Welcome to France, and what a journey it has been!
For those of you unfamiliar with my situation, let me enlighten you: I am an English assistant in St. Herblain, a suburb of Nantes. I will be teaching in two Colléges (roughly equivalent to Jr. High Schools). Currently I am living in a hotel in the heart of Nantes, looking for an apartment or a room to let, navigating the unorganized world of French bureaucracy, and fighting the after effects of jet-lag.
The majority of my time has not been spent enjoying the pleasures of un express (espresso) or a burre blank(Nantais delicacy), but wading through the long-standing time-honored pool of paperwork and senseless bureaucracy. After all, this is the best way to begin to create a cultural picture of the French people and society. It gets to the heart of the matter - the meat of the issue. In all of this I have learned two valuable lessons:
1. French people love official documents more than a fine Burgandy wine.
2. French people don't care if you tell little white lies if you successfully fulfill the requirements of number 1.
I have a grey plastic accordion file folder with all of my important document neatly organized by type and category. It is always safely tucked in my satchel bag and slug across my back at all times. Why? Not because I am scared they will be stolen, but because I am never sure when or where I will need to pull out a notarized copy of my birth certificate or a note of guarantee from my parents. Here is the perfect example - getting a bank account. Now I have not tried this yet, as housing and visa have been my top priorities, but before I get payed I must open an account as a rite-of-passage. In order to do so I must have a multitude of documents. First my passport and a copy; okay. Second, my proof of employment which must include all of the following: working card, letter of acceptance, and my "arrete de nomination" (which I really don't know what it denotes). Third, my proof of habitation. Fourth, proof from my bank that I am in good standing. Fifth, a letter from my school telling the bank that they will cover my overages if I flee the country. Now the bank my not ask for all of these, but they may - in fact they may ask for three times as much if they wish.
White lies never really hurt someone, and in France they can be a foreigner's best friend. For example, one of the easiest ways to find cheep housing is through the student organization CNOUS. From what I gather, CNOUS helps international students find housing by creating a free database of furnished apartments. You have to visit the CNOUS office in order to gain access to the site. Why? Because they need some documents that prove you are currently a student somewhere in the world. Having just graduated, I don't quite fit into this category. Nevertheless, I was able to find an old version of my AER (Academic Evaluation Report) from April 2006 that showed I did not have enough credits to graduate (through some sort of clerical error, all of my credits from my semester in Hungary were missing and the situation was remedied before graduation). The CNOUS lady barely looked at the document and gave me an account. I think that the important part was the fact I had a stack of papers to hand her, not the meaning of the documents themselves.
All in all I am adjusting to life here very quickly. The people are more than friendly, and when anyone finds out that I don't know a soul in France they grab a pen and paper to give me their name and address and the name and address of their mother. My notebook is quickly filling with scribbled names and numbers.