Monday, 28 April 2014

Annual torture - titre de sejour

It comes around all too often. I spend six months minimum worrying about finding work so I can stay in France and at least 6 months totally stressed by the process of renewing my right to be resident in France for another year.

I recently received word from one of the university administrators that I will have my contract renewed for it's second and final year. Nothing official but here's hoping that will come in due course. Last Friday I was, for the third time this year, at the prefecture going through the nasty process of staying legal. They do everything they can, it seems, to keep immigrants and foreign workers out and in the spirit of egalite I'm treated at the level of any undesirable, dishonest, social bludger trying to get in and rip off the French social welfare system with forged papers. I do agree they need to keep undesirables out and control immigration because poor practices in the past are creating big problems in this country; religious intolerance on both sides, crime amongst unintegrated peoples, huge social welfare bill etc. But the process goes beyond reason.

JC comes with me these days because there are always problems and I end up getting teary and resentful at the behaviour of the public servants there. The first visit this year we trundled up with my dossier as per what was required last year but were turned away because the month before the State had changed the system to where one must, naturally now make an appointment via the government website. I didn't know that - it wasn't evident on the website. Finding the right place on the site is extremely difficult, naturally. Some buttons that say cancel don't actually work. Eventually I succeeded in creating an appointment time, got an emailed link I had to immediately accept (or lose the appointment) and printed it out because in France you must always prove you are right, or you're wrong.

As a precaution, I found my way back to the government site where the list of documents required said I must now provide a certain doc that proves my employer has paid in all of the social security taxes from my salary, itemised out etc. This information is on my pay slips that I receive two months after I get paid but this is not enough. I must prove my employer has actually paid them to the state.

This document does not exist. In fact, it is an illegal request by the State to ask for this from another department of the State. JC is pissed off at this stupidity and rings the uni who say they don't have these sorts of documents and certainly not for one little individual, try their accounting company. JC rings the accountancy firm and speaks to a nice lady who says she can't provide this info as all payments are made in bulk from all the employees and she can't send info on other employees, it's illegal. She will try to post me something to show we've tried to supply something that doesn't exist.What is this stupid request doing on the government website?

Second appointment went badly. We arrive at the prefecture again with my dossier which the same officious guy I encounter each year starts to go through... originals, copies. First of all he says I shouldn't be there as I'm a few days ahead of the one month before my visa expires. We explain to him it's not easy to get online appointments and that my university needs one to two months notice in order to pay me. Without a valid visa I will not be paid. He doesn't care. Instead, he looks for another reason not to accept me.

My ID photos are unacceptable. What? My hair is in front of my ears, which is no longer an acceptable hairstyle in a photo. Neither JC nor I knew of this and it's not in the instructions in the photo booths which specialise in these photos. Second error, I didn't photocopy the blank back page of my tax form. I didn't do that because it had no information on it. Dohhh!

My third error was in providing a bank statement and health insurance bill as proof of address. Both are unacceptable. It must be electricity, gas, water or phone. For both electricity and phone everything is done automatically with the bank so I don't receive bills I can photocopy. As for gas and water, there's no gas supply to my building and the water is in common as part of my charges so that doesn't help me. When supplying proof it must be less than 3 months old.

Luckily for me, a week after this fiasco, a statement arrived from EDF the French electricity supplier informing me I had to pay 36 euros because I had used a tiny bit more electricity this year. Orange, my telecommunications supplier, also sent a statement to say my mobile phone was now included in my monthly bill. Both were once a year forms so I lucked out there.

My fourth error was in not photocopying every single page of my passport - front page and visa page are now not enough. Every little entry and exit stamp must be copied. Why? Probably so more state servants can be kept shuffling paper and to see if I'm visiting terrorist states perhaps?  

I had to go away and make another appointment using the online system. Two days later I went online but try as I might the system refused to give me an appointment, I was blocked, I'd used up my quota of visits, apparently. Tearing my hair out in frustration and worry I asked JC to enquire why I was blocked. To do this he had to go to the prefecture in person as you can't argue on the phone, and he wanted to show all the screen prints I'd made as proof - remember proof?

