Wednesday, September 24, 2014

What's in a name

I've been giving a lot of thought to my first name recently.  Which may sound strange.  But for some reason it keeps coming up as a topic of conversation, and I must admit I fail to understand why.  Michele does not seem to be that surprising of a name to me.  I mean, sure, in English you could argue that it is missing an "L" but I am certainly not the first, or the last, American with the name "Michele" that I have encountered.  It is not THAT big of an anomaly, though it has plagued me my entire life. 

As a child I always regretted that it was impossible to find personalized pens, bookmarks, glasses, notebooks, you name it, with my name.  It has caused confusion and embarrassing errors.  Many people, including a number of members of my extended family, just seem absolutely unable to spell my name correctly.  I have constantly had to correct the spelling of my name - on administrative documents, school paperwork, letters, certificates, etc, etc, etc.  To me it doesn't seem that complicated, but to others I suppose it is.

Growing up in the US I can't even begin to count the number of times that I was mistaken for a boy before someone met me.  For some reason people thought "Michele" was "Michael" and could never seem to see the similarities with "Michelle."  I remember one particularly humiliating moment in the 2nd grade when I was called to the office over the loud speaker and they asked for "Michael my last name" rather than "Michele."  I was made fun of for weeks.  And another moment in the first week of 7th grade when a particularly unintelligent science teacher actually corrected my spelling of my name on my homework assignment from "Michele" to "Michael" and repeatedly referred to me as "Michael."

But then I started taking French class.  As is, I imagine, the case in most junior high languages classes, we had to choose a typically "French" name to use within the confines of that class.  I was ecstatic!  I was able to choose the "French" version of my name "Michèle" and for once no one would confuse me for a "Michael."  The name "Michele" spelled with only one "L" was normal, expected even, and I reveled in it.  My younger self saw it as almost name had been spelt the "French way" and there I was choosing to learn French.  Add to that the fact that I was named for the song "Michelle" (but spelt incorrectly) by the Beatles, which obviously includes lyrics in French, and it just all seemed perfect.

Fast forward to the much more present day.  Coming to study in France and eventually marrying a Frenchman and deciding to live here.  I figured all name confusion would be over.  After all, the way my name is spelt is typically French.  No more being confused for a man again!  But then, reality hit.  Apparently, in French, there are two traditional and typical spellings for the feminine version of my name - "Michèle" and "Michelle" - and I had been wholly unaware of it.  And it would seem that most French people are unaware of it as well.

Living in France I have encountered very similar reactions to my name as those I experienced in the US:  It is spelled correctly, except the accent over the first "E" which some people (my father-in-law included) just add in at random as if it is supposed to be there (does the absence of that accent really make it THAT confusing???).  It is spelled incorrectly and should be "Michelle."  And even being mistaken for a man because the masculine equivalent has only one "L" and the feminine version has two.  Since I have only one "L" mistakes are made.  Except, last time I checked, the masculine version was "Michel," no "E" on the end.  Seems to me like it shouldn't be that confusing.  Nonetheless, the mistake has even been made here in France when I was standing right in front of the person!  I'm I look like a man to you???  Perhaps I don't want to know the answer...

Now to the present, the last few weeks really, and what has inspired this post.  As I wrote last week, I recently had my naturalization interview at the préfecture.  I was asked one other question, in addition to everything I talked about in my last post.  Did I want to franciser my first name?  Apparently, if you say yes, then when your request is accepted and you become French they will also issue you a French version of your first name.  To help you fit in or something.  I suppose that at this point I could start into a whole tirade about how strange and unnecessary this process seems, but that is not where I wanted to go with this post.  Well, when she asked this question Lionel and I both must have looked at her like she was crazy before I opened my mouth to speak.  She glanced back down at her paperwork, saw my name, looked up blushing and said that she supposed that wasn't necessary.  I agreed, and then the conversation turned to my name.  "Well, isn't that convenient, you don't need to change your name.  It's already very French!  C'est parfait!  How did you end up with such a French name as an American?  What a coincidence!  Oh, look at your father's first name...Thomas...that is a very French name as well!  How did this come to be?  Both you and your father, Americans, have French names!"  Blah, blah, blah.  I just let her ramble on about how surprising it was for an American to have such a "French" name, chuckling to myself the entire time.  Once the interview was over I didn't really think anymore about it.  It was just one fonctionnaire after all.

