“Oui, Oui…dans le Cup s’il Vous Plâit….”
” Take a cup, put some urine in it,” read the hand-written sign taped to the wall. All around this English phrase were translations in just about every language imaginable. Most were scrawled in by hand – presumably from those disappointed ex-pats, immigrants & refugees whose mother tongue was not already represented on the clinic wall – though I suspect the person in charge of the English translations was not exactly fluent; an earlier set of hand-written instructions taped to a dressing room door told one to “please remove all of your clothes except trousers, underwear, socks and shoes”. I guess this is a governmental way of saying, “Please take your shirt off”. And whether you are a sushi chef from Tokyo or a carpet salesman from Istanbul, your own, personal set of instructions are somewhere there on that wall; if you’re lucky, you’ll have an unexpected laugh as I did…
I grabbed a small plastic cup from the vertical stack of them at the unmanned counter (I had a fleeting memory of the frat-party-serve-yourself keg of beer.) Only, my keg was certainly not empty! After countless past experiences of discovering a dry well when asked to pee in a cup at the doctor’s office, my clever, pre-meditated act of nursing a liter bottle of Evian during the drive across town served me well. I was quite proud of myself though I was a bit over-fueled and cutting off the flow was a bit tricky, not to mention that I was still laughing about the take-a-cup-put-some-urine-in-it sign which compounded my problem. I can handle a large, full cup of hot coffee while driving a stick shift but peeing into a barely thimble-sized cup – held by your only free hand – is a little trickier.
Vicky and I were being railroaded through a medical clinic operated by the French government’s OMI (Office Of International Migrations). It was a necessary procedure for our carte de séjour, or residence permit.
Our quest for the carte de séjour began with the French consulate in Chicago notifying us by mail (at our now no longer home address in Evansville) that our visas were ready to pick up. A trip to Chicago from Paris was arranged and I found it curious that a solid week was needed to pick up a visa that was supposedly sitting there waiting on us. I soon found out why.
First of all, like any other efficient governmental agency, the French consulate is open only during the hours of 9:00 am and 12:00 pm. Vicky and I showed up at the consulate first thing Monday morning after arriving in Chicago on Saturday night. Closed. It was President’s Day. The frogs are honoring George & Abe with the rest of us.
We returned again on Tuesday morning. We went into a waiting room where several people were apparently waiting for the same thing we were. A clerk shuffled papers behind a counter separated by a glass window. She pretended not to notice anyone. More people filed in and the looks back and forth between les clients became more and more puzzled and confused until someone shyly asked the group if we were supposed to take a number or something.
Madame Clerk (the ‘K’ is silent) finally acknowledged us and we all patiently waited our turn. When Vicky & I got to the front of the line, Madame Clerk naturally disappeared for five minutes or more. When she came back, we told her we were there to pick up our visas. She tilted her head, puckered her lips, made a small frown and rolled her eyes (the national French sign language for, “Now wait a minute: what you are asking me is not that easy; you can’t expect just to come in here like this and simply…”)
The French love to make things difficult and will go out of their way to find all kinds of little things to keep you busy. She didn’t like the idea that Vicky and I do not share the same last name so she asked that we present her with our marriage certificate, which happened to be in Paris at that moment (remember, Chicago is where this is happening…) Neither did she like it that there were only four blank pages remaining in my passport.
” Monsieur, you will need to get more pages for your passport before I can issue you a visa. And you will need the marriage certificate but first I need to ask you a few questions:”
“Where do you live at the moment?” [Now, legally, you are not to supposed to be living in the country where you are applying for a visa.]
[In unison, we answered:]
“How long were you in France?”
[In unison, we answered:]
Vicky: “Two weeks.”
Robert: “One month.”
OK, we didn’t have our story straight but I imagine the French embassies and consulates across the globe realize that this is what most people do and they use the law against only those whom they wish to block residency to – a kind of safeguard on their end.
