Monday, December 13, 2010

I’ll Be Home for Christmas…I Hope

My last Monday memory article. Last year around this time I returned to the United States for the Christmas Holiday and when I returned in January I started my blog. So from here on out it's all in real time!  This article was written one year ago this week as I was preparing to return home. I am now in the process of getting ready for another return trip...for 4 weeks. I'm excited. And there is no doubt we will have a white Christmas. Apparently the worst snowstorm in 20 years blew it's way through my old stomping ground leaving up to 20 inches of snow in it's wake. And tonight the temperatures are supposed to bottom out at around -15 F (-26 C) with a windchill of -25F (-31C). The snow I love, the temperatures I detest! And I'm leaving France just when my rosemary is blooming so nicely! I had to check the headlines from my old hometown newspaper. Click here  if you want to cool off!

Five days and counting. On Sunday I’m on my way back to the U.S. for Christmas and I’m running around like a madwoman trying to get everything done. What clothes will I need?... do I even have clothes for a Minnesota winter? there room for Christmas gifts?... what Christmas gifts?... damn, I need to take care of that!... is there enough money in my bank account for rent while I’m gone?...find someone to take any perishable food and beg same person to water my plants…. check to see that tickets are in order…… make hair, dental and other such appointments in the U.S….  take care of rental insurance problem…and finally, make sure once I leave the country, that I’ll be allowed back in. Right now, that is the biggest problem on my list.

Last week I trekked back to the local prefecture to finally pick up my permanent Carte de Sejour (residency card). I began the process last January and I’ve written several times about the problems involved in obtaining this little treasure.

In May I finally got my hands on it…well, it was actually a temporary card but I was told my real one would be processed and send to the local prefecture in Aix. My temporary card was good for 3 months and after checking at the prefecture several times for my “real card” I was finally told there was a back up in Marseille and they would reissue me another temporary. That second card expired the end of November so off I went again.

The gentleman at the window, who truly resembles a gray rat and whom I have come to detest, looked at me in mild disbelief and said,  “You can’t have your card because your address has changed”. Oui, monsieur, in fact it’s changed 6 times since we first met but I’ve always informed you of the changes.

“I need proof of your new address”, he told me and gave me their hours of business so I could return with my rental papers another day.

I high-tailed it out of there and returned within 10 minutes with said document. I produced this paper for the combative little rodent and he looked at me again with dismay and said “ you can’t have the card without your medical certificate”.

“What medical certificate? In all the times that I’ve come here to make inquiries, no one has mentioned a medical certificate! This is the first time! It wasn’t on the list you gave me and nobody mentioned it to me in Marseille or here!” All of this in broken French, mind you.

He gruffly told me that was not his problem, teased me by waving my actual card in front of my face (if there wasn’t glass between us I would have grabbed it out of his greedy little paws and run like hell) and repeated that he could not give it to me without that certificate. He also informed me, to my dismay, that if I left France without that card, I would not be allowed back in because my regular Visa has now expired. C’est tout! He gave me several numbers to call in Marseille and I was dismissed.

C’est un grand probleme! Because I’m going back to the United States for Christmas and I’ll be damned if Monsieur I-Hate-My-Job-And-I-Hate-You-Too is going to stop me.

I tried the numbers I was given for days and it was impossible to get through. After another visit to the local prefecture with a French friend to help me make sure I had my information right, I decided that I needed to just get my body to this mysterious office in Marseille and beg for an appointment to obtain the certificate.

I hopped a bus early in the morning, landed in Marseille, finally found the proper metro station to get me where I needed to go and actually arrived at the Office of Strangers by 9:30 am. I marched past all the people waiting, went to the desk and told them in French what my problem was. They were actually very nice and called somebody on the phone that spoke English to help me (my French is obviously still lacking!). I regurgitated the details (finally in English), told the voice on the other end when I was leaving and that I must get this medical certificate before I go.

Of course she told me this was impossible…there just wasn’t enough time. I wasn’t going to give up and told her I had followed all the rules to the letter, done everything they’d asked me to do, and because of their ineptitude (I was nicer that that) I was now in a huge pickle.  She interrupted several times with more “not possibles” and several tsking noises. I told her this is an EMERGENCY! I also told her that if she could actually see me at that moment, she would know that I was on my knees, begging for her help.

I got an appointment for the next week, which is tomorrow!