Turns out there's only one appointment allowed per month via the software that runs this. There is no way I can get around that. Eventually the officious guy asks his superior to go and reset the system for me but refuses to give me an appointment while he's there. I do it myself the next day. Time is getting short so my next appointment will be only three weeks before my visa expires.

When I first came to France three and a half years ago the lead-in time was three months ahead, last year it was two months, now it's one month. Next year, who knows?

My third visit with JC to the prefecture was naturally full of fear and anger so I tried not to look at the guy,  say nothing and let JC say anything necessary. The guy shuffled my originals and copies from one hand to the other and back, then he got down to details. He reinspected everything, even though he knows us on sight, looking for any kind of mismatch, bad date, you name it. Aha ha, the passport, surely I might has missed a page with that, so he went through my passport pages twice, slowly, hoping to catch me out. Most folks who catch a glimpse of my NZ passport complement me on how beautiful it is. He didn't.

So on through the contract, statement of employment, pay slips, electricity bill, my current ID, tax declarations, translated birth certifcate which he ignored (but is on the official list). When it came to the documents I supplied to show I'd tried to get some proof my employer was paying the government he just shrugged his shoulders and gave it back to me.

The minutes ticked but as he moved each document from one pile to another JC reached for a brochure on passport photo requirements from a holder in front of us and started reading it. He was sharply reprimanded by the civil servant and told they were not self-service. JC's icy control remained in place but he was seething. He later told me if it hadn't been for me and my visa he'd have 'said something' but he didn't want to jeopardise my process. He was still upset hours later about the behaviour we encounter each time from this guy.

Finally I got to sign a piece of card and my temporary tds was in my hand. I said Merci and left, feeling solemn and humiliated and wondering how many months it would take France to give me the real titre de sejour. Last year it had taken 10 months and many repeat visits to the prefecture to renew each time the temporary one ran out. Despite the fact I've put my heart and soul into being in France, stayed legal despite the huge obstacles, work hard and pay taxes, this process always gets more difficult. It's not based on merit. Think I might be exaggerating the problems encountered?

Here's a link to a blog that explains a process at a different prefecture. It's impossible to know what is really required as each agent at a prefecture and each prefecture does things differently each year and there is no co-ordination between information contained on any official websites.

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Indulge your sweet tooth in France

It's downright cruel. Here I am in France, known for its culinary delights, in the centre of a Europe known for its sweet morsels, but I can't, in all discipline, indulge. A whiff of sticky sweetness, the merest lap of tongue against lolly, even the cracking sound of a slab of chocolate being divided is enough to put half a kilo on my scales. It's the unjust burden of middle age. I rail against it but it does no good. And then JC insists on visiting the Salon du chocolat at Chartres.

There you will see sights unknown in New Zealand. How would you feel about a block of nougat the size of a small dog kennel?

Or rows and rows of sherbets, suckers, and dainty sweet pastry thingees. Oh the chocolate section. For goodness sake - who actually eats all this stuff? It can't be the French women with their pipe-cleaner thighs.

Every flavour imaginable was there, and then others unimaginable. The disappointment for me was the dried  kwifruit slices - tasteless and pointless. There was quite a bit of maroccan fare there, presented on plates. All of which was completely new to me. Beautiful presentation though. The French excel at this sort of thing.

The only thing we came away with were some tourteaux from the Poitou-Charente region. They are of a savoury dough nature inside with a burnt top, a nugget of cheese inside at the base. They look like canonballs. We bought some for the sentiment - my French ancestors having come from that region.

We didn't eat or buy any chocolate, incredible though it seems. When you're surrounded by a surfeit of delectable delights like this you can feel so overwhelmed there's just nowhere to start. So... enjoy the torture of these photos from your armchairs.

