The Unbearable Lightness of Being Without a Passport
Rather than explain to everyone individually why I've been AWOL, I decided to put up this post to let you know what I've been up to. I've been away, and as so often happens when one is away, things didn't quite work out how I had planned.
Our original plan was to fly to London and head to Wales to stay with our daughter, son-in-law, and our myriad grandchildren for a week. (Well, okay, there are 4 of them. They are all under 5, however, except for the eldest, who just turned six, and the three eldest are boys, so they seem like a lot more kids than they are.) Tony would then head off to France on the train, and the rest of us were going to pile into their (not quite large enough) van and drive to France. Sarah, David, and the kids would stay for a week or so with us in Metz. The picture is Sarah and the youngest at a waterfall in Wales that we hiked to. The name escapes me at the moment. (The name of the waterfall, that is. The baby's name is Skye.)
The first hitch came when Tony discovered that he had to be back in the US for a command appearance at a program review, during most of the time that the kids and grandkids would be in France. But he would still be in Metz for a couple of days before he had to leave, and would meet us there before flying to Pittsburgh. However, a couple of days before we were all to leave, disaster struck. Aeron, the 3 year old, managed to break his right arm. He is apparently of the school that if you are going to do something, you should do it thoroughly, because he managed to break both bones in his forearm right through, thus ending up with an arm that distinctly sagged in the middle. So poor David (my son-in-law,) had to spend his birthday in the hospital, as Aeron had to stay overnight. The accident happened in the evening, and he needed general anesthesia so that they could line up the bones properly and put a cast on his arm. So more than 24 hours after Sarah and David took him to the hospital, they finally returned home with a small boy and a large cast. (You can see in the picture that this wore everyone out...) Since the cast was a temporary one because of the initial swelling, and therefore not water-proof, he had to be seen a week later. So Tony headed off to Metz, and then the US, and I stayed in Wales with the unfortunate victim and his family.
The pic is said victim receiving a kiss from his sister. When Aeron was seen the following week he was declared to be healing nicely, but unfortunately they didn't feel that he was ready for the “permanent” cast. However, he was cleared to go to France, so we all jumped in the van and headed for the land of croissants and confiture. There was only one hitch – during the extra week in Wales my passport disappeared. There are various theories on how this happened, but none of them were helpful in the event, because it could not be found. So how did I get into France, you may ask? I prefer to draw a veil over that, because if I told you I would have to kill you.
We arrived in Metz in good order, but because Aeron had to be back for his cast exchange on the following Thursday, Sarah and David and the children could only stay for 4 days. We had a very nice time, though, and managed to keep Aeron from breaking anything else, which isn't nearly as simple as you might think. The picture is Skye in the world's most elegant and practical highchair. The whole front bit swings out like a door, handy for cleaning, removing children, and so on. Skye likes French bread. Actually, Skye likes just about any food substance she can get her hands on, as long as it is not puréed and is reasonably well seasoned. I feel just the same.
They headed back to Britain last Wednesday, and that evening Tony and I took the train to Paris, on the theory that if I turned up first thing the next morning at the U. S. Consulate, I should be able to get a new passport that day. His mother was coming into the Gare de l'Est Thursday afternoon, as she was taking the train from England to come and see us, and the plan was to meet her there in the late afternoon and ride to Metz together.
Tony had very cleverly found a reasonably priced hotel in Paris near the Metro line, so that it would be a short ride to Place de la Concorde, where the embassies and such are. Or, I should clarify, Google Maps showed us the location of the hotel, which was near the Metro line etc. etc. I'm sure you can see where this is going. We got off the train about 9:30 (p.m.,) bought Metro tickets and traveled to the correct stop, got off, and didn't find anything resembling the “Stars” hotel. We found a hotel more or less at the indicated location, but a) it wasn't called the “Stars” hotel, b) they didn't have a booking for us, and c) when the guy at the desk looked at the address, he told us that it was a long way away. So we went back to the Metro, bought more tickets, and took a much longer ride to the Porte d'Italy. We got off, found a map of the area, and did not find any “Rue de Moulins,” upon which the “Stars” hotel was allegedly located. We found a taxi, but the driver had not heard of either the hotel or the street. However, he had a GPS, and it located the hotel, which the driver told us was about 4 kilometers away. We hopped into the cab and the driver set out, heading for the Peripherique, which was the suggested way to get to the hotel. The first hitch was that the entrance was closed, and the driver had to turn around and head for the next entry point. The entry points are rather far apart, as we discovered. After driving for about 10 minutes, we saw the “Stars” hotel alongside the highway. The driver attempted to exit, only to find that the exit was closed. So was the next exit, which was a couple of miles later. We finally found an open exit, got off, and got back on going the other direction.
