Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Somebody get Tintin a helmet!

Moving to a new country may radically alter everyday habits. Stores don't carry your favorite cereal. Perhaps the bread is different...and much, much better. Transportation may stretch your comfort zone. And then there is TV.

It took us a few weeks before we even dared to turn on the TV, at which point we were lost. What is this "cable" of which you speak? But we were going through a Little House phase in bedtime stories (sometimes Pa can be a real self-centered jerk!), so when we stumbled on "La Petite Maison Dans La Prairie," we were hooked. Sure, it was dubbed...and oddly predictable...but it gave all of us something familiar to latch onto while also providing a dash of culture.

For quite some time we have watched very little actual TV, though we've blitzed and binged through several series on Netflix. But that's different here, too, as the catalog varies from country to country. Scrolling through the list of kids' shows, we came across a LaGrand family classic comic in TV form: Tintin.

Tintin contains the perfect ingredients to fascinate and irritate. The young hero of ambiguous age is bold, often smart, sometimes thick, and terribly unlucky*. His friends include a dog who is loyal but sometimes displays a lack of judgment, an on the wagon/off the wagon former sea captain always itchin' for a fight, a professor too stubborn for hearing aids, and the detectives Thomson and Thompson (Dupont and Dupond in French) who are easily duped every other episode into thinking that the kind-hearted Tintin has turned to crime. At least one of us is known to shout, "How is this fooling you?!" at the screen.

(*How many other characters outside of Grey's Anatomy have you known to have survived multiple plane crashes, a last-second reprieve from a firing squad, being set afloat at sea in a sealed coffin, and being shot at in nearly every episode? And we're only in season 2.)

It didn't take us long to notice that it's a fairly violent cartoon. During the opening credits Bea and I will shout together:
"Concussion!" "Watch the suspenders!"




"Close call!"

It got to the point where we wrote down every injury from a single episode:
  • an airplane crashes in the Himalayas. Are there any survivors?
  • a table with coffee gets overturned, resulting in scalding hot coffee in the face
  • a rushing Tintin collides with a porter in the street, and both tumble to the ground
  • someone eats a dangerously hot pepper
  • a tired character walks into a tree
  • Snowy the dog falls off a cliff into a raging river after getting into the Captain's whiskey
  • the Captain trips into a pole and sees stars (concussion!)
  • the Captain gets buried in an avalanche
  • Tintin falls down a crevasse for his second concussion of the episode
One episode. It's quite amazing.

It was so amazing that I considered tabulating all of Tintin's injuries for a full season, noting his blatant violations of concussion protocols. (In fact, I can't recall an episode when he didn't get a concussion.) Motivation hits me in odd ways, I admit, but it's best to not always launch a new project when the idea first occurs.

One of the biggest fears for a research scientist is getting scooped. You may have done beautiful, brilliant work, but if someone beats you to the publication, your work is in vain. You'll be lucky if you can publish it anywhere. The problem is even worse if you miss a relevant publication before you begin. More than once I've found something I wanted to do already in the literature, and those papers made my work that followed much, much stronger.

So I turned to Medline.

It turns out I am not the first or even the second person to want to document Tintin's medical history. One paper focused on Tintin's agelessness, speculating that he suffered from hypogonadotropic hypogonadism (HH) due to lack of testosterone (though his aggressiveness might belie that claim):

Gerritsen notes that one potential cause of HH in children is head trauma...the author may be on to something...

This brief comment from the editor of the American Journal of Neuroradiology carries the analysis much further:

He references the large number of concussions that Tintin suffers (as cataloged here). Furthermore, he details the alcoholism and anger management troubles of Captain Haddock and speculates that Thompson and Thomson may be suffering from a neurodegenerative disease such as Alzheimer's. But the real gold mine comes at the end of the article and the references, where Castillo informs us of similar articles about Asterix and Winnie the Pooh!

