I WANT TO FIND whoever said getting there is half the fun, and beat him bloody with a three-ring binder – a thick black one, like the notebooks we filled with enough documents to constitute our complete life stories and dragged to the French consulate in Houston three weeks ago to apply for our long-stay visas.
On the upside, after working full time for the past four months to relocate our lives from New Orleans, USA to Flavigny-sur-Ozerain, Bourgogne, France, I now feel qualified to write a thorough review of the on-hold music piped into your phone by organizations around the world. I can tell you that FedEx’s hold music is kind of groovy. But nothing quite matches the hip Musak piped through the phone while waiting for a representative for Orange.fr, the giant French telecom.
Our departure date is set, as much as it can be. The movers come on August 10. We leave New Orleans in a rented SUV on August 15. We fly out of Boston Logan at 7:30 p.m. on August 18, with overweight luggage; a sweet yet loud-mouthed black cat who is not fat, but has grown so large that he’s now a dead ringer for Bagheera, the panther from the Jungle Book; and a 14-year-old Australian shepherd who won’t be happy about his overnight ride to France in the belly of an Air France Boeing 777, in a plastic and metal crate that conforms to IATA standards (whatever those are.)
Both Bear and Rex Ryan (the cat likes bare feet; ask your sports-fan friends) must be chipped. Both already had chips, but neither of their chips were compliant with international pet chip standards (whatever those are).
So now both animals have two chips. One chip speaks only English. The other chip speaks French, smokes filterless cigarettes and wears uncomfortably tight pants.
When we leave, we have to have in our possession health certificates for both animals certified by a US Department of Agriculture veterinarian. The closest USDA vet to New Orleans is in Jackson, Mississippi. This does not mean that the dog and the cat have to go to Mississippi. But it does mean that we have to FedEx the exam from New Orleans to Jackson, where it is certified, and then FedEx’d back to us. Sounds straightforward, right?
Except that the form can be no older than 10 days when we arrive in France. And everyone recommends that it be no older than 9 days, in case your flight is delayed one day, which would make the form invalid, and then I don’t know what happens. We have to fly back to the US with the dog and the cat?
Anyway, do the math: We’re supposed to arrive in Paris the morning of the 19th. So with the one-day-leeway rule, we should get the pets examined on the 10th. A Thursday. Except, the movers come on the 10th to pack up a 20-foot shipping container with our worldly possessions. So that’s not convenient. But it can’t be the 11th, because USDA doesn’t work on the weekends, so we couldn’t FedEx until Monday, and we leave Tuesday morning, and. . . .
So, the 10th it is. Which means, someone’s going to the vet alone with two animals, because someone has to stay and watch the movers. We’re still haggling over who does what. Maybe we’ll flip for it.
Did I mention that if it’s going to be above 85 degrees at any time between 5 p.m. in Boston and 9 a.m. in Paris, they won’t let the dog fly? And we’re flying in August.
Who the hell made this plan, anyway? Oh, wait. I did.
Like everything about moving to France, it’s complicated. Multiply this one complicated task by 50, and that gives you a pretty good idea of what it’s like to move to France. As I tell people often, NOT moving to France is a lot easier than moving to France.
But where’s the fun in that?
Every morning, I get up, eat breakfast, and sit at my computer. Most days, I spend the next eight hours working on some aspect of getting to France. A couple of months ago, it was the long-stay visa. Today, it’s the moving contract and the inventory. There’s still a lot of tasks ahead and, to quote Tom Hanks in Apollo 13: The Earth’s getting pretty big in the window. But everything will get done. How do I know that? Because it has to, that’s why.
At first, Paula was completely stressed about not knowing the details of all the things that had to get done. So I had the brilliant idea of making her feel less stressed by giving her a bunch of stuff to do. Do you see the genius of my reverse psychology? Make her less stressed by giving her a bunch of things to worry about?
Yeah. Neither did she.
She got even more stressed. Which stressed me out more. It didn’t take long before we realized that the best thing for our marriage was to let my Control Freak flag fly.
So now Paula runs the house, mails things that need mailing, feeds me and the pets at regular intervals, listens to me bitch, handles my whines when things don’t go well, and serves my wine when cocktail hour hits. I am the France Express, and Paula is the Maintenance and Customer Service Department. We make a great team.
Yesterday, Paula translated our driver’s licenses into French, because our French banker told us if we didn’t, the Gendarmes would take us to jail. That got our attention.
So now, “James et 95 kilos et 182 centimeters, avec les yeux bleu.” (Note to my friends: Stop snickering! I will someday soon once again be 95 kilos. I swear it.)