You can probably see where this is going as well – we got to the correct exit and were able to wave to our hotel, but we were unable to actually exit, as that exit was closed as well. At this point the driver suggested that we might like to sleep in his cab. He was quite a nice man, with an interesting story. He was from Saigon, and was about 16 when the Americans left. He knew three words of French - “Bonjour,” “Merci,” and “Non.” But he emigrated to France and has lived here ever since. He did eventually find an open exit, and after considerable wandering in the back streets got us to the hotel. Bless his socks, at one point, after the meter had run up to some fairly ridiculous amount, he reset it to zero, and we ended up with a reasonable bill. Who would have thought we would find a merciful cab driver in Paris?
The following morning we discovered that fortunately we weren't too far from the commuter train, so we headed into the center and got on the Metro to get to the Place de la Concorde. Tony dropped me off at the Consulate – he had a computer in his backpack, and you absolutely cannot take computers into the Consulate, nor will they keep them for you. He headed off to a cafe to find free Wifi and eat French stuff - see below. In the meantime, my bag was carefully searched, and I was quite mystified by what they removed and what they allowed me to keep. (Tush Wipes, yes – thanks, mom! - little tiny plastic bottle of ibuprofen, no. I guess they want to make sure that you can't relieve your suffering in any way.) I was then issued the “Lost and Stolen Passport” form and received a number that will forever be burned on my memory – C803.
The room to which you are sent is a largish room, full of rows of the sort of chairs that you find at the DMV or any other sort of place where you have to hang about waiting to be summoned. The room had windows of the sort you find when you buy a symphony ticket – they are separated by glass from the patron and have a concave metal dish to transfer things between you and the person you are speaking with. These windows were around three sides of the room. The fourth side had doors to a couple of hallways, with a large portrait between. The portrait was of the Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, who radiated a combination of cheerful competence and brisk pity. You expected her to pat your shoulder and say, “There, there, we'll sort this out, so suck it up and be a brave little soldier.”
There were 20 windows around the other three sides, with the little signs above that light up with your number when you are called. Side One had Windows 1-6, Side 2 had Windows 7 – 12, and Side 3 had Windows 13 – 20. Windows 1-12 were for the people that had B numbers. Windows 13-18 were for the people that had C numbers, like I did. There were no A numbers, which seemed ominous to me, somehow. Window #20 was the cashier, where you could pay for your visa or passport or what have you. Window #19 was actually a door. I only saw one person called to #19, and they never came out again. I am certain of that, because they had taken away anything with which I could amuse myself (iphone, mainly) and thus there was nothing to do but watch the other patrons. Well, and look at the board every 20 seconds or so, hoping it would show #C803. Finally, it actually did show C803, maybe 20 minutes after I got to the room. I spoke to a man in Window #17, who asked me lots of questions about whether I had ever lost a passport before or had one stolen, and did I have a police report, and other stuff like that. (In fact, I hadn't ever lost a passport before, in over 30 years of passport ownership.) He then sent me off to Window #20 to pay, and told me to watch for my number to be called at either Window #13 or #14.
I took a seat directly across from Window #14. Unfortunately, both Windows #13 and 14 were shuttered, so I settled in to wait. Eventually those of us waiting for these special windows were heartened to see, under the bottom of the not-quite-completely-closed blind in Window #14, a pair of hands tapping on the computer keyboard. A bit later the denizen of Window #13 opened the blinds, soon followed by the key-tapped hands in #14, which turned out to belong to quite a striking-looking young Frenchwoman. The occupant of #13 was probably in his early 30s, and was wearing a white shirt and tie. I noticed that he found numerous occasions to walk around the partition and ask the young woman in #14 some question, or peer at her computer screen. This required standing quite close to her, as the little booths were not really made for two. She didn't seem to mind, however, and indeed the people one could see behind the dividing wall seemed to all get on well, which is always gratifying to see.