But two other papers deserve special mention, as they performed all of the heavy lifting of injury tabulation, saving me from doing something I might later regret:

This appears to be the article that inspires the others here

In the first article, the authors (an associate professor and his two young children) carefully tabulate every one of Tintin's concussions from the comic books and evaluate their duration (for how many panels is Tintin affected?) and severity (how many different objects float around his head?). They conclude that Tintin lost consciousness a minimum of 50 times in the books. Our chants at the start of each episode are vindicated.

Next to the others, the final article is a tour de force. Four tables lay out Tintin's health impairments (HIs) by country, extent of trauma, cause of trauma, and type of HI. The fun starts in the abstract: "We found 236 events leading to 244 HIs, 13 kidnappings, six hospitalisations and two surgical procedures. There was a median of 8 HIs/adventure (range 1-30/adventure)." Later they created their own scale (the Herge system, in honor of the author) to rate the severity of Tintin's concussions. They close with humorous thoughts on the nature of fictional characters while also encouraging Tintin and friends to display "a modicum of common sense."

Nicely done, doctors. Thank you for the amusement and for saving me from a time-consuming project. I'll leave it to the reader to determine if it was a good idea.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Update - Tourists are jerks

OK, so I suppose many of us know this already. Tourists are jerks. We want to see the world, but we still want the comforts of home. We supposedly want to experience new cultures, but we're annoyed when those cultures don't speak our language. We supposedly want to try new foods, but we're enraged when we can't find peanut butter.

We recently took a long weekend to Italy, which, overall, was wonderful. However, it took almost as long to plan as the trip itself. The great thing about the internet is that it opens up so many new opportunities – new places to stay, new things to see. Of course, this is also the worst thing about the internet. There are seemingly countless B&Bs and hotels, and just as many reviews to sift through. Twenty years ago, I backpacked through Europe armed only with my train schedule and my Lonely Planet book. How did we do this? This was pre-cell phone, pre Paypal, pre every-single-option listed online. Now, the number of choices seems dizzying, and for me, paralyzing. I am terrible at this. It took me almost 2 years to buy a new cello pick-up because I couldn't weigh the conflicting reviews – how can something be both “best equipment ever” and a “worthless piece of junk”?

I had the same experience in deciding where to stay in Italy. How could there be so many places with both 5 star and 1 star reviews? This is when I dove into the black hole of analyzing hotel reviews. And though time-consuming, it did prove to be enlightening. And it reinforced my point that tourists are jerks. Many reviews read like this:

The agriturismo was beautiful – out of the way in the beautiful countryside of Tuscany. It was so remote that you could see a million stars at night. But the internet connection was soooooooo slow. We couldn't stream anything.” (2 stars)

The breakfast, as promised, had delicious pastries with preserves made from local produce, but they were out of the organic honey that was advertised on the website. So disappointed. If I had known that, I probably would have stayed elsewhere.” (2.5 stars)

Seriously, who are these people?

One particularly bad review almost scared me off one hotel. The woman wrote a scathing review about the rude service they received after they arrived, tired from driving, how they got a parking ticket in the place they were supposed to park, they were shooed out of the breakfast room early, their room was noisy and an old woman yelled at them in Italian, and “we don't even speak Italian!” Luckily, the hotel staff was able to post a response. It started with a very polite “I'm sorry you did not enjoy your stay...” but then proceeded to refute every single complaint. Turns out these customers arrived after midnight, even though reception closes at nine, and they ignored all calls and emails asking them when they would arrive. They were warned that they should move their car before 8:00 am if they wanted to avoid a ticket. Breakfast was from 8 – 11, and they arrived at 11:00 and stayed until 1:00. The hotel staff also noted that they went out of their way to accommodate them – allowing them to upgrade their room without charge, sending a forgotten Ipad to the next hotel, yet the customer was never pleased. It also implied that the customer tried to skip out on the bill. It seems as though they made a (ahem) memorable impression on the hotel staff.

