Things French People Like: Paperwork

24 Oct

For such an eco-friendly country, the French sure are killing a lot of trees.

Upon arrival in France, I was submerged into a gruelingly slow, unnecessarily complex, and complacently outdated bureaucratic process. For example, I recently submitted some paperwork to my school’s secretary in order to get my salary. Before doing so, I needed to open a bank account.  Easy enough, right?

Before going to the bank, I checked my documentation folder to be sure I had at least six copies of everything. My passport, my visa, my work contract, my proces verbal d’installation, my birth certificate, the receipt for my rent, a dozen photos of myself, my last plane ticket, my mother’s signature, my high school diploma, several photos of my uncle, an affidavit signed by the Bristol, New Hampshire town registrar, my elementary school report cards,  an autographed picture of Ewan McGregor, and an extra kidney. Okay — maybe not those last few things.

I had gone to the bank on a Tuesday after the 2-hour lunch break to make an appointment to open an account. (Of course you can’t just show up at the bank and open an account immediately. Don’t be so unreasonable!) The teller told me what documentation I needed (which I already had in my hands) and told me to come back Friday afternoon. It doesn’t matter when you want to open an account, the answer is always the same: Friday afternoon.

When I returned to Caisse d’Epargne on Friday, a new teller was working. I told her I wanted to open an account, so she told me to come back the next week. I then mentioned I had already spoken to another teller on Tuesday. Apparently the Tuesday teller was busy, so she wouldn’t be able to see me. The new teller also explained that I wouldn’t be able to get a debit card from their bank, because Caisse d’Epargne doesn’t give debit cards to people whose work contracts have a definite termination date.

I promptly left the bank and, in desperation to get my salary sorted out, walked into another bank – BNP Paribas. I retold my situation to the BNP teller, who told me to come back the following Friday. Worked some scared American puppy dog eyes and she made a phone call. I was seen five minutes later and set up my bank account immediately.


Well, not exactly immediately. First, I had to sign no less than 10 different forms, each covering a different aspect of my account. Some of the forms only had a few lines of print on them. Why the French can’t just consolidate everything onto a couple of forms with a signature line at the end, I have no idea. To add to the officialness of it all, French forms also require you to indicate the city where the form is being signed and to copy the phrase “lu et approuvé” (“read and approved”).

I was also told that the receipt for my rent was not sufficient proof of domicile, but that I shouldn’t worry. The bank would just send a form to my house to confirm that I actually lived there. A week later (I’m not sure if that’s the normal speed of the mail or if it’s because the mail carriers were on strike), I received three separate envelopes from the bank (once again, France: consolidation). Except the important form didn’t actually arrive, because I wasn’t at home when the mail carrier came. Instead, I got a form telling me to go to the post office and pick it up within 15 days. I read this message on a Saturday afternoon before a 2-week vacation.


As it turns out, I’ll make it back to Toulon just in time to pick up the form and get my debit card. As for when I’ll get all the paperwork sorted out to get social security and my carte de séjour — damned if I know.


12 of 12 for October 2010

12 Oct

My first 12 of 12 from my new home in Toulon, France!


I woke up at 6 AM with a slug on my wall. Blargh.


My typically small French kitchen, which I share with my two roommates (one French, one American). My breakfast is on the table.


When I got to the bus stop at 7 AM, the sun still wasn’t up yet.


Here is a view of “Le Coudon,” a mountain so-named because it supposedly resembles an elbow (un coude) in La Garde, the town where I teach. It also lends its namesake to the high school I work at.


On Tuesdays I only work at the middle school. The teachers’ lounge was still pretty empty when I got there at 7:45, but within 15 minutes I was whisked away to my first class. I answered an interminable number of the students’ questions about me (for the umpteenth time – I’ve had to introduce myself to a dozen different classes already).


I only had three classes in total, but I was surprisingly fatigued by the time I left the school. Aside from the Q&A session, I also led an entire lesson in one class (which was challenging) and worked with small groups in another (which was frustrating), all with absolutely zero preparation. I’m hoping I’ll get some advance notice in the future. Nothing in France is well-organised. (Except the strikes.)


I walked back through downtown La Garde to run some errands, stopping at this War Memorial. Sadly, the Tricolore is missing its red band.