In addition to my wife, my love has deepened for a couple of other things as well.
There’s Google Translate, without which I would not be able to deal with the French bureaucracy. And even when Google Translate works, the French bureaucracy often doesn’t.
For example, I got into a long e-chat with a representative of Orange, the AT&T of France. The problem was they were telling me I needed to access my Orange account and pay my first bill by credit card, even though I had set up automatic payment from our French bank account. All I had to do to set up the Orange account was to go to the website, put in my particulars, and a code would be texted to our iPhone that would let me set up a user name and password.
Not our American iPhone. Our French iPhone. From Orange. Sitting unactivated in an Apple box, on the hall table in our house in Flavigny, 2,500 miles away. How it got into our house while we were 2,500 miles away is another story of supreme effort, for another day.
I was so proud of myself for conducting a 30-minute e-chat with three different Orange departments, using only my ability to type fast, and Google’s ability to translate just as quickly. About a hundred cut-and-paste jobs and three people later, the solution to my problem became clear: I needed to call Orange at this number and talk to a representative. In French. But, neither of us is fluent enough yet to competently call an Orange representative and describe a difficult transactional problem to them, much less understand what they’re saying in response.
So we asked our good friend Nathalie in Paris to call for us, and she cleared the matter up in no time. It’s good to have French friends.
By the way, it turns out that French telecoms are just as awful as American telecoms in other ways as well. We had an appointment to get Internet installed at our French home on July 11. Our friends waited five hours, from 1 to 6. Nobody came.
My Google-Translate e-chat with Orange ended just as unsatisfactorily: “Someone will contact you in the next 48 hours.”
Vive les Telecoms!
Meanwhile, back in Paris, our friend Nathalie grappled for an hour with EDF, the French electric company. EDF took money out of my bank account twice in two days. There was only a bill for one of the charges. And it was in French. So I sent it to Nathalie just to make sense of it. It made me feel better that it was a mystery to her, as well. The second withdrawal also remains unexplained, but I feel better knowing that Inspector Nathalie is on the case.
The other person I’ve grown fond of is our notary, Thomas Dantin. When you’re moving abroad, just about everything you touch needs to be notarized. So it’s a real blessing to have a notary public who lives in the neighborhood, charges reasonable rates and is available even at completely unreasonable days and times (the last two documents Thomas has notarized for us have been done on a Sunday and on the 4th of July).
For example, it was a great surprise to me (but I’m sure to nobody else reading this) that in order to have a mail forwarding service send your mail to a foreign country, you must complete US Postal Service Form 1583.
And have it notarized. Of course.
I was also surprised to learn recently that in order to move your possessions to France, you need not only a French customs form (which we had) and a long-stay visa (which we had), but you also need an “Attestation de Changement de Residence.” This document has to be stamped by the French consulate in Houston – where we had just been two weeks earlier, applying for our visas.
Paula barely flinched at the creative stream of profanity that erupted from my mouth at the prospect of having to go back to Houston, and the question that went without saying, but that I said anyway: “Why the bleep didn’t they bleeping tell us we needed this bleeping form when we were sitting in the bleeping lobby of the bleeping consulate talking about our bleeping bleep bleep move to France?”
I was much more polite when I reached out to the French consulate the next day and asked – begged, really – if there might be a way to obtain this form via email. Guy-Albert was happy to do so – for an additional 30€.
Meanwhile, I had to send some keys to our friends in Flavigny, so I spent $75 on a FedEx envelope, and it zipped across the ocean to Dijon in two days.
And there it sat. I spent the next week haranguing FedEx to deliver a simple envelope to our simple French village. Each night at 1 a.m., a lonely FedEx worker in a warehouse on the southern outskirts of the World Mustard Capital would scan my humble envelope, generating yet another “At the FedEx Facility” tracking message. On the last day that it could be delivered before sending it back, I raised my voice. I mentioned Castaway, and how far FedEx had fallen from the lofty peaks established by Tom Hanks’ singular dedication to survive, and deliver a package halfway around the world.
The Castaway reference actually worked. They put it on the truck and delivered it.
Vive la France!
One of the most frequently asked questions we get is what we’re going to do in France. The subtext that is usually unspoken, but sometimes said aloud, is that surely we are too young to go there and do nothing.
But if we manage to get to France as an intact expat family, with a wife and a house and a dog and a cat,* then I have to be honest: I’m going to need a long, long vacation.
(*To my journalist friends: I’ll be disappointed if you didn’t catch the “All the President’s Men” reference)