September 21-27, 2020. This is the first week that I didn’t have to rush every morning to get to Alliance Française for my daily four-hour language classes. I had intentionally not enrolled in the last week of the B1-level program because I wanted at least a week for some rest before my LL.M. (Master of Laws) international arbitration program commenced.
To make most of the free time, I had previously decided to take a leisure trip. The original destination I had in mind was Hamburg, to visit my good friend, Adrian. But a month or so ago, Germany introduced stricter measures for all persons entering from France, which meant it was too cumbersome to make a visit. I would have had to isolate myself for two weeks upon arriving and that would have been too much trouble. Also, of course, if I only had a week to spare, there wouldn’t have been enough time to complete the two-week quarantine.
Thus, I decided to go somewhere within France instead, where there were no travel restrictions. Some weeks ago, the French domestic train network went on promotion to sell tickets at a bargain. Tickets were selling for as low as 10 euros one-way to select destinations. I was able to book roundtrip train tickets to Marseille and Rennes.
But before I get to that, let me tell you about my trip to the prefecture (administrative / police office) at the beginning of the week to submit my foreign resident visa requirements and finally being granted a “récépissé” or preliminary resident permit.
Finally getting my récépissé. I have probably recounted before that getting a rendez-vous (appointment) with the prefecture, which is the office that handles the renewal of resident visas for foreigners in France, was such a pain. Well, first you have to know that because of the pandemic, you can’t just show up at the prefecture without booking an appointment. Next, you have to know that booking an appointment at the prefecture’s website is such a game of luck. The slots only open on Mondays at around 9AM. I say “around” because it’s not precise. You just have to keep refreshing the webpage starting at 9AM until the slots appear and then fill up the forms as fast as you can, before the very few slots available run out. To cut the long story short, I was able to book a rendez-vous two weeks ago, scheduled for this Monday, September 21. By this date, my existing resident visa had already expired. But I was told I need not worry because holders of recently expired resident visas are given consideration because of the pandemic.
The prefecture in charge of handling applications from my place of residence is located in Antony, a suburb around 12 kilometers from the center of Paris, or around an hour by train from my place in Boulogne.
I had previously encountered an irritable female officer to handle my request the last time I had an appointment three weeks ago who quite literally just told me to go away and book another appointment because my documents were not in order. I had hoped I would not encounter her again but behold me, there she was.
I faced the challenge head on. As usual, she was in an unpleasant disposition and refused to show any sign of consideration even if I was clearly struggling with communicating. She spoke fast French all throughout but thanks to weeks of French classes, I knew better (but not perfectly) how to respond to her questions and demands. I wonder how non-French speakers have to deal with this unpleasant French bureaucracy! Anyway, after a few minutes of checking my documents, she finally provided me a récépissé or a temporary resident visa that would allow me to stay in France while they prepare my carte de séjour or foreign resident identification card.
I was so relieved upon receiving the resident visa. Because it was a very pleasant day, I took a walk inside the vast Parc Sceaux which was just nearby. I didn’t realize how beautiful the park was. I spent a little more than an hour just sitting under the shade of a tree reading a book (in French, as a means of practicing my reading comprehension). I also took a stroll around the quaint town center of Sceaux until later in the afternoon. I did some groceries, too, because I had thought of trying to make fried rice and other meals for the next few days.
Yes, I tried to cook egg fried rice for the first time, the next day. following some steps on Youtube. Unfortunately, it was a failure. Apparently, I added the eggs too late in the cooking process so it really made the rice too wet, and the eggs too moist and dispersed among the mushy grains of rice. I spent the rest of the day at home, except for a short trip to the gym that afternoon.
A would-have-been trip to Marseille. As I’ve mentioned, I had previously booked a round-trip train ticket to Marseille down south to France’s Mediterranean coast. I would have left on Tuesday. However, just a few days prior, the French government announced that it had elevated Marseille, France’s second largest metropolis, into heightened red zone–the highest level in France’s coronavirus crisis gradient, and ordered bars, restaurants and other establishments in the city to close. Thus, a trip to Marseille wouldn’t have been worthwhile, I thought. It wouldn’t have been prudent, likewise, to take a trip, if it was reported that the virus was circulating rapidly among the people in the area. I decided to forfeit the ticket and the price I paid for them. (Not that I had a choice to refund as the tickets were sold on promotion. On the other hand, I was able to refund my cancelled hostel reservation).