Tuesday is market day in La Garde. I didn’t buy anything, but I enjoyed browsing. All the food is locally grown.


I took the bus back to my neighbourhood in Toulon, La Serinette. It’s a pretty nice residential area, but it’s not particularly close to anything.


Here is my bedroom, or — as I prefer to call it — my breezeway. It’s small, but it gets the job done. On my laptop screen is the interesting new season of Weeds.


My roommate and I walked to the neighbourhood bakery for our daily baguette. He snapped this photo of me outside the shop. Ridiculously French.


My fairly simple supper consisted of salad and a poêlée campagnarde. Potatoes are good.

Most Westerners are City Slickers, not Cowboys

16 Sep

When most people imagine places like Utah, Arizona, or Colorado, they often picture residents living bucolic lifestyles as cowboys and ranchers against a backdrop of spectacular Wild West scenery. In reality, most people in these states know very little about ranching or rural life in general. In fact, the proportion of inhabitants of Arizona and Utah living in urban areas is greater than that of New York state.

(I hate using data from the 2000 Census when we’ve just undergone a new Census, but I’m too impatient to wait for the results)

The map shows the percentage of residents in each state who live in urban areas (indicated by colouring) and each state’s ranking in terms of urban population (indicated by the numbers 1-50).

California and New Jersey are tied for the rank of largest urban population (94.4%), while Vermont has the smallest proportion of urban residents (a mere 38.2%). Not surprisingly, most of the small East Coast states with major cities rank fairly high. However, even much larger states with a tremendous proportion of agricultural land, like Illinois and Texas, have remarkably urban populations. This shows just how concentrated these states’ populations are in large cities.

Note that the percentage of urban population is a rather poor indication of population density overall. Nevada, which was only the 43rd most densely populated state in 2000, has the 3rd most urban population. There aren’t many brave souls living out in the Nevada desert — most prefer the bright lights of Las Vegas and Reno. By contrast, a relatively densely populated state like North Carolina (17th densest in 2000) only ranks 39 in urban population, indicating that a lot of Tar Heels still live in small towns.

When it comes to the Wild West, there is a striking difference between the Northwest (specifically the northern Great Plains) and the desert Southwest. Montana and the Dakotas still have very rural populations, while most people in the Southwest flock to cities. I assume this is due to the availability of water (or lack thereof) in the rural Southwest.

Finally, note that only four states — Vermont, Maine, West Virginia, and Mississippi — have a rural majority. In 1950, that number was nineteen.

12 of 12 for September 2010

13 Sep


I had the house to myself with Angel on the morning of the 12th. She woke me up at 4:30 in the morning to go to the bathroom and eat. When I got up later, she was of course back to sleep.


Outside, it was a dreary and slightly cooler than average day – a rarity during the past few months. It’s starting to feel like fall.


My parents came home later and caught the end of the Patriots game.


The first signs of autumn.


We had free game coupons for Pirates Cove mini-golf, so we decided to go for the first time in many years. We were the only people there.


The sun came out during the game. My dad beat me by a few points, but I shot the only hole-in-one.


I think this is a Washington Hawthorn tree? Nice berries.




On the way back, I snapped this shot of Laconia after climbing over some railroad tracks.




My first Jell-O in a long time as well. Orange for autumn.


My departure for France has really snuck up on me – I leave in 9 days. Here’s my pre-departure checklist.

12 of 12 for August 2010

14 Aug


The 12th was a pleasantly cool day, so I took advantage of the nice weather for a little hiking excursion. I began with a stop in Gilmanton, a historic village situated along the Old Province Road, which connected the seacoast towns with the mountain towns back when New Hampshire was still a British province.


I came across a field covered with wildflowers. I couldn’t capture the whole field with my camera, so I zoomed in on a little section. Goldenrod, Joe Pye weed, boneset, and blue vervain dominate.


Another old home in the centre of Gilmanton. You’ll notice a touch of orange on the tree at the right – it seems the dry summer has led to some trees in the area turning prematurely this year.


Such is the case for this maple tree next to the Gilmanton public library.


As I continued driving towards my hiking destination, I passed through the community of Alton Bay. I liked the colours of these cottages on Lake Winnipesaukee.


These old fellas were admiring the view of the lake from the town docks.