Then last week I went to the first Afterwork in English meetup of the "school year."  I was disappointed to find so few people in attendance, none of whom I had met at previous meetups, but I suppose it was still too close to la rentrée.  I was even more disappointed to be the only native English speaker present that night.  But I gave it the old Gallic shrug and prepared myself for an evening of speaking English with a bunch of French people.  It was better than nothing, especially since I desperately need to meet more people in Bordeaux.  I ended up speaking with a small group and when we introduced ourselves everyone was shocked that I had a French name.  Again.  This isn't the typical reaction I get to my name here in France, but in the space of one week I had had multiple people be surprised that an American would have a French name.  Very strange.  Very strange indeed.  And I found myself ruminating on these odd reactions and on my name in general, which, in turn, led to this post. 

I'm just so surprised.  Overall, between studying in Tours, living in Paris and now in Bordeaux, I've spent about 7 years in France and never really had anyone comment on my name being so French.  Let alone met anyone who was surprised that an American could be named "Michele."  Where do these people come from?  With the fonctionnaire I had just passed it off as her being older and very French.  But at the English meetup it seemed odd.  This is a group of people who meet once a month to speak English.  People who are either native speakers, have studied English extensively, are studying it currently and want to practice, or who have lived abroad and don't want to lose their English.  Certainly they have met, or at least heard of, someone from an English-speaking country named "Michele" or "Michelle."  How could it be so surprising?  I mean, have they never heard of Michelle Obama, Michelle Pfeiffer, Lea Michele, Michele Bachmann (they love crazy US politics and all know Sarah Palin, so why not?), Michelle Williams, not to mention the song "Michelle" by the Beatles.  As if this was not surprising enough for me, one of the people in the group even pointed out that it must be very confusing for people in France because the feminine name is not spelled with one "L" but rather with two and that it is only spelled with one "L" if it's the masculine name.  Ahem, what about the other French spelling - "Michèle" - that has only one "L" in the feminine?  Forgetting the fact that there is an extra "E" there, buddy?

Anyway, despite all the issues, confusion and inconveniences, I actually do really like my name and I think my parents did an excellent job choosing it.  I don't think there is any other name I would want.  Sure, as a kid I sometimes wished they had just spelled it "correctly" but now I can appreciate the missing "L" as it makes my name a little more unique.  Plus, I must say I enjoying having a name that at the very least is easy for the French to manage, and at best is both very French and very American.  It works well in my current situation.  What about you?  Do you like your name?  Dislike your name?  Run into issues because of your name?  Feel free to share in the comments!

Monday, September 15, 2014

Naturalization interview

Wow.  I can't believe it has been a month since my last past.  I don't know where the time has gone!

Shortly after returning from our Italian vacation I received a letter (FINALLY!) from the préfecture with my convocation for my naturalization interview.  And on Friday morning Lionel and I headed off to the préfecture for said interview.

Ever since I received the convocation I've been googling, reading blogs, reading forums and doing as much research as possible into what all it would entail to ensure that I was fully prepared.  And experiences were very mixed...people reporting anything form 10 minute long interviews to one and a half hours.  People being asked a series of rather simple questions about their life, job, studies to people going through a complex series of interview questions covering everything from their personal and professional lives to the culture, history, politics and geography of France.  People only having oral interviews to having a combined oral and written interview requiring them to write essay responses to some of the questions.  So, in the end I had no idea what to expect and I, naturally (as I am crazy like that), prepared for all possible eventualities.  I know my French history pretty well, but did a quick revision of some key dates and themes to make sure the information was fresh in my brain.  I also did a quick review of the structure of the French government and other French politics. I looked up information on the structure of France, memorizing the names of as many regions and departments as possible as well as the number of each.  I memorized all of the presidents of the 5th Republic in order, the names of a decade worth of prime ministers and the term limits of different governmental positions.  I revised French geography and the names of rivers, mountains and parks.  I tackled pop culture making sure I knew plenty of actors, singers, soccer players, movies, songs and bands.  Because, while I know a lot of this information, when I get nervous and get put on the spot, information has a tendency to take a brief and inconvenient leave from my brain so I wanted it all to be as fresh as possible.  I also prepared notes for answers to more complicated questions that I had seen people repeatedly reporting having encountered - what is laïcité and how is it applied? what is democracy and what does it mean to you? what does "citizenship" mean to you? etc.  And of course I thought long and hard about my response to the inevitable question of why I am applying for French citizenship.