PS. There were other foods such as dried meats and cheeses, cheeses, cheeses on offer too.

Saturday, 12 April 2014

Marijuana's cousin in France

I could only be talking about Hemp, of course. In various places around the world this very useful plant has been cultivated and industries created, mostly in the past, though it still continues on a small scale, including in NZ and France.

It's leaves are almost identical to the sort smoked by drug addicts or cancer patients but it has a low quantity of the active narcotic substance. Hemp is refined into products such as hemp seed foods, hemp oil, wax, resin, rope, cloth, pulp, paper, and fuel. These products are still available and some people like hemp clothing, though it's usually mixed with silk or other fibres to reduced the coarseness. The fibres were wound on bobbins and could be spun or woven on looms.

Hemp rope was used on sailing ships though the rope had to be protected by tarring, since hemp rope has a habit of breaking from rot, as the the rope-woven fibers tended to hold liquid in the interior, while seemingly dry from the outside. Tarring was a laborious process, and earned English sailors the nickname Jack Tar.

Hemp fell out of favour as new technologies provided better ropes, oils, clothing and paper.

The whole plant can be used for various products. Nothing was wasted - a truly eco plant.

Hemp plants grow rapidly and this has several benefits. Its height, dense foliage and its high planting density as a crop, is a very effectivemethod of killing tough weeds in farming by minimizing the pool of weed seeds of the soil. Using hemp this way can help farmers avoid the use of herbicides, to help gain organic certification.

Hemp is usually planted between March and May in the northern hemisphere, between September and November in the southern hemisphere. It matures in about three to four months.

It is illegal to grow this plant in the United States; they are nervous it's similar to its druggie cousin but it wasn't always like that.

George Washington pushed for the growth of Hemp and even grew hemp himself. In May 1765 he made notes in his diary about the sowing of seeds each day until mid-April. Then he recorded the harvest .  Thomas Jefferson, also a hemp farmer,  developed a better way to break the stalk by modifying a thresher and would also share the flowers of the plant for smoking. Washington and Jefferson both preferred this to drinking alcohol or using tobacco, which they both saw as health concerns for the US.

The seeds are well liked by birds, having a high oil content.  I wonder what the chickens' eggs were like after the hens gorged on these seeds.

In NZ we're having problems with synthetic cannabis destroying lives. At least this species of plant is relatively harmless and useful.

Tuesday, 8 April 2014

French History in Ruins

There's no doubt France is rich in heritage, monuments, history. Tourists and locals have many opportunities to see chateaux restored and now tourist attractions but there's another side to restoring and preserving heritage buildings. I saw the other side last weekend.

L'Association d'Epernon patrimoine et Alentours hired a bus to take us on a day trip into the Sarthe region. During the afternoon, we visited the Manoir de Verdigne. It's a manor house and collection of buildings which used to be in a quadrangle formation, dating from around 1580. It was a fortified residence as there were many wars going on at this time.

The buildings are in a dreadful state of decay and the amount of money being spent on restoring them is gob-smacking. Some money comes from the State, some from a foundation and the rest from two agricultural owners. Where they get the money to restore on this scale is beyond me.

 I was shocked at the state of decay that had occurred over the centuries. I love to see history alive. This was just plain sad. It's also sad to realise the megabucks spent will never restore it to what it was, the buildings will never be habitable (if they were the taxes would be horrendous). The owners have no heirs and they are not young; clearly it's a labour of love.

They've done repairs to some of the outbuildings. Currently there is a large gallery with its roof removed which will have to be completely redone. It's covered in scaffolding.

The ceiling beams on the upper level of the main house have been replaced. I think it has cost 50,000 euros just to do that. Each window in the main house may cost as much as 15,000 euros. Extraordinary.

This is a manor house as you would normally never see it. This is what they look like if neglected, ransacked, modernised. It's very difficult to know what it's original state was like, there are few records surviving.

It's thought that originally there may have been a tableau above the downstairs fireplace.