Most of the bad reviews I read mainly focused on things that you can find in America that they did not have in Italy. Many read like this:

The rooms were clean, but they had this weird shower thing that sprayed all over the floor and the bathtub was tiny. All Italian bathtubs are this way – why can't they make them bigger?” (3 stars)

- or -

The pizza and pasta in Italy are great, but their breakfasts are terrible. Bread, cheese and coldcuts for breakfast? Haven't they heard of waffles and pancakes? Or at least an omelette? Man, what I wouldn't give for a Waffle House right now.” (2 stars)

My thoughts are that if you won't be happy unless you can eat at a Waffle House, you should probably only vacation in places that have a Waffle House. Go to Georgia or Texas – you'll love it there.

Essentially, traveling to new and different places requires a certain degree of adjustment. If you want things to be exactly the way they are at home, you should stay home.  These changes might be uncomfortable, but sometimes you have to roll with it. I still remember traveling with our friends Rob and Lisa in Paris when Rob couldn't even fold himself into the “hobbit tub.” But the sights were beautiful, the staff were so pleasant, and France had just won the World Cup quarter final and Parisians were celebrating in the streets. Even with the hobbit tub, it was still at least 4.5 stars. When I traveled to Greece with my friend Jen, we were excited to order an actual vegetarian meal, only to be served a plate of potatoes and peas. But at least the wine was cheap and plentiful. When traveling with my friends Jane and Hannah and my brother Joe, we stayed at perhaps the scariest hostel I've ever seen. But it made the next night seem so much nicer. And I once took a 28-hour bus trip from Bucharest to Istanbul with my friends Michelle and Cheri.  (Not advised - seriously NO stars.) But man, when we returned, did we ever have stories to tell. Yes, sometimes these inconveniences do make it nice to come home, which is also part of the fun of travel.

This time, we stayed for two nights at a lovely little “agriturismo” (farm stay) in the Tuscan countryside. It was not fancy, but the landscape was breathtaking. Minutes upon arrival however, Eric checked the coffee situation and realized that there was only a rusty little old percolator. This could be calamitous. Eric has carefully-calculated caffeine needs each morning to avoid headaches. Were we actually going to have to drink (shudder) instant coffee? We took the plunge, and discovered two things:
    1.) Nescafe is not as bad as it used to be.
    2.) Even tepid water with overcooked grounds would taste ok if you could have breakfast here.

If we were like some of the reviewers seen above, the review might read something like this:
Well, it's beautiful, but when they say 'remote and peaceful' they really mean remote. All you can see for miles around is farmland and the Tuscan countryside. Plus, the coffee maker was rusty and the cheap corkscrew broke!” (2 stars)

Instead, it will most likely read like this:

Lovely, peaceful rural setting, surrounded by mountains and olive groves as far as the eye can see. Our daughter loved the swing and searching for salamanders. Kind, warm, generous hosts – they even drove up and dropped off a new corkscrew after 9 at night. Having breakfast looking out at the Tuscan countryside was amazing – we didn't want to leave. Even Nescafe tasted good here.”  (5 stars, plus all those in the Tuscan sky.)

Saturday, May 14, 2016

Road Trip!

My fear of all things culturally new faced off against my love of the familiar. Fear of the indecipherable and misunderstood met the joy of adventure. Fear of high density cities with low parking availability encountered the thrill of twisty mountain roads. We rented a car and set off on a road trip to Italy. It was (mostly) awesome.

I'm good at sticking things out, even when I shouldn't, so it may have been unwise to have asked, "Just how many tunnels do you think we passed through on our way here?" This is fueled by my competitive nature. Once I decided I had to count, I was committed. The only plus is that I think I have a better grasp of the French number system, as we decided to count in French.

It's possible I screwed up a couple of French numbers along the way. But I made it all the way up to 198 tunnels.

Think about that. 198 expletive deleted tunnels.

Some of them were quite long, too. It's no wonder tolls were so high--boring through mountains ain't cheap.