That left me with my other train trip later this week–to Rennes–back to visit my friend Marcel.
Dinner and drinks three nights in a row. Since I didn’t proceed with my trip to Marseille, I had a few days in Paris before leaving for Rennes. I decided to meet up with my only other fraternity brother in France, Yael, for a dinner fellowship at the 5ème arrondissement on Wednesday. The 5ème, or the “Latin Quarter”, is my favorite neighborhood in Paris. I actually went an hour ahead of our meet-up because I wanted to walk around the cobblestone streets and take in the sights.
We decided to have Japanese that night at Oi Sushi and it was amazing, never mind the thought that sushi would have been much cheaper at home in the Philippines or elsewhere. But hey, we were in Paris and we missed sushi so that was a treat! It is always a pleasure to catch up with a fraternity brod.
The next evening, I met up with my Russian friend Dmitry. He was to leave Paris to go home to Moscow next week so we decided to meet. We met at the 5ème (told you, it is my favorite neighborhood), for dinner. Although I had proposed Greek food for a change, we settled for burgers at Burgart.
The next evening, I had another dinner out–this time with Filipino expats I’ve never met until then. They actually made contact with me through Instagram, after some of their friends forwarded one of my tweets where I posted a photo of myself in the Pinoy Store karinderya just a few days upon arriving back in France. Upon their invitation, we had dinner at this old-fashioned French restaurant near Chatelet called Epi d’Or. Avoid the restaurant, by the way, the food is not worth the price. The server also made me feel like we didn’t belong to that place. Otherwise, it was a pleasant time with new friends and a good opportunity to share each other’s experiences living as Filipinos in Paris. After dinner, we had some drinks at Kachette where the conversations continued.
Whew! Three consecutive nights of dine outs and drinks. I was down for a chill weekend afterwards.
Bonne weekend in Rennes and Dinan. Saturday morning, I took a train to Rennes, two hours west of Paris in France’s Bretagne region. I stayed with my friend Marcel who is taking his doctorate and is working in Rennes. I didn’t have any plans for Saturday, my objective being just to have a pleasant and relaxed time, so we just leisurely went around the city, strolled at the Saturday morning market at the Place de Lices around around the main town center. I was on the look-out for kouign-amann, the tastiest pastry I’ve ever had in my life, so far, and which I could only taste in Bretagne. It’s sometimes described as the “fattiest pastry in all of Europe” and rightfully so. It’s so sinfully buttery and sweet, I’d probably have a heart attack if I ate it every day.
We had lunch at a Thai place with Marcel’s friends afterwards.
That evening, we visited our other Filipino friends in Rennes–Aira and Francis–who just got married a few days earlier. Over bottles of wine and cider, sometimes mixed with crème de cassis, and plenty of cheese, bread, meat cuts, and even chicharon, we spent hours talking about our lives in France, the ups and downs of living abroad, our very fond memories of our lives in the Philippines, and even our frustrations as Filipinos seeing our homeland from a distance. It was reassuring to share these thoughts with other Filipinos, and comforting to know I am not alone in some of my sentiments about what’s going on in the country. Our conversations lasted until we didn’t realize it was past midnight and Marcel and I had to take the last metro train home.
On Sunday, I took a day trip to the town of Dinan, north of Rennes. Dinan is sometimes described as one of the most well-preserved medieval cities in France. It used to be a river port city that served as a gateway to the rest of Bretagne until the seaport city of Saint-Malo emerged. I spent the whole day wandering the streets and imagining life in a provincial Breton town during the Middle Ages. To complete the Breton experience, I had a good and filling late lunch of savory galette, and ice cold Breton cola. It was a day well spent.
Upon returning to Rennes, Marcel and I helped each other prepare menudo and this time hosted Aira and Francis for dinner at Marcel’s apartment. The hearty meal accompanied the continuation of our conversations the night prior. It really is comforting to know other like-minded Filipinos in a foreign land.