Wednesday, November 29, 2006

le vent souffle

A week ago, Sarah and I were outside the prefecture's Bureau des Etrangers shortly before 7 o'clock in the morning to stand in line for our cartes de séjour, documents that serve as extended-stay visas for several kinds of people, notably students. Our three-month visas with which we entered won't last until Christmas, so this was a necessary trip. It was also surprisingly painless once we got in the office. In that sense, it was rather like our trip to the consulate in New York to get the original visas. (It's still not clear to me why the French government has decided this process of getting a short-term visa in the States, then applying for a different document once in country, is good for either them or the students.) We had been quite nervous that the process would be painful, since the last time we went to the prefecture, in the late morning, we found an incomprehensible mess of lines, signs, and windows inside. We learned then that applicants are called in a very orderly manner from numbers they pick up on arrival, and one must arrive early in order to get a number. Hence our arrival before 7:00 at an office that opens at 8:15. It was another windy day in Marseille; when we arrived, it was still cold and well before dawn. We also weren't the first there; about fifteen or twenty people were ahead of us. (It's hard to tell exactly, even though we went up in order to pick up numbers, because the line was a bit porous for a while--not quite as amorphous as it would have been in Africa, nor as rigid as it would have been in the States.)

The line formed among snaky railings labelled "Séjour" at their entrance. By 7:30, we were at about the halfway point of the line, and by 8:00 sixty or seventy people were there. For a while, people strung themselves out a couple of meters apart, until sufficiently many people (a half-dozen or so) took advantage of the space to pleasantly say "Excusez-moi" to those who had been waiting and to fill in the closest gap to the head that they could. This is an activity I don't think most Americans would even consider; we have been socialized remarkably strongly to have a innate sense of "FIFO" and to place ourselves behind those who arrived earlier--we call it "respect". But from a certain point of view, one understands those who just want to get as close as they can. What advantage is it to them to stand at the end of the "line", especially if that line is essentially ficticious (which it is when people are so scattered), and the people in that line aren't expressing a particularly firm interest in holding their positions? It was actually somewhat amusing to watch as those waiting collapsed into a densely packed formation following a notably egregious application of this principle of self-advancement. Despite this newly-found physical camaraderie, it seemed to get colder as the time went on and the sky got brighter. I didn't quite reach the point of doing jumping-jacks to warm up, but I was bouncing on the balls of my feet for a while.

Wisely, police appeared at the doorway ten or fifteen minutes before it was time to go in. They made sure the stairway of the sortie was clear (it could easily have been a means to forming a new line to merge with ours, the real line) and cleaned up the queue so that everyone had a clear sense of his or her place. Once the doors were open, they acted as valves, permitting eight or ten applicants to proceed at once. We headed upstairs and got the requisite number tickets. We ended up numbers 20 and 21.

From there, things were easy. The numbers went by quickly; so quickly at times that it seemed some people had taken a number and just left. A young man approched Sarah and me, asking if we wanted to take his number 19, which we did. Never figured out why he wanted to move back a couple of places. He just kept hanging out in the waiting room. After only a half-hour or so, we went in to guichet 8. We weren't sure at first if Sarah and I could go up together and get all the information simultaneously, but that worked out. We showed that we had all the necessary papers, and learned that we only had to photocopy them, fill out a couple of brief forms, put all that in an envelope they provided with four identity photos, mail it off, and our cards will be sent to us in a month or so. We don't even have to go back to the bureau. All we need in the meantime really is evidence that we've submitted the applications, for which our receipts from the post office count. Not bad at all.

Our experience with the préfecture is to be completely contrasted with the treatment we got from France Télécom. Whereas the government office gave a stern front initially until we reached the end and received friendly assistance, our dealings with France Télécom started with warm smiles and passed into misinformation and incomprehensible stalling. We were attempting to get internet access at our apartment. This story has a happy ending, too, since we now have said access, but the customer service left much to be desired.

We made no less than five trips in four weeks to the France Télécom store before we had everything worked out. First, a friendly young lady (who apparently had little experience dealing with non-native French speakers, because she was clearly amused by how I didn't understand certain things) explained that we could get internet, telephone, and TV all in a package with a machine called the Livebox. We knew we wanted internet, of course, and unlimited telephone over the 'net sounded like a good deal. Whether or not we get a TV remains to be seen. It would cost more to get just the internet and phone, however, because of a special deal being made, so we opted for Madame la Livebox. We were told we'd have access within ten days. It was suggested we go ahead and set up the Livebox with the enclosed CD and wait until the "error" messages went away.

A week later, we went back. I had tried to set the thing up using the CD, except the CD didn't work on either my or Sarah's computer. Turns out Macs need a different CD format. I'm fairly certain I had said on the first trip that our computers were Macs. So the salesperson called some technical assistance line, and they said they'd mail us a new CD, which should arrive the following Tuesday. We never got the CD.