My visit to the Chicago Federal Building to get more pages for my passport allowed me the perspective of comparing the two countries’ bureaucracies. I hate to say that the American version definitely took the cake. None of the government workers seemed to enjoy their job in the least and not a single one of them looked me squarely in the eye when talking to me. I could care less about these things but what really cast my vote was that I had to make an appointment to make an appointment and regardless that I was there physically on the eighteenth floor of the Chicago Federal Building (hey, love that Alexander Calder sculpture in the plaza), I had to walk fifteen feet across the room and make my appointment via automated telephone. On the allotted appointment day, I was given a time several days later to come back and pick up my passport with the new additional pages. I returned on that day at the designated time and waited close to two hours. I watched a frustrated woman close to tears (she was obviously on a tighter travel schedule than we were.) It was past 12 pm, so my trip (hopefully a final one) back to the French consulate would have to be the following morning. Luckily, Vicky’s office had a copy of our marriage certificate and Madame Clerk gracefully permitted a faxed copy. In retrospect, Madame Clerk no longer seemed so difficult.
So, by the time everything was accomplished, it was time to hop back on the plane for Paris.
Several weeks later we found ourselves at the OMI waiting for our medical exam. We were greeted at the door very suspiciously and, as many French employees like to do, given the initial feeling that we were totally in the wrong place / or had come at the wrong time. An elderly man spoke to us in French and scrutinized our applications leading us to believe that there was no such appointment. Then he started to ask what date we were…
I answered, “Aujourd’hui” (today) before realizing the question was, “What date were you born?”
After a search of Vicky’s purse (strange for a medical clinic to do) and more suspicious looks, the man reluctantly allowed us in.
We were seated in the waiting room for about ten minutes when a tall, skinny, gay man in a white lab coat called us over to the counter. He asked us typical medical history questions and as we answered, I noticed his left hand – the one with the very long fingers – had a rubber latex glove on it. My stomach started turning in knots and my forehead started sweating bullets. Not the dreaded finger! And NOT from him!
He asked me if I wore eyeglasses. “Did you bring them with you?” I was silent for a few moments as I tried to figure a way to back out of this predicament. Yes, Vicky, you know – maybe we should come back another day when I can bring my eyeglasses and have a few pre-finger martinis…
A woman marched over to the counter and looked at us as if we were naughty children. She was a dead ringer for Dr. Ruth – a short redhead beyond retirement age. She had a bit of a Gestapo air about her. I’m sure she had a collection of whips somewhere in the building.
” Do you vear ze lunettes, monsieur?”
” Well, uh, yes – for reading and distance.”
” Do you have zem wit you?”
” Well, uh, not exactly.”
Madame Gestapo looked pissed. “Vere are zey?”
” Well, I don’t really need them that bad.”
[Looking at Vicky:] “You! You vill stay here!”
[Looking back at me:] “You! You vill come vit me!
Oh shit, I thought. I’m in trouble now. Here come the whips…
She led me to a room and told me to go inside. I was relieved to see another patient (she looked like she had suffered no major pain) reading an eye chart to another clinic worker.
” Get on ze balance!”
I stepped onto the scale. It read 87. I’ll be damn! Not bad! I’ve gone from 192 pounds to 87 pounds! That butter-cream-foie-gras-cheese-red-wine diet is really working well for me! Maybe I should write a best-selling diet/cookbook and go on ‘Larry King Live’ to promote it!
Next came the eye exam. It was interesting that the eye chart was not boring little randomly selected alphabet letters of different sizes – it was made up of sentences (in different sizes) in French; I guess it’s the French one-upmanship and the desire to stay ahead of the rest of the world intellectually. If I am not mistaken, I believe it was passages from the unabridged version of Honoré Balzac’s “les Petite Misères de la vie conjugale”.
” Mais, Madame, je ne peux pas lire le français!” (But mam, I can’t read French!)
“Lisez! Vite!” (Read! Quick!) Madame Gestapo was un peu impatient.
Madame Gestapo slapped at a tiny line on the chart with her pointer. I started reading. I had to alternate between eyes and noticed how bad my sight was in my right eye. Not believing my eyes (does that qualify as a pun?), I dropped the card to check my vision with both eyes.
” Non!” Madame Gestapo had a fit. I broke the rules!
“Put ze card back to ze oeil gauche!”
I continued reading. Just as I was really getting into it – hmm.I’m pretty good at this – maybe I should be in French radio? – Madame G abruptly ended the eye exam.
“Go into zat room and take ze clothes off.” Uh-oh, HERE come the whips.
There was a line of small rooms with two doors – one that opened from the hall and an interior one that who-knows-where it led to. The torture chamber maybe? I bet there’s a guillotine in there.
I followed the complicated instructions for taking my shirt off. I could hear Vicky in the other room reciting Balzac. A voice on the other side of the interior door told me to come in. A clinic worker was adjusting an X ray machine. I was relieved that it was not Madame G in her leather suit.