That leaves me one day to get back to the prefecture here in Aix with a satisfied smirk on my face, medical certificate in hand,  and politely ask Monsieur “Willard” for my card. At least I hope that’s how it will go.

So my open bag is on the floor and I’m beginning to faire mes valises. All I really care about is wrapping my arms around my boys, one of whom I haven’t seen in a year, scratching my dog in that soft place just under his chin, laughing with my sister, helping my mother finish redecorating her house (an endless process), sharing a meal and good stories with my friends back home and celebrating my favorite season with snow, Christmas carols and the people I love surrounding me.

Merry Christmas to all. 

Crazy snow photo compliments of Sonja Gilbertson                                                                                          

Friday, December 3, 2010

Le Blè de l’Esperance

I have ignored my blog and the blogs of everyone else for weeks. School seems to be taking precedence and that's okay...however, I feel so out of touch. I keep writing in my just never gets as far as the computer. I actually wrote this article Monday and am just getting around to posting it today. My niece is here now for a long weekend visit so I'll probably continue ignoring it for awhile. I hope everyone is well and I can't wait to catch up.

Monday is a busy day. It’s the day I have to finish (or start and finish) my weekend homework assignment, write my blog, and finish (or start and finish…yes, there’s a pattern developing here) my weekly article.  I know… I should be at least starting all of these projects over the weekend…. and sometimes I actually do. But this weekend I blew everything off and thus; here I am with a pile of work and one afternoon to do it.

So, as I walked home from school, I tried to think of a subject for this week’s article. And I had nuthin’!  When this happens, the whole day gets set back as I dilly-dally on my way home. I tell myself I’m taking my time trying to come up with an inspiration. In fact, I’m really just delaying the inevitable. I’m SO good at that!

I stopped at my little coffee shop and when the owner (and my friend) Fehti, asked me how I was, as is my new French practice, I complained. I explained that it was deadline day and I didn’t have a subject for my article. He tapped on a box sitting in front of me filled with little packets of what looked like seeds. He said, tell your readers about this; it’s a very old Provençal tradition. I replied that I’d be happy to explain…really happy… if I had any idea what that was. All the patrons then commenced to tutor me on this lovely little Provençal holiday tradition called Le Blè de l’Espérance (also called Le Blè de Ste. Barbe) which translates to The Wheat of Hope.

The tradition stems from an old Roman custom during which people would test the strength of the wheat seeds for next year’s planting. If the seeds sprouted well, the year would bring prosperity. If they emerged yellow and sparse, things weren’t looking so good. From this tradition stemmed the proverb “Blè bien germé, c’est prospérité pour toute l’année”. Which means” wheat well germinated is prosperity for all the year”, but it sounds better and actually rhymes in French, like a good proverb should.

So here in Provence, every year, on the Jour de la St. Barbe (the day of St. Barbara) people plant their wheat. By December 24, the wheat has grown tall and green…hopefully. Then a red ribbon is wrapped around the wheat, tied with a bow, and this adorned symbol of an abundant upcoming year is placed on the table as a centerpiece.

After a little research I discovered that in the 14th century, St. Barbara was beheaded by her own father after her conversion to Catholicism and her father was then duly struck by lightening.  Barbara subsequently became, in the world of saint-dom, the saint who protects against violent death and later developed into the Saint of Hazardous Occupations. I found it a little odd that this girl would be also associated with fertility and abundance.  With a little more fact-finding I learned the St. Barbara just lucked out on this one. Actually, the ancients discovered that it takes 20 days to get perfect wheat for Christmas and 20 days before Christmas Eve just happens to be December 4th, the day of Saint Barbara.

So this year, and all years henceforth, I’m adopting this little holiday ritual. If you’d like to join me this Saturday, here’s what you do. Place a bed of cotton in a saucer or shallow bowl and sprinkle in a handful of wheat seeds or lentil seeds. Dampen it with water and keep it moist; you don’t want it standing in water. Let it rest in a warm place but not directly near heat. If you’re nice to it, it should grow 5 to 10 inches tall. On Christmas Eve, encircle the stems with a red ribbon and place it on your holiday table.

Since the 1980’s, a benevolent organization here in Provence sells little packets of these seeds at various businesses for one euro apiece and all the proceeds go to benefit children in various hospitals in the region.  Which makes it an all-around delightful custom, in spite of the fact that it celebrates a woman who lost her head. And having this new tradition in my life just proves that my tradition of dilly-dallying has got a definite up-side. 

I wish you tall, green wheat and great abundance in the year ahead.