And so, on Friday morning I walked into the préfecture quite nervous but also quite sure that I had done everything possible to prepare for this interview.  I knew that at that point my future and the future of my application would depend entirely on my ability to stay calm enough to answer the myriad of questions and on the temperament of the fonctionnaire in front of me.  So, imagine my surprise when my experience was far different from anything I had expected or read about.

In the end the entire interview lasted only 25 minutes.  When our names were called Lionel and I were brought into a room and the fonctionnaire conducting the interview immediately put us at ease. She was very kind and all smiles (shocking!).  She handed us some papers and had us read through all of our information and verify that everything was correct, then I/we had to sign some documents...the récépissé for my request, a declaration of communauté de vie, simple stuff.  She checked our ID, handed me back our originals (except the originals dealing with our état civil), explained the next steps in the process and then asked if we had any questions.  Once that was over (whole thing took about 15 minutes) she asked Lionel to leave.  It was my time to be put on the spot and I started to get nervous again.  But for no good reason.

My part of the interview only lasted about 10 minutes and she pretty much only asked me simple questions:

My date of birth.
My date of entry into France.
My studies in the US.
If I had done any studies in France.
My work.
Lionel's work.
If I belonged to any clubs or associations.
The composition of my group of friends - French, foreign, mixed.
How Lionel and I met.
What we like to do on the weekends and in our spare time.
Why I originally came to France and why I have stayed.
My reasons for requesting French citizenship.
Whether or not I planned to keep my US citizenship (and then she told me I should verify that the US would allow me to...I told her I already knew it wasn't an issue).

And that was that.  She also asked a few other questions, not for the interview, but out of personal interest I suppose.  She was curious about how my parents felt about me living in France and she was curious to know if there were a lot of other Americans in Bordeaux.  I told her I hadn't encountered very many for the moment and she told me that they don't get very many...usually only one or two a year.

Overall very simple.  Much, much quicker than I expected, and much easier too.  I fully expected at least one or two questions pertaining to history, culture, politics or geography but didn't get anything (since they got rid of the multiple choice questionnaire they had supposedly integrated these kinds of questions into the interview).  At lot of people online also reported having been asked these kinds of questions, so I was very surprised when I didn't get a single one.  I also expected Lionel to have a separate interview as well with some basic questions about our lives to ensure this is not a fake marriage.  But no.  Nothing.

Now that the interview is over (of course, because like I said I'm crazy like that), I can't help going back in my mind and wondering if I should have said more, less.  Were my answers adequate? Should I have given a longer answer for my reasons for requesting citizenship?  I had prepared a 3-point answer in advance covering my personal reasons, my appreciation of the values of the French Republic complete with examples and somewhat more practical reasons, but in the end I didn't use everything I prepared because I feared it sounded too rehearsed and because I experienced some lingering nervousness that caused part of it to momentarily float out of my mind.  Will that come back to bite me in the ass?  Why oh why didn't I remember to bring up my appreciation of la laïcité? And why didn't I go into detailing using all of my carefully thought out examples? Should I not have told them I intended to keep my US citizenship?  But I am such a horrible liar she would have known it wasn't the truth.  Do Lionel and I not have interesting enough hobbies and activities?  I just don't know what to think.

Additionally she kept throwing me off by telling us more than once that in about a year, when my application is accepted (not "if" but "when," she repeatedly said "when") we would receive a letter to come back to pick everything up.  She made it seem like she was sure it would be accepted, constantly saying when you receive your acceptance letter, when your request is accepted, etc.  But then the interview was so short I can't help but wonder if they hadn't already decided they would reject me and so didn't want to waste their time.  Just enough to make me feel like it was still up for consideration...

I really need to stop analyzing this so much or I will drive myself crazy.  After all, I have to wait a year before I can have any hope of an answer.

We also still have the police interview for their investigation into our communauté de vie.  They should be calling me soon to schedule that.  And once that is done all I will have to do is to worry and to wait.