A chest X ray was made and I was told to go down the hall and enter the room on the left. A stack of plastic cups was on the counter. Juice and cookies, perhaps? A nice little break during the examination, maybe?
Then I read the sign. After I poured my sample, I looked around for someone to give it to. There was no one. I looked like a lost guest at a cocktail party. I think this was just a little touch of the French and their enjoyment of humiliating Americans. I was probably on a hidden camera (you know? That famous TV show, ‘la Caméra invisible’ ?) and there were some French guys in another room laughing at me. “Non, Jean-Claude, let him go a few minutes more – this is the funniest one we have seen all morning! “
Finally a woman appeared and took my cup. She went behind a counter, sat down, held the cup up to the light and examined it carefully. Hmm, good clarity, brilliant, golden yellow with a light straw color at the edges; it appears to have good acidity and a little bit of body with nice legs, but an aggressive nose. I’d guess – maybe an old Australian Chardonnay from an off vintage that went through clumsy vinification – maybe a little too long in the barrel?
She looked up – surprised to see me still standing there and told me to go sit down and wait in the next room. The clinic was basically empty. There were a few other patients and they seemed to be short on staff. But you could tell that this place was designed for mass production. “A boat load of Haitians? No problem! Bring ’em on!”
I could hear the urine analysis lady seriously coughing in the back room. What? Is she trying to drink it? Hey lady, that Aussie Chardonnay can’t be that bad!
Vicky walked through the same door I had come through but hadn’t yet registered me sitting across the room. To get her attention – and because there was no one else around – I spoke with a loud voice:
“Hey, Honey, take a cup, put some pee in it!”
A woman I had not seen sitting behind me laughed. Obviously, she spoke English. I asked her where she was from. “Ponce, Puerto Rico, ” She answered, “I’m studying here in Paris.” I couldn’t believe it! We chatted until I was called into another room. I don’t think there is a spot on the planet where you will not run into a Puerto Rican!
I tried to guess what was next. Not the dreaded gloved finger, I hope. Instead, an attractive woman was looking at my chest X-ray on a light table. She studied it intensely without saying anything; the classic, awkward, doctor-pause right before they tell you, “Mr. Leedy, I am concerned about this spot here – it’s probably nothing serious – we just want to take another look at it – to insure that you have good quality of life during the remainder of your last three weeks of life.”
This woman turned out to be very nice. While she took my blood pressure, she asked how long we had been in France (I gave her Vicky’s answer this time) and asked what we were doing here. She asked if we liked it in Paris and if we had taken some time to visit other parts of France. She told me I was in a great city for an artist. I whole-heartedly agreed.
“Do you want to take your chest X-ray with you?”
” Sure, I’ll take it home and tape it to my refrigerator.”
” That’s what all of the artists who come through here say!”
A French government worker with a sense of humor? Now that’s refreshing to know.
The medical exam was over. I eluded the gloved finger. But what a curious medical exam.
Now for a few comments and suggestions:
1. Eye exam – What for? To make sure that we can see to drive? Hell, none of the French drivers see me – why should I see them?
2. Weight check – I guess the French want to remind Americans that they are much thinner than we are.
3. Chest X-ray – Your residency permit is at serious odds if your lungs are not full of Gitanes cigarette smoke. You must know how to light up in a crowded restaurant just as the table of pregnant mothers next to you is beginning to eat their first course.
4. Urine Analysis – They don’t really test it – as I said earlier, it is only a ploy to humiliate you. They save it where it later goes on the black market for Olympic athletes looking for “clean” urine.
5. Blood Test – Now, if they test you for anything, I would imagine a blood test would be high on the list – but it’s not. I guess that rich, red stuff is too valuable to waste – in the French eyes – should they ever decide to eat you. I mean, why not? If they can eat horses, calf heads, pig heads, pig feet, eels, brains, glands, stomachs, kidneys, fish heads, hearts, livers, sting rays, snails, lamb tongues, sheep testicles, or cow’s udders – do you think a little leg of man would be so drastic of a dietetic alternative? “Bon jour, Madame, today’s lunch special is buttsteck americain avec une sauce de sang (blood).” [In defense of the French and their peculiar tastes, I honestly have to admit that I would like to get up the courage to at least try some of the weird things while we are here.]
Just don’t pass me a cup with suspicious-looking liquid in it!