Phase I: getting a car

Ten years ago Anne and I took a train to southern France and rented a car for a few days. It was pretty simple, as my Michigan driver's license was adequate proof that I was an adequate driver. And I was adequate enough, especially with Anne frantically looking up strange road signs on our printed sheet of things that we didn't understand. We didn't hit a thing, even though I still had only a vague notion of what "priority to the right" meant when we left.

The challenge was different this time--it relates back to our many adventures trying to get our visas. I needed an official translation of my driver's license for it to be legal. I expected much hassle anyway. Instead, we got the usual treatment for when we have all of the necessary documents with us: "Oh, we don't need to see those!" I'll take it.

This is the driveway to our place outside of Florence. Pictures don't do this slope justice. We weren't confident the car could make it up on the way in. We didn't tell the rental company.

Phase II: getting out of Marseille

Renting a GPS costs about $15 a day. So we hemmed and hawed about whether we should just buy one in case we ever rented a car again. But...I'm not sure anyone in our family would be on speaking terms on vacation if we didn't have clear, real time directions. We caved.

It turns out that the GPS was cheaper than gas and cheaper than tolls (60 euro each way!).

I think I can speak for Anne in saying that this was a great investment in our trip. In our family. In our sanity.

Phase III: getting to Italy

Though at this age our daughter doesn't fully get it, we're seeing some amazing things. The drive to our place in Italy took about 8 hours, but it was an amazing 8 hours. I'm not ashamed by the number of times I said, "Guys...guys! You have to look at this!" "Check out that mountain!" "Look to the right...look to the right!" Around every corner...out of every tunnel there was a new village up above on a mountain or down below in a valley on the Med. I wanted to stop to take a picture each one. Anne was as impressed as I was. Bea wondered what was the big deal.

This is the view of Monaco. From a rest area.

Once we hit Italy, things changed. Yes, there were even more mountains, but my fears of the unknown raced back. Whereas in France I always had a clear picture of the rules of the road, in Italy I was confident of the speed limit only about a third of the time, and during most of those times the number didn't match that of the GPS. We will find out soon if a ticket(s) arrives in the mail.

No matter. Italy was breathtaking. We stayed in an agriturismo outside of Florence, which was one of the highlights of the trip (don't worry--I didn't know what that was until right before we left when Anne explained the great place we had booked). Our apartment resided on a farm atop an impossibly steep hill that overlooked the rolling hills of Tuscany covered in olive trees and vineyards. It was basically the cabin we stay at in the UP, with the same charm and decor, but located in Tuscany. None of us wanted to leave. Dinner was incredibly cheap pizza in a picturesque town...after we'd figured out how to park the car without getting towed.

This was the view from our breakfast table

Dinner in Montespertoli

Phase IV: figuring some more things out

I know what I'm supposed to like, and I'm finally starting to get what I do like. Ten years ago we visited a lot of museums. But we had museum cards for the Netherlands that allowed us free entry, so we could spend as much or as little time in a place without worrying whether we'd looked at enough things to justify the entry fee. I loved most of them.

In the past month, we've visited the Louvre and the Uffizi Gallery, and I'm pretty close to hating both of them. I think I'm figuring out why.

Botticelli's lesser known "Birth of Helga" somewhere on the streets of Florence

I hate to miss things. It's even more of a big deal if I recognize that I may never return to a place for The Rest of My Life. We had basically one day in Florence, and I was afraid of what we'd miss. We spent several hours in the Uffizi, and for much of the time my brain fought the battle of "We have to see everything here!" vs. "We have to leave time to see everything outside!" Both are impossible, and they start making you ask yourself or your spouse, "How many pietas are enough for one museum already?" I think I'm starting to get the conflict.

Less famous view in Florence

Regardless, I think it's safe to say that the selfie stick is a tool of the devil, and too many people prefer bad pictures of paintings over the nice postcards they can buy for cheap in the gift shop. I know it's hypocritical, but I have a strong dislike of tourists these days.