My hike of the day was Mt. Major in Alton. Despite my years of living in the Lakes Region, I had never hiked it before, in part because I knew how popular/crowded it usually was. Even on a Thursday, there was only one spot left in the trailhead parking lot. Of the three trails to the summit, I foolishly chose the blue trail, which is the most direct – and most demanding. The trail is basically a constant ascent over mercilessly rocky terrain. I was struggling to keep hydrated, but chugging the water from our home faucet (drawn from an Artesian well) was making me feel nauseous. I almost threw up a couple times, but I soldiered on to the summit.


The view from one of the open faces of the mountain near the summit. Here I’m looking northeast over Rattlesnake Island (with the little hump) towards Tuftonboro and the Ossipee Range.


Plenty of wild blueberries in the higher elevations.


Finally made it to the top, and was humbled by all the small children up there (although they surely took other trails). Here’s the view to the north, towards the Sandwich Range. On the way down the mountain, I took the much more leisurely yellow trail.


Although I had made every effort to stay hydrated during my hike, it wasn’t enough. It’s a common problem for me when hiking – if I don’t replenish my water quickly enough, I develop a splitting headache. I had to retreat to the basement and turn out all the lights, aside from the Colbert Report. A (caffeine-free) coffee milk, an aspirin, some cold water on the face, and a short nap sent my headache packing.


I spent the evening organising all the paperwork necessary to submit my visa application at the French consulate in Boston the following day. This is the work contract I waited to patiently to receive. It lists the two schools where I will be working – a high school and a middle school in a college town suburb of Toulon, on the Mediterranean coast to the east of Marseille. I leave on September 22nd.

12 of 12 for July 2010

18 Jul

As some of you already know, my camera was stolen in Toronto on the 12th of last month, right after I had taken the bulk of my photos for the day. As I will likely never recover those pictures, you’ll have to use your imagination – most of them were from the largest outdoor dog festival in North America.

Anyway, on to July:


Since the last 12th, I’ve returned home to New Hampshire, but not to the same house. My parents bought this new house on the Meredith-Laconia town line. It sits on 3 acres in front of an additional landlocked 2.5 acre lot owned by the town (essentially our extended backyard). While it is smaller than our old house and doesn’t have a view, it does have a finished basement and air conditioning, which has proved useful during this exceptionally warm summer.


I decided to take a little tour of our new neighbourhood. This cemetery lies at the end of our street. Most of the gravestones date from the 1700s and 1800s, although many have fallen apart or become illegible over the centuries.


Someone has taken care to replace some of the damaged headstones with these newer ones (although I have no idea when they date from). Many of the restored stones are for Revolutionary War soldiers. This fellow served under General John Stark, the New Hampshire general who coined the state motto, “Live free or die.”


Here’s the entrance to our driveway. The stone wall runs down the length of our road.


Just down the road is this colonial farmhouse. I liked the combination of colours in this shot.


I spotted this grasshopper on the road. He’s got some chic digs.

At lunchtime, I got caught up on the Daily Show and enjoyed the best (New England) juice brand. That’s my new computer; my previous laptop from 2006 was virtually holding together by a string.


While cleaning out some trimmings of a blue spruce tree in our backyard, this lily peeking through the branches caught my eye. Really nice colour contrast.


My thesis inches nearer to completion. This graph summarizes my observed changes in the New Hampshire dialect across the 20 speakers I interviewed, arranged from oldest (on the left) to youngest (on the right). There are five variables, each represented by a different “code word”:

1. BATH: refers to words like half, laugh, last — conservative speakers have a central “ah” sound in these words, reminiscent of British or Australian English, whereas younger speakers usually have the same vowel as in words like trap.

2. PALM: refers to words like father, calm, aunt — the conservative variant is also a central “ah” sound here, but this is distinct from the more retracted vowel in words like bother. For the younger speakers, father and bother usually rhyme.

3. START: refers to a whole bunch of words with the <ar> spelling, like car, park, far, and so on. This variable has the same two vowel variants as PALM (an “ah” sound versus the backer short “o”).

4. /r/: refers to r-dropping, that is, the vocalization of /r/ after vowels, as in the classic “pahk the cah in Hahvid yahd” or “New Hampsha.” Some of the oldest speakers drop their /r/s 100% of the time, whereas some of the youngest speakers always pronounce their /r/s.

