In Rouen, slender café tables and chairs were set up outside despite awful weather. A loud tattering on store awnings was at the forefront of the public consciousness, notable by everyone’s raised voices competing over the rain. A Poissonnier dangled four lobsters, amusing old ladies as they chose which one for lunch. A window over, a fromagerie with an enormous knife sliced cheese with a laser aim as people chatted waiting in line.
Important-looking-businessmen discussed their important-looking-business affairs at a heated patio table of an expensive restaurant. One man complained about the cooking of his meat and had it sent back. The waiter forced a smile. Mothers with grim and tired faces made their weekly run to the market at St. Maclou’s square pushing babies in heavy black strollers. A large man walked his tiny brown dog with a short pink leash. The dog took a piss on every object he passed.
Red, yellow, clear, rainbow, and black umbrellas bumped into each other as the humans underneath compared and contrasted vegetables at the St. Maclou market. The antiques and books that took most of the space in the square on Saturdays were not suitable to wet mornings but the weather didn't stop the Proust-look-alikes and dames who crawled out of a Flaubert novel.
I was in love with Misty and Rouen and the Alps and had to find a way to stay in France, but as I would come to find, it isn't that easy.
I had to go to the social security office for my Visa papers, it was an exciting day because I would be getting my resident card. I looked up the address and left at around three o’clock in the afternoon and made my way to the street but did not find the number I was looking for. I went into a big building with all kinds of associations and offices. I opened the door, and two ladies were talking at the reception counter. They harmonized, “Bonjour, vous-avez besoin d’aide peut-être.”
“Ah, do you speak English?” they both said.
“Yes! Ha. How’d you know? My accent’s that bad huh?”
“Irish?” the lady leaning against the counter said.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” they both said. “How can we help you?”
“I’m looking for the social security office…”
“83bis, around the corner you will find the offi—” the lady at the desk, behind the computer said.
“No actually it moved,” said the other lady.
“No, no, I’m sure. It’s there.” the lady behind the computer said with a big smile.
“I’m pretty sure it moved, but what do I know.”
“Okay—which one is it?” I asked.
“Try them both.”
I walked to 83bis around the corner. It was still raining and cold and a line of forty people were outside waiting and standing to get into the office. All that was posted was a sign that said Étrangers. The French word for foreigners, literally “strangers.” No waiting rooms inside?
I opened the door after ringing the bell. Inside there were ten rows of people in small wooden desks facing a projected film on the wall. They all looked at me in silence for a couple of seconds and then looked back at their papers. I smiled and said “Bonjour!” to no reply. None of the people waiting outside were anywhere to be seen.
A lady stood up from her desk sitting in the far corner of the room and came over to me. She began making signs with her hands. Caught completely off-guard I waved my hands in a motion of confusion. Making little symbols of a walking man with my fingers on the palm of my hand. She shook her head and walked over to the kitchen-style bar at the other end of the room. She found a piece of paper and motioned to me as if to say that I should write down what it was that I wanted. She pulled a pen out of a tin can and tested it on the paper, no ink. She pulled out a second one. Nothing. She scribbled with a third one in aggravation and finally some ink came out. She gave me the pen and I wrote down “Social Security?” Her body irked with this annoyance. No noise was made however. She took the pen from me and began to write with an intense force. The lines were rigged and scribbled as if my presence made her physically feel ill and frantic. She wrote in French: “The S.S office moved four years ago!”
A man in a lab coat came out of a door and said, “Thank you for coming, please come back with us here, and we’ll show you what we need you to do.”
“What are you talking about? I’m looking for the S.S office,” I said.
“Well, Henry Peter, we actually have your name right here on the list for Pre-Resident screen testing, see? We have an E-Signature with the immigration office. Is this not your signature?” he said, showing me his tablet screen. My eyes widened, what had I signed?
“And if you don’t believe me, these are surely your fingerprints and retinas. Right this way Monsieur, s’il vous plait”
“What? No—I’m supposed to just go in for a French History test, this can’t be right,” I said frantically.
Suddenly I couldn’t hear anything. Two large men came from behind and picked me up by my arms and carried me into the lab via a code locked door. Inside, giant screens projected the lab’s symbol, slowly spinning IntroTec? They put me in a chair and latched my biceps and wrists into the arm rests. They strapped on a type of headgear that allowed me to simultaneously interact with six different lab techs in six different camera scenes. One was from this morning at the market with the lobsters in mid-dangle, the old women shopping. They had several questions about why I didn’t stop for an espresso and why I didn’t give the homeless man money. On the next monitor they had a screen showing the Village and surrounding villages in the Alps. I saw Sarah, Gillem, and the Sage sitting on a picnic table. Their questions about the Village were aimed at deciphering and ‘debugging’ any communist influence. Did I find them attractive? Had I been in contact with livestock?
On yet another screen was Misty, still playing in the leaves in the forest, laughing and giggling by the musical Trompe at La Fayette, did I intend to fake love for a visa? This was insane. I began to yell and scream but my consciousness, divided into six produced six tiny cries. On the next screen was the girl in the portrait from Warsaw. The cocktail party with the psychedelic electro duo with the Super 8 home movies projected over them was as hopping as the night of my twenty first birthday. They asked me if I was in love with an American or a figment of a Polish musician’s imagination.
“Who is the girl from the portrait!” lab tech in division III, Avanti asked. I didn’t budge.
“Putain, c’est pas vrai,” he said.
