Friday, October 3, 2008

Of man and citizen

To acquire our first carte de séjour, the laminated identity card that states your name and justification for being in France for longer than three months, which is how long a tourist can stay--to acquire one of these, we needed, besides the ream of paperwork, a clean bill of health. The French state needed to know that we were not going to be hanging out in the hospitals getting cheap medical care. And the state needed assurance that we did not have tuberculosis. Really. How to assure the fonctionnaires of that? A chest x-ray. Not just any chest x-ray would do: C had actually had a chest x-ray six months before we moved to France, and he even had the films with him (see, doc? I'm not tubercular)--but those films were pas suffisantes. Nothing but a trip to the medecin du travail, the work doctor, would do.

Madame Tie took this all in hand. Medical exams were part of the carte de séjour process and she was the queen of the carte de séjour. We met up at C's office and climbed into her Peugeot minivan. The medecin du travail's office was in a complex at the edge of Nice, just off the autoroute. It was concrete and bleak in the way that the designers of government buildings have perfected: a few struggling agaves clustered around the front door, which was hidden on the back side of the parking lot. Small drifts of trash leaned against the curb. Inside, the foyer was practically nonexistent, just space enough to stand and wait for the elevator. It smelled like cigarette smoke and stale person, with a faint, very faint, undertone of Monsieur Propre, the French version of Mister Clean.

The elevator deposited us outside a set of glass doors that led to a narrow corridor lined with molded plastic chairs. Not only expats from America were there to have their chests checked: people from all over the world, Asia, North Africa, Eastern Europe, were there, sitting in the plastic chairs clutching their files, eager to prove their health so that they could be let in to stay. There was the same air of desperation that as in the carte de séjour waiting room at the Préfecture, although here it was a little less intense. We sat down with Madame Tie to await our turn in front of the government of France.

I looked around at the people, and then, so as not to be rude, at the walls above their heads. They were decorated with posters from various musées nationaux: a Monet poppy field from the Musée d'Orsay, a Winged Victory from the Louvre, a cow and a couple floating above Paris from the local Musée Chagall. At chair-level, we had all the officiousness and muddle of bureaucratic France, and at wall-level, we had La Belle France, the France of guidebooks, the France whose patrimoine, whose national heritage, made the paperwork worthwhile.

The appointment had two parts: first came the chest x-ray. In turn, we went through a door across the corridor into a small room with a changing booth. We removed our shirts and hung them on a peg, and then walked two steps across the room into the radiation booth. The technician snapped a photo of our chests, we put our shirts back on, and went out another door into the corridor as the next supplicant entered through the first door. Government efficiency at its finest.

The next part of the exam involved an interview with the actual medecin du travail. C and I were summoned together into a room with a copy of the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, the founding document of modern France, like the American Declaration of Independence, framed on the wall. The doctor cast an eye over the summary of medical records that we had provided and asked us a series of perfunctory questions: were we carrying any dread diseases (no); did we have our own health insurance (yes); were we addicted to any non-prescription medications (not yet, but how many more government offices were we going to have to visit?). Interview over, the doctor weighed and measured us. She knocked five kilos off my weight in a show, I suppose, of female solidarity.

The last item was the vision test: cover an eye, read the fine print, switch. It wasn't the A E X M P method of eye exam, though, but the read a paragraph variety, the variety that, in the States, tends to run along the lines of a brief discourse on cats that drink milk and dogs that bark. So when I covered my eye and looked, imagine my surprise. The passage was not from a children's primer but from Diderot himself, one of French culture's proudest exports, the one who, with his buddy d'Alembert, thought up the Encyclopédie, the 21-volume collection of knowledge that rocked the very foundations of the French Ancien Régime. I waited til the doctor left the room for a moment, and then I copied the passage into my date book: The only lasting beauties are those found in our relations with the natural world.

The natural world seemed in pretty short supply there in the office of the medecin du travail. Diderot, Monet, Chagall, the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen (Men are born free and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions can be based only on public utility): abstract France, the France all of us in the molded plastic chairs that afternoon had come looking for. The x-ray machine, the questionnaires, the dossiers and paperwork: the France that we all had to wade through in order to get there. Or at least to have a shot at it.

No comments:

Post a Comment