it’s the little things

“There is a difference between arrival and entrance. Arrival is physical and happens all at once. The train pulls in, the plane touches down, you get out of the taxi with all your luggage. You can arrive in a place and never really enter it; you get there, look around, take a few pictures, make a few notes, send postcards home. When you travel like this, you think you know where you are, but, in fact, you have never left home. Entering takes longer. You cross over, slowly, in bits and pieces. It is like awakening slowly, over a period of weeks. And then one morning, you open your eyes and you are finally here, really and truly here. You are just beginning to know where you are.” ― Jamie Zeppa


The oldest building in Cognac, which sits among the shops and all the hustle and bustle of modern life here.

Subtle differences in culture are sometimes the most difficult to accustom ourselves to. Personally, I’ve had several situations even in the past 24 hours where my American expectations got the best of me. I tend to think that the world is not so different, that people are people, and different cultures are simply products of different circumstances. But the truth is, sometimes the smallest of differences can make me feel like I’m living in a totally different world.

Scenario 1: The French “DMV”

So, as you all know by now, when Dust and I got here, we pretty much immediately bought a little used car to get us around. It’s been a good decision, I’m very happy to have the car. It’s been a great investment and has allowed us to go a lot of places already that we wouldn’t have been able to visit otherwise.

But the caveat to this privilege is that there is a whole lot of bureaucracy which goes along with buying a car, no matter what country you are in. In France, aka The Land of Bureaucrats, this is especially fun.

In France, to sell your car, you have to get something called a contrôle technique, which is basically an assessment by a mechanic that will let the buyer know everything that’s wrong with the car. As the seller, you also have to declare to the French government that you have sold your vehicle. The buyer has 30 days from the time that you make this declaration to go and obtain a new carte grise, which is the equivalent of an American car registration. You need about half a dozen documents and a dozen ounces of patience to complete this process.

The French don’t have a dedicated government office for vehicles like the American DMV. Instead they have préfectures and sous-préfectures, which are places where many different types of government business may be conducted. Sous-préfectures are much smaller than main préfectures, but many smaller towns don’t even have a sous-préfecture, so their residents must travel in order to visit the establishment. This can be particularly challenging because the hours are horrible. Luckily for me, Cognac actually does have a sous-préfecture, so I went there. They are only open 4 days per week from 8:30AM-12PM, to give you an idea of their operating hours.

To put it nicely, it was pandemonium in there. There are just as many people as you would expect at the DMV in the US, but they are crammed into half as much space with a quarter as many chairs. I have always hated going to the DMV and taking a number, but I will never complain about it again. In France, there’s no number to take, it’s just a shoving elbow fight to the desk to try to get your documents reviewed.

You need to have the old carte grise from your vehicle, the contrôle technique, a declaration of cession of the vehicle, a bill of sale, some kind of ID (I was super surprised they didn’t complain about me just handing over my American passport instead of a French state ID card), and also, you need proof that you live in France. The requirements are pretty numerous. So you pass all that over through a glass window, and then they take it all from you in exchange for an application, which you then have to go fill out. Hopefully you brought your own pen, because there is only one pen in the entire office and it’s attached to the desk.

So once I had filled out my application, I had to wait again to fight my way back up to the desk, and give it to the lady. She then took my application with no indication of whether I’d filled it out correctly, and told me to wait. Wait, wait, wait. I had arrived around 11AM, and at 12PM on the dot, even though 4 of us were still waiting, they locked the door and closed the curtain. Nobody else was coming in now.

“Should we keep waiting, then?” A girl around my age asked me in French. Heck if I know, but apparently I don’t come off as foreign as I feel, because she thought I was in the know. Another woman kept mumbling complaints to me under her breath (how French, right?) as if I could understand a word she said.

After 10 minutes or so, it was just me waiting alone.

“Madame …. er…. Sw—an,” the woman at the counter said. That “sw” blend does not roll off of the French tongue.

“Oui!” I said, excitedly. Maybe I was actually going to get the carte grise. I was getting a little nervous at this point because I had seen about 4 French people be refused theirs because they were missing something. I was also nervous because there seemed to be neither rhyme nor reason to what I was going to have to pay. One man had paid 70 euros, one had paid 100 euros, another had paid more than 200. I was not particularly prepared to pay quite that much for a car registration.

