Three Years On, Part IV: Where is home for the immigrant?

A few days ago I began my fourth year in Paris.  I wanted to use the milestone to share some reflections on how I have changed and ongoing tips on how to make the move yourself.  This is the final article in a series of four.  Here are the first, second, and third.  

“It will be nice to be home for a month, right?”  My friend smiled, expecting an affirmative rejoinder.  I smiled too, as I knew what he meant, but I gently replied, “The US is home for my family, but Paris is my home now.”  He nodded, though his countenance said, “I want to talk to you more about that sometime,” and I’m sure my smile betokened a willingness to do so.  But I haven’t fully articulated through those thoughts, even mentally, until recently.

My recent month Stateside was full of activity – one sister got married at the start of it and another one had a baby at the end of it and all the while I carried on running my businesses while catching up with old friends.

Home.  In the seven years I lived in Kansas City it wasn’t long before I felt that warm sensation upon returning there from a trip.  Home was near family.  Home was where my friends lived.  Where my business was growing.  Where my staff worked.  Home where was where my bed was – where I had a fireplace and where I could quietly cook breakfast.  But as I look at these characteristics, even now, I realize I am describing comfort.  And yes, a component of home is comfort.  But that’s only part of it.  That’s the present.

Home.  There’s also the past.  You need to feel a rootedness and a belonging.  But that was a tenuous position for me in KC.  Yes, I finished an undergraduate degree there and built a productive company.  But it was self-made.  Perhaps that desire to connect with the past was why I loved St. Louis so much.  Not only did I have relatives buried in that city, but in the one year I lived there I felt the comfort of knowing that when a branch of my family had emigrated from Europe (from England, Ireland, and Alsace), that they settled in Southern Illinois and the St. Louis area.  Yes, Kansas City was in Missouri, but the St. Louis side of the state was actually tied up with my family history too.  Rootedness and community – people who know your name, your habits, your history, and your family.  That’s home too.  That’s the past.

Home.  Home is the future too.  I have some truly lifelong friends in KC that I cherish time with whenever I visit.  As I built my life in that area all sorts of ideas were mooted as I considered a lifelong stay.  The University of Missouri at Kansas City had a fully funded Ph.D. in Entrepreneurship that would have offered a leisurely career in academia, but it didn’t excite me, and given my experience teaching a couple semesters as an adjunct in an MBA program, it was clear that the hierarchical setup in a university setting wasn’t for me.  I considered politics (a sure indication of the naive 20-something) because I held (and still hold) practical nonpartisan civic planning principles that I think have wide appeal.  I thought about buying into businesses, and went so far as preliminary discussions with some principals of those companies.  But none of it inspired me in the visceral manner that Paris did.

Home.  Knowing you are where you belong now, with roots in the past, and a future to look forward to.  That all comes together for me in Europe, in Paris, deep in my bones.

* * *

Two weeks ago I visited the Museum of Immigration out on the edges of the 12th.  It’s a remarkably ugly building, but the exhibits and information are good, particularly in explaining the flow of different immigrants to France – some for reasons of war and violence, others for economic betterment.

As I took in the mountain of data I considered my own case.  I wasn’t fleeing war, as so many are in Europe these days because of incoherent US-led actions and policies that managed to destabilize the Middle East and North Africa.  I wasn’t seeking a better life economically.  Indeed my experience at the time of just selling a business should have encouraged me to stay.  I had moved to a US city with no connections, and with some of my own funds, a couple investors, and a co-founder, built a company from nothing to one that successfully sold and transitioned to a new owner.  I could simply wash, rinse, and repeat if I chose, with little interference and regulation from the US government.

There was also my family’s disapproval.  They, who had already considered me an absentee uncle and brother would be even more aggrieved.  But that was in part my fault for not successfully explaining to them before how differently I weighed my own personal desires and ambition against family and community pressures.

When I immigrated to the United States in 1988, I was already a citizen, but the move wasn’t my choice.  In 2013 I came to France as a noncitizen, but entirely by choice.  And like many immigrants before me, I jumped through legal hoops while setting up the infrastructure for my own businesses to be based in my new country.  I didn’t come here to “get a job.”  I came here to build a life.

I’ve always been an optimist, but it’s only recently I’ve realized that immigration – of whatever kind or character – is a supreme act of hope, not just for the “better life” which is, seemingly the only reason ever mentioned in news stories about immigration, but because it is such a big ask to make and create a new home.  Getting a new job, a new house, learning the ins and outs of a city – these things are not so hard.  But building another home – tying those long, colorful, and winding threads of past, present, and future into a coherent tapestry, that’s hard.  That’s perhaps why those of us who weren’t born here love it so much, because we don’t take any part of this experience for granted.