There were lots of couples with babies. Presumably at least one of the parents was an American, and the baby had been born on foreign soil. (Well, hopefully not actually on the soil.) There was also a woman who was obviously French, and who had apparently once held a US passport, but had allowed it to expire some years ago, and now wanted another one. In contrast to most of the transactions I witnessed, the man behind the counter was rather stern with her, and wanted to know why she had waited so long to get a new passport. She explained that she hadn't needed one, as she had traveled on her French passport. The man looked cut to the heart, and explained that she must never do that again, because the US does not acknowledge that you may hold any other passports. (I don't think that is quite what he said, because you can hold dual citizenship under some circumstances, but I was only hearing bits and pieces of the conversation.) At any rate, she looked properly contrite, and promised to never again travel on any passport but the US one when they gave it to her.
#C800 was the first of us to be called up, followed by C802. Then came C811, then C809, and then C801. There was a long pause between each transaction, as the paperwork had to be picked up from the appropriate box, studied, pondered, and so on. The transactions themselves generally took a while as well, and I was beginning to despair of getting out in time to catch my late afternoon train when my number was called. The gentleman in #13 asked me more questions about losing my passport and so on, made me raise my right hand and swear that everything on the application was true, and studied my application some more. He then asked the question I had feared would come - “If you lost your passport in Wales, how did you get into France?” “You may well ask,” says I, and proceeded to tell him the story that I am not sharing with you. It was okay to tell him, because he works for the Embassy. At least I hope it was okay. He listened, looked unsure of how to respond for a moment, and then gave a rather Gallic shrug, despite the fact that I'm pretty sure he's an American. I guess he figured it wasn't America's problem if France doesn't secure their borders properly.
After I signed the application in his sight, he told me that it would be about a half an hour before the passport was printed, and to await the appearance of my number on the board. Which I did, and without further incident I was issued a temporary passport, just about 2 hours after walking into the Consulate. Which is pretty good, I think. This gave Tony and I time to go to the Musée de l'Orangerie, which has some number of in situ Monets that you don't see on your placemats. (If you're wondering what that means, the story is from the visit that my mom, mother-in-law and I made to the Musée d'Orsay several years ago. We were standing in a room filled with impressionist paintings of the iconic sort - the Monets, Renoirs, and so on that you see frequently reproduced. A group of ladies who by their speech and dress I inferred to be from Texas looked around them. One of them made a not-very-impressed sort of noise and said "I've got all of these on my placemats." ) Here is a picture of one of the Monets - it is huge, probably 20 feet long, and the room is oval, so the painting is oval as well.
We then rode the Metro to the Cité de la Musique, had lunch at a South American restaurant (really!) The picture is of my lunch - a Pastel Choclo, which turns out to be made with everything but the kitchen sink, and lots of corn. I'm going to try making one when I get home - it's pretty hard to get corn around here.
After lunch we went to the Musée de la Musique, which has an amazing old-instrument collection. The curious instrument pictured is some sort of trombone, I suppose. A whole section full of those would give even the bravest conductor pause, I would think.
We then met up with his mother and were whisked back to Metz on the TGV. That was 5 days ago, and day after tomorrow I head back to Wales for a day and then home to Pittsburgh. Heaven only knows what mishaps will occur before I see my little Cato's sweet face again. (Cato is my cat, who I miss a good deal when I'm gone.)
But I have managed to get in a bit of cooking here and there. To be more accurate, I've done a great deal of cooking, as Sarah was grateful for the assistance. But that was mainly the sort of cooking that you hope that your small grandsons will eat. I've also done some of the more adventurous sort, which is part of why I love coming to France.
Our landlord's sour cherry tree was overloaded with cherries that were going to waste, so he urged me to take as many as I wanted, and I did. I made the following gateau, which isn't a French recipe at all, but more like what my dad used to describe as a "buckle." It is made with a rich, not-very-moist cake batter, and the fruit (the original recipe was for pears) provides a lot of the moisture. It is very delicious, I'm happy to say, and I will definitely make it when I go home with some other sort of fruit, sour cherries being pretty hard to come by. It may not be quite as good when not made with French butter, though...