Picture this: sitting quietly at the kitchen table, enjoying breakfast and watching the early morning light filter through the windows while listening to roosters crow and birds start to sing. Suddenly, your unflaggingly energetic hostess enters the room, jumps when she realizes that somebody is sitting there, and asks why in heaven’s name one would be in the kitchen without any lights on. Upon hearing your response of “enjoying the tranquility of the early morning,” she immediately agrees and then proceeds to turn on the radio as loud as it can go (to the morning’s Christian talk show), flip on the lights, and take several pounds of figs off of the tray where they have been collecting fruit flies for a few days.
Needless to say, my living situation is quite the experience! My hosts, a retired couple who have an astonishingly large house a mere 20 minute’s walk from the conservatory and from the center of town, rent out five of their rooms to students and internationals like myself. This makes for continuous excitement throughout the house… and for some interesting mealtimes, since having more than one person in the extremely narrow kitchen requires some serious coordination.
On another, completely different note, I have discovered what pompiers are. Despite their rather unfortunate name (to English speakers), pompiers are French firefighters, who also serve as EMTs in such cases as, for example, when one falls off of their bike, as I did just last week. There’s nothing like, following a crash landing off of a bike, one’s body deciding to take a dive bomb in the Conservatory lobby because of shock and then having three pompiers show up to confirm that your blood pressure is fine! Not to worry, I have only a few scrapes, as well as a newfound respect for the promptness of French medical personnel. Several lovely conservatory employees now consider me to be an adopted daughter and I have proven that I can indeed speak French and answer questions through blurry vision and a splitting headache!
Just as an example of the famous French bureaucracy, I am happy to share the story of how I managed to get my student card. These could only be given out this week, although Conservatory classes started a week ago Thursday. Practice rooms can only be accessed through exchanging these cards for keys. Thankfully, Michel Bouvard granted us poor organists special permission to use practice rooms for the last month, or we would likely have been climbing the walls to just get a keyboard!
All of the students received an email that, in order to get said student card, we had to have French social security, which is actually health insurance. This email stated that we had to get it through one of two companies, not mentioning that one could also simply get health insurance through the Conservatory. After one frightening visit to one branch of each company, where I looked at the list of “required items” (including a testimony of a treating physician, copy of a birth certificate, proof of acceptance into university [which I still don’t have, somehow], and several other scary things) and chickened out before trying (and likely failing) to talk someone into taking my money and giving me a social security card, I went to talk to the woman at the Conservatory who apparently could give us the cards. She directed me to somebody else, who was absent that day. The next day, I was able to see that other person, who was, in fact, able to take my money for social security (thank goodness!), and give me a student card (why the other woman, who was supposed to give out the student cards, could not do so, I have no idea!). However, this student card required a photo (which I thankfully had with me, since nobody had mentioned that those might be needed), the signature of somebody else, and a few official-looking stamps. After paying some more fees and visiting a few more administrators in the Conservatory, I now successfully have the cardboard, yellow carte d’étudiante that has a photo of me (not a photocopy, since photos are so hard to illegally copy these days), a red stamp of the Conservatory with “organ” and “harpsichord” hand-written to authorize me practicing in rooms that contain those two instruments, and a hand-written phrase indicating that I have, in fact, paid for social security. The Oberlin ID card seems quite a bit more high-tech now and it’s been quite the week!