As the year ends, I would challenge you to consider whether you are truly living at “home.”  And if not, why not?  2017 is waiting to challenge you.

The photo is from my own instagram feed, from the day I officially moved out of America, December 10, 2013.

OFII checkboxes: two classes done

In my last post chronicling a visit to OFII since getting on the path to citizenship, I attended the two classes which were mandated as part of my immigration classes: “Living and working in France” and “Civic Formation.”

Both of these classes were unexciting 8-hour affairs, punctuated by lunch.  The lunch was provided for us and the training itself was completed by an agency known as SJT which was responsible for certifying that we were the persons we claimed to be, that we knew our stuff, and that we weren’t sleeping in class.

In both classes an English translator was provided to give delayed translation to the English speakers in the room.  In both classes the English speakers comprised more than 35% of the class, and no doubt it could easily have been a half-day if the classes were separated into the languages that were easiest for the students to understand, but that would have ironically undermined the fact that these classes were to welcome immigrants to FRANCE where they speak FRENCH. 🙂

The classes themselves provided some interesting information and were deeper dives into themes discussed at our first briefing at OFII.  In the Civic Formation class we took a closer look at French history, from the time of the Romans and then Clovis all the way to present day and the French Republic.  We explored the themes of liberté, egalité, fratérnité, and laïcite.

The “living and working in France” class also included some 16 and 17 year olds as the law only recently changed to exempt those who had emigrated to France at an early age from these classes.  And, indeed, it felt like a high school class, in some ways.  In the “getting a job” section we were instructed in granular ways how to create a CV (that’s “curriculum vitae” and in Europe is often what they say when they mean “resumé.”  It’s not to be confused with the academic CV that’s often submitted when you apply to graduate programs in America.) as well as how to dress and act in an interview.  I was once again astonished at the amount of social help available to the French in terms of nursery schools, job finding, housing, and subsidies.

Social housing was a subject of a prolonged digression in our class, as one woman, an Ivorian, shared (thankfully, in quite deliberate and paced French) her travails in social housing with her three children in a 20 square meter apartment.  The French State does guarantee very low rent for those who get social housing, but it can’t guarantee spacious accommodations.  Our instructor told us that the wait inside the Peripherique (the 20 arrondissements) was roughly 8-10 years, and that you had to renew your place in line each year or you had to start over.  If you were wiling to live in the suburbs you could get a place within 18 months or even sooner.

At the end of each class we were given a multiple choice quiz which was graded on completion, not accuracy, and we went over the answers as a class and noted whether we had known this information prior to taking the class.

So, all is now clear for me to pick up my actual carte de sejour, over 6 months since I obtained legal rights to work and live in France beyond my previous visitor status.  Apart from keeping up on my regular payments to the various social and governmental agencies I needed to as a French business owner, I wouldn’t need to start thinking about my next visit to the Prefecture for at least another…3 months. 🙂

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OFII, revisited

It was 07h40.  “I’m early,” I thought, and decided to stop in for a quick breakfast.  It was a patisserie on rue de la roquette, halfway between Bastille and my 08h00 appointment that morning.  My thoughts flashed back to my first visit to OFII, back in 2014.  What a greenhorn I was back then – worried that my French wouldn’t be good enough, or that I wouldn’t have the necessary documents.  How times change.

I took my last sip of coffee after finishing off a strawberry beignet and at 07h55 casually sauntered towards OFII (L’Office Francais de l’immigration and de l’integration).  There were two lines.  The one on the left was for asylum-seekers.  My eyes involuntarily flicked up to the 6-8 souls in line, who looked forlorn.  I couldn’t imagine their individual situations and stories.  Then my gaze fell on the line on the right, my line, which was already 20 deep.  I wondered to myself why they had felt the need to get there early.  But then I realized that some of these people may have just arrived in France, and like me in those early days, didn’t want to take a false step: cue arriving 15-20 minutes early for your appointment.  Good on them!  I, on the other hand, wasn’t going to get there until right about 08h00.  I love my sleep and I knew this wasn’t really going to be that stressful.

I’ve written before about the dread that one might feel about entering a prefecture.  How many dreams and plans have foundered and died on the shoals of French bureaucratic requirements and the moodiness of civil servants!  And yet, I’ve always maintained that the antidote to that dread is to be overprepared.