Cent vingt neuf euros,” the woman said, with no further decorum or explanation. 129. I held up my credit card and waved it around like an idiot. “Avec une carte?” she said. Yep, lady. With a card.

That’s an hour and a half of my life I’ll never get back.

Scenario 2: “Welcome” to the Public Library


The rather posh courtyard of the Cognac public library.

After that fun experience, I went shopping with my Scottish friend for a good chunk of the afternoon, and we stumbled upon the public library, which, like the sous-préfecture, is only open for like 12 hours a week. It happened to actually be open! So I put on my brave face and we decided to try to go in. But the door was locked. I could see the librarians staring at us from their desk, and there was a buzzer. “Should I press it?” I asked my friend. After some confused and embarrassed giggles, I finally pushed the buzzer.

The librarian came out rolling her eyes. “Are you open?” I managed, in heavily accented French. “Well, the lights are on,” she responded, a bit irritated. Okay then. We wandered around the library for a bit, which was quite austere for a public space. The stairs were made of stone that looked like it had been there unaltered for centuries and people were working intensely throughout the building.

After wandering through all the books, I asked my friend how hard she thought it would be to get a library card. “I imagine it will be quite easy,” she said. I don’t imagine it will be, I thought. I nervously asked the librarian about it, and indeed, there is an entire list of documents, a fee, and an application required. The librarian and I discussed the details inefficiently, as she replied in broken English and I responded in my less than perfect French to create an interesting kind of franglais.

“It’s free for students,” she said. “Are you a student?”

“Yes, I am, but in the United States,” I told her. “What do I have to do to prove it? I have an American student ID.”

“That won’t work,” She said.

“Oh okay, what would work then?” I asked.

“A student ID card,” She replied. Helpful.

As I turned to put away the book I was hoping to borrow, she sternly snapped at me.

“You can’t take that.” I turned and said that I understood that I couldn’t just take the book and was going to put it back where I found it.

“Come back tomorrow.” It was more of a demand than a request. “I’ll hold it for you.” Great.

Scenario 3: You Can’t Have Food


After a laid back afternoon of browsing through the shops with my Scottish friend Kirstie, the two of us decided to stop for glass of rosé at a local coffee/wine bar. Politely in French, we asked for two glasses of rosé and a menu. The waiter informed us that he could not give us food. It was around 5PM, and what kind of heathen eats dinner before 6, I guess.

“Don’t you have a drink menu?” I asked him in French. Yes, he did. “Okay,” I said, still in French, “Can we have two glasses of rosé and the drink menu, then?” Kirstie had wanted to see it. He agreed, but then came back with just the menu. UGH. I waved down a different waitress and asked for the rosé again, but as soon as we ordered the wine, the menu was taken away.

As our wine arrived, we looked over to see another table being given menus and served a basket of bread. But we couldn’t have food? That makes a lot of sense.

“Do you suppose it’s just because I’m British?” Kirstie joked to me. I suppose it’s just because French cafés are among the country’s biggest non sensical mysteries.

Scenario 4: Teaching on my Own

I’ve typically been starting my classes in the main teacher’s classroom, and then taking half of her group to a different room. This morning, I waited in my own classroom for half of the group. The class was meant to start at 8:55, and by 9:05 I was wondering where on earth they could be. I didn’t realize that in France you have to actually invite the students into the classroom and not just wait for them to bust inside like in the US. They were all outside the whole time, and finally one bold boy came in and asked me if I wanted them to come in.

“Yeah, I’ve been waiting for you,” I told him, in French. “We’ve been waiting for you too!” Oops.

Not only do you have to invite the students to come in, they all just awkwardly stand at their desks until you give them permission to sit down. It feels archaic, disciplined, and just plain weird compared to my laid back public high school in Eugene. Even compared to the stricter Catholic schools I attended, it’s a little intense.

“Uhhh…yeah, go ahead and sit down,” I uncomfortably instructed them.

At that point, I was hoping that all of the awkwardness was over for the day, but then a girl asked my permission to get up from her seat and throw some trash away — American students would never ask permission to do something like that. Once again, it was crystal clear. I was not at home in this place. I may have arrived in France nearly a month ago, but I am only just starting to enter.

(but perhaps someday I will be at home here)

((i hope so — here’s to my entrance))



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