So the next week I went back again. I explained the problem with the CD again. The man with whom I was speaking went and got me another one, which naturally didn't work either. So he tried to get another. At this point I began to realize that the people in the store were purely salesfolk, with no technical knowledge whatsoever. (I should have realized that on our first trip, when I completely shocked the women behind the counter by knowing what their credit card machine was doing better than they did. First, they didn't know how to handle the magnetic stripe; most cards in France have a chip on one end that is inserted into the machine. Okay, that's just lack of familiarity and I can excuse it. They tried swiping it several times, then watched fervently for the result on their computer screen. I was just reading the display on the machine itself. And so when I suggested they swipe the card in the other direction, and announced immediately that it had registered, they asked in awe, "How did you know it worked?") I also said it had been two weeks since we had applied, and so we should have service, which according to the lights on our box, we still didn't. (Now I have to turn the tables on myself, because even if the service had been established, we couldn't have known from where our box was plugged in. There are three phone line outlets in our apartment. Two of them are non-functional. Those are the two I tried. The third was hidden behind our couch, and we found it eventually. But more troubles would have come anyway...) This was when I discovered that the waiting period was not ten days, but three weeks. Huh? How did that manage to get so completely miscommunicated? The one piece of useful information the man gave that day was that the CD, despite all the warnings on the instruction packet, was not strictly needed to access the Livebox. Later in the day, when I was talking with Dad, he suggested the same thing, so I just plugged in and found they were right.

One major problem was still occurring: the Wi-Fi on the Livebox wasn't functioning. The instructions declared that by pressing a certain button on the back, the wireless would be available. I pressed, and nothing happened. A little light was supposed to start flashing indicating broadcast. It didn't. And I certainly couldn't find the box with my AirPort. This became a big contention point the next week, on my fourth visit.

We finally found a salesperson who at least acted sympathetically towards our situation, even if her answers weren't always consistent. At this point, it had been three weeks, so they couldn't give us that excuse anymore. It was decided that the best thing was for us to come back on Tuesday when she would make a phone call to the technicians who would check our line from a distance. Many times when one chooses a service, one has to decide whether it's worth investing a little more on hope, or if one should just cut out and find a new provider. We decided to stick with it for one more chance.

What about the Wi-Fi? Well, I asked why it wasn't working. The fantastic response I received (this time from another man in the store, who looked remarkably like he should be a techy geek) was that it was because we weren't connected to the internet. The communication between my computer and the Livebox doesn't depend on whether the online connection is working or not, I explained. Oh, this is a completely different kind of technology from a modem, he claimed. The box has to get online to initialize itself before that stuff will work. I pointed in the instruction book to where it said I could connect to the box via wireless in order to give my id and password to start the internet connection. He stared blankly at the page, presumably trying to come up with some other explanation. He took me over to one of the computers in the store and brought up the homepage of the Livebox (what you get at and said that once the box was online, I'd be able to get to that page and adjust everything. I'd already been to that page, I said. That's not online. That's on the box itself. He was looking more and more confused, and decided to stick with his answer that the problem with the wireless was the lack of internet access. Well, it didn't make much difference as long as we didn't have internet anyway, so I left it at that.

Tuesday morning we went back. The lady had already called the technical people, who claimed that everything should be working. She checked several times that on their end they had done everything necessary. For a while, there was a struggle to get them to understand and accept that we had no telephone, because we were waiting for their service. The usual thing to do would have been to call their service line 39 00, but we couldn't. So what should we do? No answers. I asked if no technicians were available, and was told that they are, but that it would be expensive for them to come over. If their service wasn't working, I asked, why should I have to pay for the technician? Once again I was assured that from their end, all was in order and the service should be available. Who knows if it was? We were still plugged into a dead outlet, which again I admit was my fault (gotta make sure the next tenants know about those useless slots). But I pressed them to consider that there might be something wrong with the box. There was, of course; the wireless wasn't working, so at least it was worth asking them to change it. At last she did give us a new box, as an "exceptional case," she said, because normally a technician would have to decide that a new box was necessary.

This new box had wireless that worked as soon as it was turned on. And once we found the real line phone line, we were hooked up. At last.

So this story definitely has points of foolishness on my part. But the representatives of France Télécom were for the most part ill-informed and quite unhelpful. I had the distinct impression throughout that they were making up answers. Our internet access, in the end, was probably only delayed by a few days by the whole mess, because it did take nearly three weeks to get established, according to what we learned from the phone call Tuesday morning. And now, we denizens of this information age feel at last like we have a normal home, because we have internet.

Along with getting registered as students at the university, these were the last of our "settling-in" tasks. The length of time to accomplish all this seems entirely typical, based on what I've heard from others. Next semester we'll not have these distractions. We'll come back from Christmas and New Year's break and have an established location. It'll mean a different and hopefully more productive situation. And we'll know the city already. That's what I'll write about in the next essay: a few things I've learned about Marseille.

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