A narrow staircase has been recreated at a cost of 20,000 euros but it's hard to see where the money goes. It's hard to see how this is all going to end well. I hope it does but is this love or folly.

One of the out-buildings bordering on the stream used to be a stables. You can see where the feed for the horses was kept and the long water trough. However, before it was a stables it was a residence. Faint traces of painted decorations can just be made out on the beams, tulip designs among others.

We wondered how the owner will generate any tourist interest in the property once it is completed as it's very out of the way, near Mamers.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014

Paris getting dressed

I caught the train to Paris. This isn't something I do often, because it can get expensive, but I had a job interview with a language school.

I'm needing to look for work because the university is cutting staff. I really hope they renew my contract for the second year but it's all looking a bit dicey.

The language teaching industry is known to me, I went down this track back in 2010 when I was trying to get into France through that route, and failed. I know I'm the perfect sort of candidate, with my qualifications and business experience across multiple industries. This was confirmed in the interview. Another thing that was confirmed is the extremely low remuneration and lack of provision for preparation time and travelling between client companies. That's at the employees' own expense. There is no permanent contract with these companies and they don't guarantee hours. Employees are only paid for contact hours so if there are not many clients or it happens to be during the very long French summer, well, there might be little or no pay for months. Despite all this there seems to be no shortage of teachers queuing for an appointment. I won't know if my contract will be renewed for the final year until June and the interviewer said she wouldn't know if there'll be work for me until June so, we'll have to wait and see.

One of my students stayed behind after class today for a chat and to give me some feedback. We chatted for a good 15 minutes and it was great. She told me she was so happy that she'd had me as her teacher and not to lose my enthusiasm as it's just right. She told me not to get disheartened by the lack of participation from the students; they don't know any better and it's not against me personally;in fact the students all like their class. They are normally not given the opportunities to really get to know their teachers as human beings, as school classes are formal and there's always a firm line between teachers and students. She agreed that many students shouldn't be at the university but that's the system, they don't know what else to do. French people don't make changes in their lives so much as anglo-saxons, when life's circumstances change, so there's no such thing as going back to uni and changing career. They need to know that's Ok, she said.

The student admitted her eyes were opened by the fact she'd attended school for 10 months in the US and came back totally excited and stimulated, only to later find herself slipping back into the old sad, French ways.

France is too complicated, it won't move with the times and has hung systems millstones around its neck so it can't move. It does worry me, when I see the state of things, the state of conditions at French universities, the waste of human potential because French teachers don't encourage personal development. Such a shame, I'd love to help, but I'm banned from teaching English in schools because I'm not French, and haven't sat a competitive exam in French, of all things.

We enjoyed talking to each other, my student and I, and I loved watching her blossom and open up in confident English. You'd never realise she was so competent by watching the class. I'm sure she will do very well in the future, and I've promised to help her with things she'd like to learn on our last lesson. I do hope it's not the absolute last lesson I ever teach in my life.

After leaving the interview I decided to walk from l'Etoile to Chatelet via the banks of the Seine. I wanted to see Paris getting dressed up by Spring. It was a bit of a walk with all my bags, heavy coat and business attire but it gave me an opportunity to take pictures. I felt so at ease here, it's still a place of tranquility for my soul - if only someone would give me a job in this city of millions.

I walked past the Musee d'Orsay and saw Thomas Jefferson sunning himself on the quai. On past the Louvre, the Pont des Arts with all the padlocks. Not too many tourists yet, just double-decker green tourist buses doing sightseeing. It's all rather normal for me now, part of my backyard, in fact, but I always appreciate the fact I'm actually here.

 Sometimes even Paris can be mediocre - I ordered a hot chocolate at Gare Montparnasse and an overpriced thing made from powder arrived. Charming waitress, but after paying 4.70 euros for that I didn't bother with anything else.

After all the trains and metros I'd negotiated for my visit I was  keen to catch my train direct to Epernon, chilling out listening to music as the countryside swept by. Gotta love France.