5. NORTH: refers to words like for, morning, horse. A few of the older speakers (who usually drop their /r/s) have a lower short “o” vowel sound in these words, so that morning sounds like “monning” and horse sounds like “hoss.” This conservative variant is distinct from the higher vowel sound in words like four, mourning, and hoarse. Most speakers under 50, however, make no distinction between pairs like horse and hoarse.


Making supper. Angel enjoying the smell of food.


A hearty meal.


Before bed, I watched an episode of AMC’s Breaking Bad. I’m almost caught up with the show – just two episodes left. It is highly recommended for anyone who enjoys a great drama. The story revolves around a middle-aged high school science teacher who finds out that he has lung cancer and turns to making methamphetamine to provide for his family. Lots of great twists and turns along the way.

Geographic Curiosities: the East-West Divide in Wisconsin

5 Jun

Those who know me well know that I have an unfettered love for maps.

This love reflects my long-standing fascination with geography. It’s been some time since I devoted an intellectually-oriented post on this blog to the subject (like this one from a few years ago). But sometimes things just spark my interest.

One such thing is the state of Wisconsin. Wisconsin is one of the thirteen states I haven’t been to (aside from a brief layover in Milwaukee, which I don’t count). In other words, it is essentially a mystery to me. I have no idea what life on the ground is actually like, but from my omniscient cartographic bird’s eye view, I have noticed an interesting pattern.

That is, eastern Wisconsin and western Wisconsin often do not like to be the same.

This east/west demarcation was first brought to my attention by the famous pop/soda/coke map, which plots the dominant term for a generic soft drink across the United States:

You’ll notice that in western Wisconsin, “pop” dominates as it does in the vast majority of the Midwest (with the exception of the large “soda” bastion around St. Louis). Eastern Wisconsin is somewhat unusual in its preference for “soda.”

A similar pattern emerges with another dialectal term – that used for the drinking apparatus commonly found in schools or public parks. The three most commonly used terms – “water fountain,” “drinking fountain,” and “bubbler,” are mapped by the Harvard Dialect Survey:

“Water fountain” is used by speakers on the purple dots; “drinking fountain” on green; and “bubbler” on red. Although the pattern in Wisconsin is not exactly the same as for pop/soda, we notice a strong concentration of “bubbler” in the eastern part of the state. (But not by coincidence – the word “bubbler” is derived from the trademarked name of the original water fountain developed by the Kohler Company in Kohler, Wisconsin).

After seeing these dialect maps several years ago, I hadn’t given much thought to the east-west divide in Wisconsin until I watched this fascinating lecture series from Stanford about U.S. electoral geography. In one lecture, the professor discusses the divergent voting patterns of eastern and western Wisconsin, which apparently dates back to the earliest days of the state’s history. To some extent, this pattern is still evident in the modern day. The east/west split can perhaps best be seen in the results for the 1988 and 2004 Presidential elections.

1988 vote by county:

2004 vote by county:

(These maps come from Dave Leip’s wonderful online atlas. Note that the colour scheme follows the pre-2000 convention, with Democratic-leaning counties in red and Republican-leaning counties in blue).

Again, the pattern is not perfectly consistent, but the counties do show a remarkable level of contiguity in their voting preferences. We are certainly not dealing with a north-south divide.

In the Stanford lecture, the professor speculates that the divergent politics could be explained, at least initially, by settlement patterns. Namely, the eastern (or more conservative) area was dominated by people of German ancestry, whereas the western (or more liberal) area had more Scandinavian settlers.

Modern ancestry maps can shed some light on this hypothesis:

Now, surely some of these geographic differences (particularly the dialectal ones) are probably better explained by things like population density than they are by ancestry. The eastern half of the state is clearly the more urbanized overall, as demonstrated by the density map below. But this makes the political division all the more interesting, as the general trend among American whites is for those in more rural areas to vote Republican, and vice versa. This seems to suggest that ancestry or some kind of deep-rooted culture in each part of the state really is important, because it trumps the national tendency.

So, what do you think? Are these geographic patterns all just a vast coincidence? There are certainly few other states with such a seemingly neatly defined duality. But whether there really is a ‘tangible’ east-west difference can only be determined by people who know Wisconsin well. Any natives care to chime in?