But the Prefecture is the “scary” part: you are getting authorization from the French government to be here, legally.  OFII, by comparison, would be giving me the bise, and welcoming me to France, which is why I wasn’t carrying a thick sheaf of papers, but rather a book to read while waiting.

Promptly at 08h00 we started shuffling forward.  One guard checked the nature of our appointment to verify we were at the right place at the right time.  The second guard verified by ID (I brought my passport and recipisse).  We then went upstairs and got into another line, to check us in for our orientation.

The lady at the desk verified our names, checked us off her list, and verified which language we would be interviewed in after the orientation.  We then shuffled in, one by one, into this room.

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At about 08h20 or so we were all assembled, roughly 25 of us, and our orienter came to tell us what would be happening today.  She spoke entirely in French, but not with the typically hurried Parisian cadence, but the slower measured cadence of the south, knowing she was dealing with many novices of the language.

She said there would be three parts of our day: video, interview, and a physical.  The video also worked with individual audioguides you could hold up to your ear which would allow you to follow along in real-time in the language of your preference.  One of our class requested Arabic, and another Kenyan.  If you’re uncertain, be brave and ask for Anglais, svp.  No one cares about your French level at this point, I promise.

The video was quite good, as orientation videos go (not too many cheesy situations or fake drama).  Obviously, as a royalist, I smirked a bit as the narrator spoke about the French “values of the Revolution,” considering that France was built upon superior values that predated that revolution by centuries, if not a millennium, but today was a day for quiet learning, not for a disquisition from Stephen on the murders, excesses, and poor logic of that revolt.  The video concluded with an explanation of the necessary steps of integration we would all need to go through now, namely:

  1. Attendance at a one-day class in French civics, with a translator supplied if requested.  This class purports to teach you about liberté, egalité, fraternité, laïcité, solidarité, and any other és that I may have missed.  They will also teach you the mechanisms of the French state, for example, that the President of the Republic still wields the ancient power of the Kings of France, i.e. the ability to pass a decree without legislative consent.  The class is one day, goes from 09h00-17h00, is obligatory, and is scheduled during your interview.  Mine was scheduled for the 30th of June, about 6 weeks from the visit I made to OFII yesterday.
  2. Attendance at a one day class in “living and gaining employment in France.”  As with the aforementioned civics class, this one is obligatory, is one day only, and requires you to bring your ID.
  3. Attendance at free French language classes to obtain a basic level of competence as determined by the French state.  The course runs a minimum of 50 hours, and a maximum of 100.  You simply ask to test whenever you are ready.  This condition is in force unless, when you do your interview at OFII, your French is competent and clear.  Then you get an attestation that you don’t have to take the class.
  4. Your signature on a contract which commits you to doing all of these tasks within one year, and that you will integrate into French life and the French way of thinking “avec assiduité.”

I was pleased to be exempted from the French courses via my interview.  If you are required to take the classes I believe they occur on either Mondays or Saturdays in your arrondissement.

She then asked if I had kept my medical exam from OFII from my 2014 visit.  I laughed and told her that I kept ALL THE PAPERS, gesturing to simulate a large stack.  She laughed and asked if my visa renewals were continuous, with no gaps.  I replied in the affirmative.  She then told me I was done for the day, as I didn’t need a new physical (which I ostensibly would have if I didn’t have that record or hadn’t kept a continuous immigration record).

She printed oIMG_1901ut my appointments, had me sign the contract, and gave me this lovely folder to put it all in.

It was 09h30 and I was done for the day!

Three things to note:

  • I was the first person called after we watched the video and our orienter briefly recapitulated the important points and answered some stray questions.  My being called first may only have been because they knew I didn’t need a physical and wanted to see me first.  But I don’t think you need to schedule more than a half day for this appointment, even for a worst-case scenario.
  • You will get the convocation to go to OFII after your second Profession Liberale appointment.  If you can’t make the date they give you, reschedule as soon as possible so as not to hold up this end of the process.
  • If you bypass my 2-years-as-a-visitor route and go straight to Profession Liberale, you’ll be doing this appointment 90 days after you first officially move to France.

* * *

I slowly walked to Bastille after the appointment.  I was in the official “immigrant” stream.  The appointment went well, and I felt welcomed to my beloved France.  That, after all these years of hard work, felt good.

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Featured image of an early morning Place des Vosges, not far from OFII, originally appeared here.  Follow the photographer here, who gave permission for this photo to used.