After this scene-by-scene analysis of my time so far in France and in the European Union, they gave me suggestions on how I should have responded in a more ‘French manière’ and then sent me out into the lobby. I couldn’t hear anything. They told me to sit down at a desk and write them an essay about why I wanted to live in France. It had to be ten pages and in French, and it had to include quotes from three French critics, authors, or philosophers (they had a mini library for reference). It had to include an intro, body paragraphs, and a final conclusion which denounced my previous nationality and culture.
I sat at the desk. Everyone around me looked like they had been there for several days. They all had bags under their eyes and several empty plastic cups for water. No one was talking and I couldn’t tell if the movie projecting on the wall was there to be a sort of sedative or for an intellectual French reference. It was a film of what seemed to follow a train going through different parts of the world that looped over and over again. I was still exhausted from the lab procedure, couldn’t even think of my full name, let alone write an essay. The woman sitting next to me held up three fingers as if it were some sort of secret. What did three mean? I shrugged my shoulders. She held up the corner of her essay. Ah, got it. She had written three pages. She pointed to me and then showed me four fingers. I think she wants me to write a page for her. I was still not sure if I could finish writing my name, but I agreed and made an ok sign with my hand. I went to pick up a book for reference, some dusty Rousseau social contract type stuff. The woman smiled and then slyly went under the desk and unzipped my pants. Started blowing me off, right there. I looked around to see if anyone noticed, but they were either asleep at their desk or fixated on the train track film. I was going to be here awhile anyway, I thought. I began her page four. But I couldn’t find any intellectual thought stream, I just saw trains. Come on, come on, you have a name don’t you? Yes, yes, I remember now.
Oh God. Ok, here we go,
The capacity to free ourselvesss rests withhhh otherrrrrrr people. Buuuuuttt that’s also the sourrrrrrrrce of our profound misery.
I was onto something.
How do we establish relationships with each otherrrr that don’t infringe upon our neeeeeeEEEEeeeed for recognition, our desire to be esteemeeeeed. Be aware that these goalsssssss to impress are leading us in the wrooooooong direction. What is the general willllll?
When I finished her page, I sat for a second to gather myself. Hers was going to be better than mine. She got back up and sat at her desk. She read over my work and seemed to be pleased. She then proceeded to turn to a middle-aged man behind me, now holding up five fingers. I looked down at my blank sheet of paper, at that point I had been there for several hours. The moment I put my pen to the page my hand started to spasm, and I felt kind of an electrical shock on the neuron level. I was terribly hungry and I couldn’t write without physical pain. I looked over and the lady who blew me was behind the other desk getting her fifth page. I looked around for ideas. I caught the attention of a vaguely attractive brunette and showed her one of my fingers. She nodded her head. No one seemed to notice me there in the dim projector light. I went down on her, and she started to write my page one. Page nine was difficult because they wanted food as a tip for a well done Robsepierre reference and I was out of euro coins for the vending machine. Nonetheless two days later I had my ten. They would let me know once they sent it to Cherbourg to be analyzed by the Départment de Pyschologie.
The results of my essay were somewhat of a disappointment. I was granted the status of Conditional Resident, and they had instructed me to return to the Village and establish residency there. Apparently, they weren’t fully convinced that I wasn’t an American communist (which is the worst type of communist in their view). I went back to the Village and immediately walked over to Cabin Three Things to ask for advice from the Sage.
“Close the door. They’re watching us,” he said, looking over my shoulder as he ushered me into the cabin.
“So they made you write the paper?”
“Yeah, ten pages.”
“I’m so glad I’m Belge, we don’t even have a government.”
“I’ve been feeling strange, like my memories are being rewritten or something, I can’t remember how long it’s been since I got here.”
“They force you to eat crêpes at the interview?” the Sage said.
“No, they made me watch an hour-long documentary of the 1998 World Cup win,” I said.
Benjamin, trying to find a song to play off his phone laughed and said,
“It did feel good to beat Brazil though. I got kissed by an eighty-two-year-old lady on the lips after that match.”
“Vive la France!” the Sage said.
“Ha! No really, I don’t think they’re watching that closely. I mean, what do they care if I like to talk about conspiracy theories and smoke a pipe and listen to dubstep?” Benjamin said.
“Or kiss old ladies,” I said.
“You know, they use the Village as a social experiment. That is partly why the government funds this project,” the Sage said.
“Completement! You would be shocked to learn how much money we get per year for this place from government funds and reinsertion now. They couldn’t allow it to just be a hippy commune,” Benjamin said.
“I say so what? I would rather have tax dollars go to this type of project than like the military.”
“What disturbs me is the motive. I think it’s all about control. They don’t care about people outside the bourgeois, as long as they don’t cause them discomfort. They don’t want the streets of Paris to be overloaded with homeless, and orphans, or weed. So they send some here. Saves them money. It’s actually brilliant. The International long term volunteers are here to be a support to those suits in Paris running the place. And also, I bet you anything, to see how people react through very specific combinations of certain race, gender, class, and age cohabitation. It’s very specific if you take a look around at their picks. . . Hence the lengthy interviews,” Benjamin said.
He was interrupted by a loud knock on the door. “Come on out you pessimistic loners!” Anais said.
“What are you doing here?” Benjamin said.
“I’ve been understanding. I’ve let you guys hang out in your little club house. But this is starting to cause problems. We need you all to spend time with the groups, otherwise, what is the point? You can’t just be half in the project and half in your own little world,” Anais said. We all stood up and went to play Pictionary with the rest of the Village.