the sites of the 14th arrondissement as we traveled at breakneck speed before arriving at Montrouge, terminating just a short walk from the office where I was due at 3.30. Climbing down the steps and onto a dusty, urban street where jackhammers reigned and workmen bustled about in hard hats, an elderly woman muttered furiously to herself as a young girl hoisted her pram down the steps. Forty five minutes early (I’m becoming almost criminally good at being early to appointments), I joined the queue outside OFII as it spanned almost around the corner and into the next street.
As part of Paris being on high security alert, I am used to police and army personnel being heavily armed on the doors of government bureaus, with this one being no exception- four machine guns rested in the arms of as many soldiers and two heavily armed policemen chatted to the guard who manned the door. Before too long, I was ushered through the heavy glass door which clicked and locked as it closed, leaving a long line of people behind me (questions of ‘why’ taking a walk through my mind were silenced by a perplexed sensibility of ‘best not to ask’). My passport was checked, documents scanned and Madame Affleck was sent to a waiting room on the heels of a Russian man, who clutched his collection of life affirming documents in a similar fashion to me.
The following hour was spent being weighed and measured (I laughed at this, imagining ‘size ten and below’ being the rule of thumb for letting women into France), before having my fingers pricked and my blood tested. I took an eye test, thankful that I could count to ten and pronounce the French alphabet, and following this I was sent to sit in the ‘right’ section of the waiting room, having being told not to sit on the ‘left’. Scanning the walls, I practised my french by reading posters about the importance of immunisation, before shifting my eyes to the emergency posters which advised what to do in case of a fire and on a seperate poster, a terror attack (I would assume sprint in both cases). After some time, I was sent into a tiny cabine where the Doctor in charge (who now knew every intimate detail of my measurements and capacity to see) ordered me to take all of my clothes off ‘bar the trousers’ and to make sure I locked the door.
Newly elated in a ‘post getting on the dreaded scales’ realisation that I have lost weight since my arrival in Paris almost three months ago, saw my seemingly forever wait in the tiny cabine with a full length mirror and just me (topless and with very little to do), experiencing a moment similar to that moment in the film ‘Notting Hill’ where Spike flexes his muscles wearing just his boxer shorts, before flinging the door open to a press mob waiting on the street outside for Julia Robert’s character, Anna. As I used the mirror to observe every flaw, lump, bump, mound and the tone of my skin, I made a mental note to up the skipping from 500 rounds to 1,000 on morning shuffles along the Seine. Next, I shifted my attention to my newly painted nails done by the girls in a nail bar not far from home- who natter in their native tongue of Vietnamese, as they perform manicures to the beat of Johnny Cash and other American country crooners.
My breath was taken away as the door was flung open, and a very small man in a lab coat ordered me to stand against a screen and ‘hug it, taking very deep breaths’ while he took a chest X-Ray. Unable to explain that I could hardly breathe because I’d just had a ‘Spike from Notting Hill moment’ and wanting to ask ‘did he like the pink on my nails,’ I obliged and hugged the screen, breathing like my life depended on it (which it does and it did, in more ways than just one).
The appointment was finished off with a final examination with another lab coat wearing man, who seemed to delight in drilling me with the usual questions- am I married and do I have children (‘no- as much as the baby wipes spilling out of the bag are confusing’ I wanted to say as he eyed them off) do I exercise (yes, I run very fast every day), do I smoke (never), are my parents healthy (very) finished off with ‘what will you do in France’ leaving him laughing as I bumbled through a whole monologue of ridiculous answers. He was a complete gentleman who shook my hand before he sent me on my way with a piece of paper to be stamped at reception and presented at my second interview, to be held in two weeks time.
After my paperwork had been stamped, the security guard unlocked the door and I stepped outside blinking in the daylight- noting that the queue had disappeared, along with the armed forces. Deciding not to overthink anything too much, I meandered at a leisurely pace to the bus stop which had also disappeared, deciding instead to take the train home. At this stage of the day, I had conjured up such a thirst that a small Jewish supermarket was a welcome sight, and conveniently located just moments from the metro. A little boy wearing a kippah flung the door open for me, before bossing his father around with shouts of ‘Papa’ peppering his every sentence as he delighted in opening the fridge door for me, showing me an extensive variety of drinks. I smiled at him as I placed my bag and documents on the counter, offering his dad a knowing look as I paid for my water, before commenting that his son was very, very sweet.
Drinking up every last sip of my lifesaving bottle of water, I walked down the steps to the metro with an upbeat soundtrack of the day playing in my head. Another small, but significant little step was complete on my map of a new life, where I have no idea where X is, or if it even marks the spot.
On every metro trip, I listen intently to the announcements of the names of each station as we approach. And, as with most French words, they are pronounced completely differently to the way that they are written and this exercise is just one of many that have become commonplace in my everyday.
Four stops away from Mairie de Montrogue station where I had started my journey, is Denfert Rochereau and it was here, as I reached into my handbag for my lipstick, that I realised that my ‘large enough to not, not be able to see it,’ plastic envelope containing my passport and every other document that I can’t live without, was nowhere to be seen. I patted my knees and my thighs before shifting my patting to the pockets of my anorak in a frenzied moment, knowing the whole time that they were not on the train and certainly not in my pockets. The woman sitting opposite me looked on in bemusement as I leapt off the train at Denfert Rochereau and raced to the ‘sortie’ and back towards the platform that would deliver a train headed to Mairie de Montrouge.
Half an hour after my first visit to the supermarket, I returned and was greeted by the same little boy who rolled his eyes and clapped his hands in rapturous applause. I raced through the door which he happily flung open (for a second time that day), where I was met by his kind father whose face will be forever etched into my memory, and who handed me the documents that he’d hidden in a safe place under the counter. He went on to explain that when he saw the cover letter, newly stamped with the invaluable ink of the OFII, accompanied by my passport which contains my irreplaceable visa, he just knew I’d return sometime soon.
Words escaped me in that moment and after blubbering thank you more than 1,000 times, I walked back to the metro, taking deep breaths as I ran my hands through my hair in a moment of complete relief and gratitude. In this ‘post miracle hair smoothing moment’ I retrieved a huge, dry lump of pigeon poo, which had been clinging to my hair since the beginning of what was one of the more amusing days of my life.
Pictured: a garden bed in the beautiful Tuileries gardens on my walk home in the late afternoon sunlight yesterday.