The Studio

Finally, one major problem solved: I found an apartment. Up until 5:30 PM on Monday afternoon, I was headed for a place where I seriously didn’t want to live.

There aren't many options to come by in a village with a population somewhere between 2,000 and 3,000 total residents. On my first day in Montreuil last week, Laurent and Nathalie showed me a room for rent in the flat of an older woman. While it was very clean and furnished, I'd be losing a lot of freedom. But as my problems were at a stand-still without an address at least and it didn't look like there were any other options, I gave Laurent the go-ahead to call the woman and say I'd take the room. She said she could welcome me on Monday evening at the earliest.

Thus, we had the rendez-vous set for 6 PM on Monday, October 6. But around 3 PM that afternoon, Laurent showed me the contract he received from her. He didn't seem happy with it. Neither was I. Considering I'm 25-years-old, she was treating me like her child. According to the contract, I couldn't come back after 10 PM (since she didn't want to hear me coming in later), I couldn't ever have any guests over night, I could only have one or two friends over at a time before 10 PM, and I couldn't use her laundry machine. Rather, she would prefer I left my clothes in a bag for her to do at her convenience. I really don't like the idea of anyone touching my dirty clothes. Nor do I like being subjected to such rules. While I understand it is her home, and naturally there would be rules, hers were too draconian for my taste. But with time pressing and no other options, I resigned myself to the fact I had to take it.

That was, however, until Deborah, one of the teachers at my school who is my age, told me there was a studio for rent next to hers. She finished up with class at 5:30 PM, and that she could take me to see her landlord and the studio then. With Laurent's recommendation, we sped off at 5:30 as I had an appointment with La Madame at 6. The downside I already knew was that the studio was at least €100 per month more than the other room. But even on the walk over, I was telling myself if its decent I should just take it. And as Deborah told me, at least I'd have my freedom.When we arrived (after the five-minute walk from school), her landlord greeted us warmly and showed me the room. It was clean, slightly furnished (bed, microwave, table, desk and mini-fridge), the bathroom was clean and the landlord was very nice. He even said I could pay half my security deposit this month and the other half in November. I was sold. Normally I'd never take a place on the spot, but I think it called for it in this instance. Deborah and I then ran back to Chez Madame where Laurent was waiting under a canopy as it was raining heavily by this point. I told him my decision, to which he seemed very happy, stating all that's important is that I'm happy where I live. He went upstairs to inform the woman of my decision and it was settled. After one last night in the Internat, I moved in on Tuesday evening.

With my new address, I was ready to change my address at the bank and get all of my other paperwork rolling. Most especially, getting an iPhone plan. I went into the bank on Thursday (as I was in Lille all-day Wednesday for orientation). My card was all ready for me, but when the banker asked me if I had my pin number, I looked back at him questioningly. He said I should have received it in the mail by now...but I hadn't. All I had received in my school mailbox in the teachers' lounge were two letters with codes for accessing my account online. But nothing with a pin number. The banker told me there was nothing that he could do, and that he couldn't look it up or call anyone. He said he couldn't try to reset it for at least another week, which at that point would take 1-2 weeks to mail to me as well. I couldn't believe it. I had a bank card in my hands, and it was useless.

I walked back to the school, sulking the whole way. I checked my mailbox again when I got back, but nothing. Nathalie saw how sad I was and said she'd call the bank's customer service center for me that afternoon after her classes. I thanked her, and after my last class at 1:30 PM today, I went back to my apartment to bring my laundry to the laverie down the street and meet up with my landlord who was taking me to buy renters' insurance (which is compulsory in France). But the laverie trip didn't go as smoothly as I hoped. I was already rushing (I'm the only person in this town who probably is), but it piqued when the laundry machine ate my money (€3,50). I was so frustrated that I had to sit down and calm myself down. After all of the logistical problems I've had in the last two weeks, I couldn't stand one more thing. But then I realized that I was an idiot, not realizing that the exclamation point button on the machine meant "start."

After finishing my laundry (which actually was quite fast once I figured it out) and picking up my insurance, I returned to the school, first checking my mailbox. And there it was: a big, fat, white envelope. It was like I was accepted to college all over again. I've never been so happy to see anything from a bank. I made my way over to the bank and deposited some Euros since I had to use my card at an ATM first to activate the card. I didn't realize at the time this meant I had to make a withdrawal...

Now that I had my card in my hand, I was ready to head for Orange France Telecom. The closest location is in Berck, about 20 minutes by car. Julia sweetly offered me a ride, and we got there at about 6:15 PM. I walked in the store knowing what I wanted, and as soon as the saleswoman came over to me, I told her. I explained I wanted the iPhone plan with unlimited texting, one hour of minutes per month and, in this country, you can get free TV on your phone. Totes wanted that. Plus, they said I could just end my plan when I leave the country without penalty, rather than having to pay a fee to cancel the subscription early. Thus, I was almost all set with establishing my phone plan, when the woman hit a snag: my bank card didn't work.

My eyes nearly popped out of my head when I saw "carte refusée" on the computer screen. I said it should have been activated since I made a deposit earlier. She said that I needed to make a purchase to activate the card probably. Panicking, I asked if there was any kind of phone accessory in the store I could buy, and apparently there was nothing. I asked if I could go buy something and come back, but she said I'd have to be back before the registers closed in 20 minutes. I grabbed my ATM card and passport off of the counter, and Julia and I bolted out the door. We ran down the street but I couldn't find anything to buy. I suggested a boulangerie, but they didn't take cards. Julia grabbed me and we ran into a store reminiscent of the dollar store (but not the Euro store), and I grabbed the first bunch of long black socks I could find. They were €4 for three pairs. Fine. I ran back to the register, where I waited for the cashier to walk back. But my card still didn't work. At this point, I realized I probably had to make an actual withdrawal to activate the card. Julia asked the woman where the closest branch was, and she said it was a few blocks down the street.

Not jogging for about a month caught up with me. At every corner I hoped it would be there, but it wasn't until the fourth block (pretty much the English Channel), until we finally found the street. I ran down one more block and thankfully there wasn't anyone there. I could barely breathe anymore by the time I reached the ATM machine. I fiddled around with the card in my bag, stuck it in the machine and withdrew €20. It worked. We ran back up the street, where I had to pause every block and a half to catch my breath. By the time we reached the store, the back of my neck was covered in sweat and I could taste blood in my mouth. But we had eight minutes to spare. This time her colleague took over since she was helping another customer at this point. I wasn't sure what I would do if it didn't work. I think probably go crazy. Or find a ticket on the next flight back to America as I've been getting fed up with things in this country. But, within a few minutes, he was printing out papers for me to sign. I literally jumped in the air with joy and everyone started laughing. But this time, I was laughing with them. I was so happy. Not just about getting iPhone service again (but trust me, I'm very happy about that), but just that something finally went right. It just seems nothing goes right in this country without a lot of effort.

Un Compte d'Argent

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.