Phase V: I hate not knowing what to do

My good friend David told me that he visited Cinque Terre when he resembled Rick Steves, and it wasn't until after he had left that he figured out why his service was impeccable. He now bears a closer resemblance to Edward Snowden, so I suspect things have changed. I will echo much of Rick Steves' message--when we work to understand people in their own culture on their own terms, the world is a much better place for it. But he's also brought hordes of people to places that used to be peaceful. We became part of the horde.

Thanks for all of the crowds, Rick Steves!
(Just kidding. I love you, Rick. I just wish I'd made it to these places a few decades ago.)

We drove our car to the town of Levanto, on the outskirts of Cinque Terre. Our GPS failed us, trying to send us the wrong way down one way roads. Our daughter did not enjoy the twists and turns of the road despite the elevated views; I think I'm good for a while. I did not enjoy not knowing where to put the car and not understanding the parking signs. I melted down, yet my wife still loved me anyway. At one point I turned to her and whispered, "I HATE THIS TOWN." It took us two hours to find and pay for a parking space. When the car was still there the next day, I was pleasantly surprised. I was more thrilled that there wasn't a ticket. I still have a hard time believing we didn't get away with something.

Anne took this video after we got to the wide part of the road where we could actually pass oncoming cars without worrying that one of us would go over the edge. We went more slowly than I would have wished because we were concerned with our daughter's complaints about her stomach.

Phase Vb: I love water, and I love high places

But it was worth it.

If you've hiked in Cinque Terre, you have this picture of Vernazza

The charm of Cinque Terre comes from the trails that run high above the sea connecting the small towns. We set out on the most famous, a two hour hike connecting Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare. The first strenuous ten minutes provide stunning views of Vernazza; it's the one picture that shows up again and again on Google. The trail is narrow in many places, and the drop is severe, but most of the way is protected by railings. And it is stunning.

The view from the trail between Vernazza and Monterosso al Mare. If you look carefully, you can see the trail rounding the mountain on the left, right about at the base of the tower.

Our biggest fear on the hike was our daughter. We weren't afraid she would get hurt. We were afraid she would be a teenager. She has become the contrarian, as this seems to be her one way to maintain control over decisions in her life. She was brought here, away from her friends, her language, and her routines, without any say in the matter. Her strongest insult is, "This is boring," which we realized when she repeated this while hiking against her will in the spectacular calanques outside Marseille. The conversation went like this:

"Isn't this great!?"
"This is boring."
"But it's better than French days at school..."
"I'd rather be in school."
"But it's better than staring at the wall..."
"It's better than riding on the bus when you say your stomach doesn't feel well..."
"I'd rather feel sick."
"At least it's better than falling into hot lava!"
"I'd rather fall in hot lava."

[long pause]

"Well, I take back the part about hot lava."

Bea loved this hike. She was cracking jokes. She was telling us to hurry up or to be careful in a tight place. And I was as happy as I could be with pure family bliss. I am going to believe that she was up to the challenge, though it has been suggested that she may have been motivated by a promised popsicle (which morphed into a lemon granita when we couldn't find popsicles), I don't care. I'm going to simply remember the shared jokes and the oohs and ahs around every corner.

Rewards for a completed hike. One of the three pours may have been a little less than generous.

Monday, May 9, 2016

Simplicity - the key theory

My cousin Paul used to say that the complexity of one's life could be measured by the size of your key ring. When I examine the sizes of my respective key rings at home and in France, the difference is quite shocking.

What is this mess? Work IDs and key fob, classroom keys, file cabinet keys (rarely used) home keys, 2 bike lock keys, rental house keys, car key, Eric's car key, way too many rewards tags, and a couple unidentified keys that I can't quite bring myself to toss until I identify them.

My key ring here? Building key and apartment key. Plus a mailbox key (rarely used) and one rewards tag.

