Conceptual Combination and Acronyms
What is the attraction of a hair salon that is called Self Coiff? This name mixes the American individualism cliché with the superior French haircutting one (my hairdresser n France always assumed that I would not be able to get my hair cut or highlighted when I spent time in the US). I remember the first time I saw this chain of hair salons. What could Self Coiff mean, I wondered? When you get up in the morning and run your hand through your hair, as I do now that I have children, or when you shower, shampoo and do a brushing [blow-drying] as I did before children, isn't this a Self Coiff? What could it possibly be and why would anyone want to go there? I still do not know, having never really wanted to stop in.
Another bad conceptual combination in hair was a Bio (ecological) hair salon in Paris. I was up there for a meeting with a psychology professor at Paris’ Ecole Supérieur de Commerce, and I thought it would be nice to look put-together. At the time, and for the first 10 years that I lived in France, I wore my hair short and blown-dry. This was because no coiffeur that I could find knew what to do with my extremely curly, sporadically frizzy hair. Precisely because my hair actually is curly and potentially frizzy, when I wore it short the daily blow-drying was critical. I arrived by train the day before my meeting and started walking around the streets near my hotel in the 4th arrondissement looking for a hair salon that would take me the next morning. I did not yet speak more than very little French, and I understood less than I was able to say. Finally I passed by a sort of natural looking place with young non-threatening-looking stylists who were standing around drinking coffee, and I went in. Can someone take me tomorrow morning first thing for a shampoo and a blow dry, I asked. That good, clear request triggered an outpouring of words that I did not understand. I didn’t even know that there was something important to understand. So I said, OK. 10:00? Great, see you tomorrow.
The next day I arrived at 10:00 and someone washed my hair. Then she started again with the lengthy explanation of something. Right, whatever, I said, “I just need a blow-dry. My meeting at the Ecole de Commerce is in one hour.” And there was a metro ride ahead of me. Again the long explanation peppered with a few English words, and finally, finally I understood: They didn’t use any electrical appliances. I looked around me. It was a “natural” salon. But my hair will dry all frizzy, I managed to communicate. “Well, I’ll just do it with my fingers,” said my stylist. And so she started to lift tiny meshes of hair and slide her fingers along the full length of each to dry it naturally and presumably, though not actually, straight. This went on completely uselessly for for more than half and hour. Finally, I told her that I had to leave. She protested vigorously (she was not done) but I stood up. Looking like a water-logged Bozo the Clown, I paid an amount in francs that is worth 75 euros these days, and left. It was March and was cold outside. I had a knit stocking cap in my purse, so I put it on to flatten down my hair as I ran two steps at a time down into the metro.
I entered at the Ecole de Commerce about 10 minutes late. Rushing into the office of the professor who was awaiting my visit, I pulled off the cap and sat down. Sorry, I told him, I was at the coiffeur. “Yes, I see” he said, “your hair looks very nice.”
I look back on this experience now and laugh. I lived in France for 14 years, and in Clermont-Ferrand for 13 years. How I even got a job, well, it was a blur until I tried to write it down. One thing that is certain is that I did not take the same route that my friend Jennie took. Having survived a little blip in the world of professional translation, Jennie became organized and methodical in her search for employment. She took French writing courses, learned about diploma equivalence, and received training on how to write cover letters (nothing to spit at here in France). Jennie learned to throw around acronyms related to social services – PMI, ASSEDIC, CAF, and SMIK – as if she’d lived in France all her life. I can’t even remember what any of them stand for. Whenever she told me that she had a meeting with one of the acronyms or had to send in information to another, I just nodded and laughed a bit, just as if I could not speak English in much the same way that I once responded people in French. In any event, unlike for Jennie, acronyms related to social services caused me more problems than not.
When I had my first child, Sebastian, for example, many friends and colleagues told me, “Oh, well, now you have the right to your allociation familiales.” How much does the State pay me per month for Sebastian, I wondered. No one seemed to know. They only knew that I had the right to a child allowance. So I started filling out the forms from the CAF – the social service institution that could answer my question. I declared my income, and my husband’s income, I sent in copies of my passport, my (temporary) identity card, called a carte de séjour, and my child’s birth certificate, and then I waited. About a year after Sebastian was born, I received a letter from the CAF telling me that I had no right to any allocations familiales at all. I asked around, and then as if I had been talking to pod people the first time, our friends and colleagues told me “Oh non, non, you get préstations only after the second child. And after the third child, well then it becomes really interesting!”
This possibility of getting monthly allowances for our children played absolutely no role in our decision to have a second child, but when Benjamin was born, I filled out and sent in the same forms all over again. Instead of receiving a check, I received a letter requesting additional information in order to process my case. The information they wanted was a copy of my identity card. I had already sent a copy of my carte de séjour the first time, but I sent another one anyway. Then I received a second request for a copy of the identity card, only this time the letter called it by a different name, just for fun. So I sent in another copy of my carte de séjour. When I got yet a third request, I called the CAF to find out how to break out of the cycle, my personal Ground Hog Day, and make some progress. What they wanted was copy of a permanent identity card. But I don’t have a permanent card, I explained patiently, I have to get my identity card renewed every three months for five years. “Ah, then you are not eligible for any allowance. You need to have a permanent identity card in order to receive this support.”
It is important to explain here that the job I held made me fonctionnaire de l’état, or civil servant, of France. "How could I both be a civil servant and not be eligible for a child allowance?" I protested. "This is totally incoherent." The woman at the other end of the phone detected my accent at this point, and she said pedantically, “I am French, and I do not ask questions about how this is run. The people at the ministry who made this decision must have a good reason for it.” I told her that she should ask these kinds of questions, as a good citizen of France, and then I hung up and called a social worker in Paris. “You think it is ridiculous that you are fonctionnaire and have no right to the allocations familiales?” she said ironically, “It is even more ridiculous that you are fonctionnaire and do not have the right to a permanent identity card! But here is what you do. Does your husband have a permanent identity card?” I said yes. “Then apply for the allocations familiales in his name!” Duh.
The fact that I could finally argue with social services administrators and engage in ironic discourse with social workers on the phone in French meant I had come a long way from the moment I had my hair hand-dried in Paris. I have a snapshot in my mind of my self thinking about settling definitively in France, my self before ever confronting allocations familiales, the CAF, or Self Coiff, and this picture makes me smile now. I, as my naïve self, was sitting in a mediocre Aixois restaurant with the director of the Laboratory in Cognitive Psychology one morning in May of my sabbatical, when I told him that I wanted to stay in France another year. I was not sure what that meant because I did not have a very good grasp of the concepts.
To discuss the possibility of staying in France another year, I was put in contact with an administrator in Clermont-Ferrand, a town I had never heard of in the center of France, the Massif Central. I called him and said that I might get be able to get a job there for a year teaching, the position is called Professeur Associé, I said. What does that involve? How many courses do I teach? This is what I heard him say: "You have to teach 192 hours a year. But even then, it depends on whether you teach CMs or TDs, and actually an hour of CM counts for an hour and a half, while TDs count for just an hour. Also, if you teach mostly DEA courses, the load will actually lighter because all DEA courses are CMs. I know it sounds complicated, but you will catch on. The CNU decides everything, not the UFR." This was what I heard, and I thought my French academic career was already over. How could teaching university courses be so incomprehensible to someone who had, during the year, been promoted to professor at a major research university?
I was destined to find out because I signed a contract that I could not read and did not understand. I called my department chair in the United States and asked for a leave of absence. And then I bought a small Renault Megane, filled it with my few boxes of worldly possessions, and drove to Clermont-Ferrand.