In France, one can't get a bank account without detailed proof of an address. But, quite often, one cannot get an address without a bank account. There in lies the problem that faces the American Assistants de Langue. But, as I am admittedly an iPhone-aholic, my bigger concern was getting a French phone plan. My preference is Orange (France Telecom) since they are the official iPhone plan people in this country. I had my phone unlocked (with AT&T's permission and even at a place they recommended with a coupon in San Francisco) before my departure. However, when I went to The Phone House (a store that features all of France's biggest phone carriers in one store), they informed me that I would need both my passport (check) and a French ATM card (darn).
The French Embassy in the US (the organization that recruits the Assistants and very loosely facilitates the program) suggests that we open bank accounts in France as soon as possible. After the visa process, all of our paperwork (which is a lot) depends on our French bank accounts. As does my iPhone.
When I was back in Lille the first week, I quickly sent my school contact, Laurent, an e-mail asking if I could use the school's address to open an account. He said he didn't see any problem with it since I have a mailbox with a lock at the school. Thus, I set out on a fine sunny Tuesday morning in Lille to make an appointment to open un compte d'argent.
The receptionist at the bank at was very friendly. She noticed I didn't speak French like a local, but she didn't treat me any differently and attempted to speak a little English, but not much. Either way, the appointment was made and I returned that afternoon. After reading on the French Assistantship forums about how much trouble other American Assistants all over France had with opening bank accounts, I was nervous. However, the Lille bank agent proved to be just as warm as the receptionist. She asked if I spoke French, to which I said a little, and she asked for my documents. I handed her my passport, a letter from my bank in the US proving my account there and my arrêté de nomination (my official employment sponsorship from the Académie de Lille that has the address of my school on it). When she glanced at my passport, she exclaimed, "Oh! I thought you were English, not American!" This is definitely the first time I've ever gotten this remark. (So I heard from another Assistant more familiar with France than I am, most French speakers can't tell the difference between the two accents unless they've experience an extended period of time around one or the other. Bizarre.)
She asked if the address on my arrêté was the same as my home address. Since I knew I'd be staying at the school for while and my contact gave me permission, I just said yes. (Okay, so it was a bit of a lie.) Then she spoke on the phone with someone, very fast in French so I could only pick up bits and pieces. Then she spoke with someone else. Then her vocal tone dropped. I knew something bad was coming. When she got off the phone, she said that all of my documents were fine and that she really liked that I had a letter from my American bank, but that I'd have to return in two weeks to pick up the card. Thus, she said it would be better if I just waited to open an account at another branch in Montreuil. I relented since it looked like opening an account in Lille wouldn't get me an iPhone plan any sooner.
Exactly one week later, I found myself in the lobby of the bank branch in Montreuil with Laurent. I appreciated the fact that he took the time to come with me, as it is very evident that the teachers here are trying to help my stay be as pleasant as possible. That's not something I'm entirely used to after previous stays in France. He explained to the receptionist and another bank agent my situation and that I had to have a bank account open by October 1st to start on paperwork. He also explained the address situation, and they said it would be worked out. I had to return the following morning (or what is now yesterday).
So yesterday morning, foggy and early, I set out for the bank. However, it was neither the same receptionist nor bank agent there that morning, which made me a little uneasy. I wasn't sure if the bank agent helping me knew the urgency (not about the iPhone but the bureaucracy/paperwork stuff). This agent seemed to like speaking to me in English right off the bat. However, most of the appointment took place in both languages, alternating at random times. He first looked at all my paperwork, glancing at my pictures in Xerox copies of my passport and visa. Then he looked back at me and said, "You look very American. Very Californian." Since I was bundled up in a jacket and scarf in the chair across from him as he smiled, I wasn't sure how to take this, but personally I think it is always a compliment to be considered Californian, so there. While glancing at my paperwork, typing in his computer, he made a few other strange comments, including mumbling something about America changing after the "Twin Towers" and how "America is afraiding the world." I heard "afraiding," thus I’m not sure if he meant we're afraid or we're scaring everyone. I guess it could be a bit of both.
After reviewing everything, he questioned me about my address. Since I am actually staying at the school until I can find a place to live and this time my contact instructed me to use the school's address, I said that's where things should be mailed. Even on Monday at our first meeting, the headmistress agreed that would be acceptable. But the bank agent wasn't buying it. He asked for the school's phone number to call and confirm. I quickly complied, but when he called, I guess the line was busy since he said he would call again later. Then he typed some more, and things started coming out of the printer, with the words "Ouverture Compte d'Argent" on top. It was happening! I was getting a bank account!
That happiness faded fast when he decided to call the school one more time. Whoever answered the phone told him I wasn't living at the school for long. He gave me the RIB form with a bank account number I needed by October 1 to get an advance in pay (if we don't do this, we don't get paid until at least the end of November), and he had me sign all of the forms necessary to open the account. But he also gave me strict instructions that I had to return within 10 days with a change of address or a formal letter from the school stating I was living at the boarding house permanently, or the account would be put on hold (causing lots of paperwork problems) and I wouldn't get that very much desired ATM card. I accepted this half-victory, half-defeat and returned to the school, where I told Laurent all about it.
I also came to conclusion that I'm going to have to take the room in the apartment with the older woman. I can't wait much longer on finding a permanent address, and the room is furnished and has Internet access. Laurent said she'd call her back again to see if I could still take the room, since apparently after meeting me (when I barely said a word in either language), she was afraid I'd cause a lot of noise. I'm not really sure where she got this from, perhaps my age. Either way, I just want to have somewhere to live soon. I can't live out of a suitcase (or three) much longer.