Is this an accurate measure of the changing level of complexity in my life? In a way, yes. The absence of work keys is a very clear sign of greater simplicity in my life. I do not miss the grading, the staff meetings and obligations, and I especially do not miss the chaos of standardized testing and the mind-numbing boredom of proctoring. And yet, in the age of internet, I'm not entirely free from all obligations. We're implementing a new IB curriculum next year, so I'm still involved in that process, as well as professional development requirements. The absence of house keys means a break from the seemingly endless home-maintenance projects in older homes, but in terms of the rental house, unfortunately they do not run on auto-pilot. Clearly we cannot leave it all behind.

Admittedly there are several aspects of life here that are more complex. Opening a bank account, paperwork, gathering documentation for visas, paying rent, getting money orders, fixing the internet when it's down – all of these things are far more complicated than they would be at home. But the simplicity of the key ring does mean that our lives fall into a simple rhythm. We walk or take public transport since we have no car. We go to the market or grocery store more often since we can only carry small loads. We have no junk mail. I brought only 4 books. Beatrice has only a handful of toys. (When she misbehaved the other day and we took away her small collection of playmobil, I heard her in her room and wondered what she was playing with. Turns out she had rifled through the recycling and was playing with cardboard boxes. Points for creativity, I guess.) As long as we keep up with tidying the library books and Bea's homework and art projects, our apartment is relatively clutter free. (At least for us.)

                     Ah yes, the simple pleasures of playing with boxes. If she's
                                good, Pa says she might get a cornhusk doll for Christmas. 

I would love to continue this pattern of simplicity when we return home. Some of my friends have recently read Marie Kondo's book about simplicity and have launched impressive purging and organization projects. (When my friend Lindsay told me about Kondo's theory of only keeping the things I cherish, I teased her, saying: “So every day I'm supposed to look at my contact solution and decide I don't 'cherish' it enough to keep it, but then I need to buy new contact solution.”) I love clean homes, but I have to face the facts – I am not a tidy person. I do 'cherish' things – perhaps too many things. I can't bring myself to throw away things that have an emotional value to me, and I'm not going to apologize for that.

You may have noticed the single rewards card on my key ring above. The other day in that very grocery store, I had a realization about simplicity. I had just successfully understood and answered someone's question about where to find the spices, and was feeling pretty smug. I felt like a local, so I was shopping like a local. And, I am a sucker for BOGO offers – I mean, buy one, get one FREE? Who can resist that? But as I was looking at the the BOGO deal for dishwashing detergent (and considering how heavy it would be to carry 2 big boxes home), I looked at the label. The box was for 40 loads. We are here for a little less than 3 more months. For a while, the time seemed to stretch before me like an amorphous continuum. Now it was distilled into the number of dishwasher loads that remain while we're in France. It was spelled out concretely. We run the dishwasher every 2-3 days. We will not be here for 40 more loads. I do not need two boxes of detergent. Then I realized, even if I were home, should I really buy two boxes? Why do I feel the need to stockpile so much stuff?

Before we left, we did try to clear some space for our renters. And that did result in a pretty impressive purge. For at least 2-3 weeks, I tried to buy nothing but milk and fresh vegetables. Otherwise, we launched in on the great “eat-down.” I can safely say that by the end, we were all quite sick of pasta, veggie burgers, canned goods, and bread and vegetables with slight freezer burn. This process taught me about the need to buy in moderation, to eat things while they're fresh, and appreciate the simplicity of eating simply. In France, we have to go to the grocery store far more often. But this also means that nearly every Saturday we enjoy the simplicity of a picnic lunch with cheese, fruit, and fresh baguettes. They don't keep long, so we buy one fresh the next day. I know that I won't go full Kondo when I return, but I am going to try to avoid the lure of the BOGO.

