Our first face-to-face (tete-a-tete) encounter with the French immigration authorities took place during spring break last year when we drove to the Bay Area to submit our applications for long-stay visas at the French consulate. The people working there were reserved, efficient and impressed with the conscientious preparation we (mostly Lois) had done - most pages had to be submitted in quadruplicate in both languages - so, octuplicate - for each of us - meaning, finally, sixteenuplicate. That's right! 16 copies of EACH page! Even then, we had missed something (I can't remember what) and had to get whatever it was when we got home, get it translated and fax it to them from Portland. Okay. Eventually our passports, with short-term visas attached, arrived, but not before we had bitten our fingernails down to the nub worrying about the time ticking away.
A few days after arriving here in July 2007, we went to the sous (sub)-prefecture in Aix, as instructed, where an appointment was made for us at the Prefecture in Marseilles in October, where we would be expected to submit another sheaf of documents, all or most of which we'd already given the consulate in San Francisco. I've described this experience in one of the early blogs.
The result of that visit was another appointment at the Sous-prefecture (in Aix) on January 3 to pick up (we thought) our finished long-stay visas. But when we presented ourselves, the clerk consulted the computer, shook her head, made this little combination puff of air/tsk-tsk sound that they do so well here, stamped our paper with her official seal and instructed us to return on January 30.
That was yesterday. We dropped Mike off at school and headed downtown for what we figured was the last visit to the Sous-prefecture. The place was almost empty, so we got in promptly and shoved our passports and the stamped document across the counter and under the (bulletproof?) glass, where another functionary, this one a longhaired man of about our age, checked the computer, shook his head, pursed his lips (by this time we know what follows the pursing of the lips as the night follows the day, so it came as no surprise), made the puff of air/tsk-tsk sound, stamped the paper and told us to come back on February 29 (after determining that this was a Leap, or Bisextile, year) and we discussed the U.S. presidential election. He's pulling for Obama.
Lois and I agreed that even if we had to come back every month for the duration of our stay, at least we'd have an excuse to drop into one of our favorite cafes (and, in fact, the very first we visited in Aix - on that first visit to the sous-prefecture, in fact. Beautiful symmetry or something there.) Then we picked Mike up, went shopping for ski clothes on sale for his ski trip in March, and came home. When we checked the mail we found two envelopes from the Republic of France, Agency of Foreigners and Migrations ( des Etrangers et des Migrations) informing us that we have mandatory appointments for medical examinations on the 13th in Marseilles and we have to bring vaccination records, pulmonary x-rays, eyeglass prescriptions, proof of insurance, etc., etc. Oh, and 275 euros each! I believe this is all de rigeur and I remember reading, a couple of years ago now, that a medical exam was part of the process but I'd sort of forgotten about it, and no one ever mentioned it during our multiple visits. Our sojourn is half-over now, and I must admit that the thought of just skipping the rest of the process flashed through our minds, but only for a second. (We know people who are living here and own houses and everything who haven't even applied for visas. "Yeah,", they say, "I heard something about that. What's the big deal with visas anyway?"). We'll go ahead and do what needs to be done and make our (if I'm counting correctly) SIXTH (6th) visit to the many-tentacled (it can get a lot more complicated than merely the right hand not knowing what the left is doing!) monster and hope for the best. But I'll bet we'll have to make at least one more trip, in a month or two, to pick the things up. And since it'll probably be the middle of spring by then, we'll be able to enjoy our coffee at an outside table. Et voila!
Industrial and commercial activities are clustered together here in their own areas, usually between towns, and they're clearly identified as such: Zone Industriel, Zone Commercial, Pole d'Activites, etc. There's a gigantic Zone Commercial called the Plan de Campagne between Aix and Marseilles but we'd never been there, although I had heard a lot, mostly in dazed tones, about it. I had confidently expected to spend our whole time here without ever setting foot in the place, but, wouldn't you know it, Mike was invited to a birthday party at a Laser Tag (!) place on the grounds on Saturday night. So! A couple of freeways instersect near there (coincidence? I think not.) but when I looked on the map I found that the little 2-lane road that we take from Eguilles when we're going north or south goes right to and through the Plan de Campagne. It was a nice drive, the sun was setting, lots of fields and the village of Calas enroute and finally, the road went up a hill through some trees, around a corner and ZAM!, there we were! In a giant traffic jam. And not even on the grounds yet. It took us longer to get from the roundabout at the entrance, to the laser tag place than it did to get from our house to the Plan itself. Unbelievable. Acres and acres, larger than I think I've ever seen anywhere, 200 or so stores, many of them their own separate buildings. I didn't dare use the car once we'd found the laser place (an adventure in itself) and a parking spot, so while the boys were blasting each other under parental supervision, I walked around for a while and watched the sun sink slowly into the west over the biggest agglomeration of neon in France. Very beautiful, and I figured out how to take pictures with my phone. And someday I'll figure out how to download them to the computer and then to this blog.
It wasn't all a waste of time, though. I bought my first (and probably last) pair of French running shoes, which feel good and look FAST! By the time the party was over, the traffic had thinned considerably and the ride home was easy, at least as easy as it gets on dark unfamiliar narrow country roads surrounded by manic Gauls passing you at high speed every couple minutes.
Lois had read about some interesting event - Oh, yeah! A mimosa festival - in some interesting-sounding village somewhere, but when we found it on a map it was way too far away - over by Cannes or Nice or someplace. So instead we went to one of our neighboring villages, a larger one called Pelissanne, for another truffle and olive oil festival. This time, though, we decided to BUY a truffle of our very own and I would use it in a dish to be determined later for dinner. Here are some photos of some of the things on display. They include yellow jars of duck pate, olive wood bowls and other items (Mike bought a small cheese-cutting board), herbs and sirops, terrine of ostrich (that's right!), pottery, woven mats, sausages, macarons, some big cookie things, and honey.
The guy we bought the truffle from was a surly little stocky countryman with dirt-caked hands and he didn't look like he would appreciate having his picture taken. These people carry thousands of dollars worth of truffles around in little bags and they all have sophisticated digital scales (and probably sophisticated handguns) and the transactions are strictly cash. We bought one for 20 euros. It was a little smaller than a golf ball, dark brown, almost black, with a little fine mud caked on it. The smell of these things is very pungent and is aptly described as "earthy" and "gamy". Some people can't stand the smell, but we found it interesting, if not quite ambrosial. I was gonna make omelets, one of the classic truffle preparations, but realized that we like cheddar in our omelets, so I opted for something I found on, where else?, the internet - potatos anna with truffles. Easy: sliced potatos layered with olive oil, butter and truffles. Here's the truffle in the process of being sliced. It has a beautiful marbleized pattern, light brown veins in dark brown flesh.
Sitting at the table groaning and burping (from fullness [or repletion, a great word], not gastric distress) after dinner, we were able to look out the window and see another beautiful sunset, of which there have been quite a few lately.
Last time I mentioned in passing that although every community in France has something named in honor of September 4 (Quatre Septembre) I had no idea why. Thanks to my friend Diane, who was kind enough to link me up with the History channel, I now know more about that date than I would have thought possible. So I can now state unequivocally and with the authority of television behind me that the reason September 4th is so honored by the French is either because the western Roman empire ended when Odoacer deposed Romulus Augustus in 476, or because Los Angeles was founded in 1781, or Napoleon III was deposed and the 3rd Republic declared in 1870, or the world's first cafeteria opened in NYC in 1885, or Geronimo surrendered in 1886, or the first Boy Scout rally was held in the Crystal Palace in 1909. It's gotta be Napoleon or the cafeteria, don't you think?