Friday, 22 May
Two days ago, I had a Proustian moment. The reverberating memory in my case did not involve a spongy cake; rather, it was conjured by a trip to the Préfecture de Paris.
For those of you unfamiliar with Marcel Proust's A la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time), the narrator's eating of une madeleine opens a floodgate of sensations and memories from childhood, when Sunday mornings in the company of his aunt, he would dip the pastry into a cup of tea or tisane. The incident is the cornerstone of the seven-volume novel.
Five years ago, the United Kingdom voted by a small majority to quit the European Union. Or I should say, half of the now less united kingdom (England and Wales) voted Leave, while half (Scotland and Northern Ireland) solidly voted Remain. I shared my views on the referendum at the time.
The divorce has been long and painful. Its effects are finally trickling down to the kids, i.e., we, the people, including those of us (British nationality having come to me through my first husband Charles) who live abroad. Brexit means I am no longer part of the Union, and for the first time in 20 years, I need a resident’s card, rather than just my passport, to live in France.
It took me a while to wade into the bureaucratic swamp, partly because of our long trip to London, partly from form-a-phobia. But partly, too, from memories of obtaining my first carte de séjour in 1981. It was a madeleine moment that felt more residual nightmare than comforting tidbit of childhood. Like a bad dream, it revisits me in snatches.
The endless waiting, the chaotic jostling with other demandeurs and worst of all, the encounter with the bureaucrat behind the counter. He or she never looked you in the eye, not until the triumphant announcement that this chit or that photo was missing from your dossier and you’d have to come back, go through the whole demeaning process all over again. I remember wandering a warren of corridors in search of the copy machine or a Photomaton, much as I search for an exam room in my nocturnal torments. And all this with my then very hesitant French and as yet undeveloped muscle for handling cold, rude fonctionnaires.
Unsurprisingly, the memory of this traumatic event triggered angst and a strong desire to procrastinate. It wasn't until the end of April that I plucked up my courage and opened the site. To surprise number one: the on-line application was straightforward and painless (and I could correct my inevitable errors without having to start a new paper form). Second surprise: just one week later I was invited to sign up for (rather than be assigned to, as in the old days) an in-person interview, where I would hand over my one photo (not three or four, depending on the whim of the bureaucrat) and get fingerprinted.
The skies over Paris this last week have been changeable, threatening one minute...
...and bright the next...
Wednesday morning the first drops of another downpour began falling as I locked up my bike outside the police station, just as I'd done 40 years ago. A crowd was gathered at the door, and as I approached, a woman with an elderly man in tow cut right in front of me.
Here we go, I thought.
Then surprises number three and four: with my summons in hand, I was waved through immediately. And at the metal detector, when the elderly man seemed to understand nothing that his guide or the police agent was saying or gesturing about taking off his belt and jacket, the official, instead of getting impatient and hostile, lowered his voice and said to the guide: “Don’t worry. I’ll pat him down.”
Surprises number five and six: I was directed with a smile to Salle 4 and was received by another cheery, helpful face once I arrived. “Please sit down until your number is called, Madame Fleming.”
I kept expecting something very unpleasant to happen, but after a minimal wait (surprise number seven), the agent at counter B11 was charm itself. He even bent the rules and told me, without my asking, to keep my long expired carte de séjour, as if he'd divined my penchant for nostalgia. At the end he looked me straight in the eye with a smile: “You'll receive your card by post in the next two months. Do you have any questions?”
The sun was emerging from another shower when I walked outside, feeling both soothed and confused by the gentle, civilised interview. It wasn’t just the attitude that had altered so dramatically. It was also the faces themselves. The agent and most of the other employees I encountered during my blissfully short visit to the police station were people whose parents would have been waiting in the room with me 40 years ago (and getting an even more hostile reception than I did). So often accused of being unable to integrate, these children of immigrants are doing a much better job at the Préfecture de Paris than their all-white predecessors.
Lest I should think the country had transformed unrecognisably, demonstrators for better housing were lined up outside as a reminder that some things in France never change.
In my bureaucratic angst, I'd forgotten Wednesday was also the day cafés were re-opening. Unlocking my bicycle, I got another Proustian jolt at these waiters in their penguin suits taking their own coffee break. It seemed a life-time ago that these creatures were last spotted.
Time was all a jumble as I made my way home, past more crowded cafés and the bizarre sight of police policing police who were protesting attacks on fellow officers.
While the city's coming alive again is uplifting, it also seems, at the moment, as strange as her recent comatose state.
Mid-writing this morning, I went to pick up my bicycle from an overdue tune-up. The bike wasn't ready, so I passed the time on a café terrace, still thinking about my first days in Paris and how 40 years could simultaneously seem like yesterday and part of another life.
I am a huge Proust fan and as any regular reader of this blog knows, a fervent believer in the vital role that the 'immense edifice of memory' plays in our lives. But sometimes I have to wonder how much it can help when the present seems so confounding.
If you like these photos there are lots more on my Instagram account, @flemingm6