I am fully enjoying both the simplicity and complexity of our experience here, the richness of all we see and do. But for my daughter, she is yearning for a different type of simplicity. I often have to remind her of how lucky we are. We have seen the Eiffel tower, the Anne Frank house, beautiful calanques, ancient castles, monuments, museums, and countless other impressive things that I never dreamed of when I was seven. But she is done with monuments and museums. She wants to run through the sprinkler, draw with sidewalk chalk, set up a lemonade stand, have spontaneous play time with neighborhood friends, riding bikes and digging in the sandbox. But we have no sandbox, no yard, no bikes, not even our own sidewalk. And I'm pretty sure that the French government would require a vendor's license for a 7-year old to open a lemonade stand.

When I return, I will try to appreciate both the simplicity and the complexity. I will enjoy the simplicity of bike rides, watching my kid play and talking with our lovely neighbors. I will try to simplify my life by doing some purging (laundry basket of socks that need matching or mending – I'm looking at you) but I will also try to cherish some of life's complexity at home. Yes, it can be overwhelming to keep up with never-ending house projects and my person-v-nature gardening efforts which I always lose. But this means that I have a home and a garden which I love and cherish. It's frustrating to try to find a time in our busy schedules to meet with friends for a beer, but this also means we're leading rich, full lives. I will cherish many of my weekly commitments – to students, to music, to soup night, to yoga, and yes, even to Bea's music lessons and soccer games. Essentially, I'll try to find that balance – weeding a few keys from my key ring, but learning to appreciate those that remain.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

Adventures in Immigration

(Subtitle: Why the French government is trying to turn us into libertarians.)

It's been a stressful few weeks here. We have been going through the slow process of officially registering our immigration status and obtaining a long-stay visa. Relatively speaking, we are luckier than many others – Eric qualifies for a special “chercheur-scientifique” status, which gives him greater privileges than most. He was given a 6 month visa, though I only received a 3 month stay, therefore I needed to go through the steps to receive a “carte sejour.”

We had already been through a fairly stressful period back in the US when we needed to wait – and wait - for our initial visas. After many "je suis désolé" emails increasingly expressing the urgency of this paperwork, we finally were able to make an appointment at the French embassy in Chicago and get our initial visas. There was a brief moment of panic when Eric was told that he needed a picture with no glasses, but the kind employee told him to go downstairs and get a photo at the CVS, thus saving us another trip to Chicago. (It also resulted in perhaps the worst photo in the history of passport photos – seriously.) But we had gathered all the documents, checked everything, and thought that the worst was behind us.

We were wrong. Though we had shown all the necessary documents the first time, apparently the French officials do not trust the officials at the french Embassy in Chicago – they must see the original documents for themselves. We had scanned copies of the documents, but hadn't brought the originals. Silly us, we should have know that the French would need the originals. We kicked ourselves, wondering why we would have left them behind. In fairness, after repeated inquiries, we were never told exactly which documents to bring. In France, they don't necessarily specify what you will need, they simply assume that you will have it, and seem appalled when you don't.

So now, a moment of true panic set in. We needed all of our documents, the originals. We feared that one of us might need to fly home merely to pick up documents. Providentially, Eric's mom was scheduled to visit in about a week, so this was perhaps the best possible moment for this problem to occur. And, unlike the chaos in the rest of our house, we actually have two bright-colored file folders in our file drawer for all important documents. And, the kind relatives who are renting our house were generous enough to look through them and find everything we needed. Minus one thing – they could only find the photocopy of the marriage license, not the original. We knew the French – this would not be sufficient. After much wailing and gnashing of teeth (plus the realization that if it wasn't in the file folder, it could be anywhere), Eric had a brilliant idea. Could the Kent County office grant a new marriage license? A quick call verified that yes they can. Would we need to pick it up in person or could Eric's mom get it? Sure – your mom can pick it up, no problem. How much will this cost? Three dollars. Wait – three American dollars? Are you sure that's not 300 dollars? No passport check, proof of first month's rent, fingerprints, retina scan? Nothing? So Eric's mom kindly went down to the County clerk's office, paid three dollars, and got our new “original” certificate. I'm not even sure they required any identification. I'm pretty sure that if you tell the kind folks at the Kent County clerk's office that you're a mother, they take your word for it.

So, thanks to the efforts of our kind relatives, we thought we were home free. Except, ..not only did we need the original documents, we also needed official French translations. (This is the moment when Eric and I always say: “Non, non, non, en francais!”) Official translations from an official “traducteur.” Even my birth certificate, which is both in English and French since I was born in Ottawa, needed an official translation. (None of this Canadian French – only France French.) We were now racing the clock. The day before the appointment, at about 8 in the evening, I open my email and there are the pdfs of the translated documents. Would the pdfs be sufficient or would we need the ones with the official seal?

This is where the story takes a comedic turn. We decided to take a late-night trip to Eric's office to print the documents. The subways are only running about every 15 minutes, so we don't arrive at the office until 11 o'clock. The documents are printed successfully, and we are packing up to leave when we hear an alarm. “Can't be us” we think, but we hustle out of there anyway. Sure enough, as we walk briskly through the parking lot, a security car approaches. (We had to remind each other: “Don't run.”) Luckily, after my panicky explanation, I was able to assure the security officer that we were legitimate. At this point, we noted both our white privilege and our nerd privilege. When leaving a research lab, probably the most trustworthy-looking individuals are two middle-aged, middle-class people with spectacles. So rather than being arrested on the night before our appointment, we actually had – hopefully – all the documents we needed. Incidentally, earlier we had mentioned that we should take the opportunity to go out one evening while Eric's mom was here. So this turned out to be our “date night” - full of heart-stopping adventure, intrigue, plus a rat sighting on the way home. What more could you ask?

The next morning, we set out early. Though we had a 9:30 appointment, a very helpful woman from our church advised us that the office opens at 8, and a queue starts forming at around 7. Sure enough, when we arrived, the line was already long enough that we couldn't tell if we were in the correct place. Once again, we were fortunate to find an ex-pat who helped us regain our place in line (resulting in many dirty looks) and somewhat guided us through the process. When we remarked on the craziness of the situation, she merely smiled and said: “Welcome to Marseille.”

Upon entering the building, the true chaos ensues. As far as I can tell, here are the rules of a French immigration office:
  1. It must be at least 95 degrees Fahrenheit.
  2. Despite the heat, about half the people around you will be dressed in fur-lined parkas. This is designed to exacerbate the claustrophobia which has already set in.
  3. There must be at least 8 babies, crying at impressive decibels. Apparently, there are no sleeping babies in an immigration office. Their older siblings will be running circles around their parents' legs, as they unsuccessfully shush them.
  4. It must be crowded enough to barely move. And yet, there will be lots of jockeying for position. Get your elbows out and be vigilant. (There were several times when I whispered to Eric: “stay right, there's a guy trying to cut you off.”)
  5. You will hear at least 6 different languages – also at impressive decibels.
  6. You must receive conflicting information about various requirements: do you need a number or not? Will they call your name? Do you have to line up?

They did indeed call our name, and we heard it, and they apparently didn't notice that the official translations were only copies. There was a brief moment of panic when they told us that we needed proof of the visit to OFII first, but a moment later, they told us that we could send it in later. Relief.

There was one more step in the process – the visit to the OFII. This was comparatively easy, though it did require the purchase of “timbres” to cover the cost. The cost was 241 euros, but you do not pay by check or cash or money order, but rather through actual stamps, which you buy at a “tabac” or newstand. So I walk into a little tabac, hand over 241 euros in cash, and in exchange he hands me 6 small stamps, smiling and saying: “Don't lose them!” This is precisely what I feared. I do not understand this system, and I'm sure I never will.

But finally, we have finished all the scheduled meetings, and hopefully will not need additional documentation. I have my temporary carte sejour, and have been told that my official one will probably – though not necessarily – arrive before we leave France.
So this is why we fear that living in France might turn us into libertarians. Those of you who complain about red tape and bureaucracy in the States